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Weekly Bible Notes

Epiphany

Liturgical Colour - White

Opening Verse picture of magi O God who by a star guided the Magi to worship the Christ child, guide we pray all the people of our world in understanding of truth and wisdom, that they might be brought into a knowledge of your love. We ask this that every knee might bow, and every tongue confess Jesus to be Lord.  Amen.
Collect Prayer
First Reading:
Second Reading:
Gospel Reading
Post Communion Sentence
Commentary:
Meditation:
Hymns
Prayers for Sunday and the week ahead:
Intercessions from our Sunday worship
Sermon

See our Epiphany Worship

Adoration of the MagiIntroduction

As we pass through the twelve days of Christmas our Christmas celebrations are nearly over, we have enjoyed the festivities, the awe and wonder and for most of us the break in the routine of work life. Holidays must end, the baubles and fairy lights have to go back in the box, we have to get back to reality. So it is with our lectionary as we move on to Epiphany, the revelation of who Jesus is.

Epiphany means 'manifestation' and this time in the church year celebrates the manifestation by God of himself to the world in Jesus. Jesus is the epiphany of God's love!

The reading from Isaiah prophesies that God will show forth his glory in a concrete way, and in the reading from Matthew the Christ child is seen by the Magi. These star gazers see a star and come to offer to Jesus royal gifts and worship - because they see the divinity present in him. With this revelation there comes the reality check, that not everybody is happy with our Jesus. There are those like Herod who recognise in Jesus a threat to their own power and authority.

But there is a challenge for us also. Whilst Epiphany is about God revealing himself to the world in Jesus, we also are challenged to be a part of God's manifestation. This is part of what being a Christian is all about, revealing the love of God to the world by living out the example of Jesus in our own lives. 

The Magi might have remained where they were and not followed the star, there is a message that we too must be prepared to follow. The lowly shepherds and magicians were invited by God to follow Jesus. We need to remember that God has a wider embrace than us. We most surely would have thought that these were just the kind to keep Jesus away from. There is hope for all of us.

Opening Verses of Scripture  John 8:12

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
 

Collect Prayer for the Day — Before we read we pray

Eternal God, by a star you led wise men to the worship of your Son. Guide by your light the nations of the earth, that the whole world may see your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen

Creator of the heavens, who led the Magi by a star to worship the Christ-child: guide and sustain us, that we may find our journey's end in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Common Worship Shorter Collect

O God, who by the leading of a star manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: mercifully grant that we who know you now by faith, may at last behold your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen. Common Worship

Almighty God, your Son our saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world. May your people shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. Methodist Worship

First Bible Reading Isaiah 60:1 - 6

"Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. 
"Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the arm. Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

Second Reading Ephesians Chapter 3:1-12

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

Galatians 4:4-7

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

Magi visit JesusGospel Reading Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." 
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 
"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'" 
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
 

Post Communion Sentence

Lord God, the bright splendour whom the nations seek: may we who with the wise men have been drawn by your light discern the glory of your presence in your Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
 

Commentary

On January 6 western Christians celebrate the feast of Epiphany. Epiphany takes its name from the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’, meaning disclosure, manifestation, unveiling or appearance. On this date we remember the "appearance" of the Magi from the east. Last week we were reminded about how Jewish the upbringing of Jesus was, with his parents travelling to the temple every year. This week we are reminded that the Magi represent visitors to Jesus from outside the confines of the Jewish faith. It is a time when Jesus is shown to the world. It is about God making known salvation outside what had been the chosen few. Now all people could share in God’s grace, salvation was shared with other races and creeds. God cared about all creation and no longer could it be thought that his favour was restricted to any one group. The Magi show the fulfilment of that promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed. The new king Jesus abolishes not only the barriers of nation, race and ethnicity, he also transcends the boundaries of gender, religion, economics and social stratification.

