Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Epiphany: the visit of the magicians

Notes for a sermon preached last Sunday, 8th January, First Sunday after the Epiphany:
Recently on TV it was announced that the Duchess of Cambridge was going to work as a volunteer with Beavers and Cubs. This is a very good thing to do, but what really struck me when this news was announced was the female volunteer who talked about the cubs and scouts doing their astrology badge.
Now I’m pretty sure she meant astronomy, but a lot of people make the same mistake. In fact it is one of the favourite bugbears of Sir Patrick Moore who gets understandably annoyed.
Astronomy is an objective science. Astrology isn’t.
But more than that, as far as the Bible is concerned, astrology is a false religion, along with spiritism and so on.
Deuteronomy 4:15-19, which forbids idolatry, includes in this worshipping the heavenly bodies:
You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.
Astrology is a false religion because it ascribes to created things powers which belong to God alone. The nations could worship the heavenly bodies, but not Israel, because Israel belonged to the true God who had made the heavens and the earth.
Which is why it is a bit surprising when we read about the visit of the ‘wise men’ in Matthew chapter 2, because the word Matthew uses to describe them is ‘magi’ — singular ‘magos’ — which actually means a magician.
In Acts 13:8 we read about a man called ‘Elymas’ who we’re told is a false prophet and a ‘magos’ — a sorcerer. And in Acts 8 there is a man called Simon who, verse 12 tells us, used to amaze the people with his ‘mageia’, or sorcery.
The word ‘magic’ is related to the word ‘magos’ and ‘mageia’.
So what is going on with the visit of the ‘magi’? Does it mean, as someone once suggested to me, that astrology isn’t so bad after all?
That would be a very odd conclusion, and certainly one that isn’t supported anywhere else in Scripture, so what is going on?
The first clue, I think, is the introduction to Matthew’s gospel, which is one long genealogy, a list of names, beginning with Abraham and ending with Jesus.
Most of the names are unfamiliar to us and unprounceable, but we don’t have to know all of them to get Matthew’s message, because he sums it up for us in v 17:
Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.
Notice, Matthew divides Jewish history into three periods marked by four events: Abraham, David, the Exile and the Christ.
The Exile had ended in about 536 bc, so an awful lot of history had happened since then and the birth of Jesus in the final months of Herod the Great. But the Exile potentially has some relevance to the visit of the magi.
I’ve mentioned places in the New Testament where ‘magi’ are mentioned, but for Matthew’s original audience ‘magi’ would be familiar from the Old Testament.
In the Greek translation of the book of Daniel, which is the version they would have read, there are several references to ‘magi’, who were part of the retinue of the Babylonian king — in fact these are the only OT references.
But in the book of Daniel, it is Daniel — the Jewish exile in the pagan court — who shows up the ‘magi’. 1:20 sets the tone for the book:
In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned [Daniel and his companions], he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters [magoi] in his whole kingdom.
Throughout Daniel whenever there is a conflict between the Babylonian magoi and the Jewish exile, it is the Jewish exile, Daniel, who wins with his wisdom.
Now of course not all these Jewish exiles in Babylon came home. Some of them stayed, and it may well be that their influence inspired ongoing interest in Jewish affairs amongst the ‘magi’ of that culture.
But as readers of Matthew’s gospel, we can see their visit as an astonishing turning of the tables.
In Daniel, the magi are pagan astrologers, whose wisdom is no match for the Jewish exile in the pagan king’s court.
But look what happens when the ‘magi from the east’ arrive at the court of king Herod. Instead of Jews in exile showing up the pagan ‘magi’, it is the magi who show up the Jewish wise men on their home turf!
The Jewish court is completely wrong-footed — no one even knows the king is to be born! So Herod calls in his ‘wise men’, v 4:
When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
It’s the right answer, from the right source. They’ve gone to Scripture and it’s told them where to look.
But what happens? No one goes to check it out, and Herod’s only concern is to kill off a potential rival, which is why the wise men are warned to return by a different route, not to report back to Herod.
The visit of the magi is surprising, but it is surely meant to be surprising. It is meant to give us a foretaste of things to come, for the climax to Matthew’s gospel is the message Jesus gives to his disciples at the end of chapter 28:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Mt 28:18-19)
