Saturday, January 02, 2021


Here is the transcript of my sermon for Epiphany. 


Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

This Sunday, we celebrate Epiphany, although the Feast of the Epiphany itself actually falls on January 6. Traditionally, Twelfth Night, the evening of Epiphany, is the time to take down the Christmas decorations for another year. If you don’t take them down on January 6, you are supposed to leave them up until Candlemas on February 2.

There is, though, some confusion as to exactly when Twelfth Night is. Some take it to be the evening of January 6, others the evening of January 5. The reason there is some confusion is because, liturgically, the day begins the night before! For us, a new day begins at midnight; liturgically, however, the day begins at sunset. The evening of Twelfth Night, then, is January 5 and the twelfth day, January 6.

Whenever it is, for many, Epiphany is simply the official ending of Christmas with Epiphany being completely overshadowed by the Christmas season. Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Wise Men and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, but we have already read and thought about this during our Christmas celebrations. In some ways, it all feels like a bit of an anti-climax to do so again.

Liturgically, this time can all feel a bit flat and dull, something of a let down, as we wait for Lent and the season of preparation for Easter. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, calls the Sundays after Epiphany ‘Ordinary Time’, like the Sundays after Trinity and Pentecost, and it can feel a very ordinary time indeed.

And yet, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany has always been an important celebration. Historically, it has in the past overshadowed Christmas, although in the Eastern tradition, there is also at Epiphany an emphasis on our Lord’s baptism as well as on the revelation of his birth.

Some churches, however, including more recently the Church of England, see Epiphany not as the end of a season or as an alternative to Christmas, but as the beginning of a new season: Epiphany-tide. Epiphany-tide brings together the celebration of Epiphany itself and the two feasts of the Baptism of our Lord and that of his Presentation in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas.

By now, I imagine I am beginning to lose people, if I have not lost you already. There is, however, a point to all this, which I will come back to. But before I lose all of you altogether, let us think about Epiphany itself. As I have said, Epiphany marks the manifestation of Christ to the world and to us Gentiles, in particular. This is why we have as our Gospel reading the account of the visit of the Wise Men. The Wise Men represent the Gentiles being led by the star to Christ, the light of the world.

In the sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, I pointed out that we don’t know exactly how many Wise Men there were. Traditionally, of course, there were believed to be three. They were even given names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. In the Gospel of St Matthew, however, we are only told they gave the baby Jesus three types of gifts. The precise number of Wise Men themselves must remain a mystery.

But regardless of how many there were, who were these anonymous men of wisdom? The word for them in Greek is ‘magi’, the word from which we get the word ‘magician’. They would have been part of an eastern royal court; again, precisely where, we are not told. They would have acted as counsellors or advisers to a king or queen. Part of ancient wisdom was being able to read the signs and portents of the times, including astrological signs believed to be seen in the sky and stars at night.

But why are they sometimes referred to as kings? Well, as we have heard in our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60:3; cf. Psalm 72), Isaiah speaks of kings coming to worship and bringing the wealth of the nations. Furthermore, in the ancient near east, there was the idea of the ‘wise ruler’, King Solomon being an example of such a monarch. But again, that they were kings is just speculation. Best, then, just to stick with the name, ‘Wise Men’. They were influential and important pagans, who were clever, connected, and wealthy.

These pagans had seen a sign in the night sky that they interpreted as meaning that something portentous and significant had happened in the land of the Judah: a child had been born King of the Jews. Quite why this was of any significance to them, however, is not immediately obvious. Judea, after all, was not that important a place. Surely men of their position didn’t embark on a long journey to greet every royal birth?

The answer to this particular mystery may be provided by something that doesn’t always get commented on. Several ancient pagan writers such as Suetonius and Tacitus point out that, amongst the pagans, there was a rumor that a king would come out of Judea, that a great ruler would arise from within the land of Judah. It may be that this belief was one the Wise Men had heard of and explains why they were prepared to go to all this trouble and expense. The child to be born was more significant than simply one who might become king of a small and insignificant nation.

Believing, then, the birth of this king to be momentous, they decide to go and find him. Knowing him to be born a king in the land of the Jews, not unnaturally, they go to where you would expect to find such a child: the palace in Jerusalem. If you know anything at all about King Herod, you will see the funny side of this. King Herod was paranoid about people wanting to get rid of him so that they could seize power for themselves. Herod killed several members of his own family because he believed they were plotting against him.

The Roman Emperor Augustus is quoted as saying: ‘I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son’ (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11). The joke here being that as Jews didn’t eat pork, his pig would be safe. No-one else, however, was. Herod’s subsequent slaughter of all the boys in Bethlehem under two is entirely in character (Matthew 2:16-18).

