SERMONS: They came from another place – they left by a different road

Revd John Davies

Sutton Montis, Epiphany, 4/1/2014

Isaiah 60.1-6, Matthew 2.1-12

 

We can spend our time with the Epiphany story worrying over the astronomical problem of the star, the number of magi, the date – adding to the endless and largely fruitless debates on these topics. Or we can spend time instead with the key element of the story; the most obvious: that Christ was visited by non-Jews, who had worked out who he was, and his significance to them; Christ was visited by pilgrims who had no ethnic or ritualistic ties to Judaism.

[1]

They came from another place – this is a message that bears repetition. The wise men came from the East – from a different society, a different culture, a different belief system to the one practiced in Bethlehem. The Epiphany story invites us to consider the roots of our Christian faith: that we are inheritors of a form of Judaism affirmed by Eastern religion. In a world where religious and social identities are hardening, the Epiphany story invites us to embrace humility and openness towards others. In a society whose doors are closing to people who are different from ourselves, the Epiphany story invites us to dialogue with those who come from another place.

And one area of human life which sorely needs redirection is the religious life. The road which the world’s religions are on often seems to be a road which divides people of faith from each other, with fatal consequences. That the child Jesus was visited by pilgrims from the East prefigures for us the mission of the adult Jesus: to challenge those who followed the old ways to ask whether they were ‘living in a bubble, confusing their world with the whole world, lost in their little rituals and taboos, failing to see or embrace others’. [2] Epiphany also prefigures for us the message of the adult Jesus: that the good news of the Kingdom of God is for all people – not just our own. They came from another place – Epiphany invites us to reconsider our religious life as we live it out in relation to others.

In his New Year’s message the Archbishop of Canterbury reviewed the daily ‘toll of bad news’ in 2014, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and north-east Nigeria, the massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan, but despite all this, he cautioned against the temptation to ‘look inwards in despair’. [3]

It is worth recalling that Archbishop Welby previously ran the reconciliation work at Coventry Cathedral, working extensively in the field in the Middle East and Africa, working on reconciliation with armed groups in the Niger Delta, with religious and political leaders in Israel and Palestine, once reopening the Anglican Church in Baghdad shortly after the allied invasion. [4] Last month he led a debate in the House of Lords on the role of ‘soft power’ and non-military options in preventing conflict, in which he stated that ‘the church, the Anglican Communion globally, is consistently at the forefront of conflict prevention’. [5]

The Lords Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence recognised the role of diplomacy, of non-governmental organisations, of culture, trade, sport and education in counteracting conflict without resorting to force, in building understanding and goodwill across human boundaries.

And whilst the Lords’ debate also recognised the truth that ‘hard power’ is sometimes necessary to neutralize extreme acts of terrorism or violence, the point of the Archbishop’s debate is that the more we learn to use ‘soft power’, the more we open ourselves to dialogue with those who are different from ourselves, the more likely we are to build a world at peace with itself. [6] And this connects us with the other main point of the Epiphany story, which is that the visitors left by a different road.

We can see it now, from Herod’s perspective – that the magi showing up at Jerusalem and excitably telling the citizens that they were looking for the new king who had been born there, was like you or me showing up at the airport of a country with a dictator, stating the purpose of our stay as a visit to the leader of the underground resistance. [7] These not-so worldly-wise ‘wise men’: their search for a king of peace got them embroiled in the troubles of a king in torment, got them entangled in Herod’s nasty vengeful conspiracy. What began as a hopeful journey for the magi ended in an anxious escape.

No wonder Herod reacted as he did, for that was the sort of king he was, a temporal, temporary, vulnerable, volatile ruler who only knew the ways of hard power. It was all that the magi would expect, ‘a world of crowns, fawning courtiers, royal robes, and hard cash’.

But after meeting Herod and realising that the star was leading them towards an altogether different power source, the magi witnessed another world breaking through:

The reality [of this world] was the reek of livestock, a comfortless barn, a crude delivery, and an overwhelming fear for the future. Forget the colourful cards with docile animals, self-satisfied parents, and a handmade cradle filled with sanitised straw. The epiphany scene sends materialism and sentimentality packing. What is left is a profound sense of holiness, an overwhelming current of love, a reverence for all things so deep that the visiting kings … knelt, and a poverty that shimmers with prayer. [8]

Having met Herod in Jerusalem behaving the way of all kings, the pilgrims found in the child Jesus in the most unlikely of places, in a Bethlehem stable, a new form of kingliness, a new form of authority, altogether. It dawned on them that this child was not a king, this child was the king, but a king with no position – except the position of complete vulnerability, a king with no power – except the ‘soft’ power to fill them and all people with overwhelming joy.

