Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
St Barbara’s 3.1.2021
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Have you made any new year resolutions this year? If you have, have you managed to keep to them so far? If you are anything like me, my new year resolutions should probably be called new year wishes – they don’t tend to get very far. And maybe at the outset of this year, given the events of the last few months and even the last few days, it feels harder to set ourselves goals and aims. None of us really knows what this new year will bring. Will life return to normal by Easter? What impact will the vaccine have? will people prefer to relate online rather than in person? will workplaces require their employees to return to the office? will I be able to confidently book a holiday? And that’s before we throw into the mix the uncertainties over Brexit and how our economy will cope, or those personal uncertainties that we cannot predict – the need for an operation, the loss of our job, the sudden crisis of one of our children, whether young or grow-up, needing our support. Setting goals, resolutions, when faced with an uncertain world always feels difficult.
But this year you may want to resolve to do something that will hold you firm no matter what else changes, something that can be your rock in times of storms, your joy in times of peace. This year, can I encourage us all to resolve to do one thing: to grow in love.
You will have heard me and those we’ve interviewed here in church many times over the last few months speak of growing in love, for God, each other, our community and the world. Well, at the beginning of 2021, lets make that central to our lives together. Over the next four weeks we will take a different strand of that commitment to grow in love, and today we take the first strand: to grow in love for God.
Our Gospel reading of the journey of the magi, so wonderfully foreshadowed by our reading from Isaiah that speaks of kings and people of all nations coming to worship God’s chosen one, provides us with so much insight into what it means to grow in love for God.
The first thing that strikes me about the magi is their desire and their commitment. We don’t know much about them but what we do know is that they came from the East, and as there was nothing but desert for several hundred miles east of Jerusalem, that tells us they must have come from some distance. Their journey was not some idle fancy, not the little detour we may make to pop into some National Trust property or out of town shopping centre on our way home. No – they had undertaken a significant, indeed mammoth, journey, a journey that would have tested all their resolve.
For us too, the journey that we are on, the journey of growing in love for God, requires some resolve too. It is easy for our love of God to be crowded out by other things – the busyness and concerns of each day, all the urgent and not so urgent matters that clamour for our attention. It is more than easy to forget where we are headed, to be side-tracked and end up in cul-de-sacs.
Over the last 16 months I have had a problem with my left shoulder, unable to lift my arm much higher than 90 degrees. I had been to see various physios and they had recommended exercises for me to do, but I never quite got round to doing them with the regularity and commitment they required. I was fortunate enough to have an MRI scan that revealed a small tear – nothing to merit an operation, just more exercise needed. So I returned to my exercises, but this time with renewed resolve – 3 or four times a day – finding the time because I realised that if I didn’t things would never change and probably get worse. And now I can lift my arm above my head.
It is true to say that our love for God doesn’t just happen. If we don’t desire to grow in love, if we don’t commit time to doing so, we should not be surprised if we find our faith less vibrant or meaningful than it once was. But it is also true that as with the magi, when we do commit, the rewards are extraordinary. Maybe at the beginning of this new year, you may want to find that time for God.
A second thing about the magi was that they did not travel blind. They may not be quite sure where they would end up but they had a star to guide them. They trusted and followed.
In our journey of growing in love for God, God gives us a great deal of guidance too. For one thing, he gives us his word, the Bible. For the last couple of years there has been a group that has set itself the task of reading the whole Bible in a year – maybe you want to do that. Or you may find that using some daily devotional guides may help – this week I will aim to send out a list of a wide range of types of guides that you may like to explore.
Our guidance, our encouragement, comes too from talking with one another about faith. That is why home groups can be so helpful, hearing from each other about our daily experiences of faith. Let me know if you want to join one this year.
When I think about talking about faith, I am sometimes reminded of my experience when I first started going out with Sarah. I was quite shy about telling people. I wasn’t sure what people would think. I didn’t want a relationship that was so special to me to be criticised or become a source of gossip or be belittled. But what I discovered was that as I did talk to people about our friendship I grew in confidence and in delight. I realised how much Sarah meant to me, and it didn’t take long before we got married.
Sometimes our faith can feel such a precious thing to us that we can feel unsure or embarrassed about talking about it with others. But as we do so, we can discover that our love for God isn’t diminished but grows as a result.
A third thing the magi teach us is to keep our eyes open to seeing God in the places we least expect. Initially they go to Herod’s palace in Jerusalem – surely if a king is going to be born, then that’s the place to go? But as they continue to follow the star, they discover Jesus in a stable, born to poor peasants, hidden away from the world.
Part of our journey of growing in love for God is to grow in our willingness and openness to seeing him in the world. To savour his presence, his goodness, his love, his character in the world around us. That may be to take that extra moment to appreciate the beauty of that tree in our garden or road; it may be to notice the joy of a child skipping down the street; it may be to notice the small courtesy and kindness of a stranger; or to look into the face of an older person and appreciate a life well lived. All these and countless more point us to God, show us a God of love who pours out his love on our world.
At homegroup the other week, someone shared how a colleague of theirs just shone out with God’s character of justice and compassion for the marginalised. We grow in our love for God, when we begin to look for him in those unexpected places, in the lives of one another. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Take time each day to reflect on: where have I have encountered God today? Where have I seen him in the world and in the life of others?
The magi, on finding Christ, fall down in worship. It must have been an extraordinarily emotional moment – the culmination of months of travelling, the moment they had been longing for. Here was God. In his presence worship was the only possible response. For us too, worship is our only response. Not just the worship we offer in church, but the worship that we offer in our daily lives, our prayers, our thanksgiving, our acts of service, living a life that prays: “May God be glorified in my life this day”.
At the beginning of this new year may we resolve to grow in our love for God, to seek his guidance through his word and one another, to look for him and delight in his presence in the world and people around us, and to come to him with our worship. The magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh. We can bring something even more precious: our love.