10 January 2021

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Order of Service

Organ prelude: Voluntary in B flat – Vivace – Maurice Greene (1695 – 1755)


Call to Worship

On this Sunday celebrating Epiphany, we light the five candles and give thanks that Christ has come as the Light of the World, to destroy the darkness and to open the way to eternal life for us. We also light the candles for all who have sought or are seeking to know the presence of God and His love.

To those who are seekers and travelling in the darkness,
    the Lord comes as he came to the wise men.
To those who are not sure of the way and get lost,
    the Lord comes as he came to the wise men.
To those who keep looking and longing,
    the Lord comes as he came to the wise men.
To those who are watching and waiting,
    the Lord comes as he came to the wise men.
He comes to you today as he came yesterday.
He will come again tomorrow, as he came today.
He comes to you always.
Welcome him. Say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’

Rest in his presence and be aware of his love.
Let his presence be a light in your darkness.
    A candle in the dark.

[The five candles are lit]

The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us.
Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
from the rising of the sun to its setting,
your glory is proclaimed in all the world.
Your presence has brought light to our darkness
and new radiance to our world.
As you call us into His marvellous light,
may we offer our lives and talents to you,
may our lips proclaim your praise,
and may we go on our way rejoicing.
Blessed be God forever.
O God lighten our journey and direct our way.
As we seek your presence and long for you,
lead us until we come to bow before the Child of Mary:
guide us until we bow in love and adoration.
As we remember the journeying of the wise men,
and the offering of their gifts,
help us to give our hearts to Christ,
and to spend our lives in His service. Amen.

We three Kings of Orient are
Words and tune: John H. Hopkins (1820 – 91)

Introduction to the first reading
Isaiah originally wrote this as about the return of the people in exile in Babylon, to Jerusalem. In our time, my mind wanders to the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land after WWII, whatever we think of that now. For us as Christians, we see in it the significance of the caravans of camels, bringing gold and incense to the infant Jesus, to the light that has come in the darkness.

Reading – Isaiah 60: 1 – 6

Organ interlude: Chorale prelude on Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern – J. C. Bach (1642 – 1703)

Introduction to the second reading

This is a familiar story of the visit of the wise men to see the Christ-child. It comes after Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, which focuses on the line of Joseph, rather than on Mary’s role. There’s been plenty of speculation as to where these Magi came from, their religion, and how many of them there were. We just don’t know. Legend gives them names, Casper, Melchior and Balthazar, and even descriptions, but which they themselves might reject. They came to worship.

Reading – Matthew 2: 1 – 12

I read somewhere that if the three wise men had been three wise women they would have asked for directions sooner and arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, brought a casserole and given the child much more practical gifts!

Today we are using the readings for Epiphany in the lectionary, as they tie in with the last of our candle-lighting liturgy, which follows the last of the Advent course we had this week. It’s the visit of the wise men, and before the flight of the holy family to Egypt as refugees. Today we’re invited to wonder and worship, as we hear this story once again. We are invited to wonder about the mystery of the story and the symbolism of the gifts.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with that symbolism, which most Bible scholars take the gifts to mean. Gold is for kingship, signifying Jesus’ real self, his royalty, leaving the throne of heaven, and as the new-born King of the Jews. One scholar suggests God’s providence is seen in the gold as well: it provided the means necessary for the flight to Egypt, and to sustain the holy family in a foreign land, an idea I haven’t come across before.

Frankincense is the sign of Divinity, incense having been burned in the Temple as a pleasing aroma to God. It also denotes priesthood. With the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is the high priest who has entered the holy sanctuary and offered once and for all the gift of himself. Hebrews 7: 27 says, ‘Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.’ (NRSV)

We associate myrrh with death. It was the tree gum used for embalming. Nicodemus mixed myrrh with aloes, says John’s gospel, to anoint Jesus’ body before placing it in the tomb. It also reminds us of Jesus’ suffering – Mark’s gospel tells us Jesus was offered myrrh mixed with wine on the cross, to take the edge off the pain. So myrrh foretells the means by which Jesus would fulfil his purpose, his death on a cross.

Gold then looks to who Jesus is, where he’s come from – the eternal Godhead; frankincense looks to what Jesus does, his purpose; and myrrh looks to how he would fulfil that purpose. Often the symbolism ends there. But let’s dig a bit deeper. What about the wise men themselves?

We’re told they are astrologers who have discovered a new star that calls them on a long, hazardous journey. They came from the east. I’ve often imagined them to come from different countries, but actually in verse 12 the word ‘country’ is used, singular – one country in the east. That could have been what is now modern-day Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. Or maybe they were from even further east, from India or China.

We’ll never know, but it’s most likely reckoned that they were astrologers from Persia – now Iran – possibly priests in the ancient Zoroastrian religion, wealthy men of learning. They had a different language, clothes and customs. In the story, they symbolise foreigners, Gentiles, non-Jews.

The Christmas story says a lot about what concerns the heart of God. Jesus is born in a place where the animals are kept, not a palace – God regards the ordinary as worthy of him. Jesus is brought up a tradesman, not an academic – once again, ordinary, not blessed with money and influence. He was a refugee – God’s knowledge and help for those who find themselves without a home. Women are affirmed in the story by the coming of the Messiah through Mary. The first people to hear about the birth, the shepherds, were the outcasts of society in those days. And then God leads foreigners to worship him!

What’s the significance of the wise men being foreigners? Let’s turn to the Isaiah passage for a minute. I’ve read that passage a number of times before, but somehow it hadn’t quite clicked that here we have a prophecy of the wise men coming. The original words were for the Jews returning from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, to encourage those who were uncertain whether to return or to stay put. Even in the difficulties of returning, God’s light is with them – God is with them.

But it’s also a word of expectation for the future. One day, God’s glory will be so fully, wonderfully present that Jews will gather and Gentiles will be drawn to God. Instead of poverty, all the riches of the world will flow to Jerusalem. The light has come.

The purpose of this great coming together in Jerusalem isn’t to enrich God’s people but to give glory to God. The joyful thrill of seeing a richly laden camel-train coming towards the city gives rise to the joy of seeing others honouring God.

The journey of the Magi fulfils Isaiah’s vision, gifts and all. Yet for all the symbolism, the real reason they came was to worship the new-born king. We can ponder that . . . In a very real way, the worship was more important than the gifts. Dan Schaeffer says, ‘We are accustomed to thinking that the greatest gift of the Magi was gold, frankincense and myrrh. It wasn’t. The greatest gift they brought was their devotion; their willingness to endure whatever it took to find what God had promised them through the sign. Their physical gifts paled in comparison.’

We too are called to worship. As the new year unfolds, whatever it brings, we are called to worship, drawn to worship by the light. In the wonder of the Christmas story, the revelation of God’s glory has come to us in Jesus, has come to the whole world. We can know the wonder, the amazement of God’s presence with us, that God is for us, and bow down in worship.

Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come to live and die for us, as we are. So let us worship.

Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness
Text: John S. B. Monsell (1811 – 1875)
Tune: Was lebet, was schwebet – from Choral-Buch vor Johann Heinrich Reinhardt, 1754

Prayers of Intercession and the Lord’s Prayer
© ROOTS for Churches Ltd (www.rootsontheweb.com) 2002-2020. Adpt.

Lord of all,
As we think about what you may be saying through the story of the wise men,
Help us to welcome all those who are different.
Break down the barriers of our prejudice.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, you came as a little child, weak and vulnerable.
We pray for all who are vulnerable or in danger.
Protect them from those who would exploit or harm them.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, you came as light in the darkness.
Give hope to the oppressed and suffering.
We pray for those in our own fellowship who are suffering at this time,
and for those who are bereaved . . .
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, those who were your own did not receive you.
Soften hearts that are indifferent
or hostile to your grace and truth.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord, the wise men knelt in wonder at the infant king.
Reveal yourself to us, that we may worship and serve you as you deserve.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For your glory we pray, Amen.

We join together in the words of the Lord’s Prayer . . .

As with gladness men of old
Text: William C. Dix (1837 – 98)
Tune: Dix – Conrad Kocher (1786 – 1872)

Loving Lord,
Thank you that you show your light to us, and meet us where we are.
Help us to recognise your voice and your presence, always with us.
Bless us in this new year, and in the week ahead, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

Organ voluntary: Epilogue on ‘Dix’ – William H. Harris (1883 – 1973)