Epiphany: Three Kings and a love for strangers

by Liz Young

(Based on Matthew 2:1-12 and the Anglican Collect for first Sunday of the year)

All of us are welcome in Christ’s Church – His Love is for everyone.

The three readings today emphasize that we are all welcome in Christ’s church, irrespective of our natal culture. Isaiah prophesied, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”. The Matthew reading is the story of the visit of wise men from the East, possibly Zoroastrians, to honour the birth of Christ, and Paul, a Roman citizen and a Jew, having been converted on the road to Damascus, writes to the Christians in Ephesus that they, and we, have become fellow heirs and sharers, in the promise of Christ Jesus in his power and Love.

These words are reiterated in the ‘Collect’ for this Epiphany season:

“Almighty God, revealed to the world through prophecy, sage and star,

Open our hearts to see your presence in all humanity,

to bow down in adoration

and bring unity and inclusion to a divided world,

For you are alive and reign with the Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit , one God, now and forever.”

The beginning, ‘Open our hearts to see your presence in all humanity’ is a prayer we should remember each morning, as we face our children, or friends, going on about their favourite theories over the meal table, or we watch Donald Trump making amazing fictitious statements, or wonder about Putin’s motives. 

I’ve been privileged to watch at least 600 births and the joy of the crowning moment and the safe delivery, never diminishes. It’s felt by everyone in the room. Even though a couple of days later you will be watching a new mother struggling with breast feeding, and coming to terms with her new responsibilities. Responsibilities which change over time but never leave us as parents. It’s certainly easier to cope with children if you look for the Christ in them, the moments of innocence and the spontaneous demonstrations of love. My three sons all changed for the better when they became fathers. The love that you give children in infancy will set them up for life: if a child never experiences love, in that first year of life, they will find it very difficult to feel love themselves, and towards others.

Alternatively, I’ve met women who I feel were born with a double dose of oxytocin, the socializing hormone: they are able to extend and surround you with warmth. Not forgetting the men I’ve met who must have inherited a natural warmth, have had it nurtured in infancy, and not had it suppressed by school or work experiences. So my message for today is, demonstrate love at all times and look for love in all you meet. For God loves life – His creating never stops. God is Love: the enduring, patient kind. God is beauty; let’s be aware of nature’s beauty all around us each day, and develop our passion for beauty. We must seek, absorb and trust love in all its ‘humanizing’ forms; this helps us strive towards the divine. We will trust the stranger, and welcome him into our hearts. We will not be afraid of the different, the ‘not-us’. We who pray together already know this. And let us thank Bruce (Gilberd) for sharing his book of prayers with us, giving us a thoughtful, heartening start to each day.

Today’s Collect goes on to ask us to ‘bow down in adoration’.

The wise men brought their treasures as gifts: gold, symbolizing earthly Kingship, frankincense, a very expensive perfume, and myrrh, used for anointing, recognizing the birth of a very holy person. They may have been Zoroastrians, a Persian religion then 500 years old. They knelt down to present their gifts, an act of honour to the child. Joseph would have known the value of these gifts: which one would have been the lightest? Would he have buried the gold and carried the frankincense with them to Egypt as housekeeping money?

And the prayer continues: ‘Bring unity and inclusion to a divided world’.

Unity begs the question, what divides us ?   Difference. When I was eleven my mother invited a Nigerian couple to share Christmas with us. I’d never seen a black person before and I was conscious of a reflex withdrawal, which I hadn’t had with strangers before. I realized it was innate. But in time I changed. As a medical student I worked in a mission hospital in the Transkei, one of the Bantu areas in South Africa. Meeting the nurses and working with them meant that reflex disappeared. My enduring memory is of going on the annual official medical visit to the leper colony to see who was fit to be discharged: I was horrified, that all these men had to walk past us, white coated medics, naked, to have their nerves in their arms and legs examined for thickening. They were sweating profusely. I never knew if it was from fear or embarrassment, but I felt as one with them.

So how do we create unity? What brings us together?  Common goals, shared worship and regular hospitality offered to all. God’s top priority is the creation of a world in which material goods are shared equally. Where no-one is forgotten or left out. Our commitment to the spiritual journey is not a commitment to pure joy, but to taking responsibility for the whole human family, its needs, and their destiny. We are not on our own. No man is an island unto itself. We belong to everyone else.  May we all work together in unity in this coming year, and act on the Collect for today, opening our hearts to see Christ’s presence among us. Amen.

