Some of you will have seen my daughter on Christmas day. I’m going to break my rule about telling personal stories about your children just for today by telling you about something that happened when she was quite small – about nine years old I should think. She was taking judo classes once a week after school and enjoying them. But one day when I went to collect her the instructor took me aside and told me that there was a problem. Apparently, in judo, when you enter the space where the judo is happening you do a ritual bow – to show your respect for the discipline and the area where you are going to be doing it. The problem was that Grace was refusing to do this ritual bow. I said I would talk to her about it. She told me that she wouldn’t bow because of Daniel. ‘Daniel who?’, I wondered at first. It turned out that somewhere, at school or church, she had been reading the story of Daniel and of how he refused to bow to foreign gods, and she had decided that she wouldn’t bow to a judo mat. I can’t remember quite how we resolved it, but she carried on for a while doing judo… But she still, as far as I know, bows her head in prayer only to the God we know revealed in Jesus Christ.
The story we have heard from the Gospel, the story of those visitors to Bethlehem, is really about the very issue with which Grace, at such a tender age was wrestling – to whom shall we bow? To whom shall we pay homage? Who is really King for us? Who is the one to whom we would give it all? And the story of the visit of the magi is also one, like Grace’s experience in the judo class, that takes us back to the story of Daniel.
The Daniel in question is of course the Daniel of the lion’s den fame. His story belongs to that time in the history of Israel when the country was conquered by the Babylonians. The Temple was sacked and spoiled, the land was conquered and the leading people were taken into Exile – and Daniel was a young man of Israel who grew up in Exile, being asked to bow to idols.
But, you are asking, what has this got to do with Epiphany and the three kings and all of that? Why is the minister talking about this Old Testament story and what on earth does any of this have to do with us?
You see there’s a kind of puzzle about the three Kings. The passage from Matthew never refers to them as kings at all, but simply as ‘magi’. The only kings mentioned in that passage are King Herod and a new ‘King of the Jews’. So how it is that the wise men became Kings? Well, I think it’s not at all a mistake, but something really profound is being offered to us. You can see in the other two readings we heard that there are references to kings – and the writer of Matthew’s Gospel wanted us to hear echoes of those passages as he wrote his story. The prophet Isaiah, writing for a nation enduring great trouble at the time looked forward to better days and he reassured the people that one day, ‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’ – and he promises that these kings will come bringing gold and frankincense. Clever readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have known that the author was thinking of this verse and invoking this kind of promise. And they would remember Psalm 72 as well, the psalm we read together, that promises a day when kings will come from Tarshish, Sheba and Seba and bring gifts and render tribute. And they would have remembered that Daniel of the famous lions’ den was sometimes called a ‘magus’ a wise man, an interpreter of dreams like Joseph before him, and that he was a young man who paid homage only to God. The first readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have said to themselves ‘There is something familiar about this story, I’ve somehow heard it before’. As one writer put it, it’s a kind of biblical déjà vu. It would have been for them like that moment when you are watching a film and you suddenly realise what’s going on, when the clues fit together. Ah, they would have said, this is the story I know – this is what I should have seen from the beginning!
You see the Exile has been the most terrible thing to afflict the people of God in all their history. Their country had been defeated and colonised. Their most talented young people like Daniel had been taken into captivity. They had become subjects of a foreign king and humiliated into bowing before the Babylonians. The gold of Israel had been grabbed by enemies and their most holy place had been destroyed and a statue of an idol placed in the holy of holies. But now, in the Gospel story of the magi, the Exile is reversed. The ‘kings’ from the ‘East’ bring back the gold and now they pay homage to the king of Israel. In this story is the reversing of raw and terrible earthly power and might. Those who once took Israel captive, desecrated its Temple and stole its wisdom, now return and bow the knee, bringing gold – and of course frankincense and myrhh. Now those who once tried to force Daniel to bow to idols have come to bow to the true God and creator of all. This is biblical deja vu, but also biblical restoration and redemption! The naming of them as kings is not a mistake, but a deliberate way of telling the story of who now really rules and before whom we should bow and, in that rather antique sounding phrase, ‘give homage’. This is a story of how those from ‘the East’ (the East that had previously conquered and colonised Jerusalem) had now come to Jerusalem seeking wisdom and to pay homage. And, most significantly of all, the East finds wisdom NOT in a king’s palace, not where powerful people might expect to find wisdom (with other powerful people), but in an ordinary house, away from the palace, in a young child. This is a story in which so much is turned upside down; the conquerors return to bow the knee to those they once had conquered, those looking for God find divinity not in a royal palace but in an ordinary suburban home in Bethlehem, and the searchers find their ‘king’ not in a powerful man, but in a helpless child. The gold once stolen from the Temple is restored. The new King of Israel is found not in the Temple of Solomon, but in an ordinary house among the people. The wise bend the knee to simplicity and homage is offered to an astonished family.
The feast of Epiphany is the feast where the story of our lives is retold, but in a completely new way. The coming of the magi ‘undoes’ and reverses the terrible story of the Exile. The date of Epiphany, January 6th, is also the same date on which the Romans celebrated the triumphs of Augustus – so in the Roman Empire Christians deliberately chose to celebrate a very different triumph on that very day, and to parade their allegiance and their homage to a very different Caesar, to the child of Bethlehem rather than the pseudo divinity of the mighty Roman Emperor. And, did you know, did you know, that on the feast of Epiphany, in our own St James’ Palace, every year gentlemen ushers, on behalf of the Queen, set upon the altar in the chapel, 50 gold sovereigns with frankincense and myrhh – to acknowledge that the Queen herself bows the knee and pays homage to one greater than herself, the child of Bethlehem, Jesus Christ.
I remember once meeting a member of the royal family and wondering whether or not I should curtsey. Should I bow the knee to anyone other than the God who created me? I managed a rather faint-hearted ‘bob’, but I realised that there was a much deeper question I needed to ask myself. To whom do I owe homage? To whom do I give my love and allegiance, even to the extent that I would give my life?
I find the answer to that question here at the communion table. We come bringing, as we do every time, those things that we call our ‘offerings’. A little gold perhaps at least is hidden behind the coins and notes of our collections, even if it’s locked away in some bank vault. We come bringing our gold..And as we come to share bread and wine here, part of what we are doing is making a promise to stay faithful to the God who came to meet us in Jesus, to follow the teachings of Jesus and to put him above all other commitments, allegiances and duties. I often become aware, as we sense our unity with so many Christians through all the ages as we stand at the communion table, of those who in their time really did refuse to bow the knee to other ‘gods’ of so many kinds, those who did refuse to obey even a king because of a stronger allegiance to the King of kings, those who gave themselves in homage to Christ. And so I am often moved here, as I think our own monarch now is, to renew my own commitment to Christ. My life, like yours, is full of compromise and failing, of collusion with a bad world and laziness about resisting it and changing it. But here, I come, like those ancient kings and here for a moment pay homage to the king of all kings, lord of my heart, the one I gladly follow.
My daughter learned how to play judo with some kind of compromise, but I know that every day I must learn to follow Christ without compromise. If I am in any kind of Exile, I am called back here. If I am searching for wisdom, here I will find it. If am lost, here I am found. Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.