Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on Sunday January 7th 2018, at Ss Peter & Paul
We begin 2018, as we do most years, with the story of a journey. A journey towards God.
As we start out on this latest stage of our own journeys, our individual journeys and our journey together as a church, what can we learn from this compelling tale, from Epiphany?
There are of course many kinds of journey. And the use of journeying as a image has become so commonplace that it can become a substitute for any serious insight or reflection.
One test I think is whether the image simply reinforces our existing understandings; or whether it surprises us, challenges us, helps us to see things in new ways.
So let’s see what we can learn from this particular journey.
First, there is no sign to begin with that the wise men think they’re looking for God. They have come in search of a king.
This suggests to me that some of our most profoundly religious journeys don’t start off explicitly being about God.
In 2018 we will come across many people in this church who appear to be looking for something other than God.
They might come into the church in the middle of the week, seeking quiet and calm away from a troubled life.
They might be lonely and come looking for companionship and friendship. They might be wanting a medieval building to get married in. They might be hoping for a school place for their child.
But just because they don’t name God, just because they’re not aware of God’s being any part of their journey, doesn’t mean that their journey isn’t a spiritual one.
The wise men came seeking a King. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that what they found was ‘God with us, Emmanuel.’
Secondly, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect.
How does God speak in the Epiphany story?
Revelations come through astrology, through dreams, through a tyrant king and through the chief priests and scribes.
If we were to talk with our Christian sisters and brothers in other churches about how God speaks to us, some of them would be very clear cut about how God does and does not talk to us.
They would be clear that it is through the Bible that God speaks to us.
And they would be rather suspicious of other ways in which people sometimes seek guidance. Through the stars, through astrologers; or through dreams.
And yet as we turn to the Bible to learn from it – as we do – we discover that both astrology and dreams are used by God in this Epiphany story as sources of revelation. This doesn’t mean that all astrology, all dream interpretations, come from God. Far from it. It simply means we shouldn’t restrict the ways in which God provides revelation.
There is something peculiar to the Gospel of Matthew about the role of dreams in the Christian life. In the whole of the New Testament, only one writer, and that is Matthew, gives examples of dreams being a source of revelation in this way. To be fair, in the Acts of the Apostles, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.’
But whilst the Acts of the Apostles has plenty of visions, there are no dreams recounted in the early days of the church. Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, tells five dream stories.
Chief priests and scribes might seem like a more obvious source of religious insight. But listen to what is said about the scribes by the Gospel of Matthew – the only Gospel to tell the Epiphany story:
‘Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. (Mt 5:20)
‘The crowd were astonished at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes’. (Mt 7.28-29)
Yet it is the chief priests and scribes in the Epiphany story who provide the key piece of information: where the Messiah was to be born.
The chief priests and scribes were convened by King Herod. Later we discover that Herod tries to trick the wise men and arranges for the slaughter of innocent children. And yet even this tyrant plays a role, a small role, in leading the Wise Men to their destination, to their encounter with Emmanuel, God with us.
So then, how does God guide us as we journey on?
Not as we might expect.
Our God is too small. Rather than create a church that reflects the grandeur and mystery of God, far too often we fashion a God who is church-shaped. But God is far more interesting than that.
So, first, there’s no sign the wise men think they’re looking for God. And second, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect.
Thirdly, the wise men worked some of it out for themselves.
It’s possible that some of you have a picture in your mind of the Wise Men following the star from the East, where they first saw it, to Bethlehem, via Jerusalem.
But if that’s your memory of the story, you need to listen to it again more carefully.
There’s no mention of the Wise Men following the star from the East to Jerusalem. What Matthew’s Gospel says is this:
‘Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
The wise men saw the star at its rising. They then seemed to work out for themselves, using their own knowledge and experience, that this signalled the birth of a child, born King of the Jews.
And so, understandably, they made their way to Jerusalem. In other words, they got it wrong. Or at least, they got it not quite right. They simply assumed that if they were searching for a new King of the Jews, Jerusalem was the place to go.
It was only in Jerusalem, with the aid of religious experts who knew their Bibles, that they discovered they should actually be looking in Bethlehem. And so they set out for Bethlehem. And only then, once their direction was already set, do we read ‘there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.’
So, first, there’s no sign the wise men think they’re looking for God. Second, God doesn’t always guide us in the ways we might expect. And third, the wise men worked some of it out for themselves.
Fourthly and finally, the journey changes us. We’re not the same people at the end of the journey as we were at the start. This is one reason why very detailed forward planning over many years is often simply inappropriate in church settings, though actually in many other settings also.
What matters is that we ask ourselves what our values are, what our vision is, what our priorities are, what the direction of travel is. But the world changes and we change also. God is taking us on a journey, on an adventure. Often we won’t know for sure where that journey will take us, or how it might change us. That is part of the adventure of life with God.
One of the greatest sermons ever written was written about this morning’s story, by Pope Leo the Great, in the middle of the fifth century. The sermon is quite rightly quoted every year at this time. It was not possible, Leo points out, for the wise men to return home the way they had come. Because now they had encountered Emmanuel, God with us. They were changed. Their journeying could not be unaffected.
Something similar is true here for us today. True for us as a church in a crucial year when we take key decisions about our direction of travel. True for Bill as he enters the next chapter of his life. True for each and every one of us.
So as we all journey through 2018, what can we learn from today’s story. First, our journeys towards God don’t always start out as explicitly religious.
God often guides us in very unexpected ways. We have to work some of it out for ourselves. And finally, the journey changes us.