Matthew 2.1-12 & Ephesians 3.1-12
Epiphany 2016

In my Christmas sermon I spoke about how reality is a combination of fact and interpretation. And in today's two readings we see the two come together - the narrative of Matthew's gospel is matched by the interpretation in Paul's letter to the Ephesians. In a few short words, Paul explains what is going on in the coming of the Magi:

"The mystery of Christ… has now been revealed: …the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 3 v4-6)

In other words, in the coming of the Magi, the mystery of God is revealed to all humanity. During my Christmas break each year, I enjoy doing a jigsaw puzzle. It's difficult to explain why I enjoy them, but there is a certain wonder in watching the picture slowly unfold before your eyes from the mysterious patterns on the little pieces as you painstakingly fit them together.

And that is quite a good analogy of the history of humanity's quest for God. That quest to know God is described in the Bible as a revelation - God slowly revealing himself as people fumble about trying to find him. So in the Bible, people begin in mystery, not knowing God. Then, through the Old Testament God reveals himself through Abraham and his descendants, then in more detail through the Prophets. And then finally God reveals himself fully in Jesus. In Jesus, God reveals fully who he is. Of course to human minds, there is still a mystery - who can claim fully to have grasped everything Jesus taught and embodied? But, as Paul points out, it is now a revealed mystery. God is holding nothing back. It is just that our poor minds cannot fully grasp what he is revealing to us.

But today we celebrate the fact that God has fully revealed himself to us. In Jesus God speaks to us direct; in Jesus, God shows us his love in direct relationship with us; in Jesus, God, who made us in his image, shows himself in our image. Jesus is the mystery of God unfolded before our eyes.

And that revelation was first recognised by the Magi. They were the first to have that moment of Epiphany - the sudden moment of understanding; the revelation of the truth. They are the first to recognise Jesus as the true king of the Jews, the one foretold by all the prophets, the one who is God incarnate in human flesh, the one who will die a redeeming death for the whole of humanity. And they are Gentiles! This moment is a key turning point in God's story, as Paul interprets for us. No longer is God revealing himself through Abraham and his descendants, or through the Prophets, but he is revealing himself direct to all humanity through his own person in Jesus. And so all humanity gets to share in God's promises.

So God is for everyone. God's word is for everyone. God's promises are for everyone. [Over the last couple of months, we have focussed a lot on God's promises. There is even now a box at the back of church full of God's promises for anyone to read and take home with them.] And how are God's promises, God's word and, indeed, God himself, to be made known to the world? Through the church! That's what Paul says in interpreting this revelation:

"Grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, 9and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; 10so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." (Ephesians 3.8-10)

"Through the church"! Through the Church the news of the boundless riches of Christ is to be made known. Through the Church everyone will see the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God. Through the Church everyone will see God who created all things. Through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety will now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. It seems astonishing doesn't it? Because even we who go to church don't always understand what church is or what the point of it is. We might enjoy bits of it, but if it is nothing more than entertainment, there is frankly better stuff on offer. We might sometimes feel a connection with God, but we know that we can feel that connection outside church too. So what is the point of church? And how does St Paul link the coming of the Magi to purpose of the Church?

Well, at its simplest, because the Magi embody the church - a group of Gentiles, fumbling for God (in their case, by studying the stars) brought to recognise the full revelation of God in Jesus. And in so recognising Jesus, recognise themselves as also being part of God's people. And in so recognising, also reveal God to the world. So if they embody the church, what can they teach us about our purpose and significance?

Well, firstly, we can learn from the purpose of their journey. Why have they come so far, studied so carefully and risked so many perils? Well, they explain that to King Herod - they have come to worship. "We…have come to pay him homage." (Matt. 2.2) And when they arrive, what do they do? They knelt down and worshipped (Matt.2.11). Worship is such a strange thing for human beings to do. But so is faith. Faith is counterintuitive to humans. Jesus' teachings are counter-intuitive. "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many take it, but small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life". So says Jesus.

Ordinary life does not promote faith. We might encounter God in it, we might live decent, value-driven lives. But ordinary life does not promote faith. It simply leads us down the broad path. In fact, it draws us away from faith back into the ordinary humdrumness of factual life without its interpretation. It lulls faith gently to sleep. Worship is the lifeblood of faith. Worship is what wakes up faith within the human soul and enables us to see beyond the humdrum to the revelation of God. Worship is what takes us onto the narrow path that leads to life. Why? Because worship connects us with the person of God. It brings us into direct relationship with him and fills our life with his life, through his Spirit. In worship, God reveals himself directly to us.

The Magi realised this so completely that they travelled hundreds of miles, overcoming danger and innumerable practical obstacles. Our brothers and sisters in persecuted countries also risk their lives to worship because they too know that worship is what keeps them alive. They know that worship is what keeps them from the path to destruction and keeps them on the path to life. When I think of them and I look at my own feeble attitude to worship and the paltry things I prioritise over coming to worship, I have to tell you I feel ashamed of myself.

What is the church for? It is for worship. First and foremost. And that, first and foremost, is what human beings most desperately lack and most desperately need. And we, the church, exist to make it happen in the world and to share it with the world. We should never underestimate the significance of that responsibility.

There is more. There is, for example, the way the Magi, in recognising Jesus, recognise themselves as also being part of God's people. God has always chosen to reveal himself not though scattered individuals, but through a people. Why? Because that says something important about him and about us. We, like God, exist in relationship. God exists as Holy Trinity. Christians exist as Church. You can, of course, be a Christian outside church, but you cannot be a Christian without being part of the church, because to be a Christian is to recognise God in Jesus and, in doing so, recognising yourself as part of God's people.

There is also the way they proclaim God's word through their actions and though the lavish generosity of their gifts. There is the way they speak truth to power, proclaiming the true King Jesus to the false king Herod, making known God's plan to the rulers and authorities. There are many Herods in the world today who need to have the true King proclaimed to them by the Church. There is the way in which they proclaim God's mystery simply by coming together as an odd assortment of nations, creeds, colours and personalities, drawn not by their own will, but by God's.

All these things tell us what the church is, why the church is so significant and who we are as Christians; why the church is God's rescue plan for humanity; why it is the means by which God now reveals his boundless riches, his plan for all creation, his wisdom in its rich variety. But above all today, the Magi's example calls us to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, to bow down before him, his glory proclaim. Because, odd as it is, counterintuitive as it is, Christian worship is the lifeblood of faith, the revelation of the mystery of God to the whole world, "the most momentous, the most urgent, the most glorious action that can take place in human life."

Amen.
Preached: Morland, Great Strickland, 3 January 2016