Sermon for the Epiphany

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Epiphany, 9th of January, 2022

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Matthew 2: 1-12

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord, the feast that concludes the twelve days of Christmas. The word ‘epiphany’ means any sudden realization; so that if at any time you have a revelation, you can declare that you’ve had ‘an epiphany’. But the particular epiphany about which Matthew writes and that we are celebrating today is the revelation to the Gentiles, through the magi, that the One God has come to live among humanity and can be seen in the infant Jesus. According to Matthew, wise men from the East saw Jesus’ star at its rising and came to pay him homage, bringing him gifts. The star went before them and when it stopped over the house where Jesus was the magi were overwhelmed with joy. This was a moment of great and sudden illumination, an epiphany, as the Messiah was revealed to Gentiles. The homage offered by these people from the East acknowledged that Jesus had been born for all humanity, even if they had been looking for one they called the ‘king of the Jews’.

That is not the whole story. As I said last year, these apparent ‘wise men’ behaved rather stupidly in approaching King Herod for help in finding his new-born rival. It is because of their action that Herod kills all the boys under the age of two years in Bethlehem. It is because of their action that Joseph, Mary and Jesus must flee to Egypt. The author of Matthew’s gospel writes that this had to happen: ‘This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”’ When I look at the refugee crisis in the world, I wonder whether it happened to remind us that anyone can become a refugee, that God himself became an asylum seeker in Jesus. But whatever the deeper reason, the author of Matthew’s gospel tells us that the actions of the magi led to ‘A voice [being] heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ The people who provoked this do not deserve the name ‘wise’

But the magi had made it to Bethlehem, and here they had shown some wisdom by recognising Jesus as king. In Matthew’s story, the magi are the only people who worship Jesus as he deserves, kneeling and offering him homage. Matthew contrasts these Gentiles who honour the ‘king of the Jews’ with Herod who calls himself ‘king of the Jews’ and pretends that he wants to offer Jesus homage, but actually seeks to kill him. Despite their blunder in frightening Herod and all Jerusalem, we can see that the magi truly are ‘wise’ in their acknowledgement of Jesus. They then return home another way; Joseph, Mary and the baby seek refuge in Egypt; Herod slaughters all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem. The nativity story is over. Most of the rest of Jesus’ life will be much less suitable for children to act out.

At Christmas we celebrate a story of birth, of hope and joy, and we celebrate it wholeheartedly. That the story of the magi ends with the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt and Herod’s soldiers killing children reminds us that the difficulties and dangers of life continue even after we have experienced the joyful epiphany that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, all of us, Jews and Gentiles. In the same way the reading we hear today from Third Isaiah offers hope to people who find themselves living amid difficulties and dangers after a time of great celebration. Third Isaiah is prophesying to the people who have returned to their homes from Exile, but have found there no new and glorious kingdom. In some ways their lives were even harder back in Jerusalem than they had been in Babylon. And so Third Isaiah tells people who are feeling isolated and impoverished to look forward to God’s future and the new creation that God will bring to birth, telling them to rejoice at its inclusiveness, to thrill as they join in the parade of those coming from all nations to proclaim the praise of the Lord.

‘Arise, shine; for your light has come’. These are commands, demands addressed to Jerusalem. Third Isaiah is honest about the reality of the darkness that covers the world: ‘darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness the peoples’. Third Isaiah would not be at all surprised that in the twenty-first century, with all our knowledge and all our resources, there are still wars and rumours of wars; that people still go hungry in a world of plenty; that humanity remains divided by race and nationality and class and gender and sexuality. Third Isaiah, after all, had seen the great hopes of post-Exilic Jerusalem disappointed. And yet, Third Isaiah demands that we arise and shine, because the glory of the Lord has risen upon us, even amid the world’s darkness. After all, it takes only the tiniest light to challenge the darkness; and the deeper the darkness is, the more that light shines. There is a reason that the symbol of Amnesty International, which campaigns for prisoners of conscience around the world, is a candle shining despite the barbed wire that surrounds it.

Barbed wire candle

Christians believe that the glory of the Lord has come to the world in the birth of Jesus. As the Apostle John wrote: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’. Third Isaiah gives us some hints about what a world in which the light has completely overcome the darkness will look like. It is a world in which God’s revelation is for everyone: ‘Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn’. It is a world in which the displaced will be able to come home: ‘your sons will come from far away and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms’. It is a world in which those who have violently stolen the wealth of others will make restitution: ‘they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the peace of the Lord’.

Third Isaiah reassures the people whose country was invaded and destroyed and who were forced into exile that they shall receive restitution. Later in chapter sixty we read ‘Foreigners shall build up your walls and their kings shall minister to you’ (Isaiah 60:10) and ‘The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet (Isaiah 60:14). Third Isaiah’s prophecy is good news for everyone who looks at the unfairness of the world and the oppression of the weak by the strong, and cries out that it’s not fair. According to Third Isaiah, God agrees that it is not fair and God is doing something about it. We believe that one of the things that God did was to come and live among us, which is what we celebrate during this Christmas season.

We, too, have a part to play in enabling God’s light to shine. Today, Epiphany, we commemorate the first revelation of God’s glory to Gentiles like us. Like the magi we have seen the light, and Third Isaiah reminds us that our response to the coming of the light must be to shine ourselves. As I said last week, at every baptismal service the newly baptised person is told that they belong to Christ, the light of the world, and is commissioned to let their light shine before the world so that glory might be given to their Father who is in heaven. Those who have seen the light are commissioned to share the light. By following Jesus and imitating Christ we can live in such a way that God’s light shines through us to illuminate the world.

Members of this congregation seek to shine in the world in many ways. Over these weeks of January we are going to collect a retiring offering for UnitingWorld’s partnership with the United Church of Papua New Guinea to support the installation of taps, tanks, and toilets, and to provide education on how to use clean water. Papua New Guinea has the worst access to clean water in the world, with sixty per cent of the population regularly having to use dirty water for cooking and drinking. The Fresh Water project is one that this congregation has supported for years, and it is one way in which we as a congregation share God’s light with the world. There are, as I said, many others. How else are you going to shine through the coming year?

‘Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’. At Epiphany we rejoice at the coming of the light. We are not simply to observe it and enjoy it; we are called to also reflect it to the entire world, until everyone can proclaim the praise of the Lord. Let God’s light, seen in us, so shine before the world that all may see it and give glory to the God revealed in the baby born in Bethlehem. Amen.

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