Archive for January, 2012
May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Magi brought three gifts to the child who has been born king of the Jews. So, at the risk of sounding like someone from the Reduced Sermon Company, this sermon has three sections about the Magi, the gifts and us.
The Magi were mysterious, magical, powerful but above all Gentiles, non-Jews, from the East who came to worship the babe of Bethlehem. At the start of Matthew’s Gospel they show us where the Gospel will take us. Christ is a son of David, he comes from the Jews, but he is for the whole world. Matthew makes a particular point that the ministry of Jesus’ lifetime is not to anyone other than Jews but at the end of Matthew’s Gospel the risen Christ, just before his ascension, gave his disciples, and gives us his hearers, the ‘great commission’:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing people everywhere in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The travel writer William Dalrymple tells of The Travels of Marco Polo, 13th C Venetian explorer and of his discovering the tombs of the Magi in the Persian city of Saveh, in modern Iran. They did not convert to Christianity but they worshipped the Christ child and when they returned home kept the memory alive. Dalrymple also writes of the Persian defeat of the Byzantines in the seventh century in which they swept through Palestine destroying all the important buildings. The single exception was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem because over the doorway was a huge mosaic of the recognisably Persian Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child. The building, and more than the building, survived because there was a connection with their own experience.
The gifts brought by the Magi give us the eyes to see who Jesus is:
Gold for a king – it was the custom to approach kings with a gift and what gift is more suitable?
Frankincense for a priest – this was used in the Temple at times of worship, and it reminds us that Jesus is the great high priest, and that he mediates between humans and God.
Myrrh for the one who is to die for the love of God – this costly item was an ingredient in the oil used for anointing the dead, and it reminds us that Jesus came into the world to live and to die for us.
We could equate this today to the offering up of worldly power to the infant Christ: the gold of economic power, frankincense of religious power and myrrh, which was apparently used in ink as well as for burials, the power of the media.
We’ve all been enthralled by money and power at one point or another and have thought they can do more for us than they can. Our tendency is often to blame others for our failings and mistakes and perhaps it is now time that humankind began a sort of process of conversion where the powers of this age need to rediscover the humility of God and offer these gifts of worldly power to the Christ child. When we look at our society, our western way of life, we are starting to get ourselves out of proportion, risking making idols of things, and failing to live in service to the love of God.
We come to worship and we bring gifts. Each week this service is constructed from the gifts of those of us who gather and make an offering to God. It’s not only the collection and the bread and wine being offered from the gifts God has given us. We offer the gifts of our skills and abilities. Our wardens and sidesmen exercise a ministry of welcome which, if it did not reflect deep and personal commitments to hospitality would be vacuous. Our cleaners, flower arrangers, organist and choir bring their gifts in service of the church. Most of us know that even the creative have to struggle to produce what others see as ‘gifted’; that it’s 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. For our creative gifts to be realised we have to work at them. Welcomers have personally to practice hospitality. Musicians and choristers have to practice. Clergy who lead worship in public have to pray in private, and so on.
If this season of Epiphany is about anything, it’s about open eyes, open hearts, open lives – it’s about recognising the brightness of unexpected dawns, of eyes lifted to look around. It’s often recognising the doors that are opened for us in the unexpected revelations and encounters that are part of daily life – and of thankfulness that in such things we can enter into the presence of the one who is God-with-us to all eternity, bringing our own unique gifts to offer to the Christ Child.
Very near the heart of Christian faith and practice is an encounter with God’s questions, ‘who are you, where are you?’ Are you on the side of the life that lives in Jesus, the life of grace and truth, of unstinting generosity and unsparing honesty, the only life that gives life to others? Or are you on your own side, on the side of disconnection, rivalry, the hoarding of gifts, the obsession with control? To answer that you’re on the side of life doesn’t mean for a moment that you can now relax into a fuzzy philosophy of ‘life-affirming’ comfort. On the contrary: it means you are willing to face everything within you that is cheap, fearful, untruthful and evasive, and let the light shine on it.
To quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘The most pressing question we now face, we might well say, is who and where we are as a society. Bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost. Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today’s financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark.
‘And into that dark the Word of God has entered, in love and judgment, and has not been overcome.’
The giving of presents is part of our celebration of Christmas because gifts help define our relationship with Christ and with each other.
The gift of the Christ child is for all the world.
The gift of God’s extraordinary humility subverts our desire to gather earthly power to ourselves and calls us to lives of service.
Yet, for myself I can only affirm Christina Rossetti’s words:
What can I give him, poor as I am.
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.