A Sermon for Epiphany: 3rd January 2016
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Today we are keeping the Feast of the Epiphany, the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi. Traditionally that Feast is observed on January 6th. Today, 3rd January, lies halfway between New Year’s Day and Epiphany. In the Christian calendar, January 1st is not New Year’s Day, however, but a day for commemorating other things. For Roman Catholics, 1st January is the Feast of Mary the Mother of God. For modern Anglicans, New Year’s Day is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, where Jesus is given the name which the Angel announces he should be known by: Jesus, the name means “the one who saves”.
But for older Roman Catholics and Anglicans alike, New Year’s Day had another title and that was the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus. On the eighth day, Scripture tells us, that in order to fulfil the law, the infant Christ was both circumcised and given his name.
For whatever reason, the focus on Jesus’ circumcision has been superseded by a focus on the name of Jesus. But this morning, apart from that short bit of liturgical history, I’d like us to think theologically both about the circumcision of Jesus and the Feast of the Epiphany. Taken together, they represent something more complete than just focusing, as we often do, on the visit of the Magi.
To make the connection you need to use a very important, but often overlooked, biblical word: the word covenant. I’ll unpack it a little bit by talking about New Year’s Resolutions. You may or may not be a fan of these promises. Three days in, your efforts may already be waning! Apparently, if you can stick to something for about three weeks you can usually turn it into a habit (anyone who believes that should hear my experience of joining a gym before taking that too seriously!). But, every once in a while, we do manage to keep one of those promises to ourselves and something significant changes.
Now, because it is in the nature of God to be generous and gracious, God’s promises are not made to himself, but to others, to creation, to humanity, to us. And among the many characteristics of God is God’s faithfulness. God is a God who keeps his promises. His resolutions are not three day wonders. His promises are for ever. And the word the bible uses for these really big promises is the word covenant. A covenant is a solemn, binding promise. And the major covenant God makes with humanity is the one God makes first with Abraham: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Abraham is promised by God an exclusive commitment by God to create and sustain a people, the children of Abraham. Through this promise God will create a people to which he will commit…for ever. Abraham trusts in God’s promise – this is what faith means – and so through Abraham , God’s people comes into being. There is a line from the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah all the way to the birth of Jesus. That is what those long genealogies in Matthew and Luke are all about.
Now, God asks Abraham’s descendants to bear a sign of this covenant, this commitment of God to his people. And the sign is circumcision. So when Mary and Joseph take the eight day old Jesus to be circumcised they are, as Jews had done from the days of Abraham and as they still do today, marking their son with the sign of God’s covenant promise, God’s everlasting commitment to be faithful to his people. Jesus’ circumcision marks him out as a son of Abraham, as a member of God’s chosen people, and as an inheritor of the promise of God. His life is to be lived out marked by the sign of God’s commitment to him and to the people of Israel. And because God’s covenant with Abraham precedes anything Abraham can do for God, because it is God’s sovereign choice in other words, God’s covenant with Abraham, Israel and with Jesus is a covenant of God’s grace, God’s favour which emerges from the love of God for his people. There is nothing that can separate God’s people from his love.
But the sensitive among you will notice the exclusivity of the covenant promise and the covenant sign: why is God’s promise made only to one people? And why is that covenant sign only given to men?
Abraham learns a little later that his covenant is not as exclusive as it first appeared. In fact, as God says to Abraham a little later about his son Isaac, “Thorough him all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” And, in another place, God says to Abraham, “All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” God’s promise to Abraham was never meant to be exclusive. God’s promise to a particular people was that through them all people might know of his love. Time and time again, sadly, this was forgotten. Exclusive tendencies – and which of us don’t like to feel special – exclusive tendencies have the habit of taking over. One people over another; one gender over the other. It’s easy to forget the responsibility that comes from being chosen. That is what Israel did; even today that risk is present in all religion.
But God’s promise does not waver, even if in the end God’s purpose was to be achieved through one specific person who was able to be faithful. Jesus is the one through whom the nations of the earth would be blessed. Jesus is the one through who God’s promise would be communicated to the world.
And so enter, guided by a star, three wise men. From the east they came – wise astrologers, yes; generous gift-bearers, that much we know too. But, above all things, what is significant about them is that they are not children of Abraham. They are not circumcised. They are Gentiles not Jews. After the Jewish shepherds, these are the first people to encounter Jesus. And, as they kneel before him, just as Matthew records his disciples doing at the end of his Gospel, they worship Jesus. The significance of the Feast of the Epiphany is that it is an extension of the Feast of the Circumcision, for God’s faithful promise made first to the Jews now is made manifest to the Gentiles. God’s faithfulness to one nation is extended to all nations, in the generous, all-inclusive love that is at the heart of the Godhead.
Lots of biblical theology in this sermon today. Sometimes that’s important to absorb, even if it might be worth thinking about it in a more leisurely way when the sermon goes online this week. But it’s important because it tells us some really important things about God and about who we are with God.
It tells us that God has been, is, and always will be faithful. It tells us that the promise he made to us is as real and as everlasting as the promise he made to Abraham all those generations ago, to Jesus at his circumcision, and to the Magi at the manger. The realities of life can cause us to doubt God’s faithfulness or possibly our worthiness to receive his promise. But this is God’s promise, and it doesn’t depend upon our ability to live it out or live up to it. We are not called and made heirs of the promise because of something good in us – we’re called and made heirs of the promise because that is the nature of God. Even if we find it hard to believe, or more accurately, to trust God for it, these two festivals remind us that God is faithful to us, that God’s capacity to commit to us is far greater than we could ever imagine. His faithfulness far exceeds our imaginings.
And, standing as we do between two Feasts – that of the Circumcision and the Epiphany – and in this season of Christmas – we are invited again to place our trust in God through Jesus. You and I, we are children of this Second Covenant. The First, God makes with Abraham and through him to Israel. The Second Covenant, the New Testament, is made with us, and invites us to find the presence of our faithful God in Jesus Christ. When we have faith in Jesus, when we trust him with our lives, and for our future, then we understand what God’s commitment to us means. We find guidance in trouble, comfort in sorrow, love in despair, the presence of all that God is, the outworking of God’s faithfulness, given to us as a gift in love. And we begin to find it possible to offer our lives back in similar faithfulness to God.
At the beginning of every year it is the custom of the Methodist Church to reflect on this covenant promise of God and to respond to it in new commitment. We are not a church for altar calls, although the call to conversion from Jesus is made to us no less clearly as it is to other Christians. So, in the silence that follows I invite you to ponder God’s faithful love at the beginning of 2016, to ponder his unequivocal commitment to you and I made through Jesus, and as a response I will pray the Methodist Covenant Prayer as a response. Let us be quiet together.
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing,
put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you,
or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.