(This is my first – and possibly only – attempt at a sermon, and it is for Epiphany 2014. The Gospel reading is Matthew 2: 1-12, the part where the magi show up. Thank you to the many, many people who helped me with preparation for this).
Tomorrow is probably the most Monday-ish of Mondays. All celebrations may seem long past, as we join the school run traffic jams or shiver on a platform or begin any one of the mundane jobs which mark out the rhythm of a normal week. Will we expect to see God in that ordinary-ness and familiarity?
This Gospel story is very familiar, isn’t it? We know about the wise men: there weren’t necessarily three of them, they were astrologers, they showed up a long time after the shepherds.
Is it just me who sets up their nativity with the holy family on one side of the living room, and the magi on the other? They travel across the living room bit by bit between Christmas and Epiphany. Which since they’re only an inch high, can take a suitably dignified length of time.
So what do today’s familiar readings have for us afresh?
I think we have two ways of looking at the same thing. Paul is writing to the Gentiles, telling them how they are included in the kingdom. It’s not just for Jews.
And we have the example of the non-Jewish, pagan astrologers turning up to worship Jesus, king of the Jews. From the very beginning, all can approach him. His kingdom is not just for Jews.
So of course the message we have here is that the good news is for everyone, not just the chosen Jewish people, which I guess isn’t new news to anyone here. But I think it is also about our sense of place: where we expect to find God in the world, and what that means for us as Christians, facing a dreary Monday morning.
The wise men went to Jerusalem first – and frightened the natives by asking for the King of the Jews. They made sufficient noise on their arrival that they were summoned by Herod – who told them what he had learned from the scribes and the chief priests – and sent them on their way to Bethlehem.
Actually, I’ll confess that having heard this passage a gazillion times I only noticed this bit of chronology for the first time this year. I’d always assumed the wise men went straight to Herod, let the cat out of the bag, realised their mistake, got their bearings and ploughed on to Bethlehem and the right king to worship. Not that they actually landed in Jerusalem with no specific destination.
The Chief priests and scribes stayed put, though, after interpreting the prophecies. This is also perhaps puzzling.
Their own scriptures had just told them where their next king had been born. Did they take Jesus’ arrival for granted? Were they so caught up in their role as Chief Priest or scribe that the disruption was one they wanted to ignore?
In my line of work we talk about disruptive technologies – things like smartphones or satnav that change the way things are done.
If you ignore those changes, one day you discover that the old ways are no longer there – you can no longer assume people learn how to read a road map, for example, if they rely on sat nav.
So for me the idea of the Chief Priests and scribes ignoring Jesus and sticking with their source of authority in Herod is a bit like a map maker not realising the power of sat nav as a disruptive force and being put out of business by the new technology.
We, on the other hand, need to pay close attention to the arrival of the infant Jesus – like the wise men – so we can see, and amplify, and be, the disruptive elements. If we are charged with nurturing God’s Kingdom (as we pray every time we say the Lord’s prayer) we need to challenge the status quo, or injustice and unfairness when we see it.
If we ignore those signs, perhaps we will find ourselves as caught out by an apparent troublemaker as the next generation of chief priests and scribes were by the adult Jesus. So, the wise men arrived in Jerusalem looking for a king. They would perhaps not have been surprised to be summoned to Herod’s palace. Because that is where you’d expect to find a king, right? But the one thing I take away from this passage every year is that God isn’t only in the obvious places.
OK here is the bit where I get to say, ‘when I was in the Holy Land…’ When I was in the Holy Land what struck me was how little I was interested in the churches. Where a whole landscape resonates with the life of Christ, I didn’t need to be in a building.
Back in dreary England on a dark midwinter evening then yes – a beautiful church built to the glory of God is one of the best places to be to help to orientate myself and my thoughts and prayers to the proper worship of an infinite creator.
But they are not the only places and if we save our expectation of God for one hour a week in a particular building, are we limiting our experience or understanding of what ‘God with us’ really means? Do we limit our ideas of how we can approach Him?
In today’s Epistle Paul tells us we can approach God with boldness and confidence. He doesn’t say that we have to approach with boldness and confidence in a specific place, at a specific time.
He just says, I’m here to tell you Gentiles that you are fellow heirs, members of the same body and partakers of the promise of Christ Jesus. Which is lucky for us, really. Oh, and Paul wasn’t writing from a grand temple, or the palace of an exalted religious leader – he was in prison.
Yet church is still an important place – over Christmas we welcomed more than a thousand people through our doors for their celebration of the birth of our Lord. And we didn’t, I hope, turn anyone away or ask for a certificate of qualification. A friend tells me that in India the church is respected across all religions because the cross is seen as a sign of service. And for us the church as a building does, I hope, still stand for something in the community – a place where all are welcome, regardless of their circumstances.
We should not limit ourselves and our faith to only what happens in this building and we need to be open to see where else the light is in the dark places out there.
It is an interesting tension for our church leadership to maintain the building as a beacon, and nurture us regulars to be mission-inspired. There’s probably going to be a lot more talk about that in 2014 as the Diocesan anniversary year kicks off.
So, tomorrow, as we face the most Monday-ish of Mondays, let’s live with the idea that we don’t have to look for God in the obvious places. Every time there’s a bit of extra love, or compassion, or generosity, we see a bit more of God’s work in our lives and world.
It’s easy to look at a beautiful sunrise and praise God and his creation. It’s easy to feel virtuous and heroic for the faith if we do something obviously self-sacrificial for a stranger.
I suspect the challenge is in allowing ourselves to see God in the other four hundred interactions we have during the week – on dismal days, on the phone to the call centre, in the queue on the A12. Because he is there. So let’s approach our God with confidence and courage. Let’s be like the wise men and let’s be prepared to find him in the ordinary.