Tolpuddle and Puddletown
Sunday 7th January 2018
Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
I wonder if you’ve come across the latest advice about singing Christmas carols. Those who came to the benefice service last week learned some new ones, and if others get their way, it would appear that we might soon have to ditch some of the old favourites.
The advice goes like this:
“The union of Shepherd's has complained that it breaches health and safety regulations to insist that shepherds watch their flocks without appropriate seating arrangements being provided, therefore benches, stools and orthopaedic chairs are now available.
“Shepherds have also requested that due to the inclement weather conditions at this time of year that they should watch their flocks via CCTV cameras from centrally heated shepherd observation huts.
“Please note, the angel of the Lord is reminded that before shining his/her glory all around she/he must ascertain that all shepherds have been issued with glasses capable of filtering out the harmful effects of UVA, UVB and Glory.
“In relation to the wise men, whilst the gift of gold is still considered acceptable, gifts of frankincense and myrrh are not appropriate because of the potential risk of oils and fragrances causing allergic reactions. A suggested gift alternative would be to make a donation to a worthy cause in the recipient’s name or perhaps give a gift voucher.
“We would not advise that the traversing kings rely on navigation by stars in order to reach their destination, and suggest the use of RAC route-finder or satellite navigation, which will provide the quickest route and advice regarding fuel consumption.
“Please note as per the guidelines from the RSPCA for Mr Donkey, the camels carrying the wise men of the Orient will require regular food and rest breaks.
“Facemasks are also advisable due to the likelihood of dust from the camels’ hooves.”
I wonder what gifts we would have brought baby Jesus. In this modern age it is much more likely to have been something like a nappy cake or babygrows or a rattle or two.
We’re never told what Mary and Joseph thought about the gifts the magi brought, nor what happened to them as Jesus grew older. Was the myrrh kept for his burial? Did they sell the gold and become rich? There’s no evidence of that at all. We’re left with a mystery.
There will always be some mystery about God – we’re not talking about mystery as in the 15 books of the Enid Blyton series where the Five Find-Outers always managed to solve the crime before the local bobby, whether they were troubled by the mystery of the disappearing cat, a vanished prince or an invisible thief. I wonder if you remember reading those as a child or with your children.
In the biblical context, a mystery is something of God that has yet to be revealed. So, in our reading from Ephesians this morning, Paul is talking about the mystery that was revealed in Christ that God is God of everyone, Gentiles and Jews.
This was portrayed at the nativity – or historically accurately probably some months later – by the appearance of foreign astrologers at the residence of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. What we celebrate today is the revelation of what was previously hidden, that God is for us too.
So what can we learn from the example of these three wise men or magi?
First they embarked on an exciting and possibly quite dangerous journey. They didn’t stay at home watching the stars, but rode out in faith that they meant something. They were people of action not merely reflection.
They were people keen to explore and discover more about what the star meant. They were dedicated learners of their craft, they were willing always to understand that they didn’t know everything and had the humility to stop and ask those who should have done what the star meant.
Poor judgement perhaps in asking Herod but they listened to their dreams and were sent home another way. They were flexible enough to accept that that their might be a different road for them after they’d seen Jesus.
One of the differences between Herod and the wise men is that Herod was determined to us his power to conquer anything that got in the way of his domain.
We know that Mary and Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt because of Herod’s desire to slaughter all young male baby Jewish boys, so threatened was he by the thought of a new king.
Wise and powerful as the wise men were, they were also completely able to surrender themselves to God’s greater purpose. They paid homage to Jesus, and heeded the dream to go home a different way.
God gave us the greatest gift of all – himself in the incarnation. And that’s all God asks of us – that we give ourselves back, that we surrender ourselves to God’s purposes, that we receive the love given to us.
The gift of faith and the journey of faith can be an exciting journey of discovery, if we are able to follow the example of the wise men, in terms of their dedication to their calling. It is exciting to become more reliant on God and to learn what plans God has for us.
I wonder what stops us from leading lives of exciting faith and discovery. The wise men set out – do we follow or do we remain seated in our armchairs? There are all sorts of things that keep us metaphorically at home.
Perhaps we’d rather be like King Herod than the magi – in charge of our own lives, thank you very much, not wanting to surrender ourselves to the will of another.
But surrendering to Christ doesn’t mean giving up who we are but becoming more who we have been created to be. Surrendering to Christ doesn’t take away our free will, our ability to make decisions, to discern what is the will of God and what is not. Herod was ruthless with those who opposed him; God is not and is guided always by love, even when we do wander away.
Perhaps we are fearful of what change it might entail. But a journey with God will ultimately bring only positive things with it. What could be better than knowing that we have a loving God walking with us through all of life? God’s there anyway but mostly chooses to limit involvement in our lives unless the invitation from us is there.
Perhaps you are deaf to God’s calling. This could be what I term with my dog Toby – selective hearing – when we only hear the voices that we want to or which speak loudest, in his case usually related to food – where we intentionally choose to block out God’s voice if we are being asked to lay aside something of which do not want to let go, whether that be our comfort, our time, our money, our way of life.
Or it could be that we are deaf because of our negligence to make space so that we can hear the voice of God – not intentionally shutting it out but filling our lives too full of other things to give it space and time.
Maybe we just don’t sense the need for urgency – but none of us know when Jesus will return again – it might be tomorrow; don’t forget the Advent message of the importance of watching and waiting and being ready for the coming of the King.
Perhaps we are too scared to let go of what is familiar, concerned about what it might mean to trust God more, because we might need to let go of the comfortable.
The wise men managed to avoid all these temptations. We don’t know what happened to them after their visit to Bethlehem, how it changed their lives, but their story has been told ever since.
How would we tell our story of faith? Matthew records the adventure the wise men had. How would you tell your story of walking with God? If you were to sit down with someone who was to write a biography of your faith, what would that book say?
Would it be full of excitement and trust in God or would it be a little boring because you’ve played it a bit safe and haven’t managed to let go and let God guide your life.
Where would you trace the hand of God through your past days? Where do you see God guiding you from now on in?
We can’t change our past, but we can open ourselves to a new future, in which we surrender ourselves to God’s purposes and pattern for our lives.
How different will your story be at the end of 2018 than it is now? In many ways that change is in our hands, as we decide who will rule our lives from now on in.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength – it begins with God’s power and our surrender.