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Let's pray as we begin
Help us to find you today just as the wise men found Jesus
And help us to bring our lives before you
And may that be to your glory.
Christmas is officially over. Friday was 12th night - 6 January. Christmas is gone.
It was Wednesday morning about 8:30 and I nipped into the supermarket to get something we needed and as I was darting around the aisles - the empty aisles - I spotted some glittering gold foil which looks like one of those Lindt reindeer and always looking for a bargain I thought perhaps this is Tesco trying to sell off the last of their reindeer and maybe I'll get some cheap post Christmas chocolate.
On closer inspection this was no reindeer, it was definitely a bunny! And if you're depressed about the end of Christmas, head over to Tesco and you can buy your Easter products. I'm not sure you need to be stockpiling for Easter just yet, but it's good to know the option is there.
Actually there’s another option. Now in the UK we don't make a big thing out of Epiphany, but it's a bigger deal elsewhere.
When I lived in France, the other option was that the Christmas decorations were still up on the 6th January - and Christmas went on a bit longer and that was because of the celebration of epiphany, which is the 6th January.
In France, you celebrate Epiphany with hats – a bit like our cracker crowns, but above all with cake and French cake is good cake. – Galette des rois.
If you've never had it, it’s a kind of pastry thing laced with almonds so if you've got a nut allergy you are out of luck, and in this wonderful delicious cake they hide a little China figure and you win the prize of wearing a crown if you find the figure (not a prize for me; I’m not keen on paper hats!)
Now the cynic might say Epiphany is just a way of hanging on to some light in a dark winter but for a few minutes this morning I want to explore why it's such an important story. A story that matters today as much as the day that these unusual guests visited Jesus.
It matters because this story tells us something about who God is and something about us. Two simple things - God is real and he is there for everyone and if we know God is there then the wise men show us how we should respond to that truth.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of that, two minutes of housekeeping.
This is a wonderful story - one that’s captured our imagination over the years. We sing about three Kings over Christmas and indeed in our service today. In fact, there are supposedly bits of the Kings over in Cologne Cathedral if you want to go and see a relic, but the reality is the story doesn't give us lots of the details that we know and love.
So we don't know if these guys were kings. We know they're wise …they were experts who looked into astrology and astronomy and so were wise and learned people. We don't know if they were just men- it may have been there were women (simply saying “the wise people” in the Greek means it could have been just men or it could have been men and women). And we don't know if there were three of them. Some branches of the church say there were 12 - others think there were three - we just don't know!
And similarly we don't know how long it was after Christmas that they came and because of that we're not quite sure where the visit was. The text suggests that Mary and Joseph are still in Bethlehem or nearby. We don't know if they're in the stable. The text says the wise men visit a house. Perhaps the stable was part of a larger house and that's where they were staying, but we know that Jesus cannot have been any older than one or two because in the next part of the story we see Herod trying to get rid of those who were under two years of age. So Jesus was at least a baby or toddler.
So I’m not going into to enter into all debates this morning but I am going to think about what the passage tells us first about who God is and second how we respond.
Maybe a thing for you and your family over Christmas the telly. And if that’s the case then maybe Sunday night was a highlight -Sunday night was - of course- the start of the fourth series of Sherlock.
The press seem divided about whether that was a good thing or not-some critics were saying it's the best thing on telly others were saying we only think it's good because the TV in the New Year is just so bad. The Sherlock lovers can debate that over coffee.
If you haven't seen it and are planning on I'm not going to give the plot away but there's a moment early on in the programme where Sherlock is asked by John Watson to be the godfather to his newborn child.
Now of course, Sherlock is seemingly all wise, all knowing person who seems to know fact from fiction. The truth from lies. So his reaction is very telling.
John Watson says So Sherlock will you be the godfather and this is what Sherlock says:
God is a ludicrous fiction, dreamt up by inadequates who abnegate all responsibility to an invisible magic friend.
It’s not just Sherlock. We hear it all over the place from Doctor Who to Star Trek. Not just on the telly. Anywhere.
What was refreshing I guess is how honest Sherlock states what I guess a number of our friends, family and the wider society around us really believe.
And there are several accusations in that sentence all in one go.
God is a ludicrous fiction, dreamt up by inadequates who abnegate all responsibility to an invisible magic friend.
Ludicrous-i.e. beyond rational thought.
Fiction - it ‘s all made up ... Dreamt up - imaginary.
Inadequates- People who need something else. An invisible magic friend to tell them how to live.
You get the drift.
It’s not positive.
Our passage this morning reassures us the truth is quite different. This is not a fiction. This is not made up.
It tells us is that God shows himself - he is there for everyone.
That comes out in a number of different ways.
What we see God doing is he shows himself to the good the great the not so great. God may be there for the inadequates, but is there for everyone else as well.
The prevailing view at the time Jesus was born within Judaism was that the relationship God wanted was just with his chosen people - the Jews.
So right at the beginning of his account of Jesus life, Matthew tells us that the Jews sitting in Jerusalem fail to see what God is doing. And it takes some foreigners - people from outside of the spiritually acceptable - to spot what God is doing. Wise and learned people who come a great distance but who are not part of the acceptable spiritual in-crowd.
But how do they know any of this is true? How do we know? Why is belief in God not a fiction that perpetuates generation after generation that we would be better of without?
