This is the Sunday when we take up, once again, the Advent story that we began to tell back in the beginning of December. Now we reach the part where the main character, the one we have been preparing to meet, the one we have been waiting for, is revealed.
Over recent weeks we have taken a bit of a side-trip from the main story-line and been focused instead on the story of the birth of Jesus with all the attendant glorious music and rituals that have grown up (in the Western Christian church) around that birth story. Today we take up once again the main thread of the story of the one who was to come and lead a fragmented community, an oppressed and persecuted people, back together, the one who was to offer reassurance that they were still ‘the people of God’ (or could be if they chose to be).
Once upon a time Epiphany was a major festival, a sort of culmination of the Advent waiting and preparation. It was much more important than the Christmas festival with its association with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and the feasting and merrymaking that were the hallmarks. The earliest gospel to be written, Mark, doesn't even have the nativity story in it. But when the Roman emperor Constantine got involved in institutionalising the Christian movement early in the 4th C the date of both Epiphany and Christmas were agreed, and set at either end of the 12 days that marked the period of the new year and the turn from winter dark to the lengthening again of the hours of light. These days, Epiphany, as a significant festival and liturgical season, has almost lost its significance (in the Western Church) and is overshadowed by Christmas and the baby Jesus story that precedes it, and Lent and the crucifixion that follows; it is sort of sandwiched between birth and death stories.
For the early eastern Christian church the feast of Epiphany was focused on Jesus' baptism, and the manifestation of who Jesus was as a ‘son of God’. In Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus' birth, it is the magi from faraway places and their gifts – echoing the prophet Isaiah – and the baptism of Jesus that are important. This story identifies the baby with 'the one who is to come' and lead the way into the promise of God. Matthew’s telling highlights the meeting between Jesus and his cousin John at the Jordon River where, John baptises Jesus and we hear that God says” behold, my son, in whom I am well pleased”. (Note, this Jesus was an adult, not a baby.)
It seems to me, Epiphany is in continuity with Advent, with John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way for the one who is to come. Now, in Epiphany, we hear the story of how John baptises the one whom they have been waiting for, Jesus; and following his baptism, Jesus' ministry proper gets underway, with God’s blessing.
Christmas is bit of a distraction, an interspersed winter festival, bit of a nod if you like to Roman religious sensitivities. It is no wonder that it was not significantly observed in much of the Protestant church – it was even banned in some places as unbiblical and was only celebrated as in Britain as a major Christian feast by Roman Catholics until Victorian times.
Matthew however realigns our emphasis. He shifts us from Christmas, with all the Victorian rituals and glorious music that have come to shape it, back to the main story of establishing who Jesus is, and a different way of being a people together. He backs up his assertions with blatant connections echoing Isaiah to 'prove' that Jesus – and the stories that had grown up around him by the end of the first century when he, Matthew, was writing – were 'truly' in continuity with the Torah and Jewish history. He wanted the Jewish people to know who Jesus was.
Matthew’s context, like Isaiah’s, was troubled: the temple had fallen and the people of Israel were looking for hope and reassurance that God had not forgotten them. Matthew (in the story that was read last week) sets a star over Jesus at his birth and in its light the men from the east come bringing gifts of great value. But rather than succumbing to the power of king Herod, and his threat to kill the boy-baby, they defy him in an act of civil disobedience and leave by another route – thus thwarting his plan. The Jewish people could not help but hear in this story those echoes of Isaiah Matthew was offering as validation: the light on the mountain, the nations from afar streaming toward it bringing their wealth, the promise of God’s favour, and of course the story of Moses raised in exile to avoid Pharaoh’s slaughter of the male babies. The one they were waiting for had come, Matthew was convinced of this!
Matthew narrates how Jesus' ‘true’ identity was revealed at his baptism – Jesus, son of God, servant of justice in whom God is well pleased – whose ministry, following his baptism, begins in earnest with his purpose and intention set out clearly in 'the sermon on the mount', which we will hear in a few weeks. In this sermon we learn what it means to be part of God's people. In Isaiah, scholars tell us, the 'servant' is Israel, the whole nation, not any singular individual. The nation must be actively justice-focused, the whole people. So too for us: together we are a servant people charged with bringing light and justice.
The prophet Isaiah before him, prefigures the agenda Jesus sets out according to Matthew in that famous sermon. Isaiah tells how God will gather together all who have been lost and dispersed and promises justice with peace and righteousness in their relationships; there will be no more violence, salvation (healing) will be their purpose. Jesus’ own ministry agenda and purpose follows this pattern.
Jesus' identity and purpose is made manifest for all who have eyes to see and ears to hear.
In both stories. Isaiah and Matthew, the impact is great on the community who hears and takes the story to heart.
As a community of faith, that is us. We too are baptised to become the 'servant' of God's justice.
