Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 2 January 2022
• First Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6 (All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense)
• Psalm 72: 1-15
• Epistle: Ephesians 3: 1-12 (Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel)
• Gospel: Matthew 2: 1-12 (Gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh)
It is a strange paradox. The people had been promised a glittering future and kings and princes would journey to them bearing costly gifts. There would be gold and incense, and the land would be blessed with peace to reach to the ends of the earth.
And yet when it came, the promise was even greater than they had imagined and yet it was also concealed. It would be a mystery to be understood by those willing to receive the message, and it would be able to cover the world far more effectively than any number of battle legions.
But they rejected it for it did not come as they had expected it and the bearer of the promise was doing a lot of strange and unexpected things to their laws and customs.
In a way, this is the mystery of the feast of Epiphany.
The people of Israel had been expecting a great ruler in the line of David and they would rule the world. They were expecting a kingdom and a rule of gold and incense.
There would be royal splendour and they would bask in its reflected glory. Enemies would fall back and kings would bring their tribute.
But if anything the vision was even greater than they had expected, but it would be sealed and accomplished by one of the gifts that they had not expected: the myrrh.
Indeed the myrrh would be central to the unfolding of the vision, for their coming king would be One anointed by God for suffering and atonement.
Instead of being oppressed by the nations and in turn being able to order them around instead, they would become part of this work and message of atonement. Their scriptures would circle the globe.
The fulness of the kingdom would not come until the whole world had heard of that message – people of every nation and language, tribe and people. And today this task is still not complete.
The task of spreading the message of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with all peoples of the world had been entrusted to those Jews who had accepted the message and reality of Jesus – who had known Jesus or come to know Him.
They became the church, the assembly of people who accepted the message and person of Jesus Christ. They would be defined by their allegiance to that message, and the task of living it for themselves and of sharing it with the world.
This would be front and centre of who and what they were and all other matters would take second place.
Certainly the structures of the church and its administrations, even the splendour of its worship and its ministry of serving all peoples as a means of sharing their message of reconciliation, would all be secondary to their central purpose.
But like the Jews of Jesus’ time, and certainly those of King Herod’s, the church has been all too easily impressed by the ministries of gold and incense.
The ministry of myrrh – of the coming suffering and the message of atonement – is less attractive and definitely more costly.
It is certainly more appealing to come alongside the manoeuvres of Herod, to accept the spirit of the age, to tone down the message that the church had come to bring.
It is easier and more fashionable to go along with the most recent trend and opinion and to give it a veneer of respectability. Less so to hold to the morality of the scriptures, to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified, to yield control to God over the things that we wanted to control for ourselves and to find our glory in what we own and control rather than what we offer and how we serve.
The Feast of the Epiphany is definitely about how the wise people from the east came for a king and found Jesus.
It is also about how they entered His dwelling place and laid their offerings before Him. They brought their best and laid it before Him, for Him to use at His discretion. That is what a gift is.
Perhaps this is where we also may start: by coming before Him and laying ourselves at His feet. The offering is what we are, far more than what we have.
And we do so in order that He may use us as He sees fit.
But there is something else, for the images of Epiphany are all of Mary showing Jesus to the kings and in a sense to the whole world.
If this image is to mean anything then Mary is also to be a figure for the church: the person who presents Jesus to the world but demands nothing for herself and whose words later in life would ring down the ages: ‘Whatever He tells you, do it.’
Mary was there to show Jesus to the world and not to be the centre of attention herself. This was never to be her place. She would bear Him and nurture Him but she would never usurp Him or make herself the centre of attention.
Likewise for us, the task is to present Jesus to the world and none other, to let Him speak His message and not to impose our own. To live as if there were no other message in the world worth offering – simply because there is none.