Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Epiphany, Year B - Mucknell Abbey
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Sermon for the 1st Sunday of Epiphany, Year B

7th January, 2024

The Community here at Mucknell is, as with any group, made up of diverse individuals with varying opinions on just about everything! As such, sermons posted on our website represent the ideas of the preachers who wrote and delivered them, not necessarily those of the entire Community.

Yesterday we celebrated the magi visiting the infant Jesus; Jesus is revealed to the world as king.  Today we commemorate the baptism of Jesus; Jesus is revealed as Son.  At the end of Epiphanytide, we remember the presentation of Jesus in the Temple; where Simeon proclaims him the light to lighten the Gentiles.  On the Sundays in between now and then, the Gospel readings have Jesus shown as: the Rabbi, proclaimed by Nathanael as Son of God and King of Israel; the miracle worker turning water to wine – authority over the physical realm; the healer casting our demons – with authoritative power over the spiritual realm.

It is one epiphany after another!  Light, light and more light being shed on Jesus.  Is that why the lectionary compilers chose as our first reading today God creating light Chapter 1 of Genesis?

All these Epiphanies – showings – are intended to flaunt before us just who Jesus is, in layer upon layer of meaning and more than a few nods to the prophecies of the past.  The whole of God’s saving action is deliberately focused by the Gospel authors into these intense symbolically rich moments of epiphany.

But the light is too bright.

The glare created by the Gospel writers is too much.  Their desire for their readers – us – to realise exactly who this is and therefore to believe in him, well, it teeters on the far-fetched: Magi in a stable; doves and heavenly voices; fulfilled prophecy.  I mean.  Come on.  Really?  It is OTT.  A post-scientific, postmodern, cynical age cannot hear this message.  Instead of pointing to Jesus, these epiphanies tend to obscure him and make him unbelievable, in all the brightness of myth and magic.

So where do we look, if not at the glaring headlines?

If the light is too bright, perhaps we need to step into the shadows to find what else is going on.

While our attention was on the dazzling gifts of the Magi  (gifts signifying so much – a whole other sermon in themselves) we have overlooked the other king: Herod.  Insecure puppet ruler for the Roman state, paranoid, cruel, impulsive, vain, suspicious.  He is precisely the proud scattered in the thoughts of their hearts (vain conceit as some translations of the Magnificat have it).  He sees threats everywhere invented by his own mind.  He clings to his power, saves face, at all costs.  His is a very deep (and murderous) despotic darkness.

But then, in contrast to that thick darkness, some new things emerge that we overlooked, dazzled as we were by the gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Magi – they trust (enough not only to embark on a journey – a perilous thing in itself – but they trust that what they leave behind [family, property, responsibilities, even government] will be fine without them).  They are generous – giving away costly gifts.  They are secure – not to be fearful of another ruler.  They are committed – doggedly following the star.  They have the humility to admit they could be wrong – they actually ask directions!  They are curious and inquisitive, wanting to know about the world – the wonder of natural phenomena and its peoples in far off places.

Out of the deep dark shadows, we begin to notice the presence of hearts that rest in a very different place from Herod’s heart.  The Magi’s openness and willingness to reach out beyond themselves – and risk – shimmers into view.  It is here – in their openness – that Jesus meets them, and us.

Let us turn to Jesus’ baptism.  What do we see if we look outside the spotlight that is surrounding the central figures of John and Jesus?

There are crowds.  They are in the wilderness, the desert.

Their “desert”, and ours, is as much figurative and interior as it is sand dunes.  There is within them – in all of us – a measure of emptiness, unpredictability, and chaos that we desperately want to dispel, or mask, or flee from.  These are the same fearful, anxiety-inducing forces that nudge human beings into the realm of Herod (and others we could all name from history and the pages of our newspapers).  Away from the spotlight we see the darkness of swirling, frenzied lives.  We see people urgently searching for something better.  The glimmers of hope emerge in their longing for that better.  They are drawn by the promise of forgiveness.

We read this week in our mealtime book about the writing on forgiveness of the philosopher Hannah Arendt.

She said that “forgiveness…is the only reaction [to wrong acts done to us] which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly.”   Forgiveness releases human beings from vengeful reactions.  We can [choose to] act in ways that are not pre-determined or compelled by someone else’s trespasses against us.  Forgiveness, releases people from what Arendt calls the “predicament of irreversibility” and allows us in some measure to undo the past so that we are not bound by previous mistakes, whether done to us or by us (if we can manage also to forgive ourselves)

What John the Baptist does in the desert is to call people to take the risk of reaching out beyond themselves for forgiveness.  He invites us to begin to learn to sever the cycles of vengeance, retribution, hatred. and, with hearts transformed by the forgiveness of God, to become people with new life, new purpose, new direction.  It is here that Jesus meets them – in their openness and desire for forgiveness and change.

Lastly, the epiphany in the Jerusalem Temple.  Jesus is revealed as the light to the Gentiles by the devout old man Simeon and aged Anna.

Away from the centre of that stage, what do we see?  The darkness of the uncertainty of Jesus’ future, an ominous destiny for the rising and falling of many.  The image of a sword piercing a mother’s heart at the fate of her son. 

Yet, two anxious parents do risk handing their precious baby to a complete stranger.  They cross that barrier of uncertainty and reach out to the “other”.  Only by trusting this child to his future can it come to be.  Also, there are already in the Temple, worshippers who are looking for redemption, who are ready to hear Anna’s words about the child.  There are people seeking a different way, a different world. Longing.  Searching,  Praying.     Hoping – even if those hopes have no definite shape or plan, they are reaching into the uncharted territory of God’s future with just as much faith and openness as the Magi stepping out on their journey, with all the vision for a different and better future that the crowds at the Jordan held in their hearts…and perhaps we also have, at the beginning of a new year, however tenuous and tentative.

Of course, spot-light centre stage of all these cameos is Jesus. The Light of the World.  The people who draw nearer to him (whether strangers drawn by astronomical phenomena; people allowing their hearts to embrace forgiveness on the banks of the Jordan; or worshippers in the Temple with Simeon and Anna) each finds that Jesus’ light – his presence – casts the shadows differently.

The shadows and the darknesses do not have to be bad things in themselves, or bad places to be.  The contrasts they throw into relief can show us the things that are there in the light but beyond its brightness.  Shadows are places that are there, just beyond the searing light.  Shadows give definition, and correspondingly allow and admit ambiguity.  Shadows are places we often find ourselves.  The shadows may well be the places where we can begin to make our way into the light without being blinded or burnt.

God is not absent the shadows.  It was over the formless void of the darkness that the dove-like Spirit hovered.  It was into the face of the deep that God spoke, and light came not (at least in the Biblical text) as blazing nuclear flash but as emerging dawn.  Both the dark and shadows of evening, and the glimmers and shafts of morning were needed to create the first, whole, day – and that day is good.

From the beginning, God risked.  A risk always involves a stepping towards the other, or a stepping away from where one is, with no security of outcome.  God stepped into the darkness, the chaos.  God stepped into human swirling, unformed longing.  God stepped into the detritus of the human “river” and was baptised, emerging into the light again to “fore-shadow” for us that beyond sin and death is resurrection life and love.

Maya Angelou has a poem, sometimes called “Love’s Exquisite Freedom”

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

Sr. Alison

Image: Baptismal font, with carving of John baptizing Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55201 [retrieved January 8, 2024]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gog/66711674/.