A Sermon for Epiphany by The Reverend Charles Royden
Sermon for Epiphany January 2010
This year I have been trying to do my best to support the Buy in Bedford campaign, making sure I bought Christmas presents in Bedford.
This is in spite of the many offers on the internet and especially the bargains which you can have if you sign up to Easyfundraising on www.Thisischurch.com or click on the Amazon link on the church website, remembering to only ever visit Amazon using www.thisischurch.com first as a portal. Otherwise they put a cookie on your machine and know that you have been there before looking at a specific item and then we don’t get the commission!
So I bought wine from the nice little wine shop in St Cuthberts, a present of Christmas poultry from a farm in Thurleigh and a voucher from a local pub.
Times I suspected would be hard for retailers this year and on Monday I asked a shop assistant how the sales had gone after Christmas. She said it had been extraordinarily busy. Really, very busy and she was surprised. Then she said something very interesting, ‘We will have to see how much of it comes back’. I wasn’t sure what that meant and asked her to be more specific. She said that after Christmas lots of stuff is returned. The reason she gave was that people suddenly get the credit card statement through the post after Christmas and decide that stuff has to be returned which they cannot really afford. After the wonderful fun and excitement of Christmas the realities of life suddenly come into sharp focus.
And that is how it is for us with the nativity story today. No sooner have we heard the wonderful news of the birth of the baby, angelic choirs singing proclaim the Saviour’s birth and then we are face to face with the tragic story of the visit of the Magi.
On January 6 western Christians celebrate the feast of Epiphany. Epiphany takes its name from the Greek word epiphaneia, meaning disclosure, manifestation, unveiling or appearance. On this date we remember the "appearance" of the Magi from the east. Magi represent visitors from outside the confines of the Jewish faith. It is a time when Jesus is shown to the world. It is about God making know salvation outside what had been the chosen few. Now all people could share in God’s grace, salvation was shared with other races and creeds. God cared about all creation and no longer could it be thought that his favour was restricted to any one group.
The Magi show the fulfilment of that promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed. The new king Jesus abolishes not only the barriers of nation, race and ethnicity. He also transcends the boundaries of gender, religion, economics and social stratification.
On the face of it then, the visit by the Magi is a great news story. Good news for all people.
However the visit of the Magi has an extremely dark side. Searching for the baby Jesus, understandably they go to Jerusalem the home of the King. Their statement of seeking a new king arouses the jealousy and rage of Herod. After visiting Jesus we know the Magi return safely by another way. However such good fortune is short lived. We learn that Herod orders the death of male children in a desperate attempt to ensure that there will be no challenge to his throne. Suddenly the joy of Christmas is replaced by a bloodbath.
Whilst the stable in Bethlehem was a poor place for a baby to be welcomed into the world, it had at the least given the family a degree of security. However facing the wrath of Herod the family must now take flight and seek refuge in a foreign land. Mary, Joseph and the baby go to Egypt to escape the murderous intentions of the King.
The Magi bring with them clues as to this future trouble for the baby Jesus. They bring gold, a worthy gift for a king, and Frankincense, worthy of priest and Temple. In Isaiah 60, gold, frankincense, and camels are listed among the tribute of nations and kings. In Psalm 72, kings bring gifts to Israel’s king and fall down before him.
However they also bring with them Myrrh.
In the film ‘The Life of Brian’, which attracted mixed reviews from the Christian community, in the opening scene, the mother of the baby welcomes with enthusiasm the gift of Gold and Frankincense, but understandably advises the Magi not to bother bringing Myrrh with them on their next visit. Myrrh is a costly ointment and yet it was closely associated with death. Myrrh reminds us that all is not well for this family.
In Mark’s Gospel we read
‘Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him…" (Mark 15:22-24a).
In John’s Gospel we read about Nicodemus who brings Myrrh to annoint the crucified body of Jesus
"a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds" (Jn. 19:39)
The Magi follow the star and it brings them to Jesus. Much has been made of what this special star might have been. We will never know, however it is clear that their study of astrology led the Magi to discover God’s gift. There is a whole sermon waiting there to be preached on how God can speak through other means to people of different faiths, creeds and cultures. Of course it would have been hard to identify a place where the star was over. The Magi were clearly skilled to be able to get anywhere close. Understandably they went to Jerusalem the palace of the king. Bethlehem is of course 9 miles to the south of Jerusalem. Only nine earth miles, but an entire world away from the court of Herod. Not for Jesus any of the power, wealth and earthly authority of Herod.
I have little time for stargazing in the sense of horoscopes. However I do find the stars themselves to be fascinating. Recently I have been using an app on my iPhone which you simply switch on, hold the phone in your hand and it uses the compass on the phone to identify which direction you are pointing. It then describes visually the whole of the night, sky indicating which stars can be seen at that particular time. Just recently Pluto has been glowing brilliantly in the night sky standing out amongst all of the other stars and planets.
The time when I remember most clearly looking at the stars and really being able to see a sky full of them, was on a holiday to Sweden. I remember lying on my back next to a lake fishing. That might seem a strange way to fish but you throw your bait out and wait. It was totally dark, no street lights or city lights out in the middle of nowhere, and the sky seemed alive with shooting stars which I had never seen before. Of course what made this amazing sky scene so visible was not the brightness of the stars, but rather the darkness of the sky.
It is in the midst of the darkest sky that the light of the stars shine most brightly. We would all love to be able to have lives without darkness, sadly this is not to be. Yet in the darkness we too can discover the light of Christ.
The visit of the Magi marks the beginning of a very difficult time for Jesus and his family. They are not immune from the toil and trouble of this life and Christmas soon gives way to a more difficult time. As we draw to a close of this Christmas season we might want to hold on to some of the beautiful and enjoyable times which we have experienced. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the peace and goodwill which we have shared could last throughout the year. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were no bad news, no sadness of sickness, no stress, no heartaches, no switching on of the news to hear about another senseless murder.
In real life there is always the presence of both sweet-and-sour, joy and mourning, health and sickness, light and darkness. However as Christians our focus is not upon the darkness but rather upon the light. Like Jesus we will have sorrows and setbacks however we recognise that in the darkness Christ is our light. There is therefore no need to become depressed or despair at the futility of the world around us. Like the Magi as we go into 2011 we must concentrate upon the light which God has given to us. As so many people put Christmas, the lights and decorations, back into the box and then into the loft perhaps or a dark cupboard, until next year. We must resolve to follow his light along that path which will guide us when we face danger. We do not know what the future will bring us this year, undoubtedly we will all face challenges and testing times. So it is imperative that our minds are set firmly focussed like the Magi, on discovering Jesus and worshipping him.
A week ago we experienced the shortest day of the year, winter solstice; from now on each day will contain more light for us with each new dawn. This season encourages us to follow the light of Christ, to bring all our gifts, no matter how humble, to honour Jesus and all that Jesus stands for in our lives and the world.