A Sermon for the Epiphany
January 5, 2024 at St George's Round Church (Halifax)
and January 7 at Christ Church
“Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you” (Isaiah 60:2). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
We are in a season of manifestation. God the Word has taken human flesh and manifested his glory, the divinizing glory which is ours as we are adopted into Christ’s sonship to the Father (John 1:14): Christmas. On the Eighth Day of Christmas, the Feast of the Circumcision, the Christ Child is manifested a member of human community, as a person with a name, Jesus. His circumcision is also Jesus manifestation to the Jews. God becomes a person subject to the law, so that in him the law might find fulfillment.
So today is the Manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, rather than to the Jews. We celebrate God’s self-revelation to the nations of the world.
Now, this has a wonderful symmetry, but does the contrast between Jews and Gentiles mean anything to us?—besides, that is, a biblical and historical curiosity. We understand that the church struggled to include Gentiles at first, but now we find ourselves two millennia later in a global fellowship. Why do we continue to celebrate the inclusion of the nations, when, being honest, we do not really feel that our inclusion in the church was ever in jeopardy because of our national identity?
We celebrate because the world is full of dark gods, but we have been gathered out of the nations to worship the Light of the World. As the Prophet Isaiah says, “Behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you” (Isaiah 60:2).
Biblically, the difference between the nations of the world and Israel is not primarily one of ethnic identity or cultural practices, but a difference of divinities. But centuries of rigorous monotheism have somewhat blinded us to the how the Bible speaks realistically about the gods whom other nations worship.
For example, Deuteronomy 32 says that “when the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (v 8–9). The “sons of God” is an Old Testament idiom for spiritual beings who make up the court of heaven. These are the same “sons of God” who gather before the heavenly throne in Job 1, or who misbehave with human women in Genesis 6. The point in Deuteronomy is that, in the mythic pre-history of Genesis, each nation of the world was entrusted to a guardian spirit—spirits whom Christians and Jews would later say fell from grace by consenting to be worshipped as gods—but that Israel has no national god other than the Most High himself. The Lord, I AM THAT I AM, is the God of gods.
The same idea appears in Exodus when God says to Israel, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, … and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5–6). The nations of the world belong each to its god, but Israel belongs to the Lord alone as his particular possession. Israel is therefore as a priestly mediator to the nations of the world who have fallen into worshipping their guardian spirits.
If we think that this strange, almost polytheistic portrait of the spiritual universe belongs only to Old Testament, we are very mistaken. For example, referring directly to the passage in Exodus, St Peter writes that the church is “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, which proclaims the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The church is God’s special possession, a nation which belongs to him rather than the to spirits of the age. Christians are called out of the darkness of false worship into the light of truth, and therefore act as a priests to the rest of the world, a world which is in thrall to destructive spiritual forces.
And it appears in our Epistle today. St Paul proclaims the “mystery … which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, … that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs (Ephesians 3:3–6). And he says this mystery is now being revealed “unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places” (v 10). His argument depends on what we have seen in the Old Testament. In former ages Israel alone was the heir of God, the only nation living under the particular influence of the God whose name is I AM THAT I AM. But now in Christ the nations have been adopted into the special care of the God of Jacob, “grafted” (as St Paul says elsewhere) into the vine of Israel (Romans 11:17–24). This constitutes the triumph of the Almighty over the false gods of the nations, over the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Hell has been spoiled, its inhabitants set free, and its rulers put to shame.
So, when St John’s Revelation proclaims that “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ” (Revelation 11:15), this is technical language and an essential gospel proclamation. In light of the redemption of the entire human race by the God-man Jesus Christ, the gods of the nations have been disinherited, and now God is gathering all people to join Israel as his own peculiar possession.
This mystery is accomplished at the cross and in the empty tomb, but in this season of manifestation it is shown forth in advance. Three camels wander into Bethlehem bearing the tribute of the nations and the worship of their kings.
Ancient prayers remember what this scene means for our relationship the gods of our times and places. In the Eastern church, the troparion paired with our Gospel reading for today, a short hymn equivalent to our Collect, says “Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone on the world the Light of knowledge; for by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Dayspring from on High. O Lord, glory to You!” For us, living in darkness meant worshipping what is not God, bowing down before all the stars in the dark night. But now we have been shown wisdom, and fall down only before the Sun of Righteousness whose splendour obfuscates the rest.
Our world has many gods. In a time very much our own, St Paul proclaimed that “covetousness is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5), because envy is the way that we worship at the altar of that ancient deity Acquisition. St Paul understood that we are not so much individuals whose actions express free choices, as subjects of spiritual powers who act in us and to whom our actions testify. So, for Paul, the solution for destruction of self and destruction of others—the devastation that comes from worshipping the gods of our age—is not simply to make better choices, but to seek in Jesus a new principle of life. The solution to idolatry is renew one’s incorporation into Christ, to become again a member of the body in which he alone acts as head.
We must make the magi pilgrimage. We celebrate the manifestation of our Lord to the
nations so that we can return again, leaving behind our idols, to the moment when Christ becomes our king and our God.
I, for one, have long worshipped many gods I should not, the gods of my time, the gods of of my people—so today is a day of freedom for me. As we open the treasures of our hearts and worship at this altar, the Almighty takes us as his own peculiar treasure, as a people chosen to live under his star.
So lift up your hearts with thanksgiving, and leave behind on earth whatever obedience you still offer to the destructive powers this age.