Sunday, 25 January 2015

Conversion of St Paul: Dangerous zeal



Today’s readings should cause us profound unease. If they don’t then we probably aren’t reading them carefully enough.
The thing that bothers me in them is all that zeal; there are no half-measures here. I’ll come on to St Paul in a moment, but let’s start with the Gospel reading. Jesus tells his followers that if they  leave their “ brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or fields, for [his] sake”. They will “ receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” which might sound ok for the person who is doing the leaving, but what about all those brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers and children? Never mind receiving a hundredfold, they just wanted the presence and support of one person, the person who has headed off into the wide-blue-yonder with this troublemaking preacher.  Can this really be right? However good the cause, should we really be leaving behind those who need us?

As ever with the Bible, we need to take the context into account, though . This passage isn’t some universal instruction for Christians. There are many occasions in the Gospels when Jesus tells people to stay put in their communities – a mentally ill man he heals inGerasa begs to follow Jesus, but he’s firmly told to go back to his family and his village. They are the ones who most need his message. Jesus enjoys – and relies on – the hospitality of families  like that of Martha, Mary and Lazarus too and often stays with them in their homes.  Most Christians through most of human history have lived out their faith within their families and neighbourhoods, settled, stable and supporting each other, and that is as it should be. It’s just as much of a calling to stay where you are, with the people whom God has given you, as it is to go to the other side of the world on some great, exciting mission, and often as challenging too.

But whether we leave home or not following Christ can, and probably will, bring challenges for us wherever we are, and sometimes conflict too, so these words are still important.  The people Matthew was writing for knew all about that. They lived in dangerous times. When they decided to follow the way of Christ some of them would have been rejected by family and friends and some might have faced death. Was that fair on their dependents? Jesus’ mother might have sympathised too. What can it have been like for her to watch Jesus die? He could have opted for safety, given up his preaching, lived in obscurity and given her grandchildren. But he didn’t.

The Gospels don’t suggest or condone deliberately neglecting our responsibilities to those who depend on us, but they do recognise that life can involve painful choices. That’s not just true for Christians. It is true for anyone who has a conscience. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese activist, endured long years of house arrest, unable to see her husband and children, because of her opposition to the dictatorial  rule of the Burmese military.. Perhaps there were times when her family wished she’d kept her opinions to herself. But if no one speaks out, evil goes unchallenged.
Families who hid Jewish people in Nazi occupied countries during the war took appalling risks to do so, and some died as a result. Should they have shrugged their shoulders and shut the door in the faces of those who needed their help? Their own families would have been safer if they had. Health workers who have volunteered to go to care for those with Ebola, exposing themselves to the risk of catching it too; is it responsible of them to put their own families through all the anxiety, and possibly the grief of losing them?

Our dilemmas are often smaller, but they weigh on our minds nonetheless. We may want to volunteer to help in some local organisation or good cause, but it’s not just us who pays the price of that in time and energy, it is our nearest and dearest too.  Is it right to say “no” to our own families so we can say “yes” to some cause, however worthy?  What is the message we give to our children if are so busy with others that we have no time for them? But equally what does it say to them  if we play no part in the community around us? Enthusiasm, commitment, zeal – they are important, but in a pressurised society, can we afford them? It’s a perennial dilemma for all those of us who run voluntary organisations like the church or other local groups. We know that people have demands of work, family and friends to meet too, but if no one helps then nothing happens and neighbourhoods become poorer for it

St Paul doesn’t seem to have had a family of his own, or if he did he had long ago left them behind in his determination to follow his religious calling. We heard his story in today’s first reading; he’s called Saul here, but it is the same man who this church is dedicated to, along with St Peter. Saul is the Hebrew name he used in Jewish circles. Paul is his Roman name. Commitment seems to have come naturally to him, zealous passionate, 110% involvement in the things that mattered to him. But what is it that matters to him?  When we first meet him, his number one priority is getting rid of Christian faith. He was probably a Pharisee, a strict, ultra-observant Jew, and he if  firmly convinced that Jesus was not just wrong, but cursed by God. He believes the Jewish authorities were right to persuade the Romans to crucify him, and that they should get rid of his followers too.  

