In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a misconception about religion. A lot of people seem to think that religion is there to give you answers. People who aren’t practising Christians of course quite often criticise religion by saying that it’s a brainwashing tool, and then accuse the religious of being like sheep or something like that. And of course there is enough truth in that to make it unsettling at times. There are enough dangerous and manipulative cults and extreme interpretations of, well not only Christianity but of most of the world religions, for a bit of mud to stick. But the more I spend time in church, by which I mean the community not the building, the less convinced I am that answers are particularly important.
The feast of the Epiphany is a really good example of that. We get almost no answers at all from the story of the visit of the Wise Men. It’s St Matthew at his most elusive really, at the same time as at his most beautiful and engaging. The wise men, or Magi, who have become kings in the later tradition, just appear. We don’t really know where from, other than from the East. By some astrological means they felt motivated to take this journey, we don’t know how long but long in all likelihood, and then of course they get it wrong. When they arrive they go to Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem. Even though the star seems to know where it’s going, but they don’t. When all the confusion with Herod’s sorted out and they finally do get to Bethlehem, they instinctively recognise somehow the child, so much so that they fall to their knees before him and offer these seemingly preposterous gifts. Dorothy Parker, in that heartbreakingly beautiful poem, A Prayer for a New Mother, refers to the Magi as “piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.” Rich in symbolism of course, with the hindsight of the rest of the gospel and the breadth of the tradition, but I rather suspect deeply irritating to Mary and Joseph at the time. And then they disappear again. And the account ends with that extraordinary and mysterious verse, “and having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”
And we have no idea what happens to them next. Are their lives transformed by this journey and this encounter? We simply don’t know. What we can guess is that they don’t experience miraculous conversions which then take root and spread across their homelands, because nothing much seems to happen in “the East” until much later in Christian history. Are they changed individually? It’s anyone’s guess. Poets such as TS Eliot have tried to mull this over, and if any of you know the famous Eliot poem The Journey of The Magi, you’ll remember that he puts into the end of that poem, “were we led all that way for birth or death?”, And then later on “we returned to our places, these kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.”
TS Eliot at least feels that this encounter, this journey, this flash of inspiration and transformation must have done something to those wise men which if you like reset their expectations, readjusted the parameters of their lives, gave him a set of new questions to explore. And we know at least that they were sufficiently transformed, and sufficiently convicted by whatever this dream was, whether all three of them had it or just one of them, that they returned to their own lands “by another road”.
Lots and lots of questions in this evening’s Gospel reading. Almost no answers. One child. It is in the encounter with the child that something happens that resets the wise men’s, I don’t know what to call it, expectations, horizons, parameters… It’s not their astrological skill that does that, because they go to the wrong place. But something gives them the confidence to return “by another road”.
And that I think is what Jesus does. Jesus gives us another road. Not like a satnav which, while in theory anyway, directs you at every single turn until you arrive at your destination. And certainly not by brainwashing his family into some sort of group of people reciting a script. And absolutely not by offering us something easier and more palatable than what we had before. TS Eliot’s poem at the end suggests the wise men are less happy, less content and less at ease than they were before. And goodness knows that we know right here this morning, in this church that being a Christian doesn’t make life any easier. It doesn’t hold sickness or misery or complication at bay. It doesn’t make your life easier or more straightforward. It very often doesn’t give you very many answers. What it does is give you Jesus. It gives you “another road”.
And in our various ways, we all, at the beginning of a new year are taking another step down the new road. People will be taking a step into the unknown this week, into a new job, into a new challenge, into a hospital, into the world of fear and questions and hope and dread. And all of those things are real, and have to be borne, joy and sorrow together, new challenges, new possibilities, new futures.
When someone kneels at the altar rail and holds out their hands and receives bread and wine either for the very first time, or for the 700th, what they are receiving is a gift of wonder. It is as if we kneel with the wise men before the baby of Bethlehem and pay him homage. And we offer to him whatever gifts we have brought to that place with us. And they’re often not very sophisticated gifts, they might feel a bit worn, or cobbled together, as we, like Parker’s wise men, pile our clumsy gifts of foreign gold before him - Probably not gold, frankincense and myrrh, but whatever it is that we carry, which we offer not because we think they’ll be particularly useful to God probably, any more useful to a baby than a box of incense or a pile of coins, but because they’re what we have. And what he gives us back is not a map, or satnav, or script. It is another road. A whole new direction which is going to be no easier than the one we were on before, in fact it might be quite a lot harder, but it is a journey which is accompanied. It is a journey blazing with the light of the Holy Spirit, hemmed about by angels, and a journey in which we are never, ever, going to be alone.