A sermon for Epiphany
We’re taking a little break from publishing new material this week. Instead, here’s a sermon for Epiphany from 2012, originally delivered by Fr Jonathan Jong at All Saints’ in Dunedin, New Zealand. The original texts for the day were Isaiah 60.1-6, Ephesians 3.1-12, and Matthew 2.1-12.
Twigs and needles from the languishing tree are scattered on the carpet.
Tinsel and wrapping paper lay crinkled and crushed in some corner somewhere.
Tupperware, holding on to leftovers now somewhat less than appetizing.
Here we are, in the annual anti-climax.
We are back at our day jobs, at our desks a little bit fatter, a little bit poorer, and—if we’re honest—a little bit churched out. It’s a wonder we’re here at all.
Christmas seems to be over, the liturgical calendar notwithstanding, and it all seems to have ended with a whimper.
We are, in all likelihood, not the first to ask about the lasting significance of Christmas, of the birth of Jesus.
We are perhaps more familiar with Luke’s story of the nativity than we are with Matthew’s more down-to-earth version. There is, in the gospel according to Matthew, no census and thus, no journey to Bethlehem; nor is there an innkeeper and so, no manger; nor were there angelic choristers singing to awestruck shepherds. Instead, we are told a story of a couple living in Bethlehem, engaged to be married. Mary is inexplicably found to be pregnant, and—after some consideration and an unusual dream—Joseph marries her, whereupon they co-habitate but leave their marriage unconsummated for the time being.
It’s a boy. Jesus, they name him, as per Joseph’s dream.
But now what?
There are, of course, diapers to change and baby formulae to reheat.
There is a child to feed, to burp, to put to bed.
There is, in other words, the weary routine (not to mention, the routine weariness) of keeping a baby alive.
What with the weeks of sleepless nights, and post-partum depression, the promises of the baby shower, the first kick in utero, even the first embrace can seem uncertain and pale.
And so there they are, Joseph and Mary in the Judean hill country, a little bit fatter than she was nine months ago, a little bit poorer than he was then, and—so I imagine—a little bit anxious about this whole business.
In the mean time, unbeknownst to the new family, a group of “magi”—Zoroasterian astrologers or scholarly mystics of some other description, perhaps—pull up in Jerusalem. They had, pagan natural theologians that they were, examined their books of scripture and nature both, poring through textbooks and peering through telescopes; but what they discovered in their ivory towers proved insufficient for them. They had to see for themselves, this newborn King of the Jews.
It is odd that they should care, being Gentiles and all, but care they did, and so with bags packs and camels saddled, they headed East. One can only imagine their befuddlement at the ignorance of the Jerusalemites about the momentous birth of their new king, not to mention their awkward encounter with the old King of the Jews, about to be displaced by the very child they sought. Herod was surprisingly—perhaps suspiciously—very helpful, to the point of ordering a royal commission to figure out where this new king was born.
“In Bethlehem of Judea”, the religious scholars finally reported, and so they went, Herod’s request for a full debriefing ringing unsettlingly in their ears.
It was all very unusual, very unsettling. There they were—Jesus and Mary, the child and his mother, God knows what they were doing at the time, but surely they weren’t expecting this—and there they were, a bunch of dusty foreigners on their knees and on their faces, boxes of imported luxuries spilling out of their suitcases.
We are here, as you know, to celebrate the Epiphany (with a capital E), that is, the manifestation of the Messiah—Jesus, the anointed of the God of Israel—to the Gentiles, as represented here by the wise men from the rising of the Sun. Epiphany, in this sense, is about the universality—the catholicity, even—of the Gospel; it is about the God of Israel being the God of All Nations and, indeed, of the entire cosmos. Even the stars whisper of Jesus’s kingship; even pagan theologians pay him homage. But this event, this scene is epiphanous is another, more colloquial sense. Here, the penny drops; for Mary, for the bookish pilgrims, and—with any luck—for us.
At some level she knew, of course she knew, that this was a big deal, that this was bigger than her and Joseph, and whatever sex scandal into which their obedience might embroil them. But bigger than Israel? The angel in Joseph’s dream, the angel said to name him Jesus, because he would save his people. And yet, here before her were a bunch of oddly dressed, oddly named aliens from far away: not members of Jesus’s—and Mary’s and Joseph’s—people in any recognizable sense. And they were kneeling. And is that gold? Is that frankincense and myrrh? They bear gifts, fit for a king, even fit for a pagan god! There must be some mistake, or this is much, much bigger than we could have thought.
At some level they knew, of course they knew, that this was a big deal, that this was big enough to justify a roadtrip to the Jewish backwater. This kid—this olive-skinned, curly haired little boy—will be (no, is) the King of the Jews, properly and legitimately, as neither Israel nor Judah has seen for a good long while. Who knows why they cared about Jewish politics, but when they arrived, even they were blown away—overwhelmed, Matthew tells us—with joy. Speechless, or so it appears, they collapsed at the sight of the boy, and worshipped, their gifts now seeming paltry and inadequate, presented almost as an afterthought, or so I imagine. The experience, as profound ones are often said to do, stayed with them in their dreams, if indeed they managed to sleep that night at all. What they did not manage was, of course, to return the way they came. That is to say, their journeys, their paths, their ways could not remain the same and, by the same token, neither could their loyalties, to hell with Herod’s orders.
All of which is to say that the Incarnation is bigger than we expect, means more than we imagine. Jesus is born into but goes beyond Mary and Joseph’s family life, and so God is incarnate—the Word is made flesh—in much more than our personal habits and social interactions. Jesus is born in but goes beyond the Judean hill country, and so God is incarnate—the Word is made flesh—in much more than our denominational, ethnic, national, and other sectarian commitments. But what does this entail? Now what? What’s next?
What’s next is that our perceptions and judgements about the world and, so our actions in the world cannot be left untouched by the realization—the epiphany, if you will—that God participates in all spheres of life. The Incarnation forbids compartmentalization, and abhors domestication. This is, of course, both a promise and a call. The promise is that, at the consummation, all things will be put to right. The call is that we are to participate in the putting right of all things, which might involve, for example, making tough personal decisions as well as tough political ones. And so, the Holy Family’s subversion of contemporary social expectations and the Wise Men’s repudiation of existing political structures represent different ways in which the Incarnation changes everything, makes all things new. Even the stars in the sky look different, in the light of this son of David, this son of Abraham.
We can no longer go the way we came; we must take another road, another path, another way. What we will encounter on this journey, and what will be required of us, who knows? but it begins on our knees, with empty hands, our treasures recklessly abandoned before this child. And, at the end of it all, it ends at home. Amen.