Sermon – Epiphany 2006

This week on my day off, I went down to Edinburgh to see an art exhibition. It is a display of the all the art that has been collected by Sir Timothy Clifford over the last 21 years that he has been the director of the National Gallery of Scotland.

I was wandering around, looking at the pictures. There was a lot to see and a wide range of things. Beautiful things. Old things. Mysterious things. Modern things.

Everywhere you looked there was more to take in. And it was busy too. Quite a crowd of people had made the effort to go and look.

However, I got distracted by something when I was trying to look at all the lovely things. As I was looking at a portrait of a woman in a black hat, someone was standing beside me, explaining one of the pictures to someone else.

Explaining with great passionate enthusiasm. It was Sir Timothy Clifford himself, the one who had gathered this extraordinary collection together.

And I realised that for just a few moments, that by far the most interesting thing in the collection was himself, wandering around gushing enthusiasm. Explaining all the many things that were beguiling and entrancing the onlookers.

The exhibition came alive. It walked and talked.

I understood it in a way in which I could never have done had I not been standing in the right spot keeping my eyes and ears open.

You see, the thing about Epiphany is that it is not just about beautiful things or mystical symbols. It is about a person. Someone who was alive.  

Epiphany is the season of discovery. It is the season in which we are invited to discover things…

…Not only the beautiful story of the Magi coming from the East.

…Not only the truth that everyone (Gentiles too) were welcome at the crib.

… Not only that there were signs of God around in Bethlehem once upon a time

Not only these things, but also that there is one whom we can meet, a human being whose presence explains and reveals everything else.

It is God’s presence in Jesus Christ amongst us that explains why people have been inspired to great art – making beautiful things, making inspiring things, making people think. It is God’s presence in Jesus Christ which helps us to get a hold of the truths long told by God’s people about the coming of God on earth. It is God’s presence in Jesus Christ which has helped to inspire goodness in all kinds of people – acts of kindness, charity and love which reveal God’s presence.

Revealed in a person.

Over the season of Epiphany – over the next few weeks, we will hear stories of discovery – people finding God in Jesus Christ.

Matthew’s story of Epiphany is this story of the Magi following the star, managing to avoid being deceived by Herod and then presenting the child with their gifts.

Matthew has the Magi come from the East – place of mystery and intrigue. Then as now a place which people associated with holiness and spirituality. The discovery of the child in Bethlehem by the Magi may be Matthew’s way of saying – look, you think that holy things come from far away, you think that spirituality is only to be found in the mystical east, but think again.

Spirituality is to be found even in a rough little village like Bethlehem. It is there that God is.

And we need perhaps to hear that underlying message ourselves and not be betrayed into thinking that God lies there waiting for us in Bethlehem, or indeed only in the Spirituality of the East. Whilst we have much to learn from one another and a great deal of wisdom does come from Eastern religions, I do believe that God is born and is here, in our own villages, in our own towns, in our own cities.

The manger is closer than you think.

It is important too to remember that the Magi were not deceived by Herod’s tricks. How easy it can be to be deceived by power and wealth and influence. The Magi might well have though that God would be born in mighty places – they might well have been of the view that God would have been born amongst people like them.

Yet they went undeceived by Herod. For somehow God was not to be found amongst the power and trappings of Herod’s corrupt court.

No, God was to be found in rough little Bethlehem. God was to be found amongst those who were poor and was born to a family who would soon have to flee for their lives away from Herod’s murderous soldiers.

In short, the Magi discovered God amongst people who were not like them. And we do too.

And of course, the story of the Epiphany is the story of those three gifts – Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. People tend to think of the gifts as being symbolic of something – I think it was a pretty practical gift for a family who had to run for it, I’ve seen frankincense being wafted around some rather dirty smelly places in the middle east, and the myrrh may well have been used by a new mother for antiseptic reasons.

The Magi are at once mysterious and practical.

They made their journey, presented their gifts and then departed. For they had discovered the answer to all their learning, the inspiration for all that was beautiful, the child who would be the touchstone for all that is true.

They found Jesus. And through this season, we are invited to make a similar journey.

And find the same God.


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