On the face of it then, the visit by the Magi is a great news story, 'Good News' for all people. However the visit of the Magi has an extremely dark side. Searching for the baby Jesus, understandably they go to Jerusalem the home of the King. Their statement of seeking a new king arouses the jealousy and rage of Herod. After visiting Jesus we know the Magi return safely by another way, but such good fortune is short lived. We learn that Herod orders the death of male children in a desperate attempt to ensure that there will be no challenge to his throne. Suddenly the joy of Christmas is replaced by a bloodbath.
Whilst the stable in Bethlehem was a poor place for a baby to be welcomed into the world, it had at the least given the family a degree of security. Facing the wrath of Herod, the family must now take flight and seek refuge in a foreign land. Mary, Joseph and the baby go to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of the King.

Although it is not an easy message to follow, we shouldn't be discouraged; rather, it inspires us to try harder: to be thankful for the people who bring love and happiness into our own lives, and to look for ways of spreading that love to others, whenever and wherever we can.

The Magi bring with them clues as to this future trouble for the baby Jesus. They bring gold, a worthy gift for a king, and Frankincense, worthy of priest and Temple. In Isaiah 60, gold, frankincense, and camels are listed among the tribute of nations and kings. In Psalm 72, kings bring gifts to Israel’s king and fall down before him. They also bring with them Myrrh. In the film ‘The Life of Brian’, which attracted mixed reviews from the Christian community, in the opening scene, the mother of the baby welcomes with enthusiasm the gift of Gold and Frankincense, but understandably advises the Magi not to bother bringing Myrrh with them on their next visit. Myrrh is a costly ointment, yet it was closely associated with death. Myrrh reminds us that all is not well for this family. In Mark’s Gospel we read. 

‘Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him…" (Mark 15:22-24a). 

In John’s Gospel we read about Nicodemus who brings Myrrh to anoint the crucified body of Jesus
"a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds" (Jn. 19:39)

The Magi follow the star and it brings them to Jesus, much has been made of what this special star might have been. We will never know, however it is clear that their study of astrology led the Magi to discover God’s gift. It is interesting how this episode challenges us to consider how God speaks through other means to people of different faiths, creeds and cultures. Of course it would have been hard to identify a place where the star was over and the Magi were clearly skilled to be able to get anywhere close. Understandably they went to Jerusalem the palace of the king. Bethlehem is of course 9 miles to the south of Jerusalem, only nine earth miles, but an entire world away from the court of Herod. Not for Jesus any of the power, wealth and earthly authority of Herod.

The stars are fascinating and the places to observe them are located in extreme places away from any sources of light pollution. It is in the midst of the darkest sky that the light of the stars shine most brightly. We would all love to be able to have lives without darkness, sadly this is not to be. Yet in the darkness we too can discover the light of Christ. The visit of the Magi marks the beginning of a very difficult time for Jesus and his family. They are not immune from the toil and trouble of this life and Christmas soon gives way to a more difficult time. As we draw to the close of this Christmas season we might want to hold on to some of the beautiful and enjoyable times which we have experienced.

  1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the peace and goodwill which we have shared could last throughout the year?
  2. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were no bad news, no sadness of sickness, no stress, no heartaches, no switching on of the news to hear about another senseless murder?

In real life there is always the presence of both sweet-and-sour, joy and mourning, health and sickness, light and darkness. However as Christians our focus is not upon the darkness but rather upon the light. Like Jesus we will have sorrows and setbacks however we recognise that in the darkness Christ is our light. There is therefore no need to become depressed or despair at the futility of the world around us. Like the Magi as we go into the year we must concentrate upon the light which God has given to us. As we put Christmas back into the box until next year, we must resolve to follow his light along that path which will guide us when we face danger. We do not know what the future will bring us this year, undoubtedly we will all face challenges and testing times. So it is imperative that our minds are set firmly focussed like the Magi, on discovering Jesus and worshipping him.

In her Christmas message this year, her Majesty Queen Elizabeth said

It is true that the world has had to confront moments of darkness this year, but the Gospel of John contains a verse of great hope, often read at Christmas carol services: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it".

In recounting how Joseph and Mary were forced to flee the country, shhe said that it was no surprise that such a human story still captures our imagination and continues to inspire all of us who are Christians, the world over.Despite being displaced and persecuted throughout his short life, Christ's unchanging message was not one of revenge or violence but simply that we should love one another.

