Before you can be ordained in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, one of the things that you must do, is complete a unit of CPE–which stands for Clinical Pastoral Education. I did mine in the form of an eleven week full-time placement at the Alfred Hospital. And I did it with four other people–a Roman Catholic priest from South Korea, a Roman Catholic layperson who wanted to be pastoral care worker, and 2 other candidates for ordination in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, both of whom were from Ridley College. As part of getting to know each other, we were all asked to share the story of our own faith spiritual journey.
One of my fellow ordination candidates, who is now a priest in the Diocese, was from South Sudan, and when he shared his story with us, we were overcome with emotion. As a young boy, he had witnessed the murder of his mother, and several of his siblings as well. He had then endured life in a refugee camp for fourteen years with an aunt, uncle, and his surviving brothers and sisters. He lived from one day to the next, not knowing what the future had in store for him. For a large part of his time in the camp, he survived on only one meal a day, which was usually rice, and which was occasionally accompanied by a protein as well. There was often violence within the camp–committed by refugees against fellow refugees–and he lived in constant fear.
And yet despite what he has experienced, when you hear him tell his story, you cannot help but notice how strong his faith is. It is a faith, he told me, that was instilled in him by his mother; and it is the one thing that gave him hope in his fourteen years inside the refugee camp. I’ve experienced some dark times in my own life, but nothing that comes even remotely close to what he has had endured, and I find it difficult to imagine how I might respond, if my own faith was tested in the way his has been.
But his experience is something like the situation that our reading from the Book of Isaiah speaks to this morning. Isaiah was speaking to people from Jerusalem and Judah who had seen their homes destroyed; who had seen the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed; and who had been sent into exile in Babylon–an alien country that worshipped alien gods–where they were forbidden to worship their own God, the one true God of Israel. They too had probably witnessed the deaths of loved ones; and they no doubt lived in great fear and uncertainty for their future.
The language that Isaiah speaks to them in talks of God’s light breaking forth in the darkness. It is language of hope; language that conjures up an image of God’s saving entry into the brokenness of human bondage and suffering. Isaiah tells them that God’s light will shine upon them, and that the nations of the world shall be drawn to that light. And when the nations come, they will bring their wealth with them. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.
Which is exactly what we hear in today’s Gospel reading, when Matthew describes the visit of the wise men to Mary and Jesus. Matthew writes, “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” We cannot say with any certainty that Matthew was specifically referring to the passage from Isaiah, but when he talks of the Magi paying homage to Jesus, Matthew certainly seems to be using biblical language that alludes to the pilgrimage and homage of the nations of the world.
This is something that the Apostle Paul picks up on in the Letter to the Ephesians. Paul says that by His grace, God has revealed His mystery to the peoples of the world. The peoples of the world are the Gentiles; and the mystery of God, which has been revealed through the Gospel, is another message of hope: hope for the Gentiles; that they are fellow heirs (with the nation of Israel) of the promise of salvation that is found in Jesus Christ.
These same messages of hope–hope that God’s light will break forth in the darkness of human bondage and suffering; and hope of salvation for all in Jesus Christ–are as relevant today as they were when both the Book of Isaiah and the Letter to the Ephesians were written.
A report issued in 2018 by Open Doors International–which is a non-denominational mission supporting persecuted Christians in over 70 countries, where Christianity is socially or legally discouraged or oppressed–found that 215 million Christians now experience high, very high, or extreme levels of persecution. That means 1 in 12 Christians live where Christianity is “illegal, forbidden, or punished,” according to Open Doors researchers. For those people, their faith, like that of my colleague from CPE, continues to give them hope that God’s light will eventually break forth in their own personal situation of darkness.
And people in own society today, and those of other Western countries, where Christianity is being replaced by growing secularism, are becoming the ‘new Gentiles’; people who worship idols–such as money, fame, status and success–rather than God. The promise of salvation still holds true for them, as it did for the Gentiles of Paul’s time. When they find themselves unsatisfied, or unfulfilled, in spite of whatever material wealth they might have, God’s salvation in Jesus Christ is still open to them.
So as we celebrate the Epiphany today, the event that marked the revealing of God to the Gentiles–through the visitation of the Magi to the baby Jesus–let us pray for all Christians who face the threat of persecution in their daily lives. And let us pray that more and more “Gentiles” today, may come to know Jesus, and through Jesus be brought into a lasting relationship with God.