Sunday 6th January 2019
Sermon for the 6th January 2018. Epiphany
Matt 2.1-12, Isaiah 60. 1-6
May I speak in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
I suppose like everyone, we have traditional welcomes when a new baby is born. We want to tell the world and welcome the little one, not only into the family, but also to the whole community. In our family, we decorate the house and front garden with balloons, streamers and banners, happily announcing to the neighbours, “It’s a boy” or “it’s a girl.” Banners across the windows in pink or blue, and over the front door provide a truly wonderful display. Flowers start to arrive, cards and gifts and nowadays texts and social media posts with photos of the new born and the proud parents! It is becoming a wide reaching affair and not the intimate family welcome I knew when my babies were born and announcement cards were sent to those closest to the family.
And for God, it was the same! He shares the joy of announcing to the world that His Son is born and that we are all invited to become part of His intimate family group, God didn’t need social media, He had the very heavens announce His Son’s birth. I loved Rev Vincent’s image of God pouring His divine being into a human frame, like molten gold into a mold. God in our humanity, what an image that is, not something you could put on facebook.
But this is more than just a Christmas story, enjoyed for a season up to today and then put away with the gifts and decorations. And I wanted to share some thoughts on how this one familiar story can gain so much from looking at the events from the perspective of God’s preparations. Paul tells us that even before time began and God’s love for creation brought everything into being, He already knew we would fall from His ways and so He prepared to bring us back into His family again.
The Christmas story is so well known to us, and we all share busy preparations for Christmas or, more personally, the birth of a baby into our own family. But in looking again at the Christmas story and Epiphany, we see our God’s love and patient preparation not over months, but millennia!
God planned this carefully and He used many events in history to prepare the world for Christ’s coming. He has worked with His creation from the beginning, finding it sometimes willing, sometimes unknowing, with good or evil intent, and this is worth understanding, if we are to trust in His wisdom for the time when Jesus will come again, which is what we prepare for in Advent.
This word from Isaiah to God’s people in exile is just so full of hope and joy, and we get this image of shining a light for all to see, that the world will be aware of God’s glory and salvation through the Light of His people’s praise and faith. And look what is said in v5. “Your eyes will shine with joy, your hearts will thrill, for merchants from around the world will flow to you, bringing you the wealth of many lands. Droves of camels will converge on you from Midian, Sheba and Ephah too, bringing gold and incense to add to the praise of God.” And earlier, “mighty kings will come to see the glory of the Lord upon you, and all nations will come to see your Light.”
This is an amazing prophecy which only Matthew took up as part of the story of the birth of Christ. He was writing to Jews in particular, a very Jewish Gospel, he starts with the long genealogy of Jesus, which would have been so important to the Jews, to establish Jesus as truly the Son of David and their Messiah. And this takes us back to God’s plans. He started moving in the hearts of individual people, people who were open to obey and worship Him. First was Noah and then Abraham, a descendant of Shem, Noah’s eldest son. And from one man to whom a promise was made, a family was given, and then from a family, a Nation and from that Nation, a couple and the Messiah is born. Reading the complex history of the Israelites and their relationship with God over the centuries, we see such love and patience as God extended people’s understanding of His plan for Life. Some of the stories seem impossible but they give us a deeper understanding of the power and faithfulness of our God.
Matthew tells us of the visit of the wise men, but he gives no numbers of those who visited Jesus, probably in Nazareth as Jesus was now back in his home. These men were astrologers and astronomers who read the heavens for special signs and knew the New Star must signify a Royal birth. They brought gifts to the Palace in Jerusalem but Herod was no Jew and not a King anointed by God. But why come to Jerusalem? How did they know the Star foretold a Jewish King’s birth?
And this is where I love the Bible because hidden in its words is the story which shows that although God reaffirms over and over that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, He loves and blesses those outside this Nation of His choosing and is constantly bringing them towards His truth. Do you remember Ishmael, Hagar’s son by Abraham. He became the father of the Arab nations and God blessed him and he was there, with Isaac at Abraham’s burial. The two brothers kept in touch!
So we look again at Isaiah, camels from Midian, Sheba and Ephah bringing gifts. These are the descendants of Abraham’s children when he married again after Sarah died and although he left everything he owned to Isaac, he left his other sons and grandsons land in the East. And their descendants saw the star. The Jews had been exiled to eastern lands, Babylonia, hundreds of years before Jesus was born and many stayed and integrated into the local culture, retaining their knowledge and love of God. God never left the world without witnesses!
In our Christmas story, it is believed that the 3 Kings came from Sheba, Arabia Tarse and Egypt, the lands Abraham gave to his non Covenant descendants. What an amazing unravelling of plans over the centuries and spoken of 600 years before Jesus birth. We have given them names, Caspar bringing Frankincense, Melchior brought gold and Balthazar brought myrrh.
But we can’t learn about the kings without looking at their gifts. And looking at these in their historical context, I believe the gifts reflected not just who the Messiah was, but what He would bring to the world; wholeness, healing and life.
We think of the gifts at Epiphany as symbolising gold for a King, frankincense for Jesus’ divinity, and myrrh, to symbolise His mortality. These gifts were already greatly valued and had been carried along the spice trade routes for centuries. Gold speaks for itself but frankincense and myrrh seem strange gifts. They are both extremely valuable resins which were used in herbal science and medicine for centuries, and up to the present day. I am very interested in aromatherapy and discovered that the trees from which frankincense and myrrh come are slashed and then allowed to bleed, the sap hardens and forms beads or “tears” and weight for weight they are worth more than gold. Frankincense has long been used in worship, by priests in both Judaism and pagan religions and myrrh is sometimes associated with death and embalming. But both have other amazing health benefits known to ancient peoples, ranging from treatment of digestion disorders, tumours, haemorrhaging and arthritis.
When I was younger, I used to use the essential oil of frankincense to make my own face creams and cleansers. It is meant to have age defying qualities and keep wrinkles at bay. It is still very expensive to buy and is said to have a lovely softening effect on the skin.
Jesus, as Messiah, brought health and wholeness to His people and those who put their trust in Him, and these extraordinary gifts, even in ancient times, represented many health benefits. Both Frankincense and myrrh are anti-inflammatory and have preserving and general wellbeing effects. So the gifts say important things about what Jesus would do, His ministry as described in Isaiah, as well as who He is.
Just as we are told Mary pondered on the things said and done at her Son’s birth, building her faith and trust in God’ love and provision, for us too, there is much more to the Christmas story than the simple nativity we share with our children. We see God’s power and His sovereignty even when people of the world feel they are in control of history and events. It gives me such hope and trust in God. He has everything in hand when you open up the stories of the Bible and try to see them as part of a whole, a gradually unravelling story of love between God and His creation: the seemingly impossible stories and ordinary people through whom He showed His power and demonstrated His faithfulness.
This is a miraculous story of divine planning, a revelation indeed, an Epiphany so much more full of wonder than we can imagine. Paul says God’s work in us is finished when Jesus returns. That gives me such hope because God has shown the wonders He can work with a willing heart, from His first promises to those who chose to listen, trust and obey, to us today. So never give up, never feel unworthy or lost, because all God looks for is a willingness to believe and follow, and He does the rest!