SERMON: Keep sailing!

SERMON: Keep sailing!

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 8 January 2017

Today we are celebrating the attractiveness of Christ. The important thing about the wise men is that they’re not Jewish and yet they too are drawn to make this journey that brings them to kneel at the manger.

At the beginning of his gospel Matthew has been keen to emphasize that Jesus was Jewish, opening with a genealogy tracing Jesus all the way back to Abraham. But Matthew then tells this story of the wise men, that Christ’s attractiveness transcends the boundaries of any one nation, people or place:
‘Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn’
we heard from the book of the prophet Isaiah. There’s an extraordinary attractiveness about Christ!

I want to reflect on this evocative story that we hear every year at this time with the help of a Lutheran prayer. I’ve used the prayer before in a magazine letter and it goes:
‘Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us.’

What might some of the connections be between the story of our lives and this journey that the wise men make – and can this prayer perhaps help us with this?

The prayer from the Lutheran book of worship begins:
‘Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures…’
God’s invitation is always to a journey.

Remember how T.S. Eliot’s poem about the wise men began:
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:’

The wise men from the east set out, and we too set out. We are pilgrims, travellers, called to progress, to change. How long our journey is, is no more known to us than it was to those wise men who came searching for the child who had been born – but we are called to embark.

The prayer then goes on to suggest that our journey is:
‘by paths as yet untrodden…’

Had the wise men gone that way before? Have we lived this time before? The paths are as yet untrodden. The wise men had their particular journey to make with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

What is our path, our journey, and what gifts do we bring with us that are particular to us?

The prayer then moves on to talk about our journey being:
‘through perils unknown…’
We heard how the wise men turned to Herod for help! Did they know the danger they were in when they knocked on his door?!

We too face ‘perils unknown’. The invitation is to keep going, to keep setting out in faith, to keep travelling.

The first half of the prayer seems to echo both something of our experience and too the journey that the wise men made:
‘Lord God, you have called your servants
to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.’

The second half of the prayer then goes on to say:
Give us faith to go out with good courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us
and your love supporting us.’

So what does sustain us on our journey particularly when the way seems difficult or dark? For the wise men the story tells of a star; they’d observed it at its rising; they’d followed its leading; it had stopped over the place where the child lay – the star kept them going.

What keeps us going? There may be any number of things but two are mentioned in the prayer:
‘God’s hand to lead us and his love to support us.’

The prayer offers us these as our guiding star, giving us the faith to ‘go out with good courage’.

Courage is key. Remember the lion in the Wizard of Oz? It’s what he so desperately needed! And this prayer rightly suggests that it’s what we each need too – good courage!

Christopher Columbus is reputed to have written day after day in his journal: ‘No land in sight. Kept sailing’. What courage! And we must each pray for it – for ourselves and for those around us! No land in sight – keep sailing!

Finally, what of that destination? Where does our journey end? Is there land in sight? Here the prayer falls silent, referring to the fact that ‘we cannot see the ending’ and that ‘we do not know where we are going’.

Up to a point the story of the wise men would support this silence. Following the star, they too are pictured as not knowing where they are going, that is until the star stops over the place where the child lies. Faithfulness to the journey undoubtedly involves a lot of ‘not knowing’. Saint Paul refers to this as living by faith and not by sight.

However what the story of the wise men does assure us of is that when the goal is reached that we will then know that that’s what we’ve been looking for! Remember how the wise men were overwhelmed with joy when they saw the child with Mary his mother – their goal had been reached, and they knelt down and paid homage.

And for ourselves…..? Saint Augustine as so often put it memorably at the conclusion of his book The City of God when he wrote:
‘There we shall be still and see;
we shall see and we shall love;
we shall love and we shall praise.
Behold what will be, in the end without end!
For what is our end but to reach that kingdom
which has no end?’

Keep sailing!