Eucharist Sermon - 10 January 2021

The Epiphany
Ephesians 3:1–12; Matthew 2:1–12 
The Venerable Jonathan Chaffey, The Archdeacon of Oxford

Lord Jesus, as the Wise Men knelt down and worshipped, so reveal yourself to us that we might come with humility and be overwhelmed with joy. Amen.

In the western church, the Epiphany (meaning a moment of great revelation) became an occasion to celebrate the visit of the Magi to the Holy Family in Bethlehem. This extraordinary encounter revealed the nature of Christ’s mission and its extension beyond the people of Israel to the whole world. In the eastern church Epiphany begins with the Baptism of Jesus and his identification as the Son of God. The season continues with a series of firsts, that open up his character and mission: the first disciples, the first sermon and the first miracle. It concludes with Candlemas on 2 February, when the identity and future suffering of this special child are proclaimed by Simeon and Anna. It follows that Epiphany is traditionally a period in which we pray for the global mission of the church and its unity in Christ’s name, hence the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which begins on 18 January.

I guess we are pretty familiar with the details of the Magi’s journey, sketchy as they are in Matthew’s account. We recognise in the manner of their arrival and in the reaction of Herod, that Jesus exercises a different sort of power, one which subverts the values of pompous rulers; instead, identifying with and serving those who experience vulnerability and poverty. How we need such humility and service in our democratic cultures today! Ironically, if you ever have the privilege of visiting Bethlehem today, you would need to negotiate access through the terrible wall that reflects power exercised in response to fear and division – and then you would discover that the entrance to the Church of the Nativity is quite low, so that even Kings must stoop before God’s chosen son, the King of Kings. 

The arrival of the Magi, kneeling down and paying homage, signified God’s eternal purposes on a grand scale - but this Epiphany was also deeply personal. Their arrival flung wide the gates of salvation yet they entered through a humble stable door for an intimate encounter. Such an invitation holds true for those who seek Jesus today. We can only imagine how the Magi expressed the emotion of being ‘overjoyed’ at their discovery! Yet countless Christians down the ages will have understood that sentiment, the deep sense of peace and assurance that Jesus brings, the presence of heaven in the challenges of earth, a priestly king who holds the stars in place yet who walks with us.

So what does Epiphany mean for you – given that Epiphany has cosmic and eternal significance but is also individually and locally experienced? In our first reading St Paul highlights the effect of a personal ‘epiphany’ on his own life. What had been a mystery concerning God’s heavenly purposes became earthed for Saul through his conversion experience on the road to Damascus. His life was so transformed that he changed his name and became a servant rather than a persecutor of Jesus – he was so compelled in his conviction that he even described himself as a prisoner of Jesus, willing to endure extreme hardship so that he could share with others the wisdom of God personified. It was quite a testimony. I must share with you a more recent example of such transformative grace. In my previous ministry I was often in central London and would attend a beautiful service in St Mary Woolnoth by the Bank of England, where John Newton, the former slave-trader had been the vicar. I would sit next to his memorial, drawing inspiration from his epitaph, the words designed by himself: ‘John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy.’ What a beautiful summary of a life transformed.

In the coming weeks we will journey through Epiphany and refresh our understanding of who Jesus is and what that means. I would encourage this revelation to inform both our prayers and our witness as Christians. As we observe the sad events surrounding the transition to a new presidency in the USA, the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong, let us pray for leadership to be exercised in humility; as we experience the uncertainty and, for many, the sufferings of the pandemic, let us hold before God those most vulnerable to its effects, whether in health, social or economic terms; as we recognise the unsettling educational journeys for children and students, let us pray that they may yet reach the ultimate destination of learning, finding the revelation of God’s love and purposes for their lives. 

And for us? Think back for a moment to the Magi. ‘Contemplative, compassionate and courageous’, the values that form part of our diocesan vision. Contemplative in their watching and responding to the prompting of God; compassionate in their gifts, for the one who is both intercessory Priest and majestic King; and courageous in their journey of faith that took them geographically and spiritually out of their comfort zone. These gifts are just as necessary in the church today if we are to help our neighbours discover the Epiphany of God’s saving love in Jesus. To fulfil this call we too are invited to ‘bow down and worship’. There is a diocesan teaching initiative starting shortly - ‘Come and See’ - that will help take you, online, into a deeper faith and discipleship – do look out for it. And let’s pray that the mystery of God revealed in Jesus may bring to our troubled world the grace of humility and a revival of joy!