Sermon - The Day of Epiphany Year A, B or C
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Many nations, one light
[Note: This is another version of the sermon published previously for the first Sunday after Epiphany in Year C entitled The mystery of being included. This version takes the Old Testament lesson for Epiphany as its starting point rather than beginning with a commentary on cultural diversity in modern society which becomes in this version a point of application when the universality themes of the Old Covenant are combined with New Testament themes from the inclusion of the gentiles in the Epistle and Gospel story of the visit of the wise men. Needless to say the presentation of Christ as the light of all nations, which is the central idea of Epiphany, needs to be done with sensitivity as well as honesty, in a manner which emphasises inclusion of different peoples, rather than exclusive claims derived sometimes awkwardly from the truth about the unique revelation of God in Christ.]
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. .... Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. ....(Isaiah 60:1,3).
The Day of Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on the Sixth of January, happens this year to fall on a Sunday, and we take the opportunity to give thanks to God for its theme which is the showing of Christ to the whole world. Peoples of all nations, classes, races and different cultures are invited to come and see the glory of God that was in the man Jesus, the light of the world, born a Jew in a stable at Bethlehem and first displayed to the representatives of foreign nations at the visit of the wise men who travelled "from a far country". The wise men are traditionally characterised as kings - "We three kings of Orient are", we sometimes sing.
Inclusion in the one fellowship of all peoples, the overcoming all barriers that separate different members of the human family from one another, is seen by many people today as more than a moral imperative; it may be a necessary condition for human survival in the face of increasing interaction between peoples who are very different in many ways. Yet in a multicultural society and an international world sensitive to any claim of special favour or precedence, it can be offensive to present the witness of the apostolic church that Christ is the one Lord of all, the one perfect revelation of God, offering the one true way of reconciliation between peoples and the one way into the Kingdom of God. Indeed many Christian are inclined to say in the present circumstances that Jesus is for us the way, but others might have different ways to God which are perhaps as valid for them as the way of Jesus is for us. That typically liberal attitude is understandable and represents a worthy feeling of acceptance into one family of all sorts of people in God's one world, but near as it is to the teaching of Jesus, it is not the gospel. Such worthy tolerance is not true to the biblical witness, nor is it true to the experience of faithful followers of Christ or to the teaching of the church when it has had the courage to be true to itself and its Lord, the one Lord Jesus Christ. In many ways today we are being called to maintain love of others who are different without comprising the truth. It poses a genuine difficulty, but not one that is insurmountable to believers in the Light of the World.
It helps in trying to understand how we are to present the universally inclusive claims of Christ to different people, if we see first how the ancient people of God, the "Children of Israel", understood the revelation they had received as a blessing for all nations. Often, they forgot this trust of having received the revelation of God for the good of other nations as well as themselves and tended to exclude others, but that was not what God had called them to do. Some Bible study will repay the effort, so that our understanding is shaped by God's Word and not by the popular demands of a Western culture which are so powerfully present in the mass media and in peer pressure and is often now more openly and deliberately anti-Christian. In general it raises questions close to the foreground of consciousness in Australian and many Western societies in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Wider expectations were contained within the Old Covenant
The relationship that people had developed with God under the law which the nation of Israel received was often felt to be exclusive, but there were times when the prophets and other leaders saw that God's family was greater than their tribe or nation. They were not so very different from us, or from others in the modern world in that respect. The wide vision came to the prophets most strongly in the special circumstance of the liberation of the Israelites from captivity in Babylon and their return to Jerusalem to build a new society. It comes to us still with a word of hope in the Old Testament lesson for the Day of Epiphany:
Of course, gold and frankincense remind us of the gifts of the wise men. The early Christians would have known this passage and would have seen the point in reference to the light that had come into the world in Jesus being a light to all nations. The vision of including different peoples within God's family was part of a vision seen throughout this part of the book of Isaiah. For example:
Where have we heard those words before: for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples? It was when Jesus drove the money changers and sellers of goods out of the temple [Mark 11:17; cf. John 2:13-17]. And his concern there was one of inclusiveness and well as holiness, for people were being excluded by having to pay in special money -- more of that too another time. Jesus shared the vision of the prophets:
Jesus might also have referred to Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the first temple, a prayer that would have formed part of the Israelite recollections at the time of those words of Isaiah:-
It was part of their original understanding of the covenant of Israel with God that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through the children of Abraham, as seen in God's promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through his descesndants [Genesis 18:18], as it was also in the promise of Jacob's dream [Genesis 28:14].
And it was there too in an older part of the prophetic tradition of Isaiah which is closely linked with the coming of the Messiah:
And in Jeremiah before the captivity:
As Zechariah had it:
It was Jesus who said "Salvation comes from the Jews". Coming to God is the way to come together. It is not achieved by everyone being tolerated to do their own thing, although we must sometimes tolerate what we believe is wrong while we pray for God's way to be revealed to all. Let me emphasise here a few words from Jeremiah, making perhaps the most important point of qualification which separates the Biblical understand of inclusiveness from present secular ideologies: Can mortals make for themselves gods? Such are no gods! Hear ye! Hear ye! Children of the twenty-first century: Can mortals make for themselves gods? Such are no gods! Inclusion becomes truly effective only when you know the one true God.
