Sunday, 8 January 2017

All Back to Normal

This sermon was preached at Evensong on Sunday 8th January 2017 - when we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany.

Today, we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany, when the wise men arrived in Bethlehem to worship the new-born Jesus.

The magi follow the star

Our readings this evening have not mentioned it explicitly – no, you’d have needed to be here this morning to hear the story of the arrival of the magi – but, we have heard references to it, in the verses from Isaiah – “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”, and how the camel-train will “bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”.

You all, I am sure, know the story of the three kings, and don’t need me to retell it. My guess is that you’ve been hearing it for many years. For me, I’ve been a Christian for nearly 25 years now, and in that time, I’ve heard plenty of sermons about those three kings; about how we don’t know that they were kings, and nor do we know how many of them there were; sermons about the symbolism of the names we traditionally give then – Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior – representing people from all over the known world at the time – from India, Iraq and Iran; and also the symbolism of the gifts they bring (told so wonderfully in their famous carol) – gold for a king, frankincense for a god, and the deeply troubling myrrh – to dress a dead body (seriously – how much of a weirdo did that last magi have to be? It’s the equivalent of turning up to a baby-shower and presenting a gift-certificate for the local undertakers. Am pretty certain magi number three was not invited along to the first birthday party.)

You’ll also know, I’m equally sure, that Epiphany marks twelfth night, the twelfth day of Christmas, when it’s traditional to take down our decorations and stop our celebrations.

It’s odd, then, that just as we stop celebrating Christmas, and work on getting things back to normal, we remember the magi, the end of their advent journey, and the start of their Christmas celebrations.

These magi, not Jewish, not Christian, with foreign names, from far-away lands, have searched the stars and their own religious texts, and have been led to Christ, and start celebrating Christmas today.

This year, when I was preparing for this sermon, what I found really interesting, and spotted for the first time, was the fact that the heathen foreigners desired – deeply desired – to find the Jewish messiah and worship him, but the Jewish chief priests and scribes did not. Have you spotted that too?

I’ll quote a bit from the story from Matthew’s Gospel:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East 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; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

And so, having learned about where Christ would be born, the magi set off eagerly to see him. But, having known all along – the priests and scribes were able to reel off the scripture stating where Christ would be born – having known all along, these very religious people, likely having been religious for many, many years, having listened to sermon after sermon, who know the stories from the scriptures off by heart do not go.

It seems shocking, doesn’t it? Knowing that your saviour has been born six miles away (that’s the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem) and not bothering to go and visit.

Perhaps they’d heard it all before; too weighed down by the baggage of their faith to recognise this amazing new thing that’d happened. We all get a bit like that, don’t we? When we celebrate the same occasions year after year, it’s hard to keep making each new year special; hard to find the wonder in our umpteenth Christmas; hard, as each year passes, to marvel afresh at the sheer, gritty sacrilege of the almighty God choosing to be born in the muck and grime of a filthy stable.

But the thing is, they missed out. A once in an eternal-time deal to turn up, and see the creator of the universe, lying helpless in a bed of straw, and those religious folk did not show up.

Instead, then, instead of being greeted and worshipped by the religious people, who had scriptures and prophesies of, and eagerly awaited his arrival, God was welcomed by those who did turn up – welcomed by outcast-shepherds, by farm animals and by heathen astrologers. And they all (well, maybe not the farm-animals), worshipped, and marvelled, and left that stable in a sense of wonder, knowing that, in that moment, they had been forever changed.

And in this, then, lies our challenge. The festival of Christmas may be over after today, after the feast of Epiphany, but the season continues – all the way until Candlemas in February. How will we, the religious people, react? We can sigh and invoke the spirit of ‘Christmas seen-it-all-before’, allowing things to return to normal, or, we can join those heathen magi on their journey, seeking Christ afresh, following the star and marvelling at the meaning of this birth that the world has celebrated for 2000 years. 

Perhaps we missed out on this over the Christmas period, perhaps we were too busy, or too tired, or too jaded, but it’s not too late – it’s never too late for wonder. Our decorations may be down, and things may be getting ‘back to normal’, but we can still find time to celebrate the miracle of this birth, and join with all those who had enough wisdom to worship at the manger. Who knows, if we do, perhaps we will find that the celebrations do not stop, and that things will never be ‘back-to-normal’ again.


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