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THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

The Epiphany

Jan 3, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Psalm 72.1-15
Isaiah 60.1-6
Matthew 2.1-12

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

As with so many of the bible passages that we hear during the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, the fact that we have heard them so many times over so many years can prevent us from recognising how radical they are. The central event and idea of our Christmas celebrations – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the Word of God by and through whom all things were made is enclosed within the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is born as a helpless crying baby – this is really an utterly extraordinary idea, rejected by many as preposterous, and yet at the heart of our faith.

The story of the visit of the Wise Men is similarly a story we know so well – I cannot remember a time when I did not know this story, and I am sure much the same is true of most of you. And yet it is really a very surprising story.

In the first place there is the fact that the Wise Men are gentiles. In this we first learn of the inclusivity and universality of Jesus’ mission. “You shall call Him Jesus”, Joseph is told, “because He shall save His people from their sins”. Already at the beginning of His story, we realise that “His people” is not only the Jewish people – anyone can come to Him.

We need to be a little bit careful about this. There is a sad strand of sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly antisemitic thought which creates a parody version of the Old Testament and the Jewish religion as something narrow and parochial, even chauvinistic. Although it is of course true that there is a strong sense in the Bible of the people of Israel as a people especially chosen by God, there are many passages in the Old Testament which make it very clear that God is the only god and is therefore the God of all, and further that the mission that Israel has been chosen to fulfil is to bring the nations to God: as the prophet Isaiah says, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”, and he continues: “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord”.

And there are also plenty of examples in the Old Testament of gentiles being called by God for a particular purpose, from the mysterious Melchizedek to Balaam and his donkey, through Ruth the Moabitess to Cyrus the Persian.

But all of that notwithstanding, it is nevertheless something surprising, something remarkable, that the gentile Wise Men should be the first to meet this Jewish Saviour.

And that of course is the emphasis that the Book of Common Prayer puts on the Epiphany, when we consider the beginning of the Collect: “O God, who by the leading of the star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles…” – and not only the Book of Common Prayer, but the whole western Christian tradition, because the Prayerbook collect is simply Cranmer’s wonderful prose translation of the ancient Latin prayer for the Epiphany.

But the wording of the Collect leads us to reflect on another surprising aspect of the Epiphany. We have already noted that it is remarkable that, after Jesus’ own family, in Matthew’s account it is the gentile Wise Men who receive the first revelation of His identity. What is even more remarkable is that it is through their own belief-system that God guides them to Bethlehem.

In the Old Testament, God’s preferred methods of communication are dreams, visions, angels and prophets. It is true that there is quite a lot about stars in the Old Testament – we might think for example of Psalm 148, the great universal hymn of praise which we heard last Sunday, or the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars. But there is no case that I can think of in the Old Testament of people being guided by stars.

And whilst there is no explicit ban on astrology, there is a very strong prohibition against the worship of the stars, which many would extend to seeking guidance from the heavenly bodies. Yet it is through this tradition of astrology, of seeking guidance from the stars, that God leads the Wise Men to Jesus. The point of course is not to validate astrology, but rather to reveal the grace of God: God in God’s mercy deigns to reach out to the Wise Men through their own religion and world view to bring them to a glimpse of the truth revealed in Jesus Christ.

So here we have two surprises: the first, that Jesus, who has come to save His people from their sins, should first be revealed to the gentile Wise Men, and second, that God should work through the at best questionable astrological belief-system of the Wise Men to lead them to Jesus.

And yet, if we look at the Old Testament again, perhaps we should not be so surprised.

We have already noted the multiple examples in the Old Testament of God working through Gentiles, and we have noted too that there is a strand of prophecy, particularly in the prophecy of Isaiah, which emphasises the mission of the people of Israel to bring the nations to
God.

We have also noted the cosmic scale of the vision of Old Testament theology. Last Sunday we heard Psalm 148, a great cosmic hymn of praise to God, in which the heavens and earth and humanity are united in praise. Today’s psalm, Psalm 72, clearly conveys from a human perspective the global scope of God’s purposes in His people Israel, brought to perfection in Jesus:
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute;
the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts.
All kings shall fall down before him; all nations shall do him service.

It is worth taking a moment here to notice the beauty of the language of Psalm 72, and the extent to which it is drawn from the natural world, the creation which surrounds us:

May he come down like rain upon the mown grass,
like the showers that water the earth.

We notice too the integration of themes of justice with themes of creation:

Then shall he judge your people righteously
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains bring forth peace,
and the little hills righteousness for the people.
May he defend the poor among the people,
deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.

What I think is striking here, and may perhaps be helpful too when we think about the visit of the Wise Men, is both the scope of the religious vision of the Psalmist, and its integration.

This is not a narrow vision. It encompasses all aspects of life, from the natural world to questions of economic justice and good governance, to the relationship of one people to another, and of all people to God. There is no compartmentalisation here. There is no sense that the Psalmist has one corner of life for religion, another for nature, another for economic activity, and another for politics. It is an integrated world view, in which all of the various aspects of life are joined together in a coherent whole, and, most vitally, all seen in relation to God. And so from the Psalmist’s point-of-view it makes perfect sense to connect the King’s justice for the poor not only to earning the respect of neighbouring and far-off nations, but also to the mountains and the hills bringing forth the blessings of an abundant harvest. The fragmented, atomised, specialised ways of looking at the world that are such a feature of the twenty-first century would have been incomprehensible to the Psalmist, who sees an integrated world governed by God.

And so in a way the Wise Men and the Star should be no surprise to us at all, because it is integration that Jesus comes to bring, it is a reconciliation and a restoration of all things: of humanity to God, and of people to people, and of people to the created natural world which God has entrusted to us. Jesus, who has come to save His people from their sins, Jesus, the Word of God made flesh: His arrival brings the integrative principal of the universe into the human realm. This is not a matter only for the Jewish people – the Wise Men from the east are amongst the first to be involved. This is not a matter only for humanity – even the stars are at His service.

May God broaden the scope of our religious imagination this Epiphany. Like the Wise Men, may we see the universe as a part of God’s revelation to us. Like the Psalmist, may we recognise the interconnectedness of God’s creation and our place in it. And in Jesus the Word made flesh, may we acknowledge the Word of God by whom all things were made, the word and logic and order and love which underpins everything that is.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

The featured image is a photograph of the Milky Way taken at the La Silla observatory in Chile by the astronomer Håkon Dahle.