Alarm bells

Epiphany – 2015

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God who is always the same and yet always challenging (alarming) those who are open to God’s presence. Amen.[1]

In a recent edition of The Christian Century I read the following story. A parish in the United States was in the habit of presenting a “live nativity pageant” – real people and real animals spread out over the expansive front lawn. It was the practice on these occasions for the magi to appear from elsewhere and to this end, those playing the role of magi put on their costumes in the hall of the local Catholic Church. One year, the enterprising participants decided to add to the mystery and drama by arriving in a cloud of incense. They borrowed a Thurible from the Catholics and set off towards their own Church having first made sure that the coals were well alight and that the incense was smoking. As they made their way to their destination, they were perturbed to hear the sirens of the fire trucks. Unbeknownst to them, they had triggered the smoke alarm in the hall and this had sent a signal to the local fire department. When the firemen finally tracked down the cause of the problem, one was heard to say: “You %#@& wise men are setting off alarms all over town!”

Our passive nativity scenes do not adequately capture the extraordinary nature of the visit of the magi – who must have seemed exotic, different and disturbing at the time. Indeed we know that not only Herod, but also all Jerusalem trembled at their presence. Over time, the magi have been stripped of their mystery and their power to disrupt our comfortable lives. Subsequent generations of believers have domesticated these magicians/astrologers. They no longer appear as figures who are strange and disquieting. These days they are more often referred to as kings or as wise men rather than as magicians. Their number has been determined and history has given them names and nationalities – even to the point of guessing the colour of their skin.

The text however is clear. These men – whose origin, nationality and number are unknown to us – were men who studied the sky and interpreted the movements of the stars and the planets. (Today we – good Christians that we are – might shun them as proponents of astrology, people who believe that they not God can look into the future.) Yet it is heir study of the sky is the reason that they (and apparently no one else) have noticed the star and guessed at its meaning. Even Herod, the chief priests and the scribes appear not to have noticed this phenomenon or, if they had, they had not realised its significance. No wonder the presence of the magi set alarm bells ringing.

What was the cause for alarm? First century Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city. Successive invasions would have ensured that many cultures were represented in the city. The Pax Romana ensured that roads were safe to travel and merchants and others were, as a consequence, quite mobile. Apart from this people (not only Jews) from all over the Empire would have come to worship at the Temple. The city would not have been without its fortune-tellers, healers and miracle workers. From this vantage point, the magi might have looked like any other visitors to the city. Added to this, Matthew implies that their presence should not have been unexpected. The Old Testament bears witness in many places to an expectation that when God restored the fortunes of Israel, “all the nations” would stream to Jerusalem to worship God.

The thing that makes these particular visitors so disturbing is that it is they, not the leaders of Israel have understood the importance of the star and of the birth of the child. Unlike the Israelites who are shown to be ignorant of and then indifferent to the presence of Jesus among them, the magi recognise what is going on and have come from a distance to worship the child.

From this vantage point, their presence is disturbing – indeed alarming. Their part in the story of Jesus’ birth indicates that God is doing something radically different and unexpected. That is, God is giving the Gentiles a prominent place in the unfolding story of the people of God. The identification by the magi of Jesus as the Christ implies that from now on everything is going to be different – as indeed it turns out to be. As Paul’s letters reveal, one of the most confronting and difficult issues for the emerging church was this: “what is the place of the Gentiles and how much should our traditions and practices change so that they can be included?”

For us, the magi provide a romantic element to the accounts of Jesus’ nativity, but “King Herod was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” Not only did the birth of the King of the Jews threaten Herod’s position and the peace and stability of Jerusalem, but it also shattered the expectations about how God would act and threw open previously unthought-of possibilities with regard to God and God’s relationship with the world.

In life, but more particularly in faith, most of us become comfortable with the way things are. We tend to think that because God has acted in a particular way in the past, God will continue to behave in that way in the future. In so doing, we make God a servant of our expectations; we place boundaries on the way that we think God will act and we blind ourselves to God’s intervention in our lives and in the world. God is not and cannot be a slave to our expectations.

Matthew’s account of the magi raises important questions: Do we want to keep things the same or are we willing to allow our world-view to be shaken and tossed upside down by God’s once more breaking through our complacency and entering into our world. When the alarm bells ring – do we look to immediately extinguish the flames or do we ask ourselves whether God is saying something new and radical, challenging us to move in new directions and to open our eyes to new possibilities? And do we have the courage to accept the change that that involves?

[1] (With thanks to Thomas Long (Christian Century) Blogging Towards Sunday, Epiphany, 2015, 2014.

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