Sermon from Sunday 08 January

What does Epiphany show us?


Reading(s): Matthew 2: 1-12. This sermon was given by Brian Pickett at All Saints.

Ours is the age of the spectacle. Everything must be on screen. No mammal is safe in its mating without some voyeuristic naturalist appearing behind a bush; celebrities (and a few who would like to be) feel they have to be filmed baking, dancing, or generally behaving foolishly for the so-called entertainment of the public. The world of unreality TV. And, of course, many went to see Jesus, filled with expectation, as Luke puts it, some perhaps just out of curiosity. Curiosity, of course, can be a good thing; it’s what drives scientists forwards in their research.

Epiphany, however, is a ‘showing forth’, a ‘bringing into the light’. So it’s not unreasonable to ask, ‘Well, what does it show? What did the wise men see?’ The poet U. A. Fanthorpe, in the poem “BC-AD”, says:

"And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven."

They entered a new, different world, still set against the background of power-hungry, violent leaders, but a revelation. Here God appeared not just for a particular race or cult, but God’s news was open to all people, whatever nationality or status. But this coming, this appearing, was against all expectation, for, contrary to God’s inclusive outreach, this Christ, God’s Anointed, seemed to appear on the world stage, begging for room to be born, and hiding from enemies. If this was God’s kingdom of power, God’s appearing, it was like no other king or god they knew.

The appearing of Christ at his Baptism also shows us the kind of God, the kind of Kingdom, we’re being called to. Here, Christ’s first public, professional appearance, is in the wilderness, not the Temple. A baptism of repentance he did not need, yet God’s glory in all its brightness is shown coming alongside our weakness and need, which God in the flesh comes to share. God, our loving Creator, walks with us, as Isaiah says: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you’. Not apart from God’s own creation, but part with it.

So, if the Epiphany show us what kind of God we believe in, what does Epiphany show us about ourselves? What did the wise men learn from one who could not speak? T.S. Eliot, in the poem “Journey of the Magi”, puts it like this:

"Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly.
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our old places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here...."

Neither can we be. We have not put ourselves in danger like the wise men, but neither can we leave the Christ Child at Christmas: his epiphany in poverty and vulnerability travels with us; his outreach across barriers of geography and race and background challenges our prejudices and limited vision. His epiphany, open to all, including all, is hidden away in a stable in a backwater of the Roman Empire. Our calling shares that paradox: Jesus calls us to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth – light which needs to be shown, salt which has to dissolve to be tasted on our fish and chips. Sometimes, our faith needs to shine, in telling the truth, helping the needy; at other times with people who don’t share our faith, they don’t need our preaching – they need to feel, taste our faith discreetly.

Like the wise men who changed their route home to protect the Christ Child and put their own lives in danger, we cannot leave the Christmas crib unchanged. He helps us see that people we thought were insignificant, on the edge of our horizon, are valued and special to God, and therefore ought to be to us. He makes us see that ordinary and unattractive places like a stable or a wilderness, places and situations we might dismiss, can be the very times God’s glory may be shown. We cannot leave Christ in the crib.

For this God in Christ comes today in all his glory in ordinary bread and wine, and his Epiphany is shown today and tomorrow in your ordinary lives, Christ’s glory living in you.