Feast of the Epiphany January 8th 2021 St John’s Upper Norwood Year B
We could be forgiven if we look on todays first reading with the same weary and disenchanted eye that some of us, at least, look on the triumphal announcement of a world- beating deal with the European community in the last few days. These closing sound-bites in Isaiah predict a rosy future, where not only exiled Israelites will come back home, but foreigners will join them, streaming to Jerusalem to inaugurate with them an Israeli based empire of peace and prosperity. But the prophet sounds a note of caution and challenge. This future will only come about if God’s people are committed, and mindful and penitent for their past failings. This new post-exilic administration must be prepared to welcome all comers, even to sharing Temple worship with pagans. Matthew, in the Gospel story of the coming of the wise men to pay homage to a long-awaited Saviour, seizes on this passage to spell out the significance of what is taking place. Except of course that they discover the presence of this new Monarch in a very unlikely place, not the Holy City, but a lodging house in downtown Bethlehem.
Paul enlarges on the theme of inclusion, that we encounter in Isaiah’s blue print for a new society, when he writes to the Christian congregation in Ephesus. Foreigners and pagans have now been incorporated into the people of God, not least in this cosmopolitan city. By their baptism pagans have become “ fellow heirs and sharers in the promises of God in Christ Jesus.” As he reminds the church in Galatia, now “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
God has been carefully preparing and planning for this moment, the creation of a new community where God will reveal his presence, and where all the distinctions of race, culture, gender and status will be broken down,. These barriers are now set aside by the love and acceptance and mercy of God, revealed to us in the arrival of his Son as our Saviour, the redeemer and reconciler. He has created open access to God, which we should be confident in. Paul asserts that Jesus, the Anointed One, has torn down all that separates us from God, and from each other, by his self-giving sacrificial death and resurrection. Paul sees the bedrock of this new relationship, Godward and with our fellows, as realised in the Eucharistic gathering, where the table of God is set out for all comers, It is at Mass that we find our true identity and belonging, and purpose.
In the story Matthew sets before us today he deftly jogs the memory of Jewish converts, reminding them that God is the Father of all people. Surprisingly it is not a familiar Jewish prophet he quotes, but the story of Balaam, a pagan prophet, who we hear about in the Book of Numbers. Balaam foretells the coming of a messianic King, descended from the house of Jacob to lead his people into freedom. “ A star shall come forth Jacob, and a sceptre rise up from Israel.” Matthew wants us to realise that, even though Balaam was a pagan, God chooses him to announce this good news, and it is this motif of the wider world seeing what Israel does not that continues throughout his story of Jesus birth and childhood. The pagan world sees what Israel fails to see. The religious experts in Jerusalem dismiss these foreign stargazers. Herod once again tries to ensure that any opposition or threat to his violent rule is put down ruthlessly.
Finally, when the wise men discover the lodging where Joseph and Mary have set up their temporary home, Matthew once gain nudges the biblical memory of his listeners, as he describes them offering their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. He quotes 2 Old Testament texts -Psalm 72, one of the Royal psalms, probably written for a coronation, which hopes that the newly crowned monarch will be wise and just; And todays passage from Isaiah, who speaks of Gentile pilgrims bringing gold, incense and spices, not only to enrich the worship of God in the Temple, but also to honour and encourage the King to rule wisely and justly, giving relief to the poor, breaking down barriers, establishing justice and peace. But this new reign is not to be set up in the usual and expected places of power and privilege, but in backstreets and provisional places. Matthew’s story ends abruptly and brutally. The Holy Family narrowly escapes the slaughter that descends on Bethlehem’s boys. Matthew continues to turn things upside down, blinkered believers and the privileged run down blind alleys of self interest, whilst those who were once far off, dismissed and pushed aside, discover that God chooses to be with them. Uncomfortable reading.
This feast echoes the discussions and thoughts we have had during Advent, not only in the aftermath of racist discrimination and violence, but as we face increasing poverty and inequality in the wake of this pandemic. As individual Christians, and within our Eucharistic communities, the Gospel charges us to break down all that divides us from one another, living out each day the gospel of inclusion which the Christ Child inaugurated by his own sacrificial living and loving.
The Christian community from the beginning attempted, sometimes clumsily, to realise this counter culture, where slaves and freed-men, Jews and pagans, women and men, shared together in living out the dynamic and promise that the true Light has come into the darkness of this world, and the darkness has never, and will never be able to overcome it. This feast, and its gospel is our manifesto and model for living in the light, and challenging the darkness.
It shocks me to remember the words of Michael Ramsey, the saintly 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, who in the seventies described his contemporary society; a world that in his words was ‘unpredictable’ with ‘an increase in violence, racial conflict, confusion of morals, and a sharpened awareness of the contrast between the affluent and hungry peoples.’ He pointed to the places where the first Christians met to break bread, ordinary houses; too close to allow for avoiding others, or ignoring difference, or pretending that inequality did not exist. Ramsey says, “Such was the church in the early days, with the cross at its centre, and with its new, deep and creative principle of fellowship as its principle.”
50 or so years on from his reflections little has changed. The severe policy of the Home Office he challenged, still exists. Four years on from the time I last quoted his remarks, and four years on from the Christmas following the murder of Jo Cox, the struggle between dark and light, evil and hope continues. That Christmas the Parliament Choir sang a setting of a John Donne poem to honour her memory. I bears repetition. Donne urges us , if we want to acquire true reason for ourselves and for this struggling world, to contemplate and imitate the life pattern of the Child who reveals the God who brings a light that will never be overwhelmed. In ‘The Light of reason’ Donne thinks of the aftermath of that first Epiphany, and re-asserts that God is to be discovered and collaborated with in the places and people who are too easily dismissed, or beaten down by poverty, injustice, and exclusion.
“ If thou canst take this light of reason, and light thee a little candle,
If thou canst find thy Saviour in a manger, in his humiliation, and bless God for that beginning,
If thou canst find him flying into Egypt, and accompany him in a persecution,
If thou canst follow him into the garden, and gather up some of his precious blood and sweat,
If thou canst follow him to his scourging, and to his crucifying;
If thou canst turn this little light inward and discern where thy corruptions are,
Thou shalt never envy the lustre and glory of the great lights of worldly men –
Yet shalt thou see that thou, by thy light, hast gathered pearl and amber,
That that light shall never go out, nor the works of darkness prevail upon thee.