Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 7 January 2024.
• First Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6 (Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you)
• Epistle: Ephesians 3: 1-12 (Paul’s ministry)
• Gospel: Matthew 2: 1-12 (The Magi visit the Messiah)
A friend of mine, also a neighbour, was a telephone reporter with one of the national newspapers. He sat at the end of a telephone and wrote down the stories which reporters phoned in.
One of his comments was that the great search was for stories which were eye-catching – controversial – regardless of the subject matter or the people involved. Indeed, the more sensitive and outrageous, the better.
News was a form of entertainment rather than just a means of telling readers what was happening in the world.
I doubt if much has changed – maybe it has accelerated, intensified, become even more pointed, regardless of news value, however that is now understood and assessed.
It is with these thoughts in mind that we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. This is a revealing of the Christ-child to the world, represented by the 3 wise men who had come from afar to see Him.
These are often represented in art as kings – travelling and arriving in gorgeous array and splendour with elaborately prepared gifts. Rather less the sense of travelling and arriving tired, dirty, hungry and definitely wanting a bath.
Yet they also represent something else for they had told King Herod that in the east they had seen a star, and were following it. They had not really known where it would lead, and possibly not really what it meant or would point to.
And yet they had set out, probably against all advice, and had met all sorts of hazards en-route.
The interesting thing is that they set out at all. They could have sent out scouts to investigate and report back but no, they had wanted to see for themselves, even and possibly especially when it meant leaving behind the comforts of home.
But even more importantly, they had come without pre-conceptions – their minds were not already made up, and their methods of inquiry and their conclusions were very much to be developed.
It is not as if they were predisposed to a certain way of thinking – the methods and dialectics of capitalism, Marxism, critical race theory, or plain old nationalism in all its forms.
These were open minds, ready to be informed and to discover, ready to discuss and debate, to question and analyze, ready to look again at their own ways of thinking.
And so they came. Jesus was by now living in a house, possibly a year or two old. A toddler. Joseph evidently had found work to keep the family going.
But there was something else. We do not often see Joseph in the artwork showing the adoration of the Magi. We see Mary and Jesus: Mary seated and Jesus in her lap, looking outwards.
This was no frightened mother hiding her child away and protecting him from profane eyes, for you never knew who was looking and with what devious intent.
No, this is a confident Mary, proud of her first-born, contented in her home. There is nothing defensive here, no cowering in fear. Maybe the words of Simeon were still ringing in her ears, from when Jesus had been presented in the Temple: right under Herod’s nose.
And yet this devout Jewish mother was pleased to let the boy be seen. She had a story to tell.
And so when the wise men arrived, bearing their gifts, foretold by Isaiah as being of gold and incense, but now adding one more: myrrh, then her pondering started anew.
Myrrh – an ointment for healing the injured. A gift pointing to suffering. Mary had already been told that a sword would also pierce her own soul. Now the pondering was in earnest.
And so our pictures of the coming of the Magi come together.
The three wise men – philosopher-kings – travelling to look for something outside themselves and their experiences or understanding. Travelling with open hearts and minds, ready to be surprised, even astonished.
Travelling to a strange land, occupied by a fierce and determined army representing an empire used to saying ‘No’ but perhaps not to hearing it.
But then there was Mary – married to an artisan, living simply in what would become a suburb of Jerusalem – and practicing a simple but direct faith.
But also one ready to share what she had – not so much herself but Jesus and Him alone. No great statements of schools of theology. Later generations could do that.
No, this was a simple presentation of Jesus to the nations of the world, He whom she had already presented to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.
For us the challenge is still there: will we also, as simply as we can, let Jesus be seen within and among us? And tell our stories?
Will we also be able to distinguish the honest and open inquirers from the thrill-seekers, the point-scorers, the spectacle-lovers of the world?
For Jesus’ final commandment was to take the gospel to all the world. Maybe the first stage is to be able to present Him where we are.