Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 7 January 2018.
Some of you may remember a Tea and Talk presentation that Eileen and I did in which we spoke of our once-in-a-lifetime voyage to Antarctica.
We could have spoken long and learnedly about its climate, the history of its settlement and use for research, and we could have spoken about its wildlife and scenery, global warming, the tracking of icebergs and the intimate life of penguins.
Instead we simply showed a few maps and a selection of photographs which showed what the continent and its islands were like. It is said, a picture is worth a thousand words and I rather think that the pictures of what it was like gave a more effective sense of the continent than a trawl though scientific papers.
And that is the point. It is the image that carries so much weight and in our news reports it is the pictures that communicate rather than statistics alone, with or without an informed narrative.
And so at Epiphany-tide it is the first picture of Jesus that is given to the world, even while He was a toddler. The image of the festival is of Jesus being shown by His mother to the 3 kings, who duly responded with their gifts.
But our lessons have three pictures for this festival, and that from Isaiah is a glorious and extravagant promise that even though beset by enemies, and probably when living in exile, the faithful people of Israel are promised a return to their land.
And even though that particular return ended in disappointment, the point was made that this really was their land and for all the twists and turns of history, the story of Israel would always revolve around this land rather than any alternative that might be suggested.
But Isaiah’s promise is one of a final and glorious vindication, which would be acknowledged by the nations of the world. And this final act still lies in the future.
Paul saw the purposes of God in a much wider context, as he grew into his understanding of the Kingdom of God as an eternal gift, promised long ago and yet given greater force and strength by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In this the world itself would find that what Jesus had achieved on the cross in His total self-abandonment to the will of God, was to be far greater than all the art or science or philosophy or mobilisation of resources that any political regime could possibly imagine let alone achieve.
The promise and the purpose of God, hidden since the fall of Adam, would be inaugurated by this toddler who was now being displayed to the 3 kings.
The mystery would be revealed, and that which could never be earned or achieved personally was to be received as a gift from God. It would be given in love and could be received only in response to that love.
All this brings me back to the 3 kings, travelling they knew not where except that there was the guidance of a star; leaving behind home and comfort, standing and learning. With all their studies and reputation, they were still to face the hazards of their journey, where their standing would not really offer much comfort or security.
And for all their misadventures in stirring up Herod and the royal court in Jerusalem, what they found was indeed a toddler.
And this presents us in the 21st century with a challenge for people do not really want to be presented with lectures on church history or its doctrine, important and stimulating though they may be.
Neither do they want to be presented with an institution and the 3 kings had not travelled in order to be presented with lessons on the Book of Deuteronomy. That also could come later.
What they did want to see was Jesus – a person, even as a baby or toddler. And that rings true today.
It is the person and the presence of Jesus that still challenges the world, and not an institution.
And it is now the task of the church to provide it, for this was the task entrusted to it by Jesus in His final commands. It was the same as the Greeks who approached the disciple Philip: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” In person, face to face.
But more than that, the kings were presented with the person of Jesus before He had even started His ministry, or collected His disciples or started His disputes with the Pharisees.
It was long before there were any parables, miracles or sermons or even before John the Baptist had started his ministry.
But there was enough there for them to depart, probably as the shepherds did, wondering where it would all lead.
For us the point is that Jesus wants the church to represent and show Him as a living body and a vital truth. It is a vision that any member of the worshipping community can help to provide in simple acts of kindness and in simple descriptions of personal faith.
But God was willing to be shown to the nations in the form of a toddler, and without grandeur or sophistication. It did not need great magnificence or spectacle – only a willing heart.
For all the magnificence of our visual and our electronic media it is still that personal touch that matters: we do not need great qualifications to provide it. Only, like Mary, a willing heart. And God will indeed fill in the gaps.