Our Queen is right to be optimistic because as Christians we are an entirely optimistic people.

We have experienced the shortest day of the year, winter solstice on 22 December, from now on each day will contain more light for us with each new dawn. This season encourages us to follow the light of Christ, to bring all our gifts, no matter how humble, to honour Jesus and all that Jesus stands for in our lives and the world.

Meditation 'Christ Bless this House'

Epiphany tradition tells us that the Magi were three wise men called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. They brought gifts of gold because the Child was a King, frankincense because the Child was God, and myrrh to symbolise the death to which Jesus was destined at birth. One Epiphany tradition involves blessing doorway and inscribing the lintels, perhaps with chalk, with the initials of the imaginary three kings. This tradition is seen as demonstrating a commitment to making the dwelling or whatever kind of premises, a place of hospitality and a recognised special space where the name of God is hallowed. The year and initials of the Magi are inscribed above the doors with the first two numerals of the year preceding the C and the last two numerals of the year placed after the B, so this year would be 20 + C + M + B + 13.
The initials of the Magi are also the first letters in Latin of ‘Christus Mansionem Benedicat’ - ‘May Christ bless the house’. You may not want to inscribe your doors but it is good to consider how God may bless your house and all who live there with goodness of heart, gentleness and the following of his ways, throughout the coming year.

Prayer Lord Jesus, who found no other hospitality in Bethlehem, but a home with the animals, and no place for a bed other than a feeding trough. Bless our home throughout this coming year. You welcomed the Magi who were visitors from a different faith, race and culture, so may we be always ready to greet others from your earthly family with appropriate kindness and may our doors be always open to show a loving welcome in your name.
 

Hymns

  1. Thou didst leave thy throne

  2. Brightest and best

  3. We three kings of orient are

  4. All earth was dark

  5. As with gladness men of old

Prayers for Sunday and the week ahead

Prayer is a plant, the seed of which is sown in the heart of every Christian, if
it is well cultivated and nourished it will produce fruit, but if it is neglected, it will wither and die.

 

When, good Lord, will you manifest yourself to us in bright sunshine? Yes, we are slow to understand and slow to see. But we are quick to believe that if you chose to reveal yourself to us, you could do so this very day. Dear lord, please appear to us, at dawn or at dusk or at the height of the day. Come to our table at mealtimes, that we may share our meals with you. Come to our bed, that we may share our rest with you. Come to our prayers, that we may rejoice and be glad. Gilbert of Hoyland (d. c. 1170)


O Source and Centre of all being, grant us the gifts of your grace, that walking in your way and strengthened by your life, we may journey through this world in your peace, and rest in heaven with your saints; and this we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen Gerhard Tersteegen, 1697-1769

What is this jewel that so precious? I can see it has been quarried not by men, but by God. It is you, dear Jesus. You have been dug from the rocks of heaven itself to be offered to me as a gift beyond price. You shine in the darkness. Every colour of the rainbow can be seen within you. The whole earth is bathed in your light. Infant Jesus, by being born as man you have taken upon yourself the pain of death. But such a jewel can never be destroyed. You are immortal. And by defying your own death, you shall deliver me from death.

Grant merciful Father, that we may be strengthened in your service. That we might show forth the wonder of your love for us in giving to us yourself in the form of Jesus, the child of Bethlehem. May our lives so reflect your glorious life of sacrifice, that others may come with us to worship. We offer to you our gifts of loving hearts, obedient service and joyful lives, that your glory might be known among all people.  Amen.

Holy Jesus, before your infant form sages bowed the knee and acknowledged your Lordship over all power and wisdom. Grant us also clear vision and courage, that in the light of your light, we may devote our power and potential to your service even when that requires us to go home by another way.  Amen. Church of Scotland

Almighty and everlasting God, you have revealed the incarnation of your son by the bright shining of a star, which the wise men saw, and offered costly gifts in adoration; let the star of your justice always shine in our hearts; that we may give as our treasure all that we are and all that we possess, to your service; through Jesus Christ our lord.  Amen. Gelasian Sacramentary

Radiant Morning Star, you are both guidance and mystery. Visit our rest with disturbing dreams, and our journeys with strange companions. Grace us with the hospitality to open our hearts and homes to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom bearing profound and unusual gifts. Amen.

