Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2016

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

I wonder if there are any drivers here who got a new SatNav for Christmas? Well, if the first time you used it you told it to take you the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and it took you instead to, say, 13 Acacia Avenue SE17, you might be wanting to take it back to the shop.
Well something similar happened to the Magi in the unexpected turns their journey took, but they just carried on. There’s an air of mystery about the Magi. Exactly who they were, or where they came from, is obscure, and there have been many theories about the precise nature of the star that they saw.
What we do know from scripture is that the Magi came from outside Israel, they were foreigners and strangers to the Jewish law and prophets. The name “Magi” also associates them with magic, practitioners of occults arts in an age and a culture where supernatural powers were assumed to be at work in natural phenomena. This makes them even more outsiders to the uncompromising monotheism of Israel. But the Magi were knowledgeable, skilled at observing the heavens, deeply attentive to what was before them. They were good at what they did.
But what they saw, they came to realise, was the opposite of what their culture assumed. The stars were thought to be the higher powers, controlling events on earth. A new star might appear for the birth of a king, but the king would then be subject to the ruling of that star, rising and falling according to its destiny.
This was the common belief, the science of that time and culture. And the Magi were clearly committed to learning, to following the truth wherever it might lead them. So when the Magi saw a star that announced the birth of a King, that knowledge led them on a long journey to deeper discovery and even greater truth.
What did they discover? First of all, that the new King had not been born in the royal palace in Jerusalem. From the magnificence of Herod’s court they were directed instead to Bethlehem, a small town of shepherds in the hills, a place that had never been the centre of power for anyone. Once they got to Bethlehem, they followed the star once again, and were led not to any building of significance, but just to an ordinary house like any other.
Now ordinary human knowledge at this point might have thought, we’ve got something wrong here. The SatNav needs fixing. But not the Magi. They trusted in the truth of things. The star they had observed was telling them something true, and they were willing to learn however unlikely the place it had led them to.
There was more. They did indeed find the child. But the truth they had learned from the signs of nature led them to the threshold of a greater truth, a truth that they were to receive by faith.
For when they entered the house, and saw the child with his mother, according to our translation, “they knelt down and paid him homage”, in fact literally they fell down on their faces and worshipped him. This was the prostration, the greeting given to kings in the east who were considered to be divine, such as the kings of Persia. And here they were giving that act of divine worship not to any earthly potentate but to a seemingly ordinary baby in an ordinary house, with no trappings or sign of power about him at all.
Faith is a gift of God, the gift to receive and believe in the truth that God reveals to us. And what a gift of faith the Magi had received! To see through all the surface appearances of things, and to see beyond them that which was of God. That here, in this child, who had no earthly power at all, was one worthy of divine worship. That the stars did not control the destiny of this little one, but served him. That here, beyond all appearances, was in truth the Creator, the Word through whom all things were made, the Love that moves the sun and other stars.
Faith does not contradict nature, as some people seem to think. Faith is not believing things that you know aren’t true. Rather, it is believing truths that we could not have known through nature but that are revealed to us by God.
The knowledge of science is based on what reason can deduce from nature. And it is true knowledge. Science is an authentic pursuit of truth, complete in itself. Science assumes the truth of things, that we can interrogate the universe and get reliable and consistent answers.
Faith leads us to truth of a different order. Faith is not about filling in the gaps in science, but rather about knowing what lies beyond its reach. Science is able to tell us everything that we can know about the material universe. But God is not the universe, the Creator is altogether distinct from the creation.
Science at best, like the star of the Magi, can lead us only as far as the threshold of faith. It is perfectly rational to consider that everything that exists must have had a first cause, a reason why there is something rather than nothing. But science can tell us nothing about the first cause. What it is, nature does not disclose, and if human beings have called the first cause “God”, that only serves to remind us that it is a mystery.
It is the first cause itself which has revealed itself. Every human culture has had its intuitions of the divine, of what lies beyond. It has spoken uniquely in the law and the prophets and the history of that unique people the Jews. And above all the first cause has revealed itself in a human life, in the Child of Bethlehem and the Man of Nazareth.
It is in that Child and that Man that we see that God is love. The first cause of the universe, the reason why there is something rather than nothing, is not an impersonal force but a Father who loves us and has sent his Son so that we might know him and love him for eternity.
In him we see the cause and goal of our existence, and the one true object of our worship. Faith in him drew the Magi to worship. They had indeed seen shadows and glimpses of God in the glories of nature as they studied the stars, but in Christ they found the fullness of Divinity. Faith draws us to worship, too, draws us to the fullness of truth to be found in Jesus.
All other things that claim to be gods must be left behind. We are unlikely to worship the stars these days, but there are other created things that we might be at risk of worshipping. For instance, do we expect to be able to exploit the earth without limit, and not suffer any consequences? Then we are treating the earth as a god. Do we expect economics to go on making things better and better, as if by magic market forces could create money out of nothing?  Then we are treating the market as a god. Do we expect medicine to cure all our illnesses, as if we will never die? Then we are treating medicine as a god.

The true God is revealed in his fullness in Jesus Christ. Before him all other gods are dethroned and resume their proper place and limits within the created order of things. Following the truth, we find the true God, and finding him sets us free. Free to worship him, and so to find the complete truth of our own existence, our beginning and our end, in him who is love.

1 comment:

Derek Speegle said...

A beautiful sermon. Thank you.