From John chapter 1, and verse 11: “He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”
“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”
The “He” we are talking about is, obviously, Jesus, and we are looking at part of the great Prologue to John's Gospel that we sometimes call the “Christmas Gospel”. It is, of course, still Christmastime in the Church, and it is very nearly Epiphany, when we celebrate the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus, so it all seems to fit together rather well.
I believe, incidentally, that this first chapter of John is thought to have been written last, a sort of summary, almost, of the whole thing, or it may have been a paraphrase of a then-current hymn, rather like Paul quotes one in Philippians 2. Not that it matters, of course, not at this distance; it is the Prologue to John's Gospel, and it tells us of the Word of God, the Light of the World, who was rejected by his own people but who adopted any and all who did choose to believe in Him. Which is basically the whole of the Good News in one sentence, no?
Anyway, the thing about this second half of the Prologue – oh dear, I shall start sounding like Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii if I'm not careful – is that it spells out quite clearly that anybody who does believe in Jesus becomes a child of God, not through physical birth, but through spiritual birth.
This is a good reading for Epiphany, of course. John doesn't tell us about the Wise Men coming to see Jesus – only Matthew does that. But the Wise Men are a vital part of the Christmas story, however strange a part. To the point that I'm now going to ask Felicia to read Matthew 2:1-12 to us.
Matthew tells us the story largely from Joseph's point of view, of course, and there are some very serious differences, not to say contradictions, between his version of events and Luke's. Matthew seems to think that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, which was where they moved to for safety after they came back from Egypt. No mention of mangers or inns here – and not even Luke says the manger was actually in a stable! Could be they'd just run out of cots....
But none of that matters, of course, not against the real truth, that God became a human being: the Word became Flesh and lived among us, as our passage says: “The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us. We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father's only Son.” That is what matters. The details are just details, and are not important.
So the wise men – we don't know how many there were, Matthew doesn't say. Actually, he just says “Magi” or wise ones, so it's not impossible, although it's rather improbable, that they would have been a mixed group, men and women both. Tradition, of course, has made of them kings, and given them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. And it is only tradition that identifies gold with kingship, frankincense with divinity, or godhead, and myrrh with death. This can, of course, be quite helpful, reminding us Who Jesus is, but it is nevertheless tradition, not Scripture.
But what is important about the Magi is that they came. They were not Jewish, yet somehow they knew that the new-born King of the Jews was important, and they wished to worship him. Important enough that they travelled “from the East”, arguably modern-day Iran, but who knows, all the way to Jerusalem to find the child. “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”
And their offerings were accepted. There was no question that these foreigners, these non-Jews, should not worship Jesus. The Jews, Jesus' own people, did not receive him, but these foreigners did. They sort of symbolise all of us, down the generations since then, who were not born Jewish but who nevertheless believed in Jesus.
The thing was, the Jews' rejection of Jesus didn't surprise God! You can't actually surprise God – He always knows what's round the next corner, which is something we can never know. But God knows. And St Paul, or whoever it was wrote the letter to the Ephesians, knew that: “Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.”
Holy and without fault before him! And he has given us, according to Paul, every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world, echoing the Gospel promise that “Out of the fullness of his grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another.”
How true that is! And isn't God great?! The magi came to Bethlehem to worship the new-born infant, and we are invited to do the same. But we don’t just worship him as a baby – it’s not about going smiling down at a baby kicking on a rug, and saying “Oh how clever” when he picks up a toy, as I do with my own baby grandson.
No, worshipping the Baby at Bethlehem involves a whole lot more than that. It’s about worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did. We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes – but we worship the Risen Lord. We celebrate Christmas, not just because it’s Jesus’ birthday, although that, too, but because we are remembering that if Jesus had not come, he could not come again. And he could not be “born in our hearts”, as we sing in the old carol. Christmas isn't just a remembering thing, I think, although that too – it's also about allowing the Lord Jesus to be born in our hearts, about renewing our relationship with him.
We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem, but we also worship Jesus all year round, remembering not only his birth, but his teachings, his ministry, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing”– what was that song: “I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” – it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity, but about God with us: Emmanuel.
Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us. He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....
His father, Joseph, was, we are told, a carpenter, although in fact that’s not such a great translation – the word is “Technion”, which is basically the word we get our word “technician” from. A “technion” would not only work in wood, but he’d build houses – and design them, too. He was a really skilled worker, not your average builder with his trousers falling off. Jesus would have been educated, as every Jewish boy was, and probably taught to follow his father’s trade. After all, we think he was about 30 when he started his ministry, and he must have done something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in the Temple. I wonder, sometimes, what he said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly did more than once. A friend and I were discussing this once, and could come up with nothing more specific than “Something in Aramaic!”
God with us: a God who chose to live an ordinary life, who knows what it is to be homeless, a refugee; who knows what it is to work for his living. Who knows what it is to be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised. Who knows what it’s like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power. Who came to his own people, but his own did not receive him.
This, then, is the God we adore. We sing “Joy to the World” at this time of year, and rightly so, for the Gospel message is a joyful one. But it is so much more than just a happy-clappy story of the birth of a baby. It is the story of the God who is there. God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.
Oberstdorf as Austria, 22 May
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