A sermon by Rev Sandy Boyce, 10th January 2021
The Day of Epiphany, in the Western church, is celebrated on January 6, completing the 12 days of Christmas. Traditionally Epiphany marks the visit of the Magi, the wise men – Gentiles from another culture – who recognized Jesus’ kingship and bowed before him in worship. It begins the season of Epiphany in the church calendar when Christians celebrate how the light of Christ spreads to all people and all ethnic groups. The true identity of Jesus as the revelation of God is revealed afresh to us.
Usually, the Day of Epiphany gets a liturgical nod and not much more. It’s when Christmas trees and decorations are often taken down, and the nativity set packed away.
This year Epiphany began in a quite different and shocking way. We had good reason to contemplate the actions of an anxious leader with a manic claim to power.
I’m speaking, of course, of King Herod.
History remembers him as a leader who had no hesitation using violence in a bid to ensure no-one would be able to challenge his authority and absolute power. His power depended on his capacity to convince people that his power alone was legitimate, that he alone had the capacity to protect the interests of the citizens in his part of the world.
King Herod was enraged when he learned from the Magi, the wise men, that there was an infant born in Bethlehem who they were seeking to worship. He smooth talked his way with the wise men, using them as pawns in his quest to protect his own power. He asked them to inform him about where he could find Jesus, promising he too was a devout religious man, that he would like to worship the infant king too (Matt. 2:8). Epiphany this year is a sobering reminder that religious language and symbols can be co-opted as a weapon of earthly political power. Herod was also happy to use his own religious advisers as pawns to retain power.
The arrival of the Magi was a catalyst for Herod to unleash violence. Matthew’s Gospel (Ch 2) highlights that there was “fear,” “terror,” and “lies” when the Magi come calling on Herod. Herod was anxious, and the people under him were cautious and apprehensive. The Magi discerned something was wrong.
The Magi, we are told, did find Jesus and pay homage to him, and then instead of returning to Herod, went home by a different route.
This year, the story has particular poignancy, with the power plays of Herod and the feigning of religious belief and appropriation of religious symbols.
Like the Magi, we too may need to find a different route to travel on from this point.
We speak about Epiphany as a time of light and illumination, a time of revelation, to see more cleraly the revelation of Jesus. Epiphany this year was also a wake-up call – that we need a new direction to head as a global community.
We are tired. Tired of the pandemic. Tired of political life that exploits and delivers partial truth. Tired of economic and political movements that promote nationalism, isolation, and versions of xenophobia. Tired of wealth that is hoarded by a few people while others struggle to simply survive. Tired of the way policy is guided by insecurity, fear, prejudice, and racism. Tired of the overwhelming reality of global climate change and so little we can do when those with power refuse to confront the issues for the sake of future generations. The earth is groaning.
We need a prophetic vision, focused on the light of Christ. A vision that invests in human flourishing and well-being. The story of the Magi is a story to enliven our own faith. They had seen something hopeful that propelled them to undertake a long journey. It was this hope that sustained them. Such a hope in the God revealed in Jesus is one to sustain our actions, our prayers, our relationships as we share in God’s redeeming work in the world.
The Genesis reading we heard today begins, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. . Scholars believe it actually says, ‘In beginning…’. An action, rather than a time. And that action continues.
Mark’s Gospel states its intention with the words: ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’. It suggests the beginning of a new order, a new world that is to come. And it happens through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Mark’s Gospel begins in the wilderness on the far side of the Jordan, on the Jordanian side of the river. UNESCO has declared Bethany Beyond the Jordan a World Heritage site, identifying present-day Jordan as the location where Jesus’ baptism is believed to have taken place. The Vatican and Orthodox Christian patriarchs have given their blessings to the site. This location was also closely associated with the foundational identity of the Jewish peope. It was where the miraculous crossing of the Jordan into the promised land took place, under the leadership of Joshua.
The location is significant. It meant that a large number of Israelites symbolically left their land, and then re-entered the land. A fresh start. And immersion in the Jordan’s waters. Dying to the old ways of living, and rising to the new ways of living, to God’s way.
What happened this week as Epiphany began was shocking but it also provokes an opportunity for us to examine our own lives, about what’s important. Like those who John baptised, who symbolically left their land and then re-entered it fresh from baptism, we need to ask what we need to leave behind and how we re-orient our lives to the way of Jesus. To pause and ask ourselves what it means to be a follower of Jesus. To ask, who are we? What are our values? How do we love our neighbours as ourselves, those we agree with and those we don’t? How do we follow the Jesus way?
Jesus invites us to the way of truth-telling, of mercy and justice, of love, of forgiveness, of repentance, of reconciliation. We reorient our lives to this calling. The prophetic work of the church is to take up the slow work of repair, of re-forming our churches around the deep, unchanging truths of the light of Christ. To reconstruct communities where we can know and speak truth, serve the needy and the poor, love our neighbours, learn to be poor in spirit, and witness to the light of Christ amid darkness. To bring wholeness, and healing. To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God, as the prophet Micah said.
The Jesus Way invites us find a different route than the one that has led us to this point, because there will always be another Herod whose fear and hold on power leads to violence and death. Let us journey through this season of Epiphany, seeking the revelation of Jesus in our midst.
And this blessing for the journey:
May God strengthen you for adversity and companion you in joy.
May God give you the courage of your conviction
and the wisdom to know when to speak and act.
May you know peace.
May you be gifted with deep, true friendship and love.
May you have laughter to fortify you against the disappointments.
May you be brave.
© Valerie Bridgeman, December 18, 2013