Holy Trinity Church

Anglican worship in Geneva

Sermon on the Feast of the Epiphany – celebrated 7 January 2024

Taking another road

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany which in the Eastern Church focuses on the baptism of Christ whereas in the West, it focuses mainly but not exclusively on the visit of the Magi to Jesus and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. It also brings the traditional twelve days of Christmas celebrations to an end and marks the start of the season of Epiphany tide which leads up to Candlemas in early February.

It’s one of the most magical festivals (and this is not just a play on words on the Magi!) in the Church’s year but also, which may come as more as a surprise, one of the most disturbing. We tend to visualise the Epiphany in mysterious and exotic ways, influenced not only by the biblical account the arrival and homage of the three kings or wise men but also the rich tradition of artists over the centuries.  Their various interpretations, have inspired us regarding the mystery of this event. However, they also, encouraged us to sentimentalise this feast, by introducing things never included in the biblical account of which top of the list must be camels!   

As a consequence, whilst celebrating the mystery and joy of this festival expressed both in the visit of the Magi and the underlying theme of the revelation of the light of Christ to the Gentiles, we have been tempted to treat it in one-dimensional and cosy terms.  We treat is as onlookers, standing by and thinking, “Isn’t this nice?”  Isn’t this charming?”; Isn’t this a fitting end to the twelve days of Christmas?” But we have ignored the elements in the Feast of the Epiphany which are disturbing, perhaps almost consciously because they threaten the cosy image we have created in our minds.

Yet, as I wish to show you in this sermon this morning, if we do this, we not only ignore the truths to which the Epiphany points us and calls us to engage but also lose sight of the real message of hope which it contains. Being disturbed is not a comfortable experience yet it is essential both for our spiritual survival and our growth.

We enter into this, only by recognising with wonder, the extraordinary paradoxes in this story. The wise men or Magi were probably highly skilled astrologers and fortune-tellers in their own countries. They have the wisdom and grace to discern that a new king is to be born and a profound desire to come and encounter him. The paradox is that they, the strangers come from outside, gate-crashing the Roman Empire to seek the one whom many of God’s own people will fail to notice or recognise. Yet, as they encounter the infant Jesus, they will be bearers of this revelation to their own people – the Gentiles.  However, in the process, they themselves will become strangers to their communities for reasons we will see.

There are many other paradoxes in the events that then take place. The wise men can follow the star by their calculations to the land where the new king will be born but they have no idea where in that land this will happen. Logic would suggest Jerusalem – the set of power but where to look?  So they consult the political leader, King Herod, the tyrant and puppet ruler for the Romans in that land, knowing that he will be able to consult the experts – the religious advisers. 

Sure enough they have the answer through their study of the scriptures. ‘In Bethlehem of Judah, for so it has been written by the prophet (Micah). Ironically, Herod’s own ‘wise men’ have identified the very place where the child will be born. But Herod is by now thoroughly disturbed – he is supposed to be in control yet these visitors from afar have declared the birth of a new king. He dissembles well, telling them to come back and advise him once they have found this new king so that he too may go and worship.  But we know that the murderous desire to seek out and remove this threat to his power has already been sown in Herod’s heart.

The Magi, now on the right track, follow the star, leading them to the stable where they fall to their knees with joy, offering homage to the child held by his mother Mary and then offer him their precious gifts. It’s an extraordinary moment, again of paradox – the Magi realise that all their knowledge, their skills, their powers, are as nothing before this child who is the source of all creation. Yet rather than being driven to despair, they all filled with overwhelming joy. I am reminded by the revelation of Christ which the great theologian, St Thomas Aquinas had towards the end of his life. He had spent his whole adult life beavering away to produce his great theological work ‘The Summa Theologica’.  Yet in a moment of insight after his vision he exclaimed in his last words on 6 December 1273, “Such secrets have been revealed to me that all I have written now appears as so much straw”.  Yet like the Magi in the manger, his response was one of utter joy for what he had glimpsed.

