What Kind of God Is
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
January 6, 2013
The Epiphany of the Lord
The only two Gospels that tell the story of Christmas are Matthew and Luke,
and they tell it in different ways.
Luke tells us about the night Jesus was born, when Mary gave birth to
her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger
because there was no room for them in the inn.
He tells us about shepherds abiding in the fields, and a heavenly
host of angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good will to men.” Matthew, on
the other hand, tells us about wise men from the East, who followed a star
on a journey that would have taken weeks or months.
When they got to Bethlehem Jesus was no longer a newborn, but a
little boy, a toddler, peeking out from behind his mother’s skirts.
On this day—Epiphany—the church typically shifts its attention from
Luke’s Christmas story to Matthew’s, from shepherds and angels to wise men
and the star, singing, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”
Years ago a dear woman named Anne McConnell gave me a book called
The Story of the Three Kings.
It was a handsome book, beautifully illustrated, and in it Margaret
Freeman re-told the story of Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, as it was
written by John of Heldesheim somewhere between 1364 and 1375.
Because Anne McConnell gave it to me I felt I could trust it to be
true. She was a brilliant woman,
with an I.Q. of 180. Surely she
wouldn’t steer me wrong. So, I
opened the book excited by the idea that now, at last, I would learn the
real story of the three kings.
According to Heldesheim, the story begins in India, where one of the ancient
prophets had predicted that one day a star would “spring out of Jacob,” and
a man would “rise upon Israel…and be lord of all folk.”
And all the great lords and all the other people of India had been
looking for that star ever since the prophecy.
They kept watch for it on the highest hill in India, and the more
they watched for it, the more famous it became, so that not only in India,
but also in Chaldea, the people were watching and waiting for this same
When it finally appeared no one was disappointed.
The way John of Heldesheim tells it this star began rising on the
same night and the same hour that our Lord was born, and it was like a
second sun it was so bright. It
ascended above this same high hill in India, and all that day it stayed
fixed in the same spot. When the
sun was most high and most hot, Heldesheim says, “there was no difference in
shining betwixt the star and the sun.
And the star had in it the form and likeness of a young child, and
above him a sign of the cross; and a voice was heard in the star saying:
‘Unto us is born this day the King and Lord that folk have long sought.
Go then and seek him and do him worship.’”
Well, the three kings— Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior—acting on their own
and quite independently of each other, made up their minds to follow this
star. Each of them came from his
own part of India, and made great haste, and somehow ended up in Jerusalem
at exactly the same time.
Heldesheim says, “And notwithstanding that no one of them ever before had
seen the other nor known of him nor his coming, yet at their meeting each of
them with great gladness and great reverence kissed each other and made much
joy. And though they were of
divers languages, yet each one of them in accordance with his understanding
spoke all one manner of speech.”
And so it goes, miracle upon miracle, as these three kings, splendidly
attired, accompanied by a vast entourage, guided by this magnificent star,
make their way to Bethlehem, and fall down at the feet of Jesus.
At least that’s the way Heldesheim tells it, and that’s what can
happen to a story if you tell it over and over again through the
centuries—it gets bigger and bigger, like that fish that broke your line
just before you pulled it into the boat—the truth is stretched, the details
are enlarged, the facts are embellished, until it is hard to recognize the
real story from which the legend grew.
What I would like to do this morning is get a little closer to the
real story, which is no less miraculous.
In 1976 New Testament scholar Raymond Brown published a book called
The Birth of the Messiah which was an absolute masterpiece of
research and writing. In that
book he tracked down everything that could be known about the circumstances
of Jesus’ birth including what could be known about the wise men and the
star they followed. The star, he
says, could have been a supernova—one of those fiery explosions of a star
that can be seen even in the daytime—but he admits that those are very, very
rare. It could have been a
comet, and many people have speculated that it was Halley’s Comet, which
passes close to the earth once every 77 years and would have been visible in
the night sky around the time of Jesus’ birth.
