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People From Another Place

(A Sermon preached at St. Margaret’s church, Winnipeg, for their online Sunday worship)
(3 January, 2021)

(the Rev’d Canon) Tony Harwood-Jones

Much of what follows will be fun technical stuff about Church and Bible – possibly more suitable for a classroom than a sermon – but in the end I am going to leave you with some points to ponder, so bear with me...

First: technical church stuff:

We need to figure out what today is, in Christian observance: It can be variously described as: “The Tenth Day of Christmas;” “the 2nd Sunday of the Christmas Season;” or even “the Epiphany....”

The Tenth Day Of Christmas
Christians tend to let the celebration of a day run on for several days after the celebratory day.  For example, there is the concept of an “Octave” – eight days: first, the big day, then seven days after it.  This applies, in varying degrees, to a number of saints’ days and festivals.

Then, there are FIFTY days after Easter – set because the book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, on a Jewish festival that is usually set to take place fifty days after the Passover.

But, human beings seem to have more fun, these days, looking forward to an event, rather than celebrating it for days afterward.  Think: Hallowe’en month!  It used to be one day, but now homes are decorated with pumpkins and scary things for days and days prior to the event itself.  Then, immediately following October 31, they put on poppies for Remembrance Day.  But, the day after Remembrance Day – poof! – it’s gone.  And I don’t think I need to mention the period prior to the 25th of December, where we are urged to buy as much as we can, and think about a jolly old man in red clothes, trimmed with fur.

But, the Christian tradition, time out of mind, is to celebrate on the day, and then on the days that follow.  Hence, the Twelve Days of Christmas.

We’re in “Day Ten” of those twelve days.

The day after Christmas, this year, I had the experience of shouting at the television.  Some people do that when there is an athletic event going on, and they are either urging on their favourite athlete, or bawling out the referee!  Other people do it during Jeopardy! or other televised game shows, where they know the answer and call it out.  Well, there was an NBC commentator on the 26th of December who said, “Now that Christmas is over...,” and Tony Harwood-Jones in his living room shouted, “No it’s NOT!  We’re just on the Second Day of Christmas!”

This prompted me to do something on FaceBook, wherein I started to list the “days” of Christmas, and melded my daily posts with the silly song about the “Partridge in a Pear Tree.”  In that sequence of posts, we are now on the 10th Day of Christmas – the day of the “Ten Lords a-Leaping.”

One of my FaceBook ‘friends’ – indeed he is a friend whom I’ve known since he was a child – pointed out that today is his birthday, and thus, all his life he’s had the leaping lords to accompany his observance!  Indeed, I began to realize that a number of my friends have birthdays that fall within the Ten Days of Christmas, and they all, therefore, have their days marked by swans a-swimming, maids a-milking, and the rest.

So my friend, looking forward to celebrating his birthday today, kind of egged me on into mentioning those leaping lords in this sermon, and now I have risen to the occasion!  Happy birthday, Jonathan!!

All of which, of course, is a secular activity that is mixed in with the observance of Christianity.  And it should be noted that Christians were observing the Twelve Days of Christmas long before the partridge arrived in the pear tree.

And, despite that silly song of the Twelve Days, the church expects us to spend those twelve days reflecting on the birth of Jesus and its meaning: we remember it, in particular, on December 25, but the days afterwards are filled with remembrances of those first minutes, hours, days, weeks and months of Jesus’ life.  The 1st of January is called “The Feast of the Circumcision,” for on the eighth day of his life, Jesus was taken, according to Jewish custom and law, to be circumcised – his “bris!” 1  Then there is reflection on the massacre 2 of the kids in Bethlehem, done on the 28th of December.  There isn’t a lot of care for chronological order here, quite obviously, but the Bethlehem massacre is definitely part of the infancy stories of Jesus.

The Second Sunday of Christmas:
Then, if we were to say that today is primarily the “Second Sunday of Christmas,” we would find that the officially assigned Gospel reading for the day deeply, and theologically, enters into the meaning of Christmas.  It is, in fact, one of my all-time favourite Bible passages.  It begins this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity.  The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it....”  (then, toward the end of the reading:) “...the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only- begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth.” 3

Here, preeminently and wonderfully, is the Christmas message: that God Himself – the aspect of Almighty God that is communicative and reaches out; that speaks a “Word” – speaks to us by living among us, by being born as a human baby, without any unfair advantage, the same as us: needing to be fed, and changed, and taught to hold his knife and fork, and look both ways before crossing the street, and go to synagogue with Mom and Dad, and learn his Torah. 4

That is the Christmas message!  The passage that I read to you gives it to us profoundly, and that passage is to be read in church on the Second Sunday of the Christmas Season.

