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Hide and Seek: A Sermon for Epiphany                               

Monday 6 January 2020

When I was growing up, my parents and I lived in a reasonably modest two-bedroomed house. But it was surrounded by a large garden which had once been part of a small-holding. So not only was there a large green house and vegetable beds, but also an extensive lawn and garden surrounded by shrubberies, trees and hedges.

It was, therefore, a brilliant place for a child to play outside. Not least, it offered excellent opportunities for playing hide and seek. My parents still live there, and so our own children have also now discovered the delights of hide and seek at their grandparents’ home.

The story of Jesus’s birth also has a strong element of hide and seek to it. For most of those who lived in Bethlehem, the arrival of Jesus was hidden from them, taking place in the obscurity of a stable, out of sight and away from attention. That hidden-ness was broken by the angels’ announcement to the shepherds: ‘to you is born this day in the city of David, a saviour who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ At that word, the shepherds go to seek out the infant lying in the manager. Whether Mary and Joseph were ‘ready or not’, the shepherds make haste as they go to seek the hidden Christ.

That pattern of hide and seek is then repeated in the visit of the Magi, but in a much more dangerous way. Although the shepherds tell the news of Jesus’ birth as they go from the stable, his arrival still remains largely hidden and obscure. In Jerusalem, at the court of King Herod, no one has heard of it.  Then Magi arrive asking ‘where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’

Terrified, Herod calls his advisors, who report that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. With darkness rising in his heart, Herod sends the Magi to search diligently for the child. The hidden infant will be found, so that Herod might destroy him.

Now begins a deadly game of hide and seek. The Magi find and worship the infant Christ, and our warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Now it is their turn to be hidden, choosing a different route back to their own land. So too Joseph is warned to take his family into hiding in Egypt in order to escape Herod’s wrath. Matthew’s Gospel goes on to relate how a furious Herod then orders a ruthless search for the infants of Bethlehem, determined that all will be destroyed.

So, throughout history, many children and families have experienced hide and seek, not as a children’s game, but as a matter of life and death. In our times, those fleeing persecution are increasing in number. Since August 2017, for example, over 740,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, driven out by violence. 40 per cent of them are children under 12 years of age. The United Nations reports that over 37,000 people a day are forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.

Our own county has had a long tradition of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. Last year and into this, our city has been recalling how ten boys came to Gloucester eighty years ago as part of the Kindertransport. This month we will also mark twenty years of GARAS – Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers – and the outstanding work it does to support those still desperate for safety and a new start here. A major exhibition in the Lady Chapel opening on 15th January, will provide a focus for remembering both GARAS and the Kindertransport. I encourage you to go and see it.

It is difficult for most of us to understand the fear and danger that moves people to leave their homes and seek safety in a new place. Behind the numbers, are stories of desperate individuals and families who have seen their lives turned upside-down. That this should be so as we enter 2020 reminds us again of humanity’s capacity for inhumanity in violently driving others from their home.

But in that darkness we also see others ready to reach out and welcome them in, so that refugees and asylum seekers can find a new beginning.

Such hospitality leads us towards the heart of God and another kind of hide and seek. The God we see in Christ, the God of the Magi’s star and the shepherd’s welcome, is one who comes to seek us out, even when we prefer to run and hide from him.

The whole of our faith story, as told through the pages of Scripture, could be summarised as one in which time and again humanity turns away and hides from God. Yet time again, whether we are ready or not, God comes to search for us and call us home.

When Genesis encapsulates the human predicament in the story of Adam and Eve, the writer portrays their broken relationship with each other and with God by describing how they hide from God as he searches for them in the Garden of Eden. By contrast, when Isaiah, in our first reading, speaks of the renewal of all things, he describes the nations being drawn together, sharing their riches with one other. It is an image of reconciliation, of barriers being broken down, and relationships restored.

The opening of Matthew’s Gospel highlights both these themes. In Herod’s deadly search for Jesus we see humanity turning from God, forcing the holy family itself into hiding. By contrast, Matthew offers us the Magi as a symbol of different peoples and nations being drawn together. Through the guiding of a star, God reaches across cultural and ethnic barriers, so that eastern astrologers can also come to know that the God of Israel is the God of all.

As the feast of Epiphany speaks of strangers finding a place in the home of the infant Jesus, so we are reminded once again that God shared our human life in order to seek us out and invite us to make our home with him. In response, we are called to be a people who offer hospitality to others, building bridges of welcome in a deeply divided world and pointing to God’s kingdom of love and hope for all.

 

Canon Dr Andrew Braddock

Canon Missioner, Gloucester Cathedral


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