SERMON by Rev. Brian Moodie
The 6th January in the Christian Calendar marks the end of the 12 days of Christmas and the beginning of the season of Epiphany which, for those who follow the Christian liturgical calendar will last until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.
The season of Epiphany therefore begins on the 6th January and marked by the story of the revelation of Christ to people of other cultures and nations, symbolised in the story of the Magi who see his star in the east. They seek him out, and when they find him, kneel down in homage before the Christ Child, bringing gifts, which in many ways is the seed or the source for our sharing of gifts on Christmas Day. The season of Epiphany also includes the Baptism of Jesus, the moment of Jesus awakening to his own Divine Son-ship. The last Sunday of Epiphany before Ash Wednesday is often marked by the story of the Transfiguration, another story of revelation, or the manifestation of Jesus’ Divine Light and Glory.
The word Epiphany itself has a number of shades of meaning. The Greek word is made up of the word Epi, which means ‘upon’. And phaínō which means to shine, or appear.
In the ancient world, the appearance of a god in ancient mythology was called an epiphany.
In Christian usage, it has referred to the appearance or the revealing of the Divine light in Jesus, to the Gentiles, also at his Baptism and at his Transfiguration.
In more modern usage, the word epiphany refers to a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something of great significance. It can refer to some new level of insight seeing the world and oneself with fresh eyes. The word epiphany could be used as synonymous with the word enlightenment or awakening, in which one sees the world as though a new light is shining upon it.
The epiphany story of the Magi searching out the Christ-child, is another of those wonderful archetypal stories where we see humanity symbolised firstly by the Magi, and secondly by King Herod.
They represent two ways of seeing and interacting with the world.
The Magi represent humanity seeing the world with enlightened eyes. Eyes of epiphany one could say. They represent humanity who has come to some new level of spiritual awakening…
While Herod represents humanity seeing the world with darkened or unenlightened eyes…. a world dominated by an obsession with self, and that obsession with self and self importance casts shadows of fear, ignorance and darkness on everything else. In the story, as Herod becomes troubled, so all Jerusalem with him. He casts a shadow over the whole of Jerusalem. Human beings can do that… we have the ability to cast shadows over other people.
In exploring the text this week, I was fascinated to discover that the name Herod comes from the same root word as our English word Hero and means, ‘one who has sprung from a hero’. In his own eyes, Herod sees himself as a strong Heroic figure. He would like to see himself as stronger and better than everyone else, except for Caesar of course who is the Big Boss. But in his own eyes, he is the self-made man. Triumphant over his enemies who he keeps in their place with military might and force. But if truth be told, his self-imagined heroic-ism is just an illusion. If truth be told, he is not a self-made man. Apart from being the puppet ruler of Caesar, his life in reality is utterly dependent on those who are beneath him. Without others farming his fields, cooking his meals, guarding his castle gates, Herod, the self-made Hero is in fact just as vulnerable and dependent as everyone else. His life in truth is part of a whole network of interdependence. But he fails to see this. In his eyes, he is the Big Man, full of his own self-importance. But his true vulnerability is revealed in the story. Deep down he knows he is vulnerable, even if he can’t admit it to himself. When he hears news of the birth of a rival king of the Jews, we read that Herod the Hero suddenly becomes troubled. The Greek word means to become agitated or stirred up. You can imagine Herod, the self-made Hero, tossing and turning in his bed, restless, agitated, stirred up, disturbed. So much for being the strong hero that he thought he was. It turns out on the inside he is weak and vulnerable just like the rest of us, and all his outward heroic-ism is just an outward show.
As suggested already, this narrow, small-minded self-understanding of Herod the Hero reveals itself as a darkened mind. When he can’t get what he wants by force, then he resorts to deception. To the Magi who are searching for the Christ-child, Herod the self-made Hero puts up a pretence that he also wants to go and pay homage. He is like Judas who greets Jesus with a kiss. Outwardly he is pretending to be one thing. Inwardly, there is something dark and sinister at work within him. He must protect this self-made image of himself at any cost even if by deception, and later by violence. It is his own safety and security that concerns him above everything else. The lives of others are simply props and collateral damage on the stage of his own life, to be used and discarded at will.