We don’t have to look far to find young men like him today. He’s not so very different from those  Islamic Jihadis who head off to the Middle East to fight in what they think is a noble cause. We are so used to the idea of Saint Paul as Christian hero that we may miss or underplay what came before that. There was blood on his hands. His opposition to the church was violent. He set off to Damascus “breathing threats and murder” against Christians. That’s not a figure of speech; it is a description of reality. He had a reputation for dragging Christians out of their houses and having them committed to prison, where some of them would certainly have met their end. He’s there in the background at the stoning of St Stephen, holding people’s cloaks so they can get a better aim.

There was and is nothing intrinsically violent about Jewish faith, of course. It was the faith of Jesus, and most of his first followers; many who followed the path of Judaism were peaceful, good, loving people. Most didn’t think like Paul, any more than most Muslims are jihadis, or most Christians like Medieval Crusaders. But there are always some followers of any faith or political ideology who get so caught up in their own self-righteous certainty that they lose track of humanity and empathy. They stop seeing those who disagree as having any right to exist. That’s where the trouble lies. It is certainty that is the killer, the belief that we have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Once you’ve started to believe that, it’s natural to think that other people should accept that truth, and then it’s a short hop to feeling entitled to force it on them.
Certainty is comforting, energising, attractive. It pulls in the crowds and galvanises response. But it is horribly dangerous.

Paul is dangerously certain about his faith when he sets out from Jerusalem to go to Damascus to root out any Christians he can find there. He is certain that Jesus can’t be the Messiah, because God would never have let his Messiah be crucified. God is great, mighty, all-powerful. Why would he let his Chosen One suffer death, especially the shameful, humiliating death of crucifixion?
It takes a dramatic experience to make him question that.  As he travels along there is a blinding flash and he’s thrown to the ground. As he lies in the dust, he hears a voice from heaven. The last person he expects it to be is Jesus. Why would someone cursed by God be in heaven. But the voice insists it is so. And all Paul’s certainties crumble to dust.
If he’s got that wrong, what else has he got wrong? And how can he ever live with the knowledge of the damage he has caused to Jesus followers? No wonder he is blinded. The world he knew has vanished.

His healing comes only when Ananias, surely one of the bravest people in the Bible, goes to this person who he thinks is hell-bent on his destruction, goes to him to pray with him, and then persuades the Damascus Christians to accept him too. This is what changes him, not the blinding vision, but the healing, courageous love he receives. Paul embraces Christian faith with the same energy that he had given to Jewish faith, but the murderous zealot becomes zealous for love. Famously he writes tothe Christians in Corinth, “ If you haven’t got love, you’ve got nothing. You can speak fancy words – the tongues of men and angels. You can have faith to move mountains, you can give up your possessions and your body too, but if you haven’t got love, then it is all worthless. It was Ananias who taught him that, who saw beneath the fanatical jihadi to the child of God he really was, and Ananias who had the courage to love that child of God.

Passion, zeal, commitment are good things. They are necessary things too. If we just shrug our shoulders and sink into apathetic self-absorption good will wither and evil will thrive. What matters is that our passion is fuelled by love and directed by love, not by the anxious craving to cling to certainty and impose that certainty on others.  Paul learns to be zealous for love, committed to forgiveness, passionate about welcoming those who are different, breaking down the walls that separate people from one another. He learns it through the brave and committed love of Ananias and the church in Damascus, and we are called to do the same – to find that love, to live that love and to share it with those around us too.  Amen

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Come and see - a sermon by Kevin Bright


John 1.43-51 & 1 Samuel 3.1-20

What are you doing here? Why do we come to church? Why aren’t you sitting comfortably in the warm? Do you realise that you’re missing Countryfile on BBC1 at the moment?

We could be like Eli and crawl back under the covers, or at least stay in the warm. His is an interesting reaction to the God, who in theory he has served all his life and he recognises as calling Samuel. Rather than wait with Samuel he tells him what to do and seems to go back to bed. Possibly he’s got used to God not disturbing him too much after all we heard ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days, visions were not widespread.’ Maybe he knows that God will be giving Samuel a message that he is not pleased with Eli and that his sons have behaved badly in the past, a past he doesn’t want to face up to.

Perhaps that’s one reason that keeps some people from going to church to engage with God, that they will have to face up to the past and are not ready to do so or unsure of God’s reaction to it.

I’m hesitant to try and explain why anyone comes to church but for most here this evening I imagine that at least in part church time has become a habitual space reserved for worship, prayer and engagement as an element of a mature faith.

