Epiphany Sermon – 2 January 2005

Last week, I stood up in church to read the gospel, just before the Children presented us with their nativity play.

For once, I felt that the Lectionary had let me down. The Young Church members were crowded into the front rows of the church dressed as shepherd, sheep or king or whatever ? ready and eager to present their play. (Which was excellent).

And I had to stand and read the hardest and most difficult part of the Christmas story ? the part where the child Jesus is bundled off to Egypt whilst cruelty is meted out to the families of Bethlehem. Herod slays all the innocent children. All those under two years old in the town are wiped out indiscriminately because of what he has heard from the Magi.

Last week, I remember thinking as I read that passage ? ?I wonder why I am reading this today. Why should I be reading this passage right now? What does this have to do with the fun of the season and with the children?s play about to be presented??

At the time, I did not know that just whilst I was reading it, untold misery was unfolding on the other side of the world. As that gospel was being proclaimed here in church, other voices were being raised around the rim of the Indian ocean. Mothers calling for their children, families wiped out. Indiscriminate destruction meted out ? a force beyond understanding.

The voice is heard in Ramah ? Rachel weeping for her children.

The Lord was born into a world in which terrible things happen. The attack by Herod on the children was caused by human wickedness ? this disaster was mostly caused by something which falls into the natural order. (Though no doubt there are questions to be asked about why there was no warning system in place).

When such things happen, we find ourselves asking ?why??.

One of the things which I have noticed is that, in this country at least, there is far less of a tendency than once would have been the case to blame God for such a natural disaster. Granted, the newspapers have been approaching religious figures to ask them to expound on the disaster. Yesterday there was a piece by the Chief Rabbi in one paper and today the Archbishop of Canterbury is in another. It is interesting how it appears too ? he says that faith has survived such things before and will survive this disaster and it has been put under a headline saying ? ?Archbishop of Canterbury admits: This makes me doubt the existence of God.?

However, there is less of this than there once would have been. Once a disaster on these proportions would have been seen as the judgement of God. It seems that secularisation is having its effect on the national consciousness. (And it should not be assumed that religious people think that secularisation is wrong, I for one don?t). There are very few attempts to suggest that somehow God was to blame. There are very few attempts to suggest that God, for example, is trying to wreck vengeance on the world for something, or that God is trying to tell us something by doing this. As though God is capable of bringing it about.

Sometimes that kind of thinking lingers with us. Sometimes we are tempted to present God with a wish list of does and don?ts. As though God were capable of withholding love. As though God had it within God?s self to choose to deny a beloved creature anything at all.

The story of Christmas which we have just celebrated together is a celebration of the fact that God would deny us nothing.

However, though it is changing now, the idea has persisted long in this country that God is in control of events like this. And no doubt in some parts of the world this is what people believe.

Here, it often seems, ironically, that those who posit such a God are those most likely to be attacking faith. Atheists are the last bastion of people who need to suggest belief in an indiscriminate and cruel God in order to reassure themselves that such a God is not worth believing in anyway. (Which I agree with ? such a God isn?t worth believing in anyway).

Many of us have turned away from that kind of belief. No more do we believe that hard things on earth are the result of the moodiness of God.

When they came riding over the hard country from the East ? what did the Magi think? For it is their feast day today. Today it is the Epiphany of the Lord. The start of the season of discovery.

The usual way of telling the story is to say that these men were astrologers who had seen ?signs in the heavens? which allowed them to predict that the child would be born in Bethlehem and to set off to see this thing which had happened.

The fact that the church has (I think rightly) set its face against astrology ever since is sometimes overlooked in the telling.

The way we normally understand the story takes us back into the idea of a God who orders the heavens and the earth according to what particular message he wanted to bring on a particular time and place.

The presence of the Magi ? the wise ones ? at the crib is supposed to suggest to us that Jesus was born for everyone, including those outside the normal boundaries of faith. At the time this meant people like the Magi ? outside the conventions and practises of Judaism.

However, the story can be seen in a different way, which might be illuminated by our response to the terrible Tsunami this week.

You can read the story of the Magi arriving at Bethlehem as a paradigm shift. Here were people who had believed that God?s will could be seen in the movement of the stars. Did they go away believing that? I think that perhaps they did not. They made the shift from thinking that God?s activity was all displayed up there to thinking that God?s activity was on display within the human heart.

Were their hearts not moved to worship at the crib? Was the star of Bethlehem not lightening up their souls as they presented their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. I think it was.

No more did they need to read the moodiness of God in the configuration of the stars ? they had come face to face with Jesus Christ and had met God in the here and now.

And now, here on this first Sunday of the year what do we think?

Can we see God?s activity more clearly in the unleashing of the great waves which brought terror and destruction?

Or can we see God?s activity more clearly in the waves of generosity that have been unleashed over the last week?

Is God to be found bringing indiscriminate destruction to millions of lives. Or is God to be found in the human stories of courage, sacrifice and giving.

I know what kind of God I believe in.

And that is my Epiphany this year.


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