I’ve been preaching a Christmas sermon series based on Athanasius’s seminal work On the Incarnation, and this morning’s opening illustration was too good to pass up. For context, I’m preaching on Matthew 2:1-12 (the story of the wise men), but I’ve been in the habit of setting up the sermon with some fun tidbits from the life of Athanasius. Here it is from the manuscript:
Sometimes the signs of God are subtle, a soft whisper in the wind. Sometimes they are bright and obvious, like a star rising in the eastern sky (Matt 2:2). The sign of God can grip you when you least expect it, an explosion that leaves you forever changed.
We’ve been learning about Athanasius this Christmas and his valiant battle for the truth against his opponent Arius—the heretic who famously quipped about Jesus Christ, “There was a time when he was not.” Arius believed Jesus was a created being, and Athanasius kept telling the church—indeed, the Emperor Constantine himself!—but no one seemed to take him seriously.
Eventually, Arius was summoned to give his confession before the Emperor. Athanasius writes, “Arius drew up a document with great artfulness, and like the devil, concealed his impious assertions beneath the simple words of Scripture.” As the story goes, after Arius confessed what he believed about Jesus, Constantine replied, “Are you telling the truth? If you are lying, the Lord will punish you.”
On the eve of the Sunday when he was to be fully restored, Arius was passing through the market when he was suddenly struck with . . . an intestinal issue. He ran to the nearest public restroom. Time passed. More time passed. After a polite knock, a further rapping on the door, hollers of, “Arius, sir! Are you okay in there?” and no response, they burst opened the door. And there he was: Dead on the toilet from a case of explosive . . . well, you get the picture. Athanasius swears he was blown clear through the middle. For years to come, whenever people used those public restrooms they warned their friends, “Don’t use that one! The Lord struck Arius dead on that seat!”
Like I said, the sign of God can grip you when you least expect it, an explosion that leaves you forever changed. Thankfully, in today’s passage, three pagan wise men are gripped not by an explosive digestive disorder . . . but by an explosion in the sky. Turn with me to Matthew 2:1-12.