The Feast of the Epiphany 4-1-2015

I’m very glad to see you all again. Vicky and I thank you for all your good wishes and greetings. We also wish each of you a wonderful Christmas season and a blessed new year. It’s lovely to be back home among you.
I’m very mindful of people who are not so blessed as we are. Many millions of displaced persons around the world don’t have the option of going home. They’re forced to find another place to call home. Yet communities willing to adopt these people are hard to find. Few countries or households are willing to share what we call our place with strangers. Adoption of any type is a very fraught matter, isn’t it.
Yet as we gathered outside this morning, we heard that we’ve been adopted. In the reading from Ephesians 3.6, we heard that we “…Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We strangers have been offered adoption into God’s family before we even knew we needed it: easy to say, but how do we grasp the wonder of this?
Let me try by telling you about some of the things that happened while we were away. In Cambridge, Vicky and I were made to feel that we’d been truly woven into several communities and families; Madingley Village Church, the Tyndale House scholarly community and some lovely families all adopted us. It’s a lovely, humbling experience. And for me, I’ve been adopted as a welcome member of Vicky’s lovely family in Germany. We spent a precious week with them at Xmas.
In all those contexts, we found ourselves woven into ever-new experiences of belonging. One I want to mention happened on Christmas day. Uncle Otto produced a large collection of letters he’d received long ago from Vicky’s Mum and Dad. Many of you will know that Vicky’s parents died when she was quite young. They came to Australia soon after the second world war along with many other displaced persons.
Life in post-war Europe was very hard. Shattered, mistrustful communities had almost no moral compass left beyond survival. The huge numbers of refugees were treated with fear and suspicion; they were excluded and abused. So Vicky’s parents followed a star of hope; they came to Australia to marry here and seek a better life.
These letters came from their first years in Australia. They described a society where trust and good will hadn’t been torn apart like it had been in Europe. Australians retained their ability to be generous and compassionate. One particular letter described their wedding two days after Vicky’s Mum arrived here in 1951. It described their amazement and delight at unexpected gifts from virtual strangers—pots and pans, linen, an electric kettle, an iron and many other things. They were astonished; touched and humbled by such thoughtful generosity.
As we read this letter, I thought of the refugee welcome parcels we’ve been assembling here for distribution by Anglicare—simple household goods that say, “Welcome! Make your home here.” I pray that they bring the sort of healing wonder that Vicky’s parents expressed; that they announce the sort of unconditional welcome—full adoption—that the feast of Epiphany proclaims for all of us!
The Epiphany story is filled with just this same mixture of danger and welcome for a traveller; someone who’s come to a strange place and has to rely on strangers. We see this danger/welcome mix in the Gospel story of the baby Jesus; Emmanuel—God come to be one of us. What could God mean by coming in such a vulnerable way? Strange town; improvised birth-centre, and anything could have happened with Herod nearby. We see this danger/ welcome mix too in the wise men following the star from the east—going to the capital, where you’d expect a king might be found—but then asking directions of that fiend Herod. What on earth might have happened if they’d trusted him and gone back to Jerusalem to report?
We do know what happened. But it might have been so different. The Epiphany story speaks to us about the uncertainty of our life—any moment might lead us into a whole new world; any moment might be our last. I’ve written this sermon with one ear to the fire warnings. Life is uncertain: our links to families, communities and nations can change in an instant. The Epiphany story reminds us of that very forcefully—but why? And what are we meant to do about it?
One of the people I got to study while I was away lived intensely with this very question; Ignatius, who was Bishop of Antioch in Syria during the early 2nd century of the Christian era. After conflict in his community, he was arrested and condemned to die. As he was taken under guard from Antioch through Asia Minor and Greece to his death as a martyr in the Roman Coliseum, he wrote seven letters. We’ve got a fragment of one of his letters copied in our pewsheet—his letter to the Church in Ephesus. Please open to it.
Ignatius used his last weeks writing his letters to six churches and to an old friend he would pass nearby on his forced march to his death. He wrote to encourage them to defend and teach the faith he was prepared to die for. His lovely hymn of the star of Bethlehem gives you an idea of the magnitude of his vision. The star becomes a symbol of Christ himself, the light of the world breaking in. Let’s say it together.
Ign. Eph. 19.2–3

A star shone in heaven above all the stars,
and its light was unspeakable,
and its newness was causing astonishment,

All the other stars, together with sun and moon,
became a choral dance for the star,
this one was extraordinary; its light was above all things;
and there was perplexity, whence came this new thing, so unlike them.

By this all magic was being undone,
and every bond of wickedness was being destroyed,
ignorance was being dismantled,
and the old kingdom was being utterly demolished,
as God was being humanly manifest for the newness of everlasting life,

That which had been prepared by God
received its beginning.
Hence all things were being stirred up,
because He was giving attention to the dissolution of death.

… … … … I wonder if this week, we might all meditate on this hymn from Ignatius; meditate on it as written by a man fully aware of his impending death—yet seeing in that the Epiphany mixture of danger and welcome. Maybe we might sense that for ourselves both in the reprieve we’ve had from fire in the last days, yet at the same time mindful of those who haven’t been spared. Or maybe there’s some other way we might have known that danger/welcome mix.
We might think of ourselves as people we’d never expect God to want, and yet by an act of amazing grace, we’ve been adopted—unconditionally and freely embraced as one of the family. Have we known such kindness? How do we respond?
I thought that this week, perhaps we might each write to Ignatius or Paul or Jesus—write a letter of our own. We might write about our own experience as a displaced person or a prisoner or an outsider, and say what adoption or being set free has meant for us. And that means all of us; because we’ve all been adopted; all ‘…become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus.’
At a time of year when many people make new year’s resolutions, let’s write a letter to say what we’re going to do with our new chance at life; this unexpected gift that each one of us has been given so freely. You might even send it to someone to read. If yours comes my way, I’ll rejoice to read it, or to hear your thoughts in person some time.