THE UNFOLDING OF THE MANIFOLD WISDOM OF GOD
Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Epiphany the 7th January 2018 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes at St. Alban's Church, 461 Shedden Road, George Town, Cayman Islands
Scriptures: Isaiah 60:1-6 Ephesians 3:1-12 S. Matthew 2:1-12
Isaiah 60:1 “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”
The Epiphany feast is described in the Prayer Book as commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, and the connection is made in the Epiphany Collect between the Gentile Wise Men who brought gifts to the Christ Child, and the members of the Church, now predominantly Gentile, who have come to know God by faith in Christ. Epiphany means "manifestation" or revelation. In our day to day world, objects are only revealed or manifested to us when light shines upon them, while the light itself, thinking about it correctly, remains unseen. As S. John describes it in his famous prologue, those who have seen and received and come to know Jesus Christ have come to receive the Light. S. John says that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Darkness, of course, is not altogether dissolved by light, but it is pierced by it, driven back by it, and the light of the Good News of Christ is understood to act in a similar way. Even though the light has come, we may choose not to dwell in that light, but to remain away from it in the darkness. In the West the church centres the Epiphany on the visit of the Wise Men or "Magi" to the young child Jesus and their worshipping him with offerings of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, foreshowing Christ’s roles as King, Priest and Victim. But the Feast of the Epiphany originated in the Eastern part of the Church, and Epiphany is from the Greek for “Manifestation”. The Feast of the Epiphany is a many-layered commemoration of all that revealed or manifested the Son of God to the world, including His nativity, His baptism, His first miracle of turning water into wine, and various other elements.
In the Prayer Book Epistle and Gospel, which the lectionary that we use follows along with the addition of the reading from Isaiah, the elements between which the Collect makes a connection, the manifestation of the Christ-child to the Gentile Magi and the making known of the mystery of Christ to the Gentiles by faith, are described and expanded on. In regard to the account of the visit of the Magi, it is worth pointing out that the biblical account in S. Matthew shows that it was not the leading of a star only that brought them to Bethlehem, and enabled the manifestation of the Christ-child to them, as perhaps our Collect might be taken by itself to suggest. The Magi came from the East to Jerusalem, seemingly expecting to find the “king of the Jews”, as they put it, somewhere in the current royal household in the capital city. It is worth noting by the way, that the phrase “king of the Jews” as a title for Jesus is not a common one in the Gospels or anywhere else in the New Testament, but we do find it coming from the mouths of some other Gentiles much later on in the Gospel account. Could there have been a connection, I wonder? For when Jesus stood before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, being delivered to him by the chief priests and elders of the people, Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, and then Jesus was mocked before the crucifixion by Roman soldiers with the taunt, Hail, King of the Jews!”, and the charge was put up on the cross over his head, that read, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” Perhaps the phrase indeed originated with the worshipping Magi these many years before. Anyway the account of the Magi shows that after King Herod had acquired the help of the chief priests and scribes to find from the scriptures where the Christ would be born, it was he rather the leading of a star that directed them to the town of Bethlehem, while the continued or perhaps repeated presence of the star confirmed their faith in the journey they were taking. Their tremendous act of faith in making the journey reaches its fulfilment when they worship their “king of the Jews” and open their treasures and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. At first, then, Gentiles recognised him as the king of the Jews, while Jewish worshippers such as the old man Simeon and the old woman Anna, and, later, his disciple Simon Peter recognised him more profoundly as the Christ, the Messiah. There were Gentiles and Jews also who at the end of his course on earth, mocked him respectively under those same titles, the "king of the Jews" on the one hand and the "Christ" on the other. The Light had come into the world, but some remained in the darkness. The Wise Men though when they were moved to make their journey from the East were acting in fulfilment of the Isaianic prophecy, though they quite likely did not know it: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” That prophecy, from our Old Testament Lesson today, speaks of the abundance of the sea, the wealth of the nations, and gold and frankincense being brought to the restored Jerusalem. Therefore the journey of the Wise Men, who also brought the Victim’s burial-spice of myrrh as well as gold and frankincense, can be seen as a first-fruits of the fulfilment of such a prophecy, rather than a complete fulfilment.
In today’s Epistle S. Paul points to the continued unfolding of the “manifold wisdom of God” as he describes it in Chapter 3 verse 10, and in this we see a further prophetic fulfilment. He teaches that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” In other words, we can say that the riches of the wisdom of God are by the agency of the church being brought to confront and overcome all those authorities over the world that are malign and contrary to the will of God and the ultimate welfare of man. According to S. Paul in this very profound scripture, the essential key to these riches of the wisdom of God is that element which our Collect connects to the manifestation of the Christ-child to the Gentile Magi, namely, the making known of the mystery of Christ to the Gentiles by faith. In previous generations, this mystery of Christ was not made known to the sons of men, Paul says, but by the Holy Spirit it is now revealed to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets. So it is that faith in Christ must be proclaimed not just to one special people but throughout the world, and this is the essential key to the fulfilment of Jesus’ words that He has overcome the world.
Today we have thought of some great themes, and that is appropriate for the great Epiphany Feast. The spiritual environment, so to speak, for the unfolding of these great themes is the environment of faith, and to that we are called. If we are tempted, especially in these times, to consider the church to be weak and failing and unworthy to be compared with the institutions of man, let us rather consider what great intentions and purposes God has placed upon her, and so let us, rather than denying Him, play the part granted to the church and to us by the wisdom of God in the unfolding of his purposes.