On 8 January we celebrated the Feast of Epiphany. Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 72, Isaiah 60:1-6, Matthew 2:1-12.
The sermon began with a reading of T. S. Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi
T. S. Eliot wrote this poem not long after he had come to a deeper faith and converted to Anglicanism. In it he fleshes out the story of the Magi from Matthew by allowing one Magus to remember the journey.
We get some idea of the difficulties of the journey. The weather was against them; the camels were grumpy and their drivers were even worse; places to stay were hard to come by; the places they passed through were unfriendly and exploitative. Is there any wonder that voices in their ears would suggest the journey was sheer folly?
Eliot is making assumptions in order to write his poem of course, but so do we all the time. With regard to the Magi, we make a whole set of assumptions all built on the flimsiest of evidence and perhaps a wish to fill out the story with a few more details. How do we know that there were three men who made this journey? We assume it from the number of gifts they brought. We often call them kings and give them names but where do they introduce themselves?
The reading from Isaiah says:
“Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
and the Psalm says:
“All kings shall fall down before him;
all nations shall do him service.”
Tradition ascribes to these passages reference to Jesus and so is likely to have given rise to this tradition of the kingly nature of the Magi. I wonder what the reaction might be from those watching a nativity play if they found there were 4, 7, 10, even 15 wise men represented! What if the Magi came in dressed in less than sumptuous clothes (no old gold curtains pressed into service, no paper crowns on their heads)? What might happen if we didn’t add a few camels to the nativity scene in church but instead added more donkeys, a bullock cart, or a few sets of walking boots? All we know is that these people were Magi, ‘wise men from the east’. They were Gentiles, not Jews, and represent the fact that Jesus came for all nations. The fact that the Magi had observed the star rising, points to their being astronomers or astrologers who carefully studied the heavens for signs of what was to happen on earth.
Despite the sketchy details, these men can teach us something even after all this time had elapsed. One thing we can be sure of is that they were looking for a new king of the Jews – they said as much to Herod. Nowadays we might not believe that a bright star means that, but within the light of the wisdom they had at that time, probably having also read some prophecy, they had responded and set off on a journey. We could call it a journey of faith and there was probably some doubt mixed in also, as Eliot suggests. Nevertheless, something had convinced them that this was a journey worth making. Sometimes that’s all we can do, to set off as far as the current knowledge we have will take us, if we are convinced we should. Often God only gives us enough light for the next step and asks us to trust him enough to begin the journey. God gives us light to follow; maybe not a star, but possibly someone who shines in some way for us and guides us onward.
The wise men didn’t just rely on their own knowledge in order to find Jesus. We’re told that they went to see Herod in Jerusalem to check exactly where they might find this new king. It was Herod’s advisors, experts in the Scriptures, who pinpointed Bethlehem for the Magi. Only when they were armed with that knowledge could the wise men complete their journey. We too may be travelling in the right general direction but without consulting the Scriptures or those who may bring us insight into the ways of God, we could be wandering around for a long time and not actually find Jesus.
Martin Luther called the Bible the cradle of our Lord. It’s the place to look to find Jesus. The more familiar you become with it, the more clearly you can see Jesus. In this New Year perhaps we each need to think how we can get closer to Jesus by absorbing more of the Bible’s message.
When the wise men finally found Jesus after their long journey and consulting the Scriptures, their response was to worship him. Whether they were kings or commoners, they recognized that they were in the presence of one greater than they, one who was God, and so they worshipped. They presented gifts as part of their response, precious gifts which were symbols of Jesus’ identity. Gold for his kingship; frankincense speaking of deity; myrrh for one who was going to die for all of us.
The Magi show us how to worship Jesus. To do so we honour him for who he is, something we can only do if we take the trouble to find that out. We give the best we have to offer, what is valuable to us, knowing that what we are given by him is so much greater than anything we can give. Like them Magi, as Eliot shows, we face the result of an encounter with Christ, which is a changed life. The old life is no longer what we want or what satisfies.
Wherever you are on your journey, whether you are feeling tired or inspired, I pray that in this year you will continue to follow the light God gives you and find joy in coming closer to Jesus.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor