Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
8th Jan 2017
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017 (Year A)
Depiction of the Magi from The Church of St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 550 AD.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek epiphanos, which means ‘the showing of a sign’. The sign here is the manifestation of something startling. This is followed by a sudden and new perception of realities. We can see that one epiphany leads to the other. The first and obvious one is revealed in the birth of the Messiah, the one which draws our three wise men to travel to see the sign which had been announced by the angel Gabriel and promised by Isaiah; of the appearance of the Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”.
The second epiphany tells us about the effect that the showing of the sign has upon those who witness it. The sight of the child in the manger at Bethlehem is the one which changes the understanding of God’s identity and purpose for the world he has made. He has done this in becoming human himself:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands
And in a manger laid.
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
The Story of the Three Wise Men is not just one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in what Eliot calls ‘the old dispensation’ . It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God and his relation to us as remote. No; God has in Jesus come to us in flesh and blood, has come to earth as a pauper child, has come to raise us all into the likeness of God Himself.
But Jesus epiphany is also a disturbing sign. For Jesus is the sign “…destined to be rejected…” In the words of the high priest Simeon this sign is set “…for the rise and fall of many in Israel”. Luke 2.34. The picture we have of Christ’s birth is both pastoral (the shepherds) and mystical (the wise men) but it is also foreboding. It is one which falls within the range of King Herod’s destructive mania. There is real and mortal danger here. Just as the wise men ‘depart by another way’ so Mary and Joseph will later flee to Egypt in the wake of the slaughter of the innocents. There is already in this epiphany the strong suggestion that the Christ-child comes into a world which is very ambiguous about this coming. It is not one which is ripe and breathlessly expectant for The Good News.
Like the wise men who have travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too trace that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts as we come to the place where we see and know Jesus and where we stop and stay. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our own being; of the deeping of our witness and our time.
To speak like this is to speak of this Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs and mystery and foreboding . It becomes a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us as vitally necessary for us if our lives they are not to be sapped of vital spiritual life giving energy. Christ’s Epiphany is ours, too, a necessary re-kindling of faith at a time when the refreshment that the Christian faith offers our world today, its spiritual oxygenation, is needed more than ever.