So they left by another road – avoiding a King Herod who was flexing his muscles in a show of hard power, and – transformed by their joyful encounter with the new-born king – embarking on a journey forwards into the ways of soft power.

Their story resonates for us today, especially for those who might feel that the road we are on is a dead-end, a road too dependent on things which won’t last; for those who feel at a crossroads in our lives; for those who feel we’ve arrived at our Jerusalem but long to get to our Bethlehem. For those longing to learn how to exercise soft power in a world where hard power appears to hold sway.

The Bethlehem pilgrims could not return to the old ways of kings – they left by a very different road. That’s what we mean by epiphany – a situation which causes one to be transformed, to see things a whole new way, to travel from thereon in another direction altogether. To leave by a different road. ‘We cannot encounter the Christ and remain unchanged,’ says David Bryant. ‘The old signposts get knocked sideways, and our thought-forms are fundamentally realigned. This is precisely what happened to the kings.’ [8]

So is 2015 to be a year in which people of goodwill of all religious realign themselves – to seek positive transformations in their relationships, to learn how to travel as companions in altogether healthier directions? If it is then we must learn to use our soft power well.

Epiphany invites us to positively recall those times in our lives when we may have travelled into a new situation from another place, and those encounters we had with others there who welcomed us, helped us find new perspectives or set out in a new direction. Epiphany invites us to remember those times when outsiders have come into our lives – people quite different from ourselves whose words and ways have educated, challenged and changed us.

At Epiphany we can celebrate those occasions where people of different faiths have found a demanding common task at which to work together, and strengthened relationships between each other in the process. Think back to the relief efforts in the flooded Somerset Levels last year, of the contribution of Ravi Singh and the volunteers from his Sikh international aid agency Khalsa Aid who helped there, and positive effect for interfaith understanding of that intervention; [9] think of the witness of Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani schoolgirl and at just 17 the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2014, for her activism for rights to education and for women, currently a pupil at the all-girls’ Edgbaston High School in Birmingham. [10]

We can today give thanks for interfaith groups operating in universities and colleges, in workplaces and local communities where relationships are being developed to the extent where people from different cultures are unafraid to deeply question each other, developing healthy understanding between those who come from a different place; for where such positive conversation is absent, there extremism will flourish. [11] We can be encouraged by the prolferation of opportunities for Christians, Muslims and Jews to debate and dialogue together about their scriptures and their varying interpretations of them. [12]

They came from another place – they left by a different road. May the journey which the magi took influence our own journeys this year as we seek to wield our soft power, and contribute to the wellbeing of all.

Notes

This talk references a sermon first preached as They left by another road, Devon, Epiphany 2013

[1] Leader comment, Disorganised religion, Church Times, 3 January 2015.

[2] I owe this sentence to Nick Cohen, whose article The Great Betrayal: How Liberals Appease Islam, Standpoint, January/February 2015, underlies the course of the discussion.

[3] Madeleine Davies, Welby: 2014 was a tough year, Church Times, 3 January 2015.

[4] About Justin Welby, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury website.

[5] Archbishop’s House of Lords soft power debate – opening speech, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury website.

[6] For nuanced discussions on the interplay between soft and hard power see the House of Lords website The Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence and also Nick Cohen, [2] above.

[7] Rosalind Brown, Readings: Epiphany, Church Times, 4 January 2013.

[8] David Bryant, Returning by another way, Church Times, 4 January 2013.

[9] See reports on the Khalsa Aid website.

[10] Wikipedia: Malala Yousafzai.

[11] ‘For the young in particular, what their friends argue against and deride will have more effect on them than the lectures of government ministers.’ Nick Cohen, [2] above. The Interfaith Network for the UK.

[12] Last year I joined an online discussion group doing just this, Nurani, the Scriptural Reasoning website where ‘small groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and sometimes people of other faiths, gather to read and reflect on short passages from their scriptures together.’
By | 2017-03-30T00:42:04+00:00 January 4th, 2015|Sermons|0 Comments

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