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05/01/2015

Journeying with the Magi

Below is the third church service I have ever taken. All of three of these have taken place at Oldham Unitarian Chapel. I indebted to this community for providing me with this opportunity. The people at Oldham are friendly, thoughtful and down-to-earth - and they genuinely care for one another. This is, in part, a testament to the devoted leadership provided by Reverend Bob Pounder.

I am also grateful to the initial Worship Studies Course I undertook, facilitated by Sue Woolley on behalf of the Midland Unitarian Association.

Alongside the Biblical reading, Matthew Chapter 2, we used the reading 'Melachi of Babylon, An Astronomer, on The Miracles of Jesus'. This is taken from 'Jesus the Son of Man', a beautiful book by Kahlil Gibran. 

I also used the following video:



Funnily enough, all three services had some Quaker content - this has not been contrived, it tends to just 'sneak in' as I prepare a service.

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Friends, as we come to the time in the Christian year we call Epiphany and embark on the new calendar year, I would like us to come together to reflect on ‘The Journey of the Magi’ – sometimes called the story of the wise men or three kings – as found in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2.

 ~

But before we do this, I want to say something about the Bible, from which we take the reading. Recently, I was asked by a friend – on discovering that I was a Christian – “What do you think about the Bible?”

It was one of those questions – the ones mixed with genuine curiosity but also tinged with a kind of apprehension. The question was quickly followed by, “Because you do know it’s full of historical inaccuracies right?”

It kind of caught me off guard, leaving me wishing I had said this, not said that and so on.

However, what I did say was this: If I want to find out about history, I wouldn't look to the Bible. Yes, it’s tied to the story of the ancient peoples of the Middle East - but it cannot be taken literally.

I followed this by drawing on what Reverend Bob Pounder has said to me before. The Bible finds its real power in its so-called messiness – as the fruit of around 3,500 years of human experience, prayer and conversation about the meaning of life. The Bible is in essence, the ‘yearning of the human soul for something greater’,

From there, I added, that in the New Testament, in the stories of Jesus, we can find its pinnacle – a compelling answer to such yearning.

This kind of conversation could have perhaps taken all day but it moved on from there and we spoke about Oldham Unitarian Chapel and the support you have given to me in taking the pulpit. I must thank you again for this opportunity.

I recognise friends in this room today may have answered differently to my friend's question – this is, after all, what makes us Free Christians - but I thought I would mention it, to hopefully give you an insight into my approach before exploring Matthew Chapter 2.

~

So, having said this, let us now move to today’s main reading, Chapter 2 from the Gospel of Matthew – the Journey of the Magi – as a reflection ahead of the year, as we look forward to another stage in each of our journeys.

Matthew 2 – preceded by a genealogy to show his apparent connections to Abraham and David – is very much part of a deliberate introduction to the story of the adult Jesus that is to come. Matthew 2 begins with a group of seekers travelling to Jerusalem from ‘the East’, asking:

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

It is worth noting that although Western tradition has tended to speak of three wise men, based on the three gifts which were given to the baby Jesus, the number of seekers is not stated in Scripture – nor is the time period between Jesus’s birth and the visit, nor are they all necessarily male. Perhaps these blank spaces are deliberate, left for us to place ourselves there?

What we can say is the group were likely to be people with some religious learning – based on the etymology of the word ‘magi’ – and they were probably from somewhere around what we now call Iran. It is also worth noting that they are not Jewish and likely hail from another significant civilisation. From the start of the Gospel of Matthew, we are given clear indication Jesus is a universal leader, teacher and saviour.

The star, which we are told they followed, is also deeply symbolic. It is tied with wider beliefs held by the ancient peoples of the Middle East, both Jews and Romans, of stars foretelling events on earth. It is also simply, a representation of light breaking through darkness.

In piecing all of this together, we can draw upon our own experience today. We too are seekers gathered together on a journey. We too have had a glimpse of light, of something greater than ourselves, and by coming here today; we too are actively seeking to move closer to it.

Yet just like the magi - travelling across thousands of miles of the mountainous, rugged and somewhat inhospitable terrain of the Middle East - this journey of discovery is not easy.

The destination is not necessarily obvious either - the seekers go to majestic Jerusalem, a holy city, yet Jesus is elsewhere in lowly Bethlehem.

In our own spiritual journeys - the years gone by and the years which hopefully lie ahead - it is likely there will be times when the light we perceive is greater than other times.

