“Changing Direction”-January 5, 2020

REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM

Stouffville United Church

Epiphany

Isaiah 60, Ephesians 3, Matthew 2

The biblical landscape of our readings this morning covers a lot of territory, from the plains of Babylon and the exiled community of Israelites, to the arrival in Bethlehem of the Magi from the East, to Rome where Paul writes his letter to the Ephesians while under house arrest. And in each unique story, there is always, the centrality of God’s presence – in the midst of chaos, in the midst of journeying, in the midst of imprisonment.

A commentary on the Gospel of Matthew noted that “at the center of the eye of the storm is the child; the still point around which the entire text’s actions and reactions revolve. The child is the immoveable, fixed point.”[1] For yes, I see all the activity around the child, from the shepherds, to angels, to finally, the kings, and their interaction with Herod, and in the middle of it all, at the very center, is this fixed point of the child.

“at the center of the eye of the storm is the child; the still point around which the entire text’s actions and reactions revolve. The child is the immoveable, fixed point.”

Paul writes while under house arrest in Rome, to the early church in Ephesus. And he articulates that though he may be bound by the physical chains of the Roman prison, it means nothing to him, given that he is already a prisoner of Christ, held in chains of love for Christ.  He glorifies Christ as the center of his life, in bondage to Christ’s love, called to rejoice in the grace that was bestowed on him, in that hour he first believed. At the very center, is this fixed point of Christ.

The people in exile, held in captivity in Babylon, their home city of Jerusalem in ruins, stand together and listen as the prophet Isaiah offers these words given by God, ‘Arise, Shine, for your light has come!’ In the midst of the darkest times of their lives, in the midst of exile, loss, and despair, the prophet dares to plunge these words of bright light into the middle of their suffering. And the Hebrew words are written in the imperative form, demanding attention, as if to say, Look, now, it is here. The light is not back there, it is here. [2]

A commentary wrote, “By beginning with imperatives, the oracle calls for the people to respond in faith even before God has acted. The exhortation to “lift up your eyes and look around” (Isa 60:4a), is the call to see what is not yet true. The people should arise in expectation, trusting that God will fulfill the coming promises.”[3] Again, at the very center, is this fixed point of God’s presence.

When we come to church to worship, at the very center of our worship is this fixed point of Christ, in our hymns, our prayers, our reflection. When we go back into our weekly routine, is that centeredness in Christ still with us? 

In the past weeks, we’ve heard the news of the horrific fires raging across the continent of Australia, families in distress, animals dying, thick black smoke hanging in the atmosphere, and a rising anger amongst the electorate at an Australian government and prime minister that aren’t recognizing that this is a global climate crisis. On December 29th, a man attacked five people with a machete as they gathered to celebrate Hanukkah at a rabbi’s home in an Orthodox Jewish community north of New York City. Hate crimes against Jews continues, as well as against Muslims, not just in the United States but in Canada. This last Friday, the United States Army killed terrorist Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a drone attack at the Baghdad airport. Iran will retaliate. Iraq, Israel, Lebanon all are in close proximity to the rage boiling over. Is another war imminent? How manY lives will be lost through revenge? 

The world around us is clearly changing, in ways that we feel helpless to change. It is a difficult time. Yet into this time of perilous and grave uncertainty, at the very center, is the fixed point of God’s presence.  That presence is witnessed by the church.

In Ephesians 3:10, Paul says, “that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety” may be known. The transformative power of Jesus lives in the center of the church, a power that transforms not only the individual, but the community. Canadian Jean Vanier wrote, “The message of Jesus is transformation. He calls us to open up to others. So, the big question will always be, ‘Do we want to change?’ ‘Do we want to open our hearts to be different?’[4]

In the Matthew passage, the chief priests, scribes and religious authorities were told by the Magi that a new king of the Jews had been born. Even Herod asked the religious authorities where the Messiah was to be born. The religious authorities had the information. They knew the location of the birth. But they didn’t go with the Magi. They stayed in the building.  As a commentary offered, “A new era was dawning, but those who had the scriptures missed it because they did not join with the magi in their quest … are we willing to leave the security of the familiar to journey with seekers?”[5]

Between Christmas and New Year’s, I found time for some reading – not doctorate based!  Canadian Madeleine Thein wrote, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”, which won the Giller Prize in 2016. It is a complex book that follows the stories of two ‘entwined generations’ those who weathered Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China; and their children, who became the 1989 Tiananmen Square protesters. Twenty years later, a similar dynamic is happening today, in Hong Kong, as thousands and thousands of young university protestors gather to hold peaceful protests against the government’s extradition policies. Since June, when the protests began, the violence has steadily grown, with police now using live bullets to deter protestors. The fear, and life and death consequences as the young protestors pushed back in Thien’s novel, is being relived in the demonstrations in Hong Kong.

Into the midst of great suffering, worldwide, the church is called to venture out, not turn away. We are called to be the church, in the context we find ourselves in, and to grapple with what that presence asks from us. But this we hold on to. Always, at the very center of everything we do, is the fixed point of Christ. As a commentary observed, “that the church, currently marked by declining influence, is still an instrument to mediate God’s presence and glory to a world shrouded in the darkness of war, violence, hatred, apathy, poverty and despair.”[6]

In the words of Isaiah, the church will “lift up its eyes and look around”.

The church will be light in the darkness,

The church will be hope in the despair.

For there is always light.

And the light is within the church.

Because Christ is the centre. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Theological Perspective, 212.

[2] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Exegetical Perspective, 197.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jean Vanier, Encountering the Other

[5] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Exegetical Perspective, 217.

[6] Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, Exegetical Perspective, 199.