Isaiah 60: 1-6
Who are we?
Did you have a happy Christmas
Has the year got off to a good start?
Are you back at work or waiting till all the madness on the roads is over so you can go on holiday?
Did you spend too much money? Did you get stuff you don’t need?
Are you a bit anxious about what this new year will produce... for you, for NZ, for the global community, for the planet?
This is a very awkward time of year after stress of the Advent and the lead up to Christmas with the attendant expectations. It can be a messy time of year where nothing is quite ‘normal’ except its messiness and tension.
For us its midsummer and a sort of suspended ‘between time’: the old year has gone and the new year has not properly got underway. It can a stressful time while we wait for things to get back to ‘normal’.
The liturgical season of Epiphany is somewhat the same these days. But once upon a time Epiphany was the major festival, a sort of culmination of the Advent waiting and preparation. It was much more important than Christmas with its association with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, with its feasting and merrymaking. But these days Epiphany it has almost lost its significance and is overshadowed by Christmas and the baby Jesus story that precedes it, and Lent that follows; it is sort of sandwiched between birth and death stories.
For the early eastern Christian church the feast of Epiphany was focused on the manifestation at his baptism of who Jesus was as a ‘son of God’. The date of Christmas was not even agreed until early in the 4th century. In Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus birth it is the magi and their gifts and the baptism of Jesus that are important. At his baptism, God says "behold, my son, in whom I am well pleased”. (Note, this Jesus was an adult, not a baby.)
It seems to me, Epiphany is in continuity with Advent, with John the Baptist’s call to prepare the way, for the one who is to come. Now, in Epiphany, we hear the story of how he baptises the one who they have been waiting for, Jesus. Following his baptism, Jesus ministry proper gets underway with God’s blessing.
Christmas is bit of a distraction, an interspersed winter festival. It is no wonder that it was not significantly observed in much of the Protestant church - it was even banned in some places as unbiblical and was only celebrated as in Britain as a major Christian feast by Roman Catholics until Victorian times.
Matthew however realigns our emphasis: he shifts us from a focus on Christmas, with all the Victorian rituals that have come to shape it, back to one of community identity and the story of the travelers who come from far away; following the light of a star; looking for the one who would lead the way. He backs up his story of who it is they are looking for by blatant connections with the writing of the prophet Isaiah, attempting to prove that Jesus and the stories that had grown up around him by the end of the first century (when he, Matthew, was writing) were truly in continuity with the Torah and Jewish history. Matthew wanted the Jewish people to be in no doubt that Jesus was the one that they were waiting for.
Matthew’s context, like Isaiah’s, was troubled: the temple had fallen and the people of Israel were looking for hope and reassurance that God had not forgotten them. Their identity as 'the people of God' was in need of a bit of a boost.
Matthew sets a star over Jesus at his birth, and in its light the men from the east come bringing gifts of great value. But rather following the edict to report back to the king: rather than succumbing to the power of king Herod, and enabling Herod's fear and threat to kill the boy-baby, they defy him and leave by another route. They choose a different way, they thwart the king's plan for power through violence and destruction.
The Jewish people could not help but hear in this story of Matthew echoes of Isaiah: the light on the mountain, the nations from afar streaming toward it bringing their wealth, the promise of God’s favour, and of course the story of Moses raised in exile to avoid Pharaoh’s slaughter of the male babies.
We have two stories of hope today, both set in troubled times, two stories offering life in the face of death - light in overcoming the dark.
But the stories point to much more than this: Matthew narrates how Jesus 'true' identity was revealed at his baptism - (that story for you next week I am guessing) - Jesus, son of God, servant of justice in whom God is well pleased, - whose ministry, following his baptism, begins with the famous sermon on the mount. Today's readings set the stage.
The prophet Isaiah before him, prefigures the justice-agenda to be set out by Jesus in his commencement-sermon. Isaiah declares how God gathers together all who have been lost and dispersed and disregarded. He sets a light over them that all can see and promises that Peace will be their overseer, Righteousness their taskmaster, that Violence will be no more and their walls will be called Salvation. A great light will pierce the darkness.
In both stories light has come to the world and nothing will extinguish it.
In both stories the impact is great on the community who hears and takes the story to heart.
Both stories call the community together and set out the marks of justice and peace by which it will be identified.
As a community of faith that that gathers around these stories of light, hope and justice-making compassion, these stories are about us.
Both the reassurance of light in the darkness, and the promise of justice and salvation are offered to us.
These promises, made by God, define us as a community too but they bring with them the expectation, no, the demand, that we witness by the way we live our lives, and shape our relationships, that we are part of the community of witnesses to God’s promise.
The promise comes to life as we invite everyone into the way of peace with non-violence, love, right-relations and wholistic-wellbeing.
We are not specially privileged as we go about this work of living into God's promise, but we can be extraordinary because we witness to the unexpected, to the turning inside out and upside down of what has become entrenched in our time as 'the only way' and has lost its 'god-life' spark.
We can shine a light on all the unjust and dehumanising and earth threatening aspects of the way our life has become and look for another way instead. But it is no use simply retracing the steps we have already taken as they will only bring us back eventually, to the same place.
As I have noted before when I have preached here, it takes courage to do things differently, it takes courage to risk change: it takes courage to identity with the community of Christ.
I venture to say you know, as do I, that there is much in our world that needs to be different - greed and grasping for power seem to me to be at the heart of most of those things that need to change. Greed and the mis-use of power have destructive consequences that impact us all through such things as the climate crisis and workplace poverty; violence toward women and children and the abuse of old people - to name some off the top of my head.
If we have a vision of ourselves as a compassionate community willing to act for a different world; willing to live as though ‘Heaven has come on earth’ as we so frequently pray, then we need to find our way to the light that shines on the places of darkness and to actively seek the manifestation within ourselves of what will help us to find courage we need.
In these in between weeks, between what was and what will be,
it is good time for us to consider what lies in our hearts, for that is where our courage is to be found.
It is the right time to recommit to being part of the community that identifies with God's promise
It is a great time to think about the gifts we will bring to the task of being a compassionate justice-making community.
God, source of all insight,
You gave the wise ones the sign of a star,
Give us the focus and perseverance of those who travel far to encounter Jesus.
Give us wisdom to discern and follow all that points toward life.
Simon and Garfunkel