The Wise Man’s Part

This is the first of an ongoing series of sermons preached by our Minister, the Revd Trevor Jamison, at St Columba’s.  In response to requests from members, they are being published on the church website so that they (and you) can read them if you have missed them or wish to ponder further on what you have heard.

Sermon 6 January 2019

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

Revised version of sermon preached 28/12/2008

“What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a wise man I would do my part …”

But, what is the part of a wise man?

It’s worth asking the question because Christina Rossetti, the author of the hymn, In the Bleak Mid-winter has left things rather vague. Things are much simpler if you are a shepherd, for the shepherds in this hymn get to bring a lamb. If you aspire to be a wise man, however, what are you to make of the statement, “I would do my part”? That lacks detail. We could do with a practical example or two in order to know what wise people are meant to do.

To be fair to Christina Rossetti, “part” rhymes with “heart”, and the heart is what the entire verse and arguably the entire hymn is moving towards: “yet what I can I give him – give my heart”. So, we should not attempt to make too much of this moment of vagueness, which perhaps owes less to theological inexactitude as to the need to get the darn thing to rhyme properly. Having said that, however, noticing this vagueness does give us an opportunity to ponder what doing the part of a wise man might involve. To put it within the context of our times; and taking on board the reasonable requests of our society to avoid needless gender-specific language; and just be sure we all know that this sermon is not addressed solely to the male minority within the congregation, let’s put is this way: what is the part of the wise person today?

“Wise person” is a more polite version of the title given in a junior school Christmas production I once saw. Like Saint Matthew’s version of the nativity, it was told from the perspective of Joseph, and so it was entitled “Holy Joe”. It included as central characters, what the song described as “three wise guys on a star–trek enterprise”. Well, today is a good occasion to ask the question, “what is the part of the wise person”, for today we have before us the biblical story of the wise men, the magi, the ones who, back then, travelled from the east to find the one, he who was the new-born king of the Jews. Today, we do well to look to those magi, those wise men, and we use their example to inform our behaviour and our actions in our own time. We, like them, are called to be observant; we, like them, are called to persevere; and we, like them, are called to worship.

“We observed the rising of his star and have come to pay him homage”, say the magi upon their arrival in Jerusalem. Some years ago whilst living in Liverpool, as a family, we indulged ourselves in a two-centre holiday: Belfast and the Lake District. Having been to Belfast, we returned via the John Lennon airport, drove home to the North side of Liverpool, dumped the bags of dirty clothes in the house, picked up the pre-packed bags of replacement clothing, and headed North up the M6, into the descending darkness of the evening.

Night had truly fallen by the time we turned off the M6 and parked in a lay-bye, a couple of miles into the countryside, with the purpose of swapping drivers. We hopped out of the car … and came to a complete halt, gazing upwards; for far from any street light and the accompanying light pollution we could observe myriad, myriad stars that seemed to fill the entire night sky. This is what it was like for those who were around when Jesus was born; a star-filled night sky.

The wise ones, these magi, remind us of the need to observe the world with care. Sometimes it takes a stranger, or a change in situation, to see more clearly what we who have grown accustomed to in the world around us now fail to observe. I hear that a few years back the Church of England diocese of St Albans invited a BBC producer to address a clergy gathering on moral questions posed by television soaps. The producer began his address by admitting that he was not much of a church-goer; he had very little background in church life at all. So, he informed his clergy audience, he had prepared for this unusual situation by doing some research: he had read the Bible (yes, the whole Bible) and had consulted a number of theological books as well. The titles that he mentioned included a number of substantial, up-to-date academic works, the sort that we might hope all clergy were reading for their own good and the good of their congregations, but …

What a lesson in careful, committed observation, coming from such a source. Do we Christians take such care in our observation of the social, economic and spiritual trends in the world around us? If we do not, how can we hope to effectively bring good news concerning Jesus to that world, through our words and our actions? In this society what will be the next great issue to address? Will it be the impact of climate change? Will it be the role of the arms trade in our economy? Will it be social care and health care for an aging population? Is society, are we, ready to talk about “sin”?