It made me think about people who tentatively step inside a church only once or twice a year at major festivals. Or what about the person who just feels the urge to see what it’s all about, stepping inside for the first time, what should they expect?

You may be thinking to yourself yeah yeah we’ve explored all this stuff before but the reason it seems relevant today is because of conversations which aligned with something I read this week which made me think how faith is nurtured, how it grows and also how accessible it is.

If we were to continue all the way through John’s gospel to the last but one chapter we read at chapter 20 verse 31…’these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’

One possible explanation of the reason John makes this statement almost at the end of his gospel could be that John is very aware that faith is a journey. Faith can build up in layers gaining depth as we live it.

One of the reasons we keep coming here is because we want to hear Jesus story but also because we want to live it, share it, be challenged and changed by it. Like children testing the boundaries we sometimes want to find out how real it is and over time it becomes part of who we are, often mixed in with doubts, regrets and fears. Our imperfect faith continues to live and evolve for as long as we remain engaged with it.

Only after making space for it in our daily lives are we able to benefit from looking back on our faith journey.

John knows this as he wants his readers to go on a journey with Christ before his statement towards the end.

In today’s reading John gives us a glance of Nathanael who is called enthusiastically by Phillip who effectively says ‘you’ll never guess who I’ve found, come and see!’ You would have to be made of stone to not accept an invitation like this, so Nathanael, having put aside his prejudice against the neighbouring village of Nazareth, excitedly decides that this is the one who has come to fulfil the promises of the prophets and Moses, a new king.

He is expecting the spectacular from Jesus but is soon put straight that this is not about magic or entertainment but something far more important.

It’s quite an old film now but in Crocodile Dundee there is an aborigine character and the reporter wants to take his photo in the outback. He tells her that she can’t and she asks ‘why, is it because you believe it will take away your spirit, to which he replies no it’s because you’ve still got the lens cap on.’

Jesus is similarly witty when asked by Nathaneal ‘where did you come to know me?’ Perhaps he hopes he will say that he saw him in a dream or that angels guided him but he replies ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’

Some of us may have taken our first step so long ago that we can barely remember what inspired us to do so at the time. I preached on the Sunday immediately after Christmas and only around 20% of the numbers at the main Christmas services were present. Admittedly some may have been tipped off that it was my turn but the more intriguing question is what motivated so many to attend over Christmas? Sentimentality, curiosity, need? Do some go away disappointed at the lack of theatre, the spectacular or instantly spiritual? Sometimes our challenge can be to value the occasional visitor and try to be sensitive to their needs.

I do know of one person who seeks quietness, stillness and time for reflection but deliberately spreads their attendance over several churches because as soon as they attend for a few weeks in a row they are asked to join a committee or gift aid scheme.

It’s a difficult balance for us all but John implies that Jesus doesn’t demand belief at the beginning of a faith journey and part of our role is to make space where people can just ‘come and see’, come and see what Jesus is like.

Amen

Kevin Bright

18th January 2015

 

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Baptism of Christ: "Je suis....?"



“I have baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit,” says John to those who come to him for baptism.

Ritual washing of various sorts was and is common to many faiths. The symbolism is easy to understand; water is cleansing, refreshing, reviving. When the crowds came to John the Baptist in the desert, they were already familiar with this sort of custom. Ritual baths were part of the regular pattern of worship. They symbolised  a new start, the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of spiritual uncleanness. In some ways there wasn’t anything very new in what John offered. What was new was the power of his preaching and the sense of urgency in it. God’s kingdom was coming, he proclaimed, a kingdom of justice and righteousness, and they needed to be prepared for it. John’s baptism with water was a natural way of signalling their readiness to start a new life in this new kingdom.

But John was clear. He was just the forerunner, and he knew that there was more to come. Specifically, the Messiah was on the way, God’s chosen one, and when he came, said John, he would have another baptism to give them, not baptism in water, but baptism in the Holy Spirit.

And that’s where the whole thing might start to seem a bit mysterious. We’ve seen plenty of baptisms in water. We have them often here.  But what is this baptism in the Holy Spirit about?

