Thursday, 5 February 2009

Epiphany Sermon

Epiphany (2008)

Come to the king, whoever you are…

I don’t know if you remember the Christmas publicity campaign from a few years ago, one which caused some controversy at the time, but being broad minded myself I rather liked it. It had a cartoon picture of three outrageous faces with a caption which went something like this:
You’re in a stable, you’ve just given birth and now three kings have turned up with presents for the baby – talk about a bad hair day....

Of course, it’s trying to get us to think about the familiar story of the arrival of the wise men in a different way, which most of us who are responsible for preaching and teaching during our major Christian festivals are always trying to do! I think that, and the fact that ‘bad hair day’ is one of my favourite modern phrases, means that this ad really appealed to me, despite the fact that various green ink users in Tonbridge Wells got very excited about the whole campaign.

But as I have said often over this Christmas period, it is easy to forget the wonder of this story we know so well – familiarity seems to breed if not contempt at least a sort of numbness with regards to this amazing story. And the fact that we have a mish mash approach to the story with various elements from different Gospels mixed up together and the timescale of the arrival of the wise men’s arrival being less than clear means that we probably don’t enquire too deeply about this amazing event

It doesn’t help that we have layered meanings upon meanings on the text itself. First of all, despite the fact that I love the carol ‘we three kings’ as part of our worship there is no evidence that these were actually kings. Nor, unlike the suggestion in the carol, is there necessarily any deeper meaning to the gifts given... In fact I found this in the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary on the whole Bible of , 1871 this excellent passage:
That the gold was presented to the infant King in token of His royalty; the frankincense in token of His divinity, and the myrrh, of His sufferings; or that they were designed to express His divine and human natures; or that the prophetical, priestly, and kingly offices of Christ are to be seen in these gifts; or that they were the offerings of three individuals respectively, each of them kings, the very names of whom tradition has handed down—all these are, at the best, precarious suppositions. But that the feelings of these devout givers are to be seen in the richness of their gifts, and that the gold, at least, would be highly serviceable to the parents of the blessed Babe in their unexpected journey to Egypt and stay there—that much at least admits of no dispute.
To be honest, its just a good sing!

What is important is what we do know about the wise men, and that should be enough to fill us with a sense of wonder and surprise and indeed a sense of being challenged in our own attitude.

We begin by asking why this story is included here in Matthew’s Gospel – it isn’t found elsewhere in the New Testament, or referred to by any other source. For Matthew, the passionate Evangelist to the Jewish People, the one who believed in the kingship of Jesus, the King of the Jews, what is he saying to the Jewish people?

Well, lets start with what we know - we do know that the wise men, or Magi, were not Jewish – they came from the east, they were outsiders. They may have been astrologers, they certainly believed that the stars were worth studying and that signs of import could be found. In many ways they are beyond the pale, outside of the Jewish faith – it isn’t them who quote from the book of the prophet Micah, it is Herod’s advisers. By the time they arrive in Jerusalem they are lost and not quite sure where to go next….
Matthew, who is very Judeo-centred in his Gospel writing, seems to be both stepping outside of his usual boundaries of trying to get the message of who Jesus was to the Jewish people and yet at the same time is sending a message to his Jewish readers – that those outside of God’s chosen people were able to see that Jesus was king, that Jesus was the one prophesied as Messiah, the chosen one. These foreigners could see it, surely those of the Jewish faith who read the Gospel could see it to. It’s a challenge thrown down to the reader. This should make the faithful Jew think about whether they accept Jesus as king. If even those outside the faith can see, surely it would be obvious to those within.

So we find our first challenge. Have we seen the light of Christ? If so, how have we responded to it? Do we accept Christ as our King? And if so, how does this have an impact on our lives. I was listening to a sermon recently on the internet which I was guided to by Paul and Kath and was struck by one of the question asked at the start – what would the Church look like if we really did act as though Jesus were our king? If we lived by kingdom values in everything we did?

It’s a good thing to ask at the beginning of this new year? In what way can I as an individual live up to the values of the kingdom of God? What changes would I have to make to the way I live my life if I really acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the king of everything? Even more so – what changes should our Church be making if we truly want to make this an outpost of God’s Kingdom?

I see the Kingdom made real and am profoundly moved by seeing our Churches in action – by the concern of our pastoral teams to reach out to the communities, by the prayers and concern of our fellowships for the sick and those in need, the bereaved, those we are linked with in various mission agencies. The way our Churches in the five alive Mission Community are seeking to be at the heart of our villages is an inspiration to me and I consider it a huge privilege to be a minister in this place. It is what attracted me in my original contact with the parishes last July and is something that is still inspiring and overwhelming me on a daily basis – it is why I am happy to be back from holiday, in fact!

But we cannot rest on our laurels, there is still more to be done, and we need to ask again and again, how is Jesus made King in our Church? What can we offer? What should we be doing? That is our mission and our calling for this coming year, to consider again our ministry to our parishes and to ask where we need to move and, indeed, where we need to stand firm. But this is something we will all be doing and we will be talking about it in the coming weeks, months and, dare I say, years!

The second challenge from this reading springs from this first Challenge of making Christ our king in everything and from our reading for today. It comes from the wise men – the outsiders. Matthew, for all his Jewish identity and agenda, makes it clear that these outsiders have something to say, and that they respond to Christ in the most appropriate way. If there is one thing our Churches need to continue to do in order to grow in Kingdom values, it is to welcome the outsider and reach out to those beyond these walls.

It’s not a new message and I am moved to preach on it regularly. We exist as the Church to worship God and to proclaim Christ to the world. This means welcoming those who see things differently, allowing them to bring who they are and and what they have to offer, letting them ask questions, encouraging them to come in and to be a part of our Church family, showing the love of Christ to all, no matter how they look, or sound, or what they think. We are called to be a place of openness to outsiders, and to listen to them, and to allow them to challenge us.

