Summary: Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, exploring the Baptism of Jesus with reference to the visit of the Magi, and God’s ongoing revelation of His will in Jesus and His desire for peace, justice and hope: a revelation made possible only through repenta
Mark 1:4-11 A New Year – a New Start
So, here we are at the start of a New Year! It’s mind-boggling to think that it is now more than 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Immanuel (God-With-Us) there in Bethlehem; more than 2000 years have passed since the visit of the of the shepherds, and over 2000 years since the long journey of the Magi, who travelled all that way from the East.
Last Tuesday we celebrated Epiphany - the travelling, and the visit, of the Magi to the baby Jesus. I have to admit that I am still reflecting upon that journey and visit, even though we are in the second weekend of the New Year now! It’s just such an amazing story, made in such faith and trust!
Epiphany means ‘appearance’ or ‘showing’, and by it we remember how God’s promise of renewed hope and light for the world was revealed to ALL people in the world. For we remember that the Magi were not of the Jewish faith, but of (it is thought) a Persian mystic tradition which placed great importance on reading the ‘signs’ in the skies, to tell them about important events to come.
So it is that Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-11) tells us how the Magi from the East had seen that special star in the night skies, and how they interpreted this to be a sign heralding an event of great importance for all people, for all time to come. A star they felt they had to follow as it travelled westward in the skies, so they could find out what the nature of this event would be. For they knew the star announced the birth of a New King, and that his coming would mean great change (perhaps upheavals) in the lives of a great many people.
What sort of world did these mysterious travellers find as they journeyed through Judea, and set foot in the little Town of Bethlehem, where the star seemed to rest? On their way they had paid a visit to the royal palace, as they had assumed (as we might have too!) that the new king would be born there. But instead they found King Herod, who was so jealous in guarding his position and status, and was so suspicious of the motives of others – including those closest to him – that he trusted no-one. Indeed, he had had two of his own sons executed because he thought they would try to usurp his power and crown. Herod listened very carefully to the Magi as they shared their insight and news with him. He seemed very interested too, and wanted the travellers to return to him to tell him the precise location of the New King’s birth, so he too could go and pay homage – or so he said!
Overall, the world of the West that the Magi found was badly in need of change. The people of God were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, and many of the kings of Judea (like Herod) were power-crazy politicians who looked to their own welfare, over and above that of the people. They were corrupt servants, not of God, but of Rome.
The people, on the other hand, were generally poor – and getting poorer. They were becoming very influenced by the ‘materialism’ that the pagan lifestyle of Rome offered, and many were becoming indifferent to the ‘true faith’ of Judaism. There were wars and rumours of wars; there were radicalised, revolutionary groups who sought to further their own ends by the use of violence and terror; many people became innocent victims to the inhumanity of others. Land had been, and was continuing to be, robbed from the people by the more powerful oppressor. Certainly, their time was in need of great change – they needed a new spirit of hope, justice and peace in their lives.
For the Magi, the star in the sky was a sign indicating the possibility of such change. A New King who would bring peace with justice, new hope and renewed faith into the lives of His people. And when they found the new-born child, there in the manger, they offered him their gifts: gold (indicating his royal status); frankincense (indicating the power he would receive through prayer), and myrrh (the gift of bitter, extremely long-lasting perfume, indicating the eternal reign that would be His). Yes, there in that humble dwelling lay the New King who would make possible such great change in the hearts of people, from that time onwards. The birth of the Holy One of God, news of which would spread from Bethlehem that day, and continue to the corners of the world, beginning with the Magi from the east as they secretly went on their way and began their long journey home.