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Sermon for Epiphany

December 11, 2014

new age

Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body. – words from today’s epistle.

In the name…

I had to go to Glastonbury once a month over two years, training to be a spiritual director. Because the bus times didn’t fit in very well, I got a lot of free time to roam around. When the abbey was still standing it was a major seat of Christianity. Now, almost every other shop is devoted to ‘new age’ spirituality or what some denigrate as ‘the occult’: goddess worship, crystals, tarot cards.

Christianity side by side with New Age. Not unlike the situation of Matthew’s community: a Jewish community side by side with Gentile converts. Both communities had converted to Christianity but had yet to convert to loving one another. That’s probably why he has the story of the magi in place of Luke’s shepherds.

Tradition is far too kind about these visitors. When he was at Canterbury, Rowan Williams shocked many when he said that they weren’t kings and there was no donkey yet he was only pointing out what Matthew says as opposed to sentimental carols. Perhaps we have been afraid to present them for what they really were because these visitors from the East are such good models of faith. Originally, in Persia, Magi were dream-interpreters. By Jesus’ time, the term referred to astrologers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. Our word “magic” comes from this word “magi”. This same word occurs in Acts 13. Barnabas and Saul come to Paphos. There they meet Elymas, a Jewish Magus. This is how Paul describes him: ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?’ verse 10

They weren’t respectable “kings” but horoscope fanatics: a practice condemned by Jewish standards. We might compare them to people in fortune-teller booths, or people on the “psychic hotline” or others who foretell the future by stars, tea leaves, runes, Tarot cards, etc. One writer describes the Magi this way: ‘The Magi would thus represent, to the early Jewish reader, the epitome of Gentile idolatry and religious hocus-pocus – dabblers in chicken entrails, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future.’

Magi in Jesus’ day were not “wise men”. They weren’t models of religious piety but Matthew makes them the heroes. The Magi shouldn’t be there. They are heretics. They don’t worship the right God. They are the wrong race, the wrong denomination, the wrong religion. They don’t know how to worship properly. Certainly they give the child gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh, but those are elements used in their magic. They would have been much better models of unbelief and false trust than models of faith, trust and worship.

Which raises important questions for us today: “Where are the unchurched today?” and “What signs will speak to them?” They’re just ordinary people who work with us, are at school with us, live in our neighbourhoods, go to the same pubs, the same gyms, the same concerts. What might the church do to get their attention? What will make sense to them? Much of what the church has done in the past bores people. It drives them away. It doesn’t attract them. To quote Nicky Gumbel, pope of Alpha: ‘What About the Church?’ ‘Hard pews, unsingable tunes, enforced silence and excruciating boredom.’ Questions of Life

Is our style of music the most appropriate? Does our worship spring out of prayerful expectation or merely from gossip? Are our silences pregnant with meaning or just a pause before the next torrent of words? Does the quality of our worship meet people’s needs – compared with the spirituality on offer in Glastonbury? Do they see Christians caring for others, being a friend?

I said earlier that one of the reasons we’ve domesticated the wise men is that they are good models of faith. They were prepared to leave all their familiar circumstances behind. They were willing to go on a journey. They were willing to explore what turned out to be dead ends. They were prepared to admit they were wrong: they were nine miles out going to Jerusalem first instead of Bethlehem. They realised that God isn’t found in the corridors of power but in the vulnerable so they broke their promise to return to Herod. We need to learn wisdom and discernment from these spiritual gurus from Asia. They were the first of many in the New Testament to refuse to obey the ruling authorities. This was during a time when disobeying the King was a capital offence, punishable by death. It is the first recorded act of civil disobedience in the New Testament. They went home by another way. Another way: An echo of the first term used to describe Christians in the Book of Acts: ‘followers of the way.’

They saw worship as a priority. Worship, or homage, is used three times in twelve verses and they enjoyed it: verse 10: ‘they were overwhelmed with joy.’ They were prepared to grapple with scripture rather than take it literally. They had started with Isaiah 60 (our first reading): “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. . .” The Jews had been in exile in Iraq for a couple of generations and had come back to Jerusalem in despair. The towers were torn down and the economy had failed. Isaiah said that caravans loaded with trade goods would come from Asia and bring prosperity. Isaiah 60 misled because it suggests that Jerusalem will prosper and have great urban wealth and be restored as the centre of the global economy. In that scenario, the urban elites can recover their former power and prestige and nothing will really change.

They later realise that the right text is Micah 5:2-4: ‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah . . . from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old . . .’ This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great arenas, banks and urban achievements. Micah anticipates a different future: a leader who will bring well-being to his people, not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness to the folks on the ground.

They were prepared to surrender their traditional form of worship. The gifts of the Magi represent their various interests. Gold is their economic interest: the wealth gained from the credulous and gullible. Incense represents the religious vested interest which can so easily be corrupted into occult fatalism; myrrh represents the preservative interest which seeks at all costs to keep things in place and conspires on behalf of the status quo against the new, or what Christians call the “risen” life. They hand over these symbols of their interests, surrendering them to the newly arrived Lord Word Over All – Eric James ( SPCK 1992) pp. 43-46

The non believer, the outsider, the Gentile of our day has a voracious appetite for the things of God. Spirituality sells big time. They know something is missing in their lives that the natural world can’t supply but only rarely does it occur to them to search for the supernatural, that missing piece, in the church. “Wise Men still seek him,” the saying goes. What have we to offer them?

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