Additional Material

Intercessions

This week we celebrate Epiphany and remember the Magi who were ttravellers from a foreign land, led to worship Jesus by following
a star which appeared in the heavens. This is also the start of a new year and we seek to learn from the past that we might be better
disciples of Jesus in the challenges of the year ahead.

God of yesterday, today and tomorrow, we give you thanks that you have walked with us through all that has happened to us through the events of
the past year. We thank you for all of the times when we have felt your presence with us as we faced difficult decisions or worrying situations.
We also thank you for those times when we felt fearful and alone, yet in spite of our fraility know that you have always been at our side.

Help us to be living examples of your light in a darkend world, so that others would be drawn to you as surely as the Magi followed the star.
As we go forward into another year give us strength to continue to trust in your unfailing love for us and for all humankind.
Help us to be be bold in the days ahead, to be willing to trust in you and to never be afraid of serving you in whatever situations
we may face. Lead us by the light of your love and bless us and keep us as we faithfully seek to walk in your way.

Heavenly Father you have made the heavens and the wonder of galaxies which lie far beyond human time. They bear witness
to your majesty and remind us that you are far beyond our comprehension and that what we know of you is but as like dim reflection in a mirror.
Yet we are reminded this day of your deep love which guided travellers from foreign lands to worship at the birth the birth place of your Saviour.
Give us open hearts and minds that we would be able to embrace those who are of different cultures and beliefs, and help us to
apprecite how you work in the lives of people of other faiths and people whose faith is known only to you.

Bless and protect all of those from other countries who live in fear for their safety in lands which are afflicted by political, religious or cultural intolerance.
We remember those who suffer from hatred and who live in fear and we are mindful of those who have fled their homes and seek safety in other countries
or in refugee camps. Give wisdom to world leaders as they seek to find ways to provide safety and shelter for those in need and may we always
appreciate the value and seek to protect each human life which you have created.

At this time of year our churchyards are full of flowers and tokens of remembrance for those who have died and we remember those who will remain precious
to us throughour our lives. May those who have gone before us find peace in your everlasting arms and may those who mourn know the comfort of your eternal love.

Merciful Father accept these prayers

 

Commentary

Matthew places the events today in the historical setting of King Herod. Herod came to power (37 BC) through an alliance with Mark Antony, who, himself, was aligned with Octavian at the time. Octavian and Antony later went to war with each other, a war which Octavian won in 31 BC, whereupon he became Caesar Augustus--literally, "the emperor who is worthy of being worshipped." Somewhere along the line, Herod switched sides to Octavian, and did so in a big way. He built monuments topped with Roman eagles. He built a whole new city and harbour in honour of Caesar. He plastered Caesar's insignia on everything.

Today is Epiphany, the word Epiphany means 'showing forth' or 'manifestation'. The message is that the birth of Jesus is something which is shown to all people. If anybody is any doubt, then the stories of who visited Jesus are meant to make it clear that all are included. Shepherds are invited and they were looked down because they were not properly religious. Now in today’s story we read about Magi coming and the general consensus on these folks no better. The visitors to the baby Jesus were little more than a bunch of horoscope writers.

I love the sound of the Authorised King James, version of the Bible being read out aloud in church. Especially perhaps at Christmas, those old familiar words have a special resonance. Sadly it does not serve us well in the episode from Matthew Chapter 2 which we read today in our lectionary for Epiphany. It recalls, 'Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, behold there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem.' The Feast of the Epiphany, on the 6th January, remembers and celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the Magi from the East. However the original greek text just calls them 'Magi'. The story of these 'Magi' is shrouded in much legend and the description used in the Authorised King James does not help us, as the words 'wise men' are without justification. Since there were three gifts we have often thought that there were three Magi . Often we think of them as three wise men, but there is nothing to suggest that there were only three or that they were only men. We might just as easily assume that since they brought rich gifts, they were also kings and have them wearing crowns, and we could also imagine that they travelled by ship, (I saw three ships.!) Legend has gone so far as to name them Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.

