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Sunday, 3 January 2016

Epiphany sermon: We shall not cease from exploration

The Magi searched for a sign, then searched for the one to whom the sign pointed, and then gave gifts when they found the one for whom they were looking for. We think of them as being wise for doing all this. When we think about their story in these terms, it can give us a framework or a pattern for thinking about our own lives; perhaps then we will also find or know wisdom!

The Magi searched the stars looking for signs of divine communication; messages from the gods that could guide individuals and nations in the present. In other words they were seeking answers, by the best means they knew how, to the big questions in life:
  • Who are we or, in other words, what is the nature, task and significance of human beings?
  • Where are we or, in other words, what is the origin and nature of the reality in which human beings find themselves?
  • What's wrong or, in other words, how can we account for all that seems wrong or broken in the world?
  • What's the remedy or, in other words, how can we alleviate this brokenness, if at all?
These are questions that each of us, consciously or unconsciously, find answers to by the way that we live our lives but it is only when we consciously ask them and actively search for answers that we begin to leave behind our natural inclination to live life for our pleasure and convenience.

The sign which the Magi found through their searching was the star in the east which they thought was a sign that the king of the Jews had been born as a baby. This sign uprooted them from where they were. If they were to see and to worship the baby King then they had to leave where they were and travel not knowing for sure where their journey would take them. Their journey was probably inconvenient and uncomfortable for them but was the only way for them to find what they were seeking. It is similar for us as we consciously ask ourselves the big questions in life and seek answers; asking questions and seeking answers is uncomfortable and often means making changes to the way that we are currently living which are inconvenient and disruptive, yet necessary, if we are to find any sort of answers at all.

T. S. Eliot writes, in his poem called ‘Little Gidding,’ “We shall not cease from exploration,” and that is right because if we stop searching, if we stop questioning, then we get stuck and stagnate. We only have to look at nature to see the way in which all growth involves change; the caterpillar and butterfly being one of the most dramatic examples. Our own bodies are constantly changing throughout our lives with many of our cells being replaced as we progress through life. Growth involves constant change and if we apply this same principle to our thought life, our emotional life and our spiritual life then, as Eliot wrote, we must not cease from exploration.

The Magi’s journey found its immediate conclusion when they knelt before the Christ-child and worshipped him. They had no independent verification that this child was the King that they were seeking; they simply had to trust that this was so because they had arrived at the place to which the star had led them. Once again, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ describes this well:

“If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel …”

The answer to our questions is a person, not a fact, and the person who is the answer to our questions turns out to be God himself. Because God is infinite, he cannot be fully known or understood by human beings. With God, there is always more for us to know and understand. Knowing God is like diving into the ocean and always being able to dive down deeper therefore are ultimately only three responses we can make to the wonder and majesty of God. The first is, as we have been saying, to keep exploring and the second is this, to express our sense of awe and wonder by kneeling in worship.

The third is to give gifts. The Magi gave gold, frankincense and myrrh; each being costly gifts expressing aspects of Christ’s nature and purpose. Christina Rossetti expressed the significance of the Magi’s gift-giving beautifully in her carol, ‘In the bleak midwinter’:

“What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.”

She understood that the costliest gift we can give is our life and that our life is given to Jesus when we express through our lives and actions something of who Jesus is.

Kneeling in worship was the end of the journey that the Magi took when following the star but it was also the beginning of the new journey that they were now to make; the journey home. Eliot used the phase, ‘In my end is my beginning,’ at the end of his poem called ‘East Coker’ and, in ‘Little Gidding,’ he writes:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

The Magi journeyed home but their home was no longer what it once was because they had been changed by their journey. Eliot’s poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ ends with these lines:

“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.”

The Magi are no longer at ease with their old way of life because they have been changed through their searching and journeying. Now they see life differently because of what they have seen and heard; the answers they give to life’s big questions are no longer the same as before – their worldview has changed.

Are we asking the big questions? Are we constantly questioning and exploring yet also kneeling in awe and wonder to worship? And are both our answers to life’s big questions and to the way we live our lives changing as a result? If we wish to be wise like the Magi then our answer to all those questions will be, “Yes.”


Christina Rossetti - In The Bleak Midwinter.

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