A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 2 January 2022 by Revd Jonathan Evens
Light-bulb moments are those occasions when the penny drops, everything clicks into place and understanding comes. It might be in relation to something which is puzzling us; a piece of work about which we were unsure, a puzzle or conundrum to be resolved. In relationships it could be when one person appreciates something about another for the first time or when a disagreement is resolved.
These light-bulb moments have a name. They are called epiphanies and they tend to creep up on us unexpectedly. We may have been puzzling over something for hours, then the answer hits us. We may wake up in the middle of the night because something in a dream has clicked or else something someone says triggers a chain of thoughts in our mind that results in a moment of revelation. It all makes sense. We can’t choose the moment this happens, but we can perhaps create the right environment to encourage it to happen.
Epiphanies are less likely to happen when we’re stressed, when we’re tormented by trying to find the answer to something, when we can’t focus on anything else. Sometimes that means we need to find peace and quiet, maybe by going for a walk or reading a book. Some people find there’s nothing better than having a shower or a relaxing bath. At other times it’s better to fill our minds with something totally different from the issue, maybe doing a Sudoku puzzle or watching a favourite TV programme. Then, out of nowhere, revelation comes.
One of those approaches I’ve described might work for you, too, but there may be others. It might simply be a case of going on to the next question in a test and going back later to what’s been puzzling you. It could be that music works its magic or merely closing your eyes and blanking your mind in meditation for a minute or two.
The 6 January is celebrated in the Christian church as the feast of Epiphany. As the word ‘epiphany’ means a light-bulb moment, the feast of the Epiphany is an opportunity for revelation about who Jesus was and is. Having appreciated the Christmas story of God sending Jesus to be born as a human being, the feast of the Epiphany is the day to see the implications of all that God has done in that act. Using the story of the Magi – the wise men who came to see Jesus – we remind ourselves of the symbolism attached to who they were and the gifts they brought, gold, frankincense and myrrh.
These visitors from the East came looking for Jesus in a palace but found him in a manger. The Magi looked for him at the heart of privileges won through personal power but actually found him in a place of poverty and dispossession. They went to a palace, to the seat of wealth and power but he was not to be found there. Instead, he was found in obscurity, in the home of working people, in a place from which no good was known to come. The visitors from the East looked for a King according to their understanding of kingship but only found Jesus when they left that understanding of political power and rule behind to encounter a King whose every breath is service of his subjects. The Empire then struck back as, in a bid to protect his power-base, Herod sent his death squads to massacre all male children under two in Bethlehem forcing Mary, Joseph and Jesus to become refugees, settling in Egypt until Herod himself was dead.
Jesus was vulnerable in this way because he was on the edge, at the margins of society. The poet-priest Malcolm Guite put it like this:
‘Christmas sets the centre on the edge;
The edge of town, the outhouse of the inn,
The fringe of empire, far from privilege
And power, on the edge and outer spin
Of turning worlds, a margin of small stars
That edge, a galaxy itself, light years
From some unguessed at cosmic origin.’
The edge is the place where those who have been excluded or rejected or ignored by society or the Church are to be found. That Jesus is found there – is born there – speaks of the conviction that God’s heart is on the edge of human society. Not only so, but, also, that God is most evidently encountered among those in the margins and on the edge. Those on the edge are Christ to us; Jesus is seen in those who have been excluded or rejected or ignored by society or the Church. The edge is where we can receive all the gifts God is giving us, especially the ones that Church and society have for so long despised or patronised. Those who have been rejected are the energy and the life-force that will transform us all. The life of those with power within church and society is, as Sam Wells has said, ‘about constantly recognising the sin of how much we have rejected, and celebrating the grace that God gives us back what we once rejected to become the cornerstone of our lives.’
The Magi have often represented as rulers of each of the major parts of the world known at the time, Europe, Asia and Africa, emphasising the global reach of the Christian religion. The Magi’s visit is often called the Gentile Christmas; the overriding message being that learned, wise foreigners – the ultimate ‘outsiders’ for Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience – came to pay homage to a new-born ruler, Jesus the Christ, whose spiritual power and wisdom surpassed their own. Isaiah tells of nations coming to the light of the one that we know as the Christ-child, and through his imagery we can picture all people of all nations drawn to a Christ who knew oppression on all levels. As we have reflected, Christ was born under the oppression of Roman rule, escaped genocide by becoming a refugee and lived, as a migrant, in another country.
