As I read this morning’s Gospel in preparation for what I wanted to say this morning on first reading I had, as it were, the ‘soft focus reading’ - the extension of the Christmas story which the church inconveniently locates in early January - 3 Kings called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazaar kneeling at a manger, glorious light streaming from it as they present their precious gifts. There’s a wonder and magic about this story of wandering magi led to Jesus from the distant East by a star. It tells of the far-reaching – indeed, global and cosmic – implications of Jesus’ birth. Even more, it witnesses to God’s commitment to reach all people with news of God’s redeeming love. And if that’s the sermon I should be preaching, perhaps I should sit down.
Then when I the Epiphany Gospel again, I noticed other things at another level - secrets. God reveals the secret of His plan of saving love to wise strangers from another land - hinting at Jesus’ call to Jew and Gentile alike that all are called Daughters and Sons of God; Herod secretly summoning the Wise Ones to quiz them for the details of how they heard of this birth; Herod sends the Wise Ones on their way with a new urgency to find the Messiah Child and to send word directly to him of the outcomes of their search; and then the Wise ones warned secretly in a dream from the God of Israel to avoid Herod on their return journey.
But then I read it again and noticed something further. When I read it a third time I noticed fear directly and indirectly, spoken and unspoken in the hearts of some of the characters in the unfolding story: when Herod heard the Wise One’s news he was frightened as was the whole city. Why? Fear of a loss of authority and power? A fear of unsettling the status quo? Fear of change? Fear of what the Romans might do if their puppet King Herod is unseated by another, rightful claim to the throne… There is also an urgent fear driving Herod’s calling together of all of the Chief Priest and Scribes - he wanted to make sure he got all the facts straight so he could act.
Secrets and Fear sounds more like a film title than part of a story that in one sense concludes part of the Christmas celebrations. And yet secrets and fear are all too often the unseen hallmark of our lives.
As parents, we tell our boys that we don’t keep secrets - it’s about encouraging an atmosphere of openness and dialogue, yet as parents and adults we all keep things locked tightly away like the contents of the Wise Ones’ treasure-chests on their journeys. We conceal all sorts of emotions and experiences - hurt, anger, grief, lies, but also the truth about ourselves for fear of ridicule or social unacceptability.
Either out of our own experience or the experience of others we also now how harmful the keeping of secrets can be to our own well-being. The word Epiphany as I have mentioned before means revealing. It’s not necessarily a lightbulb moment, but can be a silent dawning, a gradual opening of the Truth. The Epiphany sung aloud by angels on the hillside to social lepers - shepherds - is again revealed to religious lepers - astrologers, Magi, wise men - in the night sky. The secret is out - the world as we know it; God as we know Him; humanity as we experience and live it is transformed by the arrival of this baby Messiah.
Fear, for many, is a hallmark of these early days of 2015. With Ebola now on these shores; if you believe the political commentators who say that the austerity of 2014 will be worse in 2015; with no sign of let up in Syria and Iraq; and planes dropping out of the sky and boats catchingg fire and sinking - life for many is not a place of Christmas joy but of fear. Fear can destabilise and cripple us as much as any illness - and living in its long shadow can literally, over time, dehumanise us.
The Epiphany revealed to both Joseph and Mary long ago of the birth of God’s King in their care strikes fear into the heart of Herod, the Roman puppet king and his city and yet produces a very real and contrasting and transforming joy in the hearts the Wise Ones when they encounter Him for themselves.
Having celebrated Christmas for the children with a soft focus crib scene on December 25th, The adult version of the nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of adoration and gifts of gold for a king, incense for a priest leading us into God’s presence and myrrh for the healing of all hurts, to a darker world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence. But if this Christmas story is darker and more adult, it is also realistic. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and school shootings, a world where innocents die every day in tragic circumstances and to preventable illness and hunger. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the Wise Ones – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents in the verses to come – Matthew paints an accurate if also difficult picture of our world.
And that is what is at the heart of this darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, us, so often mastered by secrets and fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies through Jesus the king, Jesus the way into God’s presence and Jesus the healer of our hurts. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.
Come and pay him homage - pledge allegiance to this Infant King as his man or woman and open up the treasure chest of your heart and offer what you have there - whatever secrets and fears for the present and the future you have locked away - and let Him reveal to each of us the transforming treasures of God.
I am indebted to the scholarship of David Lose for some ideas in this sermon