Just in case anyone might be interested, here is the text of my sermon for tomorrow.
The readings are: Ephesians:3:1-12 & Matthew 2:1-12
In the interests of honesty, (& so he doesn’t get cross with me!) I must admit that I have rather over egged Mr D’s use of GPS. He’s not really like this, but I thought it good to give a more “personal” tone to the anecdote.
I’m sure that many of you know the story of the devout Christian who was caught up in a terrible flood. As the flood waters rose, & edged over his front step, he sat in his living room prayed that God would save him. Shortly after, his friends came past in a 4×4 car
“Do you need a hand?” they called
“No, it’s fine! God will save me,” he replied.
The flood waters continued to rise, and the Christian retreated to his bed room on the first floor, where he doubled his prayers. The rescue services came past in their boat
“Come on, sir!” they entreated.
“No, it’s fine. God will save me,” came the reply.
As the flood got higher, the Christian was forced to climb onto his roof, still praying, still trusting that God would save him. A helicopter hovered above, a rope ladder dangling.
“Sir! Climb the ladder!”
“No, it’s fine. God will save me.”
Soon after, the man was engulfed by the flood, and drowned. Standing before God, he asked:
“Lord: I trusted you. I prayed and yet you did not save me from the flood – why ever not?”
And God sighed deeply, and said: “My child, I sent you a 4×4, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?!”
The problem was that the Christian had made an assumption about how God was going to save him, and when things didn’t pan out the way he expected he didn’t recognise that it was still God’s work. God’s hand was there in the 4×4, in the boat, in the helicopter, but the man did not see it. He wanted to limit God to saving him in one particular way.I’m sure we all do this: we assume that God will work in the way we expect, and in so doing our eyes are closed to all other possibilities.
Early Christians unfortunately fell into this trap: they firmly believed that the saving power of the Messiah, the Christ, was for the Jewish people only. All through their history, the Jews had lived, sure that they were God’s chosen people, and as Jewish people accepted Jesus as the Messiah, they had developed this conviction into the belief that to be a part of the early church meant that one had to be circumcised and follow the Jewish Law.
They tried to keep God’s love and grace in a box, tied up firmly with the label “Just for Us”. And on the other side “Not for You”. They wanted to limit God, because they were sure that God would only work in the way that they expected Him to work… Early Jewish Christians took it for granted that God-become-man would be the fulfilment of God’s promise to the Chosen People – and no-one else.
Paul however was convinced that this was incorrect: he was sure that God’s saving grace was open to all, Jew, Gentile, man, woman, slave and free. Paul was open to the limitless possibilities of God’s love. As verse 6 of the reading from Ephesians says: “The mystery (made known to me) is that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together with one body and sharers together in the promise of Christ Jesus”
Unfortunately, if we make assumptions about God and about what he wants there are usually consequences: for our Christian in the flood, the consequence was drowning. For the early church, the consequence was a rather ugly and unedifying dispute between Paul and Peter, with the early Christians taking sides and possibly not showing themselves in a particularly good light.
For the Magi, making their way to welcome the newborn King of the Jews, their assumption meant that they almost lost their way, and that the terror of a powerful despot led to the needless death of many children.
The Magi had started on their journey probably many months previously, having seen a strange star, or some mysterious activity in the heavens above. We know little about these men, save that they came from the East, that they brought three gifts and that they were Magi – though exactly what this means is a mystery. Possibly they were magicians; possibly they were astrologers who made their living through studying the stars. But whoever and whatever they were, they knew that they had seen something important, and they followed the star to find this King of the Jews.
So far, so good. But it appears that, wise as they were, they started to make assumptions about this King, and this led them into trouble. I can’t help feeling that if they had kept their eye on the star, and believed what they were seeing then they would not have got lost, but instead they decided that they knew better, and so they veered off track.
