Rev'd Susan’s sermons: Epipahny
In early January each year the church celebrates Epiphany: the coming of the Three Wise Men to see the infant Jesus. These are some extracts from the sermon in Harston Church on Sunday 3 January 2021:
Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 2, verses 1-12
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East wise 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’… 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… They set out - and there, ahead of them, went the star, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 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.
I’ve been thinking over Christmas that we need to come to Christmas empty - as to some extent we have indeed done this year (because of the Pandemic lockdown). Thinking of Mary and Joseph having nothing but themselves to give.
Then in contrast today we get to the Magi, the kings, opening their treasure-chests. I wonder. I don’t think the wise men particularly pre-thought their gifts for Jesus. We’ve made a fair amount of that idea over the years, but I think men of their rank and experience - the diplomats of the day, advisers to the equivalent of the presidents and the prime ministers, and with the knowledge that this star seemed to presage a new ruler - would know that, when travelling some distance, they were going to need a store of treasures with which to smooth their way across unknown lands.
So they brought gold, for the rulers they would come across, and the spices for which the East was famous and for which all the peoples along the silk route were keen to barter their assistance. Stuff that would be useful for both those along the way and hopefully the court of the one they were journeying to find.
But I think they were also wise enough to think that they didn’t know what they were going to find. I wonder how many times along their journeys, as they stopped in the heat of the sun rising overhead, or at dusk when they needed a meal, or as they sat around camp fires or oases, they fantasised about what they might gain from finding and establishing relationships with this new ‘king’/ruler/philosopher/teacher.
They journeyed too because they still needed to find more to life… this was their business; they immersed themselves in the future, not just the present and certainly not the past… the stars were the predictors, and this one was a dead cert. There was something about this new star that was particularly promising, and they felt they were on the cusp of being the ones who discovered it. They could be the gatekeepers to the new order.
I wonder at what point did the reality of their discovery hit them? Did things start to get a bit odd when Herod, despite his bluffing, clearly knew nothing at all of this new child-to-be-king? Or was it on the journey out of the ancient, grand, beautiful and culture-filled city of Jerusalem, turning their backs on all that, to travel past people on foot and donkeys on a B-road, that hadn’t seen camels in a while, to a small market town?
Did they feel slightly conflicted that the star had stopped over just another little terraced house?
Did they notice Mary’s limited wardrobe, the clean swept bare earth floor, the child’s bare feet?
Or were they struck by her quiet but full heart holding the events of the last 18 months; her clear eyes that held their gaze because, despite the absurdity of the contrast of their position and hers, their presence and demeanour were also exactly what was right and proper in the presence of this child, the son of the living God?
How much and at what point were their eyes opened to see the truth and reality of this extraordinary ordinary situation?
I’ve been reading a fascinating book about a year in the life of two of our Romantic Poets that changed the face of literature and thinking. Coleridge and Wordsworth are associated with the Lake District… but Adam Nicholson has traced a particular and (he feels) crucial year in their lives (1797-1798) where they rented a house in the Quantocks in Somerset, and together spent intense months, walking, talking and writing. They famously gained insight from nature, In particular they experienced the effect that light had on a place and situation. They walked often at dusk and then at night, in moonlight. The heightened atmosphere of this light and this quieter time of day opened their imagination to see connections between physical reality and a spiritual insight.
‘What was poetry? Was it truth or was it dream? Or Both? The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moonlight or sunset diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature.’
So said Coleridge in Biographia Literary, musing on it all in 1817. And he went on to say: ‘Mr Wordsworth was to give the charm of novelty to things of every day... by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the loveliness and wonders of the world before us.’
Back to our Gospel reading: ‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother…’ They stooped through the low door, and in their quality embroidered outer robes, and as their eyes got used to the low light levels, they then saw the child, perhaps on Mary’s lap, or hip, perhaps lit by the natural light of the sun, and they saw Mary and how she behaved towards this child. They saw…
This was the Epiphany - and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They could not help but respond… to this child, perhaps more probably to this extraordinary intuition; this realisation of as yet unarticulated understanding of what was in front of them. The wise men saw the incarnation for what it was. The extraordinary in ordinary. The light of the world. God in human form.
It was surely not the thing they had at first imagined – but although their treasure chests were lighter on the return journey, they did not go away empty hearted. I wonder how long it took them to start to articulate what they had seen, the film of familiarity removed to see the hidden treasure there…
Generous God, you give us gifts and make them grow.