Sunday, 7 January 2018

Epiphany Sunday: Mystery revealed

Audio version here 

Isaiah 60.1-6, Eph3.1-12, Matt 2.1-12

Do you want to know a secret?

I’m not actually going to tell you one, but it’s an offer which usually makes people sit up and take notice. We all like to be “in the know”, to have some piece of information that maybe not everyone has. It makes us feel special, honoured, trusted. Depending on what the secret is it might even give us power, make our lives easier, give us leg up in the world.

At the time of Jesus, there were quite a number of what were known as “mystery” religions around.  To join one you’d need to go through some sort of initiation rite, maybe quite demanding. The lure was that, at the end of it, you’d be given some sort of special knowledge or power that others didn’t have. Of course you’d be sworn to secrecy about it then, which is why today we don’t know much of what actually went on in these cults, but that was their appeal. You became part of an elite group if you were accepted. If everyone was in on the secret, there would be no sense of specialness in belonging . 

The early Christians in Ephesus, who Paul wrote to in our second reading today would have been very familiar with these mystery religions. It’s quite possible that some of them had been members of one of these groups themselves. So when Paul uses the word “mystery” in our second reading today, he knows they will get the reference straight away.  Paul tells them that he’s been shown a mystery himself, something that’s wonderful, something that has changed his life, and it can change their lives too. The mystery he had discovered was at the heart of Christian faith. What was it? It was that the Gentiles,  those who were not Jewish, those who had always been treated as outsiders, were actually fellow heirs, part of God’s family , members of his body, “sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” 

That may not sound very mysterious or unexpected to us, but it had come as a complete surprise to Paul. He’d been brought up to think that God was really only interested in the Jewish people.  He’d been a devout and zealous Pharisee, eager to patrol the boundaries of his faith, to make sure that only those who followed the rules and kept the rituals could be part of it.  When he began to follow Jesus, though, after Jesus had appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus, he discovered that God’s love was for everyone, his call was to everyone – Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. It wasn’t just for those “in the know”, the religious elite, the exclusive tribe of people like himself.

Ironically, the mystery he declares to them is that there is no mystery. I think he means this passage to be a bit of a joke. The secret is that there is no secret. There is no elite group, no magic formula, no demanding admission ritual. Everyone can draw close to God “in boldness and confidence” he says.  And far from keeping it to themselves, this mystery is one that can and should be shared with everyone, shouted from the rooftops, preached in and out of season, gossiped about, spread in every way possible.

Why did Paul think this was so important? I think it was because he’d learned the hard way that elite groups are bad for people.  Elite groups are obviously bad for those outside them. They’re denied the benefits of whatever that elite group is guarding as their own possession.  But Paul realised that they were just as bad for those inside them too, because if we can’t hear the voices of those who are different from us, we end up impoverishing ourselves as well as them. We may think we have all the answers, but if we aren’t open to others we may not even have realised what all the questions are.

One of the most significant things that happened last year was a classic example of this. In the latter part of the year, a slew of sexual harassment allegations were made against powerful men in many sectors of society. As the stories broke, women started sharing many other stories of day to day harassment, in the office, in the street, on public transport, stories about things that they – we - had often taken for granted. When I was a teenager and young adult we warned each other about  men who had WHT – wandering hand trouble. Previous generations talked about men who were NSIT – not safe in taxis. And those were only the mildest issues. You just learned to put up with it, because it was a part of every day life for women. And yet, when these stories started to be shared, often with the hashtag #metoo, there seemed to be widespread surprise, especially from men. Some men, the ones who wouldn’t dream of harassing women, had just been oblivious to the scale of the problem, but others were surprised because though they knew it went on and maybe did it themselves, it seemed never to have occurred to them that the women they harassed or abused really minded.  They’d convinced themselves that it was ok to behave like this, and because they were the ones who had the power to decide whose voices were listened to, that was that.

That’s the key. It’s an issue of power as well as gender, and if we open our eyes we can see this same dynamic at work wherever there inequalities in our society.  Able bodied people make assumptions about what disabled people need and want . We think we know, when it is actually they who are the real experts in dealing with their disability. Rich people make political decisions that affect the lives of those who are poor without knowing anything about what it really feels like to struggle to make ends meet, and without seeking to know it either. Adults decide what children will want and how they will feel without asking them.  A report that came out a few days ago highlighted the dangers of “sharenting” – parents who post endless pictures of their children on social media, even if the children would rather they didn’t and ask them not to. “Nothing about us without us” is the repeated cry of those who find themselves in some sort of disadvantaged position, yet we often find it easier to talk than to listen.  

Paul says that, for the church to thrive we need to recognise  “the wisdom of God in its rich variety”.  Inclusivity, valuing everyone, isn’t about political correctness. It’s not just a nice idea: it is at the heart of Christian faith. It reveals the presence of God in our midst and releases his power to work among us. He comes to us in one another. His wisdom is found in our diversity. Each one of us has part of the picture he wants to give to us all. So we need each other, just as we are. We need each other’s gifts, but we also need each other’s struggles and vulnerability. They are what opens us up to God’s grace and love. We need each other’s answers, but we also need each other’s questions to make us dig more deeply into our own faith.  Wisdom and variety go together – you can’t have one without the other, says Paul. This was the mystery that had been revealed to him, but unlike the secretive cults  of the ancient world, this was a mystery that needed to be shared with anyone and everyone, because anyone and everyone was part of it.

The story of the Magi is a reminder of this truth. We sometimes call the Magi “wise men”, but in reality they weren’t that wise at all. They may have been clever, but that’s not the same thing. They’d seen a star in the sky, and, like many ancient people, they assumed it meant that a new leader had been born.  They knew some old prophecies about a Messiah who would usher in a better world. But the last thing they were expecting was that this new beginning would come through an ordinary child born to an ordinary couple in the ordinary back streets of Bethlehem. That’s why they went looking for him in Herod’s palace, with disastrous results for the rest of the children of Bethlehem. When they eventually found the right place, if only with the help of that star, they must have been baffled. And yet God had drawn them to the place where they needed to be, the place where they could discover that they were welcome in God’s presence. There is wisdom in this story, but it is God’s wisdom, not theirs.

Mary and Joseph must have been baffled too at these strange visitors with their even stranger gifts, but the arrival of these foreign Magi revealed God’s wisdom, the news that his son was for all people.

The Magi’s visit changed Mary and Joseph, just as it changed the Magi. Matthew tells us that they went home “by another way” – not just a geographical detail but a spiritual one also. And the message of the story is that we can, and need to, be changed as well.

This change can only come though, if we are open to the possibility that God’s wisdom can come to us through people who are utterly different from us, whose language and whose lives we don’t understand and whose experiences seem completely foreign. It can only come when we accept that there are pieces of the puzzle we didn’t even know we were missing,  questions we haven’t even thought of asking, voices we haven’t even realised we weren’t hearing. When we fail to notice them, we fail to notice God too. We may also need to learn that we have gifts to give and stories to tell, and if we don’t tell them, others will miss out on some of God’s precious wisdom for them.

The word epiphany means revelation. God revealed himself to the world in the Christ child two thousand years ago. But he also reveals himself in each of us, friend or stranger, because we are now the body of Christ. Let’s pray that in our rich and glorious variety, we might discover the mystery of God at work in us as we travel together through this New Year.


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