Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12
By now I’m sure all the decorations are put away, the thank-you notes have been written and the diets begun. For many, the past week has meant returning to work, returning to school, returning to the usual routine. Christmas is over, and there are only 351 days until it comes round again. For some people, exciting things have happened this Christmas: an engagement, a wedding, or the birth of a baby; for others Christmas has been disastrous: an illness, a job loss, or the death of a loved one. For some people, Christmas has been just about shopping and parties. However your Christmas was spent, it’s not uncommon afterwards to feel a bit low.
Walking around Tesco the other day, I was struck by the change of mood amongst people – instead of the atmosphere of excitement and good will that I found before Christmas, people seemed grumpier and less friendly afterwards. I wondered, when all is said and done, ‘what difference does Christmas make’. From the evidence I gathered at Tesco, if Christmas changes people at all, the effect seems to be only temporary. And maybe that’s not too surprising. After all, bad news doesn’t stop at Christmas. Violence continues, in Nigeria, in Syria, in Iraq and even in this country. Worldwide, the economy is still floundering. Darkness seems to cover many places and people. Even those of us with faith are at times beset by darkness. When we go through times of darkness what we need to do is persevere in seeking the light of Christ. We must find our own epiphanies, and we must seek in unexpected places: among the poor and lowly, in the stranger; among the outcast, and in the suffering. And we must expect and even desire to be changed.
After Jesus was born, Magi from the east ‘saw his star’ and followed it to Bethlehem. Without any light pollution, the night sky must have been amazing, but the Magi had discovered an especially bright star, and they were convinced this was the sign that the king of the Jews had been born. They were so sure of it they travelled afar from their Eastern homeland, bringing gifts fit for a king. They found what they were searching for when the star stopped over the place where Jesus was, and they bowed down to worship him.
There’s a thread running through our readings today, and it is this: that God has intended his light to draw people together from far and wide, as his glory and his grace and his accessibility to all the nations is revealed through his Son. The prophet Isaiah says ‘Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’. In Ephesians, Paul preaches to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, ‘to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery’, that through Christ all people may approach God with freedom and confidence. And in Matthew, the Magi represent the foreign nations – Matthew is telling us that Jesus is for the whole world – the reign of Christ is without limit. Jew and Gentile, wealthy and poor, oppressed and oppressor: Jesus, the Light of the World, came for all people. That’s why we’re here worshipping together – and that’s why, in turn, we must welcome all.
When the Magi finished worshipping Jesus, and after being warned in a dream to stay clear of Herod, they returned to their country by another route. I wonder what difference the epiphany made to the Magi. I mean, when they returned home, do you think they went back to their ‘same old routine’? No doubt they still had day-to-day responsibilities as we all do, but they must have been changed by their encounter with Jesus. I wonder how they were changed by their epiphany; Matthew doesn’t tell us. But then I wonder does Epiphany change us? Just as it’s tempting to think ‘another Christmas is over and nothing has changed’, can it be true that as another epiphany comes and goes, it has changed nothing? Surely life is nothing unless it involves change. We may not like it, we may be afraid of it; but perhaps like the Magi, we, too, need to return ‘by another route’. Consider these words from Gregory the Great, of the late 6th century, who said, “having come to know Jesus we are forbidden to return by the way we came”. And from the early 20th century the Scottish protestant minister Oswald Chambers, who said, ‘Beware of spending too much time looking back at what you once were, when God wants you to become something you have never been’.
For Christmas to have any meaning at all, we need to experience our own Epiphanies – we must respond to the light we see in Christ. Signs of assurance come when we step out in faith. When the Magi found the Christ child they were assured it had been the right thing to do. When Lesley and Sue and I started the Lunch Club, we knew it was the right thing to do. We were anxious about it, but we stepped out in faith. And each time we meet with those who come to the lunch club, people usually shunned by society because of their mental health issues, the truth in God’s word is confirmed for us that by welcoming the stranger we’re welcoming Jesus among us –the fulfilment this brings is hard to put into words, but we are certain that it’s right and it’s worthwhile and it’s Kingdom stuff. Following the light of Christ leads us into God’s mission in the world.
So if, like me, you found yourself a bit deflated after all the hype of Christmas, wondering what difference Christmas makes, the solution can only be to remember to focus on the light of Christ, and expect to find it in unexpected places, even in the darkness of this world. When we keep our eyes focussed on Jesus and his light, with thankfulness for all that we’ve been given, then everything is changed: the ordinary and the routine; our pain and our joy – all of life is changed by our faith in Christ, who is the light of our hope in the midst of darkness. Setting off from a faraway place, the Magi didn’t know what to expect, but no doubt their encounter with Jesus changed them. And when we encounter Jesus, we are changed – to walk a different and sometimes uncomfortable path – and really, we have to accept this: we cannot go back the way that we came – we must find another route.