3 January 2010

Epiphany – Year C

10. 30 am Communion Woodchurch

Readings: Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

May I speak in the name of God whom we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 Although it may be a couple of days late, please let me wish you a Happy New Year!

Has anyone made any New Year’s resolutions this year?  Have any of them lasted for 3 days yet?  I have to admit that I generally don’t bother with the regular round of new years resolutions anymore.  I have probably tried most of them over the years:  I will get fitter by running, riding or swimming more, I will learn a foreign language, I will cut down on my caffeine intake and so on.  And what is the outcome of all these resolutions over the years?  My waistline shows no sign of shrinking, my collection of half used language learning courses rattles around in the back of my car and I have recently acquired a shiny espresso maker and coffee bean grinder and can whip up a double shot latte quicker than Costa Coffee.  So after years of aspiring to be a lean mean, multilingual, running machine existing on nothing but macrobiotics and spring water I am still an unfit monoglot with a bad coffee habit.    Now there’s an epitaph for the headstone.

But maybe we should not be so quick to dispense with the idea of New Years resolutions entirely.  Despite the fact that resolutions can make us feel bad about ourselves when we, once again, fail to stick to them perhaps they can serve a useful purpose.  Maybe the process simply of thinking about our resolutions forces us to look at who we are now, compare that we the person we would like to be and then strive, even if unsuccesfully, to close the gap between the two.  It makes us take a self conscious look at ourselves and try to improve what we are.  So this year I am making one new years resolution, and it is related to the theme of the Epiphany that we celebrate today.  I’ll come back to my resolution in a moment, but let’s think a little more about the church season.

Despite being in the New Year and despite the retailers itching to get Easter eggs on the shelves we should not forget that now and for the next few days at least we are still celebrating the season of Christmas and the Epiphany.

In many nativity plays and crib scenes the wise men, the magi, or the Kings are often shown arriving in Bethlehem at pretty much the same time as the shepherds.  Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with that in many ways and it makes for a wonderful scene, not least as it shows the wise and wealthy kneeling down to worship Jesus beside the poorest of pastoral workers, all equal before God.   Also, speaking as the father of one of the wise people in this years nativity here, who thoroughly enjoyed herself dressing up in a fantastic Chinese costume, I would not dream of suggesting that we do otherwise!

But I think that it is useful to remind ourselves, in this context at least, that the traditional nativity scene of wise men and shepherds together in Bethehem is actually a conflation of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  The Gospel of Matthew, which we are looking at today, has the Epiphany or the showing forth or the revelation of Christ to the Magi and contains no shepherds at all and the gospel of Luke has the Shepherds but no wise men.  That doesn’t mean either that one gospel writer got it right and the other got it wrong or, as I said, that it is wrong to put the stories together in dramatic form, but from the perspective of our own biblical literacy it does no harm to remind ourselves that the accounts of the nativity written by Matthew and Luke are written from different angles for the purpose of shedding different light on the scene and the purpose of Christ’s birth.

So what does the story of the Magi who travelled from the East, possibly for months if not years, tell us about Jesus and the faith we have inherited?

Firstly we learn about the universality of Christ.  The Magi were not Jewish and yet they travelled far in order to pay homage to the King of the Jews.  The Magi tell us that the Kingship of Christ reaches out beyond the borders of Israel and beyond the borders of Jewishness.  Jesus is King not only of the Jews but of the gentiles and of the whole world.

The gifts brought by the Magi each tell us something about who Jesus is: he was given gold as a gift suitable for a king, frankincense as an offering to God and myrrh as an embalming fluid in recognition that the road he was to follow would involve passing through death.  It is interesting that in the prophecy of Isaiah, which we did not read this morning but which is in the pew news, both gold and frankincense are mentioned but not myrrh:  I take from that two things; firstly that the Gospel account of the magi was not written in order to simply fulfil the earlier prophecy and, secondly, that the understanding of Jesus as the Messiah in the sense that we have it now is very different from the pre-existing Jewish expectation of a King from the line of David who would restore Israel’s greatness in the world.  The coming of Jesus fulfils the earlier prophecies but also transforms and exceeds them.

The story of the Magi also tells us about some of the different ways that God can call and speak to people.  As I said the Magi were not Jewish and they do not seem to have possessed the Jewish scriptures and yet God spoke to them through their own learning and inclinations.  We presume that in their culture they watched the skies for signs and portents of events in the wider world and God used that by sending a star to bring them to Bethlehem.  This should give us the humility to recognise that God is not constrained by any cultural boundaries or forms of communication or calling that we may prescribe and that if he wants someone to come to Christ he can call them wherever they are using whatever method he chooses.  If God is truly universal in both the literal and the figurative sense then we should not try to fit him solely into our cultural mindset.

But in this passage God does not speak solely through the star.  When the Magi visit Herod in his palace Herod also wants to know about the birthplace of the King of the Jews, albeit for very different reasons, and he asks his own wise men in the form of scribes and teachers of the law to find out where it is to be.  They do not look at the star but, rather, they consult the old testament scriptures which tell them clearly that the King of the Jews is to be born in Bethlehem.  So God speaks through the scriptures, and perhaps in a quicker fashion than following a star.

Finally there is one other method of divine communication mentioned in this short passage.  After the magi had paid their respects to Jesus God warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod but to go home another way.  In fact God speaks through dreams a number of times in the nativity drama – when he tells Joseph about his plan for Mary and, again, when he tells Joseph that Herod has died and it is safe to come back from Egypt.  And, although they are not mentioned in today’s reading, we know that God regularly communicates through the ministrations of his Angels.

We live in a highly rational culture that perhaps feels somewhat embarrassed or worried about anything that is not either clearly written down or understood or explainable but there is plenty of biblical writ to tell us time and time again that God communicates in a myriad of ways.  Certainly thinking back on my own life and especially my own journey of faith I can recall encountering God not only in the scriptures, but in the signs and portents of my life and, yes, even in dreams.  I can’t recall meeting an Angel in shining raiment but there have certainly been times when I may have been entertaining an angel unawares.

So what is my resolution for 2010?  To listen and watch for God in everything.

Given my proven fallibility and poor track record in keeping resolutions I am going to need your help in keeping this one.  I need you to help me watch and listen for God and his calling in everything that happens here.  Probably the best way you can help me do this is to watch and listen with me:  if we as a church watch and listen for God together we stand a much better chance of hearing what he has to say.

Now of course when listening and watching for God in everything we have to be on our guard and we must always be prepared to test the spirits rather than blindly follow everything we think comes from God, because that way lies real danger.  Remember that whatever is truly from God will always lead us towards God.

But what could be better than for the Children of God to listen attentively to the still small voice of the Holy Spirit in order to journey with Jesus towards God our Father?


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