Monday, 4 January 2010

Sermon - 3rd January (Christmas 2/Epiphany)

Did you have a great time, or are you glad it’s all over for another year?
Maybe you’re all past masters at sailing through the festive season without raised voices, stress levels or blood pressure, or lost opportunities, tempers or sellotape – but I suspect at least one or two of you can identify…?

Ironically even getting to church – who’s going, which service, will we get there on time? – can become a source of stress instead of a place of peace.
I won’t stand here and claim that I, we had no stresses – though I have to admit that my wife had most aspects of our family celebrations covered, including the presents.

Even when I’m doing it, I’m not great at present-shopping.
As you’re are getting to know me a little by now, you might be surprised – but I leave it too late, usually! Then I inflict on myself the crowds of pre-Christmas shoppers, the shelves with items left in the wrong places, the mental list of people to buy for with no idea of what to get or even where to start!

It’s always escaped my understanding why people will do all that, celebrate Christmas, then pile out to the sales and do the whole crowds, traffic and misplaced items experience – again!

Today, I’m looking forward a few days to the 6th, Epiphany, traditionally the day we remember the Three Wise Men. These gents have a solid ‘hold’ on our imaginations and our traditions – on our hymns, too – but if we stick to the Bible, (their only mention comes in our reading from Matthew’s gospel) we don’t know that much about them.

Were there three? We don’t know. There were at least two because the passage describes them in the plural, and we think of three because of the number of gifts they brought. Were they Wise? What did they do? Sometimes we think of them as Kings – who we hope would be wise! – or as astrologers – who might or might not be wise…

The only thing we can be reasonably sure of is that they were Men – as I’m sure you’ve heard before, even this Christmas seaon: if they had been Three Wise Women they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts like nappies!

So our Three Wise Men, or perhaps our Some Men of Indeterminate Occupation have arrived. Again, tradition, and maybe a tendency to squash the whole Christmas story together, puts them arriving in the stable, even just later that first Christmas night. But in the passage it simply states it was ‘After Jesus was born in Bethlehem’ (v 1), it mentions the Men ‘coming to the house’ (v 11) (even the ‘stable’ was not mentioned either in Matthew or Luke, just a manger). And judging from Herod’s later actions, Jesus could actually have been anything up to a couple of years old by this point.

And they worship, and they bring their gifts. Suddenly we are in really strange territory. A baby who is lying in a cattle trough, born to parents who are – if not poor, certainly are not well off or powerful – is receiving homage and precious gifts from some people who at least speak with kings.

This is a major part of the story – the whole gospel story – the ‘upside down’ nature of God’s kingdom – that a humble baby should receive worship and precious gifts from these visitors.
And also, that the visitors were from a far-off land, highlighting that Jesus was to be for all people, not just the Jews.

We look, too at the gifts which traditionally and rightly have been identified with certain symbolism:
Gold – a gift suitable for a king
Frankincense – used by a priest, bringing people close to God
Myrrh – to embalm a body after death

Jesus was to be a great King, but also one who would bring people to God, and whose death, as well as his life, would be significant.

But imagine the Some Men, of Indeterminate Occupation, doing their shopping….

Look at this star, I’m sure it means a new king has been born, we should go and see!
OK but we can’t go without a present, what shall we take?
Well, I hate going shopping, I’ll just bring the currency I’ve got on me – here’s the gold that I’ve got, it looks nice don’t you think?, it’s worth its weight in gold, you know!

I just nipped out , there’s nothing left in the shops, just smelly stuff – and nothing suitable for a baby – look, this is a special commission for the temples, ‘Frankincense – by Calvin Klein’, and here’s one for undertakers, ‘Myrrh, by Hugo’.

Oh well, they’ll have to do, hope the parents don’t mind…

But I’d like to ask you – are you a Wise Man, or a Wise Woman? What are your plans for Jesus this New Year? Are you quite happy in your own country, pursuing your own occupation or interests, stargazing, or whatever? or are you ready to ‘up sticks’ and look (again) for Jesus, to bring him afresh into your life?

And if so, what gifts will you bring him? Will you just rummage around for something you’ve got spare and leftover, or whatever’s left, or cheap, on the shelves, or will you give consideration to what is suitable and appropriate?

This is Jesus in the manger, but it is also Jesus of the cross, Jesus of the Church – he doesn’t demand anything, but what gifts do you have that he might use in his church, in his world?

Maybe something you don’t consider a gift but he says ‘I could really use that’. Or a gift you’re not sure about using?
We can get hung up on Jesus parable of the talents, about being a good steward of our gifts, but a story like this can remind us that it is important just to come, that our availability, in all that we are, is more important to Jesus than our ability, how good we think we might be at something.

And here in this parish, or farther afield, there will be room and opportunity to use your gifts, whether ‘up front’ or behind the scenes, whether for a few minutes once in a while, or on a regular and frequent basis. Jesus calls and builds a church not to simply gather an audience for a message, but to gain a congregation, a community, that worships and listens and loves and serves and works together – each as they are able, and in that working together, builds relationships and ministries that are not just one-offs, oh we’re here to worship the babe but now we must go home, but are sustained and sustainable links with others who together go on and ask: What can I give him?

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