January 6, 2012 (Epiphany)

 A FUNNY THING THAT HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO BETHLEHEM

                                                          Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                   at the All-County Quadri-Parochial Episcopalian Celebration of the Epiphany
                                                 at the Church of the Nativity, Port St Lucie, on 6 January 2012
 
                                                            Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Isaiah 60: 1-6
                                                               Reading for the Gospel:                  Matthew 2: 1-12

 

Let me open the door to my family’s closet and introduce you to one of the skeletons in there.  It is my Grandfather Smith.  He died way back in the 1930s and I hardly remember what he was like.  He died a pauper because of three things.  The 1930s was a time of economic depression worldwide and he was out of work.  But his being out of work was not entirely due to the Great Depression.  Grandfather Smith had two, what might be called, hobbies.  He liked to gamble, but seldom won anything, and he liked to drink, although (or perhaps because) he was an alcoholic.  In fact his whole adult life had been in the wine and spirits business, and he had a good nose for wines, and his very last job was as a whisky salesman in southern Ireland.  He got fired from that because he drank too many of the samples! 

I tell you all this to introduce you to my father.  He too was an alcoholic, but he was smart enough to know that he should never touch alcohol.  When he attended the Holy Communion he would receive the elements.  He ate the bread, but he only kissed the lip of the chalice.  In this way he taught me how to handle my liquor.  And he also taught me how to deal with gambling.  Like his father he liked to pick out the winners in horse racing, and in England there are usually two or three six-race cards at various racecourses around the country every day of the Summer, except Sundays when I was growing up.  In fact he taught me how to pick the winners.  I am not going to tell you how to do it, but it really is not all that difficult.  Dad and I would each buy a newspaper each morning and examine the race cards, and in the evening we would produce our selections and then listen to the results broadcast by the BBC after the 6.00 Evening News.  It was a lot of fun, a very friendly family competition.  But he gave me a very good piece of advice.  No matter how successful I was at picking winners, he told me that I should never put any money on them, simply because no matter how often the gambler might win, the bookmaker will always win more often.  We might think we know all that there is to know before the race (but it was more than likely that we would not), yet it was very certain that we could not know what might happen during the races themselves.  And if you do not know all that there is to know, my Dad told me, never make a bet. 

And I tell you all this to introduce you to a young Glaswegian Salvationist.  We served on the same unit on my last posting in the Royal Air Force.  Jock was very devout, as devout as a devout Salvationist can be.  He knew that his denomination was the one whose members read their Bibles the most.  We might almost say he was proud of his denomination’s adherence to the Bible and how it was used in public worship.  But pride, as we all know, always goes before a fall, and such was the case with young Jock.  He knew that I was an ordinand in the Church of England and he had been taught that Anglicans did not use their Bibles, or at least not as well as members of the Salvation Army.  He suggested that I should attend the service at his Tabernacle one Sunday evening to prove his point, and I countered his suggestion with an invitation to worship the same Sunday morning at the Parish Church that I attended.  And to make it all a little more interesting I suggested that I would be excused from attending worship at his Tabernacle if more of the Bible was used during public worship at the Parish Church that morning than would be used at his Tabernacle.  And Devout Jock fell for the bait!  What he did not know, but I did, was that the Sunday in question would be the one Sunday each month when we had Morning Prayer followed by the Holy Communion!  Jock duly arrived five minutes before the appointed hour with his Bible and I introduced him to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with which was bound Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, the two books that members of the Church of England in those days fifty-plus years ago always carried to church each Sunday, morning and evening.  You can imagine his surprise when he discovered just how much of the Bible was read during the course of the worship in which he had been invited to share and you do not need me to remind you of that, and you will not be surprised that he felt it wise not to have me attend worship at his Tabernacle that evening. 

We Episcopalians and Anglicans probably make more use of the Holy Scriptures in the course of public worship than almost anyone else.  But let me ask you something.  How much use do we make of our Bible in our private devotions at home?  Let me ask you another question.  If I were not my father’s son I might be ready to put money on the answer to this question.  How many of you have at least one Bible in your home?  Hands up, let’s see!  Now let me ask another question.  How many of you ever read your Bible at home?  And now, how many of you read your Bible every day?

All right.  Now how many can actually tell me the story that was read as the Gospel just now?  Shout out the answers if you like.  

Just how many travelers were there in the party that went to Bethlehem?  The answer is at least two, since the party is described as being made up of a plural number.

How many were men?  The answer is at least one.  Since the nouns and pronouns describing them are in the masculine, according to Greek grammar one of them had to be male, but not necessarily more than one.

How many were kings?  The answer is not necessarily any, and they might not have been sages or wise men, since we are still not really sure what magi were.

Where did they come from?  The answer is somewhere vaguely to the east of Judaea, but if we look at the map that could be anywhere from Iraq or Iran in the north-east to Yemen or even the Horn of Africa, Somalia, in the south-east.

How did they travel?  The answer is that we are not told!  The evangelist does not say that they rode on camels, or on anything else come to that.  Although it is unlikely, they might have simply walked.

So what does that do to all those Christmas cards and crèches that show three kings and their camels?  You see just how much has been read into the story since the evangelist first wrote it.  Yet we and our Victorian era ancestors, who wrote all those carols we love to sing, regard what has been added to the Gospel as Gospel! 

