Sermon for The Feast of the Epiphany: preached at the Parish Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday 2 January 2022 by The Reverend Robert Green (Ephesians 3: 1 – 12; Matthew 2: 1 – 12)
Monica Furlong was described in her obituary as the Church of England’s “most influential and creative lay person of the post-war period”, and yet she came from a non-Christian background. Her father was a lapsed Roman Catholic, and her mother is described as a vitriolic atheist. One day Monica was sitting in the grounds of Lincoln’s Inn in London feeling sad and a bit frightened when she had an amazing conversion experience. She described a dazzling radiance which would have dazzled her, had it not been partially hidden under her black mood. She then had what she called an “excruciating bringing to birth” when she knew herself to be loved, forgiven, hugged, accepted and set free. She had her Epiphany.
Epiphany means ‘manifestation’ or ‘striking appearance’. 2000 years earlier Magi from the East experienced an epiphany when they saw God as a new born baby. Ancient Magi were astronomers who also practiced occult arts including astrology, magic (hence the name Magi), fortune telling and the interpretation of dreams. What appeared in the sky was very significant for them. We know that Halley’s Comet appeared in 12-11 BC, but that is probably a little early for our account, however the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction three times in 7 BC. Jupiter is known as the ‘Royal ‘planet and Saturn was sometimes thought to represent the Jews. The conclusion was obvious a new king of the Jews was about to be born. Herod died in 4 BC, which points to Jesus’s birth as being around 6 or 5 BC which makes it very close to the conjunction of the planets recorded in 7 BC.
We know that the Magi were not poor. Only the wealthy could undertake such a journey, and the gifts they bore were expensive. The Bible does not tell us how many there were, but because they brought three gifts the tradition has grown up that there were three because of the number of gifts. To have travelled such a great distance would have inevitably required a much larger travelling party. On their arrival they visited King Herod, who was the puppet king of the area, appointed by the Roman occupying power, and despised by the Jews. Herod was terrified by the news that a new prince had been born, which had been presaged by signs in the heavens. He consulted the chief priests and teachers of the Law, and they quoted Micah’s prophecy about a new ruler to be born at Bethlehem. Herod then sent the Magi to Bethlehem to make a careful search for the child, that he too might come and worship him.
Because of the Magi’s commitment in finding the new born king they were directed by God to the right place, and finding him, despite his humble surroundings, they were filled with joy, and worshipped him presenting their gifts of gold to represent kingship, frankincense to represent priesthood, and myrrh, the burial spice, foreshadowing death, and being warned in a dream, bearing in mind that they were open to the importance of dreams, they returned home another way. The Magi were prepared to travel for a long time and over a huge distance to follow their star. Their epiphany began in making that commitment. They were so eager that they were able to correctly interpret the signs God gave them.
Not all of us may have a sudden conversion experience, but we should expect smaller epiphanies on our spiritual journey. It begins with a strong desire for God, so that like the magi we are open to the signs that God may give us, and gain the wisdom and discernment to interpret them correctly. When I moved to Dorset it began with responding to an advertisement in the Church Times, so I needed to be sure that this was what God wanted me to do. On my first visit to the parishes (there were five) I asked God if he wanted me to come to the Winterborne Valley, and the answer was “it will be made quite clear to you”. That meant it could either be “Yes” or “No”. On a second visit, I asked if you want me to come, what do you want me to do? Again the answer came back “Bring the Valley to faith”. All this was before any interview. Following a Meeting with 10 Churchwardens there was a unanimous decision. It couldn’t be more clear than that!
Clearly the signs in the sky around Jesus’s birth would have been noticed by many, but not all saw their significance. In this coming year, despite all the turmoil and uncertainty, God will send us signs and messages. May we be open to receive and respond.