By contrast, the Magi represent those on the journey towards spiritual awakening and spiritual enlightenment. They are not guided by their own self made illusions, they are guided by a greater light, a greater wisdom. They search the night sky, the darkness (in which we all live), for signs of light, that will lead them and guide them to their true fulfilment. In other words, unlike Herod who does not know or accept his own ignorance, the Magi are aware of the darkness in which they live, and from within that darkness, they search out a greater Wisdom than themselves that will bring them light and that will lead them into the light. There is something very humbling about looking up at the night sky. It helps to bring perspective. It is a reminder of how small and insignificant our humanity is when viewed against the back-drop of the universe. To look up at the night sky is to be humbled. We modern people don’t look up at the night sky enough. And when we fail to see our lives against the mystery of the vastness of the universe, like Herod, we don’t see life in it’s true perspective. Isn’t that the plight of modern humanity. We have become so self-obsessed, that we have failed to see things in their true perspective. We have failed to see our utter-dependence on the goodness of the earth, and are only beginning to realise in our ignorance that we are destroying our own home.
The Magi by contrast represent those in our human family who live their lives under a greater mystery, and in a deeper awareness of the Infinite Wisdom that sustains us. They journey through life with humility seeking a greater light and wisdom. And, unlike Herod, the self-made man, they are willing to bend the knee in humility and homage when they find the Christ-child.
It is one of the things that modern western humanity has lost, the art of bowing and bending the knee at that which is greater than ourselves. Like Herod the self-made hero we pay homage to our own greatness. In the words of Julian Lennon, “We’re so enchanted by how clever we are…”. But we are reaching a turning point in our own history, where bowing down to our own greatness will only lead to our destruction. Like the Magi, we need to learn bow down, and bend the knee to something greater than ourselves. Like the Magi we have reached a point in our human journey where we are needing to learn that there are things more important that gold and material wealth and luxuries. In verse 11, they opened their treasure chests and gave gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. At the sight of the infant Jesus, they are will willing to part with their wealth and their luxuries because they have found something that is worth more than gold and more precious than incense and myrrh. Meeting the Christ child represents a moment in which the things that they previously valued have shifted.
That can happen sometimes. A near death experience or a severe illness can bring a shift in our values. For such a person, there is a sudden recognition of what is truly important, an epiphany one could say, and most often it is recognised that what is truly important are not our material possessions and comfortable luxuries. Are will living like Herod trying to amass more and more treasures for ourselves in our fortresses and castles. Or are we like the Magi who are willing to part with their treasures because they have found a deeper meaning and purpose in their lives.
On Wednesday morning I came across a wonderful quote attributed to Albert Einstein in which he is supposed to have said that: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle”.
This week, I have been intrigued to reflect more deeply on the word Magi in our passage. Magi comes from the same root word as our English word magic. As one reads the story, it is as though the Magi represent those in this world who are open to the magic of life unfolding around them. They see the world alive with magic and wonder, from secret messages in the stars to a newborn infant that evokes within them an attitude of overflowing devotion. Herod on the other hand is too consumed with fear and his own self-importance to see the magic of life around him. Instead, he casts shadows over others.
And so as we have stepped through the portal of 2020, into 2021 the story of Epiphany asks of us: will we live like the fearful, isolated, agitated, self-appointed hero, Herod, who tries to defend his vulnerability in a world that he sees as a threat, or will we journey like the Magi, acknowledging the darkness, but looking up and seeing the vast wisdom above us and looking for signs of light to guide us to that place where we can bend the knee in appreciation and devotion as we become aware of the Divine Light that shines upon us. Can 2021 be for us a year of magic and Epiphany, a year perhaps when we suddenly become conscious of life’s greater and magical significance. Amen.
Prayer after Sermon- Be Our Daily Star, God of all heaven and earth. From the breath of your love came the creation of the world. We are amazed at the vast beauty of the night sky and at the intimate nature of the love you have for us your children – born from the dust of stars. Be our daily star, Guiding our lives to search for Your kingdom love. May we always follow your light of truth in all that we do, Forever trusting, hoping and believing. Lift our eyes this day to see your eternal life shining brightly, Leading us home. |And into that same light, we would now lift up to you all those in need of prayer today……. Amen. From from www.lords-prayer-words.com