Worship Service for Sunday 8 January, 2012
(Using readings for Epiphany – 6 January)
Call to worship
Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. (Is 60:1)
Hymn Together in Song 291 Earth has many a noble city
Prayers of Adoration and confession
the old ended, and we're just starting out again.
We bring to you the year that was past
with its ups and downs, the good and the bad
where we succeeded and where we failed
and we thank you for being with us through it all.
We confess that in this past year our world has been divided and torn
with wars and fears of wars and terrorism,
with people starving, and people homeless,
with suspicion between people, between nations.
We confess that so far 2012 doesn't look to be the year we overcome our failings in these areas.
And we confess the things in our own lives that have been less than perfect.
We may not have been corrupt – but we have failed to love you with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength – and that failure is the beginning of all corruption.
We may not have started wars – but we have failed to love our neighbours as ourselves – that failure is the beginning of all wars.
Like our world, we are divided and torn, and in need of your healing.
There's a new year just begun,
and we thank you for it, and for all new beginnings,
for the opportunities to leave the past behind
and to start afresh.
We thank you that you constantly give us new beginnings
you constantly allow us to leave our past behind and to try again.
And we thank you for Jesus
who makes all new beginnings possible.
In Jesus' name we pay,
Declaration of Forgiveness
Kids' time – James
Hymn Together in Song 301 The first nowell
This is the word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.
How do we read the story of the wise men, given the Biblical warnings against astrology – and given the way the story has beenchanged in popular thinking by carols, cards and traditions?
Firstly, let's try to understand who they were. Magi were the priestly caste in the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Herodotas (the world's first historian – and we take his evidence with a grain of salt sometimes because he was known not only as “the father of history” but also as “the father of lies”) mentions them and their religious ceremonies.
There are still Zoroastrians today in Iran – despite it being an officially “Moslem” nation, and the Zoroastrianism not necessarily being legally approved. Today Magi still tend the “eternal flame” a fire lit by their faith's founder, about a thousand years before Jesus. (I saw a documentary some years ago, and was interested to note that Magi are not only men – but also women. Zoroastrianism doesn't have separate roles for men and women in their religious practice. There is nothing anywhere to say that the Magi in the gospel were necessarily men. The “wise men” we sing about in our carols might just as easily have been “wise women”.)
So these, people, and we aren't told in the Bible how many of them there were either, were among the leaders of their faith community. Tradition gets “three” from the number of gifts brought. Our best guess, based on the language used, in Scripture is that there were somewhere between two and ten of them. They belonged to a group who did not share the history or the religious heritage of the Jewish people. And, when they saw the star, they were willing to travel a long distance, over a long period of time, and bring gifts which really were suitable for a great king! They not only believed in their religion, but were willing to act on that belief.
There's another group of people in the drama we need to look at. That group of people is King Herod, the Scribes, and the Priests. (As an interesting cultural note: Herod's “wise men” were all men. Society in first century Israel was structured very differently the society the Magi knew.)
In some sense, Herod and company ought to have been the “good guys” of the story. They represented the system, the status quo, the way things were. They also represented the nation of Israel, the nation that had received God's promises.
They had, at their finger-tips all of the information necessary to locate the place where the Messiah would be born. They belonged to a nation that had spent much of its history anticipating this very significant moment. And they weren't all that far away, at least compared with the group who'd travelled from Persia. But they didn't drop everything and join the pilgrimage. Instead, they gave the travellers the information they needed – and allowed the foreigners to continue their journey unaccompanied. The political and religious world was no less volatile than it is today. Common sense wouldn't let anyone tell a stranger from a foreign country how to find a civil or major religious leader, and let them go without doing something about security.
Herod, however, wasn't interested in the safety of the Messiah. He was part of the structure of religious and political society that Jesus would come up against again and again and again. Herod's authority to rule had come, not from God (as had David's and other historical kings), but from Rome. Herod was a puppet of Roman rule.
At Herod's first hearing of Jesus' birth, a conflict between Jesus and earthly powers and authority. It was a clash of worlds – the world of the Kingdom of God – and the world of everyday Earth with it's human authorities. Herod might not have known how big the conflict was, but he did realize a rival king, and one who might have had some legitimate claim to the throne of Israel, would be a threat. That's why he allowed foreign visitors unsupervised access to the Messiah. In case they didn't have any intention to harm the child themselves, he asked them to come back and tell him where to find the baby so he could go and pay homage too. He also asked when the baby had been born – information he would later use to have all baby boys aged two and under in Bethlehem killed.
Those are the human characters in the drama of the Epiphany story, the ones who actually do something. In this story, Jesus, Mary and Joseph are pretty much “extras”.
The other key actor in this story is God. God did some extraordinary things in the passage we've read this morning.
Despite God's own Scriptural rule against astrology – God used a star to invite the Magi to Jesus. In this way, God was able to use something they would understand, to invite people outside the nation of Israel to take part in the Kingdom of God. The star was a specific invitation to non-Jews. The people who lived as a part of the covenant already were not allowed to pay attention to such signs.
At the same time, God led them via Jerusalem – where the most obvious place to look for a new king would be the palace. This visit necessarily alerted the political and religious leaders in Israel to the arrival of the Messiah. In doing so, God took the risk of harm to Jesus. Why do such a thing? Despite their obvious faults in this passage – these were the people who were the leaders of the nation of Israel – the nation that had the age-old covenant with God – they were the people who ought to have been most looking forward to Jesus' arrival. They had a chance to welcome him – God gave it to them.
God had communicated both with Jews and non-Jews in ways they could understand – through a star to the Magi – through the Scriptures to Herod's advisers.
Today, God still reaches out to people, trying to communicate to us in ways we understand. Not all people are willing to hear, but some are. Not all people who hear are willing to act on what God says – but some are.
All of us have some part to play in this drama. The clash between the Kingdom of god, and earthly systems and powers still goes on. And today there are still people who feel threatened by Jesus. And today, God still invites the people you'd expect along with the people you wouldn't expect to come to Jesus.
The key actor in the drama is always God – who loves us – and will go to extreme lengths and even extreme risks because of that love.
Hymn Together in Song 293 Unto us a boy is born!
Prayers of the People
at the beginning of another year
we hand over to you the needs of this world
and our own needs.
Most of all this coming year,
we, and the world, need to hear once again
your promise of love for us
and your invitation to be part of your Kingdom even while we are in this world.
we pray for peace – in a world which seems determined to have war
we pray for hope – in a world which seems at times lost to despair
we pray for faith – in a world which seems determined to turn its back on you
and we pray for love – in a world which knows too much of hatred.
And we pray for ourselves
that you will guide us that we might help to bring these things about.
Send your Spirit on us and on this world, we pray,
that peace, hope, faith and love
might spread and grow
like the wildfire of the Spirit did in the early years of the church.
In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Passing the Peace
Hymn Together in Song 527 Lord, Jesus Christ
Service of Holy Communion Uniting in Worship Page 163 &f
Hymn Together in Song 314 As with gladness men of old