Sermon: "The Significance of the Magi"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1.3-6, 15-19a;
The Feast of the Epiphany falls on January 6th, a day set aside to celebrate the coming of the Magi and the first revelation of Christ to the Gentiles. “Epiphany” not only refers to the visitation of the Magi; it also refers to the manifestation of a divine being.
Last Sunday, we noted the birth of Jesus is cause for rejoicing! Three of the scriptures we considered reflect rejoicing over the birth of Jesus within the context of great moments, or events, in salvation history – the Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. In what follows, we will consider how the Epiphany adds to our understanding of God’s plan of salvation.
In the prologue to the Gospel of John, we read: “All things came into being through him … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … The true light which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1.3-5, 9; NRSV). In this passage, John emphasizes the fact that although creation occurred in and through Christ, Christ is now entering creation in human form. Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us.”
Although God pronounced creation as “good” (Genesis 1), in Genesis 3 we read the story of the Fall, of Adam and Eve’s temptation through the seductive words of the serpent – “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3.4-5; NRSV). Hence, “The Lord God said to the serpent … ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel’” (Genesis 3.14-15; NRSV). This is the first scriptural reference to the role of the Messiah. Now that things have been broken, there must be a plan for restoration and redemption.
In Galatians 4.4-5, Paul sets forth further ramifications concerning God’s plan of redemption and the role of the Messiah: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (NRSV). Through Jesus Christ, we are granted full restoration to God’s family.
A cosmic battle stands behind these scriptures – a battle between the forces of Darkness (violence and hatred) and the forces of Light and Love. Both sides operate in accordance with an inherent logic, or logos.
Most of us are familiar with the Logos of Light and Love, for John opens his gospel as follows: “In the beginning was the Word (Greek, Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1.1; NRSV). This is often referred to as the Johanine Logos which is the divine logic, design, or wisdom inherent in the Kingdom of God.
We may not be as conscious of the logos of Darkness (Violence and Hatred). Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, set forth its nature. He held that the foundation of cultures lay in human violence which reflects its own inherent logic, or logos. This logos can serve either creative or destructive ends. Gil Bailie, in Violence Unveiled, describes the nature of the Heraclitian Logos as follows:
For Heraclitus, the logos of violence was an ordering principle … generated by disorder itself. Once in play, this logos turned chaotic and destructive violence into socially stable and hierarchically differentiated social systems. Heraclitus saw that however random and lawless it is, collective violence nevertheless develops according to certain recognizable patterns … that could not be traced to any cause or any conscious intent on the part of those participating in the violence (Violence Unveiled, pages 241-242) (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/xmas2abc/).
In that these patterns of development take on a life of their own, from the Judeo-Christian perspective, they are satanic. The logos of Darkness manifests itself in violence and war; it serves every false idol. We also see its consequences in rampant consumerism, militarism, racism, sexism, discrimination, misogyny, child trafficking, drug abuse, domestic violence, etc.
How does this relate to today’s assigned readings? Where does the story of the Magi fit in?
Jeremiah 31 conveys God’s promise of Israel’s restoration; despite Jeremiah’s warnings, Israel had engaged in war, and suffered defeat, at the hands of the Assyrians. The Lord said:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth … they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolation I will lead them back. I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble … their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. … I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow (Jeremiah 31.8-9, 12-13; NRSV).
God’s people who have suffered the ravages of war and captivity, who have experienced the bitter fruits of the Heraclitian Logos, are about to enjoy the love and light of the Johanine Logos. A bit later, in this same chapter, Jeremiah prophesies a new covenant (Vs. 31-34).
Psalm 84 depicts the fruits of the Johanine Logos – those who dwell in God’s house are happy, “those who go through a desolate valley will find it a place of springs,” and God will withhold no good thing “from those who walk with integrity” (Vss. 3, 5. 11; BCP).
In Paul’s prayer for the Church of Ephesus we see the transformation which takes place through the work of Christ – we see how the Johanine Logos replaces the Heraclitian Logos:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. (Ephesians 1.17-19; NRSV).
Once again, we are given a picture of life in accord with love and light.
And last, in Matthew 2, we read the story of the Epiphany, the story of the Magi’s search for the King of the Jews. The story serves to illustrate the conflict between the Heraclitian and the Johanine Logoi. King Herod and the inhabitants of Jerusalem are threatened by the Magi’s question: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Vs. 2; NRSV). Herod, the embodiment of the Heraclitian Logos, rightly perceives this question as a threat. Hence, he asks that the Magi, once they have found this king, return and tell him of his whereabouts so that he too may pay him homage. The Magi, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, “left for their own country by another road” (Vs. 12; NRSV). When Herod realized he had been tricked, he ordered all the children in and around Bethlehem under two years old be killed. Here we see the madness, the violence, the destructiveness which characterizes the Heraclitian Logos.
The wise men took another road. In Jesus, they, being Gentiles, sought and found the Johanine Logos. Jesus was revealed to the Magi, to the Gentiles, and they took another road. Likewise, God would have us take the road to the Johanine Logos rather than return, or remain, in the Heraclitian Logos.
The story of the Magi reveals that God’s Agape love, God’s plan of salvation, is disclosed and extended to all people – Jews and Gentiles. In God’s agape love, we experience the gifts of the Spirit. Although Darkness may at times seem to prevail, we are people of the promise; let us take faith in God’s assurance that love will prevail.