Miserable git that I am, I cannot help but feel that one of the great temptations of the church during the Christmas season is to collaborate in the sentimentalising of the story. After all so many of us have been caught up in the Christmas card imagery or seen our children in those Nativities when shepherds don dressing gowns for the cold nights of sheep watching in the fields that surround Bethlehem.
But today we have a story that begins in a wondrous way before ultimately providing a reality check when wise men turn out not to be so wise and so furnish an unstable King's insecurities with bloody consequences.
Yes, this is the story of those mysterious men of the east. They have become the stuff of legends. "We three Kings of Orient are " we sing yet the biblical account gives us no reason to assert either that they were Kings or that there were three of them. Instead Matthew tells us that they were magi and that they brought three gifts.
So first let's look at these men. Certainly Matthew tells us that they came from the east. And that might produce something of a shudder. After all that was the direction of amongst others Assyria, Babylon and Persia now ruled by Rome great enemy the Parthian Empire, the lands that had at various points ruled over Israel. Israel's conquerors yet also lands that through the voices of those taken captive, would have heard the stories of Israel and its God. Maybe that experience had left these men with at least an interest in Yahweh.
But what exactly are magi? To simply call them wise men does an injustice to Matthew's story. In a way these are the very sort of men who shouldn't figure in the story. Once magi had been dream interpreters but now they were effectively fortune tellers, the sort of people who don't exactly get a warm description in the Hebrew Bible or come to that within the early church. In short these men were foreigners who whatever their intentions were but heretics to the religiously orthodox. The Israeli BNP if there were such a thing would have suggested that men such as these should stay away along with their alien religious understandings.
And yet they come. Brought to Bethlehem by a star. This morning I see no point in specualting which star or cosmic happening they saw. We quite simply do not know. Indeed we have no evidence that events in the skies were causing any interest in Israel, least of all at the King's palace or at the Temple.
But Matthew tells us that they detected a happening in the skies. And this was an age in which cosmic events were linked in the popular imagination to the births of many great people. Now some astrologers of this time divied the heavens into areas dedicated to different countries. So when these men see happenings in that part of the skies associated with Israel, they sense a birth of a King in a land they have heard so much of. No wonder they stop of at Herod's Palace in Jerusalem. Where else would a King be born after all?
But in so doing they set off a chain of events. Certainly if these men came from much feared Parthia we can see how Rome as well as its semi Jewish puppets such as Herod were disturbed. After all the presence and the words spoken by the magi have within them the potential to create destabilisation. So Herod wastes no time in calling in his allies amongst the Jewish religious leadership to find where the future King would be born. And as they speak of the prophecies of Micah concerning a future leader coming out of Bethlehem, then Bethlehem becomes the target of power at its most brutish. A massacre ensues - a case of The Empire strikes back!
So why does Matthew offer this account? Quite simply it fits in with the portrayal he is about to offer of Jesus. Whilst Luke tells us of shepherds and the lowly as part of his conviction that Jesus brings role reversal, Matthew has his agenda too. Possibly the most Jewish of the gospels as shown by a predeliction for linking the story of Jesus to the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, Matthew also presents a message that Jesus whilst being the fulfilment and more besides of Jewish expectation, is often discerned not so much by how own as by the outsiders who would in those days have been termed gentiles. Hence whilst Israel's King plots against the infant Jesus and the religious establishment is effectively his ally, it is foreigners, even heretics who discern the importance of Jesus and give him worship.
Now the story becomes for today. The outsiders have reacted for Jesus whilst insiders have plotted against him. You see the significance of outsiders is enhanced. And a question begins to take shape as to whether we who might see ourselves as insiders could possibly repeat the failings of insiders 2,000 years ago. Might we become so caught up in our structures and ways of being that we fail to discern God working among us? And might we so practice exclusion of those whom we consider outsiders as to be a stumbling block? Might we fail to see that God operates as shown by the example of Jesus not at the centres of power and respectability but on the margins with the poor, the dispossessed and those who are discontented with the neat answers of orthodoxy? For it is among such as these that we Christ revealing himself.
Our thinking upon thgis story so often ends with the gifts that these magi bring? They are indeed so familiar - gold, frankincense and myrrh. Rich in symbolism they are also with gold linked to Kingship and frankincense to worship and myrrh to death. And of course it is the myrrh that seems the strangest of gifts linked to death as it is. No wonder Brian's mother in "The Life of Brian" tries to give the myrrh back. To me it brings thoughts of how my father was joined up to a Funeral Club in the first week of his life. But of course it reminds us that the Jesus who is as a King and who is the centre of our worship is also truly human and will die - not just any death but the death motivated by love for us and in resistance of the forces of death in our world.
But now our scripture reading ends with the news of bad intent on the part of Herod. Magi will return another way. Soon Jesus and his family will be forced to seek asylum in Egypt. The blood of innocent children will soak the streets of Bethlehem. No room for sentimentality is left. The dark side of the world makes a claim for our attention. For now Matthew will go on to reveal how in the story of Jesus, light and evil, goodness and evil, love and hatred, are engaged in conflict. To follow Jesus is not a path of escapism from painful reality. It is about following a path that is illuminated by Jesus. And we who later in this service will renew our Covenant,will need to be as persistent in our discipleship as the magi were in their journey. And like them we need to be open to transformation and a changing within our plans. But it is far from being just about us. The Jesus we follow is truly the Light of the world. In him we see both the nature of divinity and the potential of humanity revealed. So as we leave the season of Christmas we return to our fractured world. Yet the good news of Christmas can never be fully left behind. We have discovered the potential of life. No longer are we left with tired realities of despair but we have met the Christ who is love for all of us. So knowing that he will not let us down my we live for him trusting in his help as we seek to identify with his redeeeming of the world.
Now may we live in the strength of the Lord.