It does not follow either that the presence of light coincides with times of contentment and stability, in the most obvious of places. Indeed it is often in the trials, on the steepest cliffs and in the most shrouded of valleys, that we suddenly hit a moment of clarity in which the light becomes brighter. Certainly that is my experience.

And following this line of thought further, it is no surprise to me that the people I have met in life who seem the most empathetic, the most insightful, the most wise – in both a worldly sense and a spiritual sense - are more often than not those who have experienced failure, tragedy, depression – and have somehow come out of the other end.

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Having arrived at Jerusalem, seeking the Messiah, we then read in Matthew Chapter 2,

“When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”

Herod the Great is a historical figure – he was a Roman client king, with a reputation as a cruel tyrant. Clearly he would be disturbed by such news of a coming king.

And, I should say at this point, there is a political interpretation we could follow – using the social gospel approach, but today I want us to remain focused on the more personal truths found in the story.

Herod, I propose, can be viewed as an aspect of the human psyche. Herod is a representation of lust, greed, envy, anger and pride. Herod represents those states of mind and heart we are prone to, which we sometimes act out on ourselves on one another. So in this sense, to us as seekers, Herod is a very real presence in our lives today.

Herod says to the Magi, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Again, alongside political interpretations, what can we draw from this on a personal level? It seems to me that here we are being given insight into a further attribute of the Herod condition; self-deception.

There is a famous line in the film, ‘The Usual Suspects’ – a story about a Machiavellian crime overlord – that goes as follows, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world he doesn’t exist.”

Our very own Herod is like this – it is that voice within the ego that convinces us the bad we are doing is somehow necessary, the bad we are doing is not actually our fault, the bad we are doing is actually good if only you look at it from a particular point of view. Herod pretends to kneel, but in fact stands in the way between ourselves and each other, the Christ-child within us, and a life in-tune with God.

The spiritual journey, I propose, involves a conscientious decision to constantly, relentless - and often painfully - face up to the inner Herod.

The story also says that ‘all Jerusalem’ was disturbed with Herod at the news of Christ’s coming. It is only a small phrase, something we might overlook, but maybe what we are being given forewarning of is the way humans tend to conduct themselves en masse - that in confronting Herod, we potentially face a kind of isolation from our families, our friends, our colleagues and so on.

This is why we need to come together, in an inspirational, honest and caring community like we have here in Oldham.

Just as the magi travel together, so must we.

~

Having spoken with Herod, the story goes that the magi received prophecy and journeyed onwards to Bethlehem.

“The star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”

I have spoken much today of the trials of the spiritual quest, but there is a promise here also – there is something to aim for that will bring great joy.

What lies beneath the star is that great joy, manifested in the baby Jesus – on meeting him, we hear that the seekers from the East “bowed down and worshipped him.”

It is worth noting that in the Middle East at the time of Jesus, there were many faiths rubbing alongside each other. The seekers would have likely encountered Greek philosophy, Roman folk religion, Zoroastrianism, perhaps even Buddhism. There are many stars, many traces of light to follow. They had a choice. In many ways the same as we do today.

To draw on what Reverend Bob Pounder has taught me again, there comes a decision point when we have to ask ourselves, “Are we for Christ or not?” It is often said by religious liberals that there are many paths up the mountain - I include myself in this. But what we tend not to say is that at some point we have to commit to one of those paths. Again, this is certainly my own experience – that to really grow spiritually, we need to find a way that speaks to us, and patiently commit to it. This is not a call for the closed-mindedness to other faiths, but a call for courage and diligence in finding a direction.

There is much discussion out there about the symbolism of the gifts the magi bring to Jesus, and we could have a sermon entirely on this. One reading is that gold represents earthly wealth, frankincense represents spiritual power and then we have myrrh – almost as a punch line - which represents death.

We can map the connections with the wider story of Jesus but if we are talking about our own personal commitment, maybe again we are being given a forewarning in these introductory passages to Matthew, a heads up if you will, of what we are each asked to give up by choosing the way of Jesus.

In the spiritual quest we are required, yes, to give up our time, effort and money.

We are also required to wholly commit our hearts and minds to a spiritual master.

And, in doing so, to draw on that famous Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote, we are 'bid to come and die', to die to our old self.

Quite pointedly, Matthew 2 finishes with, “they returned to their country by another route.”

The magi, it seems, were forever changed by their meeting with the Christ-child, they avoided Herod and returned to home, to everyday life, by a different way – as witnesses to a different reality.

Friends, in the New Year that lies before us,

let us seek the light,

let us support one another in our journeys,

let us carefully commit to a path,

let us taste the fruit of a life nearer to Christ.

Amen.

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