Or, finally, it could have been the conjunction of three
planets—Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars—an event which occurs only once every 805
years and which also occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth.
The latter, Brown believes, is most likely, especially since that
conjunction would have taken place in the constellation of Pisces, a
constellation which was often associated with the Hebrew people.
Someone could have made that connection.
But who? Three dandified kings
from India? Probably not.
Brown describes a priestly class of ancient Persians called
magi who were said to have the
power to interpret dreams. “In
the following centuries,” he says, “the title was loosely applied to those
adept in various forms of secret lore and magic” (in fact, the words
magic and magician come
from the same root). The
magi in the story Matthew tells
were probably astrologers, who would have studied the stars closely and
interpreted their meaning.
Something like this conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn would have been
right up their alley, professionally speaking, and I can almost hear one of
them saying, “It’s in the constellation Pisces, which means it concerns the
Hebrews.” And another adding,
“Ah, but it involves Jupiter, which suggests a ruler of some kind, possibly
a king!” And so on and so forth
until they made up their minds to go see for themselves.
Not Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, mind you, but an unspecified
number of magi (Matthew uses the
plural form of the noun: there were at least two; there might have been
twenty!). And I’ve pictured them
not so much as kings, but as something more like college professors—faculty
members of the astrology department at the University of Persia—making their
way across the desert on borrowed camels, wearing tweed jackets with leather
elbow patches, pipe smoke trailing out behind them.
Now, as far as we can tell the star didn’t have the form of a child in it,
or the sign of a cross above it, and it didn’t beg those who saw it to come
worship the newborn king—that’s the stuff of legend.
And the ones who came were not three resplendent king of India,
traveling with huge camel caravans and meeting each other for the first time
in Jerusalem—that’s the stuff of legend, too.
And yet we can conclude with some degree of certainty that something
happened in the night sky so strange, so unusual, that it brought an
unspecified number of ancient astrologers to ancient Israel, who naturally
came to Jerusalem, the capital city, bearing gifts and looking for the
That sounds almost like a miracle, doesn’t it?
Almost, except that that sort of thing happened on more than one
occasion in the ancient world.
For example, Brown says that when King Herod finished building Caesarea
Maritima in 9 B. C. envoys from many nations came to Palestine with gifts.
In A. D. 44 Queen Helen of Adibene converted to Judaism and came to
Jerusalem with bounteous gifts for those affected by the famine which had
devastated the land that year.
In A. D. 66 Tiridates, king of Armenia, came to Italy with the sons of three
neighboring Parthian rulers.
Their journey from the east was like a triumphal procession.
The entire city of Rome was decorated with lights and garlands, and
the rooftops filled with onlookers, as Tiridates came forward and paid
homage to Caesar Nero.
Afterward, the historians claim, “he went home by another way.”
And at least one of the historians refers to Tiridates and his
companions as magi.
You can see how that story might have gotten mixed up with this other one,
the one Matthew tells: how a handful of college professors might have become
“three kings,” and how their economy-class trip to Palestine might have
turned into a “triumphal procession.”
The real story was probably much less grand, but, at the same
time—and please hear me out on this—much more miraculous.
Suppose it was just a few magi who made their way to Jerusalem?
And suppose that when they got there they had to ask for directions?
(one of my female colleagues says this is how you can tell they were wise
men; the other kind won’t ask for directions at all).
And suppose that, once they got pointed toward Bethlehem, they
stopped at the first house their “star” seemed to be resting over.
And suppose that, inside that house, they found a carpenter and his
wife, and a little boy named Jesus, playing with wooden blocks on the floor?
Nothing miraculous about that, right?
There may have been a dozen such homes in Bethlehem.
No, the miracle is this: however they got there and whoever they
were, when these magi looked on the face of that little boy they saw the
King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
My church in North Carolina had a regular ministry to a nearby trailer park,
and one of the trailers was rented by a family from Mexico.
