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notre dame montreal

Epiphany

Sermon prepared by The Reverend Charles Royden 4 January 2004


 

Have you taken them down, or are they coming down today? Your decorations should not be up for too long now. The glitz of Christmas is giving way to reality just as surely as the post box so full of cards will soon be replaced by envelopes full of credit card statements and the real cost of Christmas.

We sometimes miss Epiphany. It is lost in the getting back to normal. But it is significant. There have been attempts to make it more exciting.

There is a beautiful old tradition about the star in the East. The story says that when the star had finished its task of directing the wise men to the baby, it fell from the sky and dropped down into the city well of Bethlehem. According to some legend, that star is there to this day, and can sometimes still be seen by those whose hearts are pure and clean.

Of course it is all complete nonsense. But it is just one of many traditions which have crept up around the visit of the Magi.

MagiI saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day on Christmas day? One for each King?

We do not know whether the wise men were wise, or whether there were three of them, or whether they were men at all, let alone the glorious names given them by tradition. Melchior, Balthasar and Casper,

Yet another legend goes on to tell us that after seeing the baby, the three continued travelling (back on their ships no doubt) as far as Spain, telling the world the good news about what they had seen.

These stories bring the wise men a little more to life, and add some colour to the story, but they hold no more historic value than the visit of the little drummer boy.

The sad things is that there is no need for embellishment. There is enough going on !

Luke 2:1
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

In Rome Caesar Augustus was at the height of his power

Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, he became sole ruler of the Roman world after a bloody civil war in which he had overpowered his opponents. The last to be destroyed was the famous Mark Anthony who committed suicide not long after his defeat at the battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Augustus turned the great Roman Republic into an Empire, with himself at the head. He proclaimed that he had brought peace and justice to the world. He declared his dead adoptive father to be divine, and by implication he was the son of God. Poets wrote about the new era which had begun. Historians told about the rise of power, reaching its climax with Augustus. He was its king, its Lord and increasingly people worshipped him as a god.

Meanwhile far away a boy was born, who would within a generation be hailed as ‘son of God.’ His followers would use the same words of Lord. His arrival was considered to have brought true justice and peace.

The birth of this little boy is the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God in all its apparent frailty, weakness and insignificance, with the mighty power of Rome.

Augustus had never heard of Jesus but within a century his successors were trying desperately to obliterate his followers. Within just over three centuries the Roman Emperor Constantine himself became a Christian.

So today the story of a baby in a crib, being visited by Magi is poignant. It is about a change taking place in the balance of power and it based in fact not fiction

We know for fact that the Jewish Messiah the King of kings is visited by three gentiles, not just any old gentiles, but star gazers.

We don’t know much about the Magi (Greek magoi) from the East. We call them kings, but Matthew calls them magoi -- or Magi. The word, kings, might come from Psalm 72:10, which speaks of the kings of Tarshish rendering tribute and the kings of Sheba and Seba bringing gifts. See also Isaiah 60:6, which speaks of the people of Sheba bringing gold and frankincense. We think of them as astrologers because they are observing stars (v. 2), and astrology was considered a learned occupation. The word, magoi, is also found in Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11, where it is translated magician or sorcerer. From the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi look to the stars for answers that legitimately come only from God -- or work magic using demonic powers.

They are far from the kingdom of God, which makes them especially useful for Matthew's purposes as he shows how the Messiah brings salvation to those considered beyond the scope of God’s interest. These were not the expected beneficiaries of the birth of the one who would be king of the Jews. Yet we see that the birth of Jesus is going to bring about change and that change will involve an inclusivity which would trouble those who expected a traditional Jewish King.

The Good news had come in Jesus, but it was not good news for those who were the good people of God. Jesus was God’s good news for Bad people!

It should not have come as such a surprise that the Messiah born in the line of King David would be unexpected. Do you remember the anointing of David, the first great king from Bethlehem?

1 sam 16
4 Samuel did what the LORD said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, "Do you come in peace?"
5 Samuel replied, "Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me." Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed stands here before the LORD."
7 But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart."
8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, "The LORD has not chosen this one either."
9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, "Nor has the LORD chosen this one."
10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, "The LORD has not chosen these."
11 So he asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?" "There is still the youngest," Jesse answered, "but he is tending the sheep." Samuel said, "Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives."
12 So he sent and had him brought in. He was ruddy, with a fine appearance and handsome features. Then the LORD said, "Rise and anoint him; he is the one."
13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah.

David was the unlikely one, yet it was him who God chose.

This is what Epiphany is really all about. It is us understanding who Jesus is and what he is about.

So what is our understanding ?

Have we embarked upon that journey of discovery, like the Magi?

We are a pilgrim people, we have to set off to follow Christ and learn more about God as we journey.

What the Magi saw was hardly impressive; a poor family in a nondescript village and an infant. However, the Magi had been led by the light of the star. Was it really a huge star in the heavens like the Christmas show, or a small brightness of Jupiter or even as some Christians believe, an interior light that kept them looking and then shone brightly for them revealing the truth at the end of their quest? We will never know, but God was present among the obscure; hidden in an out-of-the- way place.

Today we like the Magi, ask God to stir up a hunger in us. For the courage to let go of the comfortable and familiar and request the energy to once again go looking for God. To be open to finding the holy in unfamiliar and "unholy" places.

May we also have a sense of wonder and awe, the spirit of a searcher, one willing to look up and follow a star beyond familiar borders. May we recognize the revelation of God, despite all appearances to the contrary.

For many this idea is an unsettling and uncomfortable idea, a journey in which we do not know the landmarks; where we will have to keep trusting the voice inside that urges us not to turn back or stop.

It is far more preferable for some to have a voice of certainty with all the answers, a voice which has a hotline to God and can speak all the truth all of the time. Sadly such voices are usually conmen (or women) and should not be listened to, no matter how comforting they appear to be. There will be questions for all of us and we will change direction and move in different ways, this is all a part of the pilgrimage and shows that we are capable of growth towards maturity. It is a frightening things to place one foot in front of another and trust that we will find the way, yet we walk that path with the hand of God.


We know little about the wise men or Magi (Greek magoi) from the East. We call them kings, but Matthew calls them magoi -- or Magi. The word, kings, might come from Psalm 72:10, which speaks of the kings of Tarshish rendering tribute and the kings of Sheba and Seba bringing gifts. See also Isaiah 60:6, which speaks of the people of Sheba bringing gold and frankincense. We think of them as astrologers because they are observing stars (v. 2), and astrology was considered a learned occupation. The word, magoi, is also found in Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11, where it is translated magician or sorcerer. From the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi look to the stars for answers that legitimately come only from God -- or work magic using demonic powers. They are far from the kingdom of God, which makes them especially useful for Matthew's purposes as he shows how the Messiah brings salvation to those considered beyond the scope of God’s interest.