Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon on the Feast of the Epiphany 8th January 2023

Sermon for Holy Trinity on the Feast of the Epiphany   8 January 2023 at 9am and 10.30am

(Transferred from 6 January)

Texts: Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72.1-5; Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-2

I had a slightly frustrating experience just before Christmas when I had an afternoon visit planned to take holy communion to one of our congregation.  Having failed to take with me one of the many splendid Christmas cards sold at Holy Trinity, I thought that I would just nip into Manor at Gare Cornavin where they have a good selection of cards. 

However, I scoured the shelves in vain for any religious cards – any depiction of mother and child, shepherds, messages of peace and goodwill. Finally, just as I was about to give up, I glances up to the top shelf where a single card with a picture of the magi and their camels was on view. Clearly with its depiction of rather cheerful-looking camels, it had somehow escaped what appeared to be the decision to avoid stocking any religious cards.  I snapped it up and wrote it there and then!

Thinking about this experience, it made me think that this is often how we regard the Feast of the Epiphany – a joyful, camel-filled festival which feels cosy and also has the connotation of gifts which makes a fitting end to the festivities of Christmastide. It’s not surprising in a way for everything in the account in St Matthew’s Gospel appeals vividly our imaginations and above all, to our senses.

So, think of the exotic visitors from the East, who, in our imaginations, we make into Kings and limit their number to three, which feels manageable. We cannot imagine them journeying on foot, so again, in our imaginations, we furnish them with lofty camels and can almost hear the tinkle of the camel bells as they make their long and dangerous journey to find the Christ-child. We see them, in our mind’s eye, dressed in glorious robes of velvet and fur, soft to our touch, and glowing in rich shades of crimson, emerald and turquoise as depicted by so many of the old masters. We see them carrying their gifts, richly presented and we can almost touch the gold and smell the frankincense and myrrh. So it has become a feast for our senses and imagination – and this we still see celebrated here in the giving of gifts and in sharing the famous epiphany cake to see who will become king or queen for the day.

And this is well and good up to a point. It is good when we use our imagination to engage with scripture so that we can enter more deeply into the biblical texts and in particular, to see ourselves and our own lives within the context of the Bible.  The problem, in the case of the Epiphany, is that we are at risk of sentimentalising this great Feast by placing into it, that which is not there. In the process, we can lose sight of tensions and the mystery which lie at the heart of this Feast and the very real hope to which they point us.  So today, I’d like us to look afresh at the Epiphany, with a greater realism which I believe, help us to do this.

We can start with biblical account of the Epiphany as we’ve heard today in St Matthew’s Gospel. There is no reference to kings nor to their number – only ‘wise men from the East’.  We can assume, given that they were able to take such a long and complex journey and to approach, with confidence, the Court of King Herod, that they were wealthy.  We can also deduce from the fact that they were able to read the night sky with confidence and understand the significance of what they saw, that they were highly educated – possibly astrologers.  We can also assume with the length of this journey and their means that they did travel on horseback or even on camels – but these are assumed – not actually in the text.

What we do know is that the question they ask, their burning question, will unleash fear and a reaction of fear and rapid response. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed the star at its rising, and are come to pay him homage” (Matt. 2.2). They have come to Jerusalem, the centre of power and their question provokes fear and alarm at the very heart of that centre of power. We’re told that King Herod was frightened and perhaps not surprisingly. For he ruled as despot and his very raison d’être was to hold onto that power. Like many who hold their power through the fear they inflict, he could only sustain it by drawing those around him, on whose support he depended, into that circle of fear. So we told that just as he was frightened, so all Jerusalem was frightened with him.

It also has a contemporary echo. For it reminds us of those who currently hold power or have in recent decades, who have clung onto that power by galvanising hatred and violence against any who can be portrayed as representing a challenge.  

But Herod is also canny. First of all, he calls for the chief priests and scribes who in a way we can think of them as his special advisers and asks them to tell him where the Messiah will be born. They tell him, quoting the prophet Micah, “In Bethlehem of Judea”. Next, we’re told that he secretly summoned the wise men to see him. The secrecy is also revealing – for Herod is rattled and does not want this be visible either to his court or to those over whom he rules. But he is sufficiently alarmed that he wants both an answer and a solution.

