Whenever a new year arrives, we often have a bit of a reminisce at what the previous year was like don’t we? We think about the decisions we made and the things we wish we hadn’t done and we resolve to live life differently in a new Year. Research suggests that less than 10% of resolutions make it through to the end of January and only 1% through to the end of December.
Today is Epiphany. Epiphany comes from a Greek word and means ‘manifestation.’ We often hear the word Epiphany used when someone suddenly understands something. It’s also used to describe a religious experience. Epiphany Sunday celebrates the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus.
I’ve entitled my talk’ The Hope of the Wise Men’ and I want to think about what we can learn from their experience and, perhaps, put this into practise throughout this coming year.
1: The Wise Men found Hope in God’s Guidance
We know very little about the Wise Men, or Magi, except that they: …came from the east to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1). They would, probably, have been educated in the wisdom of the Babylonians and Persians and studied the ancient book of Daniel with its Messianic prophecies.
We read in vs2 they saw, and followed, a star. It’s a matter of historical record that a star appeared for the first time in the first Decan of the Constellation of Virgo immediately preceding Jesus’ Birth. We know the Persians, Egyptians and Chinese all record this event too.
The star first appeared before Jesus was born and, regardless of whether God used an existing astronomical phenomenon, or created one for the occasion, it had a supernatural purpose in that God was guiding the Wise Men in a very special way and they were curious to find out where it was leading.
It was common practice in those days to link astronomical happenings with the birth of great men. The Wise Men were hoping to find the King who would bring an end to war and suffering and injustice. They were hoping to find the King who would bring everlasting love and joy and peace to this world.
Historians suggest that it took over two years for the Wise Men to find Jesus. They may not have fully understood what it pointed to, but God was guiding them in a special way and they were curious to find out where it was leading.
During an interview before his death on 29 November 2001, after fighting a long battle with cancer, former Beatle George Harrison was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine about the important issues in his life. He said:
Everything else in life can wait but the search for God cannot wait.
And that’s so true. The search for God is, I believe, the most important issue each one of us will face in our lives.
I don’t know about you but when I’m searching for information I tend to use the internet, long before I’d ever choose an encyclopaedia or a dictionary or the Yellow Pages – that’s so last year! This week I typed the word ‘God’ in the Google search engine and it gave me a choice of 1,810,000,000 million sites (and they were found in .62 seconds!). 18 Billion sites that have something to say about God.
How can we know what is true? How can we know what is false? In a world of so many conflicting voices, both political and religious, where do we start looking? The Wise Men knew …
2 : The Wise Men found Hope in God’s Word
The Wise Men didn’t discover the answers to their questions until they consulted the Holy Scriptures. The Wise Men asked: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? (Matthew 2:2-3). Herod didn’t seem to know and so he asked the chief priests, and teachers of the law, where the Messiah was to be born.
They read from the prophet Micah and they found their answer: Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. The Wise Men found Jesus because they searched for answers in God’s word – in the writings of the OT. Like Herod, we may a general idea where Jesus may be found but until we, like the Wise Men, consult God’s Word, we will never find the Jesus of the Bible and the promise of hope he brings to us.
I say this because the Bible is God’s guidebook for life. Just as we wouldn’t learn to drive without consulting the Highway Code – although some of the folk who drive nowadays don’t seem to know a thing about the chivalry of the road!
But the point is we make a mess of our Christian lives if we fail to consult God’s word. And yes, it can often be painful to do so, as it challenges our values and morals and ethics, but it also brings us life ‘in all its fullness’ as we find ourselves being nourished and strengthened by its truth.
A formal knowledge of the Bible doesn’t lead us to knowing who Jesus is. It didn’t for Herod and his attendants and it won’t for us. As a wise old man once said:
It’s not about how many times you’ve read through the Bible, but how many times the Bible has been through you!
It’s my prayer that all of you will make a point of reading and carefully examining God’s word in the year to come because, in doing this, you will find the fullness of hope in your lives.
3. The Wise Men found Hope in Jesus
The Wise Men found hope in God’s guidance, hope in His Word and they found their hope in worshipping Jesus. I find it amazing that these men were willing to travel thousands of miles to worship a King that wasn’t even their own. But it was the fulfilment of a personal quest, a pilgrimage for truth, a journey that would change their lives forever.
Most people think there were three Wise Men because of the three gifts they brought with them – and we have three Wise Men on our nativity scene here. But the real answer is that we don’t really know. The traditional names of the Wise Men are Balthasar who is said to originate from Arabia, Melchior from Persia, and G/Caspar from India. The three gifts they offered had a spiritual meaning, too: Gold as a symbol of kingship on earth; Incense as a symbol Divinity (being ‘God’); and Myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.
The Christmas story, the uniqueness of the Saviour coming to this world can, I believe, be best summarised by one verse in our reading from John 1:14
The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one … who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Someone once wrote: Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live – and that’s so true. In the difficult and often confusing world in which we live hope, for many people, is something that seems to be short supply. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that in a world of pain, grief and sorrow and bereavement, of complex family relationships, of problems at work, alongside many other hardships of life, hope, for many people, has simply died a death!
But hope, I believe, is one of the most important gifts God gives to us. And nothing, nothing, brings hope back to life like the Christmas story and the journey of the Wise Men. Unlike the Wise Men, however, we don’t have to travel thousands of miles to find Jesus; we can find him right where we are.
May each of us find Hope in God’s Guidance, Hope in God’s Word and Hope in Jesus in the year, and years, that lie ahead.
This is a copy of the sermon I preached on Matthew 2:1-12 at Emmanuel, Billericay on Epiphany Sunday 2018. It is the well-known story about how the ‘Wise Men’ (Or Magi) were guided to Bethlehem, by a star, to meet the infant Lord Jesus. Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January.