Epiphany

Epiphany is about Kings – but which ones? This story from Matthew seems to focus on kings– but not the ones we might think of. ‘We three Kings of orient are’ goes the carol – yet the Bible doesn’t call them kings, rather Magi, often translated wise men. Perhaps if they had been had been wiser, their gifts for a new mother might have been nappies, enough casserole to last a week, and a plentiful supply of chocolate…

 

So the Magi aren’t kings. What about Herod? Yes, he’s just a puppet of the Romans, yet Herod has real power over life and death. However v.1, in that little double edged phrase ‘in the time of King Herod’ hints that Herod’s time is passing away. The first readers of Matthew’s gospel would have known that Herod died soon after these events.  His earthly kingdom will not last.

 

Really, the king here is King Jesus. Herod in his splendour, the wise men with their gifts, these are not the true kings. The baby lying in the manger will grow up to be God’s king. In Jesus, God’s promised Saviour comes to reign. He offers us the way into God’s Kingdom. How then we will we respond?

 

It’s worth thinking about what we mean by the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom does not just mean that God reigns in heaven and one day we shall go to join him there. If that was all it meant, then why did Herod feel so threatened? Why bother to kill Jesus if his purpose in life was just to sort out what happens after we die? If Jesus came preaching a privatised spirituality or a personal morality then why was he crucified?

 

The Christian church has often misunderstood the Kingdom of God; narrowed it down, turned it into something purely spiritual. Often we’ve focussed so much on the truth that Jesus offers us eternal life, that we’ve forgotten that this world matters to God too. Both are important. We’ve emphasised that Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven – without realising that also means that all of God’s glorious creation will be healed. He plans a total restoration.

Jesus did not just tell us how to live as we wait for heaven – he told us how God’s Kingdom begins, grows and changes this world.

 

The Kingdom of God breaks in whenever God’s reign is recognised. We join it when we accept Jesus as Lord – and we grow the work of the Kingdom as we live God’s way. The Kingdom of God brings justice, joy, peace, forgiveness, a new community following Jesus. It has implications for all of life: political, economic and environmental.

People sometimes say that the church is irrelevant – but look at the places where the church is making a difference today: debt cancellation; campaigning and practical steps to end modern slavery; providing food banks so families in a poverty trap can get a decent meal; inquiries like that for Hillsborough which bring truth and justice.

 

So when we look at our New Year’s resolutions, how does faith make a difference? Are the things we hope to do all about ourselves: lose weight, eat better, drink less, get healthier – or can we include hopes, steps towards a better world? Where can we see the Kingdom of God growing around us? Can we listen to what God is doing and join in?

 

For the Kingdom of God affects this world. It’s obvious in the passage we’ve just read: the Magi are Gentiles which tells us that this Jewish Messiah has come for all people. Even the natural world is affected as a star points the way to his birth. It is a Kingdom for this earth, in all its messiness, making a real change because it comes in a different way.

 

There was a remarkable example of the way earthly kingdoms work just this past week. Kim from North Korea had boasted about his nuclear button. Donald from the States went onto Twitter to say that his nuclear button is much bigger than Kim’s, and what’s more it works.

 

That’s all about power and force. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work this way. The Kingdom of God doesn’t even move forward by the good guys being stronger, in a traditional way, than the bad guys.

The Kingdom of God is not about doing what the world does. Nor is it about doing something a little bit different, more moral, but in a bigger and better way. Its ethos is radically different.

 

I wonder who’s seen the new Star Wars film? I really enjoyed it – it’s a break with tradition, refreshing. And to get the best from the action, it’s really worth seeing in the cinema.  I’ll try not to give too many details away – hopefully this doesn’t need a spoiler alert! There’s a bit where one character saves another – and she says: ‘that’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.’

 

It reminded me of the cross. Those gifts that the wise men bring are a kind of prophecy. Gold speaks of royalty; frankincense symbolises an offering; while myrrh is used at the time of death. This is a king who will bring in his kingdom in a totally new way.

 

The gospels point towards the cross as the place where Jesus wins his victory. They allude to it as being like a throne. Which seems a bit odd – given that to all intents and purposes death by crucifixion looks like an abject failure. Yet this is God’s way of victory. For Jesus does not defeat evil by having a larger army. He doesn’t squish empires by force of arms. What happens on the cross is that God’s Son Jesus, as a representative of humanity, allows evil to do its worst to him. He offers himself, makes himself vulnerable, and evil pours itself out in hatred upon him until it has nothing left. Jesus wins the victory by draining sin of its power, by dying our death, saving us whom he loves.

 

Which may help us to face the obvious objection: If you say God is the King of our world, have you looked out the window recently? Since 2018 began we’ve had stabbings, riots and threats of nuclear war. So if God’s supposed to be reigning what’s he up to?

