Three Kings

“Deep desires, even obsessions, can arise now. Seduction is lurking in the shadows of your heart and you may be fascinated by the darker side of nature, even danger. If you don’t like the way you look, this is a time for change. If you are unsatisfied in relationships, take a good look now so that you can make alterations. If you’re a female remember that the best way to get a man to do something is to suggest they are too old for it. It works!”

If you follow the horoscopes (and I hope that none of you do) then that will be fitting advice for you if you are a Pisces at the beginning of this new year, according to the horoscope readings on the website of one of Perth’s radio stations. Those who have studied the stars insist that this advice is well worth taking notice of in the coming weeks. And believe it or not, thousands of people will do just that – they will read their horoscopes in the hope of some glimmer of guidance for the future in this new year. I am going to come back to the stars, and to those who read them for advice in just a moment, but first let me say something about the great Christian festival which we celebrate today, the festival of the Epiphany.

“Epiphany,” means “manifestation of God,” and today is the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ – the manifestation of God, in Jesus, in our midst. T his ancient celebration, which is more properly remembered on January 6th, is in fact far older than the Festival of Christmas which we celebrated last Sunday. Christians in the Early Church took over a pagan festival which centred on the worship of the sun and of light, and re-formed it into a day to remember the Son of God, the Light of the world.

“Arise, shine; for your light has come,” says the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this morning, “and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” That is why much of our imagery in the Mass this morning speaks of new light in the darkness, and we will continue with those images in the weeks ahead. Joining ourselves with those early Christians who remembered with thanks the manifestation of God in Jesus, the light of the world, in this season in Australia when we have more light than at any other time in the year.

The Feast of the Epiphany is not just historically about the manifestation of God in Christ to the kings upon their arrival in Bethlehem, although that is what it has come to focus upon in the Western Christian tradition. A far earlier understanding of the Epiphany links three events together in one revealing movement of God in Christ. The first, yes, is the revealing of God to the wise men in the nativity; but there are two other events in the beginning of the ministry of Jesus which are singled out as part and parcel of this manifesting action of God. Alongside the encounter with the wise men, who come to worship the Word of God made flesh in the baby Jesus, Christians from long ago saw also the deep significance of Jesus’ baptism by John, and his turning of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, (the first miracle performed through Jesus in John’s Gospel). For many centuries Christians held these three events together as the one movement of the Epiphany of our Lord, of the manifestation of God to us in Jesus.

That is why we will be celebrating the Epiphany not just today but in the weeks to come. Next week I want to focus on the Baptism of Jesus – the second great Epiphany moment of manifestation, and then the following week I want to focus on the wedding at Cana in Galilee, which will mean that we will need to depart from the usual lectionary readings on that Sunday. And the question that I want to ask in each of those Epiphany encounters, today and in the two Sundays which will follow, is simply this, “what is it that God makes manifest about his character through these different events? If the Epiphany is about coming to know more about God, what do we learn about God through Jesus in these Epiphany moments?”

Well, to begin to seek to answer that question today, we need to look a little more closely at the characters in this first Epiphany event, the kings who find Jesus some time after his birth. A good friend of mine, a Presbyterian Minister in Auckland, New Zealand, preached a wonderful sermon on the Feast of the Epiphany a few years ago when I was visiting him, based on the proposition that these three kings were actually more likely to be three queens. He argued that these were almost certainly gay men who lived in the Persian Courts advising the great and the good from their knowledge of the stars. I mention this this morning to simply raise in our minds the fact that probably almost everything that we believe about these visitors to Jesus has no justification whatsoever in the Christmas narratives of the Bible and the Early Church. We have no idea, for example, how many men there were, we simply hear from the story that they brought with them three gifts. But what we can be almost certain about, at least from the story as we have received it, is that these men were not kings at all, they were probably also by our standards at least not very wise, because they were astrologers.

They were the ancient equivalent of those people who write the horoscopes, like the one which I read out a few moments ago – they were men who practiced astrology – who conned people by tricking them into believing that when they looked at the stars they received a message which only they could interpret. A much more accurate translation of their titles, rather than “wise men” then, is “sorcerers.” Men who convinced all who were able to pay for it, that they could make sense of the stars. Let me be absolutely clear about this: they were not astronomers, astronomy in the sense that we know it today had not been invented. They were astrologers – fortune tellers, predictors of the future on the basis of what they saw in the sky. I do not think that we would see them as being very wise at all these days. It was not until the 6th Century that they were given names – Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar, and later, in Christian Art, these three men came to depict the various coloured skin of humanity – representing the mission of God, the love of God in Jesus – for the whole world, for people in every time and culture.

