The following sermon is a sermon for Epiphany and it's based on a poem by Ian M Fraser entitled: The Strange Coming. This poem appears in Hay and Stardust and is copyrighted and so I cannot publish it here.
The poem was read before the sermon and each section of the sermon is based on a verse of the poem. I've tried to make up for the fact that I can't publish the poem on the web by giving a precis of each verse after each section of the sermon.
The Gospel for Epiphany Sunday is: Matthew 2:1-12
The Gospel of Matthew says that we were ‘Magi’ or, ‘Magoi’ in the original language. That’s a difficult word to translate into the language that you use today, but I confess that I rather like the term ‘wise men.’
I’ve heard some of your people calling us ‘astrologers’ but from what I understand of your culture, that’s not really a word I’d like to use myself. Yes, we looked up into the heavens for signs and portents.
And yes, we believed that we could understand more about God’s creation by observing the stars, but that’s what all our best knowledge told us. In our country and in our time and in our place, we weren’t engaging in pointless superstitious pastimes, we were genuinely trying to understand the heavens and the earth as best we could through observation: rather like your scientists.
And we – my travelling companions and I – we were also particularly interested in the will and purposes of God. We set our sights on the heavens not just literally but metaphorically. We were not only looking at the stars from a ‘scientific’ point of view; our band of companions was also praying for the will of God to be revealed in the history of humankind and in our lives.
Men Rode Rough
It was after one such prayer that a number of us received the message from God to being our journey. But where should we journey to?
Now some months earlier, a new star had appeared on the horizon. It had long been a belief of wise people everywhere that a bright new star in the sky was a heavenly messenger of change. Several of us looked at each other seeming to ask the same question: ‘Do you think we should follow the star?’
But how do you follow a star? Following a star might seem like a nice, literary, romantic notion but – just try it yourself – it’s not all that easy in practice!
Several of our company pointed out the folly of our plan: Travelling is dangerous. Even though there were a couple of dozen of us – by the way, where did you get this notion that there were only three Magi? Matthew never said that – look it up! … Even though there were a couple of dozen of us, travel was always dangerous at the best of times. Ordinary people would try not to travel more than a day’s journey if they could avoid it because of the dangers involved.
Of course, even in our culture, we had our frequent travellers. They were usually armies or traders of expensive goods. Armies travelling was no problem. They could usually take care of themselves – at least until they got to the battlefield! And if you were trading in expensive goods, travel was worth the risk. Sure there were bandits, but if you divided your goods amongst a long caravan and you sent along enough slaves whose lives were expendable, usually enough of the goods and money got back home to make the trip worthwhile.
That was the usual custom of our day: Ordinary people would not expose themselves to the dangers of travel if they could help it. But armies travelled. And the slaves of rich traders travelled.
The glory of a victorious battle was worth the cost. The riches of a successful business trip was worth the cost.
(First verse of poem suggesting that human beings have a love of gain but that Jesus came to this world as a vulnerable being)
Came Frail Truth
What was the journey like?
Well, the phrase ‘We walked by faith, not by sight’ comes to mind. Sure, we had the star, but it really only helped us to keep in a general Westerly direction.
It was a journey unlike any other we’d ever been on because no one in our party had ever set out on a journey to find God in man made manifest before. No one knew exactly what the location of our destination was. No one knew the specific roads we should take and no one knew the dangers along the way.
At every crossroads, we stopped to pray. Sometimes the answer to our prayer was as obvious as the message that had started us off on the journey in the first place. Sometimes the answer to our prayer was dim and we simply had to try a route and see if it worked. If it didn’t work out, we had to return to where we had diverted and start again. Other times, it seemed to us that our prayers weren’t answered at all and that that specific leg of the journey was totally a matter of trial and error.
And then, of course, some parts of the journey were simply a lot more difficult than others. We had to forge some deep waters and climb some steep hills. Several times we were threatened by bandits and once we had to fend off an actual attack.
In these more dangerous parts of the journey, we sometimes lost heart but we continued to try to encourage each other in our faith and in our prayer. There were many times when it was so difficult that we wanted to give up. But we had set our sights on the truth and on the light of God’s promise of salvation and we kept that vision before us as we journeyed on.
(Second verse of poem suggesting that lies can be powerful and truth can be frail.)
Greed and Fear Yield to Wonder
You might call us the original hippies. I’d like to think that our band of travellers was one in a long line of people who were genuine seekers after God and who were ready to follow the truth no matter how difficult or inconvenient.
Our world really wasn’t so different from yours, you know. Certain details might have changed over the last 2000 years, but like you we lived in a society where people trusted in the prevailing culture of the day.
The values of our band of travellers may have been different but we couldn’t help but be affected by the views of everyone around us.
Our quest for truth, our quest for God, didn’t make sense; or so everyone told us. ‘You’re well off. You’re respected. Stay home and enjoy the fruits of your acquired wisdom.’ They said.
You see, our society really only respected the kind of wisdom that helped people make sense of their situation so that they could attain power, influence and money. Of course, it was considered better to gain wealth and power by honest means – or, if not honest, at least by not overt dishonesty or robbery. But gaining power and influence by bending the truth beyond all recognition was still considered better than having nothing.
To give up everything and to go on a journey for the sake of God and his Truth – like we did – was considered mad. Especially when a person had no idea exactly where they were going, no map for the journey and no certainty of getting there.
(Third verse of poem suggesting that ‘the way of the world’ is greed and that God’s way is wonder.)
Broken Folk Healing
We got there eventually, of course. Or, at least we think we did. Well as I said before, how do you really know where a star is pointing?
What we do know is that being in the presence of this young child was like experiencing an epiphany. I suppose that a lot of new parents and grandparents feel that way only, of course, this was not our child.
Somehow, he seemed to be a child for the world, for the universe. A child for generations long since dead and a child for generations still to come.
Very quietly the Spirit of God seemed to speak silently to each of us and said: ‘My presence is in this place.’
I think Mary and Joseph and all the other visitors heard the voice too because a great sense of peace came upon all of us.
In this small child’s helplessness, we understood that God is present with all who are helpless. After our long journey, we understood that our journey had not been in vain, however purposeless the world might believe it to be. As we gathered with Jesus’ other visitors – most of them considered undesirable and on the margins of society – the first inkling of understanding passed across our spirits.
(Fourth verse of poem suggesting that the marginalised rejoice in the coming of the Messiah)
There, in the presence of this young child Jesus, we began to understand God’s purposes for his universe – for his New Creation.
That’s the story of our Epiphany. What’s your story?