Sunday, 26 January 2020

Seeing the light and being the light: Epiphany 3


It was a great joy to baptise Charlie in this morning's service! Here's the sermon I preached for it.


It’s January 26th. 2020 is well underway. New Year’s resolutions have probably been made and forgotten by now. Veganuary is nearly over. The end of dry January is in sight, if you’ve been observing it. But here in the church, it still seems to be Christmas. If you’re visiting us, you may have noticed that  the crib is still up under the Lady Chapel Altar, and wondered why. Are we just too lazy or disorganised to have taken it down?  But actually we haven’t gone daft, because as far as the Church’s calendar is concerned, it is still Christmas.

It didn’t start until Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; we don’t begin to celebrate Christ’s birth until he’s born, which makes sense when you think of it. But then we carry on celebrating it, through the twelve days until Epiphany Sunday on Jan 6, and on through Epiphanytide – a sort of sub-section of the Christmas season, until the Feast of Candlemas on February 2, next Sunday, when we end the season with the story of the baby Jesus, at six weeks old, being taken by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem, where Simeon and Anna, two elderly people who are looking for God’s promised Messiah, acclaim this ordinary baby as the one God has chosen, “The light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel” as Simeon puts it.

Light is the dominating theme of this season. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek and  literally means “shining forth”. The stories we tell at this time of year are full of that light. There’s the light of the angels who announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, dazzling them with a vision of glory. There’s the light of the star which leads the Magi to find him. But all the stories that feature in our Bible readings at this time of year have something to do with light, with sight, with revelation. In many different ways, people who walk in “deep darkness see a great light”, as our readings today said. They understand the world, themselves, Jesus, God in a new way, in a new light, as we might say.

In modern parlance, it’s the “lightbulb” moment, the moment when we have a new idea, a moment of inspiration. But people were having lightbulb moments long before there were any actual lightbulbs.

In the Bible reading we’ve just heard there’s one of those lightbulb moments.  Jesus is in the fishing village of Capernaum, walking along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. He’d moved there when the people of his home town of Nazareth had rejected him. It was a busy place, with a thriving fishing industry. There are numerous beaches along the shore where boats could be launched onto the waters of the fish-filled inland sea. And fishing was a lucrative business, especially with all the Roman soldiers around - Galilee was a base for the Roman occupation of the area. The Romans loved fish. They ate a lot of it. They were particularly fond of a concoction called garum which was made from fish guts fermented in brine – I’m probably not really selling that to you – but they thought it was great, and they put it on anything they could, including porridge. It was the ketchup of its day. They were convinced most things were improved by a slug of it.  

Anyway, the point is that fishing was an important and fairly secure occupation. And in this story we meet four young men – two pairs of brothers - who are obviously doing well from it. Simon and Andrew are standing in the lake, casting nets into its shallow waters.  I stood in that same lake last year, and the shallows were still full of fish, nibbling your feet if you let them. James and John, were in their father’s boat, mending the nets – the perennial task of fishermen.  It’s a picture of ordinary people doing what ordinary people did – and still do – minding their own businesses, getting on with the job of providing for their families, not expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen.

But then Jesus comes walking along the shore towards them. He stops by Simon and Andrew and simply says “Follow me” And “immediately” says Matthew, they left their nets – the precious and  valuable tools of their trade – and followed him. He gets the same reaction when he calls James and John. They are out of that boat like a shot – their father’s thoughts aren’t recorded! – and off after Jesus.

It’s a baffling story in some ways, because the Gospel writer doesn’t tell us what they are thinking, what it is that induces them in that one moment to leave behind their settled lives and follow Jesus. But perhaps that’s the point. We are left to wonder, to think about what would make us do such a thing. All we know is that something changes in their lives at this point. Suddenly their priorities are transformed. They see a whole set of different possibilities, and they want to find out more.

I guess we’ve all had moments like that, moments when we know we need to seize an opportunity or it will be gone, moments when we see something, or someone, anew, and know we have to do something about it. It may be the moment when we realise we’ve fallen in love, and need to say so, or when we see that job advert and know we have to apply for it. It may be the moment when we know we need to blow the whistle on something unjust, or take some action to oppose it. Tomorrow is Holocaust memorial Day, the day when we remember those who were murdered by the Nazi regime, those millions of Jews, Gypsies, LGBT people, and political dissidents who were swallowed up by the machinery of evil in the concentration camps. But it is also a day to remember those who survived, often because of the split-second courageous decisions of others to shelter them or enable them to escape, despite knowing that it might cost them their own lives if they were discovered.