 

 

Our reading from St Matthew is well aware that evil can still wreak horror. Immediately after this reading, Matthew tells of how Herod in his jealous rage ordered the death of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem. Herod planned to wipe out the infant Messiah.

 

 

Yet for all his anger, Herod was unsuccessful. God’s plan was not thwarted. Today evil still rages in our world, but its ultimate defeat is guaranteed. Jesus has won the victory on the cross – and the Kingdom is growing. Small at first, like a mustard seed or a handful of yeast it will nonetheless spread through all the dough. And eventually the time will come when Jesus returns and the whole creation will be judged and renewed.

 

When William Wilberforce and his friends won the key vote to ban slavery in the British Empire, there were still struggles. The law had to be implemented, patches of resistance cleared up. Even in our own day, people are had up for forced labour and domestic servitude. But the passing of that law was the decisive victory.

 

In a similar kind of way, Christ’s victory has been won on the cross, but God’s people may still be called to follow in that way of the cross. Working for the Kingdom of God may involve sacrifice – the wise men travelled many miles, endured danger, and gave generously. Staying in God’s plan may involve us setting off into the unknown, like Mary and Joseph who fled to Egypt.

 

As we begin a New Year, we do not know what the future holds. We may be called to trust God in the midst of darkness. We may be asked to make sacrifices. If we do, let us remember that we do so knowing that Christ is King and that the world is his. If we face challenges, let us remember that Christ has won the victory. And may we, like the wise men, know the presence of the King and be filled with his joy.

 

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Epiphany

I wonder if you did much travelling over Christmas and the New Year? And if so, how was it for you? A long journey that must just be endured before you arrive at the destination? Traffic jams, road closures, pop songs playing in the back, until at long last we reach Granny’s and the celebrations can begin.

For many of us, much of the time, the point is the destination, not the journey. But there can be times when the journey itself is significant. For me, driving over to the 8 am communion is a spiritual preparation – the stillness of the sleeping villages, the orange-misted sun rising over the frosted fields – it’s a time to connect with God and prepare for the day. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination – in The Canterbury Tales we hear the stories the pilgrims tell on the way, but Chaucer never describes their arrival.

Our reading today from Matthew 2:1-12 shows us the wise men on a journey of discovery. Like a treasure hunt, they follow each clue until eventually they arrive in the presence of the infant Christ. Today the story encourages us to think about life’s journey. How does God speak to us now? How does he call you and me to know Jesus better?

For God is a God who guides. The God of the Bible communicates. He calls us to know him; he invites us to respond to Christ; he tells us what is best for us. The story of the wise men wouldn’t make sense at all if it weren’t for a God who guides. It completely depends on the idea that God is drawing these people towards Jesus. It’s often worth looking at unstated assumptions – and the big one behind this story is that God wants to communicate with people and can communicate with people.

That may seem obvious. But it’s really worth pointing out, because this is quite distinctive in the Christian view of God. Some faiths and forms of agnosticism believe in a God who is distant and leaves us to the task of working out what’s best. Even many Christians imagine God giving us direction in the 10 Commandments, then leaving us to get on with it.

But Biblical faith believes in a God who’s interested in each one of us individually, who cares that each person should encounter Christ, who guides us through our own situations and prayers. We believe in God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit, and I want to reflect on that today.

And what a surprising God we worship! I did briefly wonder about showing a clip from The Life of Brian at this point – because Monty Python really do get the complete bizarreness of it. The grand visitors from the east, their peculiar gifts, worshipping a baby Messiah in a peasant’s house.

The wise men are not the people you would expect, nor the guidance that’s obvious. Magi were the scientists of the day, wise ones who studied the stars. Yet mixed in with their planetary observations and predictions of orbits was a great deal of what we would call magic. The science of astronomy was not yet separated from the superstition of astrology – about which the Old Testament is sometimes disapproving.

Somehow though God spoke to the Magi through this star – they grasped its symbolic significance. He can speak to people today through natural wonders: many see in the order and beauty of creation a testimony to God. And it’s true that there are many scientists who are also Christians. Indeed God is perfectly capable of revealing himself to all sorts of people who, perhaps even unwittingly, are seeking him. There are many stories of Muslims having dreams in which Jesus calls them; accounts of New Age spiritual seekers sensing the presence of God. They may be doing unorthodox things, but that is no barrier to God who can call anyone to a better understanding of himself.

What does mean for us? If we have found Christ, we will want others to know him too. We must understand that people will express their spiritual hunger in ways that may challenge and stretch us. We need to be able to engage with them, hear well, listen for the presence of God, and share without condemnation but with love and clarity.

