Here’s the sermon I preached for the Epiphany. My day was made when a member of the congregation came up to me at the end beaming. He introduced himself to me as a member of the Iranian Community of Glasgow and said: “We, we Iranians were the first to worship the Baby Jesus!”
And they brought unto Bethlehem gold, frankincense and myrrh.
I must say how pleased I am to be preaching this morning â€“ the Epiphany is one of my favourite feast days. I suspect that you would find that many priests said the same. I find it oddly moving to preach on the Epiphany gospel. It is immediately apparent to me that we are in the realm of myth and magic. The Magi shimmer into view from the East and bring their curious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and there is no getting away from it. This is a strange story.
And the thing that moves me about Epiphany is that here in our worship today we use the gifts the Magi brought. Gold â€“ both our symbolic colour of joy and celebration that befits the feast and also in wedding rings that we shall bless today in thanksgiving for one coupleâ€™s marriage. And frankincense and myrrh â€“ both burning today in the thurible. The sweet smell of the incense conquering the tartness of burning myrrh and rising heavenward. Together they are a symbol not only of our collective prayer rising to heaven but also that the sweetness of Godâ€™s love always triumphs over bitterness in the end.
The use of incense in churches has long been rising though not nearly as fast as the use of incense in peopleâ€™s homes.
This kind of thing has led to controversy in Scotland. Some people donâ€™t like the smell of incense and there have been countless disputes between priest and people about its use.
There was a time in the Scottish Episcopal Church where the great controversy was over which monarch to pray for â€“ the ruling Hanoverian King or the Jacobite pretender over the water. There are records of congregations sitting through services and then if they knew that the priest was going to pray for the wrong king they would get out their snuff boxes, each take a deep snort of the snuff and thus cover the sound of the collect for the Kingâ€™s majesty with a great explosion of coughing and spluttering.
If you try to introduce the use of incense to a congregation that is not used to it, you can find yourself wondering whether that tradition has ever really died out.
I remember early in my ministry working in a place where the second gift of the magi had not been received with entirely good grace.
Should the thurible come out of the sacristy, blazing with coal and pouring forth the smell of glory, there would be a cacophony of choking noises that one might have been forgiven for thinking that plague and pestilence had suddenly descended from on high.
I managed to solve this one feast day â€“ it may well have been Epiphany. The clergy emerged from the sacristy along with the servers, one of whom proudly carried the thurible. The spitting phlegm from the choir alone would have been enough to put out the charcoal and stop it burning…
Well, it would have been if I had ever lit the thurible in the first place and I have to admit that I took some delight in opening it up and showing the congregation that it was entirely cold and entirely empty.
But let us not get entirely caught up with our own petty preferences. After all, whilst Christians in countless churches bicker about incense in thuribles, people have been making their way in droves to new age shops, spirituality stalls and even crossing unto the South Side to visit a great blue and yellow temple at Braehead to pick up spiritual knickknacks. And they have returned from their journeyings to gently build holiness into their lives by filling their homes with tealights, oil burners and the very smell of heaven itself.
Lest anyone have any objections these days I tend to remind people that there are only two smells in eternity, incense or brimstone and I suggest that they cultivate a preference for the former.
But let us allow the gentle smell of holy smoke to lead us to the manger where these strange figures, bearing their strange gifts are peering in. Let us pause and think a bit about them.
Firstly, where they came from. We are told they came from the East and that they were Magi â€“ that puts their home somewhere in modern Iran. In our prayers this week we can image their journey and pray our way along it â€“ praying that peace may come to troubled lands. Iran, Iraq, Syria. Those figures of old making their way to the Prince of Peace could have travelled through them all.
I was in an Iranian run delicatessen in the West End this week and I was struck by the sense of difference that I experienced when stepping over the threshold. Sights and smells and tastes awaited me that I did not know and that were not part of my previous experience. Pomegranate syrup and Iranian Saffron begged to leap into my shopping bag. I was bewitched by the possibilities that new flavours offered me.
Let us not forget at Epiphany that there is a whiff of something new that accompanies the Magi unto Bethlehem.
They prefigure a world of new possibility and novel expressions of holiness.
When the magi stepped over the threshold of the stable or barn or wherever they Holy Couple had found for their Child by that time, their coming from the East with their gifts meant something new was most certainly coming to pass.
Firstly there was a God to worship. A God not made of stone or wood. A God not placed in a palace or gold hall. Rather a God who was born into apparent poverty and who took the face of a child.
But their coming to worship the child and being woven into the birth narratives of the Christian Saviour of the world tell us afresh of the expanding sense of vision planted in the hearts of Godâ€™s people. If God was for foreigners like the Magi then God was for everyone.
And God was there to be dealt with. It is not simply the coming of God that matters â€“ we celebrated that at Christmas. No, we also celebrate that human beings can relate to God, know God, enjoy getting to know God and build an ever wider, ever bigger, ever more inclusive vision of a heaven where all are welcome and all are loved.
And today at this altar, Chucks will be offering incense on behalf of us all and in joyful praise for that wider vision. No doubt he will be giving special thanksgivings for the first year of his priesthood which we mark with joy today. But as he does so, smell the smell of heaven yourself and remember that it is always the whiff of God doing something new.