The light that draws us in and the love that is for all
Bible Text: Isaiah 60. 1-6; Psalm 72. 1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3. 1-12; Matthew 2. 1-12 | Preacher: Reverend Helen Dean | A sermon for the Epiphany
The prophecies of Isaiah are often read in conjunction with the Christmas story. They tell of salvation, deliverance, justice, righteousness, of the world receiving God’s grace in human ways, but nevertheless as the gift of God’s grace. These prophecies offer hope to those who suffer but also a warning to those who are not on the side of those who suffer.
There is another passage from Isaiah 43. 18-19 which is also particularly relevant to this story. Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
The story of the incarnation is the story of God doing a new thing. This was a thing entirely consistent with God’s nature and previous revelation, but nevertheless, entirely a new way of making God’s love known. God has done new things in the past and continues to do so.
You heard the message to the shepherds that the good news was for them but ultimately also for all people. Today in the epiphany story and associated readings, we see an immediate indication that God’s inclusion is for all with no exceptions. Many Jews believed that their being chosen meant that the gentiles were not chosen. We can understand gentiles as a broad term meaning those who are not the same as us. In ancient times, it would be the surrounding nations. In Jesus’ time, Greeks and Romans as well as the surrounding nations. In our time, we need to open our eyes to match the openness of God’s heart. We are as blind as our predecessors. It is only when we have broken the barriers of our thinking and our hearts that we can see the world that God has always loved.
In the reading from Isaiah we hear, Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60. 3)
Or in another translation (Jewish Tanakh): And nations shall go by your light and kings by the brilliance of your shine. (Isaiah 60. 3)
Both are true. We are drawn by the light in order to live by the light.
When we hear of the Magi following the star to find Jesus, they are drawn to him, not just geographically but also more wholly and spiritually.
In this story of the Magi or astrologers we hear of a small group of people who come to visit Jesus because they believe certain things about him. These people, most likely men, were certainly not Jewish. They came from the east and their familiarity with astrology and dream interpretation suggests that they were likely Zoroastrian priests from Persia. Probably. We cannot be sure.
They came to pay homage to this little child born of Mary but they were most definitely gentiles. This is the first record in the Bible of gentiles being drawn to Jesus. This theme will recur and the good news of Jesus will spread to all the world.
Each culture that tells and retells the story of the incarnation through words or art or music or drama embroiders it and add details that are meaningful to that culture. We have seen very European pictures of a little blond Jesus, nativity plays with superheroes as well as angels, and we recognise the stable with the animals which are entirely absent in the Bible story as a setting consistent with the Word made flesh, full of grace and truth. The ox and ass are often there together. The ox is considered a clean animal while the ass is an unclean animal but they both belong together in the stable.
And we turn the three Magi into kings. Perhaps that helps us to remember that they were greater and wiser than Herod, who wielded conventional power and influence, and that when they paid homage to Jesus, that little child, they saw in him something far greater than the power of a king like Herod.
Do we also see in Jesus something far greater than the powers of this world?
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see some of the results of the followers of Jesus being willing to take this good news to all, all people as the angels told the shepherds, all people as the Magi represented. Paul says that he is Christ Jesus’ prisoner – a prisoner for Christ and a prisoner of Christ – because of the commission of God’s grace which, he tells the primarily gentile Ephesians, was given to me for you.
The good news, this commission of grace, was also given to us not just for ourselves but to freely share with and for others, whether we tell it, show it, or live it. As Paul says, the Gentiles [the ones who are different and thought to be outside God’s grace] have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. The outsiders have become insiders.
Paul further says that This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord. The eternal purpose! This was always God’s intention and now it is coming to fruition and those who belong to Christ are purposed and enabled through the Spirit in that bearing of fruit.
And so here we are together – the ox and the ass, insider and outsider, rich and poor, wise and simple, male and female, many and various parts of the body of Christ. We are not them and us. We are all us. When we take the grace of God into the world, we are not taking it to a strange and different people but to those beloved by God, those for whom our Lord Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again.
All shall be drawn to the light and live by the light.
Let me conclude with the words of two very different writers.
From Frederick William Faber’s hymn There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. verses 4, 5.
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own,
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own
If our love were but more simple
We should take him at his word;
And our lives would be illumined
By the goodness of our Lord.
And a modern present-day quote from Suzanne Guthrie, an American priest and writer.
While I need to learn what the shepherds have to teach me about being present to the moment, I cultivate the friendship of the Magi, too, because their wisdom and poise can guide me through many an unlikely landscape toward my destination. I don’t need to wait for the sky to open in front of me. On any day, I can wake up and choose to journey toward God.
May we all be so moved. Amen.