The more I reflect on this story the more extraordinary it seems to me, to be. We cannot know what the connection between stars in the sky and these men’s journey was, but we do know that they were in the business of creating wealth and power for themselves by interpreting what they saw, and something which they saw triggered them to come, to travel a great distance in search of a king. Whilst this form of astrology was quite acceptable in Persia it certainly wasn’t acceptable to Jews. Jews then and now, like us as Christians, turn not to inanimate objects like the stars for advice, but instead for our inspiration and guidance we turn to the one who has created them. We simply do not believe that our future, our work, our relationships are controlled by mindless lumps of matter far away in the night sky, any more than we believe them to be controlled by some impersonal and non-responsible power called “fate.” But these men did, and they brought symbols of their interests with them as gifts for the new king.

Imagine the scene – Mary and Joseph, good Jewish people, open the door to sorcerers from the East who come to pay homage to their son. It is a profound image – without knowing it these men are entirely impure, following a path of life condemned in the Jewish Bible – and yet they turn up, and are welcomed in to a Jewish household as guests to see the new born baby.

There are many ways of interpreting the significance of the symbolic gifts which they bring: gold, frankincense and myrrh – mostly the interpretations relate to events which will happen later in Jesus’ life about which these men would have had no inkling. So let me suggest to you a different interpretation this morning, not linked to the life of Jesus, but to the lives of those who bought the gifts. They offer gold, not because they are miners who have dug it up from the ground, but because the gold is the profit of their trade – it represents the economic power which they have gained by sucking in gullible people who have believed their witchcraft. As such it is tainted gold, but they offer it nevertheless to Jesus. They offer frankincense – incense – which represents their deep dependence on religious symbolism and mystery in the practice of their profession. They offer it to Jesus. They offer myrrh – used for embalming the dead – as a symbol of the fatalism of their understanding of the world. They offer it to Jesus. They hand over these symbols, to the newly arrived Lord of heaven and earth. And in doing so they are changed – because they have handed over their symbols of power to one who is more powerful. In this encounter with Jesus their understanding of the world is being transformed.

Ignatius of Antioch, one of the Early Church Fathers wrote about the encounter like this, “magic crumbled before this star; the spells of sorcery were all broken, and superstition received its death-blow.” It does not matter by what means they have arrived in the presence of Jesus, they did not need to be transformed before they got there – God’s work begins in them when they come face to face with the baby who will be the hope of all the nations.

I was talking to one of the Sudanese leaders at Mirrabooka about witchcraft and sorcery on the way back from one of the ordinations a few weeks ago. Africa is still a place where people like the men in this story have power. Using language and ritual which no one else can understand the witch doctors persuade people that they can predict the future and make sense of events, and they are therefore given enormous power over people’s lives. My Sudanese friend was telling me what happened when the missionaries came to the village in which he lived. The people of his village were converted to the power of Jesus, and the influence of those witch doctors which had been so great, simply disintegrated. And if we had read this story about the astrologers who came to find Jesus in the presence of people who live in a world where witchcraft and sorcery are very real, as it was for the first hearers of this story, I suspect that we would have received a very excited response. Because these powerful men who tell others the future by reading the stars bow down and pay homage, and give over the symbols of their influence to this little baby.

And there is something even more exciting than that – even more exciting than this testimony that the love of God breaks through into the hearts of those whose lives have been so heavily dominated by sorcery. God brings those men to God’s self in Jesus through what they know best, even through witchcraft. In other words, their conversion does not happen before they arrive. What does that tell us about God? Or to use my earlier question – what is it in this event which God makes manifest about himself? It is simply this, that it does not matter how people get into the presence of God, once they have experienced God in Jesus they are transformed. Which can be true as much for strange sorcerers from ancient times, as it can be for us, and for our families and friends. Through these wandering sorcerers we are reminded that God is present – Emmanuel – God is with us. And the radical hospitality of God extends even to those who put their whole trust in something worthless in comparison to him.

God through Jesus has declared to the world that this is a place worthy for him to dwell. Which is a powerful reminder to us all that God isn’t only in the places that we expect to find him. The first Epiphany – God’s manifestation to these men from the East: a manifestation that reminds us that there is no one outside the love of God; no journey so far from God’s Kingdom which cannot bring people into his presence. That is why Jesus is hope for the whole world, that is why Jesus is hope for us as we come to meet him now in the broken bread and in the wine.