The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s010g13   Epiphany  6/1/2013

Herod .. was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him ..  Matthew 2.3

The birth of Jesus is only frightening to those with something to lose.   Herod feared losing his political power, but he was not the only one frightened.   All Jerusalem was frightened; they too had something to lose, their religious superiority.   And this second is interesting in that those in positions of religious superiority were afraid, afraid that God would not support their pretensions to status over others.   Perhaps they realised that their religious construct around 'them' and 'us' was actually not of God.

Time and again God uses those outside orthodoxy and devotion to confront the church with its exclusivism.   The message of the Epiphany is not the gifts the strangers brought to Jesus or that God arbitrarily interrupts the orderly procession of planets and stars, but the fact that the message of the incarnation confronts religious sectarianism and sacred selfishness, by whatever name, and using whatever justification.

Had these events happened 6 or 700 years later the wise men from the East would have probably been Moslem - claiming their place in the inclusive kingdom of God.

.. The term 'Magi' refers to the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism.   As part of their religion, these priests paid particular attention to the stars, and gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science .. Traditions identify a variety of different names for the Magi .. Encyclopædia Britannica states that "according to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India" ..

The religious hierarchy realised something very strange was happening here.   Three eminent men, presumably independently set out on this strange quest, again presumably meeting on the way, come without armies to this foreign land  to acknowledge the birth of a baby King.   This is not the stuff of horoscopes, clairvoyants or wishful thinking.   ‘On the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained.‘   Deuteronomy 19.15   This was something that could not be ignored.

To use the acceptance of a literal interpretation of this story, that a star that did not conform to the laws of physics, as a basis of entitlement and sanctified selfishness based on unquestioning acceptance of the unbelievable, is to fail to see the actual point of the story.

The reader or hearer of the story is left in no doubt that the author believes that in the incarnation God acts to confront religious sectarianism and sanctified selfishness to begin a reign of inclusivity and love.   Outsiders are the first to welcome this acceptance, whereas the reaction of the political and religious hierarchy in Jerusalem is instantaneous, underhand and murderous.

The story tells us in no uncertain terms that God will move heaven and earth for religion and faith to move from personal sanctified selfishness to corporate inclusiveness.  

Precisely the same literary devise is used in the story of Jonah and the whale.   To use the book of Jonah as a basis for entitlement and sanctified selfishness based on an unquestioning belief that an actual whale swallowed Jonah then regurgitated him back where he should have gone in the first place, is to fail to see the point of the story.   The point of the story is God's care for those who weren't Israelites.

And we in the church, when we reward unquestioning 'faith' and attending church, actively promote pretensions to authority, sectarianism and sanctified selfishness.

And we see the results of authoritarianism, sectarianism and sanctified selfishness all around us.   It is more than a little hypocritical for the church to complain at the injustices in the world when it fails to even see it's own selfishness and sense of entitlement.

Perhaps if we are not afraid at the story of the Epiphany we as the church fail to see that it confronts our own sense of superiority and entitlement.   The story of the leading by the star shows us the lengths God is prepared to go to institute this inclusive kingdom.   It ought to cause us, not to more earnestly repent of our sins, but to open ourselves to the contribution of others.

Indeed, for those of us who don't use the Bible as a basis for sanctified selfishness, we read the Bible stories for what they are.  We get the meaning without making a cardinal virtue of believing the unbelievable, a cardinal virtue of gullibility.   It is not about regarding the bible as less inspired, or avoiding the words of scripture to pander to modern society, but to take the import of the bible as a whole very seriously.

Similarly the Creed, and especially the Nicene Creed, can be used as a basis for sanctified selfishness on the basis of believing theological gobbledegook, but the real purpose for the Nicene Creed is to say God cannot be understood by anyone.

For of what earthly use to God (or to the world) is a bunch of gullible and suitably subservient people?   

I know that loving and inclusive people are useful to the world and many of these don't count themselves 'christians' precisely because they associate 'christianity' with sanctified selfishness.   At least inclusive people are not contributing to the maintenance of the divisions around us, using the name of 'god'.   Recently someone posted a saying of the Dalai Lama on Facebook: 'The planet does not need more successful people.  The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, story tellers and lovers of all kinds.'   And along with the planet not needing more successful people, I reckon that the world also doesn't need more puritans of the Sydney Anglican variety or the Westboro Baptist variety, and gullible and subservient people who follow them and others!

Many in the church are afraid, afraid of the advancing secularism of this age.   But the Epiphany tells us that the secular confronts the orthodox and the devout with the question - how is our orthodoxy and devotion helping society to become a more loving and inclusive place?   They confront the church with the claim that secular humanism offers society justice, equity and inclusiveness and if 'god' is opposed to these things, then they have no use for such a 'god' and nor should the church.

These wise men offer their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, at the service of the one who accepts them, the God of acceptance and inclusiveness, to make acceptance and inclusiveness more of a daily reality for more people, not to make God feel good, to earn their way into heaven, or to appease an angry deity.

Soon after God gave Moses the 10 commandments on Mt Sinai, including the sixth: 'Thou shalt not kill' he came down from the mountain to find the people 'running wild'.  So 'Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, "Who is on the Lord's side?   Come to me!"   And all the sons of Levi gathered around him.   He said to them, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Put your sword on your side, each of you!   Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour.'"    The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day.'   (Exodus 32.26-28)   It seems it is a propensity of religious people of all ilks to kill others who don't agree with them.   Indeed we could easily conclude that Moses was the original religious fanatic!  

It is no wonder that God keeps the divine face hidden and the divine name secret!  We actually have more to fear from the orthodox and the devout than from wandering heretics and secular humanists.