Archbishop Desmond Tutu told us: ‘Hope is being able to see there is light despite all the darkness’. This great prophet of our times, a Christian man and priest, who led his people in resisting the terrible evil of apartheid in South Africa and elsewhere in the world, died of cancer on the 26 December 2021. Desmond Tutu was an extraordinary man who pointed unrelentingly to the darkness seemingly covering his world and he always walked towards the light and acted in the light with unflinching courage, faith and honesty.
The story of the magi, the wise men from the East who came in search of the newborn king of the Jews, followed the light of a star, is told in Matthew’s gospel, 2:1-12. The term ‘magi’ generally referred to religious leaders and priests from Persia, wise teachers known for their familiarity with astrology and astronomy, able to understand heavenly signs and prophecies. Matthew’s gospel tells the story of God’s light once again breaking through the darkness of those times by the light of a star, shining so brightly it lit up the night sky. It led the Gentile travellers from the East to the baby Jesus as God’s son was revealed to all people.
The magi had come looking for the newborn king and when making enquiries upon their arrival in Jerusalem, startled and infuriated King Herod and all who enjoyed the benefits of his power, wealth and status shared with the political and military agreement of the Roman Emperor. The wise men’s enquiries raised question marks over Herod’s own legitimacy, potentially challenging the authority of the Roman Emperor himself to choose the king of the Jews. No wonder the rich and powerful of Jerusalem were troubled; no wonder Herod behaved mendaciously and politically, watching and waiting in the darkness to put out the light before it could shine.
In 2:16-18, 4 verses later, Matthew tells us of the terrible consequences of the wise men’s enquiries with Herod’s subsequent inability to find the family in the village of Bethlehem. God told Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt as refugees once the wise men had left because of Herod’s wicked and brutal decision. Herod murdered all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger to protect himself, his position, his power and to maintain his control. From Herod’s perspective, the light appeared to have been put out very satisfactorily.
We see children around the world today facing similar consequences from their leaders, where it seems the light is being extinguished violently: in Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar, on the borders of Belarus and Poland, and here in Australia with refugees and first nations peoples. The light, it seems, has gone out for too many.
As I reflect on Desmond Tutu’s life and work in the light of this story, the reality is we work hard not to see evil living as our familiar companion in our daily lives. We too avoid the light. Evil takes on camouflage in our culture and society. We become blind to the wickedness and deceit which make our lives comfortable. Desmond Tutu shone God’s light on apartheid and other discriminatory and wicked injustices including the treatment of the LGBTQI community. The consistent evil in their lives and his courage and faith meant our world will never be the same again.
Today, God’s light still shines on all forms of discrimination and those who have the power to control and oppress those on the margins. If we see the light shining in the darkness, we can see the nature of the darkness covering us, we can see what is happening in our world and once you’ve seen it, like Jesus you cannot unsee it.
The wise men with their questions reminded the chief priests and scribes and all the wealthy of Jerusalem invested in maintaining the status quo, uncomfortably pointing out they had chosen the wrong path. They had forgotten God’s message of a ruler coming to ‘shepherd God’s people’ (Luke 2:6). They had blindly colluded with power for their own benefits and privileges and were now unable to change Jerusalem’s existing power structures and their own role among the Chosen People in the Empire.
The wise men left Herod and his advisors after being told about the Jewish Messianic prophecy and continued their journey, following the star to find the true king of the Jews. The star took them to Bethlehem, to Mary and her baby Jesus, as foretold by Micah’s prophecy 5:2-5a:
He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Mic.5:4-5a)
Micah’s prophecy reminded the Israelites in Jerusalem this is God’s promise from ancient times which will be fulfilled. This is the promise now being fulfilled.
The wise men found Jesus with his mother and offered him homage. They fell to their knees and worshipped him. They were overwhelmed with joy, recognising Jesus’ divinity as God’s Son, the one who will change the world, the epiphany we now celebrate. They gave Jesus gifts from their treasure chests, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; gold as offered to kings, frankincense which was used for worship, incense fit for celebrating God’s presence, and myrrh, an anointing oil used for burial and embalming, a foretelling of Jesus’ untimely death in this world.
The light spoken about by Desmond Tutu, seen by the wise men and by generations of faithful disciples since Jesus’ birth, always shines in the darkness giving us hope for all times. The wise men were filled with wonder and joy, with hope and awe at what they had found. The light was shining in the darkness. Isaiah said:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and the Lord’s glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light…lift up your eyes and look around, …then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice… (Isaiah 60:1-3a,4a,5a,)
The light reminds us even suffering the most difficult circumstances, faithfulness in God enables us to endure and persevere. It enables us to step out into the unknown with courage as we live out our faith in risky and vigorous ways, confident God’s loving and redeeming purpose in the world will be achieved, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Faith does not guarantee prosperity or success by the world’s standards. This is not what our faith is about. Nor does God promise shelter and protection from suffering. As Christians we are guided by God’s love as we live and work in this broken world, threatened by those who do not share this faith or values.
Isaiah reminds us what this hope looks like; and, just as Jesus accepted for all of us and as we offer our own response to God’s call for action:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Isaiah 61:1-2)
Faith is what sustains and helps us to persevere, because we believe in God whose promises are sure and whose saving purposes will not fail to be achieved irrespective of evidence which says otherwise.
No wonder the wise men fell to their knees at finding God and the implications for the world with joy and amazement; and no wonder Mary pondered these things in her heart. No wonder Desmond Tutu was able to keep going in the face of all the resistance and despair.
This is because we have a clear message about God’s Son:
What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:3-5)
The Lord be with you.