Thursday, 30 July 2009

Epiphany and the Magi

It may, or may not come as a surprise to you that today is the Feast of the Epiphany, but you may be a bit vague about what that represents. Well there are a couple of visual clues around the room and I’ll come back to those later.

In many British churches the feast of the Epiphany itself is hardly celebrated at all. In fact, Epiphany is perhaps the only great festival day of the church year that is observed more in neglect than in celebration. It is an important holiday in many other countries but Epiphany has simply never caught on in mainstream British culture, having been eclipsed by Christmas itself. Today is the day many continental Christians open their gifts. Why? In memory of the gifts offered by the Magi. Personally, I think today is the right time to open our presents for that reason. I have failed to convince my family of that. My mother, for instance, will tear into her presents one second into Christmas day if we haven’t already sedated her with sufficient gin and sent her to bed.

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light which is symbolised by the star of Bethlehem which most of here have put well behind us with the Christmas decorations we have already taken down. Our minds are now firmly on the New Year ahead and we have moved on from stars and cribs and shepherds and indeed wise men because we in Britain tend to lump them all in together as part of Christmas.

In fact the Greek Orthodox Church has called this season “the season of lights.” It is no coincidence that our Old Testament lesson begins: Arise shine for your light has come. In the Eastern Church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. We are entering into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. No matter that wise men and women of today try to explain it away or talk of the importance of religious myth. It doesn’t matter that literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm; the wonder of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling again the thrill that ran through us when the story first entered our consciousness? You can imagine Matthew telling his first listeners: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…" and then going on to tell them about the Eastern kings, dressed in many-coloured robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem and the odd and seemingly inappropriate gifts - these remain in our consciousness.

So lets bring our Magi to that stable now. If you happen to be sitting next to an exotic King, please escort him to the front. And while that’s happening I’ll tell you the feminist commentary on the Epiphany story:

Do you know what would have happened if there had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise MEN? The three wise women would have:
• asked for directions,
• therefore arrived on time,
• helped deliver the baby,
• cleaned the stable,
• made a casserole,
• and given practical gifts (or perhaps bought a goat for Africa).

Anyway, this unlikely trio comes seemingly out of nowhere, looking for the one who is born King of the Jews, appearing only once, in the story of Jesus’ birth. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God the grown Jesus would proclaim - peace on earth, mercy to the poor and good will to all people. (All people, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians.)

Then the Magi disappear from Scripture as suddenly as they first appeared. But the point of their journey remains forever important. They are the first to understand what others could not see: that Jesus “has been born king of the Jews.” For the ancient Church, this “epiphany” or acknowledgement of the Christ was worth celebrating. It still is, but sadly we don’t really celebrate it here. It is, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, the eternal purpose which God, has realised in Christ Jesus, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. But Paul takes it a stage further by reminding us that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but of the Gentiles also – you and I. The Magi are Gentiles - they are described as coming from the East and there is a hint of that in today’s psalm - but the symbolism and significance of this is often overlooked. Just picture in your mind for a moment your own image of the Magi; look at our Magi now. Some combination of Black, White, Asian or Oriental in the way they are represented? Certainly not Jewish, which is the point, and which ties in to our Epistle for today: the Magi reveal what St. Paul is stressing – the universality of Jesus, a baby born to die for Jew and Gentile alike.

Even as the Magi move on leaving Jesus to his mission on earth, we know that there is work to be done. There is a Gospel to be proclaimed. Epiphany experienced becomes Gospel lived. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians of this when he tells them that they, and we, are to make all men see what is the plan of God’s mystery. We are called to seek and serve Christ in those we meet, loving our neighbours as ourselves in order to make the Lord clear and real and known in our world today.

Christ dwells with us today, is still there to be seen and discovered by those who, like the Magi, are willing to journey far from the commonplace in their quest for understanding and knowledge. What does that mean in practice? Every time I preach I say much the same thing at some point during the sermon: to stop this being just a lovely story we have to make it real for us today, 2008 and look for the applications. Like the Wise Ones from the East, we must be willing to leave the comfort of the familiar, of our preconceptions and prejudices. We must be willing to look for the Christ in places others refuse to enter, whether it be the asylum-seekers shelter, the soup-kitchen for the homeless, the drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit, the psychiatric ward …….or the stable.

The Magi brought gifts - gold for Kingship, frankincense for Jesus’ priestly divinity, and myrrh for suffering humanity: gifts in a juxtaposition of the Gift of God to humanity in the Christ-child. As with any gift this is not a gift that we have to accept. I can receive it, but I don’t have to accept it. I am sure many of you here can picture the less than enthusiastic face of someone who didn’t welcome your gift to them this year and we know that there are people out there who are unenthusiastic about this gift from God. The Incarnation remains for many an unopened present or maybe a present put away for a future occasion which never comes. “Yes, I can see it needs further thought, but I’m too busy now.”

What are we to make of this Epiphany for ourselves today? For one thing, it is a sobering reminders that Jesus is more than simply our brother, more than a friend we can turn to when we are seeking a listening ear, more even than a prophet, helpful as those ways of relating are. Christ is God made present in our day and age. His divinity spills over into our earthly realm. As we subsequently read on of Jesus’ journeys throughout Galilee and beyond, as we listen attentively to his stories and parables, we are from time to time reminded emphatically of where all this is coming from and where it leads.

So what is our response to that precious gift? What do we bring in return? What is our gold, frankincense or myrrh? Well, perhaps we must bring the gift of ourselves as we encounter Christ alive and present in the elderly, children, the disabled, the homeless, the alcoholic, the drug abuser and all the vulnerable, defenceless or damaged people of our world – and the smart arse who has received the gift in his head but has not received it in his heart: him too. When I preached here on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, I told you who my problem people are and I challenged you then to think who your problem people are and several of you told me during coffee. It’s the same message again here, isn’t it? As St. Paul tells the Ephesians I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of God’s power. The message of Paul is clear: we are servants of this gospel – we serve those we encounter whoever they are, not just the nice ones.
Christ is also manifest today in the bread and wine of Communion, which we struggle in faith to recognize as his body and blood. Christ is there when we turn to him in confident prayer and in those times when we find ourselves without words and on the point of despair. He is with us in the quiet of our hearts and in the throb and cacophony of our cities. But Christ is not ours to hold or keep.

Paradoxically, he allows us from time to time to experience his absence precisely so that we, his disciples, may learn the importance of bringing his presence to others. That is the Epiphany challenge and the challenge St. Paul gave to the Ephesians as he reminded them of their mission to the Gentiles. We now become in our lives the epiphany of Christ’s presence in our world.

We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale. A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest. He had adventure after adventure along the way: the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; he had to become a refugee; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marvelled at his words; he undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations. Finally, a close friend betrayed him; he was given a mock trial, and executed. But then the greatest marvel of all happened. He outwitted even death itself. He returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and his entire household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.

We don’t see it as a tall tale, but The Bible's story is our story too. Each of us is the Father's beloved daughter or son; he loves us and he has sent us out to have marvellous adventures and accomplish great tasks: to love our enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, hungry, and homeless. And at the end of our quests we will have such stories to tell. A bit like Matthew and Paul: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…"

Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ. The divine has become clear and real in our midst. I’ll leave the last word to Isaiah: Arise, shine for your light has come.

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