Sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer, for the feast of the Epiphany, January 6 2019
If you’ve spent any time looking at our striking Nativity scene, you have probably worked it out by now: Mary is played by Emily from our travel and visitors team; Joseph her husband is Christian, one of our stonemasons; and so on. As they all cluster round the baby in the crib they show that everything we do here – every prayer that’s prayed, every reading read and note sung, every bin that’s emptied, every visitor welcomed – it’s all for him.
They also invite us to find ourselves, as they have, in this story of the birth of our salvation. Tonight we especially contemplate Ed (a canon) Mike (a guide) and Kayode (a day chaplain, among other things) aka the wise men. How do you see yourself in them?
We meet them in the Christmas story told by Matthew, a rather different take on the birth of Jesus from Luke’s gospel and the shepherds. These are not peasants on the edge of society, but members of the elite: if their gifts are anything to go by, they enjoy high disposable incomes; and they are confident enough to converse with a king, even Herod, that most tricky of customers, an insecure autocrat.
We joyfully jumble Matthew’s magi and Luke’s shepherds together in our crib; and that’s no big sin, because each story is telling the same essential truth, that Jesus is born into our kind of world, and that he enjoys no diplomatic protection within it. Luke’s Jesus is born a few steps from the street; Matthew’s Jesus is a marked man even as a child. The present-day inhabitants of that region (not least the Middle East’s embattled Christian communities) would recognise this world, living as they do in what the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen has called an unstable ‘layer cake of enmities and alliances’ - and especially so just now.
Matthew is telling us in his way what John’s gospel put in another way on Sunday morning (John 1.1–18), that when the word was made flesh, Jesus did indeed come and dwell among us, become part of our story. How, then, do his exotic visitors fit into that story? Who are these people? Isaiah talks about ‘kings’ coming to do homage, our gospel reading calls them ‘wise men’, and the Greek word Matthew actually uses – magoi, magi, magic men – often means ‘astrologer’. So what are they: sovereigns, scholars or soothsayers? But we don’t really need to choose. Seers predict things, wise people know things, kings have power to change things. Between them, these three sum up many of the deep longings of the human race.
Depending on what’s on your mind at the beginning of 2020 you may be especially drawn to one of them. Do you have particular worries about the future? Is it some present situation you want to understand better? Or perhaps you just long for things to change – personally, environmentally, politically – if only someone could get it done. These are understandable longings to have. I would really like to know how much my pension will buy in 2030; I would love to understand more about economics; and there are things I’d be determined to make better if only I had the power. In truth, having longings simply means that you care. A lot of religion, says Peter Selby, a former bishop of Canon Ed’s and mine (in his book BeLonging), is about what we do with our longings. So I hope you still have some.
You can of course long for bad things. And even good longings can breed bad things. The thing to do, though, is not to give up your longings, or pretend that you don’t have any, but to admit them, claim them, and (whatever they are) offer them to God, the great desire of nations, so God can receive, refine, redirect them.
We shall do this now, symbolically, as our wise men in bodily form (Kayode again, Jake and Derek) offer the gifts at the crib, and the prayers we shall use will ask for things in return: that our hearts may be purified like gold; that, as incense rises heavenward, so we may be present to the most high God; and that, as we offer the healing balm of myrrh, so God may soothe us, and heal the wounds of the world. So join them in offering your ‘costliest treasures’, the yearnings of your heart, at the crib of Jesus. For if they are to lead to good, they must learn to flow with the longings of God, whose face smiles up from the cradle, pitched in the middle of our world.