Sermon by Charles King for Epiphany, 5 January 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
On Christmas Eve as we were preparing for the Crib Service, Kenneth and I clambered up a tall ladder to reach the top of an arch and do some deft placing of key nativity figures. The three kings you now see in the crib scene behind me began their journey up there – symbolically at least! – and were on their way. It’s only in Matthew’s Gospel that we find out about them, and on the one hand the image of these wise men arriving at Epiphany coming to venerate Jesus seems simple enough, the final piece of the jigsaw completing the scene in our nativity. But the episode isn’t completely straightforward, is it? There’s a mix of characters: we have the wise men – or magi – King Herod, and, of course, King Jesus. This king, Charles King, speaking to you now says that there are just too many kings. And there’s only room for one. We need some clarity.
Epiphany means ‘showing’ or ‘revelation’, and it’s a moment for clarity. Across the season we’ll celebrate Jesus’ own baptism, the clear anointing by his Father as he himself steps out into the limelight; then there’s the wedding at Cana when St John tells us in no uncertain terms Jesus reveals his glory. But today we see the gospel story reaching out beyond the stable, beyond Bethlehem, beyond even the chosen people of God, to the whole world.
And it reaches out to the magi. Their wisdom probably derives from the rather occult art of divination using the stars, a bit like astrology. And if we’re to judge by their status and gifts to Jesus, they must have been pretty good at it, too – at least in convincing the people around them. But in their world of government by dark and impersonal forces things start to change. The star the magi had been following on their journey from the East via Jerusalem stops. And then in Mt 2:10 there’s a phrase which I hadn’t noticed properly before. It says “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” Overwhelmed with joy. That’s their epiphany. We’re told that they started off by searching for the king of the Jews, but for these magi, who are Gentiles, that search suddenly becomes something more, something real. A journey, a quest from distant lands is answered by something that affects them in their hearts: they’re overwhelmed with joy, and there’s nothing for it but to kneel down in worship at Jesus’ feet. They’re the first to give up everything to follow Jesus.
And I love it, too, because for us there’s nothing there in this verse that actually tells us what to do next. As they bow down, the magi show us that being overwhelmed with joy of course requires a response. But there’s no prescription for how we should receive the good news of the gospel. We might want to pray, or to be still, to pick up a book and read; it might be a response which is deeply practical – for others, ourselves, or the world around us; and it all might be something that takes time – sometimes these things need reflecting on and coming back to. It’s all a deeply personal thing. But if we’re open to it, I believe that the Holy Spirit will help us to find what’s best for us. In our reading from Ephesians Paul talks about how the Spirit has helped make things clear for him, and what he feels his role to be after his conversion – his epiphany – on the Damascus Road.
Because Jesus’ birth really is good news. We can intellectualise it and somehow keep it all at a distance, but if we hear John’s Gospel and those words, “The word came down and dwelt among us,” then it is something for each one of us – in here – such that it has the capacity to fill us – to overwhelm us – just as it did the magi, with joy. At this time of New Year, where the shops and media are as ever full of suggestions for revitalising jaded spirits, going vegan with Veganuary or whatever it might be (I’ve had umpteen flyers for gym membership…), the thing is none of them is particularly enticing or filling me with joy. Though that may just be me. But the joy of Epiphany is something worth having. Being overwhelmed by joy in ways that we might not have expected, in complete contrast to all the predictable post-Christmas ads.
And if after all this, you’re still not quite sure, then I love the words from Psalm 34: “O taste and see how gracious the Lord is.” “O taste and see.” We come before this star of wonder – just a get taste of it and see what happens. Strategies, visions and plans for action can be very helpful, but when we get to the nub of things, let God do what God wants to do. Sometimes we just need to get on with it. God will always use us as we are – so often in the most surprising ways. The magi from distant lands were astrologers and knew nothing of Israel’s God, but God hadn’t forgotten them, and he didn’t despise the skill that brought them to Jesus. In fact, this tells us all the more, I think, that the good news of the gospel, which starts at Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, really is for all people, not just a cosy club of insiders.
Jesus comes to break down the dividing walls between different stories of the world – Jewish and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female. He brings us into a new humanity. In Jesus Christ humanity is loved, affirmed and welcomed. He shows us that in him there is only room for one king, and in him we have a common humanity. Especially at this time when we look out and see ever more tensions in the world around us, this is a certainty where we can explore difference as a gift, drawing us closer, not driving us apart. And that’s definitely something to be overwhelmed with joy by.