So he summons the wise men and finds out from them exactly when the star appeared and then sends the on their way with the express instructions both to find the child and to come back and tell him so that he, Herod, could also worship him. In his mind, he has the solution stitched up,

But of course, as we know, things did not work out as expected. It always seems to me astonishing that Herod did not send soldiers with the wise men to find Jesus but he did not and therefore did not find out where he was born. But he also failed to hear the clue in the prophecy of Micah (5.2) which the scribes and chief priests told him that this ruler who is to come “would shepherd my people Israel”. There was a clue here of the nature of the kingship which this child was to take on, which lay radically outside Herod’s understanding of what it meant to be a king.  

And when Herod discovers that the wise men have not returned to him having found the Christ-child, he is both infuriated and terrified and responds in the only way which tyrants do – through extreme violence. The massacre of the innocents is a horrific event – the murder of one child would be terrible – to systematically find and kill all male children under two in the area is on a scale we cannot apprehend except that we have seen it again and again through human history where tyrants have carried out so called ‘reparations’ for the loss of one or more of their own troops.

So the coming of Jesus and in particular, this coming of the strangers, ‘the wise men from the East’ with their troubling question, sparks off fear and an ugly response from those who hold human power. We are seeing the words of the Prologue to St John’s Gospel which we hear at Christmas literally fulfilled before our eyes, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (John 1.11).

But the wise men do find Jesus – they find the place where the star comes to rest and overwhelmed with joy; they enter, see the child with Mary, bow down in homage and offer their gifts. Their seeking, courage and integrity has been rewarded – they have glimpsed the divine and will go back transformed with the joy and truth of this revelation.

So we hold together very different elements in this feast of the Epiphany – both the enormous joy of the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles but also, the terror unleashed as God’s presence in the world provokes a response of fear and suppression. The Epiphany is not a cosy feast of camel- riding exotic rulers and their gifts. We have to look honestly and squarely at the human response as well in order to understand where the true source of hope and light in this festival really lie.

First of all, it’s worth noting that the Epiphany cannot just be portrayed as a battle between good and evil – the truth and light of the Christ-child against the evil of the world as represented by Herod. It’s significant that the wise men only get to find Jesus because they go to King Herod. They go to Herod in Jerusalem as the obvious locus of power where one might expect a new ruler to be born. It’s through the chief priests and scribes whom he engages that they find out the place where Jesus will be born.  There is something for us to reflect on here about how we, as Christians relate to the world and to human power. We are not called to keep ourselves apart and this is why the church throughout the centuries has fought hard against the heresy of Manicheism – which would argue that we are holy and need to be kept apart from the world which is intrinsically evil. This aspect of the feast of the Epiphany reminds us that all human power is part of the world which God has redeemed.  Yet we need to be careful and judicious in our relation with it – as Jesus said when he sent out his disciples: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matthew 10.16).

Then we should reflect also on the fact that it is the wise men, those strangers from the East who actually find the Christ –child.  We celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany as the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles and this is right – the world ‘epiphany’ literally means manifestation or ‘appearing’. On this day, we share the joy of St Paul that God’s great secret, that all people are called to his saving love, is now made manifest in Christ.  Yet this feast also shows us that it is the strangers from the East who seek and find Christ.  This gives us rich food for thought today about how willing we are to learn and indeed about our whole understanding of mission today. What will it mean for us today to learn from the outsider, the stranger? How open are we to receive from someone or a source we currently see as totally outside our Christian tradition? Epiphany gives us a nudge – don’t just bask in the joy of Christ’s revelation but be willing to be open; to see differently; to change.

The wise men are filled with joy when they encounter the Christ child yet almost immediately are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and so they return home ‘by another road’. There is a sadness here at the heart of the Epiphany. We can imagine they longed to stay to share in the joy in fulfilling their quest and finding Christ – to share with others their joy. But instead they have to flee and go back to land where perhaps, as they are transformed by the revelation thy have experiences, they too now will feel as strangers.  It echoes some of our experience as Christians in the world today where it can feel very hard to bear witness as a minority – to confront the kingdoms of this world. Yet the wise men can inspire us to do just that.

Finally, the overwhelming message which we receive from the wise men on this Feast of the Epiphany is that of hope, symbolised by the star which they followed faithfully till it led them to Christ. This is the light of which the prophet Isaiah prophesied, ‘the glory of the Lord rising upon you’.  It is light which Matthew recognised as the fulfilment of God’s promise when he wrote that ‘the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light’. May we each find in this Feast of the Epiphany today, a lasting hope which sustains us for all that lies ahead in this coming year for we know, as expressed by St John, that what has come into being in Christ “was life and that life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. (John 1. 4-50.

Amen