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Epiphany and Covenant

Sunday was Epiphany, when the church has historically remembered the visit of the wise men, and so we read first from Matthew 2:1-12. We often squash the wise men into the Christmas story, but people have extrapolated from Herod’s decree that all boys under the age of two must be killed, and suggested that Jesus may himself have been a toddler by the time these visitors from the east arrived. So while they are an important part of the birth narratives, they are one step removed from the birth itself, which is why they have warranted their own day.

The name epiphany comes from the fact that the word means revelation or manifestation or appearance, and it seems that something is made known about Jesus in this story. The gifts brought by the wise men reveal something of his nature and purpose, and this is the first time that Christ is known to have been appeared to the Gentiles. The baptism of Jesus and the wedding at Cana are also associated with Epiphany in some traditions, again because there is a sense that some part of Jesus is made manifest. We see Jesus as part of the Trinity at his baptism, as the Spirit appears in the formof a dove and the voice of God is heard. And the wedding at Cana is his first miracle according to the fourth gospel, when his power is seen for the first time.

I’m not going to try and handle all of those texts here, but I do just want to suggest that we should see the bringing together of these stories under the banner of epiphany not as a way of restricting the idea of epiphany to these moments, but as a way of reminding ourselves that Jesus is revealed again and again, in so many different ways. Not just in a baby lying in his mother’s arms or a toddler running around his mother’s feet. Not just in a man submitting himself to baptism and hearing the call and the pleasure of God. And not just in a guest using miraculous power to give a most generous wedding gift. But also in a teacher speaking of a kingdom in which the world is turned upside down. And in a friend weeping at a tomb because grief hurts even when you know it’s not the end. And in a body nailed to a cross and sealed in a tomb because there is no greater love. And in a figure in a garden who is unrecognisable and yet wholly familiar.

And it doesn’t even stop there, because Jesus is still revealed. In a sense of presence which brings calm or joy or strength just when you need it. In a word from a poet that punches your gut and grabs your heart and tells you this is the word of the Lord. In a face in a dream that still brings the softest of smiles to your face decades on. In the warm embrace of a friend and the offer of sanctuary from a church and the kindness of a stranger. How wonderful to start the year by remembering that Christ was revealed and is revealed!

I said I wasn’t going to work with all of the Epiphany stories, but I do want to go back to the one we started with, the visit of the wise men, to explore a little of what it reveals to us about Christ. And I’m going to do that through the medium of song. Fortunately for the congregation on Sunday, that doesn't involve me singing, it just means I want to use a line from ‘We Three Kings’ to get us going: “Glorious now, behold him arise, King and God and Sacrifice”. I must have sung that line a hundred times with very little thought, then two years ago I ran a Beer and Carols event, and perhaps it was something about singing it outside of the usual church setting, but for the first time I realised what a profound declaration of faith had been there all along, hidden in a song I had mostly associated with an ‘O’ noody could seem to agree the length of.

So let’s work our way through that declaration. Jesus is announced as King in the visit of the wise men through the gift of gold, a symbol of wealth. The idea of Christ as king has lost much of its power, because monarchy no longer means all that it did. And so this is where we need to read scripture imaginatively, putting ourselves in the place of those in these stories. We could think about the significance of the king in Jewish history, and the way the hoped for Messiah was imagined as a new king in the line and image of David, but for the moment I want us to put ourselves in the place of Herod. He was himself little more than a figurehead, a puppet king under Roman rule, and yet he was so scared of this new king that he was willing to slaughter an unknown number of children in order to get rid of him. Perhaps he was just so desperate to hold onto the little power he had, or perhaps he knew that this new king would not just replace him, but create a new allegiance which would threaten the whole social order. Because that is what it means to name Christ as king. It is to say that he is where our allegiance lies, it is to his rule of love and mercy that we will be loyal above all else. For those who are powerful, who rely on unquestioning obedience to the status quo, that is deeply unsettling. But for those for whom the status quo means oppression or exclusion, not coincidentally those who Jesus seemed to gather around him, it is liberating.

Jesus is proclaimed as God in the visit of the wise men through the gift of frankincense, a fragrance used in worship, and this is the heart of Christmas, that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. I talked at the carol service about Jesus as God with us in the dirt and the mess, choosing the vulnerability and indignity of a borrowed crib to show us who and where he is. God with us in the dirt and the mess. I first used that phrase three years ago, in my first Christmas sermon, and I have lost count of the number of times I have used it since. But I will make no apology for sounding like a stuck record, because this is the gospel I have been given to share. I know that God sits with us in the dirt and walks with us through the mess because that is the story I have inherited and because that is the story I have lived.

