Matthew 2:1-12 Isaiah 60:1-6
Authority. Power. What picture comes to your mind when you hear or read those words? Are they favourable images of people or institutions that rule with clear guidance to make others feel safe? Or do they conjure up fear; fear of the unknown, and insecurity? Is it a bright picture or a dark one? Are the decisions made and that affect your life easy to accept if at all? All kinds of questions that may enter your mind; or not, as the case may be. Why the question anyway, as we’ve just entered the year 2021. Well, for some reason, the phrase ‘truth speaking to power’ came into my head when I read today’s Bible passages, and I think the message may be a helpful one.
As so often with the stories we’ve heard over and over again, the Bible passage from Matthew chapter 2 may be so familiar that we’ve stopped hearing what it says. We also tend to romanticise; hence the three kings or magi in the nativity, reflecting the three gifts mentioned. But there could have been half a dozen! In any case, they were men of some substance; scholars of the day, who studied eagerly, to try and make sense of the universe and how it would influence human life. They had read the ancient texts about a Saviour, a king who would be the promised Messiah, the Anointed One. They were looking for the truth, and, understandably, knocked on king Herod’s door, in their quest to find the new-born king. Not that Herod had been looking for him! The problem with power is that once you’ve got it, it’s hard to let go! It takes humility to accept someone greater than you, and humility was something that Herod was rather short of… so Herod’s response is fear. What! Someone new to take my place? Not if I can help it! Even the fact that they were talking about a child didn’t allay his fear of being pushed off the throne. The crown was sitting too easily on his head… And then there is this thing called ‘truth’. It may well have been this truth, the truth of the greatness of God as proclaimed in the Scriptures and fulfilled in the course of time, that upset Herod the most. The visit of the magi highlighted the conflict between God and human power. Between the king of Israel chosen by God, Jesus, and the king of Israel chosen by the Romans, Herod. Whenever corrupted power is made to look righteous power in the face, the immediate response is to refuse, to look away, to make excuses; in short, to deny the greatness of the higher power that is challenging you. Can we think of present day examples, perhaps, I wonder?
When truth speaks to power, the challenge is clear: those in positions of authority are not usually in favour of being put ‘on the spot’ as it were. The central question posed throughout the season of Epiphany – or Manifestation – is ‘who is Jesus?’ The visit of the ‘wise men from the east’ is understood as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, the non-Jewish peoples worldwide. Their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh reveal him as King, High Priest and Saviour of all. The successive Sundays of Epiphany follow the stages of Jesus being recognised by different people, as the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’, and the ‘glory of God’s people Israel’. That is the truth revealed to the magi on this first encounter since Christmas: this is he! No, he isn’t recognised by king Herod, and that’s also why the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to tell him where Jesus is. Every step of the way, God is involved in bringing his Son to birth and to the mission of righteousness to save humankind.
The prophet Isaiah has foretold it: ‘Nations shall come to your light, … they shall bring gold and frankincense, … and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.’
At the beginning of a new year, how shall we proclaim the truth and profess our faith? How are we to present our gifts to Jesus? Perhaps now, more than ever, the best gift we can bring is trust. Trust in God’s loving purpose for us all. This new year we may offer it one step at a time, putting our hand in his, and following as he leads. That’s when we find that the light of Christ is stronger than any darkness or power. His truth has spoken, and it will not fail. Amen. And I may still say: Happy New Year!