Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12.
I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Christmas Songs; the ones that are all about winter and nothing about Jesus. Maybe now that I’m in my forties I’m becoming a bit of a Grinch, but I think there’s more to it than that. I mean, think about it; what is there of the miracle of God incarnate, the new-born king in “Jingle Bells” or “Winter Wonderland”? As Australians, with the notable exception of Greg Champion and his “rusty Holden ute”, even the seasons are wrong. At least “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Good King Wenceslas” have Christian themes amidst the deep and crisp snow on snow. “Little Drummer Boy”? Sweet, and we should certainly encourage children to bring their best to Jesus, whatever that best might sound like, but as my sister will tell you after enduring our noisy neighbours over Christmas, the last thing a tired baby or an exasperated mother needs is somebody drumming!!
But look at “We Three Kings”. It’s not to be found in the Australian Hymn Book yet take a look at those lines about crowning this small boy born “on Bethlehem Plain” as “king forever”. That’s solid theology in a box of gold. Further, these pagans offer frankincense in reverence and worship of a “Deity nigh”, a God who is very close by. The foreigners acknowledge that this baby is both King and God. And in true telemarketing style we can yell “but wait, there’s Myrrh!” as the otherwise worshippers of false gods offer balm to the child. Myrrh is given for the task of anointing the One born to die a suffering death. Truly we can sing Glorious now behold him arise, King (gold), and God (frankincense) and Sacrifice (myrrh). It’s no wonder that Alleluia, Alleluia should sound through the earth and skies!!
The visit of the Magi, men attracted from the nations East, North, and South of Israel by the glory of God evident in the heavens, is fulfilment of the hope of Isaiah. For Matthew’s original readers the Magi were merely pagans, a prefigure of the nations who would come to acknowledge Christ at the end of days which Matthew describes in the final verses of his gospel. These travellers were not necessarily scholars, and they certainly weren’t princes or kings. Although later thinking suggests that they were astrologers, and probably found Jesus through a “star sign” and some private investigative work, they were still not royal. I find it really interesting that Matthew, a devout Jew, would portray Jesus so blatantly as the recipient of worship. Only God is to be worshipped, and there is only one God, Yahweh. Yet writing about his infancy it is obvious that along with the Magi Matthew believes Jesus to be Immanuel, to be God-with-us, to be Lord-made-flesh from the outset. In the words of the Magi to Herod Jesus is the one “born King”. He was not born “to be” King at some later time. Matthew is telling his readers, educated and devout Jews like himself, that even pagans recognise plainly that the kingship of Jesus Christ was not conferred by decree, or inherited from a male forebear. The kingship of the child of Bethlehem is implicit.
In our Christmas hymn today we called each other to Hark! and to listen. “Hey, stop a minute, can you hear that? The whole sky is resounding!” Pay attention and hear how all the welkin rings, glory to the king of Kings! In this first draft of Charles Wesley all of Creation is excited at the birth of this infant king and the sky itself, the visible portion of Heaven, resounds with the bells, cymbals, pipes, strings, drums, and choirs of worship and delight! What a glorious day to praise the one named “God Saves”. It is always a glorious day to praise the name of Jesus, worship never goes out of season even if the trees and tinsel are already back in the box and the hot-cross buns are already darkening the doorways of Woolworths in Hobart.
It is the task of Creation to offer worship. The Epiphany is also a theophany, not just a moment of sudden great revelation as the Oxford Dictionary would have it, but the revelation of God. More than the coming of the men on the camels today is a day like the Transfiguration, today is a day when the glory of God is seen beaming from the Son of Man.
In his prophecies to the people of Jerusalem Isaiah calls them to arise because the light of God will shine from that place to illuminate the nations. This is a great promise of God to all of humanity, all of Creation, but especially to the people of God. Isaiah tells them in the words of God spoken to him that Jerusalem would be a place of attraction for those who would want to worship God in the place that God has chosen for worship. Isaiah says to them “Your light has come.” But what is that light? It is the fullness of the glory of God, the light that dispels the darkness of the earth. Isaiah describes the light of God as visible from afar where there is darkness. The planet is black and cold so this one place where light and heat are is obvious. And because this is the only place where there is light, the light is attractional. It is attractive and drawing like a porch-light to a moth. It is welcoming and alluring like a candle in the window of home for the weary one headed there. This light is commanding. The light which drew pagans to Bethlehem draws an enormous crowd to gather in Zion. This will be a crowd of sons and daughters returning as adults and as infants. The Diaspora, along with numberless millions of pilgrims, is returning to the place of God’s glory. Jerusalem is promised abundance from the land and the sea as gold and frankincense by the camel and shipload are brought from afar. Those who come will “proclaim the praise of the LORD” as “heralds of the LORD’s praise”. Those sons and daughters who were lost to us days and generations ago return giving praise and honour to God. Zion is once again acknowledged as the true and only centre of the religious universe, a symbol of unity and faith for all of God’s humanity. Like the wise men that came to see the baby Jesus those who are attracted by God’s presence are not coming because they are wise or particularly scholarly to the signs of the times, they are called wise because they came. As any of you who have sat under a porch light in summer will know there is nothing wise about moths; it is to the profound blessing of the nations that God’s glory is active and informative, wisdom as well as illumination. Rest your weary wings and lift your surging hearts.
All that Isaiah wrote is a promise in its time to a people in their time, as all Biblical prophecies are. So what can we draw from this message today? I believe that this is an inspired message from God to the Church today, although not necessarily with the same outcome. This great word of promise to Christians in 2014 remind us that God has promised to gather all people for God’s glory once again. Those who are far off in distance or in theology will be brought home. In a congregation such as this which has reduced in numbers and influence we have confidence in the promise and previous activity of God that God still draws people to God’s glory. Along with the Psalmist we can offer prayers for our civic and congregational leaders to govern God’s people wisely, so that the glory of God will be seen and people will want to gather in our city to worship God.
As Paul wrote of himself, God has given each of us a special ministry of announcing God’s favour to the people around us. None of us has the same call as Paul did, to speak to a world of Gentiles as the first Jewish evangelist taking the gospel beyond the Chosen People; yet each of us can point towards God’s glory among the people who live around and beside us. The message of the gospel is that all people have an equal share in the blessings of God and an inheritance of the riches of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The light that shone out of a bedroom in Bethlehem, the light that radiates around the universe from Zion, is a light for everyone. God’s favour is given and not earned. The favour God shows to Christians on Kangaroo Island is our being chosen to be the bearers of God’s grace to our neighbours, visitors, and clients. Like Paul, like Isaiah, and like the shepherds and the Magi we did nothing to earn God’s appointment as emissaries, but that is what we are. The message we proclaim of a God intimately, personally informed of human weakness is also the message of the coming together of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, to proclaim the wisdom of God. This is a plan for eternity and also a demonstration to all who live beyond the earth in the realms of the heavens. Whether our noses get a chillin’ as we frolic and play the Eskimo way, or we’re swimming in our clothes on a scorching summer’s day, the story of the theophany of Jesus and the epiphany of the pagan visitors offers us a blessed assurance of a glad welcome when we come before God in the company of all humanity. We boldly declare our assurance that we are God’s own people, the God who became a person so notable that people traversed afar to visit him even as an infant.
That is a message worth celebrating, and worth sharing.