A Living Laboratory (Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-11)
As each new year rolls around we, very soon, come to this time called Epiphany. Epiphany falls on January 6th each year. The early Church, at least in the Christian West, from the 4th century (the 300’s) on, has celebrated Epiphany by remembering Matthew’s story of the Magi who arrived, perhaps, as long as two years after Jesus’ birth, and recognized, in him, the one truly worthy of worship. Taking off from that story, Epiphany has become the day when the Church remembers that Jesus is not simply the saviour of the Jewish people and their descendants, but also of the Gentile people (like the Magi) and theirs – in short Jesus is the saviour of the world. Now, in interest of truth, I want to tell you what I mean by that word “saviour.” I mean that Jesus is the one in whose life, death, resurrection, and teaching, people find a new kind of life, empowered by God’s own spirit to live into hope, wholeness, joy, and love, freed from slavery to things and power that the reigning world empires offer in abundance. They are free to pursue well-being for all.
The Revised Common Lectionary that we follow always uses the same lessons for Epiphany (we read them again this morning). There is very little to say that is absolutely new, here, but sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of what’s old that we may have forgotten. As we have gone through these lessons in past Epiphany Sundays, we have emphasized the lessons’ insistence on power being found, not in Herod’s armies and great wealth, but in the so-called powerless child that the Magi worshiped. It is only demonic power that is for crushing people. Genuine power, i.e., God’s power, is for their redemption and reconciliation. Let me tell you what I mean by redemption. I mean a process of being transformed at the very core of our values toward the values of the Spirit of God, those I have summarized as the Advent qualities of Hope, Wholeness, Joy, and Love. By reconciliation I mean learning to treat not only those like us, but those unlike us, as family.
Some years we have also emphasized the message in Ephesians 3 that draws on the fact that Jesus is the saviour of the world. This fact underlines a little of what I meant when I defined reconciliation — that we need to be inclusive in our appeal, our language, and our message. Ephesians 3 also takes us further – it is not only in those who are like us, but also in those who are unlike us, who differ from us in every way, that the wisdom of God in all its rich variety is to be found. All that, I’ve said before, although you may not remember it (few of us remember such things that preachers say).
I have not changed my mind about either God’s power and how it looks when we appropriate it, or on God’s open-handed offer of the peace of Christ to all, as important pillars of the Epiphany- message of the Church today. It is natural enough, however, to try to find another angle of entry into this message for us today.
It seems to me that these lessons have two points in common. First, each one of these passages speak of the far-flung or even world wide implications of the Christ event. Second, these passages all involve, at some stage, the negative, unpleasant experiences of suffering and pain that are, alas, part of the human condition.
Our Old Testament lesson begins with the picture of God’s people (Israel) as a poor woman who has lost her family and is an outcast. The passage was addressed to those whose lives were not as grand as they had once been. The people had believed that, if only, they could be rescued from exile in Babylon, that everything would be “coming up roses.” Well, they returned, and there were no roses. The available land was small, agriculturally poor, inflation was horrible, the Temple they were finally able to afford and construct was a mere shadow of the great Temple of Solomon. Life seems to have passed them by. The picture of a poor woman bereft of children was apt.
The opening words of the poem are “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.” Handel used this line in “The Messiah,” and many of you can think of that music. It is God’s light that shines on this poor woman that remakes her and makes the whole world see her in her true attractiveness. As God’s light shines on her, the whole world comes to her, recognizing that it is the light of God that is shining. Of course, it’s easy to see Mary, the Magi and the child in the shadows of this passage, and why this would be an Old Testament lesson for the Gospel story of the adoration of these visitors from afar. Is it also easy for us to see in it our own condition as a congregation that is not as large as it used to be and is looking for (maybe worried about finding) resources for the 2018 budget year?
As Matthew reflected on the wider implications of the coming of Jesus, he pictured it in a mysterious visit by scholars from a far land, who have become convinced that they need to come from their own great country to this rinky-dink little country to worship this peasant child who is, yet, they think, the true ruler of all. In such a picture we can see Jesus, not only as the saviour (or liberator) of a people, but of the whole world – the birth of this child has the widest possible implications.
It is well known that the visitors brought three gifts to present to the child Jesus. One was gold, one was frankincense, and one was myrrh. The mid-19th century carol written by J. H. Hopkins, “We Three Kings” makes use of the imagery of the gifts.
Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown him again;
King forever, ceasing never,
Over us all to reign.
Gold is a gift that recognizes in Jesus the true power of a king, the power of gentleness, the power that Herod’s armies could neither touch nor overwhelm. The next stanza reads:
Frankincense to offer have I;
Incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising;
Worshiping God on high.
The incense is a gift fit for divine worship. It also permeates everywhere and represents the universal, inclusive outreach of this child’s influence.
The third gift, which is where the suffering comes in:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone cold tomb.
Yes, even at his birth, even in light of the magnificent and wide spread implications of the Christ event, Matthew included suffering and death, even – or especially – for this child of Mary, for he knew that chapter in the story, as did all his hearers. And we, betimes, think at this time of the outcome of the life that began in a manger and came to a cross. But do we often think of suffering as the lot of the people who follow this Messiah? Not usually in the Christian West, where we are a majority.
The Epistle lesson begins and ends by picking up this dynamic of God’s people sharing in Christ’s sufferings on behalf of others. in order that the world might know that it is and has always been God’s plan to include all people in the scope of the good news of freedom in Christ. And such is difficult work.
In verse 9 we read that God’s plan for the whole world is that everyone is included in the offer of peace and reconciliation. Then, in verse 10, the Apostle comes to the point: “So that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
“Through the church” (unique words in the whole New Testament by the way) God has chosen to make the divine wisdom in all its rich variety known to those who have a kind of cosmic influence in the world – those in “high places”; those in structures of the world. The church (and we’re part of it) is God’s living laboratory through which the values of divine power for others’ new life and the inclusion of all sorts of folk are modeled in a world that is waiting, not only to hear a word, but to see a living example of how it works to have Jesus as the saviour of the world (which is what Epiphany is about). But, then, there’s that other part, isn’t there – the suffering! And how we wish it weren’t there. We do everything we can to alleviate and eliminate suffering, don’t we, and part of that is a good thing. But an inevitable part of Christian living (as well as plain ordinary living) is suffering.
It’s not only as individuals that we suffer, we suffer as families when something goes wrong with another family member, we suffer as institutions when inevitable changes arise that rub us raw and make us do what we’d rather not. But it is not only in the modelling of Christ’s way of empowerment and freedom that the church is a living laboratory, a picture window into the heart of God. It is also in the way we deal with difficulty and danger, with change and turmoil that marks us out as those, who like the Magi, have seen his star, and have come to worship him. And, dare I say, this includes the change and turmoil of not being as large a congregation as we once were.
Today, we gather at the Lord’s table, which is another picture of how we are sharers in Christ’s ministry to our world. We enact with symbols of shared bread and wine the ministry of being broken in service and poured out in love that was Jesus’ mission. When we leave this place, we have an opportunity to take this kind of picture and live it into our lives, as individuals and as a church. Let us do so in 2018, whatever the demands may be.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.