Both the incarnation and the ‘Gentile Christmas’ reveal that God’s heart is on the edge of human society, with those who have been excluded or rejected or ignored; that God is most evidently encountered among those in the margins and on the edge. Those who have been rejected are seen to be the energy and the life-force that will transform us all. The life of the church is therefore, as we have noted, to be one of constantly recognising the sin of how much we have rejected, and celebrating the grace that God gives us back what we once rejected to become the cornerstone of our lives.
In Jesus all things are re-aligned. Through his birth, life, death, and resurrection all that we once thought marginal to human life – all that we have rejected – has been shown to be essential: the way of compassion rather than the way of domination; the way of self-sacrifice rather than the way of self; the way of powerlessness rather than the way of power; the way of serving rather than the way of grasping. That’s the big picture revelation of the Epiphany. Considering the gifts that the Magi brought then gives us a close-up revelation about the nature of the Christ-child.
Gold, the most precious metal, was a present for an important person, so gold signifies that Jesus comes as a person of power, a king, a ruler. But we can also think that Jesus comes to give something precious to others – himself, his own life. So, gold was a gift that said: ‘Jesus is a King who will bring love!’
Frankincense and myrrh were both very expensive perfumes made from the resin of trees. People burned frankincense in religious ceremonies. They believed the fragrance carried their prayers to heaven. By its use in worship frankincense shows that Jesus comes as a holy person, someone who is totally pure, who has no wrong side to him. So, frankincense was a gift that said: ‘Jesus will draw us close to God and bring joy.’
Myrrh was used in ointments to heal sore skin and wounds. It was even used in this way to reduce wrinkles on dead bodies. Jesus would later be offered wine mingled with myrrh as a pain killer at the crucifixion. Myrrh indicates that Jesus will one day die a significant death and that he heals. So, myrrh was a gift that said: ‘Jesus will heal divisions through his death and bring peace.’
Historically, the Magi may have been envoys from the Nabatean King Aretas IV to King Herod, sent after the wise men of Aretas’ court announced that they had discerned from the stars that a new King of the Jews was to be born and bringing with them gifts that were not only rich and regal, but also representative of the wealth and power of Aretas’ Nabatean kingdom. If that were so, what they found when they arrived in Jerusalem was a surprise and an epiphany to them. The new king was not Herod’s son and was not in Jerusalem. As they travelled on to Bethlehem, a place on the edge of power, wealth, prestige and significance, their gifts, which had been designed to confirm those very things, took on new significance and became symbolic of a king who would renounce power, wealth, prestige and embrace poverty, obscurity, and death.
This is how epiphanies always come. By its nature, revelation is always outside our current frame of reference, being something that we don’t already know. So, epiphanies are always unexpected and surprising. However, there are ways in which we can prepare our hearts and minds to receive them. We see that in the story too, because, if the Magi had not set out on their journey and been prepared to travel beyond Jerusalem to the place on the edge, their epiphany would not have come.
It is because they were willing to travel that, for us, the Feast of the Epiphany reveals Jesus as the hope of the world by his ‘epiphany’ or ‘showing forth’ to the Magi from distant lands.
The Magi travelled to find a king. The king they found was born into poverty rather than riches, was not a powermonger but a dependent child, would not accumulate power, wealth, or position for himself but instead be the servant of all, and would not save his life rather would die to save others.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christ child in the manger ‘pushes back the high and mighty; he overturns the thrones of the powerful; he humbles the haughty; his arm exercises power over all the high and mighty; he lifts what is lowly, and makes it great and glorious in his mercy.’ Because God is in the manger, ‘God is near to lowliness’ and ‘loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.’ That is the unrecognized mystery of this world: Jesus Christ as God with us. It is a redemptive mystery ‘because God became poor, low, lowly, and weak out of love for humankind, because God became a human being like us, so that we would become divine, and because he came to us so that we would come to him’.
At Epiphany, we have the opportunity to re-experience that original epiphany, to try to understand again all that Jesus is and all he does for us. We are offered the opportunity to make sure the penny has dropped, the light has come on, that faith has clicked into place, and relationship with Jesus begun. Epiphany is a time to connect or re-connect with Jesus on the basis of that original revelation. So, I ask, have the lights come on for you?