s009g02 Lockleys 6/1/2002 Epiphany.
"King Herod É calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people ... inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 'And you, Bethlehem É from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" Matthew 2:3-6
I find it interesting that Herod was so secretive about this matter, when "every person and their dog" could see something "was up", merely by looking in the sky. I suppose it is my perverse nature which has directed my thoughts - not to the wise men or to Herod - both of whose actions are eminently predictable - but to the worthy religious authorities who consulted their Bible to answer the King.
It is an odd quirk of the lectionary that we celebrate the Epiphany, traditionally on the 6th of January, finishing the 12 days of Christmass, on a Sunday - an occurrence that happens only, I suppose, once in six or seven years. This year, Year A we have as the gospel last Sunday the second half of the gospel story for today, the flight into Egypt.
We again find the theme of the openness of God's actions to people outside, but that openness being "hidden" from those who considered themselves people who ought to be "in the know". The religious authorities dug into their files on scripture and came up with a logical guess, but it is clear that they made no move to investigate the matter further &endash; they obviously had better things with which to concern themselves. Herod, seeing some threat to his throne, wants to know more, and acts - even on the slim chance that what the wise men said was true. He clearly "believes" in what he considers a possible threat. The religious authorities, examine their texts and give an "orthodox" answer, but perhaps they don't believe even their own scholarship enough to enquire further.
And as I thought about this, I look back on my own experience of the Church and the predilections of clergy of many persuasions to enquire into the Bible, or examine the tradition, to consider the future directions of the church, when God has written the answer in the sky, so plainly that even foreigners can read and know what is going on!
Of course the message of the rainbow in the sky in the time of Noah is an immediate parallel to the star of Epiphany. The message of God's mercy for all people was written in the clouds for all to see. It didn't need someone with a theological degree, someone with mystical powers or someone with fluency in ancient languages to decipher. It is there for all to see - the shear beauty of it made the message quite unmistakable, even to the most untrained of observers.
I was made a deacon in 1977 and ordained a priest in 1978. My impression of the Church since those times has been that the sole preoccupation of the Church to look at the questions of the use of modern liturgies, the ordination of women, the interpretation of sacred scripture &endash; particularly when it comes to sexual ethics - and the future of the Church. While we have assiduously been ecclesiastically "navel gazing" - the real direction for the world has been happening around us. And I suspect most of us, like the clerics in Jerusalem, have been completely oblivious to what is going on, completely oblivious to what God is doing.
And God has been showing the world &endash; not us - that our ecclesiastical "navel gazing" is about as productive as the worthies in Jerusalem so long ago indulged in. We might just be able, possibly, to predict where something might possibly occur, but of course we have no inkling as to the actual time, or the actual person, or the actual reason É I suspect that the religious authorities were somewhat "chuffed" that Herod should consult them. They could show off their knowledge of how well they knew God's word - but in reality they knew nothing.
The message of the rainbow and the message of the star is identical, though hidden from ecclesiastical authorities &endash; the words of Isaiah and repeated by Jesus about seeing but not perceiving are here so pertinent &endash; is the wideness of God's mercy.
How often do we look at those words about seeing but not perceiving and immediately think of those who aren't Christians - when in all likelihood they are directed at the religious authorities, who had so much more motivation to not see? Mat 13:13 // Mk 4:12 // Lk 8:10 // Jn 12:40 // Isa 6:9-10.
And as I thought about it, I thought, has not God got a far, far wider agenda than the, often petty, concerns of the church? Do we actually think that God is interested in the continuing preservation of my particular strand of Anglicanism? It sounds a bit like this god, if it were really a reality, was something like an idol we had made.
When I look at the world, I see, at least in a small beginning, a nucleus of acceptance of people of different race, colour, creed or preferences for intimacy. I actually think that many of those things that have preoccupied our attention should have been settled long ago, and the only reason it remains something of an issue, is to distract the Church from seeing the star, from seeing the rainbow, from seeing the wideness of God's mercy. Some religious authorities have indeed a vested interest in not seeing.
And the rainbow and the star are a continual rebuke to the church that God is far more interested in getting the message across to ordinary people than to entrust it to the church and our pretty feeble excuses for "evangelism". The message is there for the church to pass on &endash; or not &endash; but the methods God uses makes sure that the mercy of God can never be hidden by ecclesiastical authority &endash; God makes certain of that.
What is my message? Am I interested in getting a whole lot of disciples following me? No!
My emphatic message is to look around and to see how God has inspired so many other people to look at others,
- to look at people of other colour as people with their own gifts to contribute ...
- to look at people of other creeds as individuals with an equal sincerity to ours ...
- to look at people who name God differently to us, as people who are not rivals ...
- to look at people who relate intimately to others in ways we don't perhaps understand
- at least they are relating to others in a caring way ...
When I look at the world and the lessons taught to children particularly in our state schools against bullying and discrimination, I think that it is wonderful that these messages are getting out to people. I would hate to go back to the "good old days" when we looked at anyone different to us and wondered ... Oh surely, we all have a way to go, myself as much as anyone else. Why do I particularly commend our state schools? Well, when I was much younger I did visit one of our leading church colleges, where the competitive nature of study and sport which was so much part of the ethos of the institution was equated with building up by the Holy Spirit. I wondered what happened to those who failed to measure up?
I return to my theme that the religious authorities show no further interest. They of course had no need. They had only to wait and they, or their successors, had the full ecclesiastical authority to deal with this "pretender" if and when he became a threat, and of course that indeed did eventuate, on the Cross.
I typed these words on the 17th of December, after I had prepared some "pedestrian" but acceptable sermons for Advent 4 and for Christmass and the Sunday after ... It surprises me that, in the midst of writing Christmass cards, spending time planning 2002 and almost as an afterthought thinking about Epiphany &endash; Epiphany of all things &endash; when I don't especially believe in messages from "natural" sources, - I produce a sermon which really has written itself! Actually, it also surprises me that I have just read the wonderful book: "God Lust - Facing the Demonic &endash; Embracing the Divine" &endash; which I found truly wonderful, but am lead, I do not know from whence, to type words which do not derive, at least consciously, from Kerry Walter's words.
It leads me to question, from whence comes the leading of God? I have cause to reflect, in the Diocese of which I am a part, we have various factions. The evangelicals look to the Bible, the Catholics to tradition, the Charismatics to the Holy Spirit. It is interesting to me that both evangelical and catholic can either support or oppose some of the modern movements I have listed. I think I have discerned another squabble &endash; does God speak through lay people (in the Partners in Mission movement), does God speak through Theological Reflection (in the academic strands of our Church) or does God speak through mysticism (in the spiritual side of our Church)? And I reflect that each of these are "hidden" to the general populace. None of these includes looking at the good in people other than those within what we perceive as the Church.
The message of the star of Epiphany and the message of the rainbow makes it quite plain that the message is too important for the message to be mediated. The message is that God loves everyone - that people other than us are inspired to work for good, just like us. This message is too important for God to entrust it to people who often seem concerned about other more important things.
And I suppose I have come to a tentative conclusion that when we look for justification for Christians to look to others - people outside the Church for inspiration - inspiration comes.
For the Bible is really just reflecting on the experiences and faith of others. The tradition is only reflecting on the experience and faith of others, a bit further down the track in history. The Holy Spirit also cajoles us to relate to others too - though rarely does this in practice look beyond the boundaries of the faith community. But I believe that it is particularly as we look to the society around us for inspiration that we are most likely to gain it.
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