Jesus taught that the gate into the kingdom is narrow, but ... there will be surprises:
Much as in the Old Testament, Jesus had the image of people coming from all nations:
But it is worth keeping that quote in context, seeing what comes before it!
That passage began with a warning about the narrow way:
There are many parables which make the same point: the bridesmaids who were not ready; the hypocrites, those who failed to serve people in need, the thief who attempts to enter the sheepfold by some other way than the gate. Inclusiveness as Jesus taught about it, in the coming of different peoples into the Kingdom of God, is not easy or careless or permissive. At the same time people will be surprised at those who are included. Jesus said to those who thought that they were in, that they would find you yourselves thrown out!
How many ways are there to God? That is becoming a big question at the beginning of the new century, with conflicting claims as diverse peoples interact more with each other and social change accelerates. Can people find their own way? Will unity come only from conforming to a particular vision of what God requires? Will people be happy following what seems good to them as individuals? How much should we allow for cultural differences? Is any talk of the narrow way, of Christ as the only door into the sheepfold, simply conservative reaction against change? These are important questions, worthy of careful consideration, but the theme of Epiphany is more positive than any simple conflict between modern liberals and a conservative reaction, or between modern pagans and orthodox Christians. I see a danger that Christians might lose sight of the inclusiveness of the message of Epiphany as reaction against permissiveness in morality and cultural relativity gains strength. The message of Epiphany, the showing of Christ to all the different peoples of the world, is not a threat of destruction to non-conformists, but good reason for rejoicing at the prospect of unity with him in the whole family of God.
In the near future it is likely that people in the West in general, not only Christians, will find it necessary to learn again some of the basic requirements of living in community which have been set aside in the period of excessive personal freedoms when rights have been emphasised more than responsibilities. Until recently it has been fashionable to reject the narrow view, but that is changing and we could be in danger of going to the opposite extreme. There is no way back to the old ways. When an equilibrium is restored in human affairs we always come to a resolution that is a new order of things, not a restoration of an old order. That needs to be remembered both by those of seek to recover the old ways and by those who fear such a reactionary solution to conflict. The big questions of truth and love will continue to be put to us and the claims of Christ as the unique revelation of God will remain there to be answered by each generation in their own way, faithfully, without creating their own gods.
The mystery revealed
To keep the positive call of the one who sets people free, wherever they come from, we need to share what was the wonder of it all to the apostles who first experienced it in Christ. Paul was overawed and excited by his unexpected discovery, which he longed for others to share with him:
As the gospel spread out from Jerusalem to all corners of the world, the apostles found that God really was including in their fellowship people of other nations. To them is was a great mystery, and cause for wonder and praise of God. That move out of family, tribe and national identity was one of the great shifts of sentiment in human history. It is a movement still, and far from complete. We have seen that it was promised without being fully understood under the old covenant of the people of Israel, but somehow, now that it was actually happening, it was a great surprise and mystery, indeed it was an epiphany, seeing with extra clarity what had been hidden, so they were able to praise God:
Here in the universality of the gift of God in Christ was the great wisdom of God, now revealed - revealed to his holy apostles and prophets. ... The Gentiles have become fellow heirs.
Remember that recognition of the Gentiles as children of God was not originally a moral teaching about being kind to foreigners, accepting people who are different, or even of serving the outcasts and the poor. It was good news, cause for rejoicing that many to whom Paul's letters were addressed were now included after having been excluded. There was also puzzlement at the attitudes of some of the Jewish people, who were after all those among whom the gospel was first proclaimed; even in foreign Greek and Roman cities it was Paul's practice to go first to the synagogue, to teach there. It was difficult then for early Christians to understand why there was so much opposition from that quarter. Paul saw it as a consequence of God's strategy:-
It was to take time, but it would come:
Love is greater than knowledge
As we come then to our response, what difference does it make to know this, the hidden purpose of God to bring all people into unity in Christ, and to see his strategy working out? Imagine that you know of a large benefit that someone you know has inherited in a will, but that person does not know of the riches that are due to them. Do you not have an obligation to tell them? As stewards of the mysteries of God, Christians who are called to witness to Jesus Christ have knowledge of a great treasure, and people ought to know of the share that is rightfully theirs if only they will accept it -- why not invite them to accept the good news of that benefit that is now an open secret?
In our global village we have highly developed means of communication worldwide. The mass media can give almost instantaneous exposure to events in the most distant places; a small group with a common interest but whose members are scattered around the globe can have a cozy chat on the Internet; while on a larger scale in immigrant societies like ours in Australia, Canada and the United States, people from all sorts of varied backgrounds, of different races and nations, are drawn together and live in relative harmony - more so it sometimes seems than in the older mixed societies of Europe and Asia for example, although there too there is an increasing appreciation of the blessings of universal inclusiveness. Our so-called multicultural, or ethnically and culturally diverse, societies are also very prosperous and benefit culturally as well as economically from sharing what we bring from our different origins, and this economic and cultural richness tends to spread internationally through trade, travel, news and entertainment.
