Friday, January 2, 2015

Epiphany 2015 – Last Sermon to St Mark’s Congregation

Epiphany 2015 – Last Sermon to St Mark’s North End

Matthew 2: 1-12

Matthew is our only biblical source for the story of the Wise Men – and he doesn't tell us very much. Even their names are handed down to us by tradition, not from Matthew’s gospel. Neither do we know how many of them there were. They certainly weren't ‘we three Kings from Orient are’.

Matthew 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.  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. According to Matthew’s account, they actually arrived up to two years late. Matthew notes that Herod enquired of the wise men when they had seen the Star appear.  Then, based on that information he slaughtered all the boys in Bethlehem under two years old.  It’s also notable that Matthew describes the wise men visiting Mary and the child in the house where they were staying, not in a stable.

So, the ‘wise men’ were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the timing of the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth. Their coming seems to have been a happy accident…and example of God using a crooked stick to draw a straight line, as God so often does.

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, any more than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers – and especially astrologers - 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.

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.  And some of the best journeys are the ones we take with other companions …those who travel with us along the road.

Over the last seven years, I have been blessed to have had some very special companions on my own journey.  I feel that I have learned a lot about myself while being your priest… I now know far more about what gives me joy, and what makes me stressed…even to the point of a heart attack!

I've also learned something of how God works in some of the most surprising places and people. God has spoken to me through homeless people, and people with fragile mental health – as well as through sublime music and liturgical beauty.  I've rejoiced to see some people embracing faith and the profound healing it can bring.  But I've also cried and worried over those who have given up on the challenge of the journey…those who have been lost along the way.

There is something profoundly challenging about the Christian journey – or ‘the narrow way’ as Jesus called it.  I have lost count of the number of new people who have been warmly welcomed to St Mark’s…but also, sadly, of the number who have drifted away again after some months or years.

This has saddened me…but it has not surprised me.  No journey with God is easy…and we should not be surprised when it proves just too difficult for some.  It was not easy for the Magi, who traipsed across deserts and mountains to find Jesus.  They had to give up their home comforts, their family life, the things they wanted to do in favour of the things God was calling them to do…the journey God was calling them to make.  Our journeys are no different.

God calls us to give up our warm comfortable homes, our favourite TV programmes, our comfortable familiar surroundings in order to belong to something greater – the community of people called the Church.  In that community we are called on to sacrifice – to give up on the calls of our own desires, wants and even our own egos, in favour of the desires of the whole community.  We are called to journey from The Self, and into the Great Unity of God, expressed through the people around us.  Some people are just not ready for that kind of radical self-giving.  They need more time for the Spirit of God to strengthen their resolve, and to call them again back into community, and away from the transient, fickle Self.

My own journey will soon take me in a different direction.  And I know that for some of you that is a scary prospect.  But let me encourage you to take heart.  Among those of you who have stayed the course, throughout the last seven years, I have seen some remarkable changes.  In the past, some members of this congregation were at logger-heads with each other.  I've seen such people learning how to give up the demands of the Self, and learning instead the power of forgiveness, reconciliation and community.  I've seen others who used to spend most of their days at home alone devoting themselves to the community around us, through the Café.  I've seen people learn new skills, and take up new challenges.  In conversation with many, I've seen new and exciting theological ideas begin to take root and grow.

So, my encouragement to you this Epiphany is to continue to be open to the journey.  Make a new year’s resolution, right here, right now, that you will be more alert, more open to what God is doing in your life as a person, and in your common life as a church.    Make a pact with God that you will listen to him more, search the scriptures more, worship more, give more, receive more.

God led a bunch of mystics across deserts and mountains to encounter the living Lord Jesus.  God can certainly do the same for us, whether we are called to North End or Havant.

But we have to be ready to go on the journey.     Amen

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