s010ag99 Somerton Park 3/1/99 Epiphany

"On entering the house ... the wise men ... saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh." (Matt 2:11).

I am not sure why our Anglican Lectionary, it seems for the first time (but perhaps this is only because I have not noticed it before) allows the celebration of Epiphany on the Sunday prior to January the 6th, rather than on the Sunday after. I have always considered the feast of the Baptism of Jesus a touch more important than the Epiphany, but I have lamented the fact that Epiphany so rarely falls on a Sunday. It is an important feast, but after how many years of preaching for Christmass 2, I think it is time to celebrate the Epiphany on a Sunday rather than to have a rerun of John 1:1-18, the gospel reading for that day each and every year.

In ancient times the feast was considered more important than Christmass itself and is celebrated by the Eastern Churches as the Baptism of Jesus.

I remember, a long time ago, being told that the importance of the Epiphany was that as gentiles, Epiphany showed us right from the beginning of Jesus' life, the universality of the gospel - to include us.

However I would want to say that if we look to this, or any other feast, to be reassured that salvation extends to us, I wonder whether we might reconsider - that actually it's importance is that God's salvation extends to others ... too.

It is indeed true that God's actions had hitherto been perceived as primarily within the salvation history of the Jewish nation, and that the Epiphany shows us that the gentiles were included too. However the appearance of the star brings a cosmic dimension. The Messiah comes, not to bring me a private assurance of personal salvation, whether I be Jew or Gentile - the Messiah brought salvation for all of creation. The Lord is not MY shepherd. God has a concern for all of creation and for individuals as part of that creation.

For the Church has oft been in the habit of being taken as SIMPLY replacing and superseding the Old Israel with customs and ceremonies which turn out to be not especially dissimilar to those of the Old. I have grown up thinking that now God's actions are to be perceived as primarily within the salvation history of the Christian Church, if not the Anglican Church in particular. A moment's logical thought about this reveals how silly this would be if it were true. With the best will in the world I cannot with any skerrick of honesty think that the practice of the faith of the Church has in one iota bettered the practice of the faith of the ancient people of God. We are left with the only alternative that God has fared no better with us than with them - and that the Cross and Resurrection was therefore a waste of time and energy.

Since no one believes this - it must logically follow that Jesus' Cross and resurrection includes that ancient people of Israel, people of other faiths, people of little or no faith, indeed all of creation. Jesus' coming excludes no one; it includes all.

And how does it include all? It includes all because of the gifts offered by the wise men are acknowledged, received and accepted, if shown by nothing else, through the continuing testimony of the words of scripture. There is no question that the gifts were not accepted - though we are never to know what became of them. One wonders how Joseph and Mary lived an ordinary life after having received what must have been the equivalent of a sizable lottery win. They would have ceased to be the poor, lowly couple which has been the cause of countless people's endearment of them.

So began Jesus' life of acceptance of what people offered. Some people's offerings were mean and begrudging, like the reception he received at the house of Simon the Pharisee. Other people's offerings were extravagant in the extreme - the woman with the jar of pure nard immediately springs to mind. The reception in the palaces of Herod and Pilate were offerings of violence, but for Zacchaeus it was the occasion for overflowing generosity, not towards Jesus, but for the needy and those he had defrauded. (Luke 19.8).

It is completely surprising to the religious authorities that these wise men arrive, completely "out of the blue" as it were. Knowledge of Jesus' birth was not given to any of the sages of orthodoxy - they can but hazard a guess at the possible location. They would have hardly thought that such an important person would to be born in a common house - they would have shared the wise men initial thought that the birth was most likely to take place in the royal apartments in Jerusalem. Had the sages of orthodoxy believed their own prediction - they would surely have accompanied the wise men to check the veracity of the report.

When St Paul says "we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him" - our job is not to question anyone else who comes to God - to question their boldness or confidence. He speaks about mystery, and the mystery is the actions of God in others, others where we least expect it, others where "conventional orthodoxy" would never expect to find it.

Sometimes when the Church has used the word "mystery" I have thought it a bit of a put down - a bit like - when you grow up you'll understand ... Sometimes I thought it was used to imply: when I fully accept the catholic faith - i.e. become an Anglo catholic - I will be content with the sacred mysteries and value them for all they are worth. Sometimes the church is talked about as a mystery - in the same vein as Jesus talks about the first being last and the last first. It is a mystery who is in and who is out. Or the word mystery is used in the context of not knowing what God is about. "Who can know the mind of the Lord, and who has been his counsellor?" asks the psalmist. I guess I have some sympathy with this, because no-one can know what God has in store for any of us - if God indeed does have personal destinies for individuals - something I am beginning to question more and more.

Yet if we are no more in the light than the ancient people of God, it begs the question: "Has Jesus died and been raised, and we still don't know what God is about in the world?" If we are in fact no closer to solving the mystery of God's purpose for the world we are left with the only alternative that God has fared no better with us than with anyone else - and that the Cross and Resurrection was therefore a waste of time and energy.

God's purposes must be plain, and yet they must also transcend simple obedience to the laws and a moral or ethical code.

God's purpose is about grace for all people, about accepting the offerings of all - those who came to worship him, like the wise men - as well as those whom Jesus had to seek out. Indeed it is true "wise people seek him still" - yet the eternal good news is that God has been forever seeking all people and accepting their contributions.

The feast of the Epiphany is important then, because as the Church has always perceived, it assures us, right at the very beginning, that salvation extends to the gentiles - which of course most of us are. But that is not a begrudging extension of salvation - as if it were an afterthought on the part of God. God accepts the offerings of one and all.

Perhaps CS Lewis helps. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the final volume is "The Last Battle", and in chapter 15, Emeth the conscientious Calormen tells how he had met Aslan - the rival of Tash whom he had worshipped all his life. Aslan had said to him: "If any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted ... this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved who am but as a dog -" (p155)

I can't resist quoting the next passage too - the girls will have to forgive me:

"Eh? What's that?" said one of the Dogs. "Sir" said Emeth. "It is but a fashion of speech we have in Calormen." "Well, I can't say it's one I like very much," said the Dog. "He doesn't mean any harm," said an older Dog. "After all, WE call our puppies BOYS when they don't behave properly." "So we do," said the first Dog. "Or GIRLS." "S-s-sh!" said the Old Dog. "That's not a nice word to use. Remember where you are".

The "mystery" such as it is, is largely humanity-made, who want to restrict God's blessings to others. The revealing of the mystery is that God's activity and blessing is not restricted to the religious people in society, but that God seeks out and inspires and accepts the offerings of one and all.

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