This is not about rehabilitating astrology, but it is about those people who up until now have worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars — things Deuteronomy 4:19 says have been “apportioned to all the nations under heaven”.
The great moment in the story is in v 11, where the magi bow down and worship Jesus, the king of the Jews. Matthew is telling us that the birth of Jesus is not just the end of the great period from the Exile to the Christ, it is the beginning of salvation that will finally bring in all the nations estranged from God.
And this should teach us something about ourselves and our world, which is that the gospel message is for all people and all nations.
There are many people out there still worshipping images, still worshipping the sun and the moon and the stars, or still believing that their lives are controlled by fates and forces.
At around the time that the news came about the Duchess of Cambridge, many of you will also have heard on the news about a trial that has just started at the Old Bailey of a man and woman accused of killing her brother because they thought he was practising witchcraft.
People in these cultures don’t regard witchcraft as nonsense, they are very frightened of it, and they are frightened because they believe it gives people power which they can use to hurt others.
It is extraordinary that there is more fear of witchcraft in 21st century London than there was in Victorian London. And it would be a great cruelty to say, “This is part of their culture, we must not try to challenge or change it.” The gospel is for people caught up in witchcraft, and it delivers them from the fear of witchcraft — but this isn’t just about ‘foreign’ cultures.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, I had to have an injection in my shoulder. The medic about to administer the injection told me there was a very slight risk of infection but “touch wood” everything would be OK.
I told them that I didn’t think the wood god was going to be much help to either them or me. I’m sure they wouldn’t really put that down to touching wood and I don’t think they’d thank me if I phoned up and said, “My shoulder’s a lot better now — just as well you touched wood, isn’t it?” But you see how powerful these things are, and the gospel has a message for people caught up in that sort of superstition and fear.
Or again, every year, hundreds of thousands of Muslims travel to Mecca on pilgrimage, part of which is to circulate around the sacred shrine of the Ka’aba in Mecca itself.
And the ultimate experience if you do this is to touch the black stone at the corner of the Ka’aba because, according to Muslim tradition, that stone fell from heaven and was originally white, but now it is black because it absorbs the sins of anyone who touches it.
So the gospel has a message for people who believe a meteoritic stone takes away the sins of the world. You may ask what is the difference between that and believing that a baby in a cradle in Bethlehem takes away the sins of the world, but of course it is different if that baby is the creator of the world, whereas the black stone is just a created thing.
All these people need the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether they are trapped by astrology, or superstition, or witchcraft, or one of the world’s great religions, what they need is to come and worship Jesus.
What we need is the confidence in him to tell them.
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  1. Interesting account John. How do you understand Matt 2v2? The Magi had seen the star in 'the East'. Stars rise in the east and set in the west. The Magi being well versed in astrological lore interpreted this (what to them was a real star)in a way God wanted them to. So is this a case of God using something that is false to confound the wise?

    Chris Bishop

  2. Stephen Bazlinton10 January 2012 at 23:01

    An interesting analysis/view/ on the topic of the stars in question http://bethlehemstar.net/

  3. "So the gospel has a message for people who believe a meteoritic stone takes away the sins of the world. You may ask what is the difference between that and believing that a baby in a cradle in Bethlehem takes away the sins of the world, but of course it is different if that baby is the creator of the world, whereas the black stone is just a created thing."

    Good point!

  4. Enjoyed reading this. It is interesting that although the exile was formally over in 536 BC Matthew writes as if it lasted until the arrival of the Christ. He brings in the end of exile. N T Wright seems right here.

  5. That is the most convincing explanation of the Star of Bethlehem that I yet read.

    Thanks for the link Stephen.

    Chris Bishop