Sermon for Epiphany High Mass Sunday 6 January 2019
The are many epiphanies, moments of enlightenment, of clear-sightedness, in the gospels, in scripture and in our lives. The story which we celebrate today as the Epiphany, from St Matthew, is an interplay between wonder and fear.
We are told five things about the wise men from the East: they follow the rising star, they ask directions in a foreign land, they are overwhelmed with joy at finding the child in Bethlehem, they are warned in their dreams about Herod, and they go home ‘by another way’. They are explorers.
Herod, on the other hand, is frightened, fearful at the prospect of a pretender to his throne. He whips up similar anxiety all around him in Jerusalem, he uses the wise men to find the child, his deceit is uncovered, and he is left without knowledge, spiralling into more fear. He is a study in stay-at-home smallness.
In twelve verses, Matthew paints a picture of wisdom and fear as opposites, a gospel in itself. If we are wise followers of the child of Bethlehem we need to be shrewd in our dealings with power, keep our eyes on the journey that most brings fulfilment to our lives, believe in dreams, and pray that we never become so sure of how God works in our world that we miss seeing the very thing we long to behold, our Epiphany.
Matthew tells us that the enemy of the Christian life is fear. It entraps and infects those around us. We are often most fearful when we are afraid of losing power or status, so we lie, are deceitful, and cheat to maintain our position at all costs. No wonder the most frequent commandment in the bible is ‘do not be afraid’.
The Epiphany is more than the travelogue of exotic Eastern gurus. It is a story of the choices that lie before all of us. Choices that, to be rightly made, depend on open eyes, open hearts and open minds.
Remember that Jesus’ closest friends and followers consistently failed to see who he was throughout his ministry. As the gospels tell it, only in the light of the resurrection-epiphany, a larger window on glory, did the previous three years’ experiences begin to make sense to them. Epiphanies are to be aged, digested, and truly grasped with hindsight. Our lives are not understood or defined in split seconds by the best, or the worst, things we’ve ever done. Neither our greatest achievement nor our worst sin characterizes us with God. It is the entirety of our response to the gift of life which makes sense of who we are. As St Paul tells us, ‘we know now only in part, but then we shall be fully known’. The ‘then‘ in that sentence is crucial. That is what the gospels call καιρÏŒς, ‘the right time’, God’s moment, when glory will become overwhelming and the light will illumine all those other epiphanies and make them complete. The paradox of death for Christians is that it gives meaning to our lives.
We come here to worship and engage with God in community with one another. We do that because we are somewhere on a spectrum of understanding, of having glimpsed glory and wanting to see more.
That is usually the key: what is the more we want? It is human to want more. Equally, it is human experience to find the acquisition of more, mere quantity, ultimately unsatisfying. The Magi had enough stuff – gold, frankincense and myrrh – but they glimpsed glory – the light of the star – and followed it until they found the unlikely king of the universe, and they left the stuff behind.
There we have something more deeply human, and therefore, according to the Gospel, more profoundly divine. Wanting more is the way our immature selves express a deep constituent of our nature, hope. St Paul concludes his purple passage in 1 Corinthians by naming what we call the three theological virtues – faith, hope and love. As we remember, he says that love is the greatest, and this makes scriptural sense: we learn elsewhere that love is what God is, that if we want to gloss the word ‘God’ we should use the word ‘love’. If we want to make sure we have that word ‘love’ in the right place in our lexicon, then tradition (including the bible) will help us to understand it as unconditional acceptance, and sacrifice (even of ourselves) in service of that acceptance.
But the second theological virtue, hope, should not be sidelined. As the second term in Paul’s rhetorical triplet it is often undiscussed: we naturally focus on faith and love. Yet hope is the pivot of these virtues, and the engine of the spiritual life. Human beings are constituted by hope; it is a supremely human quality, part of what Henry James called ‘the pain of consciousness’. Faith sets us on the way; it is the point of contact, the conversion. Love is the destination, the fullness of life to which we tend on this path, God who calls us home. But hope leads us, day by day, from glimpse to glory, from inspiration to realisation, from the idea of a god to God.
The epiphany story is a story of that hope, of the opening-out of the people of God to include, potentially, the whole of humankind. But it is also truly a sign, an icon, of the whole of our lives in Christ, which are founded on faith, fed by hope and aimed at our final destination, perfect love.