Sermon: Epiphany, 31 December 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 31st December 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

A LONG WAY TO BETHLEHEM (Epiphany)
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12)
It’s not often that we get the opportunity to celebrate Epiphany twice in the same year. But here we are celebrating Epiphany a second time in 2017. Of course than means than we won’t have the actual festival of Epiphany at all in 2018, although there will be six Sundays after Epiphany before Lent!

In the lectionary of the old Book of Common Prayer, Epiphany was simply celebrated on 6th January, and if that did not fall on a Sunday, which of course happened six years out of seven, we did not read the great Epiphany story at Sunday services that year. In recent times, our lectionary has encouraged us to celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday before 6th January, if that day is not a Sunday. I see the value of ensuring that we have the opportunity to observe Epiphany on a Sunday each year, but the way they have chosen has some strange consequences! Not only do we have this odd result with two Epiphanies in one year, but it also means that we have lost half our Christmas season: this Christmas has only six days instead of the traditional twelve days of Christmas. And I think that has been a loss, with no Sunday included in the Christmas season. My vote would be to celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday nearest 6th January. However, I must leave it to others who design and review these matters.

Certainly the Epiphany story is well-known. Most people are familiar with the story of the three wise men visiting baby Jesus in the stable. I hope the camels could be parked somewhere outside, especially if the shepherds were still there with their sheep!

Well, actually there are quite a few assumptions people make which are different from the story as Matthew presents it, and that is the only place we find it in the scriptures. We don’t actually know how many wise men there were: we only know about three gifts that they brought to the infant king. And Matthew says that they found Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a house, not a stable or a cave. And Jesus was probably weeks or months old: possibly more than a year old.

Who were these “wise men”? We can dismiss another legend that suggests they were kings. They were magi, a word linked with our word “magic”.
The magi were scholars who studied the movement of stars, believing that there was a direct link between what they observed in the heavens and what happened on earth. They were astronomers, but also astrologers.
They came from the East, perhaps from what we know as Iran or even Saudi Arabia. They were Gentiles. And their ideas about theology would have been very different from what was believed in Judea and what was taught in the scriptures. After all, the scriptures take a very negative attitude towards astrology and the like.

But these people have seen something unusual in the sky – perhaps the conjunction of planets or stars, possibly a meteor or comet – the experts have a number of theories on this. But from what they have seen in the heavens these Magi have concluded that a new king has been born in Israel: one of great significance, for they have been willing to make the long journey to pay him homage.

They come to Jerusalem the capital seeking guidance on where exactly to find this great king who has been born. Despite the words of the carol, the star does not seem to have been continuing both day and night to guide them all the way! It is King Herod whose experts point the Magi to Bethlehem, the birthplace of David. Bethlehem is only a couple of hours’ walk south of Jerusalem, and Micah’s prophecy of the birth of a great ruler in Bethlehem is familiar to the theologians. So off go the Magi.

Sadly the violent and paranoid old king will soon have the babies of Bethlehem killed in a fruitless attempt to get rid of this baby. Perhaps the number of children in Bethlehem under two years old is not all that large: but this is what Herod does with anyone he sees as a possible threat to his waning power. Herod officially claims the title of “King of the Jews”, but the real King of the Jews has been born.

The Magi find Jesus: they kneel down in homage and offer their gifts. These gifts were certainly valuable, and would have seen as fitting for a great king: another sign that these Magi were men of wealth. Over the centuries Christians have seen extra significance in these gifts beyond what the Magi would have been aware of. Gold was indeed fitting for a king, but is also seen as reflecting the humanity of Jesus. Frankincense was particularly used in worship, and it reminds us that this baby was no less than God incarnate, the human who was also God, God coming among us to share our human existence. And myrrh was used as a perfumed ointment, often used to anoint the body of someone who had died: of course Christians see it as a pointer to the one who would die on the cross, and be anointed and buried, the one who would give his life for us, the one who is our Saviour as well as our King.

But while we remember the story of the Wise Men, we need also to ask what is its significance, why does it matter?

Certainly Matthew is not encouraging people to take up astrology – or tarot readings or fortune telling, or any of these questionable ways of seeking to know the future. Obviously most of what passes for astrology today is fakery, filling the pages of magazines, attracting people to expensive websites, and making money for its practitioners. And those who are serious about astrology have picked up a tradition that the scriptures warn us against. We don’t need to know the future in this way, and we need to trust that God will always be with us in whatever the future holds.

But the Lord who makes the heavens and the stars is Lord of heaven and earth. He understands our ignorance and confusion. In Jesus he comes to us where we are. And in this case, he used the ideas and understandings of these astrologers, confused as they were, to speak to them, and to lead them to the place where he wanted them. And so these people became the first Gentiles to meet Jesus: hence we have the term “Epiphany”, the unveiling or revelation of Jesus. The old Book of Common Prayer called it “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles”.

And so in these opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, this most obviously Jewish of the Gospels, we see the promised King of the Jews revealed to Gentiles, even when he is a mere infant. Matthew knows that Jesus has come not just for the people of the Jewish nation: he has come for all people everywhere, Jews and Gentiles, in fulfilment of the Old Testament scriptures..

And this is why our reading from Ephesians is so appropriate today. In this letter, Paul describes the message that God has revealed to him in Christ. This mystery, as he calls it, this truth than people would not have seen unless God had made it clear, is that Jesus came for all people everywhere, and that God’s family is open to all people everywhere – Jews and Gentiles.
Paul understood his call as taking the Good News of Christ to all people whoever they were, but he saw that he had been given a particular ministry as Apostle to the Gentiles.

And he found himself many times having to defend his Gospel from those who wanted to narrow it: people who wanted to impose rules and restrictions on Gentile Christians, or who tried to insist that Gentiles could not be accepted as real Christians unless they were circumcised and took on the demands of Jewish tradition.

But Paul found in the message of the Old Testament time and again the promise that God’s plan reached beyond his ancient people of Israel to people of all nations. He had been entrusted with the message that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel”. Today we take for granted the truth that the Christian faith is for people of all nations and backgrounds. But in the early days of the church it was a new and threatening idea, a challenge for many early Christians to understand and accept.

Epiphany reminds us what a privilege it is to be members of God’s family in Christ. In Christ God comes to us where we are in our flawed humanity: he doesn’t give us hoops to get through before he will be concerned for us.

We don’t have to have all the right answers before God has a message for us. God already loves us, he invites us and welcomes us, and encourages us to welcome others into God’s family – no matter what their background, their misunderstandings, their weaknesses or their failings.

We live in a divided and suspicious and unwelcoming world: and it is so easy for us to get sucked into that closed-up environment and mindset. But the mystery of Christ tells us that God loves all people, that Christ died for all people, and that the neighbour we are called to love can be anyone at all. May we follow God’s pattern and the example of Christ. May we be thankful for God’s love that has reached out even to us. And let us seek ways to break down barriers between people rather than building up those barriers.

The Gospel is for all people. God’s church is for all people. May we welcome all people in Jesus’ name. Amen. Paul Weaver