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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 2, 2011

Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

A different way home’

“In a secret revealed we have found delight. Come, let us receive the joys of Paradise within the cave. Like welcome rains on a parched land, like a new spring welling up where our ancestors longed to drink, this baby born to a peasant girl has quenched forever our ancient thirst. For this, let us hurry to the little Child, God before the ages” (the First Kontakia on the Life of Christ, a sung or chanted sermon by the great sixth-century poet and singer, St Romanos the Melodist).

Matthew was not the first to imagine three intellectuals from the East coming to Jerusalem. His story line comes from Isaiah 60 (which we have just heard), a poem recited to Jews in Jerusalem about 580 BCE. These Jews had been in exile for a couple of generations and had come back to a city decimated. They were in despair. Who wants to live in a city where the towers are torn down and the economy has failed, and nobody knows what to do about it?

In the middle of the mess, a poet invites depressed, discouraged contemporaries to look up, to hope and to expect everything to change. “Arise, shine, for your light has come!” The poet anticipates that Jerusalem will become a place of productivity and prosperity, a new centre of international trade. “The nations will come to your light, and the leaders to your bright dawn …” Caravans loaded with trade goods will come from Asia and bring much wealth.

Like Matthew, the wise persons know about Isaiah 60. They know they are to go to Jerusalem and to pay homage to a new ruler by way of gifts: gold and frankincense. But when Herod (the current ruler in Jerusalem) hears of these plans, he is frightened. A new ruler is a threat to the old ruler and the old order.

Then a strange thing happens. In his panic, Herod arranges a consultation with the leading religious scholars, and says to them, “Tell me about Isaiah 60. What is all this business about camels, gold and frankincense?” The scholars tell him: “You have the wrong text. And the wise persons outside your window are using the wrong text. Isaiah 60 will mislead you because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the centre of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.”

Herod does not like that verdict and asks, defiantly, “Well, do you have a better text?” The scholars are afraid, but tell him, with much trepidation, that the right text is Micah 5:2-4: “As for you, Bethlehem in Ephrathah … small as you are among Judah’s clans, from you will come a ruler … over Israel, one whose goings out are from times long past, from ancient days.”

This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed by high towers and arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organise the peasant land in resistance to imperial threat. Micah anticipates a leader who will bring wellbeing to the people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to matters on the ground.

Herod tells the Eastern intellectuals this truth. They head for Bethlehem, a rural place, dusty and unpretentious.

The narrative of Epiphany is the story of these two human communities: Jerusalem, with its great pretensions, and Bethlehem, with its modest promise. We can choose a “return to normalcy” in a triumphalist mode, a life of self-congratulation that contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. Or we can choose an alternative that comes in innocence and a hope that confounds our usual pretensions. We can receive life given in vulnerability. It is amazing – the true accent of epiphany – that the wise persons do not resist this alternative but go on to the village. Rather than hesitate or resist, they reorganise their wealth and learning, and reorient themselves and their lives around a baby with no credentials. That they bring not just gold and frankincense (symbols of eternity and royalty) but also myrrh may well be significant. Myrrh is a resin used as a substance smeared on the bodies of the dead. The word itself means something like “bitter”. It’s possible the point of bringing the myrrh was to acknowledge, and to bless, mortality – humility, creatureliness, earthiness – humanity’s light, “the joys of Paradise within the cave”.

Bethlehem is nine miles south of Jerusalem. The wise persons had a long history of erudition and a long-term practice of mastery. But they would have missed their goal by nine miles.

Our task is to let the vulnerability of Micah 5 disrupt the self-congratulation of Isaiah 60. Most of us are looking in the wrong place. We are off by nine miles. We are now invited to travel those hard, demanding miles. Epiphany is a good time to take the journey. The way beyond is not about security and prosperity so much as vulnerability, neighbourliness, generosity …

“Imagine a nine-mile trip …,” writes one commentator, “and a very different way home”.

For Christmas I received a DVD of a documentary called Boxing for Palm Island, which I have found compelling, unsettling and very uplifting. It tells the story of a small amateur boxing club on Palm Island and a quest for life beyond trouble, despair and addiction that sees an older white trainer from the mainland and a group of young Indigenous men and one woman travel from Palm Island to Geelong for the National Titles. I hereby donate it to St Lydia’s Library!

“Imagine a nine-mile trip … and a very different way home”.

I hope we can open our ears and hearts to receive one more story from the Christmas Bowl resources for this season.

My name is Cung Uk Mang. I am 25, and my wife Saling and I, and our three children, came to Australia in July 2008. We can’t believe how lucky we are to be here. Our nightmares began when the Chin Independent Army stole weapons from a Burmese military post near our home in north-west Burma. The Burmese army came to our village and arrested most of the men and we were ordered to search for the weapons in the jungle.

Because weapons were not found, my father was arrested. He was tortured day and night. One night while the soldiers rested, he escaped and ran to India through the jungle. The next day, the army came and arrested my two brothers, my uncle and me. We were locked in a wooden cage. They tied us up and beat us with leather belts and gun butts, then hung us upside down. We were not given food or water for days. My brother Samuel was taken into the jungle and tortured to death.

One day, while the Army personnel were busy, we broke out of the wooden lock-up. We ran to our village and collected my wife, my two young children and my brother’s wife. We ran to the Indian border at night. Both my wife and my sister-in-law were pregnant and due for delivery. As we ran, we saw about 50 soldiers chasing us. We ran and ran in the jungle, carrying the little ones on our backs. The next day we crossed the border and reached Mizoram State in India. After three days, my brother’s wife gave birth to a son. Four months later, my wife also gave birth to a son.

We rejoiced in the additions to the families, but were very uncertain about our future. We moved on to Delhi to seek asylum with the United Nations Refugee Agency. After four years of waiting, we were given visas to come to Australia. For the first month here, we would wake up wondering whether it was just a dream or if we really were in Australia and free.

We joined in Act for Peace’s Healing Trail program, which aims to build community support and help refugees integrate by taking refugees to visit and be a part of churches in regional areas for a weekend. The experience helps refugees overcome trauma and be part of Australian society. We met wonderfully welcoming people on the Healing Trail.

How can we serve others who have suffered trauma, especially those within our own community? How can we help create a climate of mutual understanding and healing, not fear and suspicion? … Amen.


Draws on Walter Brueggemann, “Off by Nine Miles”, Sermon from Text Week; Peter Steele SJ, Bread for the Journey.