Sunday, January 05, 2020

Epiphany sermon for Coventry Cathedral, 5th January 2020

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.

Familiar words, I’m sure,- enshrined in our national consciousness after George VI used them in his Christmas broadcast in 1939, just a year before Provost Howard spoke into a world where the unknown had become real and very frightening…
Words that my high school headteacher loved to share in the 1st assembly of the Lent term.
For the moment, let’s not rush ahead and remember how the verse continues but rather reflect on the journey that each new year represents. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that things are more precarious, more challenging in our national life than they’ve been, pretty much in my lifetime. And though you may feel your own circumstances are pretty stable, there are bound to be some surprises ahead, both welcome and more problematic. The fifty two weeks that it takes our planet to complete its orbit around the sun offer time enough for all sorts of things to happen.

So that plea “Give me a light” is real, and immediate, specially if you know there are decisions to make this year.
I’m not great at that. I often wish that God would decide for me, say, only half jokingly, that I long for a sign, “some sky writing would be good, Lord, telling me exactly where I should go and what I should be doing.”

Give me a light.

Of course, Matthew’s wise men seem to have had exactly that privilege, light and to spare for their journey.
An Epiphany.
A moment of clarity when God is revealed, when we can say with no doubt that God is here
So- for the wise men, perhaps their epiphany came with the rising of the star…their very own sky-writing, telling them where to go, what to seek.
Arise, shine for your light is come”
Certainly, they seem to start out on their journey confident that they know where they are heading…all they have to do is to follow their star. Though I'd guess that the Christmas card scenes that present it as obviously the one and only REAL star in the heavens might be distorting the truth slightly…Step outside on a clear night and the sky tells a different story, even here in Coventry.
Look up.
See for yourself.
Of course, looking up might be quite a challenge if you’re feeling overwhelmed personally or politically as the year begins. Looking down and feeling sad may seem more natural – but you’ll miss so much if you stay that way.
Look up and yes, the sky will be dark but in the darkness are countless stars...stars that are always there, of course, but only visible when night falls.
So, our wise travellers looked up -and saw something that others missed.
More, they chose to focus on that light, rather than the surrounding darkness and so they set the tone for their journey.
To focus on light rather than darkness is always, in every circumstance, an act of faith.
It’s not blind optimism but hope rooted in experience.

But – that doesnt guarantee plain sailing.
This journey of faith was not, is not, for the fainthearted. The wise men needed took courage and conviction to stay the distance and wisdom to discern when the journey was really over. It seemed only common sense that the royal palace should be their first port of call...A star presaging the birth of a king must surely point to a kingly place – except that this new king confounds expectations at every turn. Our travellers have drifted off course, followed their own assumptions and so come face to face with someone for whom the gospel is anything but good news. Herod responds with the anger born of frightened self interest when the wise men ask to see the one born “King of the Jews”.
You might remember that the next time Jesus is hailed as “King of the Jews” is as he confronts worldly authority once again, in the events leading up to the crucifixion, and the shedding of innocent blood. It’s the same here, of course. God's arrival in our world is quite unlike the sweet and gentle scenes of our Christmas cards and carols. It ushers in mass murder and a young family forced to flee for their lives. But for all the violence and fear,nothing in all creation will be able to escape the touch of God's mighty act of salvation. Not Herod, not Rome. Nothing.

Meanwhile, though, our travellers have still not had their real epiphany. They have seen a king but not THE king. Perhaps they'd made a mistake in setting out? Wasted time, energy…
The voices ringing in their ears that this was all folly”
Should they admit defeat? Head for home?
But they were determined to go the distance and followed the directions provided, directions that sent them away from the seat of power, from splendid palaces to an obscure village – yet still not least among the princes of Judah, perhaps.

As the wise men left Herod’s presence, they saw the star ahead of them once again.
Your light has come...”
Yet this was still not their true epiphany. The star-light led them on to a very ordinary house – where all their expectations were subverted.
Your light has come
God a toddler, cuddled up in his mother’s arms…
Emmanuel. God with us.
It might have seemed an anticlimax.
No angel choirs or fiery messengers, no earthquakes or thundering voice but an everyday scene repeated in countless homes across the world.

Already, in this epiphany, if they were truly wise, our travellers could discern the signs of the times, could recognise the nature of the kingdom. It was, and it is, a kingdom that included the little and the least, the poor and the weak. A kingdom that welcomes those who were searching, those who have wandered in the wrong direction for a little while. A kingdom for insiders and people from beyond the edges of society, Jews and Gentiles, those already at home and sojournors in a strange land

The magi had come far to worship a new king, yet found themselves somehow at home and welcome in his kingdom.

The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says this
An epiphany is an experience that transforms everything, and before you can do anything with it, it does something to you... it always seems to demand a change in people‘s lives. To live with a faith that makes room for Epiphany leaves us on our heels, ready to step out to wherever it is that God may be revealed

The paradox, of course, is that we may not have to travel far at all.
We don’t really need to go looking for God in rare and particular places. Instead, in the child born in Bethlehem, God has sought us out and come to dwell with us in the midst of all of our humanity.
God with us as we begin our journey into the year ahead.
Your light has come
We can seek that light in other places that carry the promise of epiphany - in the company of those who are hungry and thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, the lonely and those stripped of their dignity; - among people who turn from the destructive powers in their life and in this world, to discover new strength from God; among those called to leave the familiar behind and step out in new directions; - wherever people experiences healing and new life or moments of forgiveness and new love.
Truth is, as Richard Rohr continues “if God can be manifest in a baby [born] in a poor stable for the unwanted, then we better be ready for God just about anywhere and in anybody.”
Anywhere and in anybody”…..

Arise, shine, for your light has come.
The arrival of the Light of the World in our midst enables us to shine with reflected glory. As the moon has no light of its own, but reflects so beautifully the flaming radiance of the sun, so we, in all our mundane humanity, can and should shine…
The light that drew the magi to the house in Bethlehem, that showed them God in the ordinary, should shine through us as well and we should expect to see it in other places and other people too.…

That’s why I’m an enthusiast for the old European tradition of chalking the doors – a visual prayer on the lintel that Christ will bless the home with his presence – a reminder to me and a sign to others that I WANT mine to be the sort of home where his presence can be felt, his love shared. I’ve a pocket full of chalk if you want to mark your home too…to remember as you come and go that the Lord is here. There really is no need to travel far to seek him.

So, as you go forward into this new year, be alert to celebrate epiphany wherever you encounter God. It won't be just in this building, that's for sure...nor simply at the the high moments of life In all times and places and people, even the most pedestrian and apparently uninspiring...because, after all, what good is it if we only see God on high days an holidays…
Most of life is quite difficult, even can seem dreary, dark – but remember – the magi looked UP and saw the beauty of the night sky...revealed only because of the darkness.
So, even in our own lives, and even in our own times of gathering gloom, we may come to experience the glory of God through Jesus Christ

Your light has come – so, as Minnie Haskins wrote long ago

Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

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