As the outsiders came to worship Christ and proclaim him king, may we too be those who put Christ as the focus of our Church and our lives, and may we be open to God speaking in unexpected ways through unexpected people. May we be open to the values of the kingdom and live them in all we do and think and say. May 2009 be our year of kingdom values, or I should say, the start of considering again the values of the Kingdom of God.

Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas

Christmas 1 2008


I enjoyed my Christmas this year, actually I enjoy my Christmas celebrations every year, and the many and varied services I took part in were quite moving and very enjoyable. But now the big day has come and gone, the present wrappings have all been cleared up, the aftermath of the mammoth meal has been dealt with, and we settle down to another dose of reality after all of the celebrations have finished. Of course we still have the New Year to see in, but Christmas is past until next August when the shops put their decorations up again.

Or is it? For those of us who believe in the reality of the life of Christ then our celebration of Christmas carries on throughout the year, or rather our celebration of the essence of Christmas carries on throughout the year. Every time we say the creed we say we believe in the Christ who was made incarnate of the virgin Mary, and this word ‘Incarnation’ is one that should inform our whole life and faith.

It’s the same as the fact that every time we take part in Holy Communion we re-enact the fateful events of the last supper even as we celebrate the risen life of our Lord. Christian’s are ‘Easter people’ and ‘Christmas people’ all the year round. I believe this is a good reason for enjoying the Christian life, and not perpetuating the myth that Christians are all ‘black suits, black books and black looks’

The theme of our readings and the prayer for this week is that of incarnation. Incarnation is something that comes into a lot of Christian Theological conversations and a word that is much used by Christian Theologians and Teachers - but it is something that passes most of us by, and to dwell on the minutia of so-called ‘Incarnational Theology’ can be a bit of a distraction from the everyday Christian life! But Incarnation is something that forms the basis of the unique revelation of our Faith and so it does bear some looking at.

Incarnation is an exciting part of the Christian Faith - no, really! It shows us that we have a God who is willing to come alongside us, to be a part of the earthiness of human life. Our God is ‘down to earth’ in the most real and solid manner. Jesus was not ‘God in disguise’, he did not walk a couple of inches off of the ground, he did all the things that we do - ate, slept, laughed, cried, went to the loo, the lot. He did not escape the suffering that is common to the human condition, nor did he miss out on the joys of being a part of the world.

In becoming human, God gave his ultimate approval to humanity. This echoes the words at the very start of scripture - “God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.” You see, God likes us. God is on our side. When we think about the judgement of God we should think in terms of him being someone who longs to judge in our favour, not who is seeking to put us down and punish us. The Incarnation tells us that God longs to draw us closer to himself, and in order to make this possible is willing to come alongside us and be a part of our world.

So we are right to put great stock in the Incarnation. Incarnation is God revealing himself in a way that we can not only understand intellectually but in our hearts. God is not just a God of rationality, but of feeling, of our mind and emotions, and our whole lives.
Incarnation allows us to engage with God at the deepest level, knowing that God understands us even when we do not understand God. That even when we feel that we don’t believe in God - GOD BELIEVES IN US.

That’s a good way of thinking of the incarnation - it proves that God believes in us. No matter how far we feel we have fallen, God waits with open arms. In one of the prayers in the modern Church liturgy for the Eucharist we have the most wonderful phrase:
‘Father of all, we give you thanks and praise that when we were still far off, you met us in your Son and brought us home.’
God comes to us. God embraces us in the way that the father in Jesus story embraces the son who spent all of his inheritance. God is not stand-offish, distant or unaware of what our lives are like. God is intimately involved in the world that he has made, and is a part of every experience we go through.

One of the titles that we use over and over again at Christmas time is the title ‘Emmanuel’ - God with us. God is with us, let’s never forget that, let’s hold on to that fact and use it to inform our lives and our faith.

So what does all this incarnational stuff mean in practical terms, what difference should it make to the way we act or think or speak?

Firstly - incarnation reminds us that I am precious in God’s sight. Me. I am loved beyond measure. God loves me enough to come and share my life and experience.

Secondly - incarnation reminds us that those who share our lives are equally valued by God. We should treat our neighbours in a way that reflects the love that God has for them. Do you hold others in such high regard? Does the way we treat those we live and work with, those who share our lives, in a way that reflects their value to God?

Thirdly - incarnation reminds us that we cannot ever accuse God of not knowing how we feel. We have no ground to stand on. God knows first hand what it is like to be human, to be poor, oppressed, persecuted. God knows the joys that this world can bring, and the pains - and goes through them with us.

Finally - incarnation shows us what we are capable of. We human beings, made in the image of God, are able to attain greatness. We cannot explain away what Jesus did by saying ‘well, he was God, wasn’t he?’ - if we believe he was God, it was only in such a way as was limited by being human. Jesus was not the deluxe model human, with extra bells and whistles. Jesus was as human as we are - those who shared his life knew that he was a man, but they saw in him something that reflected who and what God is.

So we pray in our prayer for this Sunday, the collect, ‘grant that, as he came to share in our humanity so we may share in the life of his divinity.’ We are capable of being like Christ - not just in the world to come, but in our lives today. We will fail and fall, but like Christ, with faith we can move forward. We too have the ability to share life in communion with God, to be more than we can imagine.

The Incarnation says to us that God wants to make more of us, to free us from the shackles that we create for ourselves, shackles of fear, sin and lack of forgiveness. God can change us, can make us more like himself - we have to learn to let him. May the reality of God made human deepen our faith, and give us the freedom to be more like Christ, to be the people that God has truly made us to be.