The pheasant spoke to me

It occurred to me as I was driving that a smile, in the right conditions, can be like a pheasant (in the right conditions). There were dry fields to left and right of us as we cruised across the Hauraki Plains, and suddenly from the long grass at the side of the road burst a pheasant, which flew low and boldly in front of us.

The bursting bird (so to speak) reminded me of an almost inconsequential moment whilst walking, a few years ago, in a Hamilton suburb.  A hunched, tattooed and hoodied man approached from the opposite direction, but I stifled my inner pre-judgement and looked him in the eye and nodded.  He returned the most lovely smile – a flash of teeth and a warmth I never anticipated.  And we walked on our ways.

I experienced the same joy as the pheasant flew across our bow, and I remembered the smile – and other similar experiences over the years.  Of small bursts of beauty in an otherwise bland wilderness.  Being surprised by joy – now that is really something.  CS Lewis used the phrase as the title of his autobiography.  “It was something quite different from ordinary life,” he wrote, “and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension’.”

Most of us have experienced it, this being surprised by a smile, or a pheasant, and recognised it.  Or perhaps we have recognised it but not realised it, if you get the distinction.  So, be alert for it.  Make note now: mentally note when ‘joy’ surprises you, because it is often lost; it can disappear so quickly from the mind.  And draw full benefit from the pheasant bursting from the long grass or that smile from within the hoody.  Let that almost guilty pleasure of a surprising blessing in a mundane setting animate you to the point of unbounded joy.

Then pass it on if you can.

Ken F

The Long Wait

By Barry Pollard

(Based on Luke 2:22-40)

The theme that sprung out in reading Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus at the temple was “anticipation”.  Reading deeper and dwelling upon the narrative, I realised it was a little more than that – more like “patient waiting”.

Any child, and any of us young at heart, will be able to tell about anticipation. Growing up, the excitement  of Christmas began to build from the time we changed out of our winter school uniforms and we changed to our summer sports. That meant we were nearly finished with school and it would soon be Christmas. Holidays, swimming, roaming free, summer antics, then presents! This prolonged anticipation was a very pleasant and motivated state indeed. The build-up was relentless and the childhood excitement exponential!

Having just celebrated Christmas, we probably all remember, or experienced again, some of those childhood anticipatory elements. In a sense the season of Christmas has had its climax and we are sliding gently out the other end of it. That was how I was approaching this reflection until I started my research and in-depth reflective reading.

Jesus had been born in humble circumstances in Bethlehem. His parents, Mary and Joseph, took him to the temple on the eighth day to be circumcised, as was expected under Mosaic law, and was the custom. At this time he was named Jesus, the name given to Mary by the angel before she conceived.

Now, in keeping with other laws, the couple showed up at the temple to complete the purification rites expected forty days after the birth. The purification included the presentation of a boy child at the temple to be dedicated to the Lord. Sacrifice was required to accompany the dedication and, depending on wealth, a range of animals could be offered, from a one-year old lamb to turtle-doves and pigeons. Joseph and Mary offered a pair of birds, speaking to the humble life into which Jesus had been born.

And in the story of Luke’s Gospel today, this is where I got hooked. In the background, perhaps lurking, was an old man. He was a constant temple inhabitant, known for his righteousness and devotion, showing up daily to wait. For a very long time this man, Simeon, had been waiting to see the Messiah born. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would live until he had witnessed this event. So, day after day he watched and waited, looking upon each child presented at the temple with expectation and anticipation.

To get a sense of the level of anticipation I expect Simeon to have experienced, we may be helped by this: According to tradition in the Orthodox Churches, Simeon had been one of the seventy-two translators of the Greek Old Testament. At one point he hesitated over the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (“Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”) and was going to alter it to “woman will conceive”. An angel appeared to him and told him that he would not die until he had seen the Christ born of a virgin. This would make him well over two hundred years old at the time of the meeting described in Luke, and therefore miraculously long-lived.

The point of this is that Simeon was very old and had been waiting in anticipation for a very long time!

Consider this: Simeon had been promised that he would see the Messiah, the Christ, and that promise had been made many, many years before it was fulfilled. Simeon must have lived those days, years, decades perhaps even centuries with hope, trust, expectation, and anticipation. Every day for weeks, months, years, decades, yes even centuries, Simeon would have been left waiting and wondering. “Is this the day? Is this the day I will see salvation? Is this the day I will experience the fulfilment of the promise?”

