The Epiphany - our journey to God?

Epiphany of our Lord 2021

Introduction and Call to Worship

As we come to worship God on this Epiphany Sunday, let us turn our hearts and minds to our guiding star, who is Jesus Christ.

Today’s Readings

First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah speaks of God’s glory arising among his people and the peoples of the earth coming to praise him.

Second Reading Ephesians 3:1-12

Paul speaks about the mystery of Christ which was formerly hidden but now has been made known, which allows the Gentiles to come close to God.

Gospel Matthew 2:1-12

The wise men follow a star which leads them to Jesus where they present their gifts before the manger throne.

HOMILY “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2)

Today’s reading tells of wise men coming to Jesus from afar, while local man, Herod, only takes an interest in their quest for the worst possible reasons – and, in my last maranatha reflection earlier today, I talked about Journeys – often our destination is not quite where we had anticipated ending up. The story of the wise men starts with them in Jerusalem, having already followed the star from the east. What was it that made them follow this star? What could it mean to “follow” a star? And how did they know it indicated the birth of a new king? These questions are worth holding in our minds, but we will not find conclusive answers to them. Perhaps the best we can do is say that this story is rich in mystery. In Jerusalem, the Gentile wise men make inquiries about the whereabouts of the new-born king. This throws the Jewish King Herod into a bit of a panic, but he makes himself out to be interested and gets his priests to say where such a child might come from: Bethlehem in Judea. He then encourages the Magi to find the child and report back, so he too can pay him homage.

The tragedy of Herod is that, in spite of his many advantages, understanding Jewish scripture and scholars on hand, his only concern is with the threat this child might pose to his own position. The depth of his feeling is made clear by his terrible “slaughter of the innocents” after the wise men depart. We could add that the priests, who point the wise men to Bethlehem, seem no more interested than Herod was. Yet the prophets of old spoke with conviction of the coming messiah. Isaiah 61 is a classic text that anticipates Israel’s return from exile. With the hindsight of history we can see that this return is only fully fulfilled in the coming of Jesus who brings good news for the oppressed, freedom for captives, comfort for all who mourn, and a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Surely those returning exiles had anxieties just like we do today as we enter yet another lockdown. I know that some have questioned the form(s) of worship we should use at this time. Should we be online only, is it safe to meet in-person, and what about those without the internet, the isolated and the lonely? The birth of Jesus marks a time of great change in our relationship with God, for now God dwells among mortals. So, the Magi make their way to Bethlehem and are thrilled when the star stops over that town, the one foretold by the prophets. They find the house in which Jesus and Mary and Joseph are staying, enter and kneel down in homage before the manger throne. Then they present their gifts, fit for a king. Their journey home avoids King Herod, after being warned in a dream.

How then do we apply this to our own lives at a time when so much around us changes ever so suddenly? In a sense we are, as Christians, all like the wise men. We are on a journey of faith, a journey which, like theirs, is full of mystery. We too look forward like Isaiah and the Old Testament prophets towards better times ahead. These bible readings chosen for today present us with different responses to God, and the challenge of life’s journey. On the one hand, we have the scheming and corrupt Herod, who was prepared to manipulate anyone and even seek to kill the Messiah to protect his own power and privilege. Like those forced into exile the Magi are on a journey and the star gives them hope. The wise men, with little firm information to go on, embraced the mystery of the star and trusted the revelation God had given them. They journey to find life and light.

I realize that for some inside the Church of England right now, Covid presents an opportunity for reform and change – and for scheming. Now more than ever, voices are suggesting that Eucharistic worship, liturgy and structure, and our historic buildings are all irrelevant – even burdensome. I couldn’t disagree with them more. Communal structured worship, in a naturally ventilated historic building which is kept immaculately clean, is the safest way to pray at this time in church. Indeed our timeless worship translates over the internet into our homes because it is inspired by God, the structure taking people on a journey – it is deeply compelling. Our worship, branded traditional by some, is about journeying towards heaven and placing our challenges, struggles and sufferings before the manger throne, along with our gifts. By our church staying open, even in a limited form, our worship open, as are our hearts in faith, and by our work to support Runnymede Foodbank and many in this community of Thorpe, including our schools, we remain outward looking and deeply relevant to the world around us. So, if anyone mistakenly thinks Covid will knock the stuffing out of us or diminish our desire to rebuild the catholic tradition within the Church of England, think again!

Friends, at the same time, as we journey forward, the challenges we face, the loss we experience and the fears we overcome shape us anew. We will not be the same church family at the end of all of this as we were at the beginning. But I do believe that God is about something wonderful among us and renewal is happening. We simply need to have faith that God has a plan for us, for his church Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Reformed – united in our inclusive diversity which is a strength. The great prophet Isaiah knew all about the challenges of change, of exile, of loss. But our forebears came through the exile and their hopes and dreams were fulfilled in the coming of Christ born in Bethlehem, who strangers from the east travelled to honour and present gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. So, do not let Covid, or the cries of well-intended but misguided reformers, knock your faith sideways. Trust in the Lord who comes among us in love. Trust that God has a plan. Be faithful in attending worship online, and here in Church – whichever is best for you and your well-being. Know that you are loved and prayed for. Let the sacraments feed you spiritually, if not physically, at this time in your life’s journey.

These coming few months will be quite a time and it will shape us in new ways. May the joy of our liturgy, the inspiration of the scriptures, the experience of our forebears and the intercession of Blessed Mary, the Mother of our Lord, inspire us as we move forward together – even if physically apart on this stage of our life’s journey.

Remember, faith and trust go together, as we journey through life. May the Lord of Life inspire you now and always. Amen. Fr Damian Harrison-Miles, Epiphany 2021.

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