Every time I opened my eyes to the news on the clock radio in the last couple of days the words killing, killed, bombed, death, death toll and other similar words speaking of death and destruction seemed to wash over me in quantities that made my heart sink and my spirits drop. After four weeks of preaching about hope, about peace, about joy, about love coming into this world to change it for the better it is like a cold fist of hatred, violence and death is nipping every image of hope, every kernel of positive expectation for the future in the bud. The wonderful warm memories of a Christmas service full of happy faces, of music and carols, of presents and outpourings of love and friendship gone within a week, drowned by the dreadful reality of Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, road accidents, house fires and the like.
Am I the only one longing to curl up in bed with a pile of engaging novels from the library and bathe in the glow of Christmas for just a little bit longer?
We still have a long way to come. A long way to a world where justice and peace reign, where love is abundant and joy has replaced all the sadness and heartbreak we see around us at the moment. How on earth are we going to get there?
In his story about the wise men Matthew points us to where an answer to that question may be found.
The story begins with some wise men (it doesnt say there are three any where, just because there are three gifts doesnt necessarily mean there were three of them, but thats how folklore has had it since the Middle Ages) who see something glimmer in the sky.
Now at this point all our eyebrows and those of the Jews and Christians who were the first readers of Matthews gospel should be raised all the way up into our hairlines. And after that we should all turn away disgusted and refuse to read any further. Astrology! No god fearing person should be involved in it or believe in it! A prime example of the false wisdom and knowledge of the heathen, not to be trusted, but spurned at all times and in all circumstances!
And yet! In Matthews gospel these wise men, like the shepherds in the gospel of Luke, are the first to know, the first to understand, the first to act on the coming of the Messiah, long before anybody else.
And not only do they glimpse the light and are irresistibly drawn to it, they seem to know Isaiah 60 to the letter. They know what they should bring! Gold to worship the true King, Frankincense to anoint the perfect High Priest and myrrh used for the embalming of a great Hero.
They drop everything and follow the light that has started to shine in their darkness and the words of Isaiah: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you" takes shape in their actions. They are the nations Isaiah spoke about, people emerging from deep darkness into the light.
They had a long way to go before they would find the Messiah, before they would find the source of the light they had seen shimmering in the night, but their faith and their trust in what they have seen draws them inexorably towards the place where they will find Christ and be put on a different road home.
The story is highly symbolic if you want to read it that way. The magi representing people in darkness catching a glimpse of the light of the divine entering the world and giving up everything to find the source of that light, finding it after a long and convoluted way, threatened by evil, guided by scripture, to continue their journey after discovering divine wisdom via a different road home.
If we read the story that way it then becomes possible to read ourselves into it and apply it to ourselves, people in darkness, looking eagerly for light in the world around us, skimming the night sky for possible indications of change. Some of us following the glimmers of light we have seen, knowing we have a long way to travel before we reach the source, before we will know what is worth our worship, who we should offer our most precious gifts, who we should trust and who we should avoid having any influence in our lives at all.
The wise men follow a glimmer of light, and although the journey is long and hazardous, they persist in following it. They end up the palace of Herod the Great. Not a bad place to look if you have let yourselves be guided by Isaiah 60 which was written expecting Jerusalem to exceed its former glory after the return from exile in 580 BCE. And apart from that: Jerusalem would surely be the place where Kings can talk to Kings and wise men to other wise men about the source of the light that has started to shine in the darkness, about the reign of peace and justice that is about to start, about the love and harmony that is about to break through in the hearts and minds of those over whom the light has risen.
Only: They are 9 miles off.
Nine miles down the road lies Bethlehem, mentioned in another prophesy in Micah 2. A prophesy not about the restoration of high towers and great arenas, of banks and urban achievements, of soaring economic achievement and worldly power, but about a leader bringing well being to his people, not by political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.
Not Jerusalem with its great pretensions, but Bethlehem with its modest promises is where they will find the true King, priest and saviour for their lives. Nine miles down the road from where they were expecting to find the light. The wise men had a long intellectual history of erudition and along-term practice of mastery. But they had missed their goal by nine miles.
The wise men find the source of light that will change their course for ever not where they had expected it, nor is it what they had expected. Modest, vulnerable, gentle and caring Bethlehem stands in stark contrast with the high brow intellectual establishment and political ruthlessness of Jerusalem. A dream tells them to avoid Jerusalem on their way home, nothing good is to be expected from the place where Herod rules, and we as readers will soon enough find out what he is capable off.
Again shock horror should strike us with the most profound feelings of distaste. Heathens dreaming! Shouldnt this intimate way of God communicating with his people be limited to those who have the true faith to read the dreams correctly?
Do Muslims have something to teach us? Do their dreams have something to tell us? Is it possible that their journey of faith is led by the true light? Drawing them to reach a place where vulnerability and neighborliness, generosity rule before us? Is it possible that Hindus and Buddhists, or even people who have turned their back on religion completely see a light when we, blinded by the erudition and established wisdom of Jerusalem and its institutions miss the goal not only by 9 miles, but completely?
The narrative of Epiphany, of the revealing of the divine in Christ, is a story of surprises, a story calling us to leave our certainties, our self reliance and sufficiency behind and surrender ourselves in faith and trust to where the light draws us to: Not the power and might of Jerusalem, but the modest stable in Bethlehem with a God as vulnerable as a child worshipped not by those who caught the fluttering of angel wings and heard the music of a changing world.
Dont turn the radio off next time you feel overwhelmed by all the sadness and violence seemingly ruling our world. In the end Herod will not win, he will die and his cruelty will die with him. Look for the light and see if you can follow it to its source, see if you can open yourself up to the dream that will guide your life in another direction than Herods place, treasuring the values of peace, of love, of care and compassion on your way. Amen.