1. God shows himself in our world. For these wise men the clue was in the way that the world fitted together. The way the stars worked the way, the world functioned. And they saw a star in and they looked at it and they said this is it. Something momentous has happened, which we must look into.
As they marvelled they did something about it - they went to find out what this huge event was. They went to find the event that God was guiding them to.
The rest of the Bible tells us it's the same for us. We live in a world that works. We live in a world that God has created to function and for us to marvel at.
We live in a world not only where God provides evidence of himself through the incredible creation that he has made, but where he himself is active. Just as those wise men were being guided and led to meet Jesus, the experience for so many Christians is of God's movement in their lives at times very small movements at other times huge things where nothing - nothing except God can explain what has happened.
So God shows himself in the way our world is and works.
2. But God is also at work in history. There's the stuff we see every day but there is a thread running through history of God's action in the world.
And we know that because he has spoken to us in his word. We know that because God has spoken throughout time and history.
The wise men turn up at the Palace and Herald freaks out. There’s another king in town after his throne. So he says where is this king going to be born.
There are some wise men around Herod - not the wise men who have come a long journey but the wise men who study God's word. “It's obvious Herod – they say. It’s here in the Bible - it’s it in Bethlehem…. That's where God will do his thing.”
People say that faith is a fiction.
We could argue till the sun sets about whether seeing God at work in his world is true or just the way things worked out. After all, there are scientists who worship God and there are scientists who say the world is a beautiful but ultimately random thing.
We don’t just believe on the evidence of creation. There is also God's word spoken from generation to generation. A history that fits together perfectly and which can undergo extraordinary examination and investigation. These wise men at this epiphany were really only halfway through that story and that chain of incredible events which culminated in the resurrection. But they knew the story. They knew that God had made promises. God was at work in his world and that he wanted a response.
So how do we know God is there because he's told us he's there. And he's recorded that conversation for us to look into, to examine and investigate.
But supremely of course and we’ve already hinted at this - number three - God shows himself in a person. In the child born in the manger. In an historic event. Someone we can meet and encounter. That's what these men did. They came they found Jesus and they worshipped.
So what we see is that God wants to reveal himself to everyone.
So how then should we respond to Sherlock’s statement that this is all just fiction? I suspect honesty is a good idea.
Yes of course, this could be a fiction. But as we look at the way the world is and works, as we look at the way that God has been at work through history and the record of that recorded in the Bible, as we have our own experience of that person of Jesus through the gift of the Holy Spirit, then we know that God is there.
So faith is not blind, there’s evidence that this is reality – not fiction.
This really matters. That God is there for us to find.
The whole Christian faith flows from that belief that God is there. It’s absolutely fundamental. That's why I keep banging on about Alpha. For many that’s a really good way of building or exploring that foundation. It’s not the only way - if you’re just not sure, then then please come and talk to me or to Pauline. It's so important and that experience of life with God flows from that fundamental belief and if we’re not sure of that, then things won't click in so many other areas.
It’s the start of January it's perhaps a quieter time of the year for many of us. It's a time where we don't do as many things read a good book. Have a conversation with someone join Alpha. Come and see me. It really is important to get that foundation sorted.
I said our passage showed us something about who God is and who we are and very briefly I want to look at our response.
To do that I do need to go back to Sherlock.
Sherlock doesn’t commit to becoming a Godfather after his strong and negative words but as we cut to the next scene he’s there in a church with all the clichés - the vicar is past retirement age speaking what appears to be a foreign language around a big stone contraption.
There’s a contrast between the new parents John Watson and his wife Mary who have come to the church with their child. They are in church. They're saying that this matters. That the something about life that they were recognising the gift of this new child and they're really really happy about it. Which is great.
If you've seen any of the rest of Sherlock it's a bit of a surprise if I'm honest. There's been no evidence anywhere else that they have any interest in Christian things. But they are there. They’re in church. And that’s a good thing.
But is it enough. We’re in church this morning. That’s a good thing. But is it enough.
Because what the wise men show us is there is a stage beyond knowing that God is there. There's a stage beyond knowing that God is at work. We actually have to do something concrete and real with that belief. And it’s more than just a few words – it’s our whole life.
There's a really scary point in this story.
Herod responds to the threat to his throne by calling together all the chief priests and teachers of the law. In other words these are the people whose stated profession is to believe in God. They're the experts. They're the ones who should know things and be guiding others about how to live.
Herod says to them where will this child be born. And they know the answer - Bethlehem.
In fact, someone is knocking on their door saying we think this is happening now. As they send these wise people off to Bethlehem as far as we can see none of the religious experts from Jerusalem go with the wise men from the East.
The wise men do three massive things - they look for God they come and worship Jesus despite all sorts of opposition and they give to Jesus. They give these amazing gifts their time, their allegiance and gold incense and Myrrh.
If the foundation of the Christian faith is that God is there it only becomes something when we respond. If God is there we have to look for him. We have to put ourselves out for him, we have to head out on the journey of life with him and that means we have to do give our whole life to him.
But there is great reward in doing that. Because if God is there – and he is. Then the whole world is different.
So as we embark on a new year, let’s be certain that God is there and let’s be sure we are responding to his longing for us to follow him.
We think you that you are real. That you are not a fiction.
And because of that, help us to seek you out. To bend our knee to you and to give the ultimate gift.