Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Feast of Epiphany (6 January 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Feast of Epiphany (6 January 2019) by the Very Revd David Ison, Dean

The Dean explains that Epiphany Sunday "draws us to God mysteriously at work in the life of Jesus, and calls us to live in God’s love and generosity to us, with a confidence which is life-changing". 


Have you heard the news? Turn on the radio or television, or go to Twitter or Facebook for the news, and what are you doing? What is news, anyway? 
The clue is in the name. News is something new, it’s new knowledge you didn’t have before. If I hear the news then I will know something that maybe others don’t. And that puts me in a position of privilege and power – I have knowledge that you don’t have, that when you hear it may change what you think about someone or even what you do. Knowledge is power. And we enjoy the feeling, however long it lasts, of having that power of knowledge over others.

You know that feeling, don’t you? Someone has told you a secret, or you’ve found out some news by accident or on purpose, and for a short time you have the power to decide whether or not to tell others about it, to say what’s happened, to explain how things are going to turn out.

It’s like the point in a TV news programme where they’re going to tell you the football match results, and they say, if you don’t want to know the score, go out of the room now, and give you about 2 seconds to do so before they tell you. It’s what gets called a ‘spoiler alert’ when it applies to dramas or films or books, when you get told what the end of the story is before you get there, who the killer was in that murder mystery, whether Hercule Poirot or the Swedish detective solves the crime, whether the girl gets her man or there’s an unhappy ending; when knowing how it will all turn out for the characters would ruin the challenge of trying to work out for yourself who did what and how the story will end. And how much can you say to others, when you’ve seen the film or read the book, and want to share the secret of how good the ending was, without spoiling someone else’s chance to enjoy it, just like you did, in happy ignorance of the outcome?

Knowledge is power. Knowing something can put you in danger, when people want things kept hidden and fear your power over them because you know their secrets. Hence the oppression of free speech, the rise of fake news, the murders of journalists and the intimidation of those who speak unwelcome news.

300 years ago when this cathedral was being built, the poet Alexander Pope wrote that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’, which developed into our English idiom that ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. What that means is, that you have to know a lot to realise that you don’t know as much as you think you do. Reading an article on-line about a medical symptom, or how to mend a car, or how to put the world to rights, doesn’t make you a competent doctor or mechanic or politician. The more you know, the more you realise how little you know; knowing not very much is therefore a potentially dangerous thing.

News, secrets, mystery, knowledge, power – all these are in the readings we have from the Bible this morning, starting with the words of St Paul (Ephesians 3.1-12). Paul says that he writes in order to help people understand the mystery of Jesus Christ, a mystery made known to Paul by revelation, by a special experience given to him. 

This is my secret, he says, which was hidden for ages – the news, the good news, that God’s love includes not only religious Jews, but absolutely anyone, from any background, who follows Jesus Christ. 

And it’s that news which has changed Paul’s life, from being an earnest Pharisee who killed Christians, to become a devoted follower of Jesus Christ, who loved and suffered so that others could find God’s love in Jesus for themselves. Paul doesn’t hold on to his secret, his news, his knowledge, but shares it with everyone so they can experience it too – so that they can discover God’s mystery. It’s the opposite of a spoiler alert: Paul offers an open invitation to know and understand.

Which leads us on to King Herod and the wise men (Matthew 2.1-12). I don’t need to signal a spoiler alert here, as you know how the story ends. 
Like St Paul, the wise men knew a secret, about the Christ being born; but unlike St Paul it wasn’t through a personal revelation, but by the general observation of a star in the sky. The wise men went looking for a newborn king at the palace: and they met King Herod, who knew about power but not about God. Herod asked his own wise men where the baby Messiah would be; and they gave him a little knowledge – that it was Bethlehem – but that didn’t help Herod understand the wider picture, that this wasn’t about his rule being threatened, but about the work of God among human beings. Herod’s reaction to hearing the news – ‘the Messiah is born’ – and finding out another secret – ‘it is in Bethlehem’ – was to plot the death of the child, not to discover the mystery of what was going on. 

As with Herod, we tend today to use the word ‘mystery’ to mean a secret, a problem for which we can discover an answer. We talk about ‘a murder mystery’ and finding its solution – we want to uncover and indeed to end the mystery, by turning mystery into fact. But when we’re dealing with God, a mystery is NOT a secret to be told, not a fact to be uncovered; a mystery of God isn’t something we find the answer to, but a mystery is what we have to answer to, to encounter, to be changed by. As St Paul realised, discovering a mystery isn’t finding a solution, but beginning a journey, a journey by which we learn to see ourselves and the world differently.

Today is Epiphany Sunday. The word ‘Epiphany’ is defined in the dictionary as ‘a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand something that is very important for you; a powerful religious experience’. 

Epiphany is about suddenly seeing God differently, because we’ve heard the news, the good news that God is born in Jesus. Epiphany happens when a secret turns into encounter with a mystery.

In today’s readings, Herod didn’t understand the news – there was no epiphany for him; he killed the children of Bethlehem in order not to have to change or see things differently. For him and for those who suffered because of him, a little knowledge was indeed a dangerous thing.

The wise men found the answer to their question after telling Herod their secret, but we don’t know whether they entered into the mystery they encountered – did meeting the child Messiah and giving their gifts change them, or not? Was it an epiphany into a mystery, or an interesting trip away from home?
But St Paul encourages us to go with him, to enter into God’s wisdom, to encounter the mystery of God in Jesus Christ. Paul didn’t solve a mystery and move on to the next bit of news, but instead entered into the mystery of Jesus Christ.

Painted on the inside of the Dome above our heads is a picture of Paul’s epiphany; he’s falling from his horse as Jesus encounters him on the road to Damascus, and then the pictures continue his journey as he turned from persecuting Christians to become one himself and share the news with others. 
Just as St Francis of Assisi and Mother Theresa turned from comfortable but empty lives to live out God’s love for others; as Archbishop Tutu found the courage to live for justice and truth in an oppressive society; so countless numbers of us have had our lives changed and turned around by the good news of the Epiphany, by encountering the mystery of God in Jesus Christ. 

And what of us? Is that encounter with mystery happening for you? Does God being born in Jesus make us see the world and yourself differently? Are we a Herod or a Paul?

Epiphany Sunday draws us to God mysteriously at work in the life of Jesus, and calls us to live in God’s love and generosity to us, with a confidence which is life-changing. 

May Epiphany touch each one of us here, today, as Jesus comes among us in the mystery of the Eucharist, as we worship beneath the Dome with its pictures telling the impact of epiphany on St Paul; as the mystery of God continues among us. Have a blessed epiphany.