A reflection on the story of the Rich Young Man

 

“Go, sell all your possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow me”. (Matt 19: v21)

That is an enormously costly request – even in the 1st Century AD. What Jesus is apparently asking, is for the rich young man to get rid of everything except the clothes he stands up in, and to follow Christ.
It is one of the main difficulties I have, being a (comparatively) well-off middle-aged man with plenty of possessions!

Now perhaps what Jesus is asking was easier to do in 1st century Israel than it is to do now.
In the western world of the 21st century life appears to be unliveable with no possessions, unless one is in a closed community of some sort.
We depend on cars (or motorcycles or bicycles) to get around – to the shops, the doctor, the dentist, the library, work etc.
We use the telephone, or more commonly these days, some sort of computing device (whether smartphone, tablet or laptop computer) to communicate with all sorts of people and organisations.
More and more Government and other information is available on-line, and in some cases can ONLY be accessed on-line.
Television, films on DVD, HiFi, leisure pursuit equipment, (golf, fishing, walking/climbing etc) all fill our homes and lives. Some of us also have many books as well.

So how can we even begin to equate what Jesus asked the rich young man to do with life in 21st Century Britain?
In 1st Century Israel, it was common to see wandering groups surrounding a religious teacher, who moved from place to place and depended on others for food and shelter. Thus the command “sell everything and follow me” would not have been too much of a surprise.

In 21st Century Britain we don’t have roving bands of disciples with a religious teacher at the centre ( perhaps we ought to!) so we can’t relate directly to that. In fact anyone who is homeless and dependent on charity to live is stigmatised and pushed into the margins of society – the very people Jesus came to minister to!

Here am I sitting in a Cafe in Oxford and the signs of conspicuous consumption are all around me – contrasted with the homeless sleeping on the streets and the Big Issue sellers. I myself have used this visit to make purchases which I will use, but didn’t really need. There seems to be this in-built need to spend, to possess, to own, to be SEEN to own. Why is this? Why should the West, and me in particular, feel the need to be constantly buying?
I’ve sold a lot of unnecessary computer equipment recently, but I still have 2 tablets, a MacBook, a Windows 2 in 1 machine, and a Linux machine. Seeing that I’m not involved in IT anymore, do I actually NEED all those?
Should I bite the bullet and dispose of all except that I use on a day to day basis?
All I really need is one laptop, one tablet and one phone.
How has this insidious disease infiltrated our collective consciousness?
The same goes with clothing, cars, everything. There are people who have vast quantities of clothing, much of which is bought, worn once, and consigned to the back of the wardrobe. Although I have a relatively small number of clothes compared to some, there are still items that I haven’t worn for some years.

How does the command of Jesus to sell all and follow him fit into this scenario?
I think that it is almost impossible for the normal Christian living in the world to take this literally. There are so many aspects of life that need possessions – for example, I’m writing this on my iPad – I use iPad for reading books when away, for the Daily Office.
I use my car to get to Church, the doctor, the dentist, go shopping, and numerous other things.
This dependence on products of a consumerist society is not necessarily bad.
The key phrase here seems to me to be “sustainability and stewardship”.
Using renewable energy sources for example, not buying the latest gadget just because it’s new. Use what possessions you have until they are either worn out or it’s not economic to repair them.
Recycle as much as you can – sell unwanted and/or unused items – particularly technology.
As much as we can, use what we have for the benefit of others.

However, that still doesn’t address the main problem that I have about possessions. Why should this be so? Why should I feel guilty about owning so much stuff when three-quarters of the world have almost nothing?
Should I feel guilt about an accident of birth that I live in an extremely wealthy western country where having “great possessions” is seen as the norm?
As a tangential note, are the poor in this country REALLY poor? I would say not, compared to some African and Asian countries. What does that say about our collective view of poverty and possessions?
“Possession poverty” doesn’t of itself preclude health, food and shelter. Quality of life doesn’t mean “spend spend spend”.
There needs to be a sea-change in societal thinking, and maybe it’s up to the various faith communities to start the ball rolling.
As Luke wrote in Acts 2: 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.
What a wonderful vision that is. I just wonder where we would be of if the church had followed through with that? Drat Constantine!

