Pay Attention

A Sermon by Revd Katherine Hedderley 

Readings for this service: Isaiah 60. 1-6; Ephesians 3. 1-12; Matthew 2. 1-12

The poet Mary Oliver’s ‘Instructions for living a life’ from her poem Sometimes, will, I think, help to shape our reflections about this feast of the Epiphany which we celebrate today.  In a line from that poem, she says: “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

Epiphany means revelation, about being astonished – an unexpected moment or experience that makes you see and understand things in a completely new way. It will become a touchstone moment that will guide and shape your life from that moment on.  When we have moments of revelation we focus with wrapt attention, we are amazed and we cannot help but do things differently or ‘tell about it’ with our lives.  When those revelations are about an encounter with the divine we are connected to the deepest mystery of God.

What we celebrate today is that deepest mystery – God’s revelation to the world in Jesus Christ, born as a humble, vulnerable child in an out of the way place.  God with us – with us always, in our ordinary lives, through the miracle of the incarnation.

In Matthew’s gospel this revelation is witnessed first, not by the religious or political rulers of the day but by strangers from far away, Gentile Magi who come seeking the new ‘King of the Jews’. And when they find him they worship him.  They find him not in a palace, in the expected place, but ‘God with us’ in the unexpected place.

The Epiphany story is about how God is found not at the centre of power but at the margins, not in the certainty of cultural and religious safety and conformity, but beyond the boundaries where new relationships and discoveries are made, where the elite bow down and kneel before a small child, and where refugees on the move will soon need to flee for their lives.

The Magi pay attention, are astonished and tell about what they see in their responses and actions.  They point the way for us to do the same as we too encounter this revelation of ‘God with us’ and allow the beauty and mystery of that revelation to guide and direct our lives so that we also can reveal God’s presence and light to the world too.

The Magi pay attention: they are faithful enquirers using all means at their disposal to follow the guiding of a star seeking this new king. But their own endeavours can only get them so far. Once in Jerusalem they pay attention to the revelation of scripture and are diligent in following where the star is leading them, even when that goes against their expectations and they are led beyond Jerusalem to Bethlehem.

We hear the magi are ‘overwhelmed with joy’ when they reach their destination, the place where Jesus is.  They are astonished. Their first response on seeing the child is to fall to their knees and to worship him.   They allow the truth of what they see to transform and delight them. These seekers and enquirers on pilgrimage have become worshippers.

They tell about what they see by the offering of gifts, gifts that affirm the identity of the one they have found; gold for a king, incense for Jesus’s holy priestly identity, and myrrh for his sacrificial offering of love for the world. This truly is the king they have been seeking, the holy Son of God, the suffering servant who will give his life for all.   And then these wise men defy Herod’s instruction. They do not tell Herod about what they see, but by their actions they tell the world where true power lies, here in this out of the way place, in this tiny child. See, this is where God is to be found, they say. They leave for their own country, not by the expected way but by another road.

In their paying attention, in their astonishment and worship, in their telling about what they see we see the world the right way round.  Not a world that rests on structures of power and privilege and might but on this humble gift for all, light for all the world, worshipped in the Christ child.

We are invited to pay attention, to be astonished and tell about this gift too in lives of loving humble service. God invites us to pay attention to be where the light is, to follow faithfully.  In his revelation of the incarnation, of Christ come to be with us, he shows us who he is, and who we are, in his light.  Our response can only be to be astonished and amazed and to bow our knee and worship too.  Transformed by that encounter and revelation, we cannot help ourselves from telling others about it, both by our actions and words. As we respond to his light we become witnesses to his revelation too, signposts of his love for others, the star that points his way.

How might you pay attention?  Be faithful in your following, in your seeking after the light and goodness of Christ.  Be open to looking beyond the boundaries of your life, your experience and your expectations – your expectations of yourself, of others and of God. Seek encounters with those who seem to be other to you because it is with them you will come to find and know God. Pay attention to the marginal places and the people you find there. Because that is where you will find God.

How are you astonished?  Be open to the wonder, beauty and mystery of God in all that you encounter and allow yourself to be transformed. At our blessing of the crib service in Trafalgar Square, Tess one of the smallest member of our community, was Jesus, carried around during a carol to greet the crowd. People’s faces literally lit up as they looked at her.  This tiny child connected to a deep joy and grace within them. They each, young and old, people from all around the world, radiated light. We each have that capacity to connect to the deep joy within us. Allow God to meet you in that place, so that you also radiate his joy.

How are you going to tell about it?  You tell of God’s love and revelation to you by how you give your gifts. What do you have that only you can share with the world?  Be generous in the giving of the gift of yourself.  And show the world your love for God by the paths you chose to follow.  Allow this Epiphany story to change you so that you also go a different way. That’s something very much on my mind at the moment as I prepare for a new role in a few weeks time.  See your life as touched by the light of God and allow yourself to be that light, a gift for our world.  

A simple moment of revelation to share with you – a small ordinary moment touched with the mystery of God: As a young child I had a bracelet given to me as a gift by my godmother with some charms on it. Aunty Olive would send me new charms each year on my birthday. One day I was musing on it and took in my hand the little church that was one of the first charms.  I held it up to the light and looked through the tiny, tiny window. If you’ve seen or had one of these you’ll know what happened next. To my utter amazement I could see the text of the Lord’s Prayer, through that tiny window and I could read it.  I certainly paid attention, looking again and again. I read and re-read the prayer.  My heart leapt inside me. I was thrilled at this discovery. Was this a miracle? As a young child it was certainly an ‘Epiphany’, a completely unexpected revelation of God to me.

It was only later that my young self worked out that it must be a magnified piece of glass in this tiny window that made my revelation possible. God has used this moment again and again in my life. Of course I say the Lord’s Prayer quite often, three or four times a day depending on the liturgy and service pattern, often with others, sometimes alone, at different times of the day and in all seasons, moods and situations.  In that moment God was saying ‘I want to show you something for you to treasure for the rest of your life.’  It definitely worked. Sometimes the saying of the Lord’s Prayer resonates with that ordinary moment of deep mystery and knowledge. A window into the heart and mind of God, and into God’s gentle, tender humour too – God knew how to get my attention!

God’s revelation doesn’t abolish the mystery. Like the Magi transformed by the ordinary, extraordinary presence of God in Christ in the manger, God’s revelation makes it possible to see that mystery in ordinary simple things.  What is that treasure you will seek today…? Pay attention to all that God wishes to reveal to you of his love and wonder…in the child, in the person of Jesus Christ. Be astonished and tell all you discover to the world, with boldness and confidence. Be Christ’s light and love for all the world.