Saturday, 4 January 2014

Unwrapping Christ

Epiphany Sunday, 2014.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 

A large part of Christmas is about presents and the myriad ways there are of asking for, planning, listing, ordering, choosing, buying, disguising, wrapping, posting, delivering and opening presents, for ourselves and for our loved ones.
I wonder if the way we 'do' Christmas presents says something about our personalities.
Do you buy last minute, or plan months in advance?
A great refrain in our household is 'why don't we buy all the presents in October?' but to date this idea has never come off.
And every year in the January sales I toy with the idea of getting all my presents half price...
Do you hand make your wrapping paper? (we actually have someone in the extended family who does this...)
Do you wrap each present with a bow?
Or do you find some paper from last year, smooth it out and scribble a note on in biro?
Do you like surprises?
Do you prefer lists?
Do you prefer to buy the things you want yourself and ask someone for the money?
The permutations are endless.

I had quite a busy run up to Christmas, what with family preparations and services...I don't want to alarm anybody but after Christmas Day, when I was on my week's holiday, I sat down and read a novel by Sue Townsend called The Woman who went to bed for a year.
In it, Eva Beaver, 50 year old wife of an emotionally incapable astronomer called Brian, decides to retreat to her bed in order to withdraw from the world and take stock of her rather sad and directionless life.
She goes to bed on September 19th and is still there as Christmas approaches, much to the horror of her family.
About three weeks before Christmas she sits her husband down to give him instructions on how to 'do' Christmas without her.
The resulting page of terribly complicated instructions (which completely defeat Brian) about ordering things, picking up things, buying things and running out of things really strikes a chord and is enough to make you weep at the complexity we have introduced to the season of gift giving
(read section bottom of page 184, to top of 186).

And so we come to Epiphany Sunday.
I always find myself running back to the commentaries and dictionaries for this Sunday.
Epiphany is one of those words which flits in and out of everyday language - a revelation, a sudden realisation about something or means revealing or manifestation.

We were reminded through Advent that the mystery of the ages, God in us, was somewhat hidden through the Old Testament and even in the New.
We recalled patriarchs, prophets, John the Baptist and Mary, all of whom pointed to the Messiah, those pointers getting stronger as we progressed.
Our Epistle today tells us that there is a 'plan for the fullness of time'; a plan to 'gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth' (Ephesians 1:10).
Something once hidden has been revealed.
So today, as we come into Epiphany, the theological question we are faced with is this:

What is revealed and how are we to respond?

Like present giving at Christmas...we ask, what have we be given, and how should we respond?
That's why our liturgy, our observing of the liturgical year, informs our minds as well as our hearts.
We understand that we've been given something at Christmas, a baby born as one of us.
But now we're in Epiphany, we ask ourselves, what does this gift reveal and how should we respond?

There are two thoughts for us to take away: 

We're told that the purpose of the journey of the Magi to the Christ child was to pay him homage (or 'home-age' as many a primary school child has mistakenly pronounced).
This phrase means, of course, to worship, but it implies physical prostration, a complete giving, not just of gifts, but of oneself.

The Magi have seen the star of the Messiah and it indicates this being is worthy of worship.
Since only God is worthy of worship we can safely assume that these strangers from the East realised from the outset that the one toward whom they were journeying was divine.
Very God from very God, begotten, not created.
Their journey is therefore not just physical - they are changed by their encounter.
They came into the place where the young child lay and prostrated themselves before giving their gifts.
They had sought the Messiah in the halls of power and prestige but were re-directed to a humble dwelling where lay God in the flesh.
This is perhaps the first thing to take away this Epiphany Sunday. 
We are made for worship and real worship, real encounter with the divine, changes us.
That is why we put all our efforts into preparing to worship when we gather - the quality of what we do here on a Sunday matters - it is a place of encounter.
It is about encountering the living God, through the building, through the music, through prayer, the Word and the sacrament, and being changed.
If not changed, it is perhaps not worship.
We say in our mission statement that we seek to be a worshipping family, and that is our core purpose, along with a second thing to take away today - namely, that this gift is for sharing.

The first Sunday of Epiphany is dedicated to the thought that this gift has been revealed to the Gentiles.

In other words, to strangers.
The Magi were from the East, they were not Jews, they didn't share the same religious heritage, but the God of all nations called them through their study of the stars and they set out to find the King.
And that is what we once were - outsiders.
A great drawback of the privatisation of faith today is that people assume that God is for people who go to church and everyone else is fine without him.
This is not the message of Epiphany. Or of Christmas. Or of Easter, for that matter (or of Pentecost).
Christ is a gift for all mankind.
He is for sharing.
So if Christ is a gift for all mankind, not just people inside churches, how should we respond?
Who are the people whom God is calling who are not yet part of our fellowship?
'While Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, there came wise men from the East...'
'While the Christians in Whitchurch were worshipping in St Mary's....' what? What is going on out there in our community spiritually?
Someone has defined mission as finding out what God is doing and joining in.
That sounds like a good resolution to make for 2014.
Find out where God is in our community and join in!
The gospel today begins and ends with strangers.
We need to think about that as we go into 2014 wishing to be faithful to our calling to be bearers of the Good News.
The Messiah's arriving has meaning for all people.

We have asked on this Epiphany Sunday, What is revealed and how should we respond?

We have seen that what is revealed is none other than the Messiah, the saviour of all mankind.
Our response is, simply, to worship, and to share him.

May God give us the desire, the opportunity and the grace to worship and share him as this new year begins.

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