Sunday 8 January 2012 at St Giles
Reading Ephesians 3.1-12 Jan Scobey
I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles –
Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.
I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.
Gospel Matthew 2.1-12
Christ was revealed in flesh, proclaimed among the nations
and believed in throughout the world.
When the Gospel is announced the reader says
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.
Epiphany falls on 6 January. Unless that happens to be a Sunday, some churches miss it altogether. Instead, they observe the Baptism of Christ, which is itself a kind of epiphany. In Matthew 3, we read:
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Look up Epiphany in a dictionary, and you will find two main meanings. One is the feast itself celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. The other tells you what it really means. A sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something. In particular, Epiphany reveals to us the reality of God, usually by a sudden realisation by intuition.
Last year, I talked about the part played by the Magi. The mysterious, shadowy figures that have captured the imagination of Christians since before the gospels were written down. What we know about them is speculation. Today I want to concentrate on what they represent.
In the story, there are the opposites of Worship and Hostility. Reactions to Jesus have been polarised since the very beginning. The Magi came to worship, so it says in v2. We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.
Does that strike you as odd? They did not make a journey of discovery. They did not just come to record and observe. They did not come out of curiosity, or academic inquiry. No – they came to worship.
Some theologians claim the word proskyneo can only be translated as referring to worship of God, but there are many instances in the Greek OT of people bowing down and worshipping other human beings or angels. David the King, and Elisha the prophet for example. Ruth worshipped Boaz.
Personally I find it hard to accept that astrologers, or wise men from the east, could bow down and do homage to Jesus merely because he was future King of the Jews in the line of David, unless they were worshipping him as much more than a mere human being.
Herod on the other hand led the hostility. Herod’s part in the story foreshadows the hostility that will be shown to Jesus by the powerful people of his day who sought to destroy him. Religious leaders do the bidding of Herod the tetrarch who believed Jesus threatened his position. In a cruel twist of fate, at the very end the roles are reversed. Pilate takes orders from the Chief Priest and hands Jesus over to be executed.
So we have the opposite extremes. Worship and open Hostility. The real Kings are not the three wise men but Herod and Jesus. One is the tyrant who rules by terror. The other is the servant king who shepherds his sheep. There are parallels today if we look around the world, especially in Africa and see what kind of leaders are in power.
Epiphany, of course, is not about the quality of leadership, but the revelation of God and whom He favours. And it’s clear from the gospels that God’s favour does not rest with the powerful like Herod or the religious authorities. His favour does not even rest with the learning of the Magi, although it was to them He revealed the birth of Jesus. His favour did not rest with the arrogant or the wise, those men who tipped off Herod that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. No – in spite of the massacre of the innocents God’s favour rests with the meek, the humble, the servant leader, the shepherds, the little children, the disadvantaged, the poor, and the trusting.
Does that not unfairly exclude the learned, religious leaders, and those with authority? By no means. Take Paul the apostle in today’s reading from Ephesians. Paul was a religious leader. Paul was learned. Paul wielded authority and persecuted the early church. Yet on the road to Damascus Paul had his own epiphany – there shone a bright light, and he heard the voice of Christ.
By God’s grace, he says, the mystery of Jesus Christ was made know to him by revelation. He stopped lording it over others and became a servant of the gospel. He became the least of all God’s people in his own eyes. Those things that had been hidden in God were made known to him. And through Paul, of all people, the gospel spread through the Mediterranean world. All that – the very prosperity and survival of the good news – came through one epiphany moment. And that can profoundly change the way we are, the way we act, the way we relate to our maker.
This is why the church’s observance of epiphany ought not be a triumphal occasion. Both today’s readings encourage humble submission to God, and the realisation that God's glory may be manifest where we least expect it. Sometimes God's people become light for others . Sometimes they appear blind to the light others can see. But always, the light is there, as God graciously, mysteriously, and defiantly breaks into human lives. Amen