Jesus is foretold as Sacrifice in the visit of the wise men through the gift of myrrh, which was used in the preparation of bodies for burial. Such a strange and morbid gift for a baby, and yet so entirely appropriate. I don’t believe that Jesus came only to die, because I’m certain that the thirty or so years he spent here were not just filling time waiting for the cross. It may be by his death that we are able to live eternally, but it is because of his life that we know how to live rightfully. And yet that life could only end in that death. Whatever part the crucifixion played in the divine plan for salvation, in purely human terms, nobody could have said the things Jesus said or did the things Jesus did without landing themselves in the most serious of trouble. But that is precisely why he needed to say those things and do those things, to show us how radical his way of compassion and justice had become and how needed it was. We can’t know for certain how much Jesus knew of what was ahead of him, but there are many points in the scriptures where he seems to know that the end is coming and that it will not be pleasant, and yet he did not fail or fall away because he loved us even unto death, and was willing to submit himself to a life of sacrifice so that we might know a life with God.

There is so much more that could be said about what it means to speak of Jesus as King and God and Sacrifice, but that is the great joy of coming back to this story again and again. There is always more to discover. And I'll let you into a secret: we don't have to wait until next Christmas to come back to t. It's good to have a rhythm to the year, but there's nothing to stop us returning to find new joy and wonder in these texts whenever we want.

Sunday was also our first service of the new year, and so we joined with many of our Methodist siblings in reflecting on the Methodist Covenant Prayer. This was adopted and adapted by John Wesley, and which has been used in covenant services for over two hundred and fifty years. These covenant services are traditionally held around at new year, for the same reason that we use this time to make resolutions and break or develop habits, but it seems right to me that we also connect this prayer with epiphany, because covenant is how we are called to respond to revelation.

Covenant is a significant theme in the Bible. There are different ways of counting them, but a number of covenants, that is contracts or agreements, are made between God and his people. In the Noahic covenant, God promises never to flood the earth again. In the Abrahamic covenant, God promises land and descendants and requires circumcision a sign of the contract. In the Mosaic covenant, God promises blessing and gives the Ten Commandments as the terms of the agreement. And in the Davidic covenant, God established David and his descendants as kings of Israel. Then in the New Testament, we get the New Covenant, made through the blood of Christ. The terms are not laid out so clearly all in one place, but Jesus calls for us to believe and to follow, and he promises that he will be present and that we will have abundant life and that our joy will be made complete and that we will be accepted by God.

As a slight aside, it is really interesting to note how the Abrahamic covenant was made. Abraham was instructed to make an animal sacrifice, then cut the animals in half and lay the pieces out with a path between them. The custom was that those making the covenant would walk the path between the animals, the implication being that they would suffer a similar fate if the terms of the contract were broken. Before that could happen however, Abraham fell into a deep sleep and so God alone walked the path. God was always willing to take on the consequences of our failures, as we see again in the writing of the new covenant at the cross.

Covenant has been a really significant idea for me too. Before my first theology degree took over most of my thinking and writing time, I started a blog called the Covenant Project, in which I read and commented on a few chapters of the Bible at a time. The reason I chose that name was because the thing I most wanted to know from my reading of the Bible was the nature of the covenant between me and God, so that I could better understand him and what it means to live in relationship with him. And then I finally heard a call to ordained ministry when I was talking to one of the regional ministers back in Yorkshire, and she spoke about ordination as a way of covenanting with God and the church. I knew that if God was calling me to covenant like that, I needed to say yes, and as soon as I thought the word ‘yes’, I felt this incredible wave of emotion which told me that God was indeed calling me that way. That’s why I asked for the covenant pattern of induction when I arrived at SBC. My ministry is how I live out my relationship with and commitment to God and to this community.

So this is how I have said to God “I am no longer my own but yours”, but it will look different for all of us. I can’t tell you what it may mean for you to pray this prayer. I can’t even tell you to pray it. It is an invitation, into a relationship and a way of life and an adventure. It is up to you if and when you accept the invitation, and it is between you and God to work out where the acceptance will take you. These are not easy words to pray, no matter many times you may have prayed them before, but they are words which contain great promise, of presence and abundance and joy and acceptance. I encourage you to take some time to reflect on the words of this prayer this week, and perhaps even add your own ‘amen’ to them.

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