St Francis, Terriers - Epiphany of Our Lord (06.01.2018) Tony Dickinson

“A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year; just, the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, the very dead of winter.”

Those words, which inspired one of T.S. Eliot’s best-known poems, were spoken by Lancelot Andrewes preaching before King James I at Whitehall – not at the Epiphany but on Christmas Day nearly four centuries ago. One of the greatest preachers and one of the greatest biblical scholars of his age expounding two verses from this morning’s gospel before one of the most learned men ever to sit on the throne of England and Scotland. His purpose then, like ours today, was to draw out the meaning of St Matthew’s account of the coming of the wise men – but, unlike us today, he was constrained by the nature of the congregation to whom he was preaching. James I was very conscious of his responsibilities as a Christian monarch, just as our present Queen is, but his exercise of power was not so limited by Parliament as hers is. Bishop Andrewes had to tread carefully.

So he focuses on the journey, contrasting the immediate response of the wise men, and their perseverance, with the faint faith of his contemporaries. “[Would we] come such a journey, at such a time?” he asks. Then answers his own question, “No: but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer; till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would (sure) have fallen in Easter-week at the soonest.”

But the story Matthew tells is much more than a story about the need for courage and perseverance on our journey to find the Lord. It is about wrong turnings and their consequences. It is about resistance and collusion by those in authority. It is about self-offering and submission. And it is, above all, about God’s manifestation of his Son to those who are outside the historic people of God. As Luke’s shepherds stand for all those on the margins of the historic people of God, so Matthew’s wise men stand for all those who are outside God’s covenant with Israel.

If Matthew is precise in his use of the word which we translate as “wise men”, they will have been fire-worshippers from what is now north-eastern Iraq, part of present-day Kurdistan. If he is less than precise – well, the recent suggestion is attractive that they might have been diplomats from the merchant kingdom of Nabataea, whose capital was the amazing rock-hewn city of Petra, now one of the major tourist sights of Jordan. Either way, they were men of authority and influence, representing major Middle-Eastern powers. No wonder King Herod was frightened “and all Jerusalem with him”. Herod had held on to his throne since the days of the Roman Civil Wars forty years before by cannily trimming his sails to the prevailing winds that blew outside the borders of his kingdom and by ruthlessly suppressing potential opposition within them. W.H. Auden’s “Epitaph for a Tyrant” could have been written for him:

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.”

But the king whom the wise men are seeking is not a tyrant. The king whom they seek is the one who is foreshadowed in the prophet’s vision of the restoration of Israel, a restoration which not only brings back those in exile but also opens Israel’s borders to people from every land. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

There is no limit to the generosity of God’s welcome to all who seek him. There is no ethnicity, or skin colour, or respectability, or nationality, or gender, or sexual orientation that excludes people from God’s love – though, sadly, that has never stopped people trying. That is why St Paul, or whoever wrote the letter to the Ephesians, is so firm in his assertion that “the Gentiles gave become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

Now, the letter to the Ephesians does not simply locate that promise in a “spiritual” realm. The writer’s words come out of an experience of suffering for the sake of God’s mission, which is “to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” In the ancient world, politics on earth was often seen as a reflection of a heavenly reality, in which good and evil forces contended over suffering humanity. Those “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” are the powers which control the destinies of kings and empires.

The coming of the wise men reflects the acknowledgement by those powers of the sovereignty and authority of God. The gifts that they bring, traditionally interpreted as symbolising the kingship, the godhead and the suffering that are to come for the child to whom they offer them – these gifts are also the symbols of earthly power and authority. The wise men kneel in homage before the child in Bethlehem in recognition that the power of the rulers of this world is, in the end, provisional. Their gifts are accepted in affirmation that the barriers that human beings erect are, in the end, unsustainable. For many of us arriving at that understanding entails a journey as difficult and dangerous as the one which Lancelot Andrewes envisaged for the wise men. And as I began with his words so I will end with them: “It skills not for the star in the firmament, if the same Day-star be risen in our hearts, that was in theirs; and the same beams of it to be seen… For then, we have our part in it, no less: nay, full out as much as they: And, it will bring us, whither it brought them, to Christ.” To him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit…