Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 5 January 2020.
• Old Testament: Isaiah 60: 1-6 (The Lord will arise upon you and His glory shall appear over you)
• Epistle: Ephesians 3: 1-12 (Paul’s calling for the sake of the Gentiles)
• Gospel: Matthew 2: 1-12 (The visit of the wise men)
Most of us will recall the ‘Mission Impossible’ series of thrillers in which the leader of the team would be approached, often on an airline flight and presented with a wholly improbable scenario and expected to deal with it – ‘Should you accept this mission’.
I do not recall his saying, ‘Well, on Monday I have tea with my auntie and on Tuesday I am playing golf. Wednesday is my night with my mates, and the remaining 4 days are not really practical.’
It would not be much of a story is he had.
But today’s lessons are not really about Jesus so much as about how others responded to Him. Herod was pathologically murderous, the shepherds were wondering and adoring, the wise men came with questions and gifts. Their own gifts may have told them as much about Jesus as they would be able to manage, and then there was Paul, called to evangelism among the nations some years after Jesus’ resurrection.
All of these had received a call, of some sort and responded in their own way – even Herod responded to show that nobody on hearing about Jesus was going to be indifferent or apathetic.
In Isaiah the word was one of encouragement during times overladen with disaster. ‘For darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the people.’ And yet even here, amid a people given to ignoring the word and the worship of God except in the most formal and nominal form, God’s promise was given and given seriously.
God does not go back on His promises and the glory of Israel is not so much in the performance of her leaders or armies, although both are formidable, but in the purpose that God has for her as His people living in His land and putting forth His word.
Any just as people do not view the gospel with indifference neither are they apathetic towards Israel. Some have sought to make a global massacre of them while others today seek her total eradication and destruction.
But Israel was always intended to be the people from whom the law and the wisdom of God would go forth, and this is still the Messianic promise, embedded in the vison of a rule for 1000 years centered on the rule of the Messiah in Jerusalem.
But then there is the call of St Paul to serve God in bringing the news of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations of the world. As a Roman citizen he could travel freely, and as an educated Jew, learned in the law he could proclaim Jesus to the nations with a profound understanding of what His atonement meant and promised.
This mission was about the human heart, with all its emotions and ambitions, all its resentments and memories, its motivations and deepest yearnings.
Unless these were brought before the throne of God then there was never going to be any kind of lasting peace, and without the depths of the gospel then the church was only going to be an institution for the employment of the ambitious and the educated.
And even then, only so long as the world was going to conduct its power struggles using the language of theology to mask the real-politic of personal rivalry.
But Paul was being called into the deeper counsels of God to make known something as old as creation and yet as glorious as the love of God itself.
This was a plan to re-unite all things in heaven and earth under the providence of God, overcoming the human moral rebellion against God and the fear of death itself.
It was all coming back to Jesus Christ and His life and death, His atonement on the cross and His resurrection under the power of God who was never going to be defeated.
Perhaps this is all a far cry from the wise men from the east, their journey and their gifts.
But just as art shows Mary presenting the infant Jesus (probably a toddler by this time) to the nations in the wise men so it is for the church to present Him today.
And this church is the body of those who believe and trust Him despite themselves and their hesitations. It is a church or ordinary people made extra-ordinary by the power of God.
It is the people bringing Jesus to life in their daily conversations and encounters, around the family hearth or television, the dining table and on holiday.
Just as I began with a rather jaundiced possible view of the ‘Mission Impossible’ series, so I finish with another set of pictures.
Think this time of the ‘Game of Thrones’ series. A medieval setting with its own deities, but powerless. No kind of rule of law, only that of brute force and intrigue. Godless in effect and hopeless in result.
Now imagine it in modern setting with computers and explosives, firearms and concentration camps. Slavery still the norm.
This is what the world might have become without our forebears who did take the word of God to the nations, and the world has been the better for it.