Each of us has moments when we glimpse a light that reveals a new way, new hope, new life. The light may have been there all along, but it’s only at that moment that our eyes are opened to it, that our attention is caught by it. In the language of the church, it’s an Epiphany moment.  

What is it that captivates those first disciples on the Capernaum seashore? We can’t be sure, but it’s likely that they’d already heard something about this new preacher who’d come to town. He’d been preaching about a new kingdom, a new way of living, where all were equal, equally loved, equally valued.  There were no insiders and outsiders; everyone was in. Women and children, poor and rich, Jew or non-Jew, saint or sinner; it didn’t matter. The lowest and least person was as worthy of notice, of time, of listening to, as those who thought of themselves at the top of the pile. It was the message that got him crucified in the end, because it was a radical challenge to the rigid hierarchies of his day, as it still is today, a radically different view of how the future could be. Somehow, in this lightbulb moment, these fishermen get a glimpse of a different world – light shines in the darkness, and they know they want in.

And maybe the call is so compelling because it isn’t just a call to see the light, but also to be the light.  

Jesus doesn’t just call Simon and Andrew to follow him, to look and learn, he tells them that they will be “fishers of people”. We need to be a bit careful with this image because the problem with it is that the fate of a fish caught by a fisherman is to be battered and deep fried and served with a side order of chips and mushy peas. That’s not what Jesus means Simon and Andrew to do– you should never push an image too far! What I think he’s actually saying is that he wants them to use the skills they have built up as fishermen - patience, courage ,persistence -  to notice the people around them, to care for them and love them, to gather them together into a new community where they can learn to live as Jesus teaches them to. Jesus calls them to make a difference, to be the light for others that they have seen in him.

And that brings me to little Charlie here. Epiphanytide, this light-filled season, is a great time to be baptised, because light is central to baptism too. In a few minutes we’ll light our big candle here, the Paschal or Easter Candle. We have a new one every Easter to remind us of the story of Jesus dying and rising to new life, light that the darkness of death couldn’t put out. It’s in that light, which tells us of God’s never ending love, that we make our promises to love and care for Charlie. And then, at the end of the service, we’ll light a small candle from that big one, for you to take home, to remind you that the same light of God’s love shines in Charlie. Don’t just put it away in a safe place, a reminder of this day. Light it as often as you want, to pray for Charlie, and with Charlie, so that it can remind him that, like all of us,  he is  called not just to see the light, and to live by it, but to be the light for others, shining with the love of God for a world that still so desperately needs it.

Amen





Monday, 20 January 2020

The God who names us: Epiphany 2 Breathing Space



Names matter. We choose them with care. If we are parents we know that we take risks when we name our children – we might get it right or wrong. They may hate what we call them. We just can’t be sure what they will grow up to be and do, and what name will suit them in the end – a serious, plain name, or something exotic or frivolous.  

For God, says Isaiah, it is different. “While I was in my mother’s womb [God] named me” he says. Like a lot of Isaiah’s prophecy, there are all sorts of ways of interpreting this passage. Isaiah might be speaking about himself, or it might be the unnamed figure of the Servant, who might even be the people of Israel themselves, that this refers to. In a way, it doesn’t matter, though. The point is the same. Each of us comes into the world as unique, with gifts and a calling which only we can fulfil. We don’t know what it is. No one knows what it is, except the God who made us. Whatever our parents call us, it is that name that really matters, the name that expresses our truest and deepest selves.

In today’s Gospel reading, names are also significant. It’s a wonderfully told story, not just because of what is in it, but also because of what is left out. Two as yet unnamed disciples of John the Baptist are pointed towards Jesus – “follow him”, says John, “not me”. So they do, quite literally, tagging along behind him through the streets, until Jesus, knowing they are there, turns to speak to them. “What are you looking for?” he asks, and perhaps caught  off guard by his question, they seem to say the first thing that comes into their heads, which isn’t really at all relevant. “Where are you staying?” What difference does it make? “Come and see”, says Jesus. And they do, going to Jesus’ home, and then…then what? We aren’t told where the house is, what happens, what they talk about, what they do at all – that’s what This morning I asked people to  imagine that house where Jesus took them, and what happened in it, and we came up with a very wide variety of stories of how and where the day unfolded. Whatever happened though, the end result was that those disciples were convinced that this man, this Jesus, was the Messiah.

