Sermon Sunday 3 January 2021
The Feast of the Epiphany
Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-1
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
As most of you probably know, before coming here as Vicar I was a curate in the village of Woodchurch. One of the lovely peculiarities about Woodchurch, which you may not know, is that it is situated in one of the least light-polluted areas of Kent. There are so few streetlights there, or anywhere nearby, that at night the sky is truly dark and the stars can be seen properly.
One of the side-effects of it being so dark is that we soon learnt to take torches with us whenever we went out at night and it took a little getting used to not having to do that when we got to Hadlow. But that’s another story.
Because the sky is so dark in Woodchurch it became the meeting place of the Ashford Astronomical Society. Being a person of curious mind and many interests, I joined them for a while, and ended up with my own small telescope. I think that some of the other members were a little non-plussed at being joined by a person in a dog-collar as they assumed that Christians couldn’t contemplate the age and size of the universe without having our faith shaken. I soon put them right on that score. In fact, I became quite good friends with the chairman and when he wrote a novel which included some religious elements he asked me to proof-read it for him. But, again, that is quite literally another story. Oh dear, I seem to have gone a bit Ronnie Corbett today.
Anyway, I soon learnt to enjoy spotting the planets in our solar system and the first time you can see the rings of Saturn for yourself it really is quite something. Even now it is good to look up and be able to see Mars or Venus against the background of constellations.
Of course, the reason I am thinking about this now is because just before Christmas there was an extremely rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, which made them look like one bright star. It was soon dubbed the ‘Christmas star’ and there was plenty of speculation about whether it was an alignment of planets like this which was the bright star followed by the wise men from the East.
It is always interesting to speculate but, in the same way that our faith should not be afraid of science nor should we feel the need to explain away the miraculous in purely scientific terms. The fact that the universe is billions of years old need not challenge our belief that it was created by a God who flung the stars into space and the fact that the prophecies of the wise men may have been fulfilled by an alignment of planets does not mean that it was not God who either inspired their prophecies or aligned the planets. Or perhaps God did what he did with Mary and the Shepherds and sent an angel to lead the way.
The point is that the wise men were lead towards their Epiphany of recognising the Christ child by being sensitive and obedient to the signs they were sent, regardless of the physics behind those signs. God works in the world both spiritually and physically and we need to discern and respond in both ways too.
This morning’s reading contains not simply an epiphany to the wise men but it also contains, I think, an Epiphany of Herod, but he chooses to react rather differently.
The Herod we are talking about is Herod the Great, not to be confused with Herod Antipas who was the one who had John the Baptist beheaded and played a role in the crucifixion of Jesus.
Although Herod the Great was King of Judea he was only a client-king of the Romans, who could remove him at any time. Although he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem he was not much loved by the people who saw some of the Temple systems of money changing and so forth as favouring the rich over the poor. Herod sat between his Roman overlords and a sometimes restive people who would love to see the restoration of Sion that Isaiah talks about and it seems this made him something of an insecure ruler.
Into this context there arrives in Jerusalem an unknown number of unnamed travellers from across the deserts in the East. This, of itself, would not have been uncommon, I’m sure. But they arrive asking a rather strange question:
“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at it’s rising and have come to pay him homage.”
It is interesting to note that the wise men do not say that they have come to bring gifts to the child, but to pay him homage. This means to bow down, as one would before a king or a God. This is an important word which we shall see again.
We don’t know how Herod came to hear of these men with their unsettling question but when he did what was his reaction?
“…he was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him;’
One can see how an insecure King might be frightened by the news of a new king being born but why ‘all of Jerusalem’? Although those words are not explained one can only speculate that Herod was such a tyrant that if he was afraid then everyone else had reason to be afraid too and, as we shall see, there was good reason to be fearful.
The wise men from the East had travelled many hundreds or even thousands of miles, as an act of faith worthy of Abraham, to pay homage to Jesus and yet, in his homeland, the news was greeted with fear. His own people did not accept him, as the Gospel of John would have it.
Having heard the question from the wise men Herod gathered together his own band of wise men – the chief priests and the scribes. He asked them not where the king of the Jews was to be born but where the Messiah was to be born. This shift in language indicates that Herod understood that the men from the East were not just talking about Herod’s successor as client-king but about the one who was anointed by God to save his people.
Herod’s wise men did not consult the stars but the scriptures and the prophets and they confirmed that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.
What was Herod’s reaction to this news? Interestingly he could have sent either his troops or his own wise men to go and discover the messiah for themselves. But he doesn’t do this. Why not? Perhaps he is afraid that if his chief priests go and find the messiah that they will turn against him and his rule will be undermined.
Instead, he secretly summoned the wise men and told them to go to Bethlehem. He said:
“Go and search diligently for the child: and when you have found him bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
There is that word homage again. However, on Herod’s lips and in the context of his fear it rings hollow.
The wise men set out from Jerusalem towards Bethlehem and then, once again, they see the star. When they see it stop over the right place we are told that they were ‘overwhelmed with joy.’
The wise men reacted with faith at the rising of the star and with joy when it reaches it’s goal. How different to the fear and weasel words of Herod.
The wise men enter the house, note that Matthew does not talk about a manger, and they see the child, not the baby, Jesus with his mother Mary. There is no Joseph and no farm animals in this account, just Jesus and Mary. What is the first thing the wise men do? Of course, they knelt down and paid him homage. This was the king of the Jews, the Messiah, whose star had risen in the East, and who they recognised, yes, through their actions and their gifts, to be king and God and one destined to die for his people.
Having paid homage they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and they returned home another way. Although today’s reading ends there, we know that the story did not end there. When Herod learned that the wise men had pulled a fast one on him and not retuned to Jerusalem with the news about where to find Jesus he was infuriated and he ordered that all the infants of two years and under in Bethlehem be killed. But he missed killing Jesus as his family had been warned to take him down to Egypt. This may well put us in mind of the story of Moses and Pharaoh who also ordered the killing of children. This is not a part of the Christmas story we see on cards or stamps but it is an important part of the story nonetheless.
So we have the same Good News – the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem. But we have very different reactions. The wise men have the faith to follow the star, they react with joy and they pay him homage. Herod’s reaction is not faith but fear and not joy but fury. Jesus is a king who came to die for his people whereas Herod was a king who ruled by killing his people.
This season we have all heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, we know that he is the light come into the world and that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us. But God never removes our ability to choose how we respond to that Good News. Do we stand in the darkness with Herod, clinging on to our false security and reacting with fear and fury to the prospect of change or do we travel in faith like the wise men and greet Jesus with joy and homage?
We all know what the answer is supposed to be to that question but I suspect that we all have something of the Herod in us – our real epiphany and homage comes when we can acknowledge that but ask God to do his best work in us anyway.
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”