Perhaps we could all (and me particularly) consider what we actually NEED and begin a process of prayerful decluttering…..

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I’m back!

My last post here was 4 years ago.
Between then and now, I’ve had a traumatic incident which is why I’ve added “depression” to the sub-title of this blog – so you can probably guess what that traumatic incident was!

It would seem that I’ve had some sort of depression all my life – my “Sunday moods” (which don’t just happen on Sunday) being that indication. For some reason, four years ago, in Sept 2012, these “Sunday moods” all happened at once, and I sank into a deep depression which meant that I sat in an armchair most of the time, slept a lot, and didn’t go out of the house for almost two months.
The Dog was snapping round my heels quite aggressively.

I gave up my lay ministry and even going to church.
I was very uneasy in large crowds, and any event we did attend I usually sat right at the back so as to be inconspicuous, and I had to get out as soon as it finished.

I owe my recovery to many people – my wife firstly and foremostly, as she had to live with it day in and day out, while holding down a very demanding job. Also to Staffordshire Wellbeing who took me through a trial of Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) which helped a great deal. Also to the local clergy, and friends in the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland (London Section) who have been supportive and not been too hard on my unfitness!

It’s been a long haul, beginning with the realisation that I shall never be really free from it, and that I need to recognise when it’s about to strike, and employ defensive mechanisms as soon as I can.
There are still several outstanding issues though, which I have to cope with
The first thing is that this seems to be triggered by seemingly incredibly trivial events, such as a smell, or sound, or a bit of music, or something on TV. This is something that just cannot be anticipated, and so needs to be watched out for.
Secondly I still have a problem of multiple personae, which I think was a major contributing factor to the downtime. This manifests itself in not being able to decide what sort of clothes to wear in the morning or, having gone away and having taken a certain type of clothing with me, I then feel that it was the wrong type of clothing and wish I had brought another type. By this I mean jeans and tee shirts or chinos and polo shirts or tweed jacket and check shirts – those being my three main personae.
This is compounded by the fact that I look forward to, and plan, events, but when the time draws near I get a huge inertia and can’t be bothered.
It’s these two that are probably the hardest to deal with as they tend to sneak up on me from behind.

I realise that I will probably be taking tablets for the rest of my life, but at least I’m back into relative normality now and apart from these remaining issues, life is moving on.
Health still gives me a few concerns, but usually those concerns turn out to be unfounded.

I’m back at church, licensed in Sept 2015 to St Giles in Cheadle, I have a Spiritual Director and a Vocations Advisor, so things are not just kept in check, but are looking up.

Here’s to a good new year in 2017 for all of us!

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Reflection on Lent Course based on The King’s Speech

Our themes this lent have been fear, calling, pressing on through adversity and finally the triumph of good.

Fear is something that we all can relate to. Of course there are different types of fear.

Fear of accident, fear of ridicule, fear of dying.

I have known several types of fear – fear of physical injury, as on the very first time I had to climb out of a helicopter onto a swinging 30 foot rope into the black night carrying a lot of equipment – fear of falling off a cliff when climbing.

It may also surprise some of you to know that I also had at one time, up until relatively recently, a tremendous fear of speaking in public, not because of a stammer like Bertie, but out of complete lack of self-confidence, brought on, like Bertie’s stammer, by my upbringing.

There is also fear of the unknown, which can affect us all at one time or another.

I don’t know whether any of you saw Sport Relief last week, but in that programme there was a very modern re-enactment of what we saw in the King’s Speech.

Frank Skinner, the comedian, at the age of 55 had never ever learned to swim through an irrational fear of water. He was given a challenge to swim one length of a pool by March 25th. You could see his fear as he approached the water, but, because of his coaches, he was able to overcome this fear and succeeded in swimming his length and the joy and emotion on his face when being presented with his one length swimming award was fantastic!

