Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
St Barbara’s Church 7.1.2020
Bishop Lancelot Andrewes preached in 1622. “A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’” T S Elliot adapted this for the first lines of his famous and wonderful poem, the Journey of the Maji. We don’t know what time of year Jesus was born, how far the Maji travelled, where they came from, nor how many there were. However, long journeys were difficult, the Maji could not just fly into Jerusalem. Setting off would have been costly, as were the gifts they carried.
Their decision to travel appears to have been inspired by Jewish prophecy carried probably by Jews scattered by the Persian empire across the East, their reading of the stars, and a divine nudge to bring it all together. God was able to speak to them and call them through their current understanding and knowledge, which may have been more mystical and magical than what we would recognise as faith, but God called them and they came.
The wise men arrive in Jerusalem seeking the New Born King, sent by a star, and Herod hears about it and is shocked, and disturbed and all Jerusalem with him. Herod recognised straight away that God’s King was a challenge to him.
I wonder what the Maji expected to find? They had travelled so far, and whatever the weather, it was a difficult, long and expensive journey, and they arrive in Jerusalem, no baby. Were they fools to believe in ancient prophecies and handed down stories? Was this all a waste of time?
With more information gained, the Maji set off and are overjoyed when they see the star again.
Jesus said seek and you will find but does not promise instant knowledge. Sometimes along the journey of discovery we come to points when we wonder, are mad to be followers, is our journey of faith and expectation a waste of time? The story moves quickly on, but we should linger with the wise men wondering in Jerusalem, asking themselves was it all a mistake. They carried on and their faith was to be rewarded.
When you think of a birth of a King you think of palaces and riches. What they discovered was in some ways a lot less than they must have expected, and yet so much more.
The Shepherd’s represent the poor locals coming to worship Jesus, a short walk from where he was born, the Wise Men travelled from afar and were wealthy. What we know is that God was able to speak to people and draw them to himself. God is able to reach out and find people, it does not matter who you are, or where you have been, rich or poor, what matters is the journey, the journey towards God, the Journey to find Jesus, the journey of faith.
Sometimes along the way your faith journey may take a large knock, it might be now. God, if you are in control, why am I here? Where are you, God? But are we looking for God in the wrong places? Are our expectations wrong?
I imagine Mr Wise Man returning to Mrs WiseWoman, and describing the fantastic journey. So you travelled all that way to just a baby born in a stable? Poor people and you gave them gold, frankincense and myrrh?
Sometimes the God we find is not the God we expect and we find God in unexpected places. What would have happened if rather than continuing the not so wise men had instead turned around at Jerusalem with their tails between their legs? No baby, no King of the Jews, we went all the way to Jerusalem and we did not find anyone. Sometimes faith has to continue when it really does feel like, ‘the very dead of winter.’ The journey of faith can be difficult, at times we wonder whether we have made the right decision, but when we encounter God we know it is worth it.
Secondly, having encountered the Christ-child we have to be changed. T.S. Elliot’s the Journey of the Maji ends, “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death”.
It is rather bleak ending but that image of no longer being at ease here, amongst a people who have different values who worship different Gods, speaks deeply to me.
I’ve been listening recently to Lost Connections by Johann Hari a book about the causes and potential cures of depression and anxiety. He is not a Christian, but he believes one of the problems is society has junk values. People have everything that the world wants but are depressed and therefore prescribed with pills, but he argues that what if the problem is that we have the wrong values. The things that are supposed to make us happy don’t. The things are supposed to satisfy, leave us hungry for more.
Johann Hari acknowledges it is more complex than this, and this is just one aspect.
We meet with Jesus and in the reality of his love, and in those values of love and peace, we see the new reality that His Kingdom offers us. We realise that the world offers us junk, and we long for reality.
The Wind in the Willows begins, “The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said, “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously…”
We meet with Jesus, and everything changes, and we are left, those words sum it up for me so beautifully, with “divine discontent and longing”, like Mole we are called up above and we have to go.
Like Abraham, as described in Hebrews 11.
“8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Thirdly and finally, wise people travel together. There were threats: bandits, discouragements and the journey difficult. We are not called to be lone pilgrims but to journey together. Maji is plural, and no one can quite agree what the singular of Maji is, Majus, Maga, Majum?
Of course, travelling together can be difficult too! We travel together not because we all are alike people following the same rules and being made more and more alike, but because we are called together with all our different personalities to follow Jesus.
Our callings are different. We are all made in the image of God, but different. That is both wonderfully freeing but also complex. How do we work together and indeed work it out? In love, and by the grace of God and the power of His Spirit at work in us.
Balancing the individual call of God on our lives and the call to be the coming of the Kingdom of God together is a challenge. We are called to spend time with God, to grow our relationship with God, but also to grow our relationship with each other.
Probably my best time of Christian fellowship was at university when three of us met nearly every week in term time not just to pray together but also to eat together and to talk and share. The praying was important, but the commitment not just to God, but to one another, and to eat, pray and laugh together was equally important.
We are called to be community together seeking and building the Kingdom of God. House groups, small groups, meeting to pray together is important. Church though is not just about being spiritual it is about developing relationships with each other. In our distracted world, we need to make time for people and take risks to get to know others. To share together our joys and sorrows, as Paul writes, in Romans 12,” 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another.”
Of course, the question asked every journey, is are we there yet? The bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ for a broken world are a reminder of the simple answer – not yet. We meet for communion until the Journey ends, or as the Stuart Townsend writes “until he returns or calls me home”.
Christmas is about the presence. God with us, Emmanuel, God is present in His world. The light shining in the darkness. Not just God with me, but God with us together in a special way. We do not just pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done, we are called to be God’s Kingdom here on earth doing his will, of bringing His light and love to all the world. That which we have been given, we share.
The journey may be difficult, but we encounter Jesus and life can never be the same, and we travel onwards together.
In seeking to seek and to serve God, may we all travel well together into 2020.