Epiphany Sunday, 3rd January 2016

Sermon given by Fr Peter Wolton on Sunday 3rd January 2016, Epiphany Sunday

In 2012, just before Christmas, I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. After the intensity of Jerusalem, we travelled through the desert via Jericho to the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the site of the Sermon on the Mount. Parked nearby were fifteen limousine coaches containing pilgrims from all parts of the world, from Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, Philippines, the UK, and some Nigerians, resplendent in national dress, all the visible fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah: “Nations shall come to your light… they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.”

So what has this got to do with the Feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus to wise men from the east, which only appears in St. Matthew’s gospel?

Matthew wants his Jewish audience to know that the Gentiles too were inheritors of God’s promises as revealed in the revered scriptures of the Old Testament.

He starts his gospel with the genealogy of Christ, noting the inclusion of Ruth, the Moabite, the foreign lady whose mother in law Naomi comes from Bethlehem, this Ruth who is destined to be great grandmother of King David.

It is St. Matthew who tells of the faith of the foreign Centurion whose servant is healed:

“I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

It is Matthew who tells of the healing of the Canaanite’s daughter, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’

And his gospel; ends with the Great Commission:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

So Matthew is the friend of the Gentiles. And in the Book of Common Prayer, the subtitle to the Epiphany is “The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.”

The Epiphany reminds us that Christ’s salvation is for both the Jewish people and all people, for all nationalities and ethnicities and for people from all walks of life. We are all true heirs of Abraham.
This is a wonderful and radical gift that overrides divisions and boundaries.

For a world that enters 2016 struggling with globalisation, mass migration, policing of borders and fear of outsiders, let us hold closely the vision of the wise men.

And to consider with them the true meaning of wisdom

And to wonder what it really might have been like to visit the place of the Nativity.

In his book “Walking backwards to Christmas” Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford gives this account of Caspar’s journey:

The wise men arrive in Bethlehem and find the outhouse, not much more than a stable behind the inn.
“We knocked on the door, feeling both excited and also vaguely stupid. What had we come to see? What was the purpose of our journey? We hardly knew. We were men compelled. Old men behaving like children, travelling on a whim with no particular destination in mind. Wise men, behaving like fools, believing that stars led somewhere.

A man about our age opened the door. He looked weary and wary. But there was a steadfast kindness in his eye that was also prepared to trust. He asked us our business, and even though we had to come all this way believing that the star we followed presaged the birth of a King, to each of us, in that moment, it seemed very foolish. So we just said a child, we heard a child was born; we saw a star we followed it; we don't know what it means, but it led us here. He opened the door to us. He opened wide his arms to us. He welcomed us in. And there, in a dark corner, wrapped in blankets, and huddled against the cold and the clamour of the coming night, was the child, cradled in his mother’s arms.

This sense of strangeness, parents telling of being visited by God and by shepherds, one God come down to earth, one God sharing the life of men. Was this what the stars had led us to: the heavens themselves come down to earth?
As mother and child held each other and drifted back into sleep, I found I couldn't settle. Something stirred in me and I found myself thinking: what is wisdom? What does it actually mean to be wise?
I had travelled so as to put my knowledge into action, but had found my knowledge emptied out. Instead of a king, a child. And in that child, a glimpse of rare and uncomfortable beauty. In the restful and yet also troubling moments of that night, seeing the bonds of love between mother and child, I wondered if true wisdom might be this: to know what matters, and to rest secure in the peaceful affirmations of loving and of being loved.
Loving and being loved.
As we make our New Year Resolutions, let us build them on this affirmation of loving and being loved. As we consider our relations with others, both at national and personal level, especially with those from foreign lands let us remind ourselves of the example of the wise men, the wise men who journeyed in faith and who gave gifts.
I find myself thinking how perfect was the gift of gold to a family about to flee as refugees to a foreign land. In this next year, we know the needs of refugees are not going to go away. Let us consider prayerfully what gifts we can give them – there are plenty of organisations in this part of London who need help, both financial and in the form of encouragement and mentoring. As part of our New Year resolutions, let us review how much more we can give.
Let me finish with the words of Caspar as told by Stephen Cottrell:
“We knew that we would always bear the marks of this strange and beautiful meeting. The whole direction of our lives was changed.

We said our goodbyes in the harsh bitterness of the dawn. The road ahead of us will be treacherous and hard but I tell you now, as we turn our faces away from Bethlehem, it doesn't feel like an ending. Something has begun here, something that is to do with love. I cannot tell you any more than that; strangest of all, there is nothing more to tell.”

Holland Park Benefice