All-Age Talk for Epiphany

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Matthew 2:1-12
Willingham All-Age 10.30am Service
Epiphany (8.1.2012)

I expect that most of you have taken down your Christmas decorations but I haven’t! Anyone else not yet? (For those who think it is ‘unlucky’ to leave your decorations up past 12th night you have a problem. If you really believe in the superstition that the gods of the greenery really do escape out of the decorations and take residence in your house after 12th night do come and see me about it afterwards!)

On Friday it was the Feast of the Epiphany and that’s still Christmas and that’s what we are celebrating today. After telling you that I’m not too keen on Christmas and then how much I dislike New Year celebrations you might be pleased to know that I’m a real fan of Epiphany. It’s good! You may have decided that Christmas is well and truly over and that it is rather strange today to come to church and hear a reading about the three wisemen! Isn’t it a bit strange – surely we’ve done all of this once already?

Well no it isn’t! This is all a very western thing. And the Eastern churches very much have this right in celebrating Epiphany and the coming of the Magi as separate from the stable scene. For this gives it its true significance because until now the coming of God’s Son to Mary and Joseph in the stable at Bethlehem was a Jewish thing.

He was to be the Messiah, the one who was to save God’s people. But all of this had no significance for the rest of the world until the Magi, the wise men arrived. They signify that God is offering salvation to the whole world - they are themselves Gentiles and they will take the good news back to their own countries to begin the work of God’s salvation.

To us in the west who are accustomed to hearing this part of the Christmas story earlier than Epiphany it might be a bit of a surprise to learn that we shouldn’t have been celebrating this until now! But that too is a good thing because God is a God of Surprises! And this passage can sometimes surprise us too.

It is a passage that provides lot of reassurance about our faith. It’s full of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. (Isaiah 60:1-6) and the actual gifts brought by the wise men point to the fact that God’s plan was indeed all worked out beforehand.

Ask children to find the 3 gifts hidden round church. Gold is the most valuable of all substances and is used as a baseline for many other values. Its worth a lot and is used for the most important people and occasions - a crown, for example, is likely to be made of gold. It speaks of Jesus’ kingship and was also a costly gift for the Magi to bring.

Frankincense is an incense used in worship and so it speaks of holiness. It is symbol of being priestly.

Myrrh is an anointing oil used on dead bodies. It speaks of Jesus being set aside for a special task - to die for us on the cross. (The nearest equivalent is embalming fluid.)

It could be said to be a passage that shows predictability - which it does in one sense. But it also shows the reverse too - that we cannot predict His actions. And we can see this in the way Matthew shows us such contrasting responses to Jesus. Matthew shows us how His coming always divides people. Here at the very start of His life we see two camps forming - one full of praise and welcome; the other full of hatred and opposition. Herod and the Magi stand out in strong contrast, a contrast that will deepen as the story of Jesus’ life unfolds towards the cross.

The Magi have undertaken a long, dangerous and unknown journey. It appears that the star was not always visible (v9). Their journey was an act of total dedication and obedience. God met them in their study of the stars. This is a surprise in itself because astrology is not compatible with the Christian faith and yet God met them where they were and drew them on until they sought Him wholeheartedly.

But Herod and the Jewish clergy have done just the opposite. The chief priests and teachers of the Law (v.5) knew that the king of the Jews was to be born in Bethlehem. The king of the Jews - and yet even when they discover that the non-Jewish Magi are following the star to the king they still choose not to go and investigate! Their apathy stands in total contrast to the diligence of the Magi whose obedience is infinitely preferable to the knowledge of the scribes and pharisees. Similarly Herod’s hatred and fear stands in self-centred opposition to the Magi’s wholehearted praise and dedication to the real king.

To a certain extent perhaps we might say who could blame those who failed to recognize this real king. They would have been expecting someone very different, someone more royal and majestic. King Herod is a king - not a good one - but he lives the sort of high-flying life expected of a king. And yet here is THE king born in a stable!  Not at all what was expected from the predictions they have misread.

And yet the wise men are not thrown by this - they have recognized Him as king of the Jews (v2) a title which stands in contrast with Herod’s own position at this time. And they have brought their expensive presents. Perhaps it would have been understandable if having seen the poverty of His birth they might have decided to hang on to their gifts? But no they recognize in this bundle of humility and vulnerability the God who is worthy of honour and praise.

But for me my favourite verse in this passage is verse 12 “Then they returned by their country by another road since God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod”. They are to go back by a different way - they have seen salvation - and thus eternal life. They are not to go back by the way of death. They are to go back a different way - everyone who meets Jesus must go a different way. We must be changed by the meeting and return a different way. That’s as true for us today as it was for the wisemen.

We’re not always so wise though - we don’t always make the most of Christmas - too busy - too hassled and rushed and cluttered. We often get it wrong. Do you know even long after this world-shattering event Jesus’ birth date was to be miscalculated by a monk. We well might get upset if someone we love gets our birthday wrong - how could a monk get Jesus’ wrong? But the true significance of Christ is not always clearly seen is it? The Magi were indeed wise men for recognizing Jesus when the scholarly educated Jewish clergy didn’t - they sought Him wholeheartedly as wise men and women still do - they gave to Him without counting the cost - as wise men and women still do. Then having met with this amazing God of Surprises wise men and women today will also be so changed that they indeed have to go by a different way.

Let’s try and put ourselves in the place of the wisemen by looking at the gifts again - gold, frankincense and myrrh. Let’s try and find modern day equivalents? (get child to unwrap)

Gold - a most costly gift for the Magi to bring. At this point invite someone to unwrap the cheque book. As they unwrap it explain that God gives us all we have, and we can only give back to him what he’s already given us. We offer him our money because it sums us up - our work, our homes, our priorities. If we value our relationship with God it’ll be no hardship to offer him our money and the things we treasure.

Incense to remind us of holiness - gets swung over things in some churches - unwrap the diary. God wants all of our lives to be holy - every day, not just on Sundays. He doesn’t necessarily want our homes or churches to be filled with incense, but he certainly does want them to be full of his love and truth. We become more holy as we allow God to enter our lives day by day.

Myrrh speaks of Jesus being set aside for a special task - to die for us on the cross. The point is that first we must ‘die to sin’, as Paul puts it, by confessing what we’ve done wrong and being open to receive God’s forgiveness through the death of Jesus. Then we offer our whole lives to God for him to direct and use. Unwrap mirror. These are to help us think about what bit of our old life we might want to die to - to change. Or maybe what we might want to give Jesus today - or think about how far we are prepared to go for Jesus? Money - time - repenting and giving up some little bit of our old life.

I’ve got a small piece of shiny mirror-like silver card here for everyone – please take one home with you to help you think and then remind you of what you might want to die to and give to God.