The gift of light: Matthew 2:1-12
I wonder if you are using any of your Christmas gifts today? Anyone own up to wearing a Christmas or other item given at Christmas?
This is one of my treasured gifts I was given at Christmas – Sue calls it my dog harness! It’s simply a useful way to distribute the weight of the saxophone across the shoulders and prevent it damaging my neck.
It might seem strange we are talking about gifts today when Christmas might seem a long, long time ago.
Last Friday, church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany and the story of visitors bringing gifts to Jesus. This marks the beginning of the season of light in the church year. Each of the gospel stories over the next few weeks, such as Jesus’ baptism and the wedding at Cana, have this common theme of light. They are all moments of epiphany, shedding light on the true nature and purpose of Jesus. Today we are looking at how this gift of light reveals the remarkable generosity of God at work: a gift for all to share.
The details about the visitors bearing gifts to Jesus is very sketchy. Many of the Christmas cards you may have received last month might have looked like this one, with three kings on camels following the star to the stable. But we don’t really know if they were kings, wise men or Magi, or how many there were. And it’s unclear whether they visited a baby in a stable or, what seems more likely, an older 18 month old Jesus in a town dwelling. What we are told is that these are visitors travelling from the East. The Greek word used here for ‘East’ is anatolai meaning ‘the rising’ or from the place of the rising sun. So we have the people of the rising light, being guided by the light of the star, to visit the king of light. It seems to be emphasising a point here! These people of the rising sun are the first of the Gentiles, or non-Jews, to worship Jesus and demonstrate that the gift of light is for everyone. And this is a theme that Matthew takes throughout the gospel, up to the very last section, where the disciples are sent out from Galilee to make disciples of all nations. The gift of light is for everyone, not for an exclusive membership. It’s a generous gift of life for all.
In my family, one of our most treasured possessions is a gift that was originally given to my grandfather. It’s a bloodstone signet ring, weathered by the years, but was a gift that literally saved his life. My grandfather was serving in the navy during the first world war’s largest naval battle, the Battle of Jutland. At one point, his boat was hit by the German fleet and he was flung into the icy cold water where many thousands of sailors sadly drowned. One of the boats threw out a rope to my grandfather, but it was too slippery for him to hold onto, until the signet ring was able to grip and give traction with the coils of rope. Ever since, our family has treasure it as the gift that saved his life.
In our gospel reading we read of the gifts that the visitors bring Jesus: gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh fit for a king. But the focus of the story is on the extraordinary gift that God has given to us all in the person of Jesus.
Later in the gospel, Jesus said of himself: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” It’s a gift that shows the extraordinary generosity of God to us, freely given without any conditions and without any restrictions.
And it is this gift of light and life that stands in stark contrast to so much else we face in the world.
Here is a photo that’s been given the title ‘the three modern wise men’ and you may recognise them. They are Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf and Dumbledore, the wise old heroes from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. What they have in common is how they act as symbols of light against the rising darkness; the threat from the evil Empire, Sauron and Voldemort. You might have seen the recent Star Wars film, where a small band of rebels fight against the rising darkness of Darth Vader and the Death Star. Or you may remember the famous scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf with his staff of light confronts the Balrog with those immortal words: You shall not pass!
The generosity of Jesus’ gift of light and life was challenged from the very beginning. If you read on in the gospel past this story of the visitors from the East, you’ll hear about the bitterness and horror of infanticide, of a powerful leader prepared to kill innocent children in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. It could be a scene from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, where the force of light seems to be encountering almost impossible odds to survive against the coming darkness. On one side are the power and might of ruling authorities spreading the darkness of mistrust and evil, on the other side are a small band of shepherds, visitors and a young baby.
How do we respond to this challenge of the rising darkness?
You may have received a number of Christmas newsletters from friends and family. These can sometimes be lovely to read and at other times can be a bit overwhelming, listing all the great things that have happened to them during the year.
Sue and I were struck by one in particular. It was written with touching honesty about the challenges our friends faced during 2016. What shone through the letter was how they’d responded to the challenge to bring light in their own community, through working with homeless and those in need. They concluded their newsletter with a well-known quotation from Edmund Burke that says: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’
How is God calling us to challenge the triumph of evil in 2017?
Whether you feel the darkness we need to confront is the wilful destruction of our planet, our modern political situation, the way we treat refugees and the homeless or the challenges we face each day at work, home or in our community, we are being called to respond with God’s generosity of spirit to the needs of our world.
It’s this spirit of generosity that was highlighted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in his New Year message. He illustrates it through the story of a refugee called Sabir, that he met in Coventry.
‘I met Sabir Zazai many years ago and I was delighted to have an opportunity to visit the centre for refugees he now runs. He came as a refugee from Afghanistan in 1999, and his sheer courage and ability are extraordinary.
There are people like Sabir all over the country, and they are a blessing to our way of life. They are embracing all that is good. And that doesn’t just enrich their lives, it enriches and deepens ours too. If we’re welcoming to those in need, if we’re generous in giving, if we take hold of our new future with determination and courage, then we will flourish. Living well together despite our differences, offering hospitality to the stranger and those in exile, with unshakable hope for the future – these are the gifts, the commands and the promises of Jesus Christ.’
The light of Christ opens us to God’s generosity of spirit and kindness and the example of how we are to treat one another.
Christina Rossetti, speaks of this generosity of spirit in her famous carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’. The final verse says:
What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.
To end with these beautiful words from an old Scottish blessing about this gift of light and generosity of spirit:
‘May the blessing of light be on you – light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire,
so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.
And may light shine out of the two eyes of you,
like a candle set in the window of a house,
bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.
And may the blessing of the rain be on you,
may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines,
and sometimes a star.’ Amen