The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      7th January 2018
Epiphany - Making God Known
Jeremy Fletcher

Matthew 2. 1 - 11

This is a time for traditions. I generally tell only one joke a year, so here it is. “How do you know that Yorkshire is in the Bible? Because wise men came from the East Riding. On camels”. 

There are other traditions and patterns. One, which causes arguments, is about when decorations should be taken down. If your household is like ours this weekend will have seen urgent work done to rid yourselves of Christmas decorations, and detoxing and starting to lose weight. You won’t think me then for telling you that we are really only at the beginning of a season of celebration which should last for weeks. After Christmas starting in September (it seems) poor old Epiphany doesn’t stand a chance, and yet in the Christian East this, and not December 25, was the festival of the birth of Christ, and for the Armenian Church it still is. 

There are complex reasons for this – the most persuasive being that it was felt that a religious leader could only have died on the day of his conception. In the West the day of crucifixion was calculated as March 25th, hence that date for the Annunciation, and therefore December 25th, 9 months later, for the birth. In the East the crucifixion was put at April 6th…and so on. In the East it was also believed that Christ was baptized on his 30th birthday, so January 6 became a feast of Christ’s baptism as well. Soon West and East decided that having two dates was untidy, and a compromise was reached, stretching the celebration of the nativity of Christ from December 25 to January 6, focussing on the birth in December, and the revelation of Christ to the gentiles, his baptism and other revelations in January. You can tell that I love this stuff, can’t you?

Michael Sadgrove, once a chorister here and most recently Dean of Durham, said yesterday that this is the expansion of Christmas, not the end of it. Far from detoxing and having a dry January we should be celebrating all the more. Epiphany means ‘revelation’: God revealed in the Incarnation, the word made flesh. The prime example of this in the Western church is the revelation of Christ to the gentiles – symbolised by the magi. These religious outsiders are allowed to seek and find the incarnate God, and to them it is given to reveal the nature of Christ, the King to whom gold is given, God worshipped with incense, the child born to die given the spices for embalming. If we have any nervousness at all about dialogue between the faiths, the magi stand as an encouragement – both as people permitted to see God, and those given revelation by God to reveal Christ to his own people.

Outsiders who proclaim Christ. In order to prepare for Midnight Mass in Mosul in Iraq this year, young Muslims helped clean and restore the church, and helped erect the cross. It’s not the only example of those from outside the Christian faith reflecting our faith back to us, but it’s one which came to mind as I reflected on the journey of the magi from, perhaps, that very land.

How does God reveal God? It should be so easy: the creator of all that is could surely, in an instant, make the whole world understand who was present among them – stopping us in our tracks, making us kneel, shocking us into recognising that we stand on holy ground. God is, after all, God. One day, we are promised, that will happen. Until then we are given time and opportunity to see God revealed in other ways, and, more importantly, to make God known. Loving us so much, God allows us glimpses, and allows us time and space to respond.

So God comes ‘as child’, and today we see that hidden birth, in a borrowed space, revealed in all its significance, but also in intimacy.  The Magi are allowed to seek and find the incarnate God, but must use this knowledge carefully in a land where a dictator will go on to kill and main to get his way. The birth of Jesus is profoundly and personally, internalised, shared as a gift with those who will receive it with joy and trust. 

I spoke about Epiphany also celebrating the baptism of Christ. Again there is a proclamation, but not everyone is convinced. Jesus as the Son of God is a revelation to be internalised and pondered upon. Even John, who was confident at the time, asks later if he’s got it quite right.  There is more. This season is also associated with the miracle of the wedding at Cana, where in the sign of changing water into wine Jesus reveals his glory to his disciples. That which has revealed Jesus as the Christ now empowers him to take our ordinary lives and make them extraordinary, just was water is changed into the finest wine, and to overflowing. But, again, not everybody gets it: it’s an intimate revelation which needs to be internalised and pondered upon for its true significance to be unfolded. 

As we reflect again on Jesus’s birth, and ponder on the challenge to reveal Christ the Son of God, this season invites us to see God revealed in the life of a human being in whom God was pleased to dwell, whose living and dying reveal to us the unimaginable glory of God, and in the life of the Son of God made flesh, whose embracing of our humanity opens the way for us to partake of that unimaginable glory. How is that revelation made known? In intimacy, in reflection, in power, in transformation. 

If that’s how God makes God known, here’s a clue then about how we might we make God known. In the pondering and internalising we do as individuals; in the intimacy of our relationships, ensuring that all that we are resonates with Christ; in the majesty of our gatherings, that our worship and our working together as Christians points to the glory we seek; and in the way we work to change the world from a watery and chaotic ordinariness to a transformed richness. That will mean using our work and our money and our influence to make this world as much like heaven as we can. It will mean that we look for and offer this revelation carefully, in the way we might show someone a treasure which means much to us.  

This is the season of glimpses of glory. We are challenged to find God even and perhaps especially in those outside the church, like the magi, who seek after truth. We are challenged to glimpse heaven in our worship and in our dealings with people. And more: we are challenged to be agents of that glory. How is God to be made known? Amazingly, for now, through you and me. May we be open to that, and ready for it also. Amen.

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