5 January 2020
Revd Nicholas Mercer
Last Sunday evening, we stayed with my brother in Ripon
Not only is he an excellent cook but he subscribes to Netflix which enables us to enjoy a film of our choice
And after dinner we watched a film called “The Green Book”
The title is taken from a real book called “The Negro Travellers Green Book”
It was a mid20th century guide for African Americans who wanted to travel to the deep-south and had to find a place to stay – very often there was no room at the Inn
The film follows the life of the African American pianist Don Shirley who organised a tour of the deep-south in 1962
At his last engagement, just before Christmas, he was refused permission to eat in a country club in Birmingham, Alabama which had hired him to play
Not unexpectedly, he walked out and is next seen driving into Birmingham where he passes some illuminated wise men
Never off duty, the film spoke to me of the Epiphany
A foreigner traveller bearing gifts on a journey replete with danger
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany and, once again, we have heard the familiar story of the Magi
Wise men who see the star in the East and are led to the place where Jesus has been born
The three Kings make a magnificent, exotic, spectacle
Resplendent on their camels, presenting Christ with gifts, Gold Frankincense and Myrrh
They furnish all our fantasies about the Orient
But the story is shrouded in mystery
- Who were these Kings?
- How many of them were there?
- Where did they come from?
Furthermore, it only appears in Matthew’s Gospel and begs the question as to whether the story is factually true?
A close examination of the text, raises more questions than it answers
As far as their names are concerned, none are recorded
The names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar and are just legend – nothing more – and there is no mention of their number either
It is generally assumed that there were three kings because of the gifts for the Christ child
However, in the Orthodox Church (in Syria) there are twelve Kings
The phrase “from the east” is the only information Matthew provides about the region from which they came.
This would make the Kings Persian by birth and Zoroastrian by faith
The Persians had a priestly magos class which fits in with the narrative
However, given the lack of certainty of name and number, is the story even true?
The German theologian Albert Schweitzer is reputed to have asked at school why was Jesus poor if he was given gold?
That innocent question from a child beautifully probes the narrative
Is it genuine or simply created to fulfil the prophecy in Psalm 72 (11) “May all kings fall down before him”?
But, as ever with the Bible, there is generally a reason for a narrative
First and foremost, the story of the Magi tells us that, from the very beginning of Christ’s life, Jesus is for all men and not just the Jews
Up until this point, there have been but a handful of men and women who had seen the Christ child
First his parents and then a group of shepherds to whom the birth was announced by an angel of the Lord
St Luke also records the story of Simeon and Anna eight days after the birth of Christ
But all those who see the Christ Child are Jewish
The Magi stand in stark contrast because they are obviously Gentiles
In other words, outsiders
Those who wrote the Gospels are telling us, very early on in Christ’s life, that he has come into the world for all men and women
He is for all mankind and not just God’s chosen people
Secondly, the story of the magi makes the point that Christ is known, not just individually, but collectively
In the twelve days of Christmas and have heard numerous accounts of his birth from all four Gospel writers
We have heard individual accounts, as well as theological explanations, reminding us that our understanding of Christ is collective
This makes the point that we come to know Christ, not just by ourselves, but as a group
We need “a mosaic of insights, encounters and revelations to understand the whole”
I was very touched by the service last year when we shared our own reflections as to why we had chosen a particular hymn
By sharing our faith, we develop a richer understanding of Christ and his work in the world
Whilst I was at Sherborne, I used to encourage all the staff to preach
I wanted all witnesses to the Gospel to be heard to complete the whole
We do the same at Bolton Priory when we have guest preachers or share our faith with each other in our daily lives
But the story of the Magi also presents us with the challenge
That challenge is that we may need to embark on a journey to find Christ in our own lives
And such a journey may not be easy
The poet TS Eliot wrote a poem called “The Journey of the Magi” in which he describes the journey of faith made by the Wise Men
A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
Eliot makes it clear that this journey of faith may be long, hard and inclement and you may have to ask yourself at times
“Why I am doing this”?
But, like the Magi, we need to persevere
But even if we do persevere, the discovery of Christ child may not be what we had imagined
As the narrator said in the poem “this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us”
This seems surprising given the joy that normally accompanies a birth
A joy which should be even greater with the Christ Child
But, as the wise men explain
We returned to our places…
But no longer at ease… With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
The reason the birth can be “hard and bitter agony” is because the encounter with Christ is nothing less than transformational
Nothing in our lives will ever be the same again not least because it puts us at odds with all forms of oppression, injustice and exploitation
And so returning to the “The Green Book” and its parallels to the Epiphany
Epiphany refers to the manifestation of Jesus to all men and women
Jew or Gentile, black or white, rich or poor
As we learn from the story this morning, the Christ child is for all men and women and no one is excluded
The tragedy of the film was that, two thousand years later, Christians had forgotten that message
But as we now know from Eliot’s poem, the encounter with the Christ child is transformational
Nothing will ever be the same again
As such, institutional discrimination is now at end in the deep south
The Green Book is out of print, but the story of the Magi, factual or not, prevails to this day