Tomorrow, 6 January, is the Day of the Epiphany, which is the day we remember that once upon a time, wise men came across huge distances to worship Jesus. Epiphany is a kind of mystery story. There’s a clue: the Star of Bethlehem. There’s a dodgy villain: Herod the Great (his name even sounds dodgy, like he’s a hypnotist in a cheap nightclub). There’s no chase—but there’s a long journey from the ‘mysterious East’. And there’s mystery. There’s mystery in bucket loads.
The star is mysterious. It doesn’t behave like normal stars; it rises like a normal star but then it eventually stops—just like that!—when it gets to the place Jesus is. How does a star behave like that?
Herod tries to be mysterious, but he’s pretty transparent really. He is ‘King Herod the Great’, and no one is going to take his place. When the wise men come to ask where the recently-born ‘King of the Jews’ is, he bristles. His homicidal impulses were never far from the surface—he killed his wife Mariamne and one of his sons—and they were fully charged now. It was kill or be killed, and Herod preferred to kill.
The wise men, now they are mysterious. They come from God-alone-knows. Matthew may have pictured three, but we don’t know. They may have been astrologers or sorcerers or even priests of the Zoroastrian religion, to which the late Freddie Mercury belonged. We just don’t know. What do we know about them?—we know they weren’t members of the chosen people, they were Gentiles like most of us, and in Matthew’s story of Jesus they were the first to drop everything to find this new king.
The new king is mysterious. The story tells us that the star wasn’t specific enough to tell the wise men where the new king was, not at first. So they did what most people would do; they reported to head office. They went to the capital, to Jerusalem, to the palace, to Herod himself.
They didn’t imagine that the king would be in li’l ol’ Bethlehem. They didn’t think his parents would be ordinary folk. They had costly gifts, gold, myrrh, frankincense; this newborn king may have been better off with extra blankets for the winter, or a K-Mart gift voucher.
There are mysteries wherever you look in the Epiphany story. Not mysteries that we can solve; these are mysteries we can only wonder at.
St Paul also wondered at the central mystery of the Epiphany over fifty years after Jesus was born, even though there is no sign that he even knew about the story of the wise men. He wrote (Ephesians 3.6) that the mystery was this:
the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
In Matthew’s story of Jesus, the magi are the first Gentiles to share in the good news of Jesus—but they are far from the last.
Paul’s mission was to Gentiles, to people who hadn’t grown up in the Faith of Israel, to those who thought differently and lived very differently.
The Church is meant to be a body of diversity. There are old, young, black, white, male, female, gay, straight—and all are one in Christ.
The greatest mystery of Epiphany is that when God comes ‘down to earth’, God doesn’t come only to special people, chosen people, good people. God comes to everyone without exception. God becomes our neighbour, everyone’s neighbour.
God calls us to be keepers and heralds of this mystery: God leaves no one out, God excludes no one. We can exclude other people by our own self-righteousness, or by our fear of them; but God has come to reconcile and include people who think and live differently from one another. God’s grace is beyond our reach or our understanding.
In 2014, this congregation is called to be a place of inclusion, where no one is left out because of who they are. God welcomes all who will come and calls us to do the same—that’s the Christian mystery, that’s the wonder of God; that is our mission. Amen.