Epiphany for all who are confused with knowledge and speculation

Peter Seal, 8 January 2017

Isaiah 60: 1–6; Matthew 2: 1–12

It’s good to celebrate the Epiphany together today. The feast of Christmas stretches right up to Epiphany, 6 January, two days ago. It’s just as important as Christ’s birth. It marks the manifestation – the making known – of God to the world, as a child.

Following a star that rises in the east, the magi … or wise men or three kings or, as one secularist described them, three nutty professors … arrive at the crib. The shepherds are back at work, but surely there is a hint that angels have been there. All we’re told is that ‘the wise men saw the child with Mary his mother’. Not even a mention of Joseph – perhaps he’s nipped out for a quick pint in the pub?! Goodness knows, he must have needed it.

It feels as though the wise men arrive at the party rather late. The main action is over, it seems. Perhaps today is an encouragement for those of us who are habitually late.

The wise men bear their gifts to the crib. As we know so well: gold, a sign of the child’s kingship; frankincense for holiness, anticipating, in this world, the kingdom that is not of it; and myrrh for the tomb. In a nativity play the small boys dressed as kings had their well-rehearsed words ready. The first said: ‘I bring you gold’. The second: ‘I bring you a mare’. And the third, with great concentration: ‘Frank sent this’.

Today’s Epiphany festival, with its evocative narrative, is an encouragement to latecomers; it also resonates with those of us who are making what feels like a long, and perhaps tedious, journey in search of the truth we’re looking for. Today connects with all who are confused with knowledge and speculation. It’s an enticing picture for those who, through politeness and hesitation, just can’t say ‘Yes, I believe’ to the truth they see before them.

As one prayer expresses it, ‘Pray for the great and the good who are often most in danger; pray for the learned, the oblique, the delicate, the hesitant. Pray that we may all find kneeling-space in the straw. Let no one be forgotten at the throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.’

Pray that we may all find kneeling-space in the straw. I like that picture very much. Space at the crib to kneel in the straw and behold the Christ child, the one who makes sense of our humanity: our birth, our lives, and, in due course, our dying too.

Pray that we may all find kneeling-space in the straw … to behold the Christ child, the one who makes sense of our humanity.

This picture of kneeling obeisance raises a recurring question, ‘But how can I know that my God is the right God?’ And in profound humility we can only respond by saying, ‘If I had been born in Tibet or Baghdad or Kyoto I would probably not be a Christian’. But, dear friends, wherever we were born we find ourselves here together in Christendom, however faded it may at times seem in the face of secularism and many other challenges.

As a New Year begins the reason we can call ourselves Christian is because we believe God became man, or rather a man, in a particular place at a particular time. It was that same conviction those long-ago first-century women and men in Palestine held. A conviction that spread out unevenly, down the years and across the centuries, to you and me, here and now.

When you think about the birth of Christ and how the story unfolds it really is the unlikeliest thing, which is one reason it’s so persuasive.

They say there’s never a good time to get a dog; that there’s never a good time to have a child. There’s never a good time for God to become incarnate. But that’s what he did, and goes on doing through our lives. Emmanuel, God with us, God within us.

A film director was talking about his work. He described how important it is to get what he called ‘the architecture of a script’ right. Not dialogue, not setting, but the outline of the story. This, he said, is the critical stage in the process of making a film. ‘The most important thing to get right is the narrative arc.’ Every story has an arc, a line, a trajectory if you like, which you can plot, beginning at the beginning, rising in the middle and declining at the end. How steeply or how gently it falls gives the story its shape.

It’s interesting to think of this arc when considering the Epiphany and the wise men’s encounter with Jesus. The star itself makes an arc through the skies to Bethlehem, but it’s more than that. The story itself provokes the question, ‘What kind of an arc does it have?’

It begins clearly enough. It comes out of the hope of the Jewish people. We know from the Old Testament, as described in our reading from Isaiah, that certain things will happen when the saviour is born: a star will rise and wise men will travel to its brightness. They will bring gifts of treasure and spices. So that’s where the arc begins to rise, in the east, and along its course come the magi, with gold, frankincense and myrrh. Arriving at Bethlehem, they find their place kneeling in the straw around the crib, worshipping the Christ child. The arc is at its high point. But then, as Matthew’s account for today’s gospel concludes, instead of declining with their return journey the arc takes off in a new direction, as they do, by another road.

The film director might comment, ‘Bad screen play’, and technically he’s probably right. But as we know, our good news is not a screen play; our heroes are not riding off into the sunset.

The arc of our gospel narrative takes us by surprise, again and again. It’s frequently not what we thought it was going to be. Like the wise men, more often than not, we find ourselves exploring a new way ahead. God goes on making himself known as he comforts, challenges and surprises us.

In these early days of 2017 we each set out with our own new resolutions. We do so into God’s world, a world that feels dangerously topsy turvy. Anxiety levels among many people are high. We can’t quite imagine how world politics is going to unfold.

I had a chance conversation in the car park before Christmas with a thoughtful and prayerful woman from St Peter’s Catholic church. It concluded with her saying: ‘Peter, we must go on thinking, we must go on praying’.

The Epiphany arc of 2017 has as yet an uncertain course. Together, we’re called to stick together; to be strong together, for one another; and never to stop thinking, never to stop praying.