6 January – Another Way
Epiphany of the Lord
Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Rob Gallacher
“They left for their own country by another way”. Matthew 2:12
6 kilometres north west of Nazareth is a significant archaeological site. A few years before the birth of Jesus, Herod Antipas started to build his administrative centre at Sepphoris, a sort of Canberra in the Galilee. Before that, it had been a tiny village, said to be the home of Joachim and Anna, parents of Mary. If you are romantically inclined you might like to think that Joseph met Mary while he was working on the building of this new city. But that’s quite irrelevant to the point I want to make. Sepphoris was destroyed by an earthquake in 363. So it’s a time capsule spanning the period in which the early church lived. This is the picture that it gives. It was strongly Jewish. As a Roman city it cooperated with the punitive invasion Vespasian in 68 – 70 A.D. So Jews migrated there for safety. It was wealthy, as indicated by the exquisite mosaic floors in many villas. There was a large number of Gentiles, Roman officials, collaborators and traders. It was influenced by religions of the east, especially astrology, as indicated by the signs of the Zodiac on the floors of several first century synagogues. So a story about a star would go down well here.
No commentator actually suggests that Sepphoris was where Matthew wrote the gospel, but most agree it was near here, maybe across the border in Syria. See how the gospel, and this story of the Wise Men in particular, fit these characteristics. His 130 references to the Hebrew Scriptures would appeal to a Jewish audience. Unlikely foreigners, Gentiles, keep appearing unexpectedly. Gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh appeal to the wealthy, and a story about magi from the east following a star picks up on the connections to the east and the astrology.
Further internal evidence in the Gospel suggests that Matthew was writing for a congregation of Jewish Christians that was well established, but rather more concerned with their tradition than their mission. “Settled and content” says one commentator (Herman Waetjen), who then says that Matthew’s intent is to “unsettle, rather than endorse”. That is, he advocates “another way”. Look for example at the genealogy with which Matthew begins. It includes women, unusual women! They were foreigners, whose marriage involved scandal. There is Tamar, a Canaanite, Rahab another Canaanite and a harlot, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba (you all know about her), and Ruth, the Moabite, whose book we have just been studying. Straight down the line Hebrew matriarchs like Sarah and Rachel are overlooked.
Then we get the Magi, a recognised group in Eastern religions, a bit like alchemists in Medieval Europe, perhaps Zoroastrian priests, or maybe Persian shamans. Once you see this intent to challenge closed attitudes, you notice subtleties. For example, the Canaanite woman wanting the crumbs under the table shouts and is insistent in Matthew’s version, whereas in Luke she bows and is respectful. Or the centurion at the cross who proclaims “This man was the Son of God”. In Luke it is the centurion only, but in Matthew it is the “centurion and all those with him”. It all builds up to the grand finale, the great commandment that closes the gospel “Go and make disciples of all nations”. Show them another way.
When you read this story of the Magi, read it as a beautiful, if challenging, image. Some open-minded strangers see a light, a shining star, and they follow it. It is a difficult journey. “A cold coming we had of it. Just the worst time of year for a journey”. These were the opening words of Lancelot Andrews sermon around 1610, and which T.S. Eliot picked up in his poem “The Journey of the Magi”. The difficult journey crossed barriers of race and religion, it side stepped cultural norms and social status. It avoided government interference. It ends up with them going another way. But the centre of the story is sacrificial worship at the manger of the Christ child.
I began to tick off these characteristics in relation to Mark the Evangelist.
- We honour our tradition, especially in our worship. “Lift up your hearts” is attested as early as 252 A.D. by Cyprian. It works on 2 levels. We rise above the mundane to the sacramental, and we are united with Christians through the ages.
- We are on a hard journey where the development of our property is concerned.
- A large part of the work of Hotham Mission is with Moslem immigrants, many from the East, well, the Middle East.
- We have a vision, a star to follow, even a vision statement at the beginning of the Mission’s Strategic Plan
“Out of the goodness of God’s creation and in response to God’s continuing acts and promises to all, our vision is for abundant life in which our mission may be restorative and transformative, constantly responding to the gospel hope of cosmic reconciliation”.
- The Mission goes another way by not accepting any government funding, and in so doing has cut quite a lot of the red tape imposed by both state and church .
- And the central focus is always on the presence of Christ. There is now a cross and an icon on the meeting room wall in the cottage as well as the Christian symbols of font, table (Sacrament) and lectern (Word) here in the church.
As I ticked off so many good points I began to feel rather smug. It was then that I realised that the purpose Matthew has in mind is to disturb a church that is settled and smug. Perhaps our vision could be wider. After all there are many shining lights out there.
Let me tell you about one I saw in Ethiopia. In the town of Bahar Dar we visited one of the five Fistula hospitals now operating in Ethiopia. Catherine Hamlin, now in her 90’s, went there as a young doctor and saw the plight of women with this problem. She began to treat them, and witnessed the way these outcast women were restored to their families and villages with dignity and purpose. The work grew, and grew. First a specialist hospital, then another and another, till last year (2018) 5 doctors trained at the main hospital in Addis Adaba in order to help women in Madagascar, Ghana, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
There are many such stars shining: The Christmas Bowl supports some. The National Council of Churches is putting new energy into the fight against modern slavery. There is a glimmer of hope that Australia might recognise the Nuclear Ban Treaty.
The Magi followed a star, opened their treasure chests, worshipped with costly gifts, and found another way.
We read their story on the first Sunday in Epiphany. An epiphany is to see yourself as you are and then catch a vision of what you might become. There is always another way. When you see the light, follow the star, and become.
We are also at the beginning of a new calendar year, a time of refreshment and resolution. Don’t let your stars disappear with the fireworks. As a congregation Matthew speaks to us as a community. He honours the tradition, challenges our self-satisfaction, points to the real source of light and commands us to go into all the world – to find another way.