Here is the sermon I preached yesterday – as I read it, and came to the end I thought (and said as much to the congregation) “That was shorter than it seemed when I wrote it!”
I was right! I’d forgotten that I’d printed it double sided, so I only read the first and the third pages, missing out everything between the two asterisks… I don’t think it mattered terribly, but I still feel a bit of a muppet!
Jeremiah:31:7-14 Psalm 84 Ephesians:1: 3-6,15-19a Matthew 2: 1-12
Today’s Gospel reading starts with fear and ends with joy. At the beginning the Magi, the Wise Men, the Seers from the East arrived at Herod’s palace and spoke of a baby, born to be King. And immediately Herod felt threatened. He feared that everything he knew would be taken from him, and that he would lose his power and his riches. And all Jerusalem was afraid – for they knew that if Herod was angered he’d no doubt take it out on them. And isn’t this so often the way today – the leaders of our countries want to hang onto their power, and their status, and because of this the ordinary people seem to be the ones who pay. Whatever your politics, I am sure that you can think of an example for yourself, for regardless of political beliefs this appears to be the way of the world.
From his very birth onwards Jesus challenges people. He turns worlds upside down. Perhaps now, we don’t quite realise how the incarnation, the idea that God has become human, was such an earth shattering notion for those living at the time. Although the Jewish people had an idea of a God who saves, a God who would, one day, come again as the Messiah, the thought of him breaking into humanity was unthinkable.
But the question that faced Herod is the one that faces us: how will you react to the child who has come to bridge the gap between the Divine and the human? Of course there will be fear: as Herod was afraid of losing all that he held dear, when facing the Almighty we too might fear losing control, losing security, of being asked to give things up. But we can choose to enfold ourselves in this fear, and close ourselves off from the wonders that Jesus offers us, or we can choose to stand, naked and shivering before God, afraid yet open to all that he will give us.
For if we recognise that Jesus is God’s outrageous gift of generosity that changes lives, then we can begin to move from the restrictive fear that Herod felt to the liberating joy that the Magi experienced as the star led them to the place where they could meet God. If we accept that Jesus is the bridge of hope and redemption we can move from despair to hope, from emptiness to fulfilment and from darkness to light. Jesus, Word made flesh, the physical presence of God, takes us from the reality of the incarnation to the unfolding realisation of who and what God is and does as we approach Epiphany. Without God’s inspiration and engagement, humanity would have remained stuck in a place far from hope and far from heaven.
God’s gift to the world was his taking flesh, being born, but we need to accept that gift. We must recognise our need, before we can understand the wonder. As Denise Levertov writes in her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”: It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.
(*) One of the phrases that Jesus said often during his ministry was: Do not fear. And it is that fear that he came to take from us.
Fear is the source of so much that is evil in this world: because people fear what will happen to their jobs they begin to abuse those who they think are to blame, because people fear what they don’t understand there is a rise in Islamophobia, in anti-Semitism, in homophobia… , because people fear they don’t have enough money, or possessions, there is a downturn in generosity, in caring for others. Fear breeds fear… When we forget that God is in control, it is then that we too feel fear, and that fear begins to cause us to become what we do not want to be, we recognise “the taint in our own selves” and we build walls between us and God, between us and others.
But Jesus tells us time and time again: do not fear. Even his name, given to Mary at the Annunciation, is a reminder that we have no cause to fear: Jesus, meaning God Saves.
Sometimes as a preacher there is a mystery as to why those who put the Lectionary together chose certain readings to go with certain others; but today there is no real mystery. The reading from Jeremiah is one that speaks of the hope for a future when God brings his faithful people home from exile. They will need to fear no more, for God is with them, he is faithful and true, and will fulfil his covenant. Human helplessness and hopelessness will be transformed by the unshakeable presence of God. The Psalm too speaks of the joy of knowing that God is close, and the Epistle reminds us that we – you and I – are adopted members of God’s family and it celebrates the belief that in Jesus, God plans to embrace all people and the entire created order.
The good news is that God chooses humanity. God is on our side, and will travel with us throughout history. We have not been left on our own or to our own devices. We have not been left without meaning to our lives, or directions to travel. We have choices and hope, because God chooses to identify with us. God chooses to accompany us throughout the journey of faith and life.
This is what the Incarnation is about – Emmanuel, God with us. God with us through the turmoil of life. God with us in the joys and sorrows. God with us when we don’t feel close to him. God with us in the valleys and the mountaintops. God with us at the start of a new year, full of uncertainty and confusion. Do not fear.
And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that it is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life. (*)
Whatever our fears may be, Epiphany reminds us that we can live our lives in a new light. Epiphany reminds us that Jesus, the light of the world, has arrived in all his rule-breaking, table-turning glory, helping us to see all things, and even ourselves, in new ways.
It is the greatest news that ever was, is, or shall be. “Take heart,” Jesus says, “It is I; have no fear.” May you and I always seek to live in the light of his promise.