If you travel south from Nantwich on minor roads, you will come across brown tourist signs pointing you in the direction of a secret bunker. Not so secret now! In its heyday in the 1950’s, the underground complex at Hack Green was a regional command post for government and military officials in the event of nuclear attack. The moto was ‘protect and survive.’ That may have been OK for the top brass who were charged with restarting the country. Everyone else had to make do with under the stairs.
During the time of the cold war, the bunker was indeed secret. Few knew of its existence and even fewer of its exact location. Now it is signposted, and its web site offers a google map to help you find it. What was keep hidden for a purpose is now openly made known; a tourist destination.
Epiphany is a bit like that too. In our new testament reading Paul writing to the Ephesian Christians speaks of the mystery of Christ which was not made known in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel, the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.’ (Ephesians 3.5-6)
Like the Ministry of Defence God has secrets and like the MOD, he has good reason to keep some things secret, mysteries hidden from human understanding. Although the Chinese are discovering the dark side of the moon, there are some things about God, the world and the universe that we are better of not knowing or trying to understand. Indeed, if we knew and understood all there is to know about God, he would hardly be God at all. As the hymn puts it: ‘Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.’ (Walter Chalmers Smith 1824-1908)
Paul was trying to explain to the Ephesians, that before Jesus, less was known about God. The old testament is full of many wonderful stories about how God spoke to individuals and his chosen people Israel, through various strange occurrences; a flood, a rainbow, a ladder leading to heaven, a burning bush, a still small voice and much more. But these things were generally restricted to a family which became a tribe which became a nation. Often, God’s voice was silent. (1Samuel 3.1) Much remained hidden for reasons we cannot fully appreciate even now.
In Jesus, all that changes. ‘At just the right time’ (Romans 5.6) Jesus comes to live, to minister, to die and to be raised to life again. What does that do? It opens everything up. No longer is God speaking through strange happenings, patriarchs and prophets to one nation. Now he speaks to all peoples in every nation upon earth inviting all human beings into a special covenant relationship with him. The secret is open, put up the signs, set up the website.
And having said that, when we think back to the nativity story of Christmas, it seems God still has funny ways of making things known, of doing publicity. Jesus’ birth was hardly a world event at the time it happened. Mary and Joseph were no celebrities. The shepherds were considered to be on the edge of society and the wise men are obscure to say the least. There are no surviving records of the birth stories of Jesus outside the bible. Only two of the gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, tell us anything about Jesus’ birth. Luke tells the most with the stories of Gabriel’s appearances to Elizabeth and Mary and the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist. Such is the detail which Luke includes and his references to Mary treasuring all these things in her heart, have led some to conclude that he draws on reminiscences from Mary herself in later life. Matthew gives only the basic details of Jesus’ birth in a passage we rarely hear read. He alone has the story which we have read today of the visitation of the wise men following a star from the east and bringing symbolic gifts to the baby Jesus of gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh for death. He factors in the sinister element of Herod, his evil intent to kill Jesus. He tells of how when the wise men, divinely warned, fail to tell him the whereabouts of the new king, proceeds to kill all the infants in Bethlehem of a certain age. While this is entirely consistent with what we know of Herod from elsewhere, there is no other record to this appalling act.
There are many academics who question the truth of the birth accounts of Jesus. They suggest they were developed by the church later because they wanted a Christ, born of a virgin and they needed him to be born in Bethlehem to fulfil the prophecies? If that were the case, would they manufacture such a story? Would they not be more inclined to make Jesus’ birth grander rather than less?
As we ponder these accounts of Jesus birth, they are still full of mystery. The secret is not quite out yet. Strange things happened around his birth. Even his supernatural conception led to questions at the time. Yet, if nothing had come of Jesus’ life, I guess it would all have been long forgotten; the angels, the shepherds, the kings. However, as Jesus’ followers realised his true identity, as their hearts burned within them on the Emmaus road, (Luke 23.32) as the mystery began to unfold and the events were retold again and again eventually to be written down, so under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, the wonderous stories of his birth began to emerge.
Even during his ministry, Jesus is often asking his disciples and those who experience his healing and transformative power not to reveal his true identity. This is often referred to as the ‘Messianic Secret.’ As Jesus preaches and teaches and heals and drives out evil presences, his identity is veiled until we see him on the cross. It is then then on the lips of the centurion standing by the cross that we learn: ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (Mark 15.39) The proof comes on the third day as he is witnessed in the most remarkable and unmistakeable ways to be alive again. Then the wraps are off. What was mystery is mystery no longer. His name is to be proclaimed in all the world.
We live over two millennia after these events. There is still much that remains a secret about God, the world and the universe. It is human nature to want to explore be it a blob of rock shaped like a snowman on the edge of the solar system or the DNA which forms life on our planet. Our discoveries unlock new possibilities but also bring great challenge. As we celebrate the Epiphany today may we remember what God has revealed, made known about himself. It’s not fireworks in the sky or the stuff of celebrity chat shows. It is himself as a child in a manger, a man who had compassion and was content to die for the world’s sin who now lives for ever as your Lord and mine. If this is the mystery God has chosen to reveal, it must be important and precious, not just for us, but for all humanity. So, put up the signs, set up the website, talk about it. This is not a secret private matter as our society would have us believe, but good news of great joy that is for all people. (Luke 2.11) A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel. (Luke 2.32)
Feast of the Epiphany 06.01.2019