I can’t see Simeon pondering the negative. I don’t think he doubted the angel’s revelation.

Simeon’s life was one of expectation, anticipation, and waiting. And most of us have had times in our lives characterised by expectation, anticipation, and waiting, in the same way. We’ve likely all stood in that place waiting for and needing something to happen, living in expectation and hope, anticipating the future, and wondering if today was the day.

Our stories may differ from Simeon’s at this point: It may have been that we, too, got up each morning but then had to decide whether we still believed in God’s future or whether we would give up.

We all know what it’s like to wait:  waiting for life to change, for the grief to go away, for a prayer to be answered, for joy to return, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for clarity about a decision, for meaning and purpose, for healing and new life. And this is what our family is waiting on today – our expected grandson is being induced tomorrow due to intrauterine health complications. We wait and hope for all sorts of things.

We have all sorts of hopes and expectations for what God is doing in our lives and our world. I think we are all here with some hope, some need, some expectation. We come trusting and anticipating the promise that God is present and working in our lives even if we can’t see or clearly understand what that might be. So we show up and we wait for the answers. Just like Simeon did.

For all those years Simeon continued to show up. He continued to be vigilant and attentive. He continued to trust the promise. He continued to wait with hope and expectation. He never despaired. He never walked away from the promise. I see the miracle for Simeon, and for us, is in the showing up.

Sometimes showing up is the most difficult work we do and it takes all we have to just show up. But it’s always the question before us. Will we continue to show up? Will we be awake and vigilant? Will we live with hope and trust? Showing up is the means through which God fulfils the promise to us and to Simeon.

Simeon thought he was waiting for the child to show up, but what if it was really the other way round, Jesus waiting for Simeon to show up? Simeon thought he was presenting the child to God, but what if it was really the child presenting the old man to God? Every day that Simeon showed up, the child Jesus was seeing and upholding Simeon.

So, it should be, perhaps, that no matter what, we continue to show up. This might let Jesus see us and uphold us!


Good News in a Messy World

by Sharon Marr

(Based on Luke 2:1-20)

A Christmas day reflection for the young and not so young.

This has been a very different, very messy and very hard year, Covid 19 sweeping through and changing our world, for adults and children alike.   So scary … we didn’t see it coming.   So many people throughout the world have died, so many families now without work.  All this frightens a lot of us doesn’t it?   Part of us takes comfort that we live in New Zealand, far away from trouble spots, but deep down we realize just how fragile this bubble we find ourselves in is. There is nowhere to hide from this deadly disease. The news seems all bad. But is it really?

Here we are today, in spite of all this turmoil; we pause, and come together, to celebrate Christmas? What draws us? Is it the Christmas tree with its blinking lights, or maybe it’s the beautiful music, or perhaps it’s Christmas dinner with all the yummy treats. Maybe it’s the parties or visiting with family and friends. For many people the best thing about Christmas is the presents — both the ones we give and the ones we receive.

You know, sometimes we get so drawn into all of the decorations, lights, parties, and presents that we might miss the real Christmas.

We can get so caught up thinking about ourselves we almost miss out on the most wonderful, precious, extravagant gift of love from God to us, his son Jesus.

In our Gospel reading today, remember, the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people!  To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord”.

And what a surprise to find that the Saviour of the world was a tiny baby, lying in a bed of straw!  A lot of folk then were expecting a warrior king, a superman, a super hero to save them from the Romans who had invaded their country and were making their lives hard and sad.  Just as the world today awaits for a vaccination to rid us of coronavirus.  But, no.  No superhero.  Instead, the good news was that God sent his son, the baby Jesus, for us all; that is, for all those people two thousand years ago, even the Romans, and everyone who has ever lived since, everyone alive now and even those yet to be born.  Jesus came to show us a way to live, the best way to live, loving God, loving everyone, loving ourselves.  Jesus came bringing love. Love that can conquer both tyranny and disease, when we demand justice and mercy for all.

It is that love that draws us here today, to offer our thanks and praise  and worship to God who loves us so much.  The shepherds’ lives were changed forever on that night.  And unless the Christmas story changes our lives too, we have missed its real meaning and purpose. 

So let us take the hope, the peace, the joy and the love, the gifts of God that fill our hearts this day, to our families, into our community, into this troubled, hurting, messy world, and be the good news to all. Just as the shepherds did 2000 years ago.   Amen.