It’s one of a number of names and titles he is given in this passage – we counted either 7 or 9, this morning, depending whether you count the translations. He is the “Lamb of God”, “the one who ranks ahead of me,” “the one who was before me”. He is “the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit”. He is the “Son of God”. He is called “Rabbi “ translated as Teacher. He is the “Messiah”, translated as Anointed. And of course, he is also Jesus, a name with its own significance, because it means “God Saves”. In Hebrew it’s the same name as the Old Testament leader Joshua, who led Israel into the Promised Land.

We thought a bit about what name, what description we would use for Jesus – friend, confidante, leader, guide, saviour, mighty counsellor, healer, welcomer… For those two disciples it was the name “Messiah” which was the most significant, the anointed one, the chosen one, the one they had been waiting for. But the fact is that, just like those disciples it’s only when we spend time with Jesus, living as he told us to, meeting him in bread and wine, in the words of the Gospels, in one another, that we really start to discover who he is to us, that he becomes not some figure from a distant, shadowy past, but someone who has the power to change our lives.

That’s the effect he had on those two disciples. Jesus stepped out of the crowd, and into their lives, to transform them forever. And now we discover, after all that has happened, that one of those who went to Jesus’ home was Andrew, the fisherman, who promptly went to fetch his brother Simon, full of excitement.

And that’s where we find that it’s not just Jesus’ name which matters in this story, because Jesus takes one look at Simon and tells him “You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas, Peter – the Rock”, He will be the one on whom Jesus eventually comes to build his new community. He looks into Simon’s heart and he sees in him things which Simon hadn’t seen in himself, new possibilities, new hope.

Names matter. The names we call Jesus, the perception we have of him matter. They tell us what we see in him, what we hope for in him, what we are looking for in him.
But as we look at Jesus and ask to see him more clearly, he is also looking at us, hoping that we will see our own reflection in his eyes, and that by doing that, we will discover what our true name is, what our unique gifts are, what we are called to be and to do.

In our silence tonight, you might like to imagine yourself in that house, and imagine what it would be like to look at Jesus, and have him look at you, and ask him what his name for you might be.

Amen

Sunday, 12 January 2020

This Time Tomorrow: Baptism of Christ & Plough Sunday

Audio Version Here


Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43, Matthew3.13-17

Today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ, but it’s also known as Plough Sunday, because according to very ancient tradition, going right back into the Middle Ages, tomorrow is Plough Monday. Plough Monday is the first Monday after Epiphany, January 6, and it was the start of the agricultural year, the moment when ploughing started to prepare the ground for the coming year’s crops. At a time when people were much more aware of their dependence on the soil, it was a very important moment. Agricultural labourers would be touting for work, desperate for an income in the dark months of winter. Farmers would be hoping for good weather to get the preparation for seed-sowing done.

So prayers would be said in church on this Sunday for the coming agricultural year. Some churches even kept a parish plough in the back of the church for those who didn’t have their own to use, and candles would be lit in front of it.

And on Plough Monday itself, ploughs would be dragged around the village, accompanied by singing and dancing. The villagers might dress up, disguising themselves, and appeal not only for work, but for money to help tide them over through bad weather when ploughing couldn’t be done.

My guess is that most of us won’t be trying to do any ploughing tomorrow, but this time of year is definitely a “back to work” time for many, or a time of getting back to a more normal routine if you aren’t out at work. How you feel about that depends on what your work or your “normal” day to day life feels like. If you have a job, and it’s a job you enjoy, work is a blessing, but work can also be tough and challenging, precarious and insecure, consuming every waking moment, or not paying well enough to live on. The worst of the winter weather is often still ahead of us, and there are no Christmas lights to brighten the dark nights that still lie ahead. This is it.

That’s why it seems a good idea to me to mark this day, even if most of us have never laid a hand on a plough. Plough Sunday proclaims that daily life matters, our work, our everyday routine matters. If our faith doesn’t impinge on that, then it isn’t a faith work having. Faith is not just about what happens in an hour on a Sunday morning in church. What we do here on a Sunday morning is meant to strengthen us for the calling we all have Monday to Saturday. To help us think about that, the C of E has launched some resources called “Everyday Faith” – there’s a series of 21 daily reflections you can sign up for on the Church of EnglandWebsite,  in an app or by email, starting tomorrow, and a booklet available too – I’ll put a copy on the Red Table to look at. They are all designed to help us think about where we find God, and show his love day by day wherever we are.

