Feast of the Epiphany 2023: Matthew 2:1-12
I preached off-the-cuff today, without a written sermon. But here are some notes written up after the event…
‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.’ (Matthew 2:10-12)
The magi were the academic elite of their day, government advisors at a national and international level. They are represented in our midst by our international postgrads. These are the kind of people who could rock up at a royal palace and be given an audience. [By the way, it was no blunder that brought them before Herod, no failure God had to intervene to fix; just as the shepherds went door-to-door in Bethlehem proclaiming the birth of the Messiah, so God sent the Magi to Herod (shepherds have no access here) to declare to him that his day on the throne was drawing to a close, and a new dawn had come.] The kind of people who travel with a large entourage, along the major trade routes, the fastest and safest way to travel. Don’t think of the ancient world as backward: these were arteries of the exchange of precious metals and spices, of ideas and wisdom, between the kingdoms of what today we would call the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent, the Far East, of Africa, and Europe. But when their news alerts Herod to a threat, it puts their lives in danger. They cannot travel onward on the familiar routes, for Herod, who sent soldiers to kill the children of Bethlehem, would send soldiers to catch them up and slit their throats. So, they must take unknown roads, less travelled. And we are invited to go with them, into 2023 on unfamiliar roads through terrain that is new to us. We must go where we have not been before.
But before they journey home on unfamiliar roads, the Magi are overwhelmed with joy at encountering Jesus. Grown men, powerful, important, overwhelmed by a child. This is why Herod sends soldiers to kill him: he dare not come in person; he would be overwhelmed, too. And the Magi open their treasure-chests and worship, giving gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we are invited to join with them.
Gold is financial viability. This will bankroll the holy family when, soon now, they must become refugees in Egypt. And on this Epiphany, we are asked, what financial gift will we bring? In December, we welcome many people here, to experience the joy of encountering Jesus. And our heating bill for December was over £5000. We can’t sustain that. I don’t know what individuals give; it would be entirely inappropriate for me to know. But I do know that my wife and I give 20% of the committed (i.e. planned, regular) giving; and that isn’t sustainable. You know that clergy move on. This isn’t me standing before you and announcing my departure; but it is saying out loud what ought to be obvious. Any family could, and does, move on. It may be that there are some members of our community who need to reassess and give more generously of their finances. What are we being called to give? It is also true that many in our congregation have very little to give [we have, for example, a significant ministry to and with asylum-seekers] and we should delight in that. But for this to be sustainable, we also need to see people of greater financial means caught up in the joy of encountering Jesus in and through this place. Which brings me to the second gift.
Incense is a sacrament of prayer, a visible sign and symbol of our prayers rising to heaven. What are we being called to pray? Who are we being called to pray for? How might we pray, for our university and our city council, for the redevelopment of the city centre and our place within that? How might we pray, that people, including people of financial means, might fill the empty seats around us? How might we set aside time to listen to God, to God-with-us in the person of Jesus, and to respond?
Myrrh is a fragrant anointing oil. I carry some myself, the Oil of Chrism, blessed at the Cathedral on Maundy Thursday, my favourite of the holy oils. It was used for two purposes: for anointing the recently deceased, in preparation for their burial; and anointing kings and queens at their coronation. It is interesting that we have recently buried a queen and will shortly crown a king. And along with ‘what might we give, financially?’ and ‘what might we pray?’ this third gift asks of us, What might we leave behind in 2022, and, What might we step into in 2023? What thing that we have done, that has perhaps become part of our identity, how we feel about ourselves, that was perhaps beautiful in its time, is God asking us to lay down, to allow to die? What aspect of who we are made to be is God asking us to take up, to take upon ourselves, for others? What might we need to let go of, personally or as a community? What might we need to embrace? If you have a sense that there is something God has been asking you to leave behind, or take a first step into [this can be hard to express, but I am thinking of the times people have felt a vocational call, or a change in role or location or stage of life, such as when children leave home] then I would be glad to anoint you with myrrh before you leave today.
What will we give?
What will we pray?
What will we leave behind in 2022?
In what new way will we say ‘Yes’ to God in 2023?
And, with the Magi, will we take the road less travelled?