Welcome, Cheviot churches! We worship together on this 1st Sunday of Epiphany
By the light of the Lamb shall the nations walk, and to it the kings of the earth will bring their splendour. Revelation 21:24
Eternal God, by a star you led wise men to the worship of your Son. Guide by your light the nations of the earth, and the whole world may know your glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever
Hymn 326 As with gladness men of old – vv. 1,2,3
Prayers of adoration and confession
Our dearest Father, who is changeless but who makes us able to change; you who are the Unmoved Mover who inspires us to move; Lord who is both our origin, our destination and our route, we creep towards you in humble wonder. We would not know where to journey except you magnetised our hearts, our minds, our souls that we might seek you who knew the paths we have been set. We give thanks for the way along which we must pass: for the lengthening days at the darkest times, for the very first signs of your return as the earth begins to awaken, for the constellations that seem to turn like clockwork until the meteors erupt, unexpectedly.
Holy Jesus, before your infant form, sages took the knee and acknowledged your lordship over all power and wisdom. Grant us also clear vision and courage, that in the light of your light we may devote our power and potential to your service, even that requires us to go home by another way.
Spirit, who is still ahead of us, still guiding us, still and forever beckoning us onwards, we thank you for not having left us alone, stranded in the maze of the world. Be with us at all times, and guide us always, whether that voyage is inwards or outwards, to understand that we are loved by you, the Son and the Father.
We have often strayed and been misled along the road. We have allowed self-pride and self-satisfaction to make us loiter. We have ignored the needy by the wayside and have looked to pomp and earthly power rather than to the stony track ahead. We have been lazy, prideful and have kept our riches for ourselves rather than made them into gifts. We know that you see all our failings, but we know that you are merciful, gracious and forgiving. We pause, for the way is long, and think of what we might have done differently and what we did foolishly and what we did maliciously.
With contrite hearts and clear eyes, we are meek to say the family prayer that you established, saying:
Hymn 470 – Jesus Shall Reign where’er the sun - vv. 1,2,4
Readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12
Hymn ( CH3 185) – All poor men and humble – vv. all
Heavenly Father, you sent your son to guide your people, just as you sent a star to guide the Wise Men to worship him. We pray that you will send, your Holy Spirit to guide our Church as we begin a New Year and may we rise and shine as we reflect your light in our community. Amen
I have a friend, Sarah, whom I mentored when she studied Creative Writing in Edinburgh. Although she was working thereafter the government decided she wasn’t earning enough to stay on a student visa, and so she went back to America, to North Carolina, then Texas, and now is in Paris. She was one of the few I knew who was Christian, but she had an unusual background. She and her father were Episcopalians, and her mother and siblings were Orthodox. When I asked her about this she said “it’s brilliant. I get two Christmases! The 25th for us and January 6th for them!” We have a strange relationship with Epiphany. It seems, to use an awful newly coined word “betwixt-tide”. Christmas is over, and Epiphany is a vague nod. I do like that some denominations call it the “Little Christmas”. We are still adjusting to what has just happened in Bethlehem and are beginning our journey to Lent.
So what does Epiphany mean for us? I am sure you have heard many standard sermons on the Magi or Wise Men or Kings. There is the version where you point out that they came after the lowly shepherds, inverting the hierarchy. There is the version where you say “well, the Bible doesn’t say three kings” at all, and the Syriac Church has twelve. (Their traditional names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar originate from the 8th century, but they were venerated from the 4th century). Everyone who has been carol singing knows the symbolism of the gifts: gold for royalty, frankincense for priesthood, myrrh for death. There is the post-colonial version as they supposedly represented Africa, India and Arabia. But what do the Magi mean?
The first thing to say is that it is unusual that they are in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke, who gives us the shepherds, was far more attuned to the mission to the Gentiles, whereas Matthew was more concerned with Jewish tradition. But it is Matthew who introduces the Gentile worshippers and Luke who commemorates the startled shepherds. Already, things are being inverted and turned upside down by the Nativity.
The second is – and I say this as someone who is quite clever – clever people are stupid. Yes, the Magi might have been astronomers or scientists or sorcerers seeing an unusual star and inferring a new King, and yet, they went straight to Herod. That was, frankly, dumb. They didn’t keep looking and studying but scurried to power instead. It would have disastrous consequences. It also shows the virtue of knowing the scriptures: Herod’s advisors give away where the Messiah is by quoting Micah 5, which presumably these scholars did not know. Nevertheless it is interesting that God speaks to them in dreams to say it might be best to be circuitous and not to go back to Herod. He shall do the same with Joseph in the next chapter.
What do we learn from the Epiphany? The Greek work epiphaneia does not occur in Matthew’s account – it does appear in 2nd Timothy and in Revelation, always about the second, not the first coming. But the Greek means “an appearance or a sudden realisation”. It is a little like Archimedes having his “Eureka” moment or Newton realising the apple which has just hit him on his head and the moon are governed by the same force. In literature, it was a trademark of Modernist writers. I won’t discuss James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, but Agatha Christie has one of the best examples in one of the Marple novels: how did you know Jane? Well, they passed the salt and pepper too politely. It is about suddenness more than anything. And we must be prepared for God to be sudden. It is also about the extensiveness of God’s love, for Israel, for the Gentiles, for you and for me. He will in crisis intervene, unexpectedly.
What I really take from it is the ending of the reading. “They returned to their country by another route”. If we meet the Christ, in whatsoever circumstance, there is no going back the same way, no way to retread. It will require us to be brave and require us to be daring, but the encounter means we are changes. That option is open, always, forever, to us.
Prayers of intercession
Father, we pray for the world, which you imagined, created and sustain still, and into which you entered, in a time of conflict, repression and bigotry. Millennia have not changed that. For every place marred and maimed by warfare, intolerance and catastrophe we ask that you help us to know how to help. We ask that you focus our minds, so that news about Kazakhstan does not allow us to forget Yemen, or that news about Myanmar does not distract us from Haiti; nor let us forget the injustices here which are suffered and in which we are complicit. You came into the world not for a tribe or sect or natin or empire but for the whole world, and for the whole world we pray.
We pray for the church, in all its forms. Keep uppermost in our minds that it does not matter which day we celebrate or commemorate, but that we do. Give us fortitude as we go into a New Year which will bring changes and challenges, instilling in us the knowledge that your first church was nothing more than a stable and yet it reached out to the ends of the earth.
We pray for all those who hold power, that they use it wisely, are cautious always to consider their impact on the least and lowest in society, and that they behave with due dignity. Make each person who has impact be mindful of that impact, and whether it works towards fairness, equality and justice.
We pray for all those who need not just prayers, but for us to act; for those who are ill, lonely, lacking employment or security or purpose, those who are lost and those who have lost loved ones. We pray for those with not enough food or inadequate shelter, for those in hospital and those in prison, for those who lack what we often take for granted. We pray for anyone in any kind of need – material, physical or spiritual – that you comfort them as you enlighten us as to how to bring help to the helpless and hope those without hope. We give thanks for all those, particularly in this time of pandemic, who are caring for the unwell, who are using their intellects to find solutions, those who are picking up the pieces. Strengthen them and make us, in whatever manner is right in your sight, means to improve the lives of others. Make us, Lord, the world, the church, those with power, those with none, each and every one of us here fit for your purpose. Amen.
Hymn 646 – Forth in the peace of Christ we go – vv. 1, 3, 4, 5
Go out now, and do not return the same. Go with confidence that the Father will be behind us, the Son beside us and the Spirit ahead of us. In the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, bless us, protect us and encourage us. Amen.