Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Epiphany of Our Lord 2019
We must live like Jesus in loving service of our fellow men and women, now in this blessed year, 2019
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 6th January 2019 at 11.15 AM
The world seems to think, at least in this country and as far as commerce is concerned, that Christmas begins some time in November, or even back in October, and ends once The Queen’s Christmas message has been broadcast at 3 o’clock on Christmas Day afternoon. Anyone choosing to tune in to a television station with advertising that day will know that attention has turned dramatically away from Christmas and towards the sales and foreign travel.
By contrast, the Church in this country is pretty clear that Christmas begins on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and comes to an end on Twelfth Night: that is yesterday evening. But the Church in the East is happy to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ on this day, which we in the West call the Feast of the Epiphany.
At Christmas, our attention is focussed on the birth narrative in the Gospel of St Luke and the prologue to the Gospel of St John. Today, at Epiphany, our attention is drawn instead to the birth narrative in the Gospel of St Matthew and the arrival of the Wise Men from the East.
Each of the four Gospels has its own particular character, depending on the group of emerging Christians for whom it was written, the time of its writing and the viewpoint of the writer. Much of this we can only deduce from the text of the Gospel in question.
It seems that St Mark wrote first. He had been a companion of St Peter in Rome, reporting the accounts the Apostle had given of his experience of Jesus. St Mark may well also have been for a time a fellow-traveller with St Paul, and was possibly the young man who slipped away naked at the arrest of Jesus following the Last Supper, avoiding his own arrest. If he was that man, possibly again he was in some way connected to the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place and where the apostles hid after the Crucifixion.
St Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles and was a companion of St Paul towards the end of his journeys. He was Greek and wrote essentially for the non-Jewish Christians whom St Paul and St Peter had begun to recruit as they moved beyond the Jewish world. He was a physician and addressed his two works to Theophilus, presumably a non-specific person, the Greek word meaning simply a lover of God.
St John’s Gospel is generally thought to have been written towards the end of the first century and unlikely to have been written by St John the apostle, the brother of the apostle James, though that is contested by, amongst others, the former bishop of Woolwich, the scholar John Robinson, who would date the Gospel much earlier and most likely written by the apostle himself.
St Matthew’s Gospel is widely thought to have been written in the name of the apostle around the year AD 85, though again John Robinson and others would date it much earlier. It was clearly written for Jewish Christians and relies heavily on material in St Mark’s Gospel and some other material shared with St Luke but has its own deliberate and thoughtful character, with five great sections of narrative and five sections reporting our Lord’s teaching.
A wonderful prologue to St Matthew’s Gospel dates the history from Abraham to our Lord in three great sections of fourteen generations: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the deportation to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the deportation to the Messiah. Seven is for the Jews a particularly holy number. The genealogy recounts three pairs of seven, six sevens. The birth of the Messiah brings everything into perfection, with the seventh seven.
The prologue, in its own way as grand and significant in its scope as the great prologue of St John’s Gospel, prepares us for the account of the birth of the Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God, and the visit of the Wise Men, who have their own all-important message.
It may seem paradoxical that St Luke writing for Hellenistic Christians has poor Israelite shepherds coming to worship the Christ child, whilst St Matthew, writing for Israelite or Jewish Christians, tells the account of the visit of the Magi from the East, Gentiles, to visit the Holy Family. Each evangelist in his own way speaks of the breadth and extent of the message given by almighty God in the birth into flesh of His Eternal Son. His birth, as his life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection, is as much for the poor and for the outcaste, as it is for the Jew and for the Gentile, and, come to that, for the powerful and mighty. All power, all authority, all earthly glory is overturned and overpowered by the birth of this tiny Child.
We see his ultimate significance marked most clearly in the gifts the Wise Men bring. Three precious gifts each has its own meaning. An 8th century text describes the Magi like this: ‘The first was called Melchior; he offered gold to the Lord as to his king. The second, Gaspar by name, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, a black man, was called Balthazar; the myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man.’
John Henry Hopkins Jr, rector of Christ Episcopal Church, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in 1857, expressed the three gifts in this familiar way:
Born a King on Bethlehem's plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.
Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high.
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
St Matthew begins his Gospel by assuring us that the account he will give is the story of the Son of God and Son of Man, who is King and God, and who is destined to suffer and to die, and to rise again, for our salvation.
Each evangelist has his own characteristic way of giving account of the teachings and activities of Jesus Christ. Each writes for his own community. But all give the same message: God’s love for his fallen world is so great that he sends his eternal Son to be born into human flesh and to live not simply as one of us, a human being, but to give his whole life in generous and loving service of humanity.
We who believe and trust in him, and who have been offered and received the ultimate gift of salvation, must live like him in loving service of our fellow men and women, now in this blessed year, 2019.