St Matthew describes the reaction to the arrival in Jerusalem of the Wise Men from the east as one of alarm. St Matthew writes:

‘When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him …’ (Matthew 2:3)

At first, this might seem like an exaggeration on St Matthew’s part. It isn’t at all. In fact, we know from St John’s Gospel that Herod’s fear of losing power was shared by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Their reaction to the news of Jesus’ birth is similar to their feelings towards him in the time leading up to his death. St John writes towards the end of Jesus’ life:

‘So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ (John 11:47-48)

Quite clearly, both Herod and the Jerusalem authorities take the Wise Men entirely seriously. They don’t, for example, understand the Wise Men to be talking about a boy for whom his parents have great but unrealistic ambitions! When Herod calls the Chief Priests together, he asks them where ‘the Messiah is to be born’ (Matthew 2:4). The Wise Men are not just seeking a king; they are seeking the King, and it is this that heightens the sense of panic amongst those in power in Jerusalem.

And so, Herod decides without hesitation to do what the Herods of this world always do when there is a threat to their power, he plans to have the potential threat removed before it can become an actual threat. The plot is simple. Herod will help the Wise Men find whom they are seeking, and they will tell him exactly where the child is when they find him. Herod makes this promise on the pretence that he too will go and worship the child. So, after consulting the Chief Priests, the Wise Men are directed to Bethlehem, where the prophet Micah said the Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2).

The Wise Men find the child, and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There have been attempts to see symbolism in these gifts. Myrrh, for example, was a valuable spice that was used for embalming dead bodies. Along with aloes, it was one of the spices that Nicodemus took to anoint the body of Jesus (John 19:39). The gift of myrrh, then, is taken as a symbol representing his death. St Matthew himself, however, doesn’t point to any symbolic meaning for the gifts. They are simply expensive gifts fit for a king, offered from the Wise Men’s ‘treasure chests’.

This is where our Gospel reading breaks off. In St Matthew’s Gospel, however, we learn that both the Wise Men and Joseph are warned by God in dreams to change their plans so as to keep the baby safe. The Wise Men go back to their country a different way by-passing Herod and Jerusalem; while Joseph takes Mary and Jesus, and flees to Egypt.

Not unsurprisingly, Herod is furious when he discovers the Wise Men have outwitted him and, in a final throw of the dice, tries to kill Jesus by ordering the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. It’s a terrible atrocity as the Holy Innocents are murdered, but it is too late. The Holy Family have escaped.

So, what does all this say to us? I intend in future sermons to discuss the significance of the revelation to the Gentiles of Christ as the King of the Jews. For now, I want to focus on what I think is an important message that this passage has for us both as a Church and as individuals.  It is:

The rulers of this world will always expect us to think like them. We, however, are to have the mind of Christ.

Herod and the Chief Priests are terrified. Herod because he is totally paranoid; the Chief Priests because they realize that if there is any attempt to unseat the ruler appointed by Rome, then they will not only lose what freedom and independence they have, they will also lose their own power and position.

They simply assume that Jesus will be a threat to them. They cannot imagine anyone who believes himself to be the Messiah not wanting political power. To the bitter end, they believe that this is what Jesus is seeking. And so, in about thirty-three years’ time, Jesus will be crucified as the King of the Jews that the Wise Men came seeking, even though, as Pilate himself realizes, Jesus resolutely refuses to be the sort of King those in authority think he must want to be and that people hope he will be.

The baby Jesus was a threat to those in power simply by his existence, and their instinctive reaction is to kill him. The default position of this world is still to kill, or at least to silence, those who follow Jesus.

Historically, there have been times when the rulers of this world have found themselves in a position where crucifying us is not an option for either political reasons or simply because there are too many of us. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century wrote of those who, in their hatred of Christians, blamed every misfortune on them:

‘If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: ‘The Christians to the lion!’ What, all of them to one lion?’ (Apologeticus ch. 40)

He continues with the scathing observation:

‘As often as we are mown down by you, the more we grow in numbers; the blood of Christians is the seed.’ (Apologeticus ch. 50, sect. 13)

When our numbers become too great for us all to be murdered, because they assume that like them political power is what we want, instead of crucifying us, they offer power to us in the hope that by giving it to us they can control us. Often, they have been right. The offer of political power and influence is infinitely more dangerous to us than killing us.

At a crucial point in his ministry, our Lord asks his disciples who people think he is. The disciples reply that people have various opinions about his identity. ‘But who do you say that I am?’ he asks them. St Peter answers for them all:

‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ (Matthew 16:16)

Jesus tells Peter that it is God who has revealed this to him, but even though this knowledge is given by God himself, our Lord won’t let them share it:

‘Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’ (Matthew 16:20)

The reason soon becomes clear. When our Lord goes on to talk about the sort of suffering and death that he must face, Peter is horrified. How can this possibly happen to the Messiah? Our Lord responds unambiguously and says to Peter:

‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16:23)

The insight that Jesus is the Messiah that Herod tried to kill at his birth is an insight granted by God. The belief that being the Messiah is about power and not suffering is thinking inspired by Satan. It was exactly this way of thinking that Jesus had to face head on in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry, but rather than seeking political power, Jesus instead submits to it and is crucified by it.

