Sermon for St James
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
As we open our ears to the spoken word, open our hearts that we might encounter the living word made flesh, your son Jesus Christ.
Like many of you no doubt, we had a houseful and more with us over Christmas, including two babies under the age of one. Whenever one was getting fractious and grumpy and showing signs of needing a nap – the cry would go up – usually from its parent: ‘baby away’.
‘Baby away’ is a phrase which emerged in the family at a time when my eldest granddaughter found herself ousted by a new arrival. Thrilling though it was to have a baby brother in the house, all the attention he required seemed a little unfair at times. Hence the plea to her mother: ‘baby away’.
January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany which we celebrate today, is traditionally the time to take down the Christmas decorations, and in many churches and homes this includes packing away the nativity crib - time to put the baby away. But today also marks the beginning of the season of Epiphany, which runs now for another four weeks until the final appearance of the baby again when we remember his presentation in the temple and the encounter with Simeon and Anna at Candlemas on February 2nd.
And though the stories we will hear in the coming weeks are of the fully grown young man Jesus, nevertheless they are chosen to help us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of the incarnation and what has been revealed to us in the birth of Jesus. Because, as you know, Epiphany means revelation – a moment when we see things beyond their surface meaning and maybe our lives even take a different course as a result. So let’s not be in too much of a hurry to pack the baby away just yet but take the time to allow the stories of Jesus’ birth to connect with those of his adult life.
The stories of Christmas, including the one we heard today, set the scene for the way in which Jesus’ life will unfold and how God’s purposes are at work in him. The story of the visit of the wise men in particular highlights the conflict between the human centres of power and God’s reign of justice and righteousness – a conflict which will follow Jesus throughout his life to his death on the cross.
Much has been written about these curious strangers from the East. They were most likely astrologers, priests in their own tradition, who recognised something of huge significance in the appearance of this new star. They come seeking confirmation of their predictions, but primarily to pay homage to the new-born king, even though he is not of their faith. They’re accustomed to having the ear of those in power, so where else would they come to seek the new King of the Jews but to the centre of power – Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.
Their arrival sparks fear amongst the religious and political elite – to pay homage, or worship, implies submission to the one worshipped. Herod and the status quo which exists between him and the religious leaders of Jerusalem are under threat. So Herod, in his fright, sends for the scribes and they are able to point him to a verse from the prophet Micah which anticipates the coming of a ruler from Bethlehem. It’s there that the wise men are sent as spies for Herod.
I always think it’s strange that the religious leaders didn’t hurry to Bethlehem with the magi to find their long-awaited Messiah, but I suppose it reflects how deeply entrenched they were in the security they had established with the Roman occupation. They didn’t want anything to disrupt that; so it was, when they encountered Jesus in his adult ministry.
The magi locate the place where Mary and Joseph and the young child Jesus are staying. In a moment of epiphany, they are overwhelmed with joy and fall to their knees in worship. It was a moment of revelation for them as they saw beyond an ordinary poor family, to the presence of God in this child born, not just for the Jews, but for them, for all people.
It’s only after they have worshipped him that they bring out the gifts they’ve brought with them:
- gold – in recognition of his kingship, though not one of human origin;
- frankincense, offered in worship of the divine;
- and myrrh – the ointment for anointing bodies for burial.
Wise, prophetic gifts - anticipating the course which Jesus’ life will follow as God’ ways become manifest in his life and the centres of human power respond to him by rejection to the point of death.
In that encounter, the magi see the truth of who Jesus is. They have a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven and realise how different that is from the kingdom of Herod.
Their epiphany is our epiphany. In the birth of Jesus, we encounter God who has chosen to be with us. A king, not distant and set apart by being born in a royal palace, but to be found powerless and vulnerable in the messiest of circumstances. We, too, kneel in wonder that God has come to us, to be found by us and made real for us as a human child. And so as we behold God’s glory, - that is, God’s overwhelming presence with us - our response is to offer ourselves in worship and bathe in that glory until its glow spreads to the world around us.
But we can’t stay at the crib forever. In the weeks which follow as the season of Epiphany unfolds,
- we will meet Jesus as a young man -- revealed as God’s Son and filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism;
- we will see him identified by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, with all that that implies in suffering, sacrifice and forgiveness of sins;
- and we will watch him enlisting some of the most unlikely people to help him in proclaiming the good news - people who will fail, betray and desert him, but ultimately bring his church into being.
That’s by way of a trailer for the next few weeks’ gospel readings.
So though we must eventually leave the baby behind, at least for a while until Candlemas, let’s not pack him away completely. The glory we have glimpsed at the crib will continue to unfold as we absorb the truth of God’s choice to be with us, most especially amongst the dispossessed and marginalised, and we discover God’s kingdom as a place where service of others takes precedence over personal gain and unconditional love is the only valid currency.
Baby away? No – let Him grow and continue to show us the ways of God.
Anne concluded with the poem Incarnation by Ann Lewin.