Sunday, January 3, 2021

A Year of Surprises...

When we gathered in church for the first Sunday of 2020, none of us could even have guessed at the strange year ahead of us.  The changes we have experienced, to so much that we took for granted, have been immense.  Who would have thought that a pandemic would sweep across the globe?  Who would have imagined that phrases like ‘COVID’, ‘lock-down’, ‘live-stream’, ‘track & trace’, and ‘social-distancing’ would have become daily additions to our lexicon?  Who could have imagined the immense changes to our shopping habits, entertainment, family gatherings, school openings, work-patterns and worship? 

There has been much that has been truly awful about last year.  My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones either directly to the Corona Virus, or because of the knock-on effect of the Virus on our normal medical services.  My heart goes out to those who have been trapped in care-homes, confused and lonely, and for their families who have been desperate, but unable to provide relief.  My heart goes out to the over-worked, stressed-out staff of our hospitals and clinics, and to teachers and other front-line workers who have found this year to be intolerable.  It has truly been an ‘annus horribilis’ for many.

But there has been much about last year for which we can also give thanks.  For some, the change of pace has been welcome, as has the cessation of the daily commute into work.  Others have found time to write that book, or take up that hobby they always dreamed of.  For some, there has been time to read, to walk, to spend quality-time with less people, but in greater depth.  Some have discovered new things – including (for many of our congregation) the ability to be able to worship from home.  For some there has been an opportunity to re-connect to the church of their youth.

2020, therefore, has been a mixed bag.  There have been some truly terrible happenings, but also many things for which to give thanks.  And this should not surprise people of faith.  God has a way of leading us into new experiences – often unexpected experiences which may test us, perplex us, or delight us.  But each of them has the potential to enable us to grow.

This was certainly the case for the Wise Men from the East, whose arrival in Bethlehem sometime after the birth of Christ is remembered today.   As they set off on their journey from the East, they could not have known what would befall them.  They had ancient texts and a fascination with astrology to guide them – but they really had no idea where their journey would lead them.  There was delight in their journey, not least when they eventually found the Christ in his mother’s arms.  But there was terror and trouble too – not least when they had to flee from the danger of King Herod, and no doubt later to hear about the terrible slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem.

Trouble and delight.  Pain and pleasure.  Two sides of the coin of life – a life which Jesus came to share with us.  Jesus was revealed to the whole world through those eastern Wise Men (which is what the word ‘epiphany’ means (‘the revealing’).  But he then went on to experience all the joy and pain of human life.  He knew the love of family and friends, the thrill of sharing love, both with massive crowds and with individual seekers.  But he also knew the pain of betrayal and denial, and the agony of humiliation, execution and death.  But in each of these experiences, there were things to learn, and ways to grow.

For the Wise Men, their surprising and revealing journey was transformative.  We know nothing else about them from the pages of the Bible, but church history and tradition suggest that their encounter with the infant Christ led to them becoming the first evangelists to the world beyond Judea.  They are said to have taken news of the arrival of the Christ back to the land of the East, and according to some traditions, they were all martyred for their faith.  Certainly, none of them would have known that lifetime of evangelism, followed by a martyr’s death was to be the outcome of their original journey, when they set off in search of the ‘newborn King’.

We too, cannot know what the outcome of our collective journey in 2020 will be.  Our long ‘COVID journey’ has not yet finished, although we can perhaps begin to see the finish line on the horizon.  But what will we have learned at the end of the journey?  In what ways will God have been at work among us, through these long pandemic days?

As a nation, I hope that we will have learned some important things – such as the vital necessity of investing in our frontline services, so that they have the capacity to respond to sudden challenges.  I hope we’ll have learned that homelessness is not inevitable, and that it is ultimately a society’s choice to let people sleep in shop doorways.  I hope that the army of people who have been mobilised to support the lonely, and bring food to the hungry, will continue to find ways to love their neighbour.  I hope that the reductions in climate changing emissions we’ve achieved by learning to work from home will continue.  And there is much more, besides that we can learn.

But what about us, as a congregation and as a family of God here in the centre of Havant?  And what about each of us, as individuals?  What have we learned?  How have we grown? 

The answer to that question will be different for each of us…but I encourage you, at the turn of the year, to take some time today to ponder the question.  What is that God has said to you about how to live differently in the coming year?  In what parts of your life have you been challenged, or re-shaped, by God during this pandemic?  What changes have you already made to the pattern of your life, which you feel called to sustain into the future? 

For just as God led the Wise Men across mountains and deserts to experience profound change in their lives, you can be sure he’s doing the same to you.  Be open to the journey, and open to the change.  Listen to God’s voice, and God’s prompting for your life.  And rejoice with me, that new days are coming, and that God continues to lead us on!  Amen.

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