Sermon for Epiphany
The Reverend Charles Royden
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 worshiped 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.
Today in our church worship we are sharing in the Methodist Covenant
service and renewal of our baptism vows.
The Methodist Covenant Service is not about affirming our Methodism, that word is not used. Neither is the renewal of baptism vows about somehow reassuring ourselves we are still good Anglicans, there are no denominational labels. The introduction of the service speaks of the Gathering of the People of God, it is therefore a very important service of unity.
Let me begin by saying something about Unity
We are engaged in an act of worship which any Christian would feel comfortable with. By using the word worship I mean we say prayers, read the Bible, sing hymns and celebrate the command of Christ that we should eat bread and drink wine and so know his presence among us.
I was watching part of Around the World in 80 Faiths on the BBC presented by Peter Owen Jones, I don’t know how many of you have seen it. Peter Owen Jones is actually a Vicar from the Ely Diocese and he was instrumental in establishing the woodland burial ground the Arbory Trust in that Diocese. On the BBC website he speaks about the things which he has learned from doing the series. He reflects that one of the most important things is the importance of ritual. Our religious ritual is something in which we can all share and our individuality and perhaps loneliness becomes part of a greater unity. It is good therefore that we are able to do this together. I must be forgiven because those our my words not his, but I think accurately reflect the point which he was making.
The rubrics to the Methodist Covenant service make this point also. It tells us
‘The covenant is not just a one-to-one transaction between individuals and God, but the act of the whole faith community.’
The importance of the community is fundamental to the Christian faith, we are called into fellowship and this is not an optional extra. As Christ has called others so we are expected to be a part of the Christian family. There is so much of what we do as a church people which involves the head and thinking and believing certain things, perhaps we need to recapture more the importance of belonging and sharing a common faith. This is especially helpful for those who find creeds and books dry or difficult. Surely one thing we learn powerfully from the scriptures is the importance of a shared faith which encompassed whole families and household. Belonging is just as important as believing.
Of course this service takes place at Epiphany, at the start of the year and I would like to think why that is important for us. Epiphany means manifestation, in Jesus God made himself known ‘manifest.’ Jesus was the manifestation of God’s love to the world. As we partake of this special service, the Church across the world is celebrating Epiphany. In Spain this is a most important festival Three Kings Day (Los Royes). This surely has something to do with the fact that in Spain it is on 6th January that the children receive presents not Christmas Day. It is not Santa who brings the toys it is the Three Kings !
This festival of Epiphany is very appropriate as a time in which to have the covenant service. As Epiphany means ‘manifestation.’ so today we gather together as a people who see that in Jesus God chose to reveal himself to the world. The visit of the Magi has importance, for it draws our attention to the fact that it is at this time that the message of who Jesus is was shown not just to Jewish people but to all people. We think of the Apostle Paul and his theology of the inclusion of gentiles, but right back at the birth of Christ this is shown to be the purpose of God as the Magi worship Jesus.
Epiphany worship is a part of us drawing close to God as the Magi drew near to God when they visited the Christ child. We know that the Magi recognised in Jesus a very special baby, a king. They decided that it was important for them to protect the child from harm and they refused to be party to the evil intentions of Herod.
We too are a part of God’s Epiphany
So let’s move on from thinking about God’s Epiphany of himself in Jesus to us, to think instead of how we are now called to a be part of God’s revelation to others. Epiphany is also about us being challenged to be a part of God's manifestation. This is part of what being a Christian is all about, revealing the love of God to the world by living out the example of Jesus in our own lives.
So it is appropriate that we have our service of Covenant and renewal at Epiphany, because we like the Magi are called to worship and to be changed. Then from that, our worship is supposed to inspire commitment and service, as we, like the Magi, recognise the identity of Jesus, then like them we too will worship and go on to make God manifest to others. The covenant service expects that from worship will flow service and lives of commitment. It speaks about us giving our lives in service to God.
An illustration of this principle could be drawn from those watches with the numbers which glow in the dark. Luminous radium dials were first used around 1910 before the dangers of radioactivity was fully understood. Radium dissolved in water was even sold as a health tonic and said to increase your energy levels and cure diseases. After WWI and through out the 1920s, radium dials became popular and were widely used on watches and clocks. In the late 1920s, it became obvious that the girls and women who painted the dials were suffering and sometimes dying from health complications caused by the radium. The widely published liability trial of the "Radium Girls" caused the popularity to wane in the 1930s, but radium dials were again used widely during WWII. The vast majority of watches or clocks made before 1950 that have a thick yellowish or white paint on the hands or dial are made with radium. During the 1950s and 1960s, the dangers of using radium was recognized and it was phased out in the US. Instead, either non-radioactive phosphorus compounds were used or various tritium compounds were used. Other countries, especially third world countries, still use radium. For example, Iraqi tanks captured during the Gulf War had radium dials on gauges. In the last decade or so, tritium has also started to be phased out, since despite its lower risk compared to radium, it is still radioactive.
Modern watches use non-radioactive glow in the dark paints. These do not have radioactive glow in the dark paint they rely upon exposure to a direct light source in order to work. After it faded in the dark the watch needed to be placed close to the light so that it would once again glow when the lights were turned off – for a while.
I am reminded of that type of watch as we gather for this service today and think about what we are doing. We gather to worship and as we do we remind ourselves that God provides for his people light which shines in the darkness of our world. When we come close to the light we too are able to become a part of that process of sharing God’s light with others.
Today the magi, usually associated with wisdom, come close to the light, do homage and are illumined by what they see. Their lives are altered, or as Matthew puts it, "they departed for their country by another way." We can’t follow the same old ways once we have seen ourselves and the world by God’s light.
In the Gospel we are encouraged that we should let our light shine before men. How does it tells us that we should do that? let me read the passage to you
Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds
We are meant like the hands on a watch to become illuminated ourselves in this dark world.
Who knows what this new year will bring? There is much to be afraid of, there is concern about all manner of things. Will governments across the world be able to stabilise our fragmented economies? Will there be any peace in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel
Today we like the Magi see that God has not abandoned us. His light is the one hope that we all share. Through all the dark days which come we will continue to focus our hearts and minds upon the one true light which God has given to us.
Today in this service we reaffirm our commitment and demonstrate to our community and to each other our courageous hearts and our determined perseverance to stay on the path Jesus has set before us. If his is the path we follow, we too will shine in the darkness and be guides to others, to help them find their way home to a land and a people of light bearers. As we leave church from this service today we share a confidence that no darkness we face can put out the light that burns within us. Hear Isaiah’s promise,
"Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow."
Today we resolve to continually turn toward the light we have seen, to
bow down to worship and then carry the light again into the world