In this sermon, preached at Caldecote Church on the Sunday we celebrated Epiphany 2018, the Revd David Newton tells us why he loves this Feast Day.
The Magi came from the East.
The first came with the gift of gold, revealing Jesus as King. He laid it down before the manger, bowed down and worship.
The second came with the gift of frankincense, revealing Jesus as Priest. He laid it down before the manger, bowed down and worship.
The third came with the gift of myrrh, revealing Jesus as Prophet. He laid it down before the manger, bowed down and worship.
I love epiphany. I love it because it is so clearly all about Jesus.
Where Christmas can easily morph into us feeling nice about God’s presence with us, Good Friday can become about us wallowing in our sin. Easter Sunday can be focused on insipid notions of human hope. Pentecost can fixate upon our mission and all the ways we feel bad about not doing more for God…
In the midst of all this turning away from God towards ourselves, Epiphany stays squarely focused on Christ.
For Epiphany, as the name suggests, is all about the manifestation or revelation of God’s glory in Christ. It pushes us beyond the vagaries of Christmas, the babe in a manger, to consider who this man will become. What will he do? What kind of God will he make visible? The blank sheet lying in the manger begins to be written on; the Word made flesh starts to become readable. His glory begins to be unpacked.
Epiphany is not about what we should do, or who we are, or how we’ve failed, but simply asking the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ And what about him is being revealed to us in this ‘Epiphany?’
Every story about Jesus, every word spoken by him, gives some kind of answer to these questions. But certain stories have become particularly associated with this manifestation of God’s glory in Christ, and the first is the visit of these magi who reveal Christ as prophet, priest and King.
These three wonderful designations are not used much these days. They were made much of in the early church and the Reformation, and I thought we could do no better than re-visiting them this Epiphany. They pick up the three key roles found in the story of Israel, but to each one Christ brings something radically different.
So first, Christ the King.
The Magi bring gold, as fits a royal birth. But nothing else about this King is particularly usual. He has no physical Kingdom, and claims no particular set of people as his subjects.
When, just before his crucifixion, Jesus is questioned by Pilate and asked if he is the ‘King of the Jews.’ Jesus refuses the terms of the question – so wrapped up in the violent politics of the day – and simply says ‘You say so’. The answer was of course yes he was, but not in the teams that Pilate meant. In John’s explanation of this encounter we hear Jesus say, ‘my Kingdom is not of this world.’
He comes to be King of a different kind of Kingdom, made from human hearts and not bricks and stone.
Where Israel expected a second David who would rule Israel, God sends a second Adam. A King for Jews and Gentiles alike, as our Ephesians passage so emphatically states.
A king who turns the tables on their heads, by giving the seats of honour to the forgotten and broken of society. A king who walks amidst his people and washes their feet. A king whose only crown is one made of thorns.
But this king was not made welcome.
When Herod heard of his birth murder was his first thought. All he sees in Jesus is a threat to his kingdom and kingship. He cannot understand that Jesus’ Kingship is not competing for the same space. Herod was not called to give up his crown and give it to Jesus, but instead put his crown at the service of the greater King and greater Kingdom.
‘Light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3.19)
Herod’s response is not unusual. It is typical. Today, great pride is placed in being answerable to no one, to serving no other agenda but one’s own. We should not be surprised when most reject the King the magi worshipped.
Christ the King.
Christ the Priest – to whom incense is brought. Such a gift picks up the imagery of the OT where priests daily offered incense as a symbol of the prayers of the people.
The priests of Israel were to act as mediators before God and the people. They were the ones who offered the sacrifices, who interpreted the law, who prayed in the Temple precincts day and night.
And so Christ too comes as a mediator between God and the people. But in a radically new way…
Where the priest offered sacrificed animals on behalf of themselves and others, Christ offers himself. Where sacrifices were repeated again and again, Christ dies once for all. Where sacrifices took place in the earthly Temple, Christ plunges into the abyss and then ascends into glory to sit at the right hand of the Father.
Jesus becomes the one true mediator who stands at God’s right hand pleading for us.
The book of Hebrews is one long meditation of this beautiful idea of Christ the Great High Priest, who at once fulfils and overturns the priestly system of the OT.
Christ the King.
Christ the Priest.
Christ the Prophet – to whom myrrh is given.
As many of you will know myrrh was associated with death, it was used to anoint dead bodies to preserve them and keep them from smelling. So this poisoned chalice represents Christ’s death, but also his role as prophet. For in the OT the prophets were the ones who were killed time and time again at the hands of the people.
Christ takes on the prophetic mantle found in the OT. He gives us the uncomfortable truths we do not wish to hear; he champions the cause of the poor and the outcast; he speaks truth to power and is especially vitriolic to the religious elite. And unsurprisingly, as offence builds, like prophets before him, he is killed.
But, the Word of this prophet cannot be stopped by murder. For this is not just one speaking the words of God, but one who is the Word of God itself. Death cannot silence this Word.
The Magi come from the East brining gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh, revealing to us the Christ who is prophet, priest and King.
A King – not one for a particular people or place, but the King of hearts.
A priest – not one who holds God and people at a managed distance, but the Great
High Priest who ushers us all to come confidently into God’s throne room.
A prophet – not one who speaks the words of God, but is the very Word of God made flesh.
We could talk all day about what this means for us. But for once, let’s just stand in awe at this epiphany. And with the magi to bow down at the foot of the manger and worship the Christ who has been revealed.