Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
St Barbara’s 07.01.2024
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Journeys are a common theme at this time of year.
It may be the journeys that we made to see family or friends over the Christmas season. For us as a family we ate up a fair few miles on the M6 and A14 visiting Sarah’s and then my parents after Christmas
It may be those hard journeys to work or to the shops in the dark, often at this time of year in the ice and cold, but more likely this year in the driving rain.
Or it may be the journeys of a different kind. New Year is often a time that prompts us to reflect on the year that has just gone, and the year that lies ahead, to ponder where we will be this time next year. Our lives are on a journey. For some of us, the road may feel quite smooth, the tarmac new and pristine, the road signs clear and encouraging. For others, the road may feel it has been bumpy for some time, or we are still recovering from the huge pothole we hit a mile back down the road. The journey feels less clear, less inviting.
So it seems appropriate as we begin a new year to think again about those travellers from the east, the magi, and to ask how their journey may speak to our journeys today.
We don’t know much about these magi. There is nothing to suggest they were kings. They were astrologers/ astronomers (the two tended to go together in those days). They were presumably quite wealthy, as they had the time and the resources to plot the constellations of the stars and to be able to up sticks and follow a new star in the sky. But we don’t know how many they were. Tradition assumes three, because three presents are later mentioned, but truth is, we don’t really know. The embellishments of later tradition help to fill out the story, help to fire our imagination – there is no harm in that – indeed we will sing “We three kings of Orient are” at the end of the service, but Matthew clearly did not view their number or indeed their names as details important enough to his account to make it worth recording. But what he does tell us gives us much to reflect upon.
As was common in the day, these magi clearly believed that great events on earth would be reflected in the heavens. Modern astronomers have been able to look back and plot the course of the stars and planets 2000 years ago, and have found that three times around the likely time of Jesus’ birth there was a conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn. As Jupiter was thought of as the royal or kingly planet and Saturn was often thought to represent the Jews, such an occurrence would more than likely have been interpreted as something significant happening in the land of Israel. Quite what, the magi had less idea of, but they knew it was worth pursuing. Something significant, something hopeful was on the horizon and they wanted to find out more.
Maybe for some of us today we can identify with those magi. A new future is opening up. We don’t know quite where it might end up, but we can begin to start taking some tentative steps. It may be in the area of work, or friendships, it may be in the area of where we live, or how we care for others. But as with the magi, the key is to keep one’s focus on the star, on God’s guiding light.
And it may be true for us too in terms of our spiritual lives, our journey with God. Maybe you have caught a glimpse of a place of deeper communion with God than you have experienced up to now. Maybe you have begun to pray more. Maybe you have begun to read the Bible by yourself, or begun to talk to others more about your faith. You’ve caught a glimpse of the next stage on the journey ahead. At the beginning of this new year, will you follow God’s leading?
But the journey for the magi is not a straight-forward one. There are wrong turnings and mistaken routes. The sat-nav on their camels was undoubtedly recalibrated on several occasions: “recalculating route”. And one senses they took their eye off the star completely when they arrived at Herod’s palace. After all, it was the obvious place to go to. If something important was about to happen in Israel, if a new king was about to be born, then surely the king’s palace was the place to go to. Who needs celestial navigation to work that out?
But the travellers from the East are to discover that the obvious, natural assumptions do not always apply in the upside-down world of God’s kingdom. Herod, the source of political and military power in the country, is the obvious place to look from a worldly perspective, but the last place from a heavenly perspective. It may be the obvious place, but it is not the right place.
At the beginning of a new year, I wonder if there are any aspects of our lives where we feel like that: “this is the obvious place for me to be, but it is not the right place… this is the comfortable place, the expected place to be, but it is not the place that following God’s leading would lead me to.”
Have we looked up to the heavens, have we sought God’s guiding light for our direction of travel, or have we ended up where we are simply because it seemed to be the obvious place to be?
That may be true of the big areas of life – the work we do, where we live, how we support and care for family members – but it may be true of other aspects of our lives too: how we spend our time on an evening, who we choose to pick up the phone to talk to, to what we volunteer our time, to what we give our money. It may be that the obvious answer is not always the right answer, that there may be times to think outside the box, to ask whether God’s star is leading us to places we would not expect.
For God meets us in the most unexpected of places. For the magi, it was a stable not a palace. Where does God want to meet us in this year ahead?
And there is warning and encouragement in our story too. The magi’s following of the obvious route – the route to the political power and military might of Herod’s court – could nor have been more wrong. They were going to the very person who posed the greatest threat to the new king. Their attraction to power and influence had tragic consequences – young, innocent children died as Herod carried out his murderous cull in his attempt to hunt down the new “king of the Jews”. Its a story that we see repeated time and time again in our world today – the lure of power leads to unspeakable atrocities, whether in Gaza and Israel, Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere. Actions have consequences.
But there is also encouragement. Despite their error, God does not give up on the magi. Their wrong turning does not forfeit the journey. God shows them the star once more and they find the one they have been looking for. On a Pilgrim Course video some of us watched a few years ago one of the people interviewed spoke of how the Holy Spirit acts as our sat-nav in life, guiding us, directing us. Occasionally we will perceive him calling us: “where possible, make an authorised u-turn”. After a while, if we continue to ignore the instructions, the Holy Spirit, like our sat-nav, will acknowledge that where we are at is not where we were meant to be but he will recalculate our route, he will still find another way to get us to our destination.
There can be times when we feel that we have got things so wrong it is impossible for God to get us back on track. Well, our magi couldn’t have got it more wrong and yet God still finds them a way to get back on track. He finds us a way too. Trust in him and he will recalculate our route.
So the magi finally arrive at the crib and bow down and worship the Christ child. They worship in reverence on bended knee, and through the giving of gifts. It is an extraordinary culmination of a long journey.
This is our journey’s destination too. At the end of our life’s journey, we will fall down in worship before the Son of God, now enthroned in heaven, and we will give him our all. But worship should be the destination of all our shorter journeys too. Asking ourselves the question – how will this new year, how will this job, how will this period of retirement, lead me to worship God afresh? Worship of Christ is where all our journeys should lead.
May this new year, this year of 2024, be a year where we follow God’s leading and come to worship him.