Ah, Epiphany Sunday. This day is what wraps up Jesus’ birth narrative in a nice neat package, as all the characters in our nativity scenes have shown up and played their parts, fulfilled their roles, executed their lines perfectly and displayed their characters with passion. And we do love our nativity scenes. We bring them out every Christmas, we grin at the creatively themed ones such as the Little People one:
the Veggie Tale one:
and this weird Fantastic Four one:
The thing is, no matter how you display the nativity scene, as long as it has its main elements it is instantly recognisable. As long as there is a baby (whether it is Jesus or not), a Mary, a Joseph, a barn looking thing, a star, and some shepherds and of course 3, always 3 wise men.
And nothing against these nativity scenes, but I do find it interesting how quickly we turn a blind eye on the historical inaccuracies and how the images actually detract from the story as it is told to us in our bibles. And I know, I know, it is just for decoration, I get it. But I just sometimes feel like it’s a shame that we lose some of the richness of the story, we forget about the danger and risk, and we clean up the messiness around it all, and we present the characters as these pristine and lovable caricatures to be more in line with what we would like them to be.
I could go on and on about what is wrong with how the shepherds are, Mary and Joseph, the animals, the barn, the manger, even baby Jesus. But probably the most inaccurate are the Magi, the wise men, the three kings that we sang about. Let’s try this, who can point out something that is wrong with how they are depicted in let’s say this particular nativity scene we have here?
Even after all those discrepancies between the story that we literally heard like 5 minutes ago and our typical nativity scene, somehow we need to have the Magi present as they are or somehow it isn’t a complete scene. Even though we might cognitively know that it is largely inaccurate, for many, not much says ‘Christmas’ more than a prominently displayed nativity scene. While we might know that such a diorama doesn’t really correctly portray the actual event of Jesus’ birth as we read in our bibles, I’m am certain that we’ll still be putting them up in our churches, in our homes, and anywhere that we possibly could without having the politically correct card thrown at us.
And honestly? That is absolutely, completely, and utterly fine.
What?!? You mean to tell us that you just spent the last whatever minutes of your sermon ranting about how wrong the typical nativity scene is but you go and say that it is actually ok? What on earth, man.
Well, the thing is that while your typical nativity scene isn’t a great depiction of biblical history or even biblical literacy, but it is a wonderful display of the biblical message, the reason and why Jesus was born, the whole gospel promise that God gives all throughout history.
But to see that, we do have to unpack the whole scene a little. We need to peel back the layers somewhat. We need to dive a bit deeper into what is being shown here, and who these people are. As we said, the wise men as they are called in our translation, Magi in others, we never described as kings. That isn’t to say that they weren’t, but it isn’t very likely that they are and that detail was just left out of the text. So who are they? The term “magi” comes from the same word we get “magic” and “magician”, and we are told they are wise so it is thought that they were scientists, astronomers, but more probably astrologers proficient in reading the stars and the signs they give (mostly because in the story they talk about reading a star and the sign it gave them). So they are fortune tellers, clairvoyants, mystic gypsies with a flare for looking up.
Do you know how fortune tellers, clairvoyants and mystics were treated in those days? Sort of like how they’re treated these days, they are seen as quacks, frauds, crazy folk who think that a star is more than just a star. Sure, we might be polite and cordial with them, but we wouldn’t be asking them over for tea or anything as they might see something in the tea leaves.
They are called Magi because of the magic they did. Called wise because they knew things that most others might not or even care to. Travelled a great distance because their crazy belief in the signs of the stars was so strong, so compelling, so… accurate that they had to pack their bags and make their way to where the stars told them a king worthy of their foreign worship was born.
But then they go and do something utterly stupid. They go to the currently reigning king to ask for directions to find the newly born king who is destined to overthrow him. Doesn’t sound that wise anymore, does it. That would be like asking me to help put together a call committee and maybe provide a list of suitable replacement pastors. I wonder if that is just how they did things in the East where these “wise guys” came from.
And the gifts they gave Jesus. We all know what they are, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Sure, gold we can understand. Who wouldn’t love gold as a gift, right? Gold was a symbol of royalty, so most certainly seemed appropriate to give this kid that they say will be king. And they brought frankincense, a fragrant type of incense, essentially the best kind that could be used for prayer, meditation, and deity worship. That makes sense too, I guess, sense in an “incense” kind of way. But seeing as how Jesus is the son of God, yeah I can see why they would bring that as a gift for this child.
But then there is myrrh. This is an odd gift. Myrrh is also a fragrant perfume that could be used as incense, but it is used a lot in burial rituals. Sure, we can see how after 2000 years of hindsight after Jesus’ crucifixion that ended up saving the world, but as a baby gift? It’s like, oh hey, how’s it going, congrats on the kid! Here’s something you can use when he’s dead.
Clearly, these men were different. They might be seen as strange, weird, crazy even. Perhaps not people we would see in our personal friend groups, our family and social gatherings, or even our church congregations.
But, and this is the reason why the inaccurate nativity scene is so appropriate, they saw the light of Christ. They were drawn to it. And they followed this light until they came face to face with the Christ child himself.
No matter how different, how strange, or how weird these men are, they were drawn to Christ. No matter how odd they seem to us, God spoke to them. No matter how their eccentric nature from our perspective would perhaps render them unwelcome in our circles, their light had come and lifted them up, led them to the person of Christ, where they bowed and worshipped.
See, what we consider weird, God considers unique. What we see as strange, God sees as united in spite of difference. What we perceive as peculiar and awkward, God reveals to be invited, welcomed, and loved.
So the traditional nativity scenes, as inaccurate as they could be historically, remind us of why this mishmash of unlikely characters, loner uneducated sheep lovers, an uncomfortably young mom with her twice her age baby daddy, and these foreign folk completely unaware of what is culturally appropriate, ever even met to begin with. This circus is the reception for the Son of God entering our world. This gathering of outsiders is the congregation in which the Messiah is welcomed. This motley crew of weirdos is who the Word made flesh is first revealed, by whom the Immanuel God with us is first seen, the Saviour of the world is first recognized by.
When light shines on the earth, the light doesn’t pick what or who it shines on, it just shines. When morning breaks, the light doesn’t exclude those who are different or are from shady backgrounds, but continues to shine on everything it can touch. When light appears, it appears for all whether or not they can even recognise it as light.
Our light has appeared. Our light has come. Our light is shining in and through us, illuminating love in our hearts, radiating joy in our lives, and glowing peace for our souls.
So the question then is what does your light look like? Different people from different backgrounds will see and perceive the light differently. It will mean different for different folk. It will look different, feel different, and have different effect the light will be filtered, magnified, or blocked through different means.
For some the light will be in the form of a well-crafted worship service, with lively music, perfect aesthetic, and a great sermon. For others the light will be seen in the shining stars, the beauty of creation, the diversity found in the different lands, environments, and people. For others, it could be in the birth of a child, full of potential and promise, innocent and with open arms, welcoming all regardless of race, culture, and creed.
However it may look, whatever shape it takes, however it appears in your life, the light is there. The light shines. And the light is glorious.
In this season of Epiphany and of recognising Jesus the Immanuel, God with us, let us be aware of God’s presence in our lives, that we might see the light shining in and through us, raising us up to love, to serve, and to be God’s children in the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.