Now, instead of reading things into the narrative, let us read some things out of it.  All we can say with accuracy is that some travelers travelled to Jerusalem and on to Bethlehem.  They claimed that they had seen a particular star rise and it was this that had prompted them to go on their journey.  The older translations have it that this star had risen in the east, but then all stars rise in the east!  The Revised English Bible version is much closer to the evangelist’s Greek when it simply says that the star rose.  When they arrived in Bethlehem they went to a particular house, apparently the home of Joseph and Mary.  Joseph appears to have been out of the house at the time, but Mary was there with her child, and from the context we gather the boy was about two years of age.  The evangelist has it that Mary’s son was a child, not a babe, on the occasion of this visit.  Then we are told that the visitors opened up travelling chests of some kind and out of these they took three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And then they went away southwards, as they did not return to Jerusalem. 

And if that sounds very different from anything you have ever heard before, well, I’m sorry, but that’s the way the evangelist whom we call Matthew describes it. And that is the Gospel truth, well this particular Gospel’s truth.  And if we did not have the Gospel that is accorded to Luke this would be the only story of the birth of the Babe of Bethlehem that we would have in the Bible, which means that we would not have many, many of our Christmas carols.  Incidentally, mentioning the Gospel according to Luke, you might, when you get home, read what he actually has to say about the Nativity.  I think, although I would not bet on it, that you might be surprised. 

It is fair to say that the evangelist we know as Matthew is one who liked to weave his stories out of the material found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  He says as much often enough, that such and such was done to fulfil what is written in the Scriptures.  And even when he does not include that remark, there are other times when there are strong hints in his narrative of a background in the Hebrew Scriptures.  At the Feast of the Epiphany the compilers of the lectionary give us a very strong hint, almost a sledge-hammer type of hint, as to where this evangelist got the material for his story.  We read it as our first lesson this evening.  We cannot say that there is an exact parallel between the two readings, but the similarities are such as to have us say, “Now wait a moment!”  Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is taken from the scroll called “Isaiah”, a document that this evangelist has used already in his Gospel when he quotes, although not quite accurately, a passage from Isaiah 7 about a young unmarried woman becoming pregnant and giving birth to a child to be called Emmanuel.  He does something similar with the passage that we heard read from Isaiah 60.  

Perhaps we should look a little more closely at that passage as well, for it is there that we find reference to a bright light in the darkness coming to Jerusalem, we read of individuals called kings (although we should probably translate that as sheiks), we read of camels and we read of gifts, but only of gold and frankincense, but no myrrh.  And the writer of the story in Isaiah 60 has another interesting tidbit.  He has the camels coming from Midian and Ephah and especially from Sheba.  Indeed he says that they all originated in Sheba.  Now Midian and Ephah both lie to the south of Judaea.  We read about Midian in the stories of Joseph and Moses in Genesis and Exodus.  And Sheba rings a resounding clarion of bells.  That is where the Queen who visited Solomon came from, and although we cannot say with certainty where Sheba once was it is generally agreed it was an area at the southern end of the Red Sea and may have covered lands on both sides of the narrow inlet between Arabia and Africa.  And this is an area which lies to the south-east of Judaea.  It covers what we today call Yemen and Eritrea and perhaps parts of Ethiopia and Somalia.  The old royal family of Ethiopia claimed descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba and used the title the Lion of Judah.  This was an area once called Ophir, famed for its gold, and it is also a land from which frankincense comes, and one of the few lands on the face of the Earth from whence it comes.  Another is an island off Sumatra in the East Indies of Indonesia, and no one has ever suggested that the travelers in Matthew 2 came from that far away.  But Isaiah 60 only speaks of gold and frankincense.  Did the evangelist add to the text from Isaiah 60?  Why shouldn’t he, after all we have been doing the same to his story all these centuries!  The evangelist has a third gift, myrrh.  And there is only one place from which myrrh comes, and that is the eastern part of Yemen!

Although we cannot prove it, it does seem that the evangelist might have used this passage from Isaiah 60 as background material, at least, for his Epiphany story.  And given what it was that he was seeking to do, that is quite legitimate.  The point that this evangelist is seeking to make to his first readers, the only ones that really mattered to him, was that this child who was born in Bethlehem in what we now call 7 B.C. was the Anointed Saviour of the World.  He makes that assertion in the very first verse of the very first chapter of his Gospel, and then spends the rest of the twenty-eight chapters showing how this is so. 

How tragic it is that we take this simple sincere statement of faith and clutter it up with stuff.  We can criticize all the commercial entrepreneurs however much we like about taking the Christ out of Christmas, ignoring the reason for the season.  But down through the centuries and the millennia, the Church, perhaps with the very best of intentions, has so diluted the narratives in the Gospels, be it Matthew or Luke, that the real message of the season has become lost.  Why can we not shout aloud, that the Lord God cares for his creation so much that he has declared his love for us and his presence with us from the very beginning, and especially in the person of the Child of Mary of Bethlehem?  He is with us.  He is Emmanuel, and even strangers from far-off lands knew it two thousand years ago, and we need to grasp that truth today and let it reshape our lives and the motivation for our lives, as those travelers did back then.  If only we would do that!  Had only my grandfather done that instead of wasting his treasure on gambling and liquor!  If only we would offer the very best of what we have and who we are, and accept from others the very best of what they are being encouraged to offer!  When will we learn to pour out our very selves with the same humble obedience as those who travelled from wherever, whoever they were, however they came, whenever they travelled to see a little boy and his mother in a house in Bethlehem?  Emmanuel.  God is with us.  Alleluia.  Glory to God not only in the Highest Heaven but also right here upon Earth.       And let the people say, “Amen”.