Sermons from St Faith's

The Morning Star
Fred Nye, Epiphany 2009

 ‘O come thou dayspring’ - ‘Fairer than the sun at morning’

Our Epiphany hymns sound like an astronomer’s anthem of praise to Venus, the morning star.  Venus, who heralds the dawn, far outshining in beauty any of her companions, and on a moonless night the only light in the heavens bright enough to cast a shadow.

It is typical of Christian symbolism that it took over this ancient and iconic pagan image, and turned it first into the star of Bethlehem, and then into a metaphor for the Christ Child. There is even a passage at the end of the book of Revelation where Our Lord describes himself in the same poetic language: ‘I Jesus….. am of David’s line, the root of David and the bright star of the morning’.

There are two stumbling blocks to true Christian belief and commitment, two ideas that are genuinely difficult to accept. One is the assertion that God really can intervene in the affairs of earth, and the other is that his love is so great that it includes everything and everyone in its embrace. But the image of Christ as the morning star proclaims just those two truths. His glorious new light dawning on the world is visible to everyone, illuminates everyone. ‘And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’

Full of grace and truth.  I find it extraordinary that in the ‘Arabian Nights’ story of the star and the wise men we are shown what to expect from these gifts of Grace and Truth. Again, Christians have seen layer after layer of meaning in the presents these strangers gave to the infant Jesus, presents from Arabs to a Jew who was himself the founder of the New Israel, the Christian church.

It is the last-named present, the myrrh, which provides the key to the mystery of the gifts. Myrrh was an exotic aromatic resin, certainly a present fit for a King. But for the disciples of Jesus down the centuries it has quite another connotation. At his crucifixion Jesus was offered, but refused, wine spiked with myrrh to try to deaden the pain. And St. John tells us that the wealthy Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes to anoint Jesus’ body as it was laid in the tomb.

So myrrh has come to represent failure, pain and death.  Or rather it reminds us that Jesus shares with us mortals the tragedies of failure, pain and death.  In the West we are so obsessed with success that we have lost sight of the fact that Emmanuel, God with us, can ever be found in the dark places of our lives. In Africa, it’s different.  Those of us at St. Faith’s who have had the privilege of visiting the poorest parts of  that continent will know that the people suffer from hunger, poverty, disease, deprivation and the worst forms of human abuse and insecurity. And yet they dance, they dance, men and women and children. They give and share, generously and sacrificially. And they tell you time and time again, and apparently against all the evidence, that God is good! Perhaps the worst form of evil is not failure or death or disease or poverty, perhaps it is despair. Once we recognise Emmanuel in the dark places of life, and of the world, we are given the hope and strength to transform them.

Incense, as they say, needs no introduction if you are a regular member of St. Faith’s and St. Mary’s. In the iconography of the Epiphany it stands for the Priesthood of Our Lord, reminding us that Jesus, like the sweet smoke drifting upwards, unites earth with heaven. Through his perfect human life, offered to God and to all humankind, he has transformed our whole relationship with our Creator and with one another. We are forgiven and reconciled, we breathe together the sweet air of heaven, we share with everyone on the planet the God-given breath of life. But it all comes at a price. Our Lord achieved our redemption, our reconciliation, by a sacrificial life, and a sacrificial death. And by his example we are called to follow him. There can be no peace between human beings without costly and self-giving sacrifices. That truth has to be recognised everywhere, from Mumbai to Darfur, from the Congo to Israel and Gaza.  But before we all get too complacent here at home let’s remember that so often our prosperity has been built on other people’s money, our trade on other people’s poverty, and that our comfort has so often been bought at the expense of global climate change and the ruin of our environment. In the end we will all have to give, to give rather than to take or to borrow, if human kind is to be reconciled and if the world is to prosper.

‘Gold the King of Kings proclaimeth’. In the gift of gold, Christ is recognised as King of Kings and Prince of Peace. His birth, life and death ushered in God’s reign, and earth became the realm of heaven. And through his life and death Our Lord has taught us that we, as the citizens of this Kingdom, have to keep only one rule, only one Law, the law of Love. Jesus accepted everyone he met as equally valued and loved by God his Father.  Jesus offered forgiveness and acceptance to all, to the respectable and well to do, to traitors and petty crooks, to strangers and foreigners, to the dissolute and the despised. Christians have always seen in the story of the Epiphany the welcoming into the Kingdom of even the most unlikely people - pagans and gentiles, strangers and foreigners with exotic and disturbing habits and customs - men and women with strange faiths and beliefs or with none at all. In the Kingdom of God all are welcome, all are loved, and all are equal.

‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’. At the feast of the Epiphany we see Jesus revealed in glory, in the glory of vulnerability and self-giving. He is revealed in the dark places of the world and of our lives, in the costly reconciliation that brings peace between human beings, and in the scandal of holy love which is offered equally to everyone. In 2009 and beyond it is likely that we will have to cope with genuinely unprecedented crises and evils: the re-emergence of so-called holy wars: the collapse of capitalism: and the destruction of the natural processes which hitherto have preserved life on earth. No doubt the usual remedies will be proposed: more separation and alienation, more measures to preserve wealth at the expense of people’s lives and of the natural world, more troops and more bombings. But we need instead the gifts of Grace and Truth as found in Jesus, the morning star of revelation. And today we have seen the dawning of that star, and have come to worship Him.

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