Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 3 January 2021.
• First Reading: Isaiah 60: 1-6 (Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you)
• Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
• Epistle: Ephesians 3: 1-12 (The Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus)
• Gospel: Matthew 2: 1-12 (The coming of the Magi)
I suppose that it is just as well that being retired from my daytime job, I can shave and get up properly after breakfast. The view in the mirror of the bathroom is not however a pretty sight. It does however reflect my appearance at the time.
A more serious question is how well the church provides an image of Jesus Christ. Up to the end of WW2, it would largely reflect its society – and so it could be authoritarian, controlling, and rather censorious. These days it has a rather more liberal character, almost as if anything goes, and probably does.
The real question however is how well it reflects the person and ministry of Jesus Christ, despite all the pressures to conform that come from our society and culture.
It is worth keeping this in mind as we look at the coming of the wise men from the east to worship Jesus, now as an infant. They had come from afar and they followed their star as it led them westward towards Jerusalem.
And there they made a natural assumption that the new-born King of the Jews would be in a palace, and so they alerted King Herod to his own position and possible peril. The outcome for the infants of Bethlehem was not good.
And then after more informed guidance they set out again and the star reappeared, leading them southwards to Bethlehem.
And here they found Jesus, now an infant living in a house.
But the interesting thing is that artists have shown the Magi falling before Jesus, being presented to them by His mother, Mary. The infant Jesus is the centre of the picture and the focus of attention – NOT Mary.
Mary is there to present Jesus, and not to be a substitute for Him. The attention is all on Jesus, and nobody else.
But then there is the question of what the Magi were expecting.
Clearly they sought out a baby – or now, an infant. They were sufficiently open-minded to be able to cope with either the capital city or a farming suburb a few miles away.
They were looking for a future king and brought presents which told of far more than kingship. Certainly the gold pointed to the authority of kingship but then the frankincense pointed to the holiness of priesthood.
More telling however was the myrrh which pointed to suffering: a suffering priest-king, who unlike most, would place Himself at the centre of the human dilemma, morally and spiritually. He would take to Himself the wholeness of the human corruption and rebellion against God. He would not stand on His dignity and let another suffer in His place, as perhaps a politician might.
He would place Himself front and centre in God’s plan to redeem the whole of humanity to the relationship that had been enjoyed before the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
This was the one born to be king whom the wise men had come to see.
They had been able to rise above their own culture and knowledge, their own customs and understandings. In this, their journey had also been away from their own comfort zones and assumptions about God.
And yet the story of this kind of quest is also told in John’s gospel. This time some Greek visitors wanted to see Jesus. That was all, and that would be enough. It is there in chapter 12:21. The disciples could not satisfy them at this stage of Jesus’ ministry.
And Jesus’ reply was to speak of His own coming passion and death, and of the costs of discipleship.
Again the vision of Jesus was to be simple and clear, and it is this that we are challenged to present today.
It is easy to surround the sacraments – outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces – with ceremonial which ends up in obstructing what should be simple and clear.
It is equally easy to so surround the scriptures with layers of academic study and textual criticism that the very words to reveal Him are treated with suspicion and doubt.
As we respond to the needs and questions of today’s life, we also ask how we are to show Jesus to the world that is inquiring but suspicious.
It is bleeding and resentful, and has enough condemnation of its own without being burdened further. If anything the message of the gospel is about being released from anger and guilt, and being able to set resentment aside in order to receive a new kind of life and a new kind of hope.
The simplicity of the gospel lies in the person of Jesus who confronted all that hell could imagine in His own body and yet was totally vindicated by God in His resurrection.
This is the person of Jesus whom we are invited to meet in the scriptures, the sacraments and in our own prayers. We meet Him on the basis of His own merits and certainly not on the strength of anything we have ever attempted, let alone achieved.
Perhaps it is also our task, like Mary’s, to present Jesus in such a way that He is able to speak for Himself without being obstructed by our own learning, ceremonial or self-regard.
One other thing to note is that if God had wanted great displays of wonder, then He could have arranged them Himself. In effect however, He has chosen the everyday lives of those who follow Jesus, their attitudes, conversations, acts of kindness and words of wisdom, and sometimes just plain and unadorned common sense to proclaim the gospel.
As you see, the Epiphany is also a story for today.