I used to stop by from time to time to see the children: Jose,
Jessica, Fabiola and their little brother Juan.
I remember going by once on the Saturday just before Epiphany, when I
had been working on this story from Matthew’s Gospel, getting ready to
preach the next day. I knocked
on the door and one of the children opened it but then, here came Juan, who
must have been about a year-and-a-half old at that time.
He had sparkling brown eyes and a heedful of black, curly hair, but
on this day he had gotten into some Christmas chocolate that was smeared all
over his cheeks. He looked up at
me with a big grin and I thought, “That’s what Jesus must have looked like
when the wise men came—about that age, with the same curly black hair and
sparkling brown eyes, and maybe even a little chocolate on his cheeks.”
Still, all I saw was a beautiful little boy.
The wise men saw something else:
They saw the Son of God.
That moment of recognition is the moment we call Epiphany—when God’s light
shines on what is most ordinary in our world and reveals it as
extraordinary. And when that
happens it is always a miracle.
Matthew says that the magi “rejoiced with exceeding great joy” in the moment
of their epiphany. They whooped
and cheered, the fell on their faces and worshiped, they offered their very
best gifts. In other words they
made complete fools of themselves in the presence of this little boy because
a light had come on for them: God had reached up and pulled the little chain
that allowed them to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
On this day—the Epiphany of the Lord—we pause long enough to reflect on that
long-ago miracle. But we also
pause long enough to realize that smaller epiphanies are going on all around
us, all the time. It could
happen today. Some sixth-grade
boy in this room, who has been hearing about Jesus all his life, could
suddenly see him for who he really is.
God could reach up and pull that little chain and the light would
come on—and what was once just an interesting character in the Gospel
stories could become for this boy the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
It could happen for a ninth-grade girl, a middle-aged man, an elderly
woman. It happens all the time,
everywhere. And part of what we
celebrate on Epiphany is the fact that Jesus didn’t come only for the Jews,
but also for Gentiles like us, as represented by those wise men.
What we learn from their story is that in this little boy named Jesus
God was offering salvation to the whole world, to anyone who had eyes to see
in his Son, a savior—
Christ the Lord.
I’ve got a map at home that shows the majority religions in all the
countries of the world. Islam is
represented by green, and most of North Africa and the Middle East is that
color. China is sort of a
lavender color, which means that most of its people are religiously
unaffiliated, at least so far.
Hinduism is tan, and it’s the majority religion in India and Nepal.
Judaism is blue, and it’s the majority religion only in Israel.
But then there’s Christianity, represented by red, which is spread
over all of North America, South America, Europe, and Australia.
The southern half of Africa is red, the Philippines, and Russia.
Although it’s more prevalent in some places than in others,
Christianity is everywhere, and just looking at that map makes me feel like
it’s happening—the gospel is being carried to the ends of the earth, and
people are responding to the good news about Jesus, and little by little his
Kingdom is coming.
It reminds me of a thought I had years ago, when I was still a youth
minister. I had been to a Friday
night football game and I thought, “God could have done it that way.
He could have set up floodlights all around the planet as if it were
a football stadium, and then, when the time was right, flipped a switch and
lit up the world.” But he
didn’t. Instead he brought this
one little baby into the world, and a few people were able to see in him the
glory of God, and to tell some others who told some others.
It reminds me of our Christmas Eve service, where we borrow the flame
of the Christ candle, and use it to light one candle after another, until
the whole room is lit up and the light of Christ is shining on every face.
And that’s when I usually say: “In the beginning was the Word, and
the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through
him. Without him was not
anything made that was made. In
him was life, and this life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never been
able to put it out”
This is the good news of Epiphany: that the light shines in the darkness.
It may not be a lot of light, and certainly not as much as we would
like, but by God’s grace it is enough to see in Jesus the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
—Jim Somerville © 2013