A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 7th January 2024
There is a poem by a well-known American hymn writer Jaroslav Vajda which includes the words “Let manger, star, and angel choir unhinge us from our sleep and sorrows”. There is much in the world which may be causing us increasing sorrow as the new year starts. But why may we need to be unhinged? We heard at Christmas that the manger and the angels unhinged the shepherds. Today we have heard of the unhinging of the wise men by a star. This unhinging is about being thrown off balance into risky living.
Let us imagine the journey of the wise men for a moment: unlike us when we make a long distance journey, they had no travel agent, no pre-arranged tickets and timings, no pre-packed food, no arranged hotel, no security. Probably inexperienced, they may well have travelled with a group of merchants for safety. This story from Matthew is about an important but rather crazy trip, motivated by curiosity rather than religious conviction. Why would foreigners wish to pay homage to a Jewish king? For Matthew they fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. They were likely to have been pagan star-gazers, possibly charlatans or quacks. A star caught their attention and unhinged them enough to set out because in their conceptual world it meant a king.
The visit of the wise men to Herod was hardly wise. It was a bit like turning up at the border of a country ruled by a dictator and asking to be taken to the leader of the underground resistance movement which was determined to overthrow him. Their visit lit the blue touch paper. In their naivety, they would have gone back to Herod, had God not warned them to avoid him.
Matthew’s account suggests that the star disappeared after the wise men first saw it, hence their joy after their potentially disastrous visit to Herod. Only then did the star guide them to Bethlehem. Until then their journey had been without specific directions, using their own initiative, and living in the light of a hunch that this was worth risking. Much of our own lives are like this. We can enter relationships convinced of their merit but find after a while that we are thrown onto our own resources, and start to doubt the wisdom of what we have done.
The wise men eventually found that the star was a guide which led them from a journey of curiosity into a pilgrimage into God’s point of reference, with the Hebrew scriptures taking them to Bethlehem. Quests in our own lives can become pilgrimages. Pilgrimages can sometimes shake us out of preconceptions and prejudices about where God will be found.
When we see a baby we do not usually kneel down and pay homage (unless we are doting grandparents). But is seems clear that the wise men were changed by their experience. Then they dreamt. And then they returned by another road. It is often the case that it is the return journey from a pilgrimage that is where we reflect on what we have seen and done, and integrate it with our previous experience, and the life to which we are returning.
The familiarity of the Christmas stories carries the risk that we fail to let them challenge us. They should challenge and unhinge us from our sorrows and doubts and seasonal sleepiness, because they really are great news. They are an invitation to take the risk of the first step, to keep going when we are in strange or uncomfortable territory, remembering that the meaning, or outworking, of the journey may only be found in its final stages. These last steps can lead us into completely transforming and new encounters, situations and understandings.
Let us pray that whatever challenges may face us in this New Year, we shall be open to travelling with God into new encounters, new understandings and new situations. Amen.