The "magi" originated in the Persian priestly class. They were sorcerers, fortune-tellers, astrologers. They represent the "wisdom of the east"--such as it was. Judaism didn't care that much for fortune-tellers. Indeed, Matthew presents them as a stupid. They seem naive about Herod, and, though they followed generally the proper trajectory--east to west--they wind up nine miles off. They come to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. The magi tell Herod about the birth of a "king of the Jews"--a title which technically belonged to Herod. The magi have seen his star "at its rising". Matthew alludes to the story of Balaam--another "magi" from the east--who was called by Israel's ancient foe, Balak, to bring a curse on Israel, but brought blessings instead. Matthew is recalling Numbers 24: 17-18: "a star shall come out of Jacob...Edom shall become a possession." (This may have been a subtle slam on Herod. Herod was from Idumea, or Edom.) What we do know is that pagan astrologers existed whose divinatory skills were widely respected in the Graeco-Roman world. Astrology had become popular as the 'science' of the East, and everybody agreed that the best astrologers lived in the East.

The Old Testament was not kind to this interpretation of signs (Deut 18:11, Is 2:6), so it is perhaps surprising in some ways that Matthew includes the story. However the fact remains that many people are firm adherents to the notion that we can consult with astrologers to best determine our path in life. Throughout the ages we can remember famous people and world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth or the Reagan's who would not take important decisions without first being advised by astrologers.  People of the day would not have been surprised at the mention of a natal star. The births of Pliny and Alexander the Great had supposedly been attended by astral events. Virgil notes that a star led Aeneas to the place where the city of Rome was to be founded. What is distinctive and interesting about this star is that it leads not to some famous personage, but rather to the child of a peasant couple living in a hick town.

The story of the Magi has provided material not only for countless school plays but also for centuries of prolific Christian art and paintings. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is said to have been saved from destruction by invading Persians because they saw representations of the Magi on the walls and recognised them as fellow countrymen in the portrayal of them. We know that these Magi recognise Jesus for who he is, and give him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Their learning leads them to the destination of their searching into the presence of the infant Christ. Christians have understood these gifts to be profoundly symbolic and prophetic.

  1. Gold represents the kingship of Jesus. Perhaps that gift of gold would be used to help pay for the subsequent flight of Jesus and the holy family to Egypt.
  2. Frankincense is a fragrant resin which is burned as incense to symbolize the presence of God, it therefore acknowledges the divinity of Jesus.
  3. Myrrh is a precious oil used for anointing the body, which serves to foretell the death of Jesus.

The Greek word ‘epiphany’ is about 'manifestation', 'making known', and it has been used for the last two thousand years to describe God coming closer to the people, revealing himself in his Son, Jesus. At Christmas the light is born, at Epiphany that light is made known to all people. Such universalism is enshrined in the story of the Magi, Jesus is for all people not just one religious group. No longer will salvation be seen in terms of the hereditary principle 'we are children of Abraham.'

Epiphany Eve is twelfth night and we are encouraged to make sure that we have removed the Christmas decorations. As Jesus, the light, has been born into the world, so that light is surrounded by darkness. In a sense this is a time for getting back to reality. If they haven’t already, then now the tinsel and the glitter must give way to real life. The gifts remind us of the wonder of who Jesus is, but they also proclaim that his life is one of suffering and death. Soon the holy family must flee an attempt on the life of the child and innocent babies will be slaughtered by Herod, jealous of the one born to be King of the Jews.

At Epiphany the light of the world is made manifest in Christ, visible to good and bad alike, to the wise men and to Herod. Each of these reacts differently one with joy and one with confrontation. Each of us must measure our own reaction and the gifts which we bring. Jewishness had been the principle upon which salvation rested until Jesus. The children of Abraham were marked by circumcision to show that they belonged the the chosen few. This symbol of exclusiveness set them apart as belonging to God's family. This circumcision was soon to be replaced with a new symbol, baptism would proclaim to the world that a person had died to sin and was alive in the new kingdom which Jesus proclaimed and established. This would no longer be restricted to a certain people by birth, it would be available freely to all people.

The visit of these Magi at Epiphany is the beginning of this new understanding of the wideness of God's revelation of himself. The Magi were gentiles and they would be the first to represent the new inclusion of the many nations of the world. Just as the Magi were guided by a star that was brighter than all of the others, from this time on all the nations would see in Jesus a revealing of God's love which was greater in magnitude than had ever been seen before. The Magi might have possessed wisdom, they might even have been men, we will never know. However in the very mystery of their background lies some of their most enduring attraction, for they have come to symbolise not only the opening of the entire geographic world to the revelation of Jesus, but also the entire intellectual world - as their astronomy, science and learning brings them close to Christ.

Meditation

On July 20, 1969, the human race accomplished perhaps its single greatest technological achievement of all time. The goal was to land men on the Moon and return them to earth safely. The Lunar Module ‘Eagle’ landed in the Sea of Tranquillity, with less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining. After dinner on the Moon, six hours later Neil A. Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon, and proclaimed, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." He was shortly joined by Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, and the two astronauts spent 21 hours on the lunar surface and returned 46 pounds of lunar rocks.

When the three Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth after their moon landing, many nations wanted to welcome them. They visited Pope Paul VI and in the papal library at St Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, he presented them with porcelain statues of the wise men who had followed the star to find Jesus in Bethlehem. Buzz Aldrin later said that this had been a very moving event, as Pope Paul had compared them with the Three Wise Men who visited Jesus at his birth, saying that the three astronauts, too, had reached their destination by following the stars that they could see. For the astronauts, it was only by focusing on certain stars that the computer’s navigation system and the gyroscopes could lead them to their destiny.
Aldrin later said "When Pope Paul VI presented us with Lladró's "The Three Kings", he spoke of a mission that had taken place two thousand years before. It was a mission undertaken by three men who were guided by the stars so that they might deliver a message to all humanity. Such a beautiful comparison with our mission moved us all very deeply indeed." Vision and purpose characterised both missions.

Meditation

So what of the story for us ? Embarking upon a journey of discovery, like the Magi, is what we are all about as Christians. We are a pilgrim people, we have set off to follow Christ and learn more about God as we journey. For many this idea is an unsettling and uncomfortable idea, a journey in which we do not know the landmarks; where we will have to keep trusting the voice inside that urges us not to turn back or stop. It is far more preferable for some to have a voice of certainty with all the answers, a voice which has a hotline to God and can speak all the truth all of the time. Sadly such voices are usually conmen (or women) and should not be listened to, no matter how comforting they appear to be.

There will be questions for all of us and we will change direction and move in different ways, this is all a part of the pilgrimage and shows that we are capable of growth towards maturity. It is a frightening thing to place one foot in front of another and trust that we will find the way, yet we walk that path with the hand of God.

What the Magi saw was hardly impressive; a poor family in a nondescript village and an infant. However, the Magi had been led by the light of the star. Was it really a huge star in the heavens like the Christmas show, or a small brightness of Jupiter or even as some Christians believe, an interior light that kept them looking and then shone brightly for them revealing the truth at the end of their quest? We will never know, but God was present among the obscure; hidden in an out-of-the- way place. 

Today we like the Magi, ask God to stir up a hunger in us. For the courage to let go of the comfortable and familiar and request the energy to once again go looking for God. To be open to finding the holy in unfamiliar and "unholy" places. May we also have a sense of wonder and awe, the spirit of a searcher, one willing to look up and follow a star beyond familiar borders. May we recognize the revelation of God, despite all appearances to the contrary.  

Meditation

Many threads and stories from the Old Testament feed into the New Testament account of the wise men visiting Jesus. In the book of Numbers describes an encounter between the Israelites, who by this time after their escape from Egypt had travelled to the plains of Moab and are now camped along the Jordan just across from Jericho where they will enter the Promised Land, and Balak, the king of Moab. Balak asks Balaam to come and put a curse on the Israelites so that he can defeat them in battle. Balaam and his talking donkey reluctantly get involved, but rather than curse the Israelites, Balaam blesses them three times, much to Balek’s annoyance. In their final exchange Balaam prophesies that a star will come out of Jacob, a sceptre will rise out of Israel, and a ruler will come out of Jacob. Jesus, as the Israelites before Him, would travel to Egypt before coming to live in the promised land. Herod’s threat to kill the Hebrew infants has parallels with Pharaoh’s attempts to do the same before him, which led to Moses being put in a basket in the river. History is repeating itself. Only this time it is Jesus Himself who is the true representative of Israel, He is the true child of God, the Messiah Himself, the Star of Israel. As the prophets would foretell, the best of the world’s wise would come to Zion to acknowledge Him and creation itself would proclaim Him by the code which could be read in the sky. God had broken into our world. Curious then that Herod could not find this King of the Jews. Thirty years later others would not fail to find Him, as they nailed this very title to the cross on which He would be crucified. In the birth of Jesus God was acting powerfully to save the world from sin and Christ’s birth was the first step that would lead Him to the cross. The star, the sceptre and the ruler that Balaam had foretold had come and a new chapter in the world’s history had begun to unfold. 

Commentary

Matthew 2:1 ‘After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.’ 

So starts the Gospel of Matthew. It finishes in a similar way, specifically in Chapter 27 where the phrase ‘King of the Jews' is used, but nowhere more prominently than over the dying body of Jesus, fixed to the cross were the words 
THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS (Note John records 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews' John 19)

Matthew does not just throw his Gospel together, he uses the materials carefully and in so constructing his Gospel he makes the clear point, the death of Jesus was all part of God’s plan. The birth of Jesus was God’s idea and his death also was not just because of human hate. God gave Jesus to the world. Read the opening chapter of Matthew and this becomes clear Matthew 1:21 
‘She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" --which means, "God with us."’ 

We are being led to recognise that in the birth of Jesus God was acting powerfully to save the world from sin.
 

So what of these Magi, whom only Matthew mentions? The story has led to fascinating stories and hymns such as ‘We three kings of Orient are’, however nowhere does Matthew mention 'Kings' and neither does he say how many there were. There is no indication of where they came from, their racial characteristics, their names or their mode of transport. Some have said they came on ships, others say camels. Some say that there were three, because there were three gifts recorded. Western Tradition has named them as Melkon, Balthasar and Caspar. These names were first used by Origen (d. 254) and became popular from the 6th Century. We are even led to believe that Jesus was a child and no longer a baby (verse 9)

Matthew’s gospel uses the story of the Magi (or magicians) for drama: the star moves across the sky and takes up station above the place where Jesus was born. The created world is being called to bear witness to this momentous event. The heavens declare the glory of God – in yet another way Matthew is making a statement about Jesus’ ministry and the church: the gospel is to be taught to all nations. As in the subtle additions to his genealogy, which break the pattern by naming women who have been under a cloud, with poor reputations, many of them with Gentile connections, so here Matthew wants us to see the deeper significance of the story. This is a celebration of inclusiveness: the Magi prove Jesus is for all people. Matthew shows in the story of the Magi that seekers from all nations will come to recognize Christ and be welcome in his presence. And, that the promise of Israel's being a light for the nations, as the prophets anticipated, is now fulfilled in Christ.

Matthew shows how the Magi behave and encourages us to do the same, they saw the demands of God's gift and so they left and followed. The story of the Magi today is not an encouragement to study the stars or to think God speaks to us in dreams. Rather it is a story of God meeting people where they are and speaking to them powerfully. The Magi were driven to visit Jesus, they did not know all the answers but they were moved to travel to discover more, to find out about Jesus. The Magi remind us that God's grace works through many different means.   Charles Royden

Commentary

The story of the wise men has been widely reported in the media this year following the remarks of the Archbishop of Canterbury when he said that we should be careful and not read into scripture what is not there, whether it be about the number and nature of the wise men or the weather conditions in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. The story of the wise men, he went on to say, seemed to work well as a legend, certainly with the accretion of the stories and traditions which have built up around it. Indeed, the Greek historian Herodotus (500 BC) says that the Magi were a caste of priests from Persia who could interpret dreams – and interestingly there are five dreams in Matthew's birth narrative, with four of them warning of the murderous intentions of King Herod and his son Archelaeus who succeeded him.