Yet our modern world also has the most sophisticated weapons, large military forces, many points of tension and terrible examples of mass killings. There are still enough nuclear weapons in existence to destroy the world many times over. The rich are certainly getting richer, while in many places, though not everywhere, the poor are being left further behind. Environmental pollution, exhaustion of limited resources of energy and materials, and perhaps the limited capacity of human beings to manage complex systems, as well as increasing contrasts and the clash of economic interests and cultural values, pose grave dangers to our future health, prosperity and peace in the long term. The rate of change which has accompanied globalization may be more than many people can cope with, especially those who have not reaped its benefits. Defensive, sometimes exclusive, reactions can be quite intense. There is no certainty that, being thrown together, people will continue to live in peace and prosperity.
Various ideologies and political systems offer conflicting ways of coping with the threat of conflict between people who understand themselves to be different from one another. As we move into a new century we can expect it to be a time of testing. What kind of social system, and what set of believes, will offer the best hope of harmony? We have already seen in the twentieth century a struggle between several conflicting ways of calling people into unity. No doubt there will be others in the coming century which will be found just as wanting and destructive as nationalism, communism and fascism have proved to be. How long the current triumph of economic and social liberalism will last remains to be seen. Christians, who need not be wedded to any social or political system, cannot help but be engaged in the process of testing pervasive ideas even if we do not expect any earthly vision alone to offer universal salvation. We cannot avoid the call to unity by some means or another. From a Christian perspective the call to unity in diversity is more than an implication of the gospel. It is not quite the gospel itself, but it is close to the very heart of the matter.
The gospel is the good news of the coming of Christ and what God did for us through him. The meaning and purpose of the manifestation (showing or revelation) of Christ to the Gentiles (that is literally "the nations") is what we celebrate at Epiphany. Much was to follow later in the relationship of Jesus to outsiders and between Jewish and foreign Christians, but it began early with the traditional story of the wise men [Matthew 2:1-12]. Their visit from a far country is an early sign of this purpose of God in the coming of the Christ.
It is more than a matter of mere tolerance
As I was saying, we have learned in recent decades in Australia, and in other similar countries, the positive value of contributions that peoples from many different backgrounds can make. Indeed, it is something for which we should be thankful to God, and which we can share with the rest of the world -- any society that can accept such differences and the creative interactions which occur when different peoples live together in peace will benefit greatly. Much the same applies to other differences, such as those between women and men, and life is better when the particular contributions of each are valued for their part in the whole and not devalued because they are different.
Similarly in the church, in recent years we have been blessed with the discovery of the ways that diverse gifts can be used. That is part of the renewal of the ministry of the laity -- more of that in the Epistle for next week. It is also one of the blessings of Christians of different traditions coming together. We can be thankful for this in the Uniting Church, as we are for the inclusion of ethnic congregations, worshipping especially in the large cities of Australia in more than 30 different languages, and the development of new relations with aboriginal people. Our present situation is, indeed, very different from the tribal, ethnic or class types of origins of the denominations in early Australian society: Irish, Scottish and upper and lower class English churches.
To come together effectively in this way, we have had to learn more than humanistic tolerance. It is more than "live and let live". The differences are valued and interaction between different people is accepted as a positive good. Not merely tolerated or engineered by human effort, it is a gift of God, part of his strategy of unification.
There are some dangers: cultural relativism and unjustified claims for toleration of bad behaviour
Secular ideologies with a few elements of the truth have been powerful influences in recent decades serving the special interests of certain groups without regard for the good of the whole society in the long run. Often these ideologies dressed up in terms of civil and economic rights are expressions of libertarianism in which the value of personal freedom is developed into a form of licence to do what feels right to the individual. It leads to serious problems in both personal morality and social justice, such as the breakdown of families and exploitation of the weak by the strong. Those problems will need further attention, but at this point we help to keep special claims in perspective if we see that the purpose of all this admirable toleration and integration of diversity that we have been praising is to fulfil God's plan and purpose in creation. That is, that the whole world is to be brought into the intimate unity of God's family in knowledge of him through Christ. Anything which does not contribute to that end is not part of the plan of God and contrary to his will. If it does not help us in our relationship with God it cannot be intended as part of our relationship with others, and if it serves only the special interests of particular groups it cannot serve the unity of the whole. Let us then concentrate on the inclusion of all nations, races, etc. in the Kingdom as part of God's plan, the great secret eventually laid open to the whole world in Jesus Christ.
In all of this though, it is not the knowledge of secrets, of the mysteries of God, that is most important. The true motivation for sharing is not knowledge but love:-
It was out of love that he came to fulfil God's promise and purpose, and that is the motivation for sending us out to the ends of the earth to show that love of God in Christ to all, knowing that the Word made flesh gives all people the power to become children of God.
Let us then offer endless praise to God for his boundless love in making his love known to us and to all the peoples of the world.
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