The Epiphany:
But, we didn’t read it just now.  What was read was the story of the visit of the Wise Men.  It is the reading scheduled for the Epiphany, which is always on the 6th of January – this coming Wednesday.

Given that it is on a fixed calendar date – the 6th of January – Epiphany usually falls on a weekday.  Thus, very few Christians find themselves celebrating it, since it so rarely falls on a Sunday.  And yet, every day, from the Epiphany until Lent, is called “the Epiphany Season” – which shows the importance that the church places on that day of celebration!

In fact, the visit of the Wise Men is so important in the church’s imagination, that many churches move the theme (and the Scripture selections) of the Epiphany, to the Sunday prior to January 6.  That is what we have done, here at St. Margaret’s, today; and it is what many of the parishes in this diocese, and around the world, have done.

So, in short, today we are on the Tenth Day of Christmas; we are on the Second Sunday of the Christmas Season; and, we are anticipating the Epiphany.

Now we’ll do some technical Bible stuff, turning to the Gospel story that was read here a few moments ago:

Technical Bible Stuff:
The story of the visit of the Wise Men can only be found in one Gospel.  Mark and John don’t describe Jesus’ birth at all.  Luke has shepherds, angels, no room at the Inn, and a manger, but no visit of the Wise Men.  It’s Matthew who has them, the star, the paranoid king, the massacre of children, and the holy family fleeing, as refugees, to Egypt.

Other technical details of Matthew include: the number of visitors from far away is not specified.  Tradition got the idea of THREE visitors, from the simple fact that there are three gifts listed: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

These people were not kings.  They were “magi” (Greek: μάγοι) – scholars, the scientists of their day.  But, the expensive gifts do suggest affluence!

Then, there is the line in the prophecy of Isaiah, read as our first reading today: it goes, “... and the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” 5  So, many people, in reflecting on that visit of the strangers from far away, thought, “This is fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah!  Those visitors were probably kings!”  Thus the story grew in the Christian imagination, to “We three kings of Orient are / bearing gifts; we traverse afar...”

Next, Herod massacres boys who are two years old, and under.6  And, as he didn’t merely go for the newborns, it’s likely that the Magi did not show up anywhere near to the day of Jesus’ birth!

As well, Matthew tells us that the holy family was in a house, when the Wise Men dropped in and presented their gifts – not a stable!  This suggests that Mary and Joseph were full time residents of Bethlehem, and didn’t just go there for a census, as it says in Luke.  Matthew says they only moved to Nazareth after returning to Israel from Egypt.

Finally, humans have loved to try and figure out what the star was, that led the Wise Men to Jesus.  It could have been a supernova, or an asteroid that orbited the earth before either moving on, or smashing into the atmosphere.  Or, it could have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which apparently happened close to that time, and happened on the 21st of December just past.

A lot of people suggest that what the Magi saw, was not a single object at all, but an astrological configuration – given that these gentlemen included astrology in their professional resumés.

And I suggest that we should not discount the possibility that this heavenly apparition was simply a miracle: something organized by the Maker of heaven and earth, to guide these three strangers who were coming from so far away, into the presence of the Saviour of the world.

We have settled that the church is vague, and has different ways of describing the days following Christmas; and we have established that Matthew and Luke tell vastly different stories of the birth of Jesus...

All the Gospels talk about the Crucifixion, and they are very consistent about that.  Birth stories are secondary – since people would only have started to try and find out who this extraordinary man was, long after he was born, and, indeed long after the death and resurrection.  Rumors and word of mouth would be collected – some remembering shepherds, some remembering strange foreign visitors, until they found their way into the Gospel narrative, one into Matthew, and the other into Luke.

The Christmas card of the twentieth and twenty-first century is basically a mash-up of Matthew and Luke – but, for our purposes, that doesn’t matter, because the message of Christmas is, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory...”

The story of the Epiphany, meanwhile, is that Gentiles came to the home of Jesus – the Word of God made flesh – and worshipped at his feet, when he was just a tiny little human being.

“Gentile” – in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin:
The importance of the Epiphany, to Christians, is simple: those strangers from far away were not Jews.  They were the first non-Jewish people to worship the Saviour.  Again, from that first reading today, Isaiah, chapter 60, verse 3: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”  I’m reading from the King James Version of that line.  The translation that was read today says that “the Nations shall come to your light...”  The Hebrew word being translated – in the one case, as “Gentiles,” and in the other, as “Nations” – is goyim, and any of us who have Jewish friends know that, in their world, non-Jewish people are called “goys” – the “goyim.”  So the verse said, in the original Hebrew, that “the goyim” will come to God’s light.  When the Hebrew was translated into Greek, it was rendered: the “ethnay” (εθνη) – a word from which we get “ethnic,” meaning racial – and thus it said that people of other races would come.  Then, when the line was translated into Latin, it became the “gentes” – people whose birth is other than ours – and that’s the word from which we get the English word, “Gentiles.”