I think one of the main reasons we don’t talk about our faith is indeed fear. Fear of being ridiculed – fear that the “other side” has more convincing and better thought-out answers. Fear of being thought to be “wimpish” and a bit “simple”.

We do indeed need to Find a Voice.

But what we do need to understand is that we are not all called to stand on street corners and proclaim the Gospel. I always, although having great admiration for those people, do rather wonder whether they are putting people off rather than getting people to listen.

But we are all called to be a Royal priesthood – children and heirs of God and that means that we should proclaim the Gospel in the way that we are called personally to do so.

St Paul said : We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

So finding a voice to share our faith and building up the Kingdom of God here on earth does not necessarily mean talking – other things can speak just as loudly as words.

In fact St Francis of Assisi is reputed to have said: Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.

So through our fear, whatever that may be to us individually, we are called to be Christ’s followers.

That can mean a lot of adversity especially in the world today.

We are up against it in an increasingly aggressive secular world.

Again we can get inspiration from St Paul – particularly apt in this Olympic year:

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air.

Adversity is what God through Christ is there to help us through. Remember – God will never burden us with more than we can stand. He wants to see us grow and flourish in His knowledge and love, not to crumble and break under a heavy load.

In a few days we shall be meditating on the Stations of the Cross in preparation for Good Friday when we shall see Jesus stumble not once, not twice, but three times under the weight of the cross – the cross that bears all our burdens. It’s no wonder that He stumbles, in fact it’s a wonder he can even lift it at all with that weight on it, but lift and carry it he does – for all our sakes.

Just like Lionel brought Bertie through the worst nightmare of his life, so Christ can do the same for us, but unlike that one life-changing event of the first wartime speech, Christ does this time and time again.

No matter how much we stumble or stutter, or how often, Christ is there to pick us up, to be OUR voice in the world. Christ stands with us just as Lionel stood before Bertie in the studio but with one major difference. Lionel stopped coaching when he saw that Bertie was managing very well – Christ does not stop supporting us in everything we do as long as we trust implicitly in Him.

Again St Paul: suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

How St Paul has words for every situation!

And out perseverance, pressing on through adversity will make us stronger in the faith, stronger to stand firm in our beliefs, stronger in the knowledge of God through His Son Jesus Christ.

But just as Bertie had to open his past up to Lionel, so we need to open ourselves up to the incoming Spirit through reading of scripture and prayer.

And prayer must contain two elements – not just petitioning God with requests or prayer for others, but prayer for ourselves.

And prayer for ourselves must also include time to listen to God. Listening to God is just as much prayer as praying for peace, or for healing or for anything else specific.

However infrequently we do it, we have to listen. Listen to the silence, listen to God speaking through all sorts of ways and means.

So by that our voice will become God’s voice – we will find that voice and speak the Gospel, sometimes in words!

I would like to leave you with two thoughts – once more from Paul writing to Timothy:

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Let that be our goal, the reason for allowing God to find his voice in the world through us, but if the thought of that makes us quake in our boots then Isaiah has words of comfort:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

 

Amen.

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A new branch!

Just in Oxford for a day, decided to look for a second-hand copy of Edmund Blunden’s poetry (been reading the biography of Seigfried Sassoon) but couldn’t find one.

Decided instead to take a look at basic modern philosophical concepts, so wandered into Blackwells as you do and a very nice man in the Philosophy department suggested “Philosophy – the Basics” by Nigel Warburton and also “Think” by Simon Blackburn, both of which look very good.

Looking forward to beginning my study of philosophy!

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Easter 2011

You all must have heard this little ditty….

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
How I wish he’d go away…

I bet the Jewish and Roman authorities in later years when they were old and grey, must have thought similarly about the curious and to them completely insignificant incident that happened just outside Jerusalem on the day after the Sabbath during Passover week.

We can imagine the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin, meeting together after the Passover with a huge sense of relief. There they were, congratulating themselves on having got rid of a troublesome radical preacher and teacher, without public disturbances and with his band of followers in fear, in hiding and gone to ground.

