Epiphany Fires

A sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

This is one of those sermons that has been dragged from my mind and thoughts – not because I find Epiphany difficult but because, like most of us, I too have been consumed by concern, worry and anxiety over the fires that continue to burn across Australia. Let me begin then by acknowledging that this country is going through an unprecedented period of so-called natural disaster. The present fires come on top of drought and flood which have marked recent years. Let me acknowledge, with sadness, the loss of life, livelihood and home for so many; the incredible courage and sheer bloody-minded determinedness and long dangerous hours given by the fieries, police, local leaders and all who work alongside them; the trauma suffered by many who have been directly affected by the fires, and those family members and friends who have stood on the sidelines, often feeling helpless; the incredible, and probably uncountable, losses sustained by both livestock and wild-life – animals and birds, reptiles and fish, not to mention sweeping swathes of forest, bush and farmland. Catastrophic is a very strong word – and one that has been used over and over again in recent days, weeks and now months.

I used the phrase ‘so-called natural disaster’ a moment ago quite intentionally, for, as climate scientists have been telling us for years, much of this was not only predictable but preventable. I acknowledge that I am firmly in that category of people labeled ‘Boomers’ against whom much anger of younger generations is focused. I find that difficult to live with – after all, who willingly puts up their hand to take the blame? But I am forced to acknowledge that it is the ‘Boomers’ who have benefited so lavishly from the good life we have lived at such expense to the world. And it is the ‘Boomers’ who are accused, rightly or wrongly, of being blind to the warnings, issued over decades now, of climate change, global warming and the like. It’s not that we did not know, but that we chose to ignore. Theologically speaking this is skotosis – a Greek word meaning the deliberate and intentional choosing to remain in the darkness, not to see the consequences of action, turning one’s back on a crisis.

Back in 1984 – a year that was looked to with fear and trembling by ‘Boomers’ and those of older generations aware of George Orwell’s book ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ – back in that year the Anglican Consultative Council set out the Five Marks of Mission as a framework for the world-wide Anglican Communion to live by. The fifth of these reads thus: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” https://www.anglicancommunion.org/mission/marks-of-mission.aspx

As the fires burn and people and wild-life are killed and injured we may ask ourselves how well we are doing on this 5th Mark of Mission with its three key words – safeguard, sustain and renew – the integrity of creation and the life of the earth.

And then we come to today’s readings, set down for the Feast of the Epiphany – the festival of enlightenment, of making known God’s mystery, of bringing light into the darkness. Isaiah 60 is part of a poem about Jerusalem – a city destroyed and seemingly forgotten, but now being rebuilt with new vision and purpose. The opening words are a clarion call – “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Is 60:1) For a people who had lived for so long in the darkness of abandonment and loss of hope the rebuilding of the ancient holy city was seen as a new beginning, the dawning of justice and peace (as today’s Collect puts it). In this most unexpected of ways, the rebuilding of a broken crushed city and people, God’s light is to be found.

Sometimes we need to look deep into the darkness to find the light, to see beyond the skotosis of our blindness. Just yesterday I was made aware of an example of this. For the past two years a breeding colony of black-headed gulls, among the world’s most endangered birds, has established itself in the ruins of an underground car park in earth-quake devastated Christchurch. In this place of death there is life – if only the developers will recognize it as such and leave the birds alone.

The psalmist waxed eloquent about the king and his obligations. Read the verses we are offered this morning again and again (Psalm 72:1-7,10-14). It’s a song of praise to God which sets out the responsibilities of the king – read prime minister, premier, lord mayor. The poor are to be judged with equity – on equal footing with the rich and powerful. In fact, as we read on, there is a definite bias towards the poor and vulnerable expected of those in high places – justice to the poor, rescue of the children of the needy. Taken seriously it is not a psalm that would sit comfortably with many of our world’s governing parties.

And then we get to Ephesians and St Paul’s unveiling of the mystery of God. Guess what, he says: there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile, between us and them. Those who were left out previously, the ‘them’, overlooked as being of no significance, are totally included in God’s plan. The Gentiles too are to have access to the boundless riches of Christ (cf Eph 3:8). What might this passage say to us in a country which, in so many ways, is so richly inclusive in its celebration of diversity and multi-culturalness, and yet, in so many ways, still excludes all too easily those who are First Nations Peoples?

And so to the gospel passage of the day, Matthew 2:1-12, and the account of the visit of the magi to Herod and then to Jesus. In our crib scene the shepherds have moved aside and the three kings, the wise men of the East, have taken their place, bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But before we get to the manger and the offering of the gifts, we need to deal with Herod the king. Not unexpectedly the visitors pay their respects to Herod and ask his advice. Herod is taken by surprise – he had no knowledge of this Messiah to be born. Yet his own wise people, the chief priests and scribes were aware of the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5:2) – they knew about this foretelling of someone to come. Was this one of Herod’s skotosis moments – the deliberate choosing not to acknowledge a hard truth – that God’s plan did not include Herod as king? Herod, far from being blind to the perceived threat of Jesus, actively sought to get rid of him by the killing of innocent children. It’s easy to make the connection between Herod’s actions in the face of the knowledge of his own advisors and those of the visiting magi – and the apparent blindness to well-founded advice by successive governments in regard to climate change and its consequences.

But, I ask myself, is there more that the wise men can teach us? I wonder who today’s ‘wise men’ might be, what their message is and their gifts are? What do we do with the ‘gifts’ of our ‘wise men’? The decades of careful measurement, the science that goes into the often dire predictions and warnings derisively dismissed by some as those of ‘raving inner city lunatics’ (Deputy PM Michael McCormick in November 2019), the collective wisdom of now retired fire chiefs, the courage of a sixteen year old, supported by millions of her age cohort around the world, in speaking about her, and the earth’s, future – are these perhaps the gifts brought by today’s magi?  

Epiphany is about light – the light we read about on Christmas Eve in the opening words of John’s Gospel. It is this light – that shines in and through the darkness – that we celebrate today. The Light is the Word. The Word is God, Emmanuel, God with us, a baby who holds the future in his hands. In the name of this child we pray again, as we did earlier this morning, the words of the Collect:

Lord God of the nations, we have seen the star of your glory rising in splendour: may the brightness of your incarnate Word pierce the night that covers the earth, signal the dawn of justice and peace, and beckon all nations to walk as one in your light. We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Word made flesh, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.