Matthew 2: 1-12
I suppose that many of us will have been on journeys over the last couple of weeks. Some of us have braved snow and ice, wind and rain to visit family and friends in far-flung corners of the British Isles.
I wonder whether some of you, like me, have wondered whose clever idea it was to put Christmas in the middle of winter! I mean - wouldn't it make a lot more sense to have Christmas in the summer...like the Australians do. Then we would be able to meet up with family and friends on the beach, or in our gardens - with lots of space for people to sit, and room for the kids to run about. But instead, we go on mammoth journeys, in the heart of the coldest months, to squash ourselves in Auntie Nellie's front room, six to a sofa, and try to catch up with one another over the excited squeaking of small people opening presents!
But I digress. My real point was that many of us will have made journeys over these last two weeks. Not, I suppose as arduous as the journeys made by the Wise Men to Bethlehem, but journeys none the less.
We don't know much about the Wise Men. The Bible calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.
Actually, they were wrong. Jesus never was the King of Jews...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross. He was never proclaimed as King by more than a crowd in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday - who quickly changed their minds when they realised that he was no war-lord. He was never legally anointed as King, unless you count the anointing with perfume by an un-named woman in Bethany. To become a King - the sort of King that the Magi were expecting to find at the Palace in Jerusalem - you would have to have been born to a royal father, or to have conquered a country by war. Neither of these things happened to Jesus. In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world". No, the Magi were wrong. The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.
Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. After Herod had learned from them that a new King had supposedly been born in Bethlehem, he ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under two years old. Matthew records the figure of two years as being 'in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi'.(Mt 2:16)
So, the Magi were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth. Wise men? Perhaps not.
So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, anymore than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers too.
And yet...and yet...
The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem. But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound. Instead of a new prince in a royal cot, the Magi's journey led them, mysteriously, to a cave in a rural back-water...and to a baby in an animal's food trough.
And it was when they got there, that the Magi could truly be described as wise men. Recognising Jesus for who he was, much more than an earthly King of the Jews, - they knelt in homage to him. Jesus, when they met him, was nothing like they expected. But they had the wisdom to recognise him, and to worship him. They had the wisdom to let their pre-conceptions of palaces and earthly royalty slip away; and let the new reality of Jesus take their place.
You see, wise men (and women) are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men, and women, embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.
There is a sense in which we are embarking on a new journey today. Its a journey into a new year, and into a new decade. This is our first Sunday together of this New Year...so I wonder what the road ahead might look like for us. Do I dare to make a few predictions of my own?
We have plans! Tomorrow morning, all the clergy and parish wardens will be meeting with our PCC secretary to think about what the future might look like. We plan to bring our ideas to a parish conference at the end of this month - so that the whole parish can join in the task of shaping our future for the next five years. Our plans will include a few specific tasks that we want to get done. We will be sharing ideas like replacing the pews here in St Mark's and improving our insulation...you'll be glad to know. We'll be thinking about how to expand our Community Cafe and whether to record and album of choir music which might make good Christmas presents for next year!
But, much more important than getting things done, our five year plan is going to suggest some statements about the kind of church we want to be. Despite the manic over-working that often goes on in my house, I have always believed that God loves us much more for who we are than what we do. In other words - we sometimes rush around thinking that we are pleasing God with all our activity...forgetting that God's own words to us are words like "Be Still and know that I am God"...and "Consider the lilies of the field...they neither toil nor spin, and yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Take no thought for tomorrow - tomorrow will look after itself." (see Mt 6: 25-34).
Jesus taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God - and that everything else will fall into place around that. (Mt 6.33). So, as I say, our five year plan is going to focus on the kind of Christian Community we will strive to be. Here are some of the words that we are playing with at the moment...
First, we want to be a praying community. We are people who stand on the threshold between earth and heaven. Prayer is that threshold...its the glue which binds our spiritual and practical lives together. Through prayer, we have the opportunity to draw directly from the Well of Life, before going out into the world to quench the thirst of others. So, I'm going to argue that we must, first and foremost, be a praying church.
Secondly, we want to be a learning church. God created us in his image - and part of that image is our capacity to learn and grow. So, I'm going to be arguing that we need more opportunities to explore the Scriptures together - more chances to learn from the wisdom of the ancients that we have inherited. You know, one of the greatest frustrations for the average Vicar is that the only learning that most congregations do is in the few minutes allowed on a Sunday morning for the average sermon. And for those who can't make it to church more than once a month - that means about 10 minutes a month learning about God. I want to change that ratio...I want us to become people who are serious about what it means to learn the things of God.
Thirdly, we want to be a serving church. We follow a Master who washed his own disciples' feet: and following him means being a servant to one another, and to the world that he loves around us. Whether we serve the world through the provision of excellent worship, or through providing meeting halls or a community cafe - we are called into service.
Fourthly, we want to be a visible church. Our three church buildings are one of our greatest assets - they provide a visible reminder of the things of God to the 20,000 people who live in our parish. They are a sacred space in the middle of normal life. They also provide a base from which we can serve the community around us. So I am arguing that we need to make the maintenance of our buildings one of our top priorities - and to look for ways to make our buildings more accessible to the world at large.
Fifthly, we want to be a multiplex church. I know I've talked about this before - but for those of you who don't get the metaphor, let me put it like this. You know what it's like when you go to a modern multiplex cinema. In front of you are a whole range of different movies that you can choose from. Which movie you chose will depend on a whole range of factors - what mood you are in, who you are with, what you have enjoyed before. Worship is rather like that. Some people need to experience worship in lots of different formats before they find the one that really helps them on their journey. I am arguing that we must strive to provide those different ways of encountering God...as an act of service to our community.
Finally - we want to be an all-inclusive church. We are arguing that there is no place in the church for categories of human beings. Men, women, black, white, young or old, parents or childless, able-bodied or differently-abled, gay or straight...the Bible teaches us that we are all one in Jesus. There is room for every human being in the church of Jesus Christ, and our challenge will be to live and act as if we truly believed that.
That's the list. Six characteristics that the Clergy and Parish Wardens are proposing to the rest of the parish. We want to be a church which prays, learns and serves; and which is visible, multiplex and all-inclusive. Those six principles are what we are proposing should act as a kind of star to guide us on our journey. Like the Magi, we should expect to be surprised by all that happens along the way. God is likely to turn-over our expectations, and take us into all sorts of new and exciting paths. But through these six principles - we aim to give the journey a shape...a basic map that we will be able to follow together.
It promises to be an exciting year...an and exciting decade with God. I pray that you are ready to begin the journey!