SERMON: The Epiphany Story

A sermon preached at St.Mary’s, Iffley
by Anthony Phillips on 7 January 2018

You will have heard me criticise those who devised our lectionary before and no doubt will again. Why to-day have they given you half the narrative but chosen to omit the most important half? Presumably they think that you can only stand for 12 rather than 23 verses. But if I am to make sense of the narrative, we must consider it as a whole which is what St. Matthew intended when he wrote it.

Now you will probably remember that after the wise men had departed Joseph also had a dream telling him to take the holy family to Egypt because Herod planned to kill the child. This was to fulfil an ancient prophecy When Herod realised he had been tricked he then had all the boys in Bethlehem under two slaughtered, also fulfilling a prophecy. After Herod’s death Joseph had another dream and in which he was a told to take the holy family back to Israel. But directed by yet another dream, he returned not to Bethlehem but to out of the way Nazareth in Galilee fulfilling yet another prophecy. Yes, dreams and prophecies dominate the narrative, an accepted literary device – and convenient when you have no actual evidence of the events you are recording.

All four Gospels agree that the ministry of John the Baptist kicked off Jesus’ own ministry. But two chose to start with the birth of Messiah, Luke and Matthew. Both were written some 40 years or so after his death and both birth narratives acted as a Prologue to their Gospels. For it was customary for the Hebrews to indicate the purpose of their writings at the beginning of their works. There were to be no surprises. Had they been writing detective novels you would have known the identity of the murderer from the start.

Both Luke and Matthew had to operate under two restraints. First the Hebrew Scriptures had prophesised that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David from whose line he would trace his ancestry. But second they knew from his ministry that Jesus was Jesus of Nazareth an insignificant town in Galilee far to the north of Jerusalem. How did they deal with this problem?

Given Jesus’ title, Luke believes that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth but tells of a census of which no evidence has ever been found which forced Joseph to take the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem where Jesus was born as the prophet Michah had foretold. There shepherds visited the child. Luke then narrates that Jesus was circumcised, Mary was purified and the child was presented in the temple, three requirements of the law. They then returned to Nazareth.

Clearly apart from the holy family, the central characters in the story are the shepherds. Why? Luke is from the start giving the game away. Under the law shepherds by the nature of their job living day and night with their flocks were in a perpetual state of uncleanness according to Jewish law. They had no opportunity to purify themselves for worship. Consequently what Luke is saying that even though the first visitors to the child were unclean under Jewish law, a law which Joseph and Mary strictly observed, they were welcomed at the manger. None, no matter what state they are in, are to be excluded from the Christ child.

This is to be the theme of Luke’s Gospel. And in the second part of his work, the Acts of the Apostles, he goes on to record how Gentiles too were accepted into the Christian community of faith. Christ is for all whom God has loved into life regardless of their condition. We need then have no reservations over Luke’s account of the incarnation. His gospel is one of compassion. With Matthew, we face a different situation.

Matthew believes that Joseph was a resident of Bethlehem. After discovering that Mary is pregnant before their marriage, he is told in a dream who the child is, the long awaited Messiah prophesied by Isaiah, and so takes Mary into his home where, according to prophet Micah, Jesus is born. No manger here. The first visitors to the child are not unclean Jewish shepherds but foreign Gentile magi.

Mathew’s problem, unlike Luke’s, was how to get the holy family to Nazareth. He does this brilliantly by a parody of the story of Moses in Egypt. In Matthew’s narrative the Jewish king Herod is pictured as Pharaoh, while Jesus represents Moses, the narrative being put together by a series of dreams and prophecies which confirm its authenticity.

So just as Moses after killing the Egyptian had to flee to the land of Midian for safety, so the holy family flee to of all places Egypt; just as Pharaoh killed all the Hebrew boy babies at the birth of Moses, so it is the Jewish king Herod who kills all the boys born in Bethlehem at the same time as Jesus; just as Moses stayed in exile until the old Pharaoh was dead, so Jesus remained in exile until Herod was dead.

And for Matthew this was no fiction for Hosea had said it was from Egypt, Messiah would come, Jeremiah had forecast Rachel weeping for her children who were no more, and according to Matthew the prophets had proclaimed that Messiah ‘shall be called a Nazarene’, though the source of this prophecy is unknown.

Scholars used to think that Matthew was writing to a church of predominantly Jewish Christians to justify Christianity by showing how Jesus had fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures. But to-day it is recognised that he had the direct opposite purpose, namely to condemn the Jews for their rejection of Jesus despite what their Scriptures said. This condemnation reaches its climax when before Pilate Matthew records the Jews accepting responsibility for Jesus’ death: ‘His blood be on us and our children’.

Unlike Luke’s preface, Matthew’s does cause us theological problems. Its purpose in the figure of Herod and the massacre of the Innocents is to condemn the Jews which is then spelt out in what follows culminating in what for centuries was regarded as the crime of deicide. How are we to read him to-day?

Matthew, like John later, wrote at the time when Christians were breaking from their Jewish heritage. Initially they had been regarded as another Jewish sect. But towards the end of the first century both sides engaged in vicious propaganda against each other as the rift became permanent. Indeed it is not too much to say that these Christian foundation documents of Matthew’s and John’s Gospels legitimized centuries of Jewish persecution by Christians’ leading ultimately to the holocaust. For all that we treasure in then, these two Gospels should undoubtedly carry a health warning. It becomes all too easy to forget that Jesus and his disciples were Jews and that the Hebrew Scriptures gave birth to two faiths, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

Finally on a more positive note what lesson can we learn from to-days Gospel at the beginning of this New Year? Matthew records that when Herod heard the magi’s question, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’, he was troubled. This is a poor translation of the Greek word which indicates great fear. Herod was terrified. He thought that Jesus would be after his throne. In fact he was after his heart, as he is for all of us.

Yet like Herod, all too easily Christ’s claims upon us can terrify us. They are so absolute – ourselves, our souls, our bodies. So like Herod we attempt to stamp them out – or at best lead a half life. But however much we try to ignore him, we cannot kill him. We may for a while drive him into exile, but he returns to confront us. And in the end, if we are to be who we have it in us to be, be truly free to be us, to lead not a half life but a full life, to know that peace which passes understanding, there is only one course of action open to us.

Christina Rosetti understood this well:
What can I give him poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what can I give him – give my heart.

As any lover knows, what better New Year’s resolution?