Epiphany

I couldn’t find a stock image of stars on my PC but this looked pretty and festive

This is the sermon that I preached at St Mary’s, Newport-on-Tay on Sunday 2 January 2022 when they celebrated the feast of the Epiphany (which is today, 6 January).

Introduction

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

— Howard Thurman

New Year resolutions

Happy New Year!

The ancient Babylonians are said to be the first people to make New Year’s resolutions, about 4,000 years ago. And the Romans seemingly made promises to their god Janus—after whom the month of January is named. They made promises to this two-headed god of doorways and gates, time and transitions, beginnings and endings who symbolically looked backwards into the previous year and ahead into the new; they made promises of good conduct for the coming year.

And so, many people now still make New Year’s Resolutions. On average, seemingly, about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February.

I have been thinking a lot about New Year’s resolutions recently. Partly, and obviously, because January has been approaching, and partly because I have been reading a number of books about how to build good habits.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear writes, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

And I have been thinking about that in so many different contexts: in my own life, in the work of my teams at Sky, and I began to consider this in the context of the mission of the church.

What is our mission?

“To find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

James Clear says, “When choosing a new habit many people seem to ask themselves, ‘What can I do on my best days?’ The trick is to ask, ‘What can I stick to even on my worst days?’”

“Start small.

“Master the art of showing up.

“Scale up when you have the time [and] energy.”

Magi

In the Gospel reading this morning, from the beginning of Matthew’s account, we encounter this much-loved story of the visit of the magi (astronomers, wise men who studied the stars for meaningful signs of significant events) who had “observed a star at its rising”, and who then travelled from the East, were secretly summoned by King Herod, and eventually found the infant Jesus with Mary his mother where “they knelt down and paid him homage.” Then, opening their treasure chests they offered the Infant Messiah gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew is the only gospel that mentions this episode.

It seems quite clear that Matthew has been reading the Jewish prophetic literature looking for an appropriate way to describe the meaning of the birth of the one whom the followers of Jesus believed was the long-promised messiah of Israel.

The story of the magi has clear parallels with the prophecy of Third Isaiah, in Isaiah chapter 60 (our first reading this morning). And when the magi are told by the chief priests and scribes that the child is to be found in Bethlehem, he quotes from another prophet, Micah chapter 5:

“And you, Bethlehem in the land of Judah
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

Three sides to every story

Matthew structures this story at the beginning of his account of the Gospel for a reason.

And the reason is that there are three responses to Jesus within this passage that become the three main responses to Jesus throughout the rest of Matthew’s account of the Gospel.

These responses are:

  • Hostility and rejection,
  • Shallow indifference, and
  • Humble worship.

Hostility and rejection

Herod’s response was one of hostility and rejection (2:8, 16).

He heard this news of a new ‘king of the Jews’ as a threat.

So, Herod planned to have the baby killed.

And when the magi failed to return to tell him of the child’s location, he ordered the slaughter of every baby boy under the age of two, in and around Bethlehem.

That’s horrific!

Herod’s response was one of hostility and rejection.

Shallow indifference

The response of the priests and scribes in Jerusalem, that were consulted about where the messiah was to be born, was one of shallow indifference.

When asked, they could quote chapter and verse from the book of Micah—the Messiah was to be born “in Bethlehem in Judea”.

Wow! There was a possibility that the messiah had been born! Here! Now! An ancient prophecy fulfilled!

And what did they do about it themselves?

… nothing!

The response of the priests and scribes in Jerusalem was one of indifference.

Humble worship

The response of the magi themselves, however, was of reverence and humble worship.

I love the order that their actions are reported:

“… they bowed down and worshipped him.
[And] then they opened their treasures …” (2:11).

First, they bowed down in humility.

Then they worshipped: they marvelled, they rejoiced, they adored. These astrologers, these non-Jews from the East, they recognised the Christ child: the first manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

And only then did they open their treasures and present their gifts.

(Now, that’s how to deliver a parcel—not fling it in a wheelie-bin and post a cryptic note through your door, like Amazon!)

The magi also teach us that when we open our treasures to God, true worship is always extravagant.

For a lowly woman like Mary, these were not ordinary gifts or obviously practical gifts—no nappies, Sudocrem® and feeding bottles. These were gifts for a king.

  • Gold—a symbol of kingship on earth.
  • Frankincense—a perfume, symbolic of deity.
  • Myrrh—an oil used for embalming the dead, symbolic of Jesus’s death and resurrection to come.

When we offer our treasures, our hearts, ourselves to God, we offer them with the same extravagance.

Model

I wonder if this passage offers for us a model as we enter into this new year: to approach God in humility, to worship extravagantly, to offer our treasures to God.

We don’t rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.

Perhaps these are the systems that we build upon: to approach God in humility, to worship extravagantly, and to offer our treasures and our hearts to God.

Rather than asking what we can do on our best days? The trick is to ask, ‘What can we stick to even on our worst days?’

Start small.

Approach God in humility; worship extravagantly; offer our treasures and our hearts to God.

Master the art of showing up.

Approach God in humility; worship extravagantly; offer our treasures and our hearts to God.

Scale up when you have the time and energy.

Approach God in humility; worship extravagantly; offer our treasures and our hearts to God.

Conclusion

Because…

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins
[the work of Jesus begins
the work of the Church begins:]
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

— Howard Thurman

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 50 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Sky. Latterly, web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and former warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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