Sermon - 3rd January 2016
Signs of God's promise
Scripture - Genesis 9:8-10, 12-13, 16-17; Matthew 2:1-5a, 7-10
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
For many, this weekend brings to an end the Christmas and New Year celebrations, and our daily lives return to their regular routines. For the Church, Christmas-time ends on 6 January when the Feast of the Epiphany is celebrated, sometimes called “Twelfth Night”, and the date by which Christmas decorations should have been taken down.
“Epiphany” is not a word we hear often, but it is essentially this: the day on which we celebrate the revelation of the Son of God, come to us as a human being in the person of Jesus. In Western Christianity, Epiphany is when we recall the Visit of the ‘Wise Men’ and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, they recall the Baptism of Jesus at the Feast of Epiphany.
Apart from this festival in the Church’s calendar, the word “Epiphany” is not one we hear often, but when it is used, the dictionary defines an epiphany as a moment in which one suddenly sees or understands something in a new or very clear way.
Around Christmas time, we can often be so busy with social engagements, visiting family and friends, choosing and buying gifts, that it can be hard to find the time to have an epiphany! Also, the “feel good” aspects around Christmas and New Year can distance us from the reality of the Christmas story and the birth of Christ.
Surrounded by good-will, gifts, food and drink, and the comfort of our friends and families, it is not easy to spend time thinking about the parts of the Nativity story which do not sit easily with us: Mary, a teenage mother, questions hanging over the paternity of her child; the supernatural nature of Mary’s pregnancy – the Virgin Birth; the homelessness of the Holy Family; giving birth in an animals’ stable; the fear of the shepherds when the angels appeared to them; the fury of Herod at the thought of a rival king and his subsequent slaughter of innocent children; and, Mary and Joseph with Jesus fleeing as refugees into Egypt.
While the Gospel of John speaks of God being born as one of us, and the Gospel of Luke gives us the historical and family background to Jesus’ birth, it is the Gospel of Matthew which deals with the immediate political events which surrounded the birth. Today’s Gospel reading from St Matthew (Chapter 2) is a reading which we know so well – one which we could summarise in six words: star, wise-men, Herod, gold, frankincense and myrrh.
In this sermon, I want to look at the story from a different angle. A few months ago, I came across a quite recent English translation of the Bible, called the Orthodox Jewish Bible (2002), translated not by the usual Christian scholars, but by Messianic Jews, that is Jews who believe that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. It is not particularly easy to read in places, as it makes extensive use of Hebrew and Yiddish phrases (explained with footnotes). The footnotes also signpost any verses in the Old Testament books indicating proof of Jesus as the Messiah. Certainly, a Messianic Jewish translation of the Gospels makes for very enlightening reading!
Firstly, who were the ‘wise-men’? Our pew-Bibles – the Good News Translation – calls them “men who studied the stars”. *The OJB calls them “chachamim”, meaning the wisest of the wise scholars whose knowledge and learning is held in the highest esteem. In Jewish tradition, a “chacham” (or ‘wise-man’) even has precedence over a king! Today, we would maybe consider Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking to be in this class. In other words, these ‘wise-men’ knew what they were talking about.
Secondly, the star, or “kochav”. The footnotes immediately point to a prophecy in fourth book of the Bible, Numbers, spoken by Balaam. (He was the one who had the talking donkey!) In Numbers 24:17, we read:
“I look into the future, and I see the nation of Israel. A king, like a bright star, will arise in that nation. Like a comet he will come from Israel.”
For our Messianic Jewish brothers and sisters, the star which proclaimed Jesus’ birth is also a symbol which fulfilled an ancient prophecy, as well as being a guiding light for the ‘wise-men’.
Last week, I saw a programme on BBC4: it was a Christmas special of the long-running series about astronomy “The Sky At Night”, looking at the astronomical truth behind the Star of Bethlehem. *Firstly, the documentary examined the Biblical texts and other historical texts of the time, including some from China, which described something in the night sky which coincided with the historical timing of Jesus’ birth. Unfortunately, our calendar is a bit out of sync: Jesus was not born in the year zero: St Clement of Alexandria got his sums a little wrong. Based on our modern calendar, Jesus was actually born some time between 7 and 4 BCE.