Wise people are committed to being observant; we’ll also have to practise perseverance. Christmas cards and nativity scenes, with their images of shepherds and wise men gathered around the Christ child, tell a truth – that whether we are rich or poor; whether we are Jew or Gentile all of us may come to meet God through Jesus. Yet cards, nativity scenes and even Christmas carols can also mislead. Apart from the question of how many wise men there actually were (the Bible mentions only the number of gifts, not the number of visitors), how long do you think they took to get there?

Whatever a contemporary Christmas tableau may show, the Bible tells us that St Luke’s shepherds visit a baby in a manger but the St Matthew’s magi visit a child in a house in Bethlehem. Herod, the Gospel tells us, having had a conversation with the eastern visitors, orders the slaughter of all the children in the area who are under two years of age. This suggests to me wise visitors who have arrived in Bethlehem at the end of a long, long journey, undertaken across dangerous territory; everything from roadside bandits to a murderous monarch in Jerusalem.

The Western European landscape across which we Christians travel is not an easy one. Churches have been marginalised and are often ridiculed and misrepresented. In such a setting it is all to easy to become discouraged and to lose confidence, even though the power and love of God is greater and deeper than any passing social phenomenon such as the one we label “secularisation”. In such circumstances, how important it is for us to mirror the attitude of perseverance on the journey which is displayed by these travellers.

For example, in an era when church goers have a greater tendency not to attend every week numbers in church can vary greatly from Sunday to Sunday. A few weeks of low numbers and your absence impacts on the confidence of others; a few weeks, or even months, of higher attendance figures and your presence, persevering through the bad times as well as the good, is a significant encouragement to the faith of others. Persevering worshippers can make a real difference in the ability of this congregation to continue tell the Christian story effectively – to young and old, to rich and poor, to male and female.

It’s no accident that I should use the example of worship to talk about perseverance, for following on being observant and being persevering, the third attribute of the wise person is that they are worshipful. As it tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, when the journey had achieved its purpose, when it had reached its destination in a Bethlehem home; when finally, the magi met the “new-born king of the Jews”, “they bowed low in homage to him”. In life, many people carefully observe the world around them as a necessary basis for how they live their lives. Many have to persevere in the face of difficult life-circumstances. Sometimes, such difficulties are chosen, are embraced, in commitment to a cause important to them. What makes our commitment to observe and to persevere distinctive is that it occurs as our response to meeting with God in Jesus; and we express and support that continuing commitment through worship.

Worship focuses our hearts and minds upon God and upon what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Our economic, political and social concerns should be informed and enhanced by that perspective. We shall continue to be concerned for the world’s economy and politics, for our society and its spirituality because we are reminded, week by week, that this is the world that God loves; loves so much that he created it and loves it so much that he sent his Son into it so that it might be reconciled with its creator.

Let’s never underestimate the impact upon us and upon our day-by-day attitudes and actions of hearing, on an at-least weekly basis, the wonderful story of God’s dealing with us and its implications preached. Let’s never underestimate the week-by-week impact of being called to pray to God and to pray for the world. Let’s learn to appreciate the opportunities to share our stories and experiences of faith, one with another, in an atmosphere of care and encouragement. What we do in this place is to put detail and direction unto the large-scale travel map of life’s journey. Our hymns and our prayers become a compass for the journey. Our worship, week by week, becomes the equivalent of a travelling star, guiding us further towards a true meeting with Jesus.

As this Christmas season concludes, as we begin to travel through a new year, I challenge us to be a bunch of “wise guys” for Jesus; to closely observe the trends in the world around us as a basis for action; to persevere in dealing with life’s realities; and to be both anchored and guided by a life of worship; to be God’s wise men and women in 2019.

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