Both the Chief Priests and Jesus’ followers were clear in their own minds that for Jesus to be the Messiah, it must mean him gaining political power. Jesus rejects the expectations of both friend and foe seeing them as temptations of the devil.

When we are tempted by the offer of political power, we sometimes tell ourselves that the reason we should accept it is because of the good we can do if we have it. The poor can both be fed and have the Gospel preached to them. Other times, we accept the offer because we like having a seat at the VIP table where the important people sit and where the decisions that matter are taken. It makes us feel powerful and important. Most times, our reasons for accepting the offer is a combination of the two: a desire both to feed the poor and to satisfy our own hunger for power. Every time, the Church is the loser.

Historically, the Church of England is an example of a church which has been guilty of accepting the offer. The Anglican Church originally came into existence because of its willingness to acquiesce to political power, and it received substantial power as its reward. The expansion of the Anglican Church throughout the world went hand in glove with the march of colonial power. It suited the Anglican Church’s purposes in the past when colonialism was triumphant and popular; it may now pay the price in the present when colonialism has come to be seen as one of the deadly sins.

The terrible irony is that many in the Anglican Church are now apologizing and repenting of the church’s support of colonial powers in the past, but church leaders are making their apology and repentance, not to God, but to the new political elites who have taken the colonialists’ place. The reason, however, church leaders are abasing themselves in this way is in the hope of being able to make new alliances with the powers of this world, and so maintain their position and privilege. There is further irony in the fact that the present desire for power and popularity that is leading church leaders to apologize for the church’s past behaviour is exactly what, historically, led the church to be such an enthusiastic supporter of colonial expansion and oppression.

Geographically, certain sections of the church in the United States provide us with another example in the present. Some churches in the States put their complete faith in Donald Trump, ostensibly because of the influence they believed supporting him would give them. Again, for some it has been because they genuinely hoped that supporting him would enable them to influence government policy for the good. For others, however, it has been because of the thrill that attending prayer breakfasts and being allowed access to the White House has given them. They have had their reward, and they too will now pay the price.

Tragically, even when we want power for pure motives: not for its own sake, but because we genuinely want to use it for what we believe to be good ends, more often than not, we find that when it comes to power, rather than the Church exercising it, it ends up controlling us.

St Paul points us to a different way:

‘For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 10:4)

When the Wise Men arrive at the house where the Holy Family are staying, they see the child with Mary, his mother. If those who sought to kill the child had been able to ask her, Mary would have told them what Jesus years later tells Pilate: his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). God is the One who brings down the powerful from their thrones (Luke 1:52). Earthly seats of power (whether in palaces, parliaments, or places of worship) are dangerous places to sit, no matter how tempting the offer of them may seem. The rulers of this world demand that we worship them; Wise Men worship Jesus and offer him alone their gifts.

What does all this mean for us individually? We may tell ourselves that we have no personal political ambitions, but the desire for power, position, and prestige is not confined to the political arena. We still seek it for ourselves in other areas of life, not least in our places of work, at home, and in the church itself. And, as well as seeking it personally for ourselves, we look up to those who have it and despise those who do not. We value the powerful and look down on the weak.

Jesus told his disciples specifically that they were not to be like this. He said:

‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. But it is not (to be) this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-45)

Our Lord, not only teaches us to reject worldly power and ambition, by his life and death he gives us an example of what we are to be like instead.

The Wise Men came seeking him who was born the King of the Jews. The Chief Priests and Jesus’ disciples were in fundamental agreement as to what this meant. Jesus saw it very differently. He provided his own definition as he hung on the Cross with the words, ‘King of the Jews’ above his head. His crucified body gives the meaning of the words and the words their meaning.

As, however, I hope we will see during the season of Epiphany, while Jesus defines what it means to be the Messiah of his people, he, nevertheless, is born and dies as the King of the Jews. We will only find him for ourselves when we like the Wise Men seek him as the King of the Jews. Not as a generic king, but as a specifically Jewish king, who saw his coming and ministry as being in fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures on which he based his own understanding of what he had come to do.

And so, as we enter the season of Epiphany, may the God who led the Wise Men to Jesus, the King of the Jews, lead us to him. And may we too worship him, not by seeking power and glory, but by taking up the Cross and following him who died for us, and who promises to be with us always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).


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