Epiphany – evening
Sunday 6th January 2019
Epiphany – evening
Isa. 60. 1-9
John 2. 1-11
Revd Preb Maureen Hobbs
But the clue to the selection of this passage lies – not in the main part of the story, but in the closing sentences… “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”
This tale from the very beginning of the public ministry of Jesus – at a time when he did not feel quite ready himself, is all about his glory being revealed. And that is the meaning of Epiphany – a showing or shining forth, a manifestation. And that is the point.
After all the fun and the food of Christmas, Jesus escapes our best efforts to surround him with fable and fanciful notions. And the arrival of the wise men is a brilliant illustration of this. The story – which features so heavily in all the nativities you will ever have seen, and on our Christmas cards (just look at the frequency with which the wise men or kings are depicted on your cards, compared with the lowly shepherds!) I’d be surprised if you did not find that kings outnumber shepherds by at least 2:1! But the story is almost incidental to the main event of Jesus’ birth. It is recounted in only one of the four gospels and then in very basic terms. We don’t even know for certain how many there were – we only stick to the number 3 because of the three gifts mentioned. But maybe there were 4, 10, or even more!
The story is there because – for a Jewish audience – they would have caught the many references to earlier events in the history of God’s people.
The prophet Isaiah, writing for a people who had suffered an enormous catastrophe. Invasion, defeat and exile of the brightest and best among them – promising young men like Daniel, – taken off to live and serve a foreign king in the east. The rich gold from Solomon’s Temple had been carried off to a land in the East – Babylon. Isaiah wanted to reassure the people that God had not forgotten and abandoned them – despite evidence to the contrary. One day, “nations will come to your light, and kings to your dawning brightness” and they will come bearing gifts of frankincense and gold. Could this be why the wise men are recorded bringing such gifts?
Others would have been made to think of Psalm 72 as well; promising a day when kings would come from Tarshish, Sheba and Seba, bringing gifts and rendering tribute. And of course, riding camels!
In the story of the three kings, the wound of the exile is healed; events are reversed.
Those who once took Israel captive, desecrated the Temple and stole its wisdom, now return and bend the knee, bringing gold – and frankincense and myrrh. Not only does this story remind them of the previous scriptures, but it brings restoration and redemption!..
So over the years all sorts of additions were made; the mysterious visitors were first of all upgraded from magi – wise men schooled in science and astronomy – to become men of wealth and power – kings. Then the modern concern for representation kicked in. These men became representatives of youth, middle age and old age; representatives of different ancient eastern countries; even of different continents! And of course they were given names – names that you will never find in the Bible but which everyone knows! Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.
So much is turned upside down… The inferior wine is served first, and the best reserved for the end of the celebration; those from the East who formerly conquered and colonized Jerusalem, now come seeking wisdom and to pay homage. And they find their goal not in the palaces associated with powerful men, but in a young child, in an ordinary house, with humble working parents. The wise bend the knee to simplicity and homage is offered to an astonished family.
So what in your life do you need to find turned upside down today? As we bring our ‘gold’ to offer we are making a promise to stay faithful to the God who came to meet us in Jesus, to follow the teachings of the one who could make something extraordinary from the mundane, turning water into wine; who could produce abundance from diminished resources.
If we are in any kind of exile – feeling defeated, cowed down, oppressed by circumstances or other people, we are called back to the Epiphany. If we are searching for wisdom, here we will find it. If we are lost, here we are found. Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.