Gladness in the skies
Holy Communion Service for Christmas Night, conducted by our Minister and some of our young adults.
This sermon is taken from Matthew 2, verses 1-12
Gladness in the Skies
Magi were professional astrologers. They studied the stars and planets and believed that, by doing so, they could gain a deeper understanding of what was going on in the world and, to a certain extent, foretell the future.
They were often employed by Kings and Chieftains to advise them as to when the time was right to go to battle or to warn them of secret enemies.
They were also consulted by individual men and women wanting to know all kinds of things- from whether or not they would ever have a child to whether or not their long-lost brother was still alive; from whether they should risk a whole new business venture to whether their spouse was being faithful to them. Even today people still consult horoscopes and professional mediums, believing that certain truths are written in the skies.
What is unusual about this particular story is that it is the Magi themselves who set out on a journey to follow a new star. They did not look at the star, deduce what it meant and then tell someone else, “this is what it means, and this is what you need to do,” as professional astrologers normally do. And I wonder why they-the Magi- should have set out on a long and hazardous journey, with an unknown destination, to look for a new King of a country they had nothing to do with? It is out of character.
The obvious answer is to say that the story is not true. Maybe. But stories in the Bible are generally there for a purpose and that purpose is not to waste everybody’s time and temper arguing over whether they are historically true. They are there to start you thinking. So, for what it is worth, here are my thoughts:
1.Astrology, like many subjects, must be far less complicated to do in theory than in practice. Spending long hours studying charts, making calculations, discussing what you have seen has to be easier than getting on your camel and trekking through the desert following the path of a star to see where it leads.
2.Although every organisation needs-well, organising- it must be far less challenging to tick boxes on a clipboard and make sure that every rule of the organisation is followed than seriously to consider doing something radically different.
3.When you have been engaged in a certain work for a long time, you may well be getting weary; possibly even cynical. Been there, done that, torn up the T-shirt and it never works.”
We saw all of this in the drama and my question is what was it that made these Magi decide to follow a star rather than talk about it; to break away from their usual routine and do something different; and to find new inspiration and determination on their quest?
And the only answer I can come up with is “God.”
I recently heard a street evangelist (someone who walks around town centres asking random people if they want to talk with him about God) say that it is not he who introduces God to these people. God will already have spoken to them, he said, “and they will be there, ready to speak with me.”
This may not have been our experience. We may have found that most people run a mile when we even mention God or church. But I do have to say that, as a Minister, I have found that the reasons why someone will suddenly turn up at church for the first time or maybe after a long absence are as many and varied as there are people.
For some it will be a personal crisis; for others a bereavement. For some it will be a new start they are making in life; for others it will be a return to the roots they once had. For some it will be the invitation of a friend; for others it will be a notice in a card or on a board. For some it will be a special occasion; for others it will be a Sunday when they had nothing else to do and thought they would give it a try. For some it will be to please their partner or their parent; for others it will be because they want to bring their children into a faith community. For some it will be because they are in a very dark place; for others because they want to follow some kind of light. Whatever the reason, something other than me; something other than this congregation has drawn a person to this place. All we have done is to keep this space available and ourselves available.
C.S Lewis described himself as “the most dejected convert in England.” Having had a disappointing experience of religion and a tragic experience of life (losing his mother when he was only a child) he had given up on God. But God had not, it seemed, given up on him.
“At least the prodigal son walked home on his own two feet,” raged Lewis, “but what do you do with a son who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into his father’s house?” But once there, Lewis remained and helped many others in.
G.K Chesterton spoke of “an invisible thread,” connecting him to God. Every now and then God would give the thread a twitch.
Francis Thompson, in his famous poem, called God the “Hound of Heaven,” describing how frantically he tried to escape God, taking refuge in the “normal” things of life like money and pleasure and study, convincing himself that god did not exist, but God came persistently on and nothing worked until he fell, exhausted at God’s feet, only for God to hold out a hand, lift him up and walk alongside him back into life again.
Maybe this is how it was for the Magi. Something had been making them restless; dissatisfied with where they were; wondering whether there was something more and then, when the star appeared, they knew that this was their sign to get up and follow.
You see, if there is a God and if that God wants to be involved with us (and I can see no point in any other kind of God) then that God will never give up, will He? He will persistently keep nudging and challenging and chasing until we are ready to look up and see the star which is there for us and follow it.
For some of us, like the apostle Peter, whose fishing net Jesus caused to be filled to bursting, the star will be realisation of what we thought was our greatest ambition only to find that it is not what we wanted after all and that something better is calling us; for some, like Jacob on the run in the desert, it is noticing that God’s angels (even if heavily disguised) are present with us in a very dark place; for some, like Isaiah, it is finding that a place of grief becomes a place of awesome vision and new vocation; for some, like David, it is finding the courage to stand up to the giant who is terrorising your people; for some, like Ezekiel, it is finding yourself in a place of total devastation and being called to breathe new life and hope there; for some, like Mary, it is the learning that there is a new life in you; for some, like Nathaniel, it is simply the voice of a friend who says, “come and see.”
Right through the Bible, we find that it is God who takes the initiative; God who makes the first move.
What is asked of us is that we are open to what God is saying and doing; that we seek an outlet for our spiritual need in Him rather than in “idols” we have made for ourselves and so are no greater than ourselves.
For each person here tonight the “star” may be totally different, as will the journey. For many of us there may be a first step to pursuing that star and then a long gap before we make the next step. Some will see their journey as being filled with joy and some-like T.S Eliot- will record gloomily that “a hard crossing we had of it.”
For most of us, as with the Magi, there will be wrong turnings that may have devastating effects. But there will be warnings; there will be alternative routes; and we shall know the star again when we see it.
So- it is Christmas Eve- the night of all nights to believe in God. And what I ask is that you look for the star that is there for you and that, when you have found it, you follow it. And I pray that you will find in your journey both gladness and generosity from the God who never gives up on you.