Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany, 2011
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, West Lebanon

Let us Pray: O God, who by the leading of a star didst manifest thy only-begotten Son to the Gentiles; Mercifully grant that we, who know thee now by faith, may after this life have the fruition of thy glorious Godhead; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Recently, I saw a documentary about the writings of Agatha Christie. She was, of course, one of the most famous and accomplished writers of mystery stories. Her works were so popular that she became very wealthy. Many of her fans were so addicted that they eagerly anticipated her new works. Some of these fans became adept, or so they claimed, at figuring out "who dunnit" in the first few chapters. Agatha Christie's books have a mesmerizing quality about them; perhaps they were the original page turners.

Those books are compelling because they invite us to attempt to solve the mystery of a particular crime. It is in the discovery of a particular murderer that the reader derives a certain pleasure. Seeing all the pieces fall into place in the last chapter brings a certain enjoyment, a certain resolution. We may find ourselves retracing our own steps through the mystery story. Did we follow a red herring? Did we falsely accuse the poor butler? Or, because of our superior insight and familiarity with Dame Agatha's works, did we get it right? But one thing is clear about Agatha Christie's work is that all we needed to know was right there in front of us. If we followed false leads, well, the joke was on us.

This week, we are aware that the Epiphany season is drawing to a close. Next week, we will begin the Pre-lenten season. The word "lenten" means to lengthen, as in the days become longer. Lent is also another word for Spring. And that will come none too soon.

During the Epiphany season, we have followed the star in the heavens that has led us to the Christ child. We watched once again of the journey of the Magi. We have, all of us, taken that journey, following the star that leads us to the place in Bethlehem where He was born.

It is a thrilling time, a time when we discover the presence of God among us; God in human form but still God. That journey into the discovery of God is a wonderful and mysterious part of the season. When we think of Epiphany, perhaps we have many thoughts and feelings. At its most basic, the Epiphany is the manifestation of God to the gentiles. It is the discovery that is so powerful that it can change us. And it is meant to do precisely that; to change us so that we can do the work of God in the world.

How strange, then, that at the end of this season, we receive a profound warning; a warning to beware of false Christs and false prophets. Just when we have journeyed to Bethlehem, just when we have discovered the Christ child, just when we have received Him into our hearts, we hear a deep note of caution. Beware of false prophets. Beware of false Christs. They may show us fantastic and wonderful things. They may impress us with their great skill and knowledge. But beware.

We have heard the term "false prophets" many times. It has become a standard phrase, one that we often use without thinking. It has been used so much that it has become a cliché; it leaps to our mouths too quickly. But the phrase was very real to those who lived in ancient Judea. There were many elders who claimed to be The Christ. In fact, there were many of them that, when the Romans attacked Jerusalem, at least three distinct camps of Christ pretenders were found there. Whoever they were, some of these first century snake oil sales guys attracted many followers. Imagine the spiritual harm that was done.

But there is a way to prevent spiritual harm. Let me quote from our favorite fifth century bishop, a man we all know as Epiphanius the Latin. He wrote that "we are warned by the Lord so that if anyone were to come to us falsely in his name, none of us would believe in such a person, having already been prepared."

I suspect that Epiphanius the Latin might have become a great fan of Agatha Christies mysteries stories. The magi might well have enjoyed her works, too, carrying them in their luggage and reading them aloud by the light of their camp fires. Though they would be popular entertainment, they would illustrate a very important theological point: be always aware that it is easy to be drawn away from the true answer.

The magi looked to God for guidance. They found it in the heavens. Though the nights were dark, they knew that the brightest light in the heavens was the star that God had provided for them. And for Epiphanius the Latin, the Scriptures, the Sacraments and the protection of God's church would be the guiding light to keep him on the true path. For us, too, that is the way that we may find our guidance through the world.

Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the light. It is through Him that we will find the way to the salvation of the world.

False prophets and false Christs will always be among us. Snake oil is still a popular commodity, although it is not marketed under that name. Mystery stories are a great diversion; Agatha Christie has many imitators. Many of them, like her, have grown wealthy through their works.

If we wish to find our way, the true way to God and to eternal life, we will not follow the red herrings of false teachers and prophets, but the word of God as it is found in holy scriptures. The word of God does not lead us astray or create red herrings for our enjoyment. It helps to draw us closer to God so that we may be prepared for the journey that will lead us safely to our salvation.

Let us pray: O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do; Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.