I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.
Familiar words, I’m sure,- enshrined in our national consciousness after George VI used them in his Christmas broadcast in 1939…words I remember too from many a New Year assembly in my high school years.
For the moment, I want you to forget how the verse continues and instead to reflect with me on the journey into the unknown that each new year represents. We may think we have a fair idea of how our lives will develop over the next few months, we make plans and resolutions, we may cherish hopes or shrink from fears – but actually, nothing is absolutely certain.
If there are important decisions ahead, I for one often wish that God would make them for me…I say, only half jokingly, that I long for a sign, some sky writing would be good, telling me exactly where I should go and what I should be doing.
Of course, Matthew’s wise men seem to have had exactly that privilege. An Epiphany. Simply put, an epiphany is the moment when God is revealed. It’s that moment of “Aha!” where we can say this experience is nothing less than a real live encounter with God.
So- for the wise men, perhaps their epiphany came with the rising of the star…their very own sky-writing, telling them where to go, what to seek. Certainly, they seem to start out on their journey confident that they know where they are heading…all they have to do is to follow their star.
Though I'd guess that the Christmas card scenes that present it as obviously the one and only REAL star in the sky may be distorting the truth slightly...Step outside on a clear night and the sky tells a different story...countless stars...but our
hese travellers looked at the night sky and saw something that others didn’t. What's more, they chose to focus on one light, rather than the surrounding darkness and so set the tone for their journey.
To focus on light rather than darkness is always, in every circumstance, an act of faith.
But did that make it plain sailing? This journey of faith was not for the fainthearted – it took courage and conviction to stay the distance and wisdom to discern when the journey was really over. It seemed quite reasonable to our travellers that the royal palace should be their first port of call...
A star presaging the birth of a king must surely lead them to a kingly place – except that it doesn't.
They've gone off course, followed their own assumptions and so encounter one for whom the gospel is anything but good news. Herod responds with the anger born of frightened self interest when the wise men ask to see the one born “King of the Jews”.
You might remember that the next time Jesus is hailed as “King of the Jews” is as he confronts worldly authority once again, in the events leading up to the crucifixion, and the shedding of innocent blood. It’s the same here, of course. God's arrival in our world is quite unlike the sweet and gentle scenes of our Christmas cards and carols. It ushers in mass murder and a young family forced to flee for their lives. But for all the violence and fear,nothing in all creation will be able to escape the touch of God's mighty act of salvation. Not Herod, not Rome. Nothing.
Meanwhile, though, our travellers have still not had their real epiphany. They have seen a king but not THE king. Perhaps they'd made a mistake in setting out? Wasted time, energy...Should they admit defeat?
But these travellers were determined to go the distance and followed the directions provided, directions that sent them away from the seat of power, from splendid palaces to an obscure village – yet still not least among the princes of Judah, perhaps.
As the wise men left Herod’s presence, they saw the star. Aha!
Yet again, this was not their epiphany, but still the star-light led them on to a very ordinary house – where all their expectations were subverted in the face of their true epiphany.
God a toddler, cuddled up in his mother’s arms…
Emmanuel. God with us.
It might have seemed an anticlimax.
No angel choirs or fiery messengers, no earthquakes or thundering voice but an everyday scene repeated in countless homes across the world.
Already, in this epiphany, if they were truly wise, our travellers could discern the signs of the times, could recognise the nature of the kingdom.
It was, and it is, a kingdom that included the little and the least, the poor and the weak. It was a kingdom that would welcome those who were searching, even those who had wandered in the wrong direction for a little while. It would include insiders and people from beyond the edges of society, Jews and Gentiles, those already at home and the foreigners like the travellers themselves.
They had come to worship a new king, and found themselves at home and welcomed in his kingdom.
The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says thisAn epiphany is an experience that transforms everything, and before you can do anything with it, it does something to you. It’s not something that can be controlled, and it always seems to demand a change in people‘s lives.
To live with a faith that makes room for Epiphany leaves us on our heels, ready to step out to wherever it is that God may be revealed
The paradox, of course, is that we may not have to travel far at all.
We don’t really need to go looking for God in rare and particular places. Instead, in the child born in Bethlehem, God has sought us out and come to dwell with us in the midst of all of our humanity.
Emmanuel. God with us as we begin our journey into the year ahead.
We can look for him in other places that carry the promise of epiphany - in the company of those who are hungry and thirsty, the sick and the imprisoned, the lonely and those stripped of their dignity;
- among people who turn from the destructive powers in their life and discover new strength from God, among those called to leave the familiar behind and step out in new directions;
- wherever people experiences healing and new life or moments of forgiveness and new love.
Truth is, as the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr says, “if God can be manifest in a baby [born] in a poor stable for the unwanted, then we better be ready for God just about anywhere and in anybody.”
So, as you go forward into this new year, be alert to celebrate epiphany wherever you encounter God. It won't be just in this building, that's for sure...nor simply at the the high moments of life In all times and places and people, even the most ordinary, even in our own lives, we may come to experience the glory of God through Jesus Christ
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.