Some Christian denominations would be very familiar with this concept.  Pentecostal and Charismatic churches take their name from that experience on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, filling – baptising - them in the power of God. Go to services in a Pentecostal or Charismatic church and you will find that, as standard, people speak in tongues, share messages they believe have come from God, and worship in exuberant, spontaneous ways. It can seem quite strange if you are not used to it, and there’s always the risk that the emotions will overwhelm any real substance. But for all that, it can also be very enriching to faith. I spent quite a few years in my late teens worshipping in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, and while it’s not my style now, there was often a very enlivening sense of reality about the faith I found there, a kind of electrifying seriousness, an expectation that God was present with us. It was a very important part of my spiritual journey, however much my theological understanding has changed along the way.

My guess is that many people here won’t have experienced that kind of worship, though, and maybe don’t want to either.

Pentecostalism as it is  practiced today stems back to revival movements in the late 19th and 20th centuries, but movements like these have been an almost constant part of the Church’s history, rising up somewhere or other in every age. Methodism was born out of the experience of John Wesley who was praying with others one evening when he found his heart “was strangely warmed” as he put it. His faith came alive for him. It made sense to him in a new way, took a hold of him, moved him, changed him. It was that inner conviction, that sense of God’s presence, which made his preaching so powerful. It reached ordinary working class people in their thousands and not only transformed their lives but transformed society as well. The passion of the Methodist movement fuelled all sorts of campaigns for social justice, empowering those at the bottom of the heap, giving voice to the poor at a time when they often felt ignored by the Established Church.

Going back before that, at the Reformation, many new Christian groups that sprung up, full of enthusiasm, liberated by the new-found permission they had to read the Bible for themselves and organise their own churches in new ways.

The Quaker movement was born out of a belief that within every person God’s Spirit could be at work. Everyone had an “inner light” and the characteristic silence of Quaker meetings was there so that the words of God could emerge from it. In the Middle Ages there was an extraordinary flourishing of a whole variety of lay spiritual movements. Writings like that of Julian of Norwich in the 14th century are filled with an awareness of God’s Spirit. Francis of Assisi, at the end of the 12th Century found himself intoxicated by God, overflowing with joy and love which transformed him from a wealthy playboy into a wandering preacher. The Desert Fathers and Mothers of the 3rd and 4th centuries spoke of the need to “become all flame” – not just to go through the motions of religion but to be open to being swept away by the love of God. And of course before all of that there were those  New Testament churches, like the one in our second reading, where manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit were expected when Christians gathered together. It was what gave them the strength and the courage to endure persecution.

The Baptism of the Spirit comes in a great variety of ways. It isn’t just about exuberant, happy-clappy worship, or mystical phenomena.  It’s seen in our a basic attitudes to faith. It comes when our faith stops being just something up here in our heads, and becomes something which affects the whole of our lives, transforming us from the inside out.

Those movements I talked about, across Christian history, were united by their discovery that there was more to being a Christian than the earnest desire to do the right thing, or to worship beautifully, or to have high flown theological ideas. It was about yielding to God’s work, going where God led, growing as he wanted them to. It was seen in faith that had something  vital and life-giving about it, that made such a difference to those who were caught up in it that they couldn’t just walk away from it, that was filled with the Spirit’s fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, as St Paul describes them in Galatians 5.

John the Baptist points his followers forward to the one who can give them this kind of life, because he himself is filled with God’s Spirit. That’s why it matters that Jesus is baptised by John. He doesn’t need the forgiveness of sins, but he does need to go down into the same depths as everyone else, to be submerged in the same river of life as we all are. By doing that he discovers, and so do we, that even there in the depths he is the beloved son of God, and if he is beloved then so can we be. In Christ, God immerses himself in the world, so that we can be immersed in him, filled with the life-giving water of his Spirit.

The story of Jesus’ baptism echoes the words from the beginning of the book of Genesis which we heard in our first reading, probably deliberately. Here too there’s water, chaotic and dark, and here too, the Spirit of God – the wind from God – the word for wind and Spirit are the same –comes sweeping over the water, bringing order and life out of it, which God declares to be good. In Christ, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. And he does it by identifying himself with us, becoming as we are, becoming one of us.

This week we have seen vivid reminders of the need for that new creation, for the work of the Spirit in our lives and our world. There has been widespread horror at the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the deaths of others after that too. Many have responded to this tragedy by identifying themselves with its victims, affirming their own commitment to freedom of speech. “Je suis Charlie” has been the cry - “I am Charlie”. It’s a recognition that the deaths of those people in Paris affect us all, that we are with those who suffer.  In a sense, that is exactly what is happening when Jesus goes down into the waters of the River Jordan. He is declaring that he is one of us, sharing our lives. In Christ, God says “Je suis Charlie” to us too.