It’s good to think about how we might explain our faith in ways that make sense to them, without slipping into a kind of relativism in which all beliefs are portrayed as equally true. You know the kind of thing: it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it! Yet that ignores the differences between faiths. Nor does it explain why the Magi bothered.

For the Magi represent all Gentiles, All nations now invited to be part of God’s family. They show the good news is not just for the Jews, but for everyone! Anyone who comes to Christ can be part of God’s family. This was revolutionary in the first century – in our time the idea that everyone needs to come to Christ might sound radical. We are used to hearing the idea that all religions are essentially the same. But if that is true, why did the Magi bother? Why travel all that way if they already had the truth? Why ask all those questions if they already had the light?

The other thing we can learn from the Magi is that they act. They see, they understand, and they do something about it. If you want to steer a car you turn the wheel, but if you’re not moving, the power steering will just grind holes in your driveway. Similarly, with God’s guidance we need to be moving to get a sense of direction.

If we have an important decision to make, we should pray that God will show us what he wants us to do – and then try and push some doors to see if they open. Apply for that job, look at some houses, test out a new ministry. For instance, the Diocese are holding a day entitled ‘Am I called to be a LLM’ – if the thought has ever even crossed your mind do go along –Reader ministry may be different from what you expect!

So the Magi act. A huge contrast to the Priests in v. 4-6. Imagine it, the Magi have turned up, announcing the birth of a new King. Everyone knows about it – verse 3 says all Jerusalem is in turmoil. So Herod calls in the religious experts, who know all the answers. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea just like the prophet said’. And, er, that’s it.

So exotic visitors say ‘We’re looking for the new King of the Jews. We’ve seen his star. Can you tell us where he is please?’ And the priests reply: ‘What, the Messiah? The promised Saviour? The one who will redeem Israel? The one for whom the prophets looked? Promised and foretold these three thousand years past? The long-awaited Redeemer who will be the fulfilment of our religion? He’s been born? He’ll be in Bethlehem then. Good luck and cheerio.’

How could they not go? Did they not actually believe it could be here and now? Would the coming Messiah upset their comfortable position? Had it just not occurred to them that the words might require action? Or were they afraid of Herod and his reaction against the truth?

Lord preserve us from hearing the words of the Bible and thinking it does not apply to us! Lord protect us against having defended hearts explaining away every Scriptural challenge! Lord keep us from saying with our lips ‘Christ will come again’ whilst never imagining in our hearts that it might be in our time! Lord strengthen us against the fear which says ‘We could never actually do what Jesus teaches because…’

Whereas the Bible is the main way that we get general guidance from God, there are many ways that he can guide us individually. The Old Testament told the Magi in which region to look, the star guided them to the precise house. With us the essentials for living as a disciple of Christ are all in God’s written word – what it is to have faith, how to treat one another. The individual decisions: where to live; what career step next; how to be involved in the community – these are discerned through personal prayer.  So it’s important that we spend time with God regularly, because prayer enables us to see him at work.

We might also notice that the Holy Spirit can give us the benefit of hindsight. No doubt the wise men’s gifts seemed bizarre at the time, but when the gospel was written down, Matthew would have seen in them a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

So was the journey more important than the arrival? Or has the journey only just begun? In one sense the Magi have reached their destination, they have found Christ. But in another sense, this is the beginning of their story. Now they must return to their own country, work out what it means to live by the promise of a world’s redeemer. For Mary, Joseph and Jesus too a new episode unfolds: of sudden flight, refugee status, and being uprooted to a new home. Much of it is left to our imagination as the journey continues.

So too with us. Finding Christ is only the beginning. Then follows a lifetime of discipleship, of listening to God. How will he guide us? Through the world around us – earthly wisdom and good friends; through his Word; through prayer as we seek as his personal direction.

I wonder with which of those you are most familiar? And which might need development? Could you watch to see God at work in the world around you? Reflect on your own background, formation and understanding? Could you benefit from the shared wisdom of others? One of the best things about our Lent groups is the way that members from different churches share their experiences and thoughts and we learn so much from one another.

Is it Biblical guidance that you could develop most? If so, there’s nothing which builds up our understanding quite so much as reading a passage of the Bible each day. It needn’t be long, in fact it’s better to read a paragraph or two slowly and thoughtfully than try a big chunk in one sitting. It needn’t take a lot of time – a few minutes before bed or in the morning each day quickly adds up and makes a huge difference.

Or would you want to focus on developing your prayers? Again, a time each day for prayer is a great blessing. At the end of the day, try looking back at it. Where can you sense God’s presence? What has he been saying to you? How has the day been guided, held in his love?

And above all, act. When God speaks, may we hear him and put what he says into practice. May our lives be like the Magi, characterised by a listening obedience. Amen.