We can sense their smirking self-satisfaction – we – WE preserved the peace. Won’t our Roman masters be grateful? Everything can now get back to normal.

But what was normal?

Nothing would ever be normal again! This event changed everything then, – changes everything today and will change everything in times to come until the end of the age!

Little did they know at the time the effect their decision would have, not just on Jerusalem but in the wider world!

Little did they know that what they had actually done was to release into the world one of the most amazing and stupendous events of all human history.

No doubt their spies and informants would have reported it to them……the disciples of the man you crucified three days ago are claiming that he isn’t in fact dead but has risen from the tomb and has appeared to them several times. What rot! The Centurion told us he was dead and he’s seen more dead men than we’ve had hot dinners so he should know.

Little did THEY know! I wonder whether they would have behaved any differently if they’d known what was going to happen? I shouldn’t think so – they were so wrapped up in the Law and all its intricacies, and the politicking with the Romans and their little internal power squabbles that they had little time for actually seeking the Kingdom of God.

Little did they know that the followers of this man whom they had killed, who had run away and had hidden themselves, for fear that they same thing would happen to them, would be so affected , so changed by this event that didn’t even show up as a small blip on the Roman radar, this strange happening in a small backwater province, would be so empowered, eventually so filled with the Holy Spirit that they, poorly educated (or not educated at all) Galilean fishermen, tax collectors, would go out and change the world.

Yes, that’s right, change the world.

We’ve seen people, individuals, try to change the world in our lifetimes, and not always for the good. Hitler and Stalin for example. But who cannot see Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream” without a lump in the throat?

How about Mother Teresa? And many others we can think of, William Wilberforce (though I hesitate to say that he lived in anyone’s lifetime here!)

Not many people can say that they’ve changed the world, can they?

But these people did. That is what this thing did to them. From fear and hiding to eloquence and mission and eventual martyrdom for Jesus.

And, as a direct result of that event two thousand years ago, when the relationship between God and humankind was changed for ever by Jesus rising from the dead and his subsequent ascension, we are here today.

As a direct result of Jesus rising from the dead, we have been enabled to hear his saving word, two thousand years afterwards.

If that morning had never happened, then neither would Pentecost and neither would the missions of Peter, Paul and all those Apostles who brought the Good News not just to the Israelites, but more importantly, eventually to all the nations of the world.

Jesus of Nazareth would have remained just that – a wandering teacher with a small following, another sect within Judaism.

That is something to marvel at I think, something that is such a gift that it cannot be given a price, cannot be evaluated in human terms, but only in God’s terms, which we of course are so far below as to make that unimaginable.

This one event changed the course of human history. Not all for the good I’m afraid as we all know there have been some horrific things done in the name of Christianity and the Church in the past.

But this ONE event, this greatest gift from God himself, second only to the gift of his Son to us in human form, this one event is the dividing point or line between separation and salvation.

God has shown us that there is nothing to fear, nothing to be afraid of when that time comes because Death has been overcome. The darkness has not prevailed and the temple veil HAS been torn in two, giving us a glimpse of the glories beyond.

It’s been said that hell is the absence of God, but by this wondrous act, there is no absence of God for anyone who chooses to accept Jesus as Lord.

But let’s put aside the actual physical event – we can no more comprehend the effect this had on the disciples as we can comprehend what was here before the universe was created – our minds cannot fathom it.

What we can do though is to think about what resurrection has done in our lives – because any resurrection that we partake in as part of our journey of faith IS the same as that first resurrection that occurred on that first Easter morning.

Any dying to old ways and re-birth to new is part of that resurrection – is a rebirth into new life.

It’s no accident that many baptisms are held on Easter morning, being THE time when old becomes new, when life turns from darkness to light.

And that’s really what we are talking about here, turning from darkness to light.

I well remember at St Mary’s on the Hill in Harrow, at the dawn Easter service – the dawn lit up the east window of the church just as we started to sing the Gloria. What a moment that was! A real and tangible symbol of the glory of God – the very real dispersion of darkness to be replaced by glorious light flooding over everyone.

