The Feast of the Epiphany
Sermon preached by Anne Grant – Reader
2015 seemed to be a year of stargazing – of fascination with the night sky’s moon and stars. From the first fly-by of Pluto bringing back amazing pictures, more data on conditions on Mars, pictures from a comet, a planetary conjunction, a super moon, a blood moon, meteor showers, amazing aurora sightings to the most recent the launch of Tim Peake to the International Space Station brining us even more insights into Space, it has been an amazing year of Space.
But the night sky has always fascinated people. Until we all used electric light so abundantly any clear night was an opportunity to contemplate the vastness of space. In urban areas we can go months hardly noticing the stars, but in less built up areas, even now, the night sky is an ever present marvel in the dark hours.
Humans have always been fascinated with stargazing and from ancient times people have tried to track and interpret the mysteries of the moon and stars finding patters and meaning. The Wise Men of our Christmas story were astrologers – they stargazed, they studied the night sky – and it was as they did this that they became aware of a special star that they interpreted as meaning the birth of a king. They were so moved by this that they packed up precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and left home to find and honour this king. They were not just interested, not just curious but moved to set out into the unknown to follow this star, journeying to a foreign country to a people of a different religion. Initially they enquired at the obvious place – the royal palace, but ended up following the star to a humble stable where they presented their precious gifts. Then they obeyed the message they received in a dream and did not return to Herod but returned home by a different route.
Some people have put much effort into trying to identify what star/comet/cosmic event these men might have seen but without any real result. For me though the point is that these students of the night sky, these people who were so familiar with the stars and their movements, saw something that amazed them, inspired them and motivated them to leave home on a great journey to follow, to seek, to worship. God’s revelation to these star gazers came through a star! God spoke to them through the subject they studied. Epiphany is about God revealing himself to the gentiles, these non-Jews who come to honour the baby Jesus. God uses the familiar to reveal the unfamiliar.
The whole Christmas story in Matthew and Luke’s gospels is about God’s revelation to people going about their everyday tasks.
Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was “on the rota”, doing his turn of duty in the temple when the angel Gabriel came to him to say that his ageing wife would bear a son.
Mary was a young village girl preparing for marriage when Gabriel came to her to announce that she had been chosen to be mother to Jesus.
Joseph was a carpenter suddenly faced with the potentially awful shaming revelation that his fiancée was pregnant before their marriage. He believed the message brought to him in a dream that he should not be afraid to stand by Mary and become the earthly father to Jesus.
The shepherds were working men doing their job minding the sheep on the hillside when the angels suddenly surprised them with an announcement about the baby in the manger. They did the unthinkable and left their flocks to go to Bethlehem to worship the new born.
And now these astrologers from the East – these learned men – have seen something so unusual in the night sky that they have journeyed to follow the amazing star to worship a new born king.
The whole Christmas story abounds with people doing their ordinary daily round and being surprised by God, finding themselves chosen to hear the Good News: unexpected people being invited by angels or the revelation of God and being moved to action to do something challenging, new, life changing.
On Christmas Day Tim Peake tried to phone home from the International Space Station (surely a miracle in itself!). He said “Is that planet earth?” only to find that he was speaking to a baffled stranger. He’d got a wrong number! I guess that person now has a great story to tell the grandchildren – “I got a call from space on Christmas Day and it was a wrong number!”.
God does not get wrong numbers! God calls on all sorts of people and opens their eyes; he shows them new possibilities; he calls them to new realities and may offer glimpses of heaven.
Before Christmas as part of our Advent reflections we heard a sermon about how we often moan “Why me?” especially when times are challenging. I’d like to suggest that we need to avoid another negative mind set – “It’ll never be me”. We think ourselves too obscure, too young, too old, too unexciting, too unskilled, too unlikely, too much an “outsider” ever to have something amazing happen to us.
The New Years Honours list was published this week and apart from the headline names contained many people who were surprised to find themselves and their achievements honoured. Many of these would previously have said of themselves “It’ll never be me”.
Likewise, I am sure, quite a few of those honoured to receive Maundy money from the Queen at Sheffield Cathedral last Easter would have said to themselves before “It’ll never be me”.
The Christmas story shows that God does come to all sorts of people – old, young, men, women, learned and unschooled, local or foreigner, rich or poor, devout or not particularly religious – ordinary people in ordinary places. God comes to them as they are doing their ordinary everyday tasks and brings them new insights and transformation.
This year as we go about our daily tasks and routines may we be open to possibilities: not in a way that we are disappointed if nothing spectacular happens but open to new things happening. May we not be so absorbed in the mundane that we cannot perceive the special. May we take the joy, love and peace of Christmas out into the world and never stop believing that God can do amazing things through ordinary people. Amen