And this is where things get very interesting! *The astronomers showed that in 7 BCE something very unusual happened: the two largest planets in our solar system – Jupiter and Saturn – had a conjunction. This means that they will have appeared as a single brighter light in the sky, which due to the movement of the Earth and their own movements, this brighter light would have been seen three times.
Another explanation, the one preferred by the professional astronomers who present the programme, was that a comet was visible. *Comets are usually visible for several months. The chronicler of the Chinese Han dynasty recorded: *“Second year of the Chien-p'ing reign period, second month, a [comet] appeared at Ch'ien-niu for over 70 days.” Those dates align with March-April of the year 5 BCE.
Following on from today’s Gospel reading, we can read how King Herod had all the male babies under 2 years old in and around Bethlehem slaughtered. Taking on board this historical astronomical information, the boys age seems certainly more than an arbitrary number.
*In the UK, with our almost never-ending cloud and the modern light pollution from our cities, observing the starry sky is not easy. Those of you who come from Africa will recall how much brighter the stars are when seen from Africa compared to Manchester! *Something clearly went on in the night sky around the time of Jesus’ birth.
And so to our other reading from today, which is also about a sign in the sky, albeit one with which we are more familiar in our rainy city – the rainbow. *Just as the Star of Bethlehem proclaimed the God’s promise of the Messiah, our Saviour, the rainbow is another sign of God’s promise. The Bible has a special word for God’s promises – a covenant – the Hebrew word being “b’rit”. We mention God’s New Covenant each week, when the celebrant speaks the words of consecration at Communion. The Hebrew word “b’rit” implies cutting and shedding blood. We see this at Communion. Male Jewish and Muslim children are circumcised at birth, as both religions stem from Abraham, and circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham.
What of the rainbow? The story of Noah is a story like the Nativity: it has its soft, presentable side; the animals going into the Ark two-by-two, the dove returning with the olive twig: the story which we tell children. Every toy shop sells a Noah’s ark! But like the Nativity, it has a darker side, one which we prefer not to think about. There was certainly blood shed: apart from Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives, everyone else -millions of people and animals- was killed in the flood. Just as the New Covenant with God was bought at the cost of Jesus’ blood; the Covenant with Noah came at a high price.
*Another parallel with Noah’s story alongside the Nativity story is historical corroboration. While we might dismiss Noah and his ark as an allegory, a massive, catastrophic flood is reported in stories from around the world: the family of Fuhi in China, the Epic of Gilgamesh (tablet XI), the story of Manu in India, the Dreamtime Flood of the Australian aborigines, the ancient Greek story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the Aztec Tapi, the Pachachama Incas of Peru, and the Ojibwe Native Americans’ story of Waynaboozhoo.
I have today taken a very different way of looking at our Bible readings, and this is something which we are going to be doing in the coming few weeks, as we will be looking at those texts in the Bible which have been used to condemn LGBT people, and those texts which clearly support same-sex relationships. *We will be using as our guide the book “The Gay Gospels” by Dr Keith Sharpe, a theologian from Sussex, and chair of the group “Changing Attitude”. As a Rainbow people, Noah’s rainbow, the sign of God’s promise, holds special significance for us.
In closing, as we stand at the start of this new year – 2016 – many people will have made “New Year’s Resolutions”. For some, it may be giving up something like smoking, or cutting down on drinking, taking more exercise or joining a gym. Whatever it might be, they all have something in common: drawing a line under the old ways and making a new start.
For Noah and his family, God drew a line under what had gone before. Noah and his family were a new beginning for humankind.
In the birth of Jesus, drawing us by the Star of Bethlehem to the stable, God drew a line under the Old Covenant and began the New Covenant which was paid for some thirty-three years later when Jesus died for our sins on the Cross, and a new beginning dawned on that first Easter morning when Jesus rose again.
We do not need to wait for the start of a new year, nor do we need to wait for any sign in the sky, not a rainbow, nor a star: God is ready for us to begin afresh at any time.
As a symbol of new beginnings at the start of this calendar year, many churches make use of the Covenant prayer, originally written by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition. As you came into church today, you will have been given a copy of this prayer. It is not an easy prayer to say. I ask you now to take a moment to read through it, before inviting you to stand as we pray it together:
Methodist Covenant Prayer
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.