On Christmas morning many congregations sang Isaac Watts’ familiar hymn, “Joy to the World.” My home congregation was among them. I was already thinking about Epiphany and Matthew’s account of the Magi as I sang, which is probably why the third verse caught my attention. “He comes to make His blessings flow/far as the curse is found/far as the curse is found/far as, far as the curse is found.” I was reminded how the curse’s reach has extended very far, indeed. So also has God’s blessing in Christ.
That is Epiphany.
Matthew’s account of the Magi is a familiar text. But as with many familiar texts, it is likely its edge has grown dull. Over the years, these gift bearers have sneakily crept into the creche, standing alongside the shepherds as if they all belonged there together. As a result, the significance of the strange visitors from the east may easily be missed. Your sermon on Epiphany Sunday is a great opportunity to help your hearers rediscover it.
The Magi remind us how the Christian message is one of radical inclusion. Not only has God chosen to appear in the unlikeliest of places, like the manger and the little town of Bethlehem, but if the blessings of God in Christ truly flow as far as the curse is found, He has also chosen to draw toward Himself for worship the unlikeliest of people. This has significant implications for your hearers—both for how they think of themselves in relation to God, as well as for how they think of those outside the Church who seem far from God. To unpack this, the sermon might spend some time reflecting more closely on three sets of people. The common thread between them, of course, is the blessings of God in Christ which flow even to them.
1. The Magi. We do not actually know much about these people. Furthermore, what we do “know” is probably inaccurate. These people were not wise. They were not kings. There is also no indication there were three. It would be more accurate to describe them as pagan fools. They were sorcerers, astrologers, practitioners of the dark arts. Today we would call them members of an occult and warn our children to avoid them at all costs. In Acts 13:8, Elymas the magician (ὁ μάγος) opposed Paul and tried to thwart the Gospel. Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, rebuked him, calling him a “son of the Devil.” Then he struck him with blindness.
Their foolishness further manifests itself in their seeming ignorance of the situation in Jerusalem. It was not until the angel appeared to them that they caught wind of Herod’s evil scheme. As for their gifts, sometimes it is suggested their offerings reflected wisdom. But as Jeff Gibbs points out in his study of this text, these are probably relatively common gifts for royalty. While the creative preacher might get some homiletical mileage out of them, Matthew probably did not have this in mind.
The long and short of it is these strange visitors from the east were immersed in the curse of a creation in full rebellion against its Creator. If anyone has ever been far from God, it was them. This makes their worship of Jesus and inclusion in His presence truly radical.
2. The hearers gathered in worship. It will not be hard to help your hearers see the strangeness of the Magi’s presence before God. It will be more difficult to help them see their own presence before God as equally unlikely. This is a key move for a sermon on this text, however, so it must be done thoughtfully and carefully. Unless the hearers understand how their inclusion is just as radical as the Magi’s, the goodness of the Gospel will not communicate.
There are several ways to do this in the sermon. The preacher could highlight the way sin has separated us from God and emphasize we are not worthy to be in the presence of a holy God. This approach could work, but for many congregations it will be quite predictable and, therefore, difficult to accomplish effectively.
It would be more textual, and potentially more impactful for the hearers, to help them recognize their status as gentiles. This would require working with the inclusion/exclusion metaphor. The sermon would discuss God’s peculiar choice of the people of Israel from among all peoples. It would highlight God’s promise to bless all nations through Abraham and his descendants. It would help the hearers see, by way of present-day inclusion/exclusion situations, the radical good news of being welcome where you do not belong. It will proclaim to them the promise that they too are welcome before God in His grace.
3. The people in your community who seem far from Jesus. From here it will not be difficult to expand the hearer’s missional horizons to help them see all people as welcome in the presence of Jesus. This will disrupt the increasingly common cultural narrative that the Church is under attack and must circle the wagons to avoid the enemy. Instead, the preacher will highlight the radically inclusive nature of the Church’s mission and invite hearers to imagine the unlikeliest of people gathering with them for worship.
One more textual note worth considering: just before entering the house to see Jesus, the Magi, “rejoiced with a very great joy” (ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα). Oh, that all Christians would approach the Lord’s house for worship in such a spirit!