Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Epiphany sermon


Today we have a chance to look at the magi – the wise men – in a different way.
Up until now in our celebrations of Christmas I suspect they’ve had a balancing role alongside the shepherds. They act almost as book ends for our crib scenes – shepherds – magi – holy family in the middle. The shepherds are poor, Jewish & local – the magi are rich, foreigners from far away. The shepherds are told by a host of angels to look in Bethlehem for a new-born baby in a manger who is the Messiah; the magi have followed a star which rose when Jesus was born and are looking for a king.

It is the fact that they are looking for a king that leads them to look first in the obvious, but the wrong place. They have come to the land of Judah & they are looking for a king – so they go to the royal palace in the capital of Judah, Jerusalem, asking to see the new-born ‘king of the Jews’. From there the prophecies and the star lead them to Bethlehem, where they finally find Jesus. When they find him they bow in homage and present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – they worship Jesus as a king.

And so the magi are remembered today as we celebrate Epiphany – the revelation of God’s glory. With the magi, we might want to ask where should we look for the child who is king? Where and how is God’s glory revealed?
The first place to look for God’s glory is obviously in the baby whose birth we are celebrating – Jesus.
The magi come, as Isaiah foretells, laden with gold and frankincense, gifts fit to acknowledge a true king, gifts used to herald the Lord’s praise, gifts for God’s chosen one.
But the magi don’t quite get what they are expecting, in fact the whole world is in for a surprise, because God’s glory is revealed in a new kind of kingship, not one elevated to royal palaces, political power and lofty social circles. ‘Epiphany’ means, literally, shown or revealed near to – God’s glory is found alongside common people, the baby is found in a normal house, in a small village in a very ordinary-looking child.

Yet the magi bow to him and present him their gifts. They are clear that here, in Jesus, in this baby, near to them they see God’s glory revealed. Here is the unique event of history, God made flesh – the revelation of God with us, near to us.

We could almost stop there and wonder, with the magi, at this astonishing event.

But I think the prophecy from Isaiah does more then just lead us to expect the coming of God’s glory to be accompanied by the arrival of gifts of gold and frankincense.
Isaiah also indicates the role of God’s people in showing this glory to the world.

Isaiah begins with the call “Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come.” The prophet tells of a time when God’s light and glory will be revealed to God’s people, but this will be good news for the whole world not just for those who see it, because the light of God will transform the people so that they themselves will shine.
He says of God’s light “you will see it and be radiant”.
Those who witness this revelation of God’s glory near to them are to become lights for the world.

What we witness of God’s glory in the story of the birth, the singing of the angels, the arrival of the magi: all these things show us God with us. Yet this good news isn’t just for us, to make us feel comforted and secure. When the light shines on us we are then called to shine with that light ourselves, to become a light to others, so that they may see proof of God’s glory near them, in us.

Matthew doesn’t tell us what happens to the magi after they pay homage to Jesus – other than that having been warned in a dream they do not return to Herod but go back to their own country by another route.
It is left to TS Eliot to imagine how they might have felt:

“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”
I remember studying that poem at school and feeling a huge wave of sympathy for the story-teller, having seen a glimpse of Jesus yet left wistful and unsettled by the event.

Our epiphany is informed by the revelation given to the magi, but of course our epiphany is so much fuller – because we are able to put this beginning of the story of Jesus in the context of the whole of the story of his life.

We cannot escape the references in this story of the Magi which remind us of the end of the earthly life of Jesus. The title ‘King of the Jews’ will be used to mock Jesus at his crucifixion; Herod is soon to seek to end Jesus’ life, using terrible cruelty; and there are signs in the sky – a star announces Jesus birth, whilst his death will be accompanied by the darkening of the sky.

So we turn from our adoration of the infant Jesus and face into this new year having experienced a revelation of God’s glory shining on us and in us.
We go into the new year ready to face the whole of the glory of Jesus’ life.
And having seen that glory we are called to be radiant, to shine for others, to open our lives to the possibility of being a sign of God’s glory for someone else.

To God’s eternal praise, this year & always. Amen

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