The end of all our exploring
A Sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens
Readings for this service: Matthew 2. 1 – 12, Philippians 2. 1-11, Matthew 6. 27-34
Journeys feature heavily in the Christmas story. There are the physical, geographical journeys of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in the census, the rather shorter journey of the Shepherds from the hills surrounding Bethlehem to the manger itself, the lengthy journey of the Magi following the star via Herod’s palace to the home of Jesus, and the journey of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt following the Magi’s visit.
Then there are the emotional and life journeys that the characters in the story make. For Mary the journey of pregnancy and birth following her submission to God’s will at the Annunciation; the journey of carrying God himself in her womb for nine months while enduring the disapproval of her community. For Joseph, there is the journey from what was considered right in the community of his day – a quiet divorce – to the realisation that to do God’s will meant standing by Mary despite the local disgrace and scandal.
Tonight our focus is on the journey made by the Magi. What can we learn from their journeys that will help us in our own life journeys? 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. They were seeking answers, by the best means they knew how, to the big questions in life: Who are we? Where are we? What’s wrong? What’s the remedy? We think of them as being wise for doing 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 sign which the Magi found through their searching was the star in the east which they understood to be a sign that the king of the Jews had been born. 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. They, no doubt, had a lengthy and uncomfortable journey not knowing exactly where they were going and nearly being seduced by Herod into contributing to the death of the child they sought. 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; doing so 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 wrote, in his poem called ‘Little Gidding,’ “We shall not cease from exploration,” and that is right because if we stop searching and questioning, then we get stuck and stagnate. Growth involves constant change and if we apply this principle to our thought life, our emotional life and our spiritual life then, as Eliot wrote, we must not cease from exploration. This is also true because, 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. If we are to know God better, deeper, more fully, we must not cease from exploration.
The Magi searched the stars looking for signs of divine communication; messages from the gods that could guide individuals and nations in the present. The first sign they might have seen was in the year 7 BC. Three times that year the planets Jupiter and Saturn passed close to each other in the constellation of Pisces. To ancient star-gazers this was significant. Jupiter was the king of the planets, Saturn stood for the Messiah, and Pisces was the constellation of the Jews. The Magi could have seen this as a sign that the Messiah, the King of the Jews, was coming. Two years later, in 5 BC, Chinese records tell of a bright comet that was visible in the sky for seventy days. That may have been the Christmas star that led the Magi to set out on their quest.
The comet may have prompted the beginning their search but their destination would initially have seemed obvious to them; Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews. They arrived in Jerusalem asking ‘Where is the baby who was born to be the king of the Jews?’ The answer they were given came from scripture, Micah 5.2: ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, are one of the smallest towns in Judah. But from you will come one who will rule Israel for me. He comes from very old times, from days long ago.’ The Magi then set out on the last few miles to Bethlehem. We are then told that the star ‘stopped over the place where the child was.’ In ancient writings, words like ‘stood over’ usually refer to comets, so this may have meant that by the time they got to Bethlehem the comet’s tail was vertical in the night sky. This would have been the final confirmation that they had found the right place and a few simple enquiries in the village would have led them to Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
Their journey brought them to the birth of Jesus; the birth of the new thing that God was doing in the life of our world and the new thing that he was doing in their lives too. Epiphany means a revealing of the presence of God and that is what the Magi experienced when they found their way to the place where Jesus was. It was because they were looking for signs of God’s presence in their world that they followed those signs until they found the new thing that God was doing in the world through Jesus’ birth. Similarly, God is continually doing new things in our world and we are called, as Christians, to look out for these epiphanies; these revealings of the presence of God.
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, ‘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 or a proposition. Facts and propositions are either one thing or another and can be known as such, but a person always has hidden depths which can only be known through relationship. Then the person who is the answer to our questions turns out to be God himself and, because God is infinite, God cannot be fully known or understood by human beings. There are always greater depths into which we dive.
So, there are ultimately only three responses we can make to the wonder and majesty of God. The first is to keep exploring, the second is to express our sense of awe and wonder by kneeling in worship, and 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’: “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 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 then 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 wrote: “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: “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 were no longer at ease with their old way of life because they had been changed through their searching and journeying. Now they saw life differently because of what they had seen and heard; the answers they gave to life’s big questions were no longer the same as before – their worldview had changed and so their home was no longer an end in itself. For the Magi to see the new thing that God was doing they had had to leave where they were and travel not knowing where their journey would take them. Beginning their journey was important but it didn’t tell them how to find their way and when they did finally arrive, their arrival actually meant the beginning of a new journey.
All of which suggests that how we travel may be as important as why or where we travel. In Matthew 6.34 we read of Jesus saying: ‘Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.’ When we are preoccupied with what might happen in the future or what has happened in the past, we are not living fully in the present and may well misunderstand or misinterpret what is actually happening in the here and now. Jesus encourages us to live fully in the present because, that is where we encounter God and find epiphanies.
The poet and sociologist Minnie Louise Haskins echoed this in her poem called ‘God Knows’: The stretch of years / Which wind ahead, so dim / To our imperfect vision, / Are clear to God. Our fears / Are premature; In Him, / All time hath full provision.’ The poem begins: ‘And 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.” / And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. / That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
The answer to our questions is a person, not a fact or a proposition, and the person who is the answer to our questions is God himself. God becomes past, present and future to us. God becomes all in all and is in us and with us in all our exploration and journeying. God is with us through the Spirit which is in us and in our world. God is also with us in understanding our explorations and experiences because, by being born as a babe in Bethlehem, in Jesus, God experiences and understands our life journeys. It is for these reasons that the one who stands at the gate of the year says we can go out into the darkness, living fully in the present and tread safely into the unknown by putting our hand into the Hand of God. May it be so for each one of us. Amen.