Both the reassurance of light in the darkness and the promise of justice and salvation are offered to us. These promises define us as a community because they bring with them the expectation – no, the demand – that we witness by the way we live our lives and shape our relationships that we are part of the community committed to bringing God’s vision into being; part of the community that serves God's justice agenda.
Today we are on the brink of disaster: a climate crisis burning up lands, droughts, famines, mass migration, disease, and perhaps a pending war. It seems God's vision for the earth, as set out in the stories of the Bible, is very far away. But the promise of life comes into being as we invite everyone into the way of peace with non-violence, love, right-relations, and wholistic-wellbeing: as we get involved in doing things differently. We are not specially privileged as we go about this work, but we can be extraordinary because we witness to the unexpected, to the turning inside out and upside down of what has become entrenched in our way of life, and in so doing has lost its god-life. We need to look for these all these aspects of our world and seek another way instead of simply retracing the path we have already taken and ending, eventually, in the same place – further entrenching the greed and power that has brought us here.
I venture to say you know, as do I, that there is much in our world that needs to be different –
greed and grasping for power seem to me to be at the heart of most of those things from the climate crisis to workplace poverty, from violence toward women and children to the abuse of old people, from housing obesity to the increasing wealth gap – to name some off the top of my head.
As I have noted many times before, it takes courage to do things differently, it takes courage to risk change. Stepping outside what has become entrenched as 'common sense' is to risk ridicule and censure. Justice and righteousness for all will come by a different route… 'the prophets write on subway walls' (Simon and Garfunkel) we can see the different way if we will but look; those who show the way are amongst us! We just have to find the courage to recognise the way, and the bravery to step into it telling a different story from the one centered on greed and power.
These weeks, between what was and what will be, these weeks of the Epiphany season, are weeks in which we can wonder what the year will bring once it gets underway, and wonder what we will do and say to ensure it is a year that brings life to planet earth and to people and to all who inhabit it.
January 5, 2020
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
Good morning. Are you all happy to be here? …. Well that’s a good start.
I am Gregory, I’m an Anglican priest and I’m married to an angel …. anything else I might say about myself may be prejudicial so I’ll leave it at that.
Today’s Gospel is the story of the Three Kings or three Wise Men. I’m sure you’ve heard this story a myriad of times and seen church pantomimes about it, ad nauseam.
Apart from the feel-good factor, ‘though, I wonder what you have taken from it all? Of course, traditionally, this story underlies, in the Christian calendar, the feast of The Epiphany, epiphany meaning the manifestation. That is, the occasion that Jesus Christ is made manifest or revealed to the gentiles. Gentile, again, meaning nations and people who are not Jewish. The feast originated sometime in the 4th century in both the Byzantine and Roman churches.
So far so good; are you still with me … or has the pew sheet suddenly become more interesting?
Today, let’s take this story in a slightly different perspective than the usual and more traditional perspective. Let’s see if this text can open up some new and different possibilities for us, possibilities that are a bit more useful in our contemporary climate than this story being just some sort of annual pantomime concoction.
Before going further, I’d like to draw out a difference between a Jewish approach to scripture and the Christian approach to scripture. In Judaism there is a strong current of scriptural appreciation that is interpretive, that is dynamic, allegorical and flexible whereas, in Christianity, interpretation tends towards the dogmatic and the doctrinal. Today I am taking a leaf out of that Jewish stream and asking the text to show us something new, something relevant to our contemporary context and situation.
What we have with this story is a convergence of two quite different streams of social and religious understanding. That is we have the worldview of Judaism and the worldview of Persian seers or astrologers, magi. Both are important to the story and both are necessary to birth the new understanding that was to take shape through the ministry and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. The Jewish people provided the raw material, the resource in the form of an auspicious child and the three kings provided a worldview that gave the child the recognition of his future stature, i.e. he was to be spiritual royalty, something Judaism was disinclined to endorse as was eventually played out in the execution of Jesus some thirty odd years later.
Today, we are in unprecedented times!
Wars and famines have always been with us but the awareness of possible global extinction is a new ingredient in the mix of human history, notwithstanding the aberrant fantasies that have been concocted over time through fear-induced scrutiny of the Book of Revelation and the like.
Christianity, as we know it, is stuck, or worse, irrelevant in it’s response to this global situation. Church Christianity simply doesn't have the necessary functional apparatus to meaningfully engage in conversation and activity that will contribute to the sort of change necessary to effectively induce the humanitarian response needed to become globally sustainable and regenerative. This is because the shift needed for human survival is a change, a paradigm shift of consciousness, of worldview and church Christianity lacks the ingredients and imagination to be instrumental in this.
I think popular Christianity has three significant limitations.
One, is that it reads and has read its own headlines for centuries and has come to unequivocally believe them and think that they are inextricably and self-dependently true. In other words Christian church thinks that it is right, that it has the correct answer and the only truth, even 'though that truth is not overly clear. This is not the case. Christian doctrine, for this is the form these headlines take, is a bunch of ideas that people have had at particular times in history and we, for a variety of reasons, some quite deeply rooted, are reticent to radically change them.
