Here is the sermon I preached for Epiphany 2024 (we anticipated the feast by a few days and celebrated it on Sunday, 31 December, as the sometimes rather odd APBA Calendar suggested.) I don’t normally post my sermons, but a few people asked for a copy of this one.

I drew upon Warren Carter’s Matthew and the Margins and upon James Crossley and Robert J. Myles' Jesus: A Life in Class Conflict in preparing this.

Sermon text: Epiphany 2024

I begin by posing two questions for our consideration:

Do we want God to intervene in the world?

Do we want God to change the world?

Mary sang as she embraced the incarnation. She sang as she consented that Jesus would be born from her womb. Her song announced that God’s salvific entry into the world would have concrete consequences.

The mighty will be cast down from their thrones.

The lowly will be lifted up.

The hungry will be fed, filled with good things.

The rich will be sent away, with empty stomachs.

How do we feel about that? About the project of God? How will it affect us? Compared to most of the inhabitants of the world, Australians are rich, mighty. So do we really want to say yes to God? Do we really dare to say yes to God, even when God has declared an intention to upend the world?

God’s intent to bring about the Kingdom can be met with fear, or with joy - we see both responses in today’s Gospel.

First, we have magi. These men were foreigners, probably Zoroastrian astrologers – a faith that continues in the world today.

For a long time the term ‘magi’ was translated into English as ‘wise men.’ It wasn’t a good translation: scholars have looked at other texts from the time, and learned that Jewish leaders would not have seen the ‘magi’ as at all wise. Instead, they would have been viewed with a scepticism that bordered upon contempt. Some would have considered them charlatans, chancers, untrustworthy foreigners willing to proclaim the shape of the future in order to make a quick buck. Our Gospel never describes them as kings, and it never says that there are three magi.

Yet I’m sure they would have cast an imposing presence; they would have turned heads as they entered into Jerusalem… but they weren’t powerful figures, not when they were so far from their homeland.

The magi, these distant, Persian mystics, observing the sky from their homeland, looking for the outworking of the Divine in nature, saw a star grow brighter, and knew that the King of the Jews has been born.

They left their homes, perhaps formed a caravan – probably quite a procession, servants, animals, supplies – and travelled for hundreds of kilometres.

They left their places of comfort and power, and undertook a costly journey, so they might know more of what has happened, so they might find this new king… and at the end of their journey, they came to know great joy.

The contrast with King Herod could scarcely be greater.

This king, the father of the man who would, decades later, have John the Baptist put to death, ruled from Jerusalem, advised by the chief priests and the scribes. Herod used his power and his wealth, gathered from taxation of the poor outlying villages, for huge construction projects: including what amounted to a rebuild of the Jewish temple, that holy place dedicated to God.

Perhaps Herod thought that by spending that money, by making those improvements to places of worship, by giving money to support the clergy – people like me – that he’d done his bit for God, on his own terms. Herod, the King, was in control: and he liked it that way.

And so, when Herod learned from the magi that God was at work in his realm, and when the religious leaders confirmed that the birth of Jesus was an event long prophesied… Herod found himself suddenly under threat. His plans, his control were under threat… from God. His dynasty, at risk from the birth of a little child.

Herod, in his fear, got devious: he sent the magi on their way, hoping that they would act as his unwitting agents, and find this new usurper, so that the threat to his power, to his control, could be dealt with.

Let’s take a moment to place ourselves in the moment. Mary’s song, Mary’s pronouncement, is coming true. The powerful man feels fear. The strangers, dusty men from a distant land, feel great joy.

God has entered into the world, and means to turn it upside down. And Herod.. the powerful, the great, the mighty… Herod is going to do his best to thwart God.

Thwarting God… it sounds blasphemous, utterly wrong, perverse. And stated out loud, it sounds impossible to achieve: how can anyone thwart God Almighty? And yet, the efforts of the powerful to thwart God, to stop God’s project of reconciliation and renewal, and instead to maintain the status quo… those efforts are at the centre of the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

We are still in the season of Christmas… and yet the Cross already begins to loom large. Good Friday is less than thirteen weeks away. This is the grand story that we enter into, year after year after year. The story of the powerful trying to thwart God, even, in the end, killing God….

… only for their violence, their oh so human violence, to be transcended, for death to be forever put to flight, for the power of evil to broken through the self-sacrifice of Jesus, the Word of God, God with us.

And in this great story, we find also models of human willingness to respond to God, to walk with God, work with God, to give allegiance to God. First of all, Mary, who assented to God’s will, and bore Jesus, raised him, loved him, walked with him throughout his life. Joseph, who married Mary, and cared for his adoptive son, despite the scandal of his pregnant bride. Later, the disciples, the apostles, those women and men who, flawed as they were, struggled to serve their Lord and their God.

And the magi: those strange foreigners, almost unique in the gospels. The powerful who accepted that they would be humbled: and more than that, embraced that they would be.

In their homeland they likely weren’t just wealthy, but powerful too: part of the elite. And yet they said yes to God, and quite literally walked away from all of that, departing on a long march to a foreign city, where they lay upon their faces in the dirt before their new king: a baby boy, resting in the arms of his mother.

The magi said yes to God, not knowing what God was doing, not knowing the cost. And they refused to become agents of a powerful king. Warned by God, they departed in secret and in haste, protecting the Holy Family.

At the beginning of this sermon, I asked how we, ourselves, choose to respond to God’s plan. Do we say yes to God intervening in the world? Turning the world upside down? Changing the world in a way that we cannot anticipate, bringing forth Divine justice, lifting up the lowly?

Do we say yes to the judgment of God, trusting in God’s love and mercy?

Or… uncomfortably, do we find a better model for ourselves in Herod? That’s the challenge that Herod poses to us: he’s an example of what we should not be. Herod was happy to contribute to the cost of running the temple, happy to support the priests and the scribes… he was happy to chip in, so long as nothing really changed.

My friends, God is at work in the world. God will transform the world, so that all receive their daily bread.

It is for us, all of us, to answer the call of our baptism, and surrender our future to God.

To pray, to discern, to look for God in the world, as the magi did, and then dare to undertake the costly task of joining in. Amen.