4 January 2015

Open Secrets

A Sermon for the Epiphany Year B

In the darkest time of the year, full of the gloom of shortened days, we rejoice in the Christmas lights. They shine brightly through the city streets, in our homes and even in our church. Today as we celebrate the Epiphany, they continue to shine, even in the words of our readings. Epiphany means making someone or something clear, or making them known, to all. As a church festival it refers to the revealing of Jesus and his role in the divine plan for the world and everyone in it. On this day, God's light shines brightly, making clear what had formerly been obscure in God's dealings with humankind.

In the eastern Christian tradition, Epiphany is not so much about the magi coming to to visit Mary and Jesus as it is about Jesus' baptism or the miracle at Cana -- both times that Jesus was revealed in some way to humankind. But in the western tradition that we have inherited Epiphany is all about the wise men and their coming from the East. Western Christianity seemed to retain a special awareness of the grace by which we Gentiles were made part of God's plan and God's people in Jesus, something that Paul particularly emphasised, as you might expect. And one result of that awareness is the way that the western tradition has used Matthew's story of the Wise Men to make Epiphany about the revealing of Jesus to the world, to the Gentiles. The Magi became in tradition symbols of the Gentile world in many ways; for example they were later identified as three, with one wise man representing each of the three continents known to the early church.

This is quite different from the readings we have had in Advent this year, some of which allude to Christ's second coming in often mysterious, even apocalyptic terms.They are full of strange and images and stories, which speak about God's hidden plan or the secrets of the divine will. But many Advent readings (and apocalyptic writing in general) have a mysterious tone. The Epiphany lessons, however, are the exact opposite! Today our readings and the message that they contain are anything but mysterious. As with much else to do with the expectations of God's people and even God's prophets in the past, the New Testament writers are subversive. Paul and Matthew bring us not hidden plans but open secrets, or perhaps secrets made open in the Epiphany light.

The reading from Isaiah begins with that light: 'Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.' In the light of the Christmas Gospel we can see the glory of the Lord in the birth of Jesus, in the Good News of his coming. The light of that coming does more than illuminate the people of God's first covenant -- in the light of that glory the people of Israel themselves shine, and their light draws others as well. As the prophet writes, 'the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn'. And all who come will proclaim the Lord's praise, not just the people of Israel but also the nations who come to the light of God's glory.

The light of the Star that drew the Magi first to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem, like the light of the prophet's vision, also brings the nations to God's light. When the Magi saw the star, they knew that it signified the birth of a Jewish king and so they journeyed to Jerusalem to consult experts and were directed to Bethlehem. Matthew doesn't tell us why the Holy Family were still in Bethlehem when as much as two years may have passed since Jesus was born. Indeed details like the length of the family's stay in Bethlehem, or how the Magi knew the significance of the star, or even what celestial phenomenon the star was, are not important here. What's important to Matthew and to us is that these Gentile wise men are directed to the child who is the fulfilment of God's promise to Israel and of God's plan. That child, Jesus, is also the risen glory of the Lord, the fulfilment of the prophet's hope. And just as Isaiah foretold the wise men showed their recognition that this child is more than a king and even more than the Messiah by kneeling before him and paying him homage. They recognised the glory of the Lord in Jesus, a glory which Isaiah foresaw and has been revealed to us.

That revelation, the shining of this light on our hearts and minds, is what is foremost in Paul's mind as he wrote to the Ephesians and others in the Roman province of Asia in our second reading this morning. Paul's particular concerns in this excerpt are the revelation of God's hidden purpose (as he calls it, 'the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God') and his role in that revelation. That hidden purpose centres in Jesus, for Paul wrote of it that God has carried out God's eternal purpose in Christ Jesus our Lord. And it involves us Gentiles; it is that, instead of being cut off from God and from membership in God's people, Israel, we have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise. This was foreshadowed in the First Testament (especially in Isaiah, as we have seen already), but was not made known then as it had been revealed in Paul's day. At that time God's apostles and prophets learned about this eternal purpose because it was made known to them in the Spirit. We have an example of this in the experience of Peter. the leader of the Twelve, whose vision in Joppa led him to receive the Gentile Cornelius and all his household as fellow-Christians.

Paul of course was not a Gentile himself any more than was Peter. So what has he to do with this hidden purpose? He wrote that he had become by God's grace a servant of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, to bring to the Gentiles news of the boundless riches of Christ. He then became the messenger appointed to bring the Good News to us Gentiles, making known that we can be sharers in the promise, fellow heirs and members of the same body of Christ. Thus everyone will be able to see not just the hidden plan revealed, but also just what those boundless riches are. In this passage Paul showed himself as the revealer of God's self-revelation in Jesus, at least as far as the Gentiles were concerned.

Elsewhere Paul exhorts those whom he had brought into Christian fellowship to become imitators of him and his fellow-missionaries, as Paul and the rest of his mission team had become imitators of Jesus. So how can we become imitators of Paul in this? We often speak about becoming a Resurrection people, or an Incarnation people. But what would it take to become an Epiphany people?

I think that the answer is to be found in the recurring images of light and glory that recur in our readings. Epiphany is a time when God's saving purpose and love, extended to all men and women in Jesus's birth and saving work, are revealed and shine out in the darkness of a broken world. In the same way holiday lights shine out in the darkness of the winter night. But the light needs a source: there is no candle light without the candle, no flame without striking the match, no coloured holiday lights without the bulbs. To become an Epiphany people we need to become sources of light ourselves, revealing by our words and actions the light of Jesus's coming and of God's promise.

In another part of Matthew's Gospel than the story we read this morning, Jesus says 'Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven'. As in our first reading, from Isaiah, in that saying human light and God's glory come together to reveal and illumine. There are many aspects to what Paul calls the news of the boundless riches of Christ. Surely one important aspect is that our actions, our good works, have the power to move others and reveal the riches of Christ for all.

We become an Epiphany people by letting our light shine for all to see, proclaiming in that way the Good News of God in Christ. And we also become imitators of Paul, by becoming servants of the Good News as he did. Here in this place we let that light shine through our loving service to one another and to our community, through our fellowship and hospitality, through teaching the Word, and ministering the sacraments. May we continue to be sources of light, allowing the light of God's love in us to shine for all to see the boundless riches of Christ and the wisdom of God in its rich variety. Amen.