Epiphany sermon


Epiphany Castle Acre 2024 The season of Epiphany is one of revelations, making known things that were always there but went unseen, and it is a rich and extraordinary time. I have been a little under the weather this Christmas, and it has given me an excuse to indulge in one of my favorite things – mysteries on the TV. I have had the excuse to binge watch Marple, Poirot, Midsummer Murders, Father Brown and Sister Boniface. Despite the body count in all of them surpassing the streets of the most dangerous places on earth, they draw us in by focusing on the human weaknesses and foibles, showing us that in the midst of seeming ordinary life, extraordinary and dreadful things can emerge from emotions we all have such as anger, pride, jealousy and passion. I am an easily pleased viewer as I rarely remember the little turns and twists even when I have watched them before, and each time am drawn into the unfolding explanations of the plot. It is easy to forget that the stories of Christmas and the unfolding of God’s plan for humanity in His Son were new to those who first witnessed them. The earliest church even those who had spent his ministry with Him, took years, decades even to understand the full implications of the events of His birth, life, death and Resurrection. Even in the NT accounts there are still points of confusion, not least the idea that Jesus would return urgently to His followers, something which was still being puzzled over when the NT writers had concluded their work. As the years have passed and the Church in her annual round of keeping the feasts and festivals and listening to the scriptures, recounts and continues to reflect on what is being revealed, and it is an ongoing task, because the material is so rich in challenges and unexpected, even awkward ideas. I worry that the human need to make everything neat and tidy, like a present to wrap it up and make it look perfect, can in fact without wishing to diminish these very special epiphanies, the making knowns of this extraordinary revelation by God. Today’s readings take us into that world of epiphany. The Letter of Paul speaks of his own epiphany, literally a vision of the risen Christ which changed his life from one of persecution and opposition to one of Apostleship. His response to the Risen Christ was to make what had been seen as the revelation of God to His chosen people the Jews, into a revelation intended for the whole world, something extraordinary to those in that day, and contested hotly by many then and since. It was in effect Paul’s acceptance of his calling to travel and take the faith to the gentile world that brought about the role of Christianity as the first world religion. Before Gods were personal, local, intended for countries, chosen select groups. The Jewish idea that God was one was radical, this expansion of that idea into one God for the whole world takes that idea still further. Also hidden in plain sight in the stories are so many other new revelations about God, His purposes and how through Christ He seeks to be known in the world. From the feast of Christ the King at the start of Advent we are challenged to think again. Strength in weakness, humility and service as a sign of strength and the way to the most complete way of living our lives. In a world of violence and power, this was truly incomprehensible to many who first heard it, and looking around us presently, how well is it going down now? The Christmas stories can be wrapped up to look rather sugary, but far from it when you drill down. A young couple in awkward circumstances, poor and ordinary respond to God with simple willingness. Those who witness the birth of the child and bear witness to the true nature of the child are all unusual. The shepherds, uneducated and largely outsiders first, the wise men who we read of today, most likely astronomers from Eastern courts who travel to make sense of an unusual sign in the heavens, and bring with them gifts for the child affirming his divinity, his Lordship and his role as a man of prayer, and of likely suffering. All this is a stable, in dangerous times, when the parents will need to flee along the same route through the Gaza strip that is presently experiencing its own hell on earth. What can be missed is how this isn’t the story anyone who would have called themselves religious or God-fearing were expecting, or perhaps wanting. It answered few if any of the questions they thought were important, and seemed ultimately at least initially to have ended in the ignominy and disaster of the Cross. I wonder how willing we as individuals and the church as a whole is to listen to the radical messages we hear in these stories? Called to stand with the downtrodden and the poor, to side with the outcast, the despised and the prisoner, how well are we doing? Part of me wonders what might happen if we took up the radical causes that I think Jesus called us to, whether if we were asking the right questions, whether in fact the things we hope for – bums on seats, rising numbers in the churches, and a vigor and purpose in religious life, might not be achieved more easily. The Vicar of Dibley was once asked by a concerned friend if she would like to have a partner ‘ the problem is’ she said, ‘ no-one looking for a hot chick ever thinks of calling at the vicarage’. It still makes me laugh, but does anyone looking for a truly radical vision of life think ‘ oh I must go to church’? They did in South Africa when Tutu was archbishop, they did in El Salvador when Oscar Romero was Archbishop, they thought twice when Mother Theresa tended to poor. People have always responded to our martyrs, our prophets our one-offs our irritating and disturbing ones. We cannot simply reflect a tidy polite vision of what the world wants to see, Jesus was reviled and despised in his day, largely for standing by those who the world despised and refused to value, we seem to take a more risk averse approach – and one wonders, is it working? Amen