Summary: A sermon for the epiphany
A man was once eating fish and chips at the bus stop, and a lady with a small dog came along to wait for her bus. The dog clearly liked the smell of the fish and chips, and kept jumping up around the man’s legs to try and get at them. In the end the man smiled at the lady and asked, “do you mind if I throw him a bit?”
“Not at all,” the lady replied, so the man picked up the dog and threw him over the wall.
Another man was driving down a country road, when he saw a farmer standing in the middle of a field, just standing there, doing nothing. The man stopped his car, got out, and walked to the farmer and asked him what he was doing. The farmer replied, "I'm trying to win a Nobel Prize."
"What, Nobel Prize?" asked the man.
"Well, I heard they give the Nobel Prize to people who are out standing in their field."
People can be very strange. I’m sure you all know people you find very odd - Ministers with an endless supply of bad jokes might rank high on your list. People can be strange. Nowt as queer as folk, as they say in some places. We don’t have to spend very long with other people to discover people who clearly have a very a different outlook upon life from us - different ways of thinking, different ways of arranging their lives, and at times they can seem very odd indeed.
How odd it must have seemed to Mary and Joseph. First, they find themselves amongst the animals, bizarre in itself, then they meet shepherds and angels, and then the magi. What a peculiar collection of people passing through that place.
And we meet a peculiar collection of people providing our readings today: Matthew, the taxman who crafts a gospel using amazing skills with the Greek language that make a cryptic crossword compiler look a bit average; Paul, difficult and tetchy, writing a reply, now heavily elaborated, to an original letter we don’t have; and Isaiah, in many respects a dark and mournful character. An oddball collection, if ever there was one.
Matthew’s story of the epiphany, as you’ll have realized, contains no mention of kings or camels, which Isaiah supplies. Whether or not that was what Isaiah intended, the people reading Matthew’s account would have known his writings intimately, and the early Christians clearly incorporated Isaiah’s comments into their thinking. Matthew’s star first appears in the book of Numbers, and again whatever the writer of the book of Numbers intended, Matthew and his readers clearly knew that tradition.
In this fantastic story, Matthew has taken all kinds of bits of the Hebrew Bible, and stitched them together in this story which he presents us with. It rather reminds me of an old quilt such as your granny might have had - all odds and ends and off-cuts of fabric, from all kinds of places, stitched together. They make a new quilt, which is very good and serves a new and useful purpose, but you can still see all the constituent parts, and what they were and where they came from.
So, Matthew offers a hotchpotch story, of a hotchpotch of people around then infant Jesus. As we know, it wasn’t just in the stable, there’s a hotchpotch of people still around today. Even in church! If you’ve ever been to church somewhere else in the world,. You’ll know what I mean. Consider a very plain, word-centred Reformed church in northern Europe; then St. Peter’s in Rome, the largest church in world, with splendid baroque architecture oozing magnificence; then to a small Greek Orthodox church, where icons, dark colour, and sonorous singing underline the distinction between heaven and earth; then a Gospel Choir in Harlem, New York, where poverty has given birth to an enthusiastic faith among the black community; then to a huge prosperous Baptist Church, in the deep south of America, with vast programmes of activity; then to a small struggling church in a city housing estate in Britain. It might seem hard to imagine that these are all part of the same body, but to Matthew, who uses the epiphany to reminds us of the hotchpotch nature of all God’s people, there would be no doubt that this hotchpotch of people around the world are all part of the one church.
The awkward Paul, and those who edited and elaborated his letter to the Ephesians, recognise this as well. In today’s reading were reminded that the church is a major player in challenging rulers and authorities in the world. Pause a moment and look at the people around you. Look at those sitting around the church this morning. Do you see the people to do that, do you see what Paul called “the wisdom of God in its rich variety”? If not, think again - has God got it wrong? - look again - we are the wisdom of God in its rich variety.