Epiphany: prepare for surprise (Barbara’s sermon)

How do you respond to news – shock, excitement, resignation, delight, fear. Of course, it depends on the news, the change it may herald, and your views on the current socio-political circumstances. Throughout the Christmas story we are given snapshots of different people responding to the announcement of God’s greatest act of salvation – Jesus Christ coming amongst humanity to be fully human and yet fully divine.

Luke tells us of Zechariah being visited by the angel Gabriel and being told that his wife Elizabeth would have a son, John, despite their age. Zechariah’s response was fear and disbelief – “I don’t think so…” Mary is similarly visited and also questions the news of her pregnancy – how can this be? But she believes – let it be to me according to God’s word. Joseph when he is told, makes plans to do the right thing, with a quiet separation from Mary, but is told no, don’t fear, you must look after Mary and the baby, and this is just what he does through much hardship. Shepherds see the heavens rejoicing and follow the command of the heavenly throng; the wise men don’t know quite what they are seeking, but follow the promptings of their research and wisdom – a new star which heralds the birth of a king. They follow, but then use their logic to go to where a king would be found – Jerusalem – and then having made that wrong turn and found the correct path again, they come to Bethlehem and overwhelmed by joy pay homage to the king. Herod, aghast at the prospect of someone who will challenge his throne, plans evil deeds to get rid of the baby, the potential usurper. The priests in Jerusalem seem to largely ignore the whole kafuffle and we hear little of them until later in the life of Jesus.

There is this great panoply of responses to the news that a new world leader is coming, he will be born into the world, he will overthrow the accepted order of things, he will uphold the weak and bring down the mighty and powerful. All the way through the salvation history of the world, the accepted order according to human wisdom is challenged and often turned on its head. This leads to the question – why doesn’t God know how to do things properly? Why does God not understand what it means to be a ruler? Why does God not understand the proper order of society and the principles of land ownership and sovereignty. Of course, the other way to approach this is to ask – why have we created a set of rules and standards for society that are counter to God’s plan for the world?

The first person to know the son of God, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, was a young girl who wasn’t even married – her status was zero. Next was an ordinary man, a carpenter Joseph. Next was an innkeeper or publican offering some shelter. And then as the baby is born and the news is announced the first people to come and worship are shepherds who are in that moment united with the whole company of heaven.

And today we reflect on the coming of the travellers from the east – astrologers, intellectuals bringing strange gifts for a baby. These are foreigners, gentiles who are welcomed into the life of this baby and his family. And the leaders of the day do not come but the plot against the son of God begins.

All along the way there is surprise, often some fear, but a resounding message from God of do not fear. Later, we will encounter the disciples of Jesus being astonished at some of what they see – Jesus their master talking 1:1 with women, gentiles, sinners, soldiers. God is not contained within our limited life experience or even our imagination – God is surprising, outrageous bestowing joy on all who come to him.

As we begin this new year we need to learn again the lesson of not looking for God within our pre-conceived ideas, but seeking him in unexpected situations, people and places. We will make wrong turns, but Jesus is constantly by our side. It was not at all wise of the wise men to go first to Jerusalem and Herod, but God guided them, “and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road”. Following this God again speaks to Joseph in dream telling him to take Mary and their child at once to Egypt and remain there.

These characters experience the word of God in so many different ways, through angels and visions, dreams and study, and contact with each other. The word of God is a constant in a changing world, but the way we receive that Word is different for each one of us as it was for the characters we have studied; and just like the characters we have heard about, we are free to accept or reject. Herod violently rejects, the ruling elite largely ignore at this stage, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, travellers from the east receive with joy, some anxiety, but excitement and anticipation. For all it’s the start of a new relationship that will grow and grow – for Herod the growth was of hatred and appalling deeds in a short space of time, for the other leaders it would eventually be a spiral of fear, disbelief and murder. For Mary, Joseph, and those who truly encountered Christ, it was the beginning of journey of joy, that would contain great pain at times, but a journey that was always accompanied because this is Emmanuel, God with us.

As we travel forward into 2018 where are we within the panoply of responses we have studied? One thing Jesus never does is force his way into our lives and so we can choose – ignore, turn away, question, try and help things along with some of our own plans, accept faithfully. I think at different times our response can mirror that of the different characters, but remember God is with us. And the particular gift of this season of Christmas and Epiphany is to picture the baby, picture Mary holding the baby, picture yourself holding that baby – tiny, fragile, vulnerable, totally dependent on human nurture. This baby is Christ the son of God, this is Christ who is in all God’s people, this is Christ in the baby too weak to cry because of starvation in South Sudan; Christ in the child terrified as the conflict continues in Syria; Christ in the Rohingya families fleeing for their lives; Christ in the men and women of Yemen largely forgotten by the world.

Christ calls us to respond and will guide us in our responses. Seek our Lord’s presence in all circumstances and the Spirit will guide you. Do not fear is the recurring message of the angels, do not fear God is with you. Do not fear, seek God in all things and our Lord Jesus Christ will be with you.

Lord Jesus Christ, open our eyes to your presence; our ears to your word; our hearts to your love and our hands to do your will for the world, Amen.

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