A very real symbol that on that first Easter morning, that God did indeed conquer the darkness – we have no need to fear it anymore. Death is not the end – it’s just a gateway.

And because Jesus rose to new life and then ascended to Heaven, the first human to do so, we have that promise that we too will rise and go to heaven, to finally see God as he is, face to face.

And because Jesus was raised from the dead, he IS now a living presence, living with us, in us and walking with us in our earthly journeys.

What comfort, what hope, what joy there is in that, knowing that the risen Lord is real and here with us, his presence is promised until he comes again in his glory.

And, yes, like the man who we met on the stair, he will NOT go away!

I wish you all the most joyous and peaceful of Eastertides, rejoicing in the knowledge that our Lord HAS risen. Alleluia!

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The Baptism of Christ

Today’s reading, I think poses a bit of a conundrum.

Here we have John the Baptist, or Baptiser, going about his ministry, calling the people of Israel to repentance, telling the religious authorities what he thinks of them, living a very austere and different way of life, and generally being a thorn in the side of the establishment.

John, as we know, is a relative of Jesus, and his birth was God-given as well, being to an old barren woman, with other mysterious circumstances attached, such as the muteness of his father.

So here comes John, dressed in skins and eating wild food, living in the desert, calling for repentance, a turning away from evil deeds and forgetfulness of the Lord, and turning to a new way of life, the sign of which is baptism by water, in the Jordan.

Today of course, baptism is a very familiar thing, it’s performed in most churches in most denominations most Sundays!

It’s something that we are used to, it’s something that has happened for many many years. Unfortunately it now seems to be a bit of superstitious ritual, a rite of passage, amongst a large number of the population, with godparents who aren’t practising Christians (how they can stand up in public and make those promises I don’t know…) and the after baptism party being of far more import than the actual baptism!

However, in John’s day, baptism was NOT a common occurrence at all. There was certainly ritual washing in the Old Testament, particularly to do with the priests entering the Holy of Holies, and also before food, and of course in Jesus’ time there were the Essenes, a strictly ascetic sect who made great provisions for ritual washing out in their desert hideaway at Qumran, but not Baptism

So this brings us back to the conundrum. Why should John begin baptism for repentance and even more strange, why should Our Lord, being God in human form submit to, or even need baptism?

The answer is Covenant.

So what IS a Covenant?

Covenant” may be defined as an agreement between two parties, with obligations or promises imposed on both sides. In fact, the use of covenants in the near East at the time of Israel’s slavery in Egypt was quite widespread, certainly not unique to Israel, and they generally adhered to a specific legal form. (Most covenants at this time in the Near East tended to be treaties between two rulers and their peoples). There are examples of this form in use in the Old Testament.

A Covenant in the late Bronze Age would generally take the following form:

Introduction of the speaker. In a political treaty, the king would introduce himself by name. (Example – Exodus 20:1)

Historical background: The king then reminded the parties what he had done on their behalf. (Exodus 20:2)

Requirements: Then followed the obligations placed by the king on the other party. (Exodus 20:4-17)

The Document: Agreement was reached on committing the Treaty to writing, and to arrangements where it could be viewed. While there was no provision closely linked with the Ten Commandments (it is entirely possible that the original tablets were designed to be viewed however), we can see similar instructions in Deuteronomy 27:1-8.

Curses and blessings were then invoked on those who either broke or kept the treaty. There is a long series of such curses and blessings in Deuteronomy 27:11- 28:68)

The Old Testament describes several covenants,  between God and Noah, in that God promised to all humankind and all the animals never to cover the surface of the earth with such a flood again (Gen 9:8-17), God and Abram, that God would make him “exceeding numerous” (Gen 17:1-14), and also two covenants between the Israelites and their neighbours. Viz, Abraham with Abimelech the Philistine leader concerning a well, (Gen 21:25-end) and a non-aggression treaty between Isaac and the same Philistine leader. (Gen 26:26-31). We also see evidence of the importance of Covenant in Psalm 89, v3 and v 35, and Psalm 105, v8 and 10.