Our readings today are a great way to set us off on those reflections on everyday faith.  Today’s Psalm invited us to listen for the voice of God in the world around us, to see God at work in the forests and oceans, not just in the sacred space we have carefully roped off for him.

Isaiah, in the Old Testament reading, talks about the servant of God who brings good news to others by his patient care – not breaking bruised reeds or quenching dimly burning flames.  Biblical scholars argue about who or what he had in mind when he wrote this, though of course, Christians have seen Jesus as the perfect example of it. But towards the end of the reading, it is clear that God is calling the whole nation, all his people, to be “a light to the nations” setting people free from oppression, living the faith they profess.

In the reading we heard from Acts, Peter, an ordinary fisherman, does just that. He proclaims the message of God to a Roman Centurion, Cornelius, and his household. He doesn’t leave it to some religious professional – this is his story, and he is going to tell it. He hasn’t been to theological  college or got any academic qualifications, but his life has been shaped by walking with Jesus, day by day, learning to see himself as Jesus sees him, getting it wrong and being forgiven, falling down and being picked up again. It’s the fruit of spending three years close to Jesus, learning from him, being changed by him. Cornelius and his household can see that he knows what he is talking about because he’s lived it.

But it is the Gospel reading which gives us the most powerful demonstration of what it looks like to have a God who is with us where we are, in every situation, 24/7.

Jesus comes to John the Baptist at the River Jordan, to be baptized. John can’t understand why. His baptism is a baptism of repentance, based very closely on the kind of ritual washing which would have been a regular part of everyone’s religious practice, and still is in both the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Ritual washing was a way of symbolically purifying yourself before you worshipped, having your sins washed away. But John couldn’t see why Jesus needed it. He hadn’t done anything wrong. ”I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?”, he says.

But Jesus wouldn’t be put off. This needs to happen he says, “to fulfil all righteousness.” What on earth does that mean?

Righteousness is a clumsy word. We easily confuse it with self-righteousness, that “holier-than-thou” attitude which looks down on others, in an attempt artificially to bolster our own sense of self-esteem. But righteousness isn’t that at all. Righteousness is how things are when everything is as it ought to be – relationships, attitudes, body, mind, soul, spirit. It is about the whole of life, the whole of creation.  It often goes with peace in the Bible, because it’s the only route to real peace. (e.g. Ps 85.10) We can paper over cracks and hope for the best, we can negotiate cease-fires in the trouble spots in our world, or in our neighbourhoods and families, but unless we put things right at the root level, the trouble will all be there waiting to break out again afresh.

Jesus comes to “fulfil all righteousness”, to do what is right, to put right what is wrong, to mend what is broken, to heal what is hurting, to bring together what we have divided through our prejudice and suspicion of one another.  To do that, he needs to get at the root of the problem, in the depths of human hearts and human experiences, and that means being where we are, not just when we are on our Sunday-best behaviour, but when we are feeling exhausted and fractious trying to spread ourselves too thinly in a job that’s impossible to do, or at loggerheads with our boss, or feeling worthless because we can’t find a job at all. It means being where we are when we are anxious about our loved ones, or feel we have let them down. It means being where we are when we are succeeding too, because sometimes it’s the good times which are most damaging to our faith, when we start to believe that we can go it alone without God and others, that our success is all down to our own brilliance.

Throughout his life Jesus, shows this commitment to being where we are. It starts with his birth, a tiny child laid in a manger in a world that has no room for him, just as it has so often got no room for the vulnerable and the weak. It is seen throughout his ministry in his friendship with those who are outcast. Ultimately it will lead him to the cross, where he’ll die the death of a criminal, entering into the worst of human experience. But his baptism is a significant moment in his identification with us too. Jesus goes down into the waters of the Jordan just like any of those lost, battered, guilty, confused people who have flocked to John hoping he can wash away the mess of their lives. He identifies with us so that we can identify with him, so that we can hear the words God speaks to him, “This is my Son, the beloved” so that we can know that he means to include us in those words too. Just as Jesus is God’s beloved son, so are we all his beloved children.

