Epiphany, Sunday 6 January 2019, 8am & 10.45am
Isaiah 60.1-6, Matthew 2.1-12
Preacher: Mark Hart
Let’s briefly look backwards and forwards, like you do at the beginning of a year.
Firstly, what were the arguments about in your family gatherings this Christmas, politics, culture, sport or religion? Did the same old divides show up? Had everyone dug deeper into their trenches?
Disagreement isn’t a bad thing. It’s healthy to debate. But when things get polarized, often the truth is at neither end. Nor is it simply a compromise in the middle. Instead, gradually a new way of looking at things emerges that changes the question or shows that it was the wrong argument in the first place.
That new vision may take a very long time to appear – a gradual epiphany. There’s that rather sinister phrase we hear a lot these days: ‘on the right side of history’. It tries to make you judge
whether you’ll be proved right or wrong when the question is settled. But how can we know in advance, and why assume it will be as simple as one side being right?
Who was on the right side of history at the Reformation? It’s complicated isn’t it? And it’s a good thing if we’re learning not to take sides but to be led into a new vision.
Now, looking forward, what resolutions have you made? Or if you don’t do that at New Year, what’s the focus of your goals? Is it self-advancement in society, or self-improvement as a person? Are you going to conquer the world? Or tune in with nature? Are you at the stage of climbing the ladder to build an empire? Or are you now retreating to discover yourself on an island?
Probably neither, to that extent. An again we may ask whether there’s another way. Is there a way that allows us to take our place fully in today’s society, with significant influence, and yet not lose our souls?
The Church developed its doctrine by not being forced into one of two polarized positions on various issues.
During the 4th century there were arguments about how Jesus could be both human and divine, and people leaned one way or the other, or looked for a middle position. But in time the settled view, expressed in our Creed, is that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, without any compromise or contradiction.
There are similar doctrines where apparently contradictory things are held together. God is neither part of the world nor another thing in addition. We have free will, yet all the good we do is only because we are enabled by God’s grace. God is without parts or division yet he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are not identical.
In all these areas, there had to be a re-shaping of the underlying assumptions. Whenever we argue with each other there are always things we agree on, otherwise there could be no conversation. What if it’s necessary to shift on some of the things we agree on? And what if the question we disagree on looks very different once that shift has happened?
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, subtitled in the Prayer Book as the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. We celebrate a reshaping of thinking, an opening of eyes, a new way of seeing Christ, and a new way of seeing the whole world.
There were those who would have seen Jesus as just another baby. A lovely story, but it doesn’t change anything. When Jesus had grown up and begun his ministry, most regarded him as just one of the many itinerant teachers and healers who came by. He’s the one who left the carpenter’s shop to discover himself. He has his share of the market, and he may be a holy man, but he’s a lone voice, with little lasting impact.
And there were those who believed he may climb the ladder. Some of these were the disciples, whose hopes were that Israel would be set free and become powerful again, a big player among the nations. Others were Herod and the chief priests and teachers of the law, who were very worried about Jesus climbing the ladder because that would weaken their positions.
But here in this story of the Magi we are led to see Jesus in a way which breaks free of that divide.
First of all, it’s not just that we have a baby, who is no threat to anyone. We have foreshadowings of his passion, signals of this child’s future vulnerability. He is called ‘King of the Jews’, a name not used again in the Gospel until Jesus stands accused before Pilate. We have the rulers worried and plotting, both here and at the Passion. We have a flight to Egypt and a return, reflecting both the slavery and Exodus under Moses, and the cross and resurrection. We have myrrh, used for embalming, and pointing to the burial.
Altogether this tells us that the way of Jesus will be a passion, not because he won’t be active and challenging, but because his life will be given over to his Father’s will, spent in the service of the world. It will be nothing like climbing a ladder or attaining power. And on its own, this would suggest a life of little consequence and influence.
And yet, on the other hand, here kings are drawn to Jesus from far away in the east. This tells of an influence even more remarkable than the disciples anticipated. Israel will have a king. He’ll have no power in the normal sense. But he will draw people, not just from Israel, but from the nations of the world, to give their honour and worship. The Magi brought gold for a king, and myrrh for a death, and incense as if here they were offering their worship to God.
We’re back to those polarities again. How can you approach the child Jesus and both anticipate his burial and worship him as God?
How can this child have both cosmic influence and no future in any sphere of power?
How can he be utterly grounded, at peace with who he is, in tune with the creation, and at the same time, the Word made flesh, the incarnate Son of God?
None of this makes sense unless we allow this baby Jesus to change how we think both about God and about ourselves.
Jesus did not become divine by achieving amazing things. He didn’t become more divine when he developed as an amazing teacher. He was not God because he had special powers – he didn’t have any special powers.
He was human like us. There was no added extra. His flesh was held in being by the same Word which sustains us, yet with an openness, a transparency to God which was complete from the moment of conception.
And that is not something superhuman, but fully human. More human than us actually. Our goal is not to rise above our humanity and climb a ladder beyond our limits as creatures. Our goal is to become more ourselves. That way we become more divine. We come to share in the fruition of the glorious Godhead, as the Prayer Book collect puts it.
You may this year both become more truly yourself, discover yourself if you like, grow in openness to God and to others, and paradoxically, not retreat or give up on influence and significance in the world, but become a conduit for extraordinary things which God can do through you. In ways you may never see or know, and on a timescale we cannot share.
It’s not about being on the right side of history. It’s not about being right or wrong in any simple way. We’re not called to be self-consciously worried about that in all our decisions and opinions. We’re called to look beyond ourselves, to be attentive to God and to the world. Trust God with the rest. Whatever happens, God’s on your side. In Christ he is for you, forever.