So that being the background of Covenant in the Old Testament, how do we relate that to our reading today?

There are three highly significant incidents in the Old Testament that relate both to Covenant and Baptism – one of which I’ve just mentioned, Noah and the ark, the other two being the parting of the Red Sea, and the giving of the law on Mt Sinai

Noah and his family, the faithful righteous ones in the sight of the Lord were saved by water.

The Israelites, in their flight from Egypt were also saved by water.

In both cases the oppressors of the unrighteous, the evil doers, were destroyed by water.

And in the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai – a call to a new life, a righteous and holy life.

Are you beginning to see the parallels? All those events were to do with the Covenant between the Israelites and God – Yahweh.

And what happens in our sacrament of Baptism? The old ways are destroyed, we are saved by the grace of God and we are given a new life, all tied in with water.

So our sacrament of Baptism is directly descended from and relates to, the Old Testament or Covenant that God made with the Israelites. I shall be your God and you shall be My people…….

John the Baptists baptism is another step along the way, the journey of God’s people with God. This is another renewal, another chance, just like Noah, just like the Red Sea and the deliverance from the oppression of the Pharaohs, just like the giving of the Law. As Jesus himself said – I come not to abolish the law but to fulfil it.

So why then should Jesus be here? Why should Jesus need a renewal, a washing away of sin and evil by water?

Well the very obvious answer is that he does NOT need baptism for those reasons at all. Jesus is of course, being the image of God in man, by his very nature sinless and with no evil.

So why should he need to be baptised at all?

Well I think there are two reasons.

The first is the fact that this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – the starting pistol if you like.Everyone needs to know when something begins – and this is it. This is Jesus making his public début, his entrance. From now on, everything he does or says will point to Good Friday and Easter morning – the culmination of his earthly ministry and the beginning of his heavenly ministry.

The second and most important is to do with Covenant, and we’ve have looked at that in some detail.

Jesus is the embodiment of the New Testament or the New Covenant as it’s called if you look inside your Bibles at the beginning of the New testament.

This is why he had to be baptised – it’s God declaring himself to be a part of, to be in, the New covenant. This is the beginning of the new age – the new covenant.

This is God announcing to the whole world, not just to the Jews, that here is His son, his own embodiment, very god of very god, here on earth, willing to share our lives, our joys and sorrows, all to give us a new birth, another chance, a second covenant, a new beginning.

In fact just as our baptism gives us the same, so does Jesus’ baptism.

His Baptism is in fact the precursor of all our baptisms – His baptism is the one that pre-ordains and confirms all our baptisms – all those countless millions that have come after.

His one baptism is, like his death on the cross, performed once for all, and as once for all, allows us to partake of the Holy Spirit and enter into the joys and promises of the New Covenant and new life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Epiphany

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

Thus begins one of the most famous poems about the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus by TS Elliot, and very appropriate too, considering the weather we’ve just had!

So just who were these people and why did they make this hard long journey, and what does this say to us today?

Well let’s get rid of some myths and legends.

Firstly they weren’t kings – they were probably Persian Zoroastrian priests – wealthy men yes, and wise and learned – hence the term Magi…but not kings

Secondly the only intimation about numbers is from the three gifts they presented – there’s no indication in the bible at all that there were only three.

Thirdly Mark Luke and John don’t mention them at all (in fact Mark doesn’t tell us anything of the birth – he just starts right in with the ministry of John the Baptist) and Matthew has them visiting the house (presumably in Nazareth) rather than the stable in Bethlehem.

So why does Matthew consider the visit of the Wise men to be important?

 

Well, Matthew was writing for Jews, probably abroad in Greek or Roman communities, and because of this the main thrust of Matthew’s Gospel is the Kingship of Jesus, hence the importance of the wise men’s question when they arrived in Jerusalem – “Where can we find the child born King of the Jews”? And the subsequent fear of Herod that he is about to be deposed.

