Epiphany: 6 January 2019 – The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
Isaiah 60: 1 – 6
Psalm 72: 1 – 7, 10 – 14
Ephesians 3: 1 – 12
Matthew 2: 1 – 12
Imagine the scene. Balthazzar, the youngest at 67, is getting tired. “Will we ever get there? How much longer? How many more flies and dust-storms and recalcitrant camels do I have to put up with?” From the front Melchior, a stately king if ever there was at 72, replies, ‘Cheer up man, can’t be far to go now, perhaps only one more sleep. Look how brightly the star is shining tonight.’ The old man in the middle, Caspar, immersed in his deafness, recites to himself, as he has done many a time, the ancient text from Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (Isaiah 60:1)
The music associated with Epiphany has always been among my favourites. The rollicking ‘Ooooo-oh star of wonder star of light’ of “We three kings” and John Monsell’s hymn, “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” with its inspiration and opening line from Psalm 96. Menotti’s delightful children’s operetta “Amahl and the Night Visitors” made a deep impression when I saw it as a child and later sang the part of Caspar; and who can not be moved by the haunting counter melody floating above the chorale in Cornelius’s “The Three Kings.” I am looking forward to the cello and organ version played by Rachel and David later this morning. Gold, frankincense and myrrh. Such mystery about those gifts. And the wonderful hand-rubbing deception of Herod by the magi in slipping away by a back route; thus allowing the holy family to escape to Egypt.
But today I want to think of Epiphany in terms of power and task. Power first. That area of the Middle East known as the Promised Land, land of milk and honey, the Holy Land, Judah, Israel, Palestine was, for most of its history until the time of Jesus, a country caught between the super powers, invaded by one or another, paying tribute to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic rulers who followed, and then the Romans. Down south, always the threat of Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
Ancient Israel, this catch-all phrase used to encompass the Bible lands, and, apart from the geography, having little in common with the modern State of Israel, was what we might call a ‘giving’ nation. It was constantly having to give of its wealth, natural resources, people – being milked by nations stronger and more powerful, perhaps more ruthless, than it. Gold and slaves yes, but also the wisdom, the scholarship, the centuries of thinking and pondering that produced the Proverbs and Wisdom. Tempted as the people were, especially during the greatest of all catastrophes, the Babylonian Exile, to give up on their god whom they struggled to name, there was always a small number who remained faithful to this un-nameable god, the one who was made known to Moses at the burning bush simply as “I am”. Oppressed, crushed, beaten they may have been – but there was always a Daniel prepared to go into the lion’s den, an Elijah or Amos or Jeremiah or Judith, prepared to stand up for their God.
Today’s first reading from Isaiah 60 – “Arise, shine; for your light has come…” shows a remarkably positive outlook not only on life but on the place of this tiny constantly occupied and oppressed country sandwiched between the super powers. Instead of paying tribute, handing over their gold, their women as concubines, their men as slaves, their knowledge – Isaiah’s vision suggests the reverse would be true. This little nation, with its capital city Jerusalem, would be a shining light to the world. It would draw the peoples of the world to it. It speaks of a great returning of the exiles, accompanied by the largesse of a grateful world. The gold and frankincense brought on camels from Midian and Ephah and Sheba would pour into, not out of, this tiny mountain kingdom. And God would be glorified.
This is the context of thinking in which we need to read the story of the magi, the kings coming to Bethlehem. It is, says Matthew, the fulfillment of an extraordinarily bold and ambitious vision from of old. Who could honestly dare to believe that this pip-squeak of a country could ever command, not only the respect of the nations of the world, but their gold and riches? And so, at the very beginning of Matthew’s account of the life of Jesus, and not bothering with stories about shepherds in their fields and angels singing as Luke does, we get the story of the magi.
The story is set very intentionally in a power context. Herod is the king. More than that, Herod is the king appointed, and tolerated, by the mighty Roman Empire. There is no question as to where the real power lay – not with Herod but with Caesar. To this man the magi come inquiring about a new king – the king of the Jews. These strangers, foreigners, clearly do not recognize Herod as king of the Jews. They are searching for someone else. To the child Jesus they offer their gifts – in exactly the same way as the prophet Isaiah had foretold, bringing gold and incense from their faraway lands. It’s a very deliberate slap in the face to both Herod and Rome! You may think you are king, but our gifts are not for you.
Of course, as we heard a moment ago, it was not only gold and frankincense they brought, but also myrrh. This was an unusual addition and the reason for it will not become clear until the end of the Jesus story. It is left to St John to clear up the mystery of the myrrh. He tells us that Nicodemus brought about an hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes with which to anoint the body. (John 19: 39) Gold and frankincense may be the symbols of royalty, of someone worthy of worship – but there is also death in the mixture. And in the Gospels that have come down to us, that we read week by week in our services, it is at the point of death that the true nature of Jesus’s kingship is finally recognized. This is not like any other kingship. This is the kingship which St Paul would write about when he quotes an early Christian hymn to the Philippians. (See Phil 2) This may be the sort of kingship, leadership, power, that Isaiah had in mind when writing those enigmatic Servant Songs which appear a few chapters before today’s upbeat passage.
Epiphany, the Christian festival which is about so much more than simply wise men from the East, speaks into a context of power. Epiphany says that those we think have power, those who think they have power, do not necessarily have God’s power. Epiphany links the gold and frankincense demanded by kings of their subjects, with the myrrh embraced in the death of Jesus when he hung, naked and exposed, on the cross with a label above him: “This is Jesus. The King of the Jews.” (Matthew 27: 37)
So much for power in the story of Epiphany. What about task? For that we turn to Ephesians 3: 1 – 12, today’s New Testament reading. There are two particular things to notice here. First, we read in verse 6, that “the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” Fellow-heirs, members, sharers. Three significant words. The Gospel of Jesus Christ – preached, lived and died – is what St Paul proclaims, especially, significantly, to the Gentiles. These are the outsiders, the non-Jews, those who do not, under any circumstances, belong in God’s family. It’s hard for us to hear the full import of what Paul is saying. Those who were totally outside are now included – and all through the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
And the second thing to notice appears in verse 10, “through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The task of the church is to make known the wisdom of God. And it is all in accordance with the eternal purposes carried out in Jesus Christ. What an incredible task! And it’s yours and it’s mine. To make known to the world the wisdom of God. That is Epiphany.
The magi, the wise men of Matthew’s Gospel, brought their gifts to the Christ child, born to be king of the Jews. That’s a movement from the outside in to the centre. The task of the church, at its best, is to be the new magi, taking the wisdom of God, the love of God, out into the world. And guess what Matthew does at the very end of his Gospel? He has Jesus commission the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. (Matthew 28: 16 – 20)
Epiphany, the making known of the glory and wisdom of God does not stop with the star when the magi present their gifts; Epiphany, the making known of the glory and wisdom of God, continues into today and tomorrow as we so live and speak the Gospel of Jesus Christ that all the world may know the one to whom the wise men brought their gift of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It begins, as the last line of Cornelius’s anthem “The Three Kings” suggests, when we offer Him our hearts.