I spoke earlier about the Church of England’s Everyday Faith initiative, and I’d like to finish by inviting you to share in a little activity inspired by their resources. It’s called “This Time Tomorrow”. I’ve given you all two post-it notes. If you haven’t got any, there are spares in the pews. I’d like to invite you to take one and think about what you will be doing this time tomorrow. Maybe you’ll be at work, doing whatever you do – happily or unhappily. Maybe you’ll be caring for a family member, or doing the housework or on a journey. I will probably be hovering around the church, in case I’m needed to sort anything out with the plasterers who are starting work on the North Aisle tomorrow.  I’d like you to write on the first note whatever it is you’ll be doing, and stick it on this noticeboard as you come up for communion. Let it be a way of giving that Monday morning activity to God, and sharing it with all the rest of us too, so we can pray for each other.

The second post-it is for you to take away. I’d like you to write on it – perhaps at the end of the service - something which you want to recall and hold onto from this morning’s worship – a word, a thought, an experience, a feeling. And then, “this time tomorrow”, I’d like you, if you can, to look at it again. Let it be a reminder that the God you meet in church is still with you then, wherever you are. Let it be a reminder to you that you are still his beloved child, whatever you are doing, treasured, valued, called, with a job to do for him, with love to share, and good news to proclaim.
Amen






Sunday, 5 January 2020

Useless Gifts: Epiphany Sunday

Audio version here



There’s an old and rather sexist joke which often circulates around this time of year, saying that if only it had been wise women rather than wise men who came to see the baby Jesus, they would have googled the directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, swept the stable, and brought nappies, a casserole and some formula milk…

As I say, it’s rather sexist. Women don’t have a monopoly on common sense, but let’s face it, the Wise Men who came to Jesus don’t really seem all that wise at all – going to Herod was a big mistake! - and their gifts were certainly not very practical. But I suspect that may have been part of the point Matthew was making.

Gold, frankincense and myrrh were the kind of symbolic gifts which would have been common in diplomatic or political gift exchanges, things given by people wanting to impress others with their wealth and status, as well as their loyalty. That’s why they stand out to us as odd. What is this tiny child, of poor parents, going to do with them? Nappies, casseroles, formula, and a helping hand would have been far more useful. But it’s because these gifts weren’t sensible, because they weren’t really appropriate for an ordinary child born to ordinary parents, that we notice them. Matthew is very deliberately upending that world of political gift giving, so that he can point out how different this child is going to be.

The world his Magi have come prepared to encounter is the same one our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, evokes. Isaiah’s prophecies were spoken to a people in exile. The people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians many years before and many of them taken away as captives. Jerusalem had been  smashed to smithereens, looted, humiliated, reduced to a vassal state, like all the other nations which had stood in Babylon’s way. The people had no realistic hope of going home or restoring their land. But Isaiah’s prophecies said otherwise. God hadn’t finished with them.

One day, he said, the boot would be on the other foot. The nations they had paid tribute to would come to pay tribute to them, bringing the best of what they had as gifts. Those who first heard Isaiah’s words would have seen great tribute processions like this, with vassal nations bringing gold, spices, slaves and livestock. They were memorialised in the great friezes which decorated Babylonian monuments – you can see them in the British Museum now - a permanent reminder of who was in charge, who ruled the roost.

But Isaiah says that one day the balance of power will be turned around.  The abundance of the sea, the “wealth of the nations”, camels from Midian, gold and frankincense, will be brought to Jerusalem by foreign kings. That’s how the Magi got turned into kings in later Christian imagination, by the way. It’s borrowed from this reading. If it sounds a bit like a revenge fantasy, then perhaps that’s understandable; Isaiah was trying to speak hope to a people who felt hopeless, reminding them that God hadn’t abandoned them, however it felt right then. But there’s a subtlety here that is easily missed. This isn’t going to be about Israel’s own greatness. It’s not them who will have won the victory. It is God whom these foreign kings will have come to honour with their gifts. They will “proclaim the praise of the Lord!”, not the power of the generals and kings.

As I said, it is a subtlety that is easily missed, though, and that’s what makes Isaiah’s words, and the image they create, dangerous. They were meant to give hope to the powerless, but have often been misread by empire builders as justification for their quest for riches and honour for themselves. If you are wealthy and powerful, and all look up to you – even if only through fear – then God must be blessing you, you must be in the right.  I have no doubt that Herod, the king we meet in our Gospel reading, thought like that.

Herod is known to history as Herod the Great, and he really was great, if you count greatness by wealth and the ability to get things done that you want to be done. He was responsible for some of the largest building projects of ancient history – the restoration and extension of the Temple in Jerusalem, the  building of aqueducts, the building of the great port of Caesarea Maritima on the coast of Israel among them. Maybe his most peculiar project though, and the most revealing, was the fortress of Masada.