These visitors to the holy family were the first of the goyim, the ethnay, the gentes, the “people not born among us,” to come and worship the Saviour.

The word “Epiphany,” meanwhile, means “shining around” as of a light illuminating its surroundings; in this case the light of Christ, shining on people from a different part of the world, from a different life than our own.  These visitors are strangers, born “from away.”

Now, everybody knows, I would assume, that the Hebrew scriptures – what Christians call the Old Testament – say, emphatically, that God chose a particular race for special care and attention.  God chose the Jewish race.  Thus, it became quite normal to say that those of other races, were NOT chosen by God, and therefore were not worth any care or attention.

I’ve said it in a sermon, quite recently, in this church – when I was talking about Jesus giving instructions to his disciples for dealing with somebody who is being obnoxious, and not sorry about it.  Jesus advised them to treat such an offender like a “Gentile” or a “tax collector,” two words that meant, “somebody you don’t want to have anything to do with.”

But here we have a story of God directing “Gentiles,” foreigners, despicable people to worship at the feet of Jesus.  And, since I, and most people accessing this sermon, are not likely to be ethnically Jewish, we can cheer, and say, “Hallelujah!  God called us, the Gentiles, into his special and beloved family!”  And, for the majority of Christians, that is exactly how to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.

But, while Christianity at its very beginning – in its earliest, persecuted, underground years – was a Jewish sect, today it is essentially a non-Jewish religion.  It honours its Jewish roots (though it hasn’t done so consistently over the centuries), but Christianity is now, essentially, a Gentile institution.  We, who are technically Gentiles, and comprise the majority of church members, may have to re-think what the Epiphany, the festival of God drawing the Gentiles to Jesus, might mean for us, today.

So, here we are at some “Points to Ponder,” with which I threatened you at the outset of this sermon.

Points to Ponder:

Are there people that you and I would consider to be “totally ‘other’,” and even “despicable,” as the Gentiles were once viewed by the Chosen People?

A good modern message of the Epiphany is “Inclusion.”  Old, young, gay, straight, male, female, Black, white, Asian, First Inhabitant, “settler” – can we think of these as “included” in God’s invitation to Jesus’ cradle?  And what about the “inclusion” of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Shinto, Animist... and Atheist?  Or... criminal?  Child abuser, spouse abuser, murderer, illicit drug dealer, thief...???

A wonderful message of the Epiphany is certainly to reach out to the poor, the homeless, the addict, the convict... and feed them, clothe them, and find a place for them to live in warmth and comfort.

But, the Magi came to Jesus, and worshipped at His feet.  Thus, a very important message of the Epiphany is: inviting people to give their lives to Jesus.

ALL of the people that I have mentioned, above, are invited to come to Jesus, to love Him, and to serve Him.  This will entail the religious conversion of some, and a change of behaviour for others.

We – those who are already to be found at Jesus’ feet – are certainly obligated to feed, clothe, nurse, and shelter anybody who needs it, but bringing them to know the love of Jesus is the name of the game.

So, the intention of this sermon is to leave you with two questions: (1) Who are the “Gentiles” of our day?  And (2) what would it look like if all God’s children were brought to the feet of Jesus; to join with us, and with those ancient sages, to be together in the presence of the Son of God, and to let His glorious light shine upon us all?

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© 2021, Tony Harwood-Jones

You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.


(These footnotes were not read as part of the sermon, but are here to assist with discussion and reflection)

1   B’rit milah, (literally, “covenant of circumcision”), also called a bris, refers to a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish community.  According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent’s obligation to circumcise a son on the eighth day of his life, and to offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (*chuppah*), and good deeds. See, for example, a website under the auspices of Reform Judaism, from which this definition is taken.
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2  See Matthew 2:13-18.
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3  From the Gospel of John.  John 1:1-18, as found in the Canadian Book of Common Prayer, page 106.  Some archaic terms are expressed, here, in contemporary English.
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4  Surely I do not need to explain that Jesus was a little Jewish kid!?!
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5  Isaiah 60:3, from the King James Version.
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6  Matthew 2:16.  This line is not part of the official reading for Epiphany, and was not read in the worship service at which this sermon was delivered.  It is read in churches on December 28th.
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