Sermon - Sunday, 7 January 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 7 January 2018.

Scripture: Isaiah 60: 1-7 / Matthew 2: 1-18

Text: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’          (Matthew 2: 1)

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

Epiphany - in common language an epiphany can mean a moment of sudden revelation into the nature, essence or meaning of something.

It describes that penny dropping moment when whatever you have been struggling to do or understand suddenly becomes clear – like how to use the new piece of electronic wizardry you were given at Christmas!

In Christian theology however Epiphany has a very different meaning.

Celebrated on 6th January, 12 days after Christmas, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus.

Named in ancient tradition as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, and said to represent Europe, Arabia and Africa respectively, the magi came with special gifts.

Gold for a king, frankincense to symbolise Christ’s divinity, and myrrh to symbolise his human mortality – and they came to the infant Jesus, not the baby Jesus.

Although it is impossible to determine the exact timescale, the suggestion is that Jesus was at least a toddler by the time of their visit.

A small detail perhaps, but it helps to make sense of Herod’s instruction to kill not just all Bethlehem’s new born babies but all the boys who were up to two years old.

Quite who the Magi were and where they came from is also hard to determine – perhaps part of a stream of wisdom-seekers of a priestly cast of Medes from an area we would now know as modern day Iraq.

Whatever, whoever, despite the lack of verifiable historical detail, there is considerable theological significance to the visit of the Magi – it marks the revelation – the epiphany -  of Christ to the Gentile world, that the one born the king of the Jews is born to be the Saviour of the whole world.

And the significance of this cannot be overestimated because, as Matthew tells the story of their visit, one of his concerns is to teach us something about Jesus, his ministry, his mission, and what it means to be one of his disciples.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked,

Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magi comes as quite a shock.

Whereas Luke tells us about shepherds abiding in the fields and watching over their flocks by night, choirs of angels celebrating the birth of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, there is nothing sweet nor sentimental about Matthew’s dark and foreboding story of political intrigue and murderous rage.

The innocent sounding reference to time and place, and the information that Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the time of King Herod, provides the clue.

This is not just a piece of incidental detail.

This fact is offered to confirm what the prophet Micah had said some seven centuries earlier; that a ruler would come from Bethlehem in Judah who would be a shepherd to God’s people Israel.

So as he tells us about the Magi with their precious gifts and King Herod’s murderous response, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus’ birth comes as a challenge to the world, the world represented by the power dealing, deception and political manoeuverings of Herod.

Something new is afoot, something different, the centre of gravity is shifting and new powers are being set loose in the world.

Apparently the appearance of the Magi caused quite a stir.

It certainly stirred Herod who was immediately suspicious that this new king of the Jews posed a threat to his position and power.

But Matthew reports all of Jerusalem was troubled too.

Evidently the Jerusalem religious establishment was also suspicious of a new king who wasn’t under their control or supervision.

And because we know what follows, we know all these suspicions proved to be more than justified.

Jesus was indeed a threat to the power brokers of the day, religious as well as political, and Herod had the wit to grasp this.

For the moment however it is sufficient for Matthew to alert us to the forces and interests that will eventually oppose Jesus and bring about his demise.

Having made some enquiries we learn that Herod summons the Magi secretly to learn when the star first appeared and tells them that he too is keen to worship the new king.

Herod knows that knowledge is power.

However, having been led from Jerusalem to Bethlehem where they eventually find the mother and child and present their precious gifts, the Magi are warned in a dream not to return to Jerusalem and make their way home by another way.

To our relief we learn Herod’s plans to kill the Christ child are thwarted.

But to our dismay we learn of Herod’s murderous response, the killing of the innocents with the Holy family forced to flee into Egypt.

As the story unfolds one of the things we discern is the way Herod and Jesus represent two empires, two sharply contrasting embodiments of authority and power.

Herod will use his power to defend himself and his interests at all costs, even at the cost of the lives of children.

Jesus will take children in his arms and, at the cost of his own life, he will teach his disciples that unless they become like little children they will not enter the kingdom of God.  

In other words there is no hiding place and Matthew could not be more brutally honest about the sometimes appalling abuse of human position and power.

Human suffering is not some trifle easily dismissed.

As millions of the world’s people could testify, it is real, brutal and painful.

Rachel weeps bitterly for her children and all Ramah hears her voice.

Yet even now, as part of the birth narrative, Matthew wants us to know God will not be defeated.

As the holy family flees into Egypt, Jesus’ life is protected, not because it was more important than the lives of the other children, but so that when the time comes for him to die, God’s love will finally prevail over the malevolent powers of evil and death.

Disturbing?

Unsettling?

Yes it is.

And that is surely part of Matthew’s purpose – from the beginning to set before us the profoundly reassuring insight that if Jesus is to be the Saviour of the world then he cannot plead special privilege and protection as the Son of God and so escape the world’s darkness.

Indeed the very opposite must be true.

If Jesus is who Matthew claims him to be, is the Christ, the Messiah, he needs to be where pain and suffering are found, a refugee, an outsider, someone pushed to the margins, treated unjustly and unfairly.

Suddenly the story takes on a very contemporary resonance.

Suddenly it speaks to our world of persecution, oppression and refugees.

Suddenly it speaks to your life and mine with all its joys, sorrows, challenges and opportunities.

‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Scotland and yet there are still churches where women cannot be ordained and there are many walks of life where neither pay nor opportunity is the same for men and women.

2018 marks the Year of Young People and because the Bible has a lot to say about children and young people within the community of faith, later this month we will celebrate their contribution to the life and faith of our church.

Yet for all the wonderful opportunities created for young people by the internet and social media, we need to be ever more mindful of the dangers our children and young people face.

2018 also marks the centenary of the end of the 1st World War, the Great War, the war to end all wars ……………. if only.

Epiphany, a moment of insight as through the story of the magi we are led to the hope that beyond all we know or understand, God is with us, light for our darkness, comfort for our sorrow, hope for our despair.

Those years ago they came with precious gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, but today their gift to us is equally precious; the faith that whatever this new year brings of joy or sorrow, success or failure, life or death, we are held in a love that will not be defeated, a love that will never let us go.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen