New Year can be unsettling. It is a time when we look back, perhaps with regret as well as gratitude, as well as looking forward, perhaps with fear as well as hope. It can be a moment of uncertainty as to what the future may hold. This story carries the same tension – backward glances as well as decisive actions that enable transformation and hope. Herod takes us back – back to all the tyrants in history including the Pharaoh who sought the life of Moses; back to the endless grief of too many mothers then and now weeping for their children.
Joseph takes us forward, acting decisively to save his family, taking the risk of a new beginning that ultimately enables a return to Nazareth. But we can be sure that he, Mary and Jesus did not return to Nazareth unchanged. Their refugee experience shaped and enriched them, and in so doing shapes and enriches us.
Epiphany means revealing and begins a season in which we reflect upon key moments of divine revelation in the Jesus story. Can we open our eyes, hearts, and lives more fully to these extraordinary things?
We begin with the tale of the Magi, full of symbols expressing the profound significance of Christ’s birth in relation to later events and its ultimate meaning. The Magi themselves represent the world’s wider deep wisdom traditions and encourage us to show the same humility to the light and truth that we can find in other faiths and in those who journey in them. The Light of Christ thus shines for all the world and connects with each and every culture and pathway to God. Each of the Magi’s gifts similarly resound with significance: speaking, respectively, of the ultimate power of God’s love (in the gold of a king); of the sacred nature of divine love in human form (in the frankincense of a priest); and of the transforming work of suffering love (in the myrrh of redemptive offering).
If such life-giving wonders are revealed, God’s light also reveals fear and false power-seeking in the figure of Herod. For truth uncovers sin and evil as well as releasing the good and bringing healing. Epiphany hence both celebrates Christ and displays the cost and wisdom needed to respond.
There are some actions in life that change things for ever. They often begin with the smallest of words, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. They are often taken without full understanding of their implications, and we even have a sense that some things still need working out but we need to do them anyway. John must have been thoroughly confused by Jesus coming to him for baptism – but he consents. It is an act of trust.
We too encounter moments when the only response that can enable us to move forward is one of trust. Our heads may still have questions, but our hearts hear the words of Jesus, ‘let it be so for now’, encouraging to let go of our need for certainty and control and open ourselves to the ongoing call of God.
‘What are you looking for?’. There are so many answers to this question. Some of us look for relationship, some for success, some for security. Sometimes all such things come disguised as a search for God, for belonging, for homecoming, which is perhaps why the disciples return Jesus’s question with one of their own, ‘where are you staying’. They sense in Jesus a true home, a place to stay and remain – a place where all their longings can be transformed. Exactly what that means will play out differently for each of us, but here at the start of John’s gospel we are offered a key to all that will follow. To ‘come and see’ Christ’s dwelling place is to discover what it is to rest in the love of God and find there all that we seek.
Jesus only says two things here – ‘repent’ and ‘follow me’. Repentance isn’t over popular as an idea in our context. Too often we hear condemnation in the word. But in reality, it is about a turning point; about those moments when we reassess things and choose a different direction. The gospel makes it all sound very sudden, and it may have been – there are moments of abrupt change in our lives. However much more often we change slowly. Only when we look back do we recognise the turning points. What are the turning points that you can see in your life today?
What new paths are opening up for you and where can you hear the voice of God inviting you to follow?
A friend from Fiji reminded me of their grandmother’s instruction each day to them as they left the house, ‘go and be a gift’. What a challenging yet encouraging instruction! We can never fully know the blessing we can be to others, often those we may not even know. We may imagine that our giftedness, the blessing we have to offer is something to be achieved by our best efforts. Yet Jesus here teaches that we are most blessed when we are incapable of striving; when we are at the limit of our own resources; when we are poor and persecuted and suffering. In the extraordinary alchemy of God our desolation becomes consolation and the means of transformation for ourselves and others.
These reflections were prepared by Rev. Dr Jo Inkpin of Pitt Street Uniting Church