The second limitation I see is that church theology, language and liturgy is primarily self-referencing. It’s lexicon is entirely limited for an age such as ours in the 21st century and our shop-fronts, our liturgies, often lack structural integrity and/or real-time meaning. An Anglican liturgy can convey many differing theological perspectives in one sitting, some of which directly contradict others and some are just plain confusing and/or nonsensical.
Thirdly, traditional Christianity has, and promotes, a dualistic understanding of God. That is, we understand God as another and separate to ourselves. Unfortunately, or you might say, fortunately, we don't have time to unpack this today but this dualistic appreciation of God, that is to have an understanding of God that is other than the phenomenal world, including ourselves, is neither rational nor theologically sound. It just doesn’t make logical or faithful sense and it completely disenfranchises the Church to be an effective contributor to the global crisis we face.
These limit Christianity’s ability to engage in meaningful and beneficial activity that will assist a global change in human consciousness. However, I might add, Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on introversion, elitism and self-referencing, other religions are just as good at it. Church, in whatever form or religion it takes can be, socially, a blessing or a curse. It is a blessing when it holds open inclusive sanctioned and sacramental space. It is a curse when it is prescriptive, exclusive and elitist.
However, as we are all aware, globally, we are running out of time. And religious institutions no longer have the luxury of being self-serving, introspective social clubs with their own self-interests at heart.
This does not seem to be what Jesus of Nazareth had in mind, nor did he apparently teach or live this way.
And so, allegorically, let’s go back to a Bethlehem with a star over an auspicious manger. The church of the time, that is institutional Judaism, is stuck in many ways. It is factional, oppressed, elitist and not able to address the crises of the time. Nevertheless it is still a rich and powerful resource.
In our allegory, or Three Kings story, two things happened on that auspicious day. One was that a powerful energy entered human history and the other was that a worldview or perspective from an alternate narrative, a narrative brought by three Persian holy men, gave it a language, lexicon and theological nuance to address the dire needs of the time. Also, the worldview and wisdom of the Magi was co-equal to the holy birth, both were necessary to establish a new consciousness needed for the age.
Scrolling forward to 2020 and wondering how this ancient allegory might help us now, we might ask who the Wise Men might represent today to institutional Christianity. Who are the alternate voices necessary to loosen church Christianity’s limitations?
Let’s take one of the examples above to reflect on, let’s take the idea of a God separate from the created universe. This idea induces and endorses in us also, as human beings, a sense of separateness. The ‘I’ that I seem to know as who I am looks upon the world and people around me as separate to me. That is there is me and it, me and you.
In the religions of the Asian East, and particularly in some Buddhist schools there is a teaching about no-self. In other words, if we really try to find that ‘I’, that self, that I perceive myself to be as a separate, permanent, unchanging and substantial reality we are doomed to failure, it simply doesn’t exist. Sometime, when you are bored and have nothing to do, have a go at finding such an ‘I’. You might be interested in what you do find.
This is a difficult notion for materialists at all levels to get our heads around. For us it runs very close to nihilism, which it is not and which, by all accounts, is rather an uncomfortable place to be.
The Vietnamese, contemporary Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh realised this, particularly for his Western students and he invented another term that had a more positive sense to it. He called the Buddhist notion of no-self, interbeing, we, and all around us, inter-are. For Christians this could be a Three Kings phenomenon. It is a piece from an alternate narrative that assists us to experience ourselves as an integral part of all that exists. In other words the universe, nature and creation isn’t separate from us but we are all part of the one being. Whatever we do to any aspect of the universe or phenomena immediately impacts on ourselves because all that exists is part of who I am. We are in a dynamic process of interbeing. We have no separate self apart from this.
None of this is foreign to Christianity, it is all in our history. We have just lost sight of some of it over the centuries.
Epiphany, then, in this sense, isn't about including the outsider, the foreigner, the gentile as is traditionally understood. Epiphany is about going out and becoming part of that gentile world, a nation among nations, coequal and codependent. Recognising that there are things in this world, in the other religions and in all human thinking that Christianity desperately needs in order to become a real-time force in changing human consciousness for global survival, in the same way that Jesus of Nazareth, aided and abetted by the Magi, became a real-time force in changing the consciousness of his time.
Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t belong to, or is owned by, the Christian Church. Jesus of Nazareth belongs to everyone. It is our responsibility to allow that to happen.
Finally a postscript: And what about God? Where does that leave God?
Perhaps we can leave God to look after and manage God-self. Perhaps Divinity doesn’t need our rules and prescriptions to feel good about Themself or have a good sense of identity. Perhaps Divinity is perfectly able to have a healthy self-esteem in spite of us as well as because of us. This is good …. because it frees us to get on with the work that is ours to do, what we are called to do, and to let God get on with being the business that is for us all to do.