Whoever the Magi were, and we may never know for certain, we should follow the Archbishop’s guidance and not over emphasise details of which we are not sure and have little basis in scripture. Equally importantly neither should we under-estimate the truth of what is contained in scripture and, in particular, the Christian message of Christmas; the message that when Christ was born, God himself came down and dwelt among us. And it was to that Christ that the wise men travelled, guided by the star. However they travelled, however long it took, it must have been quite a surprise when they found the Messiah in surroundings that they would not normally associate with a Messiah King. But in the story of the kings and in their response to the infant Jesus we begin to see the changes that were occurring on earth through God’s cosmic intervention. Whilst we know relatively little about the wise men it is unlikely that they were Jews. The coming of the wise men to Jesus was symbolic of the fact that this Messiah Christ was for all people, not just the Jews. This Christ would be Lord of all who acknowledge Him and respond to His love and grace. The wise men visibly demonstrate that all who are looking for Christ can find Him and recognise Him, whatever the surprising surroundings they find Him in. And once they had found and recognised the Christ, their immediate response was to kneel before Him in silence and worship Him.

Sometimes when we enter the presence of God we feel that we need to say something, to start praying or singing a hymn. The wise men remind us that sometimes all we are called to do is to come before God and be silent. Sometimes it will be the silence of awe and majesty, as it probably was with the wise men. Other times it may be more like the companiable silence that breaks out between two friends who have no need of constant conversation to sustain their friendship. In all the noise and activity of the Christmas and New Year celebrations, all the hubris of a new birth, there was a silence as the wise men knelt and worshiped Emmanuel, God with us on our earth, the Messiah, Peace on earth, the redeemer of the world. It was only after the wise men had worshiped that they brought out their highly precious and valuable gifts to offer to the infant child. Gifts that were at the same time so rare and yet so inadequate. Gifts that would foretell the destiny that the baby Jesus would have in the years ahead. The destiny of a Prophet, the destiny of a Priest and ultimately the destiny of the Suffering Servant, crucified as King of the Jews nailed to His cross. Their response to an encounter with the living God was to willingly offer gifts of great value to Christ from generous hearts. After they had seen Him, recognised Him, worshipped Him and offered Him their gifts they then journeyed on, taking the experience of that meeting with them for the rest of their lives. As we journey through our lives we too take the experience of our daily encounter with God with us. Like the wise men we need to see Him, recognise Him, worship Him and offer our gifts to Him, that the world may be changed by the God who is with us and continues to intervene in His cosmic manner. A God who continues to be Lord and Saviour for all who kneel, worship and acknowledge Him. 

Prayer

Stars cross the sky, wise men journey from pagan lands, earth receives its saviour in a cave. Let there be no one without a gift to offer, no one without gratitude as we celebrate the salvation of the world, the birthday of the human race. Now it is no longer, "dust you are and to dust you shall return", but, "you are joined to heaven and into heaven you shall be taken up". Basil the Great (AD 330 - 379).

With the angels and saints, each day and each night, each shade and each light, I bend my knee in the eye of the Father who created me, in the eye of the Son who redeemed me, in the eye of the Spirit who cleansed me. In love and affection, in wisdom and grace, in love and in fear, for ever and ever. Amen Gaelic Prayer to the Trinity

Creator of the heavens, who led the Magi by a star to worship the Christ-child: guide and sustain us, that we may find our journey's end in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen Common Worship Shorter Collect

Almighty God, your Son our saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world. May your people shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped and obeyed to the ends of the earth; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen Methodist Worship

In their search for the Creator of the Universe, the wise men found you not in Herod’s palace, but among the dwellings of the poor and needy. Teach us to search for truth and beauty in unexpected places, to relieve poverty where we are able, and to share unashamedly in the cause of the outcast and despised. Amen

The God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the eternal covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well pleasing in His sight; and may the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen