Sermon given by Jeff at Gordon Chapel 7 January 2018 Morning Service. Matthew 2:1-12 & Mark 1.4-11
THE EPIPHANY & THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST
In the church calendar, today is The Baptism of Christ. But yesterday was The Epiphany and that takes priority, hence today’s readings! One event as a baby and one as an adult. But, I shall touch on both.
So, The Epiphany first – that is, the revealing of Christ. Matthew tells the story differently from Luke. Instead of shepherds he gives us Magi from the East, Herod’s Palace instead of a stable, gifts instead of a manger.
In our nativity scenes* we tend to put everyone in – Mary, Joseph, the baby, the shepherds, three wise men, and animals. But that isn’t how it was. The shepherds came from nearby and arrived quickly, the wise men came from afar, and probably much later. We don’t know the exact timeline.
Today, the big celebrations are Christmas and Easter, but in the early church, they were Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost and no Christmas – imagine that – no Christmas. But now, our Christmas season closes on the 12th day with The Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the Magi to Jesus.
Mythology surrounds them. We may call them kings, but Matthew doesn’t. They’re often called Magi, astrologers, wise men and more – but should we really call them Wise Men? After all, asking Herod about a king of the Jews, born to take his place, wasn’t very wise, was itJ
We call them Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar, but those names aren’t in scripture. We think there were three of them because of the three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh, but there could have been any number.
So, much may be wrong, but one thing was true. It’s what makes these men very special in this story. It’s not that they were kings, rich, or wise. Can you guess what it is? Yes, they’re not Jews – they’re Gentiles, foreigners, outsiders – they were different!
Epiphany, means manifestation or revelation, and here, it celebrates the revealing of Jesus Christ to Gentiles – to Gentiles of all people!! Amazing – for Jesus was born a Jew to Jewish parents in a Jewish nation – born a Jewish Messiah. Everything about him was Jewish
Matthews is a very Jewish Gospel – he’s more interested in the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy than the other Gospel writers. Right at the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew establishes that Jesus will be a Messiah not only to Jews, but also to Gentiles.
The story of the Magi is not an encouragement to study the stars. They were driven to find Jesus, they didn’t know all the answers but wanted to discover more – that should apply to us too. They knelt to pay Jesus homage. How many Jews knelt to pay homage to him? The Jews had plenty of wise men studying scripture – praying for the coming of the Messiah. Where were they? They and the Jewish religious leadership should have welcomed Jesus but they even failed to recognize him.
So Matthew opens his Gospel with this great tribute to Gentiles – that Jesus, even as a baby receives Gentiles. Matthew concludes his Gospel with these words from Jesus. “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Note – ‘All Nations’ – any good Jew would know that Jesus was talking about Gentiles.
Matthew tells of other Gentiles who recognised who Jesus was. There’s the Roman centurion about whom Jesus says, “Most certainly I tell you, I haven’t found so great a faith as his”. At the cross, a soldier says, “Truly, this was the Son of God”.
In this very Jewish Gospel, Jesus is often at odds with Jewish leaders, but gets along with common folk, Jew and Gentile. And that’s Good News! It’s Good News, because most of us are common people and most of us are Gentiles – even Fochaberians J.
Epiphany means that the Good News of Jesus is for us. But it’s also Good News because it means that Jesus opens heaven to people we wouldn’t expect to meet there!
During the days of slavery in America, many slaves became Christians. They heard the Bible stories – of God leading Israelites slaves out of Egypt and realised that it had special meaning for them – it was their story too.
They heard about Jesus healing people on the fringes – the weak and vulnerable – the beggars, the blind, the lame, and the sinners. Those who had nothing going for them – Christ gave them hope and faith and finally they received their freedom from slavery. The irony is that their owners restricted how, when and where slaves could worship, but now the church has become the most positive and powerful voice in the African-American community – producing some amazing Christian ministers, leaders and barrier breakers– like Martin Luther King.
The Epiphany is about God revealing himself, we are challenged to be a part of that – it’s what being a Christian is all about. And the Epiphany is all about breaking down barriers and taking Christ out to others. In his name the church sends people to spread the Good News and take light to the darkest places, in prison, behind the Iron Curtain, in countries that persecute Christians.
