Sermon: Epiphany Meets The Covenant Service
The Feast of Epiphany, when Christ was revealed to the Gentiles in the visit of the Magi, is one that sometimes gets overlooked in Methodist churches, because it frequently clashes with the annual Covenant Service. Today, I thought I would try combining the two. The Covenant Service is the time when we renew our commitment to Christ, and the Magi are a great example of that. They arrive in Jerusalem saying they have come to pay homage to the child born to be king of the Jews (verse 2) and when they finally get to the house where the child is, they get down on their knees and do exactly that (verse 11). This morning I want to highlight some of the elements in this story that make them into true worshippers that we can emulate in our way in our day.
Firstly, they were listeners. They were more attuned than anyone else in the story to what God was saying and doing. They are the least likely candidates for that, yet that is true of them. They are pagans, they are Gentiles. They are astrologers, following a practice condemned in the Old Testament in the prophecies of Isaiah. They come to the land of God’s chosen people, yet they are the ones who are keen to know the purposes of God and act on them. You might think that Herod would know the Scriptures, but he hasn’t a clue and he has to call in the experts. You might think that those experts, the chief priests and scribes of the people (verse 4), would know their Scriptures. Well, they do, and they quote them. But they do nothing about them.
In this respect, it is sad to say that too many of us in the church are like either Herod or the experts. Either we don’t know our Scriptures at all, or we know them but we don’t put them into practice. It is a scandal that many professing Christians only engage with the Bible in a Sunday morning service. They listen to it being read but never pick it off the shelf in the week. And even among those who do read the Bible frequently, it is too common an attitude to read it and forget it.
In other words, we are shamed by people with less knowledge about the faith than we ourselves have.
In my youth and early adulthood, a relative we used to visit often as a family was a woman we called ‘Auntie Rene’. She wasn’t really an auntie, but she was a relative: she was my Mum’s cousin. But rather than get into complicated discussions about what kind of a cousin that made her to my sister and me, we called her ‘Auntie’.
She had poor health. In 1969 she was given six months to live, but – despite smoking – she stretched that six months out to eighteen years, and she finally passed away in the Spring of 1987. Sometimes we wondered about where she stood on matters of faith, but when she died, someone (I think it might have been my sister) discovered that by her bedside was a Bible. She had been reading Jeremiah.
As we talked about this, we came to the conclusion that in her life Auntie Rene had responded to as much light as she had come across, whether that was the full Gospel of Jesus Christ or not.
I suggest to you that the Magi are a group of people who respond to as much light from God as they find. It starts with following the star, it continues with going to Bethlehem when they hear about Micah’s prophecy and it ends with their obedience to the dream that leads to them avoiding Herod on their way home.
Now if that’s the case, what excuse do we have – we who have had decades of Christian experience? Maybe we feel we don’t know much about our faith – well if that’s the case, can we like the Magi start by responding to what light we already do have?
And if we do have some Bible knowledge, then will we start putting it into practice, unlike the chief priests and scribes? Christian teaching and learning is not simply about filling our heads with knowledge, it’s about assimilating what God wants us to do and then getting on with it.
Now that leads to the second element I want us to consider about the Magi: they were pilgrims. In other words, they went on a journey, a spiritual journey. Based on what light they had received from observing the star, they left their homeland. Based on what light they received when they heard Micah’s ancient prophecy, they travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Based on what light they received in their dream, they took a different route home. We would never have heard of them unless they had been willing to travel on a journey – that is, to be pilgrims.
Now surely the point about a pilgrim is that you travel somewhere with spiritual intentions, but in doing so you leave behind the familiarity of your home in order to arrive at somewhere unknown and in the process to encounter God. To go further in the spiritual life as a pilgrim requires getting off our familiar home territory to go to new places.
And that’s the challenge. How many of us are willing to move away from the places where we feel safe and comfortable in order to draw closer to Jesus Christ? Isn’t one of the problems with the church the fact that too many of us just want to keep everything familiar and cosy? Jesus calls us to an adventure. He calls us to what the Methodist Church called a few years ago ‘Holiness and Risk’.
There are so many areas where our unwillingness to be pilgrims onto new, uncharted ground means that the church withers. It can be in the area of evangelism, where any small efforts we make are all based on the assumption that people want to come to where we feel comfortable, in a church service, rather than us being willing to go to where they feel safe.
It affects our general profile in the community. Only the other day I was having to explain why the regular ecumenical lunch time meeting of the Knaphill ministers happens in a pub, rather than in the Christian coffee shop in the village. We feel it’s important to be off home territory and visible in the wider world. But some Christians think that anything other than doing things with overtly Christian tools is somehow wrong. Back in the 1980s, the Christian musician Steve Taylor satirised this in a song called ‘Guilty by Association’ with lines such as, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow.’
More generally, our unwillingness to get away from the safe and the predictable afflicts any possibility whatsoever that the church might innovate in a creative way. Perhaps you’ve been told what the seven last words of a dying church are? ‘But we’ve always done it this way.’
Real disciples of Jesus are willing to go on pilgrimage. They will leave home territory behind to venture somewhere new as part of their longer journey to the New Jerusalem. It goes right back in our heritage to Abram, when he was called to leave his homeland. It is there in the incarnation of Jesus, who left the glory of heaven. We see it here in the account of the Magi. Why, then, do we not see it much in the life of today’s church? Might the New Year and our renewal of the Covenant be the time when we finally take this part of our Christian inheritance seriously?
Thirdly and finally, the Magi were givers. We had a bit of fun with this at Knaphill during the Christingle service on Christmas Eve. Following a throwaway comment, we based the whole service on the theme of ‘Elf and Safety’. We retold the Christmas story in dramatic form, but every now and again an elf would appear and object that something broke ‘elf and safety’ rules. For example, the donkey should not have been allowed to cover so many miles in such a short time, and it should have had a tag on its ear.
When it came to the arrival of the Magi, another elf sprang out when they produced the gold, frankincense and myrrh. He wanted to know whether they had an import licence for these goods.
I think some of us have trouble with the gifts of the Magi. They are so expensive and extravagant. Surely they are beyond us? Or maybe we don’t want to be challenged. So we resort to ancient explanations that the gold symbolises Jesus’ kingship, the frankincense his priestly role and the myrrh his death. We do so, despite Matthew never claiming that meaning in the text and despite none of the major commentaries seriously entertaining that interpretation.
But perhaps the key to understanding this example of devotion is not the contents but the container, not the gifts but the treasure box. The Magi ‘[opened] their treasure-chests’ (verse 11), and I think that is the call to us. What are our treasure chests? What are the things we treasure – which might be money, possessions, talents or a whole lot of other things? Our treasures may well not be gold, frankincense or myrrh, but there are aspects of our lives that are inordinately precious to us, and the Christian disciple lays them down before Jesus as an act of worship and commitment.
I believe that is something well worth thinking about as we make our solemn vows again this year in the traditional words of the Covenant Prayer. Our treasures may not be just money, talents or possessions. They may be people, ambitions or dreams we have had for our lives. All these we bring to the feet of Christ and say, “Here is all that is most precious to me. I offer it to you. Use it as you will.”
That was what made the Magi different. Herod was desperate to clutch tightly onto what he considered to be rightly his. The chief priests and scribes had great intellectual gifts, but those talents were not offered to the true King of the Jews. They were just intellectual dilettantes, not servants of God’s kingdom.
There may be ways in which our churches are mixtures of mini-Herods, priests and scribes and Magi. We have little Herods who secretly find Jesus a threat to their whole way of life. We have priests and scribes who are full of religious knowledge but empty when it comes to practical obedience. But we also have Magi, people who may not be the likely suspects but who actually are more committed to Jesus Christ than anyone else in the neighbourhood.
But in truth, each one of us may be a mixture of the three. Sometimes we are antagonistic towards what Jesus wants of us. Sometimes we are apathetic. And sometimes – thankfully – we are as passionate for Christ as the Magi were.
Let us identify these different aspects of ourselves this morning, so that we may put aside our Herod tendencies and our priestly and scribal complacency, in order that we may renew our to listen for God’s will and obey it the best way we know how; to strike out on the pilgrim way, even if that means going far from what we would call home; and to offer our treasures in devotion at the feet of Christ.
May that be the attitude of our hearts in a few minutes’ time, when we come to recite again the – truly – awesome words of the Covenant Prayer.