A sermon preached by the Dean on Sunday 5 th January 2014 The Fest of the Epiphany at the Cathedral Eucharist.

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1 A sermon preached by the Dean on Sunday 5 th January 2014 The Fest of the Epiphany at the Cathedral Eucharist. The Christmas story mentions two groups of visitors to the holy family in Bethlehem. Each has significance beyond the mere telling of their stories. Over Christmas, we have concentrated on St Luke s account, which makes much of the shepherds, the first to respond to God s call. We have perhaps reminded ourselves that the shepherds were poor and on the margins of society very much the lowest of the low in Jewish society at that time, and, in religious terms, regarded as unclean the shepherds were untouchables. By contrast, Matthew today s Gospel gives us the wise men: wealthy, educated and scholarly. It is Christian tradition rather than Scripture that tells us there were three of them, and gives them names, but no matter. The point is, from the earliest pages of the Gospels, we see theology at work. God s love, expressed in the coming of Jesus, is for all people. It makes no human distinctions: it allows no form of discrimination. 1

2 This is further emphasised by the fact that the shepherds would have been Jewish, and the wise men foreigners from the east, we are told, and therefore presumably Arabs. So, not only social forces are at work here, but racial ones as well. All stand before God as equals, brothers and sisters created in the image of God. As if to lay this truth on, as we might say, with a trowel, Matthew goes on to tell his Jewish readers that, by a mixture of divine guidance and faithfulness to Scripture, the holy family was led out of the reach of King Herod to seek what we would call political asylum in pagan Egypt. (It is sobering to reflect that being warned in a dream would not, in the Britain of today, constitute a well-founded fear of persecution, but let that pass ) Then, after Herod s death, the family did not come to Judea, to the holy city of Jerusalem, as might have been expected, but to Nazareth, in the predominantly pagan region of Galilee Galilee of the Gentiles, as it was known: a town so insignificant that it does not even merit a mention in the Old Testament. 2

3 So Matthew gives us much to think about, and little of it is comfortable. The plain fact is, the Epiphany marks a crossroads in history, a turning-point in humankind s understanding of God. These verses set the scene for the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who, when asked by the disciples how they might see God, were told, in one of the most shattering utterances aver made, The one who has seen me has seen the Father. Like Bethlehem, the least of the towns of Judea, the poor and the forgotten become significant central to God s story. They are included, but, more than that, they become great, because, through them Jesus is made known. Later in his Gospel, Matthew is quite explicit about that. In chapter 25 he speaks of the least in whom we encounter Jesus a truth that Pope Francis has articulated with increasing vehemence in recent months. At the end of our Gospel reading, we learn something else as well. When they had learned of Herod s ruthless intentions, the wise men left for their own county by another road a different way. In the Bible, a change of direction is an indication of conversion. The wise men found Jesus, made their offerings, discovered that their lives had been transformed, and chose a new way. 3

4 Jesus s first public utterance as an adult was in the synagogue at Nazareth. We remember how he read from Isaiah chapter 61, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind and so on. At the end of his sermon, Jesus made the audacious claim, Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. It would be possible to construct several sermons out of this passage, but on the Feast of the Epiphany, this one will have to suffice. What might it mean for you to say that Scripture has been fulfilled? Well, to say that Scripture has been fulfilled must surely be to take a stand for justice, and to confront all forms of discrimination, even within your own seemingly restricted circle. This must be so, because as Christians we are called to witness to God s love for all people God s love as taught and made present and real in Jesus Christ. To say Scripture is fulfilled is to believe the over-arching inspiration of the Bible as the word of life, peace, love, joy, hope and strength, 4

5 and not to get hung up on particular verses, lifted out of context, which are concerned with primitive and culturally-determined prohibitions in a society so very different from our own. Scripture is able to reveal its treasures, and to breathe new life into every generation that is the wonder of its inspiration. To say Scripture has been fulfilled is to challenge our narrowness, our exclusive and therefore excluding attitudes, and the behaviour to which they give rise as besetting a tendency in liberal Christians as in fundamentalist ones. This is a challenge to each of us to become more compassionate, more Christ-like. We are the Church by virtue of our Baptism and our participation in this service of the Eucharist, instituted by Christ himself: we are therefore the heirs to God s promises to Israel; we are commissioned to carry the mystery of God s universal love to those who do not yet believe. We are, in the wonderful words of a contemporary theologian, to strive to become a coalition of mercy. That is especially meaningful for a Cathedral congregation, because we draw so many different kinds of people, for so many diverse reasons. 5

6 We, as individual followers or would-be followers of Jesus, will not be able to make this mystery known until we have gone some way towards entering into it ourselves. That is why the reading of the Bible, our prayer, and our participation in worship are so vitally important. So the Epiphany the showing-forth, the shining of the light of God s love and mercy should strengthen the conviction that the Scripture must be fulfilled in us, as we try to impart to others whatever we have learned of the nature of God. The lives of the wise men were transformed, and they returned home by another road: from curiosity to conversion. It proved a winning formula. 6

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