In his name, the church runs soup kitchens, food banks, collects money for relief in natural disasters and for refugees etc.
And in our own small way, Gordon Chapel raises funds for charities. We are committed to support the charity Busega Scotland in their work in Tanzania guided by Christine and John Carney who worship with us.
It would be easier for many of us to walk by on the other side – to separate ourselves from those we might consider to be undeserving – from people of other nations, races or religions.
But this story of the wise men coming to Jesus, tells us that even in his infancy, Jesus was breaking down such barriers and he was reaching out. If we are to call ourselves Christ’s disciples, we must do the same.
There will be times in our life when we may believe that someone is not worth the effort. Perhaps the world is full of people who don’t deserve our help – who we think don’t deserve Christ – people unworthy of heaven.
But – have you ever considered this and said to yourself – am I one of them – does anyone think that I am unworthy? The Good News is that Christ came to save people like us – to turn our lives around.
I read about an Anglican chaplain serving in Italy, who became friends with a local Catholic priest. The chaplain was killed in action, and the priest offered to bury him in the church cemetery. But the authorities wouldn’t allow him to bury a Protestant in a Catholic cemetery, though they agreed that he could be buried outside the cemetery wall. After the war, some soldiers returned to visit the chaplains grave – and were surprised to find it inside the cemetery wall. They said to the priest, “I see you got permission to move the body.” The priest replied, “No – they told me I couldn’t bury the body inside the wall. But nobody ever told me that I couldn’t move the wall.”
That’s what we have with the Epiphany – a story where God moved the wall. The wise men were outsiders – they’d no connection with Jewish history – or the covenant God had made with the Jews. But this story is the promise that God has moved the wall – that all sorts of unlikely people come under the shelter of his love. That’s Good News!
Now – as I said earlier – The Epiphany was really yesterday but moved to be celebrated today. And today is also the celebration of the Baptism of Christ. So, let’s look at that as well.
To start with I’ll make a fool of myself (nothing new there you may say) You may all know the music hall song ‘Do the Hokey Cokey’ – music please maestro!
You put your right hand in, your right hand out,
your right hand in, and you shake it all about.
You do the Hokey Cokey and you turn around.
That’s what it’s all about.
But NO – that is not what our life with Christ is all about. It’s not just putting our hand or foot in – it is, or should, be more like this :-
Slower & more deliberately
You put your whole self in, your whole self out,
your whole self in, and you shake it all about.
You do the hokey cokey and you turn around.
That’s what it’s all about.
Yes, you put your whole self in – and you turn your life around. That’s what baptism and our faith is all about – putting our whole selves into our commitment to Christ. Jesus doesn’t ask for partial commitment.
He doesn’t want lukewarm disciples, he wants disciples who are with him all the way – even though he never promises an easy life. He wants faith and commitment – for us “to put our whole self in.”
Jesus asked John to baptize him. Why – why did Jesus want to be baptized when he had not sinned – when he had no need of repentance. Perhaps he was leading by example. But he put his whole self in, just as he wants us to do. It’s about commitment. He committed himself to die for us!
How committed are we – what are we willing to give him? An hour on Sunday? Some money now and then? He wants more. He wants you. Give yourself to Christ, commit to him and let him make more of you than you could ever make of yourself.
At The Epiphany Jesus was revealed to Gentiles – about 30 yrs later John revealed and baptised Jesus. God and the Holy Spirit appeared to support Jesus. Many have supported you over the years, not least the Holy Trinity.
Resolutions and promises were made at your own baptism, either by you or by others on your behalf – you may wish to remind yourself of them later. But for now, let us offer ourselves to him once more.
I wont ask you to come forward as they do in some churches, it’s not our way – but if you would like to make a fresh commitment to Christ, as you enter 2018, this new year in your life, I invite you to say to him in your own heart and mind, this prayer – let us pray:-
Give me a new heart Lord, put a new spirit within me.
Accept my commitment to you and give me the courage, strength
and wisdom to be your faithful disciple. Amen.
Now a short silence for you to think about what you have heard before we say the Creed together.