But God goes further than that. It is one thing, after all, to identify with those who are victims; we all want to be seen to be on the side of innocence, freedom, and courage. What God does in Christ, though, is more than that.  Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians that “For our sake God  made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (2 Cor 5.21) In Christ God doesn’t just share the lives of the victims, but also shares the lives of the perpetrators. He doesn’t just come alongside the innocent who suffer, but alongside the guilty who cause their suffering. “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” Christ prays for those who nail him to the cross. That’s good news for us all, because if he only came to share the lives of the innocent, what good would that be to any of us? None of us is innocent, not entirely. The roots of that massacre in Paris go back through history and spread across the world. They grow from millennia of suspicion and warfare. They are fed by our commonplace greed and apathy and the simple failure really to care for our neighbour if he or she doesn’t look like us and think like us. Unless we have the courage to accept that, nothing can change.


That’s why this week I don’t think God just says “Je suis Charlie”. If God says “I am Charlie”, he must also say in some sense “I am the terrorists, and the people who radicalised them and all of those who created the climate in which this kind of hatred grows, and those who looked the other way and couldn’t be bothered to challenge it.”  It is hard to hear and to say that, but it is basic Christian belief. Christ doesn’t just come to share our suffering and grief; he comes, though he is sinless, to share our sin and failure too; it is because of this that we can know his forgiveness and hope. He drowns himself in our lives, going down into their depths, so that we might find ourselves drowned in his love, filled with his Spirit, overflowing with the new life the world so desperately needs. 
Amen

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Epiphany Sunday: Star of wonder



“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” ask the wise men of Herod, “We observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”.

It’s a familiar story, of course. We are so used to hearing it that we perhaps miss how odd it would sound to us nowif we were hearing it for the first time. “We observed his star at its rising”? Just imagine if some foreign ambassadors turned up today at Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street and announced that they thought a change of government was in the offing because they’d seen a new star.  They’d be thrown out on their ears, and questions would be asked about how people so obviously deranged had been let in in the first place.

But King Herod doesn’t question the idea that God might communicate with the world through the stars, and neither would anyone have done at the time. This was an age in which it was taken for granted that the world was full of divine messages.  Anything out of the ordinary was taken to be an omen of some sort. Rulers depended on those who could read the signs so they could make decisions. There were many different sorts of divination. If you knew what you were looking for almost anything could be significant. Different sorts of omens needed different sorts of skills though.

There were augurs, who studied the flight of birds. We talk about the “inauguration” of a new leader or a new project. The word comes from the practice of reading the flight of birds to find the right moment for that new beginning. There was the haruspex, who studied the entrails of sacrificial animals for messages. Ailuromancers studied the movement of cats; there were messages in that too apparently. And cleromancers cast lots to decide what the will of the gods was.

This sort of divination wasn’t just a pagan practice. After the ascension of Jesus, the eleven surviving apostles cast lots to choose a replacement for Judas Iscariot who had killed himself. They didn’t think of it as gambling, like the National Lottery. It was a way of letting God speak to them, giving him the final choice. 

Today people would think these were very dodgy ways of making decisions. There is plenty of superstition around, of course, but we don’t tend to believe that these are rational ways of making our minds up. In Jesus’ time, though, this was science. People genuinely thought divine forces communicated with them through birds and cats and entrails and stars.

All this leaves us with a bit of a problem when we come to today’s Gospel story. We know that stars are huge and far away. We know what they are made of and how they are formed, and we know that it has nothing at all to do with the birth of babies on earth. So what are we to do with this tale of the wise men? Should we simply regard it as a quaint relic or quietly ditch it?

You’ll be glad to hear, perhaps, that I don’t think so. This story might not be able to tell us anything about astronomy, butit can still tell us something about life and ourselves and God, if we will let it.

There are two things, in particular, which I think this story communicates, across the great gulf of 2000 years of scientific development, two things these wise men tell us which are still as wise now as they were then.

The first is that the wise men understood that they were part of something greater than themselves, and we need to know that just as much as they did. The world didn’t begin and end with them. They looked outside themselves, beyond themselves for wisdom. They paid attention to the universe, not just to their own preconceptions. They noticed things, things that others didn’t notice. They noticed one new star among millions in the night sky. And that meant that they were also able to notice one new baby among the millions around them too. In a sense, they were wise precisely because they knew they weren’t, because they knew that they didn’t know it all already. They expected the universe to surprise them. They knew it was infinitely stranger than anything they could comprehend.

