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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 12 January 2020 – Evensong
Passage of scripture: Joshua 3.1-8 & Hebrews 1.1-12
Attending the pantomime at the London Palladium, visiting 11 cathedrals, driving round the Isle of Harries in the outer Hebrides, watching the England v New Zealand Rugby World Cup game in a bar in Athens, growing a beard, swimming in the sea off the Pembrokeshire coast on Christmas Day, reading half a dozen books, playing a round of golf, cycling over 600 miles …. this is not a fairly unambitious Bucket List (I don’t like Bucket Lists, I think they make life into something to consume rather than something to live, but that is another sermon). No, this is a list of some of the things I have been able to do during my recent 3 month sabbatical. I have had a great time!
In addition to all of this I have been doing some writing. I have written 6 short stories which will form the basis of our Three Hour devotions here at the Minster on Good Friday this year. The stories are based on scripture but are essentially works of my imagination which have helped me, and hopefully will help others, view the events of Good Friday from different perspectives.
One of the hymns we sing every year on Good Friday is ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. I always find the singing of that hymn particularly moving but we have to remember that even though we sing it in the midst of the darkness of what we are remembering on Good Friday, we sing it in the light of the resurrection. My stories are written from the perspective of 6 people who might have surveyed the wondrous cross as Jesus died on it and would have had little or no idea that resurrection would follow.
I had five characters I knew I was going to explore in stories, but I hadn’t settled on the sixth. The days of my sabbatical began ticking by and I pondered about who my last character would be …. and then I had an odd thought. We always assume that the Magi who visited the manger in Bethlehem, were old. (I think we make an erroneous connection in our minds between age and wisdom.) Anyway, perhaps the Magi were young? Maybe they were due to inherit responsibility for their families and their lands and were searching for wisdom about how to be good leaders? Maybe they had heard that the God of Israel was not a God of emperors, kings, the rich and the powerful, but a God who chose a slave nation to be his people? A most unusual turn of events in those days. If they were young when they visited Bethlehem then it is conceivable that one of them might have returned to Jerusalem 30 years later. What would Balthazar be thinking if he witnessed the crucifixion? Legend has it he gave the infant Jesus the most unusual gift of Myrrh, something used for embalming the dead, a gift we must assume that was a prediction that the child would suffer. Imagine Balthazar watching the crucifixion – what must he have been thinking?
As I wrote a story about Balthazar surveying the wondrous cross I realised that the most important aspect of the story of the Magi is not told in the gospels. Matthew tells us that when they saw the infant Jesus they ‘knelt down and paid him homage’ …….. and that’s all we know! The interesting and important question is, how did paying homage to the infant Jesus change them? Were they different, better people when they went home? If they had been young did they fulfil their responsibilities as adults to their families, and to whatever they inherited from their fathers, in a better, kinder more ‘Christian’ way than if they hadn’t seen and paid homage to Jesus?
I don’t want to pre-empt the story for any of you who might come on Good Friday but I think that coming from a sophisticated, privileged background of wealth and education the magi may well have been moved to kneel in homage by the simplicity of what they encountered in the stable. Perhaps Joseph welcomed them by sharing his little family’s meagre provisions with them? Perhaps seeing the infant Jesus made them think that being a king or a leader of any kind, may not be about wealth and power, may not be about instilling fear and subjugating those being led, but about being humble and vulnerable, identifying with, living alongside and loving those being led? Maybe they were very different people when they returned from the stable in Bethlehem to their homes and responsibilities in the East?
The stories I have written are for Good Friday, but the one about Balthazar relates to the season of Epiphany. After this service we should all go around into the Lady Chapel to our crib and take a look at the magi, who, legend dictates, are nearly always depicted as three kings, and wonder how paying homage to Jesus changed them and then to think hard about how paying homage to Jesus, which is essentially what we are doing in this choral evensong and in every act of Christian worship, how does paying homage to Jesus change us?
Having spent all of my adult life working in the Church I know that regularly paying homage to Jesus in worship, for some, sustains them in living lives of near saintliness. In all the churches I have been part of, including this one, there are people who live good, kind, sacrificial, loving lives, a great deal of which has flows from regularly paying homage, like the magi, to Jesus. For most of us the homage we pay to Jesus in worship at least makes us try to be better than we would be otherwise. We fall well short of saintliness but we do keep trying through confession, thanksgiving, prayer and having our minds fed and our hearts uplifted in worship, to be better, kinder people, a little less selfish, a little more loving, a little bit more like Jesus, the one we follow as disciples.
In this season of Epiphany we look back to Christmas and forward to Lent – as we remember the story of Jesus and, in this and every act of worship, pay homage to him, as the magi did, we have to keep asking ourselves the question – what difference is this all making to me and the way I live my everyday life as a disciple of Jesus?
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