A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields at Community Carols on December 12, 2022 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
On Christmas Eve 2015, Mrs Betty Barker, a grandmother aged 79, had finished for the day. She tucked herself up in bed and switched out the light. She was just dosing off when the phone rang. That was strange. She wasn’t expecting anyone, but it carried on, so she turned on the light and got out of bed to answer it. “Hello” said a male voice “Is that planet earth?” Betty sighed, thought he must have had a few too many down the pub but how rude it was to make prank calls on Christmas Eve, said a sharp “No”, put down the receiver, and went back to bed. She didn’t think anything of it until the following morning when her husband Patrick heard the national news reported a tweet from Major Tim Peak on the International Space Station apologising to the lady who he had inadvertently called. He had been trying to call his wife and had got the wrong number. She missed out on what could have been a fascinating conversation because she dismissed it too early.
The Wise Men were not the types of people who would have put the phone down so quickly. They’re an odd bunch. The Bible calls them Magi meaning priests in an early version of Zoroastrianism from Persia, Iran. They weren’t Jewish, obviously not Christian in fact Christians in the fourth century called them magicians. Like “Animagi” if there are any Harry Potter fans in the house. They’re an odd bunch to be so central to the Christmas story. They were intelligent, important people in their culture but they devoted their lives to paying attention to the world.
We miss so much around us by not being really present.
In the early stages of the pandemic, back when nothing was open, my partner and I went on a lot of walks around central London on weekends. We suddenly noticed beautiful architecture that we’d missed as we scurried back when we had somewhere more important to be. Many said they noticed wildlife in their gardens for the first time. But it’s not just cityscapes and butterflies that we can miss. The Magi noticed something that their ancient stories led them to believed that the Divine was in some way present, tangible, in our world.
I don’t know how you define God. Not everyone would use the word Divine but most people do feel that there may be something of deeper meaning, beauty, truth that goes beyond rational thought. I’m not talking about aliens or things that go bump in the night. It can be the most natural thing in the world, moment that fills you with wonder. I remember talking with a friend about the first time he held his baby daughter. He had been worried about how they were going to cope. This tiny thing was not rationally going to make that better. She was certainly going to make his bank balance worse. She was almost definitely going to deprive him of sleep and be a new area of things that could go wrong in his life. And yet holding her for the first time he forgot everything else. He told me “It was like all that mattered ever was this moment right now with her.”
To be open to wonder often means lingering, looking longer than you would otherwise look, listening and thinking about what someone has said a bit longer. To wonder involves giving time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German activist and theologian in World War Two wrote “Judgement reduces what we can see but love illuminates”. I don’t know if you have ever noticed but love is expansive. It makes new things possible. The minute we judge someone we end the phone call. “Prank call”. Gone. We all experienced it. There’s a look that closes you down. But there’s also a look that opens you up to new possibilities. It lets people be bigger than we’d imagined.
I think for the Wise Men, spirituality had something about being truly present. They tried to treat the world as an opportunity to enter into a mystery, an opportunity to be delighted and enthralled, rather than simply a series of problems to be solved and fixed and reduced.
Stars were their thing. They loved exploring what they could with their early telescopes of these beautiful, magnificent lights. They probably bored their wives going on and on about how cool they were. They were scientists but they also held space for the things that science can’t fully explain. Perhaps even science itself is fuelled by this. Brian Cox said “Deeper understanding conveys that most precious thing – wonder”.
So the Magi looked long at the world around them and discovered the potential for the divine to have entered the world. They took a risk in investing time and money to travel across the known world for the sake of a religion that wasn’t even their own.
They travelled all the way to Jerusalem, the capital city, to the most important man in the area. But the Divine wasn’t there. The Maji had navigated 900miles to God by looking long at the world around them, but for the last 5 miles they needed help.
Help came in a form you and I wouldn’t expect. King Herod kept some pet theologians. These weren’t the courageous religious leaders. This wasn’t Desmond Tutu or Mother Theresa, the types of religious leaders that nonreligious people go to for advice. These were the ones who had sold out and were working for the corrupt, baby killing, despot. It seems God has a soft spot for including those on the moral edge. Honestly, his standards are quite low!
But however bad the organised religion was, they brought out stories of people’s experiences of the Divine, not just to people like us, but to people in hundreds of different cultures through time and around the globe. You can get a lot from your own experience and thoughts about the world around us. But there is something important that it’s hard to get from this world of survival of the fittest and being the best you can be in life.
If you’ve been in church a bit you probably know it already.
They had experienced something Divine in the distant magnificent beauty of stars. Perhaps that’s what they thought God was like. But it turns out God has something beneath that.
So, Jesus wasn’t born in a palace in the capital city. Jesus was born in… Bethlehem – they didn’t know that. They assumed if there was going to be someone who would encounter the Divine it would be a king. It would be the most powerful person possible. A big star.
But the message that Christmas has told the whole world is that God isn’t best described as magnificent distant beauty. God is most fundamentally about love. God doesn’t need palaces and super star celebrities. In fact if God is all about love not power, God would gravitate towards those who are most in need of love and would sit there gently next to them. It seems God is especially fond of those who are on the edge.
Mary and Joseph were no-names, they paid the discount fee when they registered Jesus’ birth. At the time of Jesus’ birth they were just recovering from a row that nearly ended their relationship. They hadn’t planned the birth arrangements very well. A lot of Joseph’s relatives would have travelled to Bethlehem at the same time, but he didn’t feel he could ask any of them for help because no one would understand what they were going through. I’m not going to even start on the shepherds. And Bethlehem itself was a small, unimportant town outside of the capital city. The type of place Ryan Air would fly you into to save money.
If you love Christmas and would like to know it better, my advice is to pick up the phone to people on the edge. Spend time with those in your life who are too tired to pretend they’ve got it together and discover your faith with them. The folk whose relationships are on a knife edge, those who are struggling to make it through the day. Be a friend to them. They’ll either come out with some remarkable truths or not let you get away with a pompous half-truth that sounds good but only works if you’re rich.
I have a friend who was in an ammeter dramatics production a couple of weeks ago. The opening scene is of her sitting at a kitchen table with a man. The play starts with the ringing of a phone, my friend was to pick up the phone and deliver the opening lines. The opening night started well. The curtain went up, the phone rang, but my friend froze. In a terrible case of stage fright, she had forgotten her lines. The audience started to shuffle as the phone rang and rang until she had an idea. She picked up the phone, listened for a moment then handed it to the man and said “It’s for you”.
It seems to me many people do that at Christmas time. They hear the Christmas bells ringing, they hear a preacher say “God has your number. God wants to connect with you, to show you that God is more about love than you can imagine.” But they assume the call is for someone else. I’m not really the right religion for Christmas. I’m a bit old for it. If that’s you remember the Wise Men, they were a different religion. They were serious, well respected people and they stayed looking, stayed listening long enough to discover something more wonderful than they could have imagined.
Amidst all the celebrations, family and friends, food and presents pick up the phone to life and at least consider the possibility, this might be a message from God.