Todays readings for Epiphany Sunday Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3 Psalm 148 Galatians 4:4-7 Luke 2:22-40
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
I love this story of the Magi coming to seek the baby Jesus, who they recognize as a King. The thing that it illustrates so brilliantly is that all people, regardless of their upbringing, their religious experience, or their nationality, potentially have an urge to seek after God. Here we have so called “pagan” astrologers, in reality obviously very well educated and visionary people of their own time and place, who recognize something that draws them towards God. They journey, at some cost both in terms of money and in terms of personal inconvenience until they reach their destination. And what is that they find when they get there? An anonymous child, living in very ordinary circumstances, and at the same time the God of the universe, made flesh. And here at this junction we have the connection between the God of the Hebrews and the God that all people seek. God who has been partially revealed to Abraham, Moses, David and all the rest of the figures of Jewish history, Matthew has just been through Jesus’ genealogy, is revealed more fully in the child Christ, who is to be a saviour for all people. Matthew, in his account, is locating Jesus’ birth directly into the Old Testament tradition, and at the same time into the reader’s own world, a world where Gentiles, non Jews, pagans, what ever you want to call them are welcomed to worship the Christ child.
The Jewish writers, particularly the prophets, knew that they were to be the bearers of the salvation for the whole world. There was a tension between the exclusivity of a race that saw themselves set apart, a chosen people, and at the same time a race set apart in order to be the “light to lighten the Gentiles” as Simeon says in his prophetic word. There are many, many mentions of the salvation of all people, that was the final goal, the salvation of the whole of creation, but it belonged to the end times. And, in a sense, this is the really radical thing that Matthew is saying- these are the end times, we live in the reality of the coming of the Messiah. This is not something that will come a time hence, it is happening now! As soon as the Magi bowed in worship to the Christ Child the end times had arrived. And with their worship, any exclusivity departed, you didn’t have to be a Jew, you just had to be seeking.
And that is the human condition, isn’t it? We are all seeking after God, whether we name him or not. Augustine said it magnificently, “Our souls are restless, until they find our rest in him”. People are looking for something, some like the magi know that is it a king that they seek, others have no idea but are drawn somehow to the mystery that is God.
And what about those of us who have found God, who name Jesus as Lord and Saviour? Is the search over? No, we continue on the journey towards God, the journey that is our life’s work. And on that journey we have moments of revelation, moments of wonder, that sustain us the rest of the time. What have been your great moments of revelation, or epiphany? The magi journeyed hoping that at journey’s end they would find a king. When they reached the place where the star had stopped they were filled with joy and came into Jesus’ presence to do him homage. Is that what we do? Journey towards our God, and then kneel to pay him homage? It happens, doesn’t it, at moments when we perceive great beauty? When we feel overwhelmed with joy and if we are people who recognize God as the Creator, we pause to pay him homage. And those moments of beauty might be found in the contemplation of the natural world, or when we see or experience great kindness, or even sometimes a very small kindness, even a smile. Or perhaps the experience is in church as part of the worship, or for me particularly when I see a truly beautiful building, or painting or hear some glorious music. Those moments are a revelation of God’s glory, and I think we all feel them, unless we are so hardened that nothing can penetrate, but we don’t always recognize the hand of God in them. They are moments of light, shining into our lives.
But not all of the magi’s journey, or ours, is in the light. We all have times of travelling in the dark. At Christmas we read the passage from Isaiah, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,”. Darkness takes many forms, depression, grief, disillusionment, loneliness, uncertainty, and many others. Thankfully we can glimpse God’s light which helps to guide us out of the dark places. God sends light to us, and again it can take many forms. I wonder what for you have been the particular experiences of star light that have guided you as you go on your journey?
The magi asked for guidance. We all have questions along the way, we need guidance sometimes but sadly they didn’t get good advice, did they? That’s because they asked someone, Herod the great, who had his own agenda. And that can be our experience as well, sometimes people who ought to be the people who know what is good for us, really don’t or have their own agendas. Sometimes the advice we receive can be fantastic, and I’m sure you can all think of times in your life when you have received some great help with a question you were struggling with. But the questions themselves are a very good thing. Without asking questions we can stop growing and developing. Too often, in the Christian church, we are certain that we know it all, that we have the answers to the dilemmas of human life. And this certitude often stops us from hearing what God would say to us. Many of us have deep questions about God, about his relationship with us, about what he would have us do and these questions are the things that keep prodding us to continue our journey. I remember hearing once on a radio program something that has bothered me ever since. A man was speaking about his experience of dying on the operating table and being revived. He was a good Christian and a lay minister, very good bible knowledge, knew all the answers to everything. And yet his experience of God at that time was that God said to him that the church had got everything wrong, it was not the way God had intended it to be. Now, the fact that this man had had this experience and had interpreted it like that is open to a lot of questions. I have never felt compelled to place my faith in what he said, but it has prompted me ever since to question what the church is and does. I live with the question all the time- is this what God wants? Or to put it in another form, “What would Jesus do?” This question rather than being a bad thing for me, makes me think, makes me examine my conscience in the light of God’s revelation of himself, both in the person of Christ and in the Holy Spirit working in my life and it makes me honest. I can no longer justify my actions in the light of what the norm in church is, I have to struggle with the deeper questions and I make choices that affect the person that I am becoming. What questions do you live with? What are the things that are forming you?
The magi finally arrive at the place where Jesus is and their response is to bow down and worship. This is a moment beyond intellectual understanding, a moment when the questions cease and we simply are in the presence of God. And when we are there in God’s presence, how does it affect us? What happens to us in that moment of revelation? What decisions do we make, or resolutions? I wonder how the experience of the magi changed them? I don’t know if you are familiar with T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”, but let me read just the end of it to you.
Eliot sees the experience as changing the magi, changing them so that they could never be at ease with their old life again. And you know that is the thing that most frightens me, that we can so often be at ease in our lives, rather than being constantly prompted to new ways of thinking and new ways of being as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit. This journey that we are on should be a process of development, changing from glory into glory, as Paul puts it.
Before they went home, before the journey was ended the magi had one last response. They gave gifts to the child. They had brought these with them expecting a royal child and they were not disappointed, so they produced their gold and frankincense and myrrh. We have traditionally interpreted these as being a recognition of Christ’s kingship, in the gold, his divinity in the frankincense and his suffering in the myrrh. These are gifts suitable to God, but anything we have to bring is acceptable. To quote Christina Rosetti, “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him- give my heart.” And that is the bottom line, we need first to give our heart to Jesus and then we might find other gifts, that we can bring- gifts of money, time, skills, and abilities.
As we put away the Christmas decorations for another year and gird up our loins for in anticipation of all the busyness beginning again, I pray that we might continue to journey with the magi, towards Jesus, towards the God who made himself flesh for us. May we be guided by his light on our journey of transformation from glory into glory. May we bow down before the God of the universe, bringing our gifts and pay him homage.