Epiphany

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Readings

Isaiah 60.1-6
Ephesians 3.1-12
Matthew 2.1-12

Sermon

In ways I’m sure most of us never want to see again, this has been a Christmas like no other. But among the traditions that now seem to be well established is that of the theological Grinch coming to steal Christmas. A few decades ago it was the so-called liberal Grinch telling us none of it ever happened. Nowadays it’s more likely to be the conservative Grinch, pointing out all the bits of the story that aren’t in the Bible, and telling us, for example, that we shouldn’t be singing “We three kings” because the Bible never says they were kings, and it doesn’t say how many there were.

Both seem to me to be awfully unimaginative – stories feed the mind and the heart much more than dry facts and dull propositions, and the incarnation – the living God come into the world as this baby – is so hard to put into words, that poetry and story do it far more justice than a simple recitation of the creed.

And today, for those keeping this feast on Sunday, rather than this coming Wednesday, I’m sure a recording – and perhaps even a live performance – of “We three kings” will enrich the celebration.

And is it true that the kings aren’t in the Bible? The early Christians didn’t read their scriptures in the ways we do, and in our first reading today, they saw the epiphany story: “The nations come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness” (Is 60:3) says the prophet who inherited Isaiah’s mantle. “The young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60:6).

For those early Christians, whose Bible was what we call the Old Testament, these were the scriptures they read alongside the stories of Jesus. If Jesus was the light of the world, then clearly those who came to him bringing gold and frankincense, were the kings they heard about in the prophecy of Isaiah. The kings were in their Bible. And here, as so often in the gospels, it seems like the wrong people come to Jesus. It is foreign kings who come to his light, while Herod, King of Israel seeks to put the light out.

There’s never just one way to read these stories, of course, and we do need to pay some attention to the word Matthew uses for them magoi, or in Latin, Magi. (Matt 2:1) In the Greek Old Testament, it’s only used a couple of times – in the book of Daniel – and it means magician or sorcerer. They are the bad guys to Daniel’s truly wise man. And it’s only used twice in the New Testament outside this story. In the Acts of the Apostles, we find the false prophet and sorcerer, Elymas, trying to make life difficult for St Paul (Acts 13:8).

These sorcerers come, and because their magic can take them no further, need the wise men of Herod’s court to tell them where the king they have descried in the stars is to be born. The magicians turn out to be the ones interested in obeying the Bible, and going to Bethlehem, while those who read it, as Israel’s wise people, treat it like an almanac of interesting facts, and make no effort to look for the one who is the truth. And again, as so often in the gospels, it’s the unexpected ones who respond to Jesus.

The appearing of God in human flesh and blood, grown in Mary’s womb, and brought to birth in a humble dwelling – as St John puts it: “he came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, he gave power to become children of God.” (John 1:11-12) If we come – however weakly – to worship, if we bring – however falteringly –our gifts, if we see – however partially – the light, we might remind ourselves that we are also unlikely people, that God might be interested in us.

One of the biggest dangers we can ever fall into is assuming that “someone like that” – whatever that is like, wouldn’t be interested in Jesus. We have no rights to God, no ownership of Jesus, just a love we owe to the one who has loved us like this. And we need to put all our imagination, all our heart, all our poetry into telling this story in ways that others – and most especially those others who we might think just wouldn’t want to know about, wouldn’t ever be interested in the child of Mary – that they above all, might be able to hear. Because the God of Bethlehem’s manger is as interested in them, the unlikely ones to us, as he was in pagan kings and foreign sorcerers, as he is, indeed, in you and me: equally undeserving recipients of his love and light.

Questions for reflection

  1. How important are stories and poems for you in helping you respond to God?
  2. Is it shocking, or strangely comforting to think about the Magi as unlikely sorcerers?
  3. Who are some of the “unlikely” people in the area where you live, and how could your church use its imagination to engage with them?


Page last updated: 21st December 2020 12:15 PM
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