A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Prophet, Priest & King: Jesus in the Manger
Sunday 2nd January 2022
During this service a child, Isobel, was brought to baptism.
The Magi came to the manger.
They came with the gift of gold, revealing Jesus as King. They laid it before the manger, bowed down and worshipped.
They came with the gift of frankincense, revealing Jesus as Priest. They laid it before the manger, bowed down and worshipped.
They came with the gift of myrrh, revealing Jesus as Prophet. They laid it before the manger, bowed down and worshipped.
Epiphany is all about Jesus. Jesus revealed.
The meaning of Christmas can easily end up with us simply feeling nice about God’s presence with us. Good Friday can easily end up with us wallowing in our sin. Easter Sunday can easily end up with us thinking that everything will turn out in the end. Pentecost can easily end up with us thinking all about our mission, and perhaps more about how we fail to do what Jesus asks us to do. In short, we can think that the Christian story is primarily a story about us, and not about Jesus.
But in the midst of all this turning away from God towards ourselves, Epiphany stays squarely focused on Jesus.
The word Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ in this case the manifestation or revelation of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. It pushes us beyond the fuzziness of Christmas – after all who doesn’t love a new-born baby – to consider who this baby will become. What will he do? What kind of God will be made manifest? If the new-born is something of a blank canvas lying in the manger at Epiphany the Word made flesh starts to become readable. His glory begins to be unpacked.
Epiphany is not about what we should do, or who we are, or how we’ve failed. It asks us to think about a simple question: ‘Who is Jesus?’ What about him is being revealed to us in this ‘Epiphany?’
Every story about Jesus, every word spoken by him, gives some kind of answer to these questions. But certain stories have become particularly associated with this manifestation of God’s glory in Christ, and the first is the visit of these Magi who reveal Christ as prophet, priest and King by their gifts.
Talking of Jesus as a prophet, a priest and a king are less common these days than they once were. Much was made of them in the early church and the Reformation, and they are worth revisiting as they are a great hinge between the story of Israel in the Old Testament and the way the biblical writers understand who Jesus is. It is this Jesus that Isobel is being brought to follow today.
First, Christ the King.
The Magi bring gold. They’ve been told it’s a royal birth. But nothing else about this King is royal as they might expect it. He’s got no physical Kingdom, and claims no particular set of people as his subjects.
When, just before his crucifixion, Jesus is questioned by Pilate and asked if he is the ‘King of the Jews.’ Jesus refuses the terms of the question and simply says ‘You say so’. The answer was of course yes he was, but not in the terms that Pilate understood the world ‘King’. He thought of a King as a political threat in a world of violence.
But in John’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘my Kingdom is not of this world.’ He comes to be King of a different kind of Kingdom, made from human hearts and not bricks and stone. Where Israel expected a second David who would rule Israel, God sends a second Adam to begin a new kind of humanity. A King for Jews and Gentiles alike. A king who turns the tables on their heads, by giving the seats of honour to the forgotten and broken of society. A king who walks amidst his people and washes their feet. A king whose only crown is one made of thorns.
But this king was not made welcome.
When Herod heard of his birth his thoughts turned to murder. All he sees in Jesus is a threat. He cannot understand that Jesus’ Kingship is not competing for the same space. Herod was not called to give up his crown and give it to Jesus, but instead put his crown at the service of the greater King and greater Kingdom.
Herod’s response is not unusual. It is typical. It’s easy today to pride ourselves in being answerable to no-one – the vaccine-deniers shout this loudly as they claim their freedom to do what they want and everyone else be damned. Great pride is set in serving no other agenda but our own. But this King invites us to follow him with our hearts and minds, sharing a Kingdom in which the outcast are welcomed, where the lost, the least and the last are given pride of place, and where hope is in God’s way of living is modelled in the way Jesus reigns, through love. Christ the King.
Christ the Priest. Incense is brought for the priest to use in worship, picking up the imagery of the Old Testament where priests daily offered incense as a symbol of the prayers of the people. Priests of Israel were to act as mediators before God and the people. They were the ones who offered the sacrifices, who interpreted the law, who prayed in the Temple precincts day and night.
And so Jesus too comes as a mediator between God and the people. But in a radically new way. Priests before Jesus offered sacrificed animals on behalf of themselves and others. Jesus doesn’t do that. He offers himself. Priests before Jesus offered sacrifices which were repeated again and again. Jesus doesn’t do that. He dies once for all. Priests before Jesus offered their sacrifices in the earthly Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus doesn’t do that. He becomes the temple in whom the sacrifice is offered, so that worship can be offered everywhere. And then he creates a people of his own, which he calls his body – the church – which becomes a universal community where lives of sacrifice are offered, God’s people living lives for the sake of the world, just as Jesus had done.
At his ascension, Jesus becomes the one true mediator who stands at God’s right hand pleading for us. We need no priests now, like they did before Jesus. We can know God here, in our hearts, with Jesus as the mediating priest. He is revealed as the Priest par excellence.
And Christ the Prophet – to whom myrrh is given. Many of you will know myrrh was associated with death. It was used to anoint dead bodies to preserve them and keep them from smelling. So this poisoned chalice represents Jesus’s death, but also his role as prophet. For in the Old Testament the prophets were the ones who were killed time and time again at the hands of the people.
Jesus takes on the prophetic mantle found in the Old Testament. He speaks God’s truth to us, whether it is fits in with our way of seeing the world or not, whether comforting or discomfiting. He champions the cause of the poor and the outcast; he speaks truth to power and is especially vitriolic to those in the religious elite who use their status to control and exercise power. And unsurprisingly, discomfort moves to offence taken, like prophets before him he is killed. As we give thanks for the life of Desmond Tutu, this prophetic role is the one we see exhibited in his life, who models his life on Jesus, the prophet.
But the Word of this prophet cannot be stopped by murder. For this is not just one speaking the words of God, but one who is the Word of God itself. Death cannot silence this Word.
The Magi come from the East brining gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh, revealing to us the Christ who is prophet, priest and King.
A King – not one for a particular people or place, but the king of all, the one who rules through love given into our hearts.
A priest – not one who holds God and people at a managed distance, but the Great High Priest, the mediator who brings us and God together forever, brings us through faith into the very presence of God forever.
And a prophet – not one who speaks the words of God, but is the very Word of God made flesh.
I hope you get a little bit of insight into what the story of the visit of the Magi means to tell us about who Jesus is, for you, for me and for Isobel, and just who she and all of us meet through baptism. But there is another element to this, that goes way beyond understanding. For Epiphany leads us, perhaps more obviously than any other feast in the Church’s calendar, to worship and awe. With the magi we are invited to bow down before our prophet, priest and king, to bow down at the foot of the manger and worship Jesus Christ made manifest who has been revealed.
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