Sermon St Eustachius 9.45 & 10.30am Sunday 3 January 2021 Year B Epiphany
Isaiah 60v1-6 Psalm 72v10-15 Ephesians 3v1-12 Matthew 2v1-12
Let us pray:
As we come together this morning to celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany, I would like us to ask the question, what was it that motivated the Magi to follow the star?
Despite various distortions from the biblical account of Messiah’s birth that we have in our Christmas story, there certainly was a Christmas star and Magi. Perhaps you heard of the coming together, the conjunction, of the planets Jupiter and Saturn on 21 December, described by the media as ‘the Christmas star’, but that was not the true Christmas star that the Magi followed. The power of modern computers and simulation software means we can now map the sky for any place or time in history, and those simulations give us some amazing insights.
It was probably the close conjunction between the king planet Jupiter, and Venus, on 17thJune 2BC, that caught the eye of the Magi. They would have appeared as one very bright morning star, and also close to the king star Regulus, and all this in the ‘Royal Constellation’ of Leo the lion. You will remember that the term ‘bright morning star’ is used in the Revelation of Saint John to describe our Lord Jesus, who is also described as ‘the lion of the tribe of Judah’.
It was then probably a further conjunction between Jupiter and Venus on August 27th of that same year, that combined with a grouping of the four planets Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury, and again in Leo, that set the Magi off on their journey to Jerusalem.
The computer simulations shows that the most probable ‘star’ the Magi followed was then the motion of the king planet Jupiter which we read, the Magi had observed ‘at its rising in the east’. Then it was Jupiter’s subsequent movement westward that led them to Bethlehem. Amazingly, because of the form of Jupiter’s motion across the sky, called its retrograde motion, Jupiter did in fact ‘stand still’ over Bethlehem on 25th December 2 BC, the place where the holy family, with the 15 month old Jesus, no longer a baby, were living.
To me as a Physicist it is quite wonderful how God used the natural events of His universe to make known the time of our Lord’s appearing, an event planned from before the foundation of the earth, a phrase that is used three times in the New Testament (Jn17v24, Eph 1v4, 1Pt 1v20).
So what more do we know about the Magi? Despite the lovely hymn ‘We three kings of orient are’, it was not three kings, but those Magi who came to the Holy family bringing their gifts, and ready to worship the new born king.
Mary Leith in her Biblical Archaeology article relates how the word Magi was technically the title of Zoroastrian priests, but its use here in the gospel describes dream interpreting astrologer-astronomers. The idea of ‘kings’ was understandably introduced much later in the thirteenth century from the reference in our psalm 72 (v10-11) where we read, ‘May the kings of Tarshis and the coastlands render him tribute; may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts! May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!’ So how many Magi were there?
We do not know how many followed the star, the number three was proposed by the early Church Father Origen in the third century based on their three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Our celebration of the Epiphany, the appearance or revelation of the incarnate God, the Christ child, to the gentiles, that is to us non Jews, is signified in that the Magi were ‘strangers from the east’. The Epiphany, one of the oldest Christian feasts, was probably first celebrated in Alexandria, in Egypt, by Origen sometime during the third century.
Many of the early Christian depictions of ‘this adoration of the Magi’, show them in Persian dress, and were recorded by paintings on the columns of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It was those images that saved this ancient church from destruction by the muslim armies in the seventh century, as the Magi were recognised as fellow Persians.
During the fifth century, in a sermon, pope Leo the great wrote, “In the three Magi let all peoples worship the author of the universe; and let God be known not in Judah alone, but in all the world”. And here we are celebrating that ancient feast as it has been for at least sixteen centuries.
So what does that ‘revealing’ mean to us as Christians in this twenty first century? Well, perhaps the same as it did to Saint Paul, and to paraphrase what he wrote to the Ephesians, ‘for the sake of you gentiles, God revealed to me the mystery of Christ, a mystery not understood by humankind in former generations’. So just what was that mystery that the Holy Spirit revealed to the apostles, and has also revealed to us?
It is the greatest mystery of hope that could ever possibly be revealed to humankind. It was a mystery that Paul, who humbly described himself as ‘the very least of the saints’, was to bring to the gentiles, that we are to become ‘fellow heirs with Christ’ when the kingdom is finally realised on earth.
Can you, can I, even begin to get the slightest glimpse of what that means? For those of us who have responded to the Epiphany, to the revealing of the good news made known to us in Christ, those of us who have put our faith and trust in Jesus, then we have an amazing hope set before us.
It is not just a hope of being with Jesus in heaven, that is for the short term while we await His appearing a second time; we are destined to come with Jesus and all the saints, to reign with Him in the new creation. That is the eternal purpose that God is to carry out through our Lord Jesus.
But Paul does not stop there, he goes on to speak of ‘the boundless riches of Christ’ that we participate in now. So what are these ‘riches without bounds’ that we believing Christians share?
They are not the material or physical riches that we may or may not acquire here on earth, but the spiritual riches which come as a gift from God our Father, riches that we cannot earn but give a richness to our souls. Do you, do I feel, and experience a spiritual richness in our souls, especially after the events of this past year? So let us ask, what are those riches that we should now be enjoying?
There are many but perhaps these six give us some insight. A glimpse into the knowledge of the glory of our God, an experience of the grace of God, the truth of God’s holy word revealed to us through the holy scriptures, the wisdom that God gives to us through His indwelling Holy Spirit, the eternal life of God that we have now and not just for our future in eternity, and perhaps above all, the love of God that we see in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.
As we make our new year resolutions we should ask, ‘are we availing ourselves of these abundant riches that God has promised us in Christ.
Perhaps these can be summed up in what Paul writes (Eph 2v4-7), ‘But God is so rich in mercy and He loved us so very much, that even while we were dead because of our sins, He gave us life when He raised Jesus from the dead’.
After all we have passed through during the covid pandemic of the past year, do we not all need a sprinkling, no a deluge of riches and hope?
And that hope is firmly set in the Lord Jesus. Our light has come, the glory of the Lord is indeed rising upon us as the time of Jesus return draws ever closer, and when His glory will indeed appear over us.
Words from a beautiful old early nineteenth century hymn that some of you may know, helps us to sum up the hope we have as believers and children of God, our heavenly Father; ‘My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; no merit of my own I claim, but wholly trust in Jesus’ name’. ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand’.
So as we enter a new year, not knowing what lies ahead for us all with the pandemic still raging and Brexit finally with us, it may seem that the thick darkness Isaiah spoke of does cover the earth. But as the Magi came with their gifts and into the brightness of God’s dawn, we are to be a people of hope, and ready to proclaim Jesus as the light of the world, and to sing our praises to the Lord. We take Paul’s words at the end of our reading from Ephesians to heart, “In Him, in Jesus, and through faith in Him, we may approach God with freedom and confidence”.
Let us pray: Lord our God, Creator of the heavens, who led the Magi by a star to worship the Christ-child; guide and sustain us, that we may find our journey’s end in Emmanuel, Jesus the Messiah, who is our Saviour, Lord and coming King.