An often misunderstood feature of the cycle of gospel readings through the Christmas season is that the story of the appearing of the Magi or Wise Men from the East (Matthew 2:1-12) should be reserved for Epiphany (6th January or, if you like, the Twelfth Day of Christmas) and not be part of Christmas Eve or Christmas Day readings.* Waiting until Epiphany to read this gospel passage fits well with the sense that, unlike the shepherds of Luke 2:1-14 who appear at the stable on the night of Jesus' birth, the Wise Men arrive after the birth.
In Matthew's Gospel there is the curious feature that its strongly Jewish flavour is punctuated by Gentile references. In Matthew 1:1-17 there are references to four Gentile women; and at the end of Matthew's Gospel, the Jewish Jesus charges his Jewish disciples with a commission to go to 'all peoples' (Good news Bible). In the story of Jesus' birth, Gentile philosophers turn up, out of the blue!
What, then, might we say when we preach at Epiphany? Here are some ideas for themes.
- the worldwide scope of the gospel
- the revealed character of the gospel
- worshipping Jesus as the appropriate response to his birth
- Jesus, the light of the world
- the true understanding of who Jesus is
This year (2008) I am taking as my theme, 'Christ in the world' and I want to talk about what it means to be a Christian living in the world. In my view far too many sermons effectively only address the subject of 'what Christians should believe' or 'how I can be a better Christian in church.' But each of us lives in 'the world': we work, play, converse and interact with people apart from the church. How, as Christians, are we to engage with the world? What is the world searching for which might be found in the way we reveal Christ through our words and actions? (A variation on this idea is this, 'what is "the star" which leads people today towards Christ?' ... in working with this question I want to reflect a little on three kiwi phenomena at this time of the year: popularity of music festivals, holidays at the beach, and rampant materialism ... each reflects something deeply spiritual).
What are your thoughts as you shape your sermon for Epiphany?
*I realise the lectionary gets a little complicated as it wrestles with parcelling up the gospel readings through the Christmas-Epiphany period. For Sunday 30th December (i.e. the First Sunday after Christmas) the reading was Matthew 2:13-end, that is, the conclusion to the story of the visit of the Wise Men!