They challenge us to be aware of our own tendency to miss things that aren’t in our immediate field of view. They challenge us to question the assumption that we have it all worked out already, or we could have if only we were clever enough and worked hard enough at it. They challenge us to be on the lookout for new things, different things, things that disturb us and shake us out of our complacency.   

 “Look, listen, pay attention,” say the wise men to us. “If all you ever see are the things you’ve already seen, what might you be missing?”

The second thing they tell us follows on from that. Noticing the star was important, but the wise men didn’t just notice it. They also believed that God might speak to them through it, because they were open to the possibility that he might speak to them through anything, and so it had the potential to change their lives in some way.

That familiar Epiphany carol “We three kings” calls the star of Bethlehem a  “star of wonder.”
We use the word “wonder” in two different ways. We use it to describe things which are extraordinary, beautiful, great – wonder- full things - things that impress us. But we also use it in the sense of “I wonder”. It is a questioning word.  “I wonder why”,  “I wonder what would happen if…” we ask. Whether the wise men were right or wrong to believe that the star was a message from God, it prompted them to ask the questions they might not have otherwise asked. They already knew of the prophecies about a promised leader, who would bring in a kingdom of peace and justice. The star spurred them on to dare to believe that the dream could become a reality, and that they could be part of that kingdom.
The “star of wonder”  triggered the questions, “where?” and “who?” and “how do I get involved?”

We are told that after they had seen Jesus, the wise men “went home by another road”. That’s not just a geographical statement; it’s a spiritual one too. When Matthew wrote the story of the wise men he was writing for the first followers of Jesus, whose lives had been turned upside down by the message of the Gospel. Their lives had taken “ another road” too. They’d been led out on a journey they had never expected to make as they followed Christ.   It might not have been a star that had first caught their attention , but it could have been something just as random and unexpected, and that is true today too.

People regularly talk to me about the turning points in their lives, moments when they have found themselves taking a new direction in life. Sometimes those turning points can seem quite bizarre when they look back; odd coincidences, strange dreams, chance remarks, words glimpsed on an advertising hoarding that would normally be quite ordinary, but somehow seem to sing with meaning at that precise moment. They are sometimes quite embarrassed to talk about it, wondering if it isn’t all just the product of an over active imagination. But the fact is that whatever they have experienced, it has started them thinking about things they know they needed to think about, started them off on a journey they are glad to have made. Whether we believe this is the voice of God, or just a bubble of wisdom rising up from our own depths, these moments can have a huge effect.

The message of the wise men is that there is a lot we can do to help us be tuned into those moments when they come. Reflective living is a habit we can embed in our lives if we choose to, and it can put us in touch daily with strength beyond our strength, wisdom beyond our wisdom, and love beyond our love. Prayer and Bible reading are an important part of this, but it’s also about developing the habits of those wise men; the habit of noticing what is around us and expecting what we notice to make a difference to us. In a distracted and distracting world that’s not always easy, but it is something we can learn and practice.

How often do we fail to notice the landscape around us as we hurry through it, taking it for granted, failing to notice its beauty, and its scars? “Look again!”, say the wise men. This world is the gift of God to you, the only world you have, irreplaceable, yours to care for and to share, not to own and exploit.

How often, when we are out, do we see the people around us in the crowd just as bodies standing in our way? “Look again!”, say the wise men. And when we do, what do we see? We see a woman worrying about getting to her job on time, fearful that if she doesn’t she will lose it, or an employer, weighed down by the knowledge that he’ll have to make staff redundant, or a teenager, feeling awkward and insecure and covering it up with bravado, or a child, bewildered and overwhelmed by a world that seems huge to them. When the eyes of our hearts are opened we realise that every nameless face in the crowd is a child of God, just as we are, loved by God and of infinite value to him, and that makes all the difference to the way we treat one another.

Epiphany means shining forth, revelation. I don’t believe that God puts stars in the sky to communicate with us, but I do believe that God’s light can shine forth from the heavens, and the earth, and the person standing next to us, and the hidden corners of our own lives if we have eyes to see it. And I believe too that God’s love is revealed in the rich variety of his creation, love which can transform us just as as it did the wise men in that ancient, baffling story which we celebrate today.

Amen