It sounds rather like my husband and the sat-nav system in the car. He types in the destination, and begins to follow the instructions; however, the GPS gives him a direction that seems to defy all logic, and so Andrew decides that it must be wrong, and he starts to go off on his own plan of action. Of course, within minutes he is either hopelessly lost, or caught up in a traffic jam that the sat-nav system, with all its technological wizardry and access to up-to-date traffic news knew all about and was trying to avoid.
So it was with the Magi: the star was taking them to some small, nondescript town called Bethlehem, but “Oh, no, that can’t be right. This is a King’s star we’re following; we must be meant to go to Jerusalem.” They didn’t believe what they had seen, they took their eye off what was leading them in the right direction and they ended up being duped and almost giving Herod the opportunity to kill the newborn child who he feared so much. And he feared the child because he presumed that anyone with the label “King of the Jews” must be a threat to his throne.
Herod, and the Jewish people, and the Magi and so many other people had all made assumptions and they had all got it wrong. Suetonius, a Roman historian wrote of the time “Throughout the whole of the east there spread the old and persistent belief that destiny had decreed that at that time men coming forth from Judea would seize power and rule the earth”
They all took it for granted that anyone born King of the Jews would be all- powerful, and for Herod this meant his reign was threatened. No wonder he was terrified when he heard the news that the Magi brought. No wonder he wanted to find out more about this child, and called all his advisors together to consult their knowledge. Herod made the assumption that this baby, foretold by prophets throughout history, was going to usurp him – and he was sure he was going to stop that from happening! So, he showed the Magi that they were mistaken, and set them on their journey once more. And, miraculously it seems, as soon as they left the palace, as soon as they accepted that they had made an error, there was the star again, the sign from God, showing them the way they should be going
And when they arrived where God wanted them to be, they found that all their beliefs and speculations about this child, born to be King of the Jews, were turned on their heads. Instead of a rich palace, hung about with silks and velvets, they found a poor house; instead of a prince, waited on by servants and nursemaids, and clothed in beautiful fabrics, they met a mother and her child, wrapped in nothing more than any other ordinary baby; but instead of turning away in disgust and saying “That’s no King” they fell to their knees and worshipped him. Once brought face-to-face with the Truth all their assumptions meant nothing, everything they thought they knew was turned upside down, and they recognised that being King of the Jews didn’t mean seizing power and ruling the earth, as Suetonius had imagined, but rather it meant something much more incredible: it meant God becoming human and living among us.
And this is what God does: he takes our assumptions and he challenges them. For the early church, so fixed on the idea that all who followed Jesus should also follow the Levitical Laws, God sent Paul to preach and to teach that God’s love was not limited to one particular group of people; for the Magi, believing that the King of the Jews could only be born in a palace, God led them to a mean house, and a baby by whom not just the Jews, but the entire world could be made whole – and on seeing this child, they fell to their knees in wonder and in reverence.
And you? And me? What assumptions do we make about God and his plan for the world? Do we look at other people and think that they don’t deserve our concern because they are poor, or drunk, or drug addicted? Do we imagine that because oppression, and violence and injustice are happening in another country then it is no concern of ours?
And what assumptions do we make about God and his plan for us? Do we try to limit God because we are scared, or because we don’t like the direction we are being taken in? Do we think that words from the Gospel that make us feel uncomfortable are not directed at us? Do we take our eyes off God, and imagine that we know what he wants of us – only to find that we have gone in the wrong direction?
If our flooded Christian had not been so sure he knew how God would save him, he would have been rescued. When Andrew finally accepts that his GPS is guiding him in the correct way, and trusts in its technology, we quickly find our way through the countryside to our destination. When Peter and the early Jewish Christians stopped trying to limit God, listened to Paul’s words and opened themselves to the truth of God, they understood that God’s love was not confined to one group of people, but instead was open to all. When the Magi followed the star to its resting place, without thinking that they knew better, they discovered the son of God in human form. When we keep our eyes on God, and listen to him, instead of assuming that we know what he desires of us, then that is when he can finally start using us to bring his Kingdom to earth. Let God challenge you, instead of you trying to limit God.