Masada
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masada


Masada stands near the shores of the Dead Sea on a high plateau, in a baking desert, at the very edge of the vast, barren mountain range which border it. Philip and I visited it last year. Mercifully there is now a cable car to take you up to the fortress, which is surrounded by sheer drops on every side. Hardy souls can walk up to it, on a precipitous path, but in temperatures approaching 40C, we were very glad not to! It’s about as inaccessible as it can possibly be. It’s certainly impressive, but there isn’t really any natural beauty about it, unless your taste is for bleak and inhospitable! It’s not even defending any borders. Why on earth would Herod choose to build here?

The simple answer was fear. Herod was a paranoid megalomaniac, convinced that everyone was out to get him – and to be fair, quite a few people were, but if you behave as he did, ruthlessly eliminating any challenges your power, you’re not likely to endear yourself to people.  This fortress was his hiding place of last resort, a place where he thought that he could escape from his enemies. But he discovered, as perhaps all tyrants do, that ultimately walls don’t make you safe,  however high and thick they are. He couldn’t see that the darkness and danger he feared was mostly coming from inside him, not from others. That’s why he had several of his wives murdered, and a number of his children too. There’s no independent record of a slaughter of children in Bethlehem, but it’s the kind of thing he would have done without batting an eyelid.
He spent his whole life on a desperate quest to feel as great as his name suggested, but he died in the end, very painfully, of a ghastly disease, the symptoms of which are far too gruesome for a Sunday morning…

Greatness is a popular word at the moment. President Trump promises to Make America Great Again. Populist nationalism is springing up all across the world, including in our own country – after all, we’ve even got “Great” in our name, Great Britain. But what does it mean to be great? How do you know when you are? Populist leaders appeal to people by equating greatness with wealth and power,   being able to have what we want, keep what we’ve got, make things happen the way we want, have influence in the world. And it works. It sells. It gets the crowds on your side. That kind of greatness promises security, and in a dangerous world, that’s something people crave, but often it has a hidden cost, injustice is tolerated, prejudice is justified, and those at the bottom of the heap pay the price.   

That’s why the Magi’s offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Jesus is such a subversive act. Not only does he have no real use for them, but the Magi who give them to him aren’t going to gain anything for themselves by doing so.  These gifts could have bought them Herod’s friendship, or what passed for it, but what has this poor, vulnerable child got to give them? Nothing at all. When they lay down their gifts before him, they aren’t just giving up some of their wealth, they are laying down a whole world-view of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”, the cynical game- playing which diplomatic gift giving is usually all about.  They pay Jesus “homage” says the story, instead of paying homage to someone who could offer them some worldly reward for it, like Herod.

The word homage comes from the French word “homme” – man. Knights paid homage to their Lords in the Middle Ages, allying themselves to a leader they thought was worthy of their service. Paying homage said “I’m your man,” yours to command. But these Magi are putting themselves into the hands of the least powerful person in the story, someone who seems to have nothing to offer them. Many more people in the Gospel stories will go on to do the same; fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, and some leaders too, will throw in their lot with Jesus, a carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth. They will lay down the tools which might have brought them power and security, their fishing nets, their businesses, their status in society, their whole way of life, and follow him to the cross and beyond. Like the Magi, they’ll have to take “another road” through the world, and it will often feel scary, tempting to try to play the old power –bargaining games. Matthew’s story reminds them that the only power worth allying yourself with is the power of love.

That’s why I think it’s important that the Magi didn’t actually bring Jesus nappies, casseroles and formula – sensible gifts that he might actually need. Jesus came to show us that we don’t need to bargain with God, even if we could. The only gift worth having in this story is the gift of Jesus, freely given to us. We can come to him empty handed, because there is nothing we need to do, or could do, to make God love us more than he does already. We don’t need to try to manipulate our way into God’s favour, or buy a place in his kingdom. We’re there already. It’s ours already.

If we read this story aright, it challenges us to look at ourselves, and the games we play to try to big ourselves up in the eyes of the world, and even in the eyes of God. It challenges us to ask ourselves why we feel we need to play those power games. It challenges us to be aware of the precarious situation of those who have no worldly bargaining chips, through poverty or disability, and to remember that in God’s heart they have pride of place. Most of all it invites us to put ourselves into the hands of that child of Bethlehem, to be his people, and to ask him to show us the “other way”, his way of love.
Amen