A sermon given during the 10:30am Sung Eucharist, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 1st of January 2023

Sunday 1st January 2023The Feast of the Epiphany

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.

The thing about the wise men is that they looked. They gazed at the night sky, possibly for night after night, wondering about what they saw there. They kept watch, and it may have been years of keeping watch before they noticed that star. It was probably deeply woven into their way of being. A pattern of keeping watch and the faith of it. That one day there might be something new, a star that was different, a sign from God, that a new thing was about to take place.

The prophets told us to keep our eyes open. Isaiah spoke in this way, some of my favourite words of scripture.

Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Do you not perceive it? God said through the prophet. It’s about a stance of keeping watch. Of looking at the sky, and the events of the times, and the hearts of human beings. To see God at work. God moving almost imperceptibly, God doing a new thing. That is always about making a way, bringing rivers to desert places, bringing life.

And, looking at our world, we need the hope of this don’t we? Looking at a world where we struggle to see the possibility of peace, looking at a world engulfed in a pandemic, where we struggle to see the possibility of healing, looking at a world where the land and water and seas of our very home are under threat, we struggle to see the possibility of wholeness for creation.

Until we adopt a practice of gazing, gazing perhaps at the night sky, as the wise men did. For God’s promise is that there will be a new thing. God’s promise is that God will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. Only we didn’t expect it to be seen in a star. And we didn’t expect it in the vulnerability of a child.

Yes, they kept their eyes open these wise men and when the star shone in the night sky, they packed up their belongings and they sat upon their camels and they embarked on a long, long journey. Firstly, to Jerusalem to see the king, because they thought he would know. They asked him about the child.

‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea…

And there was fear and there was threat. For the worldly king wasn’t wise. Hadn’t spent time watching the night sky, at all.

Would we embark on such a journey? Have we done so? Has a star risen in the darkness of our night sky … or has it shone in the words of a trusted friend, … or in a growing sense of vocation, God sent, that took years to shine, … or did words of scripture suddenly seem to have been written just for us, that time, that day, as if God was trying to tell us something, …or was it, as for Joseph, in a dream?

If God called to us, would we embark on such a journey? Cold, hard, frightening, away from all we know and all that comforts us, and yet somehow, a journey that we just could not say no to. Would we pack up our belongings and climb on camels and go? Such journeys are not always about geography. They may be journeys in our souls. It may be about seeking forgiveness for something for which we have not been able to forgive ourselves. It may be about forgiving someone else. It may be about a gift that we know we have hidden in our souls and that we are too frightened to allow to shine. It may be about allowing ourselves to rest a little more, knowing that our worth lies not in what we do, so much as who we are, made and loved in the hands of God. What might it be? There is a chance that we know. Or sometimes, the star that shines is utterly unexpected, and we were looking in quite a different direction, or perhaps, we had forgotten, what we knew as children, that the stars shine and call us to go on journeys on the backs of camels to stables in Bethlehem.

The journey was hard and needed to be taken slowly, carefully, with patience. But the star was there guiding them. And the knowledge of the threat of the jealous king, warned to them in a dream, was there to help them know the preciousness and the vulnerability of the child, and the care they must take with the precious knowledge of his whereabouts, when they found him. The journey needed great care. But the star was there, God was there, guiding them.

There, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they 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.

The star was utterly dependable. And we might remember that. When we find ourselves addressed by a star shining in the night sky and something in us tells us this is from God. Be it words of a friend, or words from scripture or a sense of vocation that takes years to emerge, to trust. The star can be trusted to lead us to the stable, to the one we are to worship, to our place of belonging, to the one who will heal us and save us, forgive us and bring us to life. To the one who will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. We can trust the star.

The three wise men, worshipped when they saw…the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in the manger, Mary, Joseph, the animals around…And then there were those three gifts.

It is interesting that in our passage from Isaiah this morning we heard of only two

Arise, shine; for your light has come,

   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth,

   and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,

   and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light,

   and kings to the brightness of your dawn…

They shall bring gold and frankincense,

   and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

As if the prophets might not have realised what lay ahead for the infant child. Gold for a king, frankincense for worship but then there is myrrh… myrrh for the anointing of his dead body. The kings must have sensed it… what lay ahead for the Christ child. Maybe their encounter with Herod helped them know. They could protect him now, by going home by another road, but the danger would catch up with him in the end. And the three gifts tell Mary and Joseph what lies ahead.

They came with joy, remember, when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. Might we be, overwhelmed with joy? After our journey? The slow journey following our star, whatever it might be? Might we be overwhelmed with joy?

And opening our treasure chests what shall we bring? All the years of keeping watch, all the effort of the long journey, and here, looking at the one we know we have come to be with, what shall we bring? Us, I guess. The carol puts it, beautifully, we bring our hearts. The hearts that are restless until they are found in him, until they sit in the stable and know, that in this child is healing and forgiveness and meaning for each one of us, and each ordinary human being that we so love, our family and our friends, and all creation. We bring our hearts.

It is a slow thing, this vocation of the three kings, our vocation. Keeping watch for stars, travelling long journeys, and when our star stops, gazing and loving and being loved. It is slow thing, this life as children of God, it needs our time.

The poet Michael Leunig knew that. He wrote about a journey and it might have been the journey to the stable in Bethlehem.

Dear God,

We pray for another way of being:

another way of knowing.

Across the difficult terrain of our existence

we have attempted to build a highway

and in so doing have lost our footpath.

God lead us to our footpath:

Lead us there where in simplicity

we may move at the speed of natural creatures

and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet.

Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel

the movement of creation in our hearts.

And lead us there where side-by-side

we may feel the embrace of the common soul.

Nothing can be loved at speed.

God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights

of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being. Amen.