All through Matthew’s Gospel there is this thread of Kingship – started off right at the beginning by the appearance of the Magi. The Magi represent, for Matthew and his intended audience, an acknowledgement by an authority other than within the Jewish community that here indeed was the long-foretold King, the Messiah who was to lead Israel out of their current state of captivity and enslavement under the hated Romans.

I don’t know whether any of you saw the Top Gear Christmas special on Boxing day – an amusing but quite mad attempt to re-create the journey of the Magi from Persia (actually from modern day Iraq) to Bethlehem by the three loonies in two seater sports cars, which included quite a lot of tough travelling and tiredness and all the other stuff they get up to, including in this program, a hospitalisation.

I think that in this country we have certainly completely lost the sense of how hard travelling was in those days. Any of you who have been to third-world countries and who have ventured off the tarmac will at once remember how hard those desert/bush/jungle tracks are to progress along, even in today’s sophisticated four-wheel drive vehicles.

Think how much harder it was for the Magi – unreliable maps (if they had them at all), no roads as we know them, and none at all if they weren’t travelling on a recognised caravan route, bandits, having to navigate between water hole and water hole, a thousand miles of harsh desert, hunger, heat, thirst, freezing temperatures by night, personal danger and not knowing what sort of reception they would get from Herod and his hired thugs when they eventually arrived at their destination

 

And yet, they went.

 

They took a step out into the unknown, into something new and entirely outside their experiences.

 

They went because they believed that the event they had foretold, that they’d seen in their observances through astronomy, in mathematics, was so momentous, had such import for the future of all humankind that they suffered all that hardship to be there.

 

And they weren’t of the Jewish faith at all, they weren’t even local, they’d travelled from a far country, out of their normal circles, away from their homes and families and friends.

 

They considered this to be such an important event that they HAD to be there.

 

The birth of Jesus, a bridge from heaven to earth, and also a bridge from earth to heaven, IS the most momentous happening that has ever happened in the world – is of such importance to all people.

Without this birth, that took place in a small, ordinary town in a small poor unimportant province of the Roman Empire, there would have been no suffering and death, no crucifixion and most important of all, no Easter morning, and none of us would be here today, we would probably be dancing around in the woods, wreathed in oak leaf garlands!

We ourselves start on a journey, long and arduous, right from when we are born, right up to the moment of our transformation into heaven.

There can be many different hardships and joys on this journey, but whatever happens, whatever transpires, we need to keep the example of the Magi ever in our hearts and minds.

They never wavered from their quest, even though they were outsiders.

They kept their destination firmly in view, and believed that they would eventually arrive.

That is what we call faith, and our journey must indeed be a journey of faith, even as theirs was.

Faith is that state of mind where we KNOW something to be true even if there is no visible evidence. Faith is what moves mountains into the sea.

Faith is what sustains us even through the hardest of times.

Faith is what gives us hope that even in the darkest night, the morning will dawn.

The Magi had something guiding them – whether you like to imagine a bright star moving with them, or a very special astronomical conjunction, or a supernova, or whatever the astronomers and historians tell us it might have been – there was something guiding them – their faith showed it to them and they kept on seeing it through faith until they came to the place they were meant to.

We too have a guiding star, a special conjunction, a light in the sky.

Although unlike the Magi it’s not guiding us TO the place of the infant Jesus’ birth, but from it, a journey that comes along side ours, along our life’s path, through hardship and joy, through doubt and despair, through the dark night into the dawn.

TS Elliot ended his poem on a dark and despairing note, one born of agnosticism at best and no hope at worst:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

But our hope is beyond that, beyond the pain and death, in the dawn that is the true culmination, the true destiny of us and those Magi long ago – indeed of all humanity – the dawn that rises in triumph on Easter morning and our guide is not a star or conjunction or supernova, but that infant we worship at this time with those Magi – the person of God on earth, God with us, Emmanuel, grown into full stature of both God and Man, whose destiny was to die, yes, to die, but to rise again for us.

Jesus Christ.

 

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