A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on January 8, 2023 by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Epiphany Carols

George Orwell’s 1945 novel Animal Farm tells the story of Manor Farm, neglected by its alcoholic owner, Mr Jones. Two young pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, drive Mr Jones off the farm and assume control. Snowball introduces literacy programmes and a windmill, but this leads to conflict with Napoleon, whose dogs drive Snowball away leaving Napoleon in supreme command. Napoleon renarrates the story of the revolution as one in which he alone brought freedom, and ruthlessly purges any animals alleged still to be loyal to Snowball. Napoleon resists reforms that will bring greater prosperity to the farm, while selling the faithful old horse Boxer to the knacker’s yard in return for whisky for himself. The slogans of the revolution are all changed. ‘Four legs good, two legs bad,’ becomes ‘Four legs good, two legs better.’ The egalitarianism of the original revolt is subverted by the slogan ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’ The name changes back from Animal Farm to Manor Farm. In the final scene of the novel, the pigs invite the neighbouring human farmers over for dinner, and when the animals outside look in on the pigs and men, they can’t tell which is which.

The novel is devastating on two levels. Most obviously, it’s a parody of the Russian Revolution, the battle for ascendancy between Trotsky and Stalin, and Stalin’s creation of a travesty of the state for which Marx and Lenin planned and dreamed. Orwell struggled to get the book published during the Second World War, because of the close alliance and widespread admiration for Stalin at the time. But on a deeper level, Animal Farm is a savage critique of any attempt to make the world better by changing the regime. It’s a modern parable of the fall, in which good intentions and abundant resources turn into violence, enmity, lies and hypocrisy.

The story of the magi coming from the East to worship the new-born king may seem a long way from Animal Farm, but you could say it’s the same story in just twelve verses. There are two ironies at work in this story – a poignant one and a painful one. The poignant irony is that, like Animal Farm, this is indeed a story of a revolution. The magi discern through their stargazing that there’s regime change afoot in heaven and earth. There’s a new king born – not one who’s just going to unseat the local potentates in the Holy Land, but one who’s going to turn upside-down all earthly notions of power and authority. But despite the star apparently telling them otherwise, the magi assume that the new kind of king is going to be born where the old kind of king hangs out: Jerusalem. Herod may be a puppet ruler, installed by the Romans in a misguided attempt to offer some kind of legitimacy for their occupation of the Holy Land: but he’s still a king, and he’s living in a city that outstretched every other city in the region by a country mile.

But Jerusalem is not where Jesus is to be born. Jesus is born in Bethlehem. Being born in Bethlehem demonstrates two kinds of God’s logic. The first is fulfilment. Jesus meets the hopes of Israel. Bethlehem is mentioned in Micah as the place from which a new transformative leader will come; it’s also the town from which the great King David came. The second is God’s upside-down kingdom: a lowly girl gives birth to God’s son, she does so in a stable, lowly shepherds are the first to worship, faraway kings perceive what no one on hand could grasp. So the poignant irony of this story is that, even guided by a star, the magi were so hard-wired to assume that real power, leadership, royalty and authority belong in Jerusalem, that they couldn’t understand the ways of God revealed in the little town of Bethlehem. But we the reader can see what they can’t see. There’s a pantomime dimension to the magi story, where we already know Jesus has been born in Bethlehem and we’re shouting, ‘He’s behind you!’ to the magi as their camels stroll past Bethlehem and head on to Jerusalem. This is how irony works – we the reader or audience can see what the main players can’t see.

But there’s also a painful irony in the story. I recall a number of Christmas cards with, on the front, five utterly simple, but memorably smug words, ‘Wise men still seek him.’ We find a similar, but more congenial sentiment expressed in the carol ‘O little town of Bethlehem,’ in the words, ‘Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’ Both notions convey the word, ‘still.’ Both make the point that the Christmas story can be as alive today as 2000 years ago. But that cuts both ways. The mistakes of the Christmas story can be as alive today as the successes. Which brings us to the painful irony in the magi story: Christians still stroll on to Jerusalem rather than stop at Bethlehem.

It’s there in the temptation story: the tempter shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour, and he says to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ The point is the same: look how you can overlook real people, real life, real relationships, by going straight to Jerusalem and bypassing Bethlehem. The church has done this countless times over the centuries: been so tempted to be close to the centres of what the world sees as power, so keen thereby to gain opportunity for its ventures and influence over the affairs of state, that it’s missed Bethlehem in its fixation on Jerusalem.

This is where Animal Farm becomes so painful. Think again about the early days of the animals’ revolt, when the revolution brought real change, humans were displaced from the seat of domination, and the goods of the farm were distributed abundantly and evenly. Then think about the last line of the book: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’ The revolution has created no more than a new version of oppression, and it isn’t even new – it’s more or less the same as the regime with which the story began.

This isn’t simply a matter of ethics, that we think we should be with the movers and shakers and the powerful and strong; it’s about theology – it’s about the assumption that God dwells in places of power and that the more powerful we are, the closer we can get to God’s providence and purposes. The story of the magi dispels that false notion. God dwells in the obscure, forgotten, neglected, shadowy little town of Bethlehem. The emptiness, lies and fragility of Jerusalem are exposed by Herod’s furious panic and violent impulse to exterminate the threat to his throne. By contrast Bethlehem, though short of inns, becomes literally the centre of the universe, where heavenly angels, hardy shepherds and discerning magi all gather.

Animal Farm is a prophetic challenge to us every time we make ourselves out to be better than others, every time we naively assume merely changing those in charge makes for real change, every time we confuse good use of power with our exercising that power ourselves. But the story of the magi is an even deeper challenge. It shows us how much our exasperated failure to encounter God derives from looking in the wrong place, how much our notion of power is a long way from God’s, and how we can get so close to the stable, somewhere so very right, but end up at Herod’s court, somewhere so very wrong.

I wonder where Bethlehem is for you today. And how much time you’re wasting trying to reach Jerusalem instead.