And the Magi are not allowed to stay. Warned in a dream by God not to return to King Herod, we’re told that they returned to their own country by another road. It must have been a terrible decision to make, given the joy they had experienced in the stable. But what is clear is that love, the humility and the vision which this young child represents, is a profound threat to the political powers that be as represented by King Herod. They go to their own country by another road, profoundly changed – bearing the message of the light of Christ coming into the world to their own people. Yet in the process, ironically, they too will become strangers in their own communities for they have glimpsed the one who challenges and disturbs the confidence, cruelty and power of this world.

The image of taking another road lies at the heart of the Feast of the Epiphany and is why I believe it is disturbing both for what it reveals as well as how it challenges us. What it reveals first of all is the shaking, rather like the movement of tectonic plates as the light of Christ coming into the world and revealed to the Gentiles, provokes a violent reaction from the powers that be.

The impact of this is widespread. Mary and Joseph cannot return to their home by the familiar road but suddenly are forced into taking another road, a strange and dangerous road into exile in Egypt, fleeing for their lives and above all, to protect the precious child.  Even after Herod’s death when it might be thought they could return in safety to their home, they are warned in a dream of the threat which King Herod’s son. Archelaus who now rules Judea, poses to the young Jesus.  So they again, have to take another road, this time leading to Galilee where Jesus will grow up and have his first childhood and adult encounters not only with his own people but also with Gentiles.  And underlying all this, is the terrible massacre which Herod is about to unleash – his hatred of the baby king is now whipped up into a pathological fear and hatred of all male babies and infants who could threaten his power. The unthinkable has been unleashed and has become a reality. This is one of the reasons that the Epiphany cannot be treated simply as a feast of unrelieved happiness.

But this hatred and the terrible abuse of power which the birth of Christ unleashes is not the final word either then or for us. The Magi were full of joy on encountering the infant Christ and took the good news of the birth of Christ in their hearts to their own people.  This is why we rightly celebrate the Epiphany with joy. But they were also transformed – seeing with sharp clarity, how this child challenged the power and certainties of this world provoking not only then but for all time, violent reaction from those who hated the light this child brings to the darkness of their own deeds and lives. They not only physically took another road but mentally and spiritually took another road, as they realised the cost of that discipleship – what it would mean to bear faithful witnesses to the Christ child, not just as a one-off event but throughout their lives.

Today, through the witness of the Magi, those outsiders and strangers, we too are led to recognise with joy, God incarnate, lying in humility in the manager – coming in love, grace into our world to be beside us. This challenges us to open our eyes to recognise in those whom we too may see as strangers and outsiders, those who may be bringing us the truth and joy of Christ.

The Magi fell to their knees, paid homage to the Christ child and offered him their finest gifts.  Today we too are called to offer him the very best – not the gabbled 5 minute of prayer at the end of a day or when we have an urgent want, not the grudged half hour or 20 franc note to help our neighbour or church. No, -God is calling us to offer the very best we can in the offering of our lives and resources.  Yet, as we offer these to the Christ child, so we in turn receive richly from God who gives us those gifts we need to equip us as we witness to the world.

And like the Magi, we are called by God today to take another road. To take the road that does not buy into the power struggles, bitter hatred and political conveniences of this world but instead witness to something far more powerful, enduring and healing – which is the love, the humility and the reconciling peace which Christ offers. Whether it is our voice and witness for peace and justice in Gaza where 70% of those killed have been children and women, for kinder treatment of refugees particularly those fleeing as unaccompanied minors, of greater justice for those condemned at present to live radically curtailed lives, due to lack of access to health, to employment or freedom of speech and access, we need to be willing to take the other road.  

So let us end with a prayer:

‘Holy Lord,

On this the Feast of the Epiphany of your Son,

As we rejoice in the light of his revelation to the whole world,

Help us like the Magi to have the courage to take the other road,

To proclaim and live out the love, truth and justice which Christ offers

Every day of our lives.