Posted by: owizblog | January 6, 2013

Wisdom, Naivete and Hope: Sermon 6 1 13, UCB

bored car

“This must be it!”

It’s one of those phrases that instantly put you in a particular place. Like “You missed that turnoff!” or “Can we stop soon?” or, famously, “Are we there yet?” These are the phrases that put us in a place of excitement, and boredom, and promise, and complication, and fun, and fractiousness, and finally in the deepening desire that it all finish soon, and we get there. These are the phrases that put us in a car, on a journey, to a new place.

“This must be it!”

And we can accent it so many different ways, to convey so many different emotions!

Cheerily! “This must be i-it!”

Impressed, and very pleasantly surprised. “This must be it…”

Disappointed. “This must be it…”

Very disappointed. “This must be it…”

And of course, the perennial winner for Most Often Encountered, the grumpy and frustrated, usually heard over the low, angry murmur of bored children and passengers, and the rustle of the pages of a Road Atlas being flipped through. And that one goes:

This MUST be it!”

The car has so sped up the human experience of journeying that we can fit in many, many more journeys, in the course of a lifetime, than most people even a hundred and fifty years ago could imagine. Before the age of railways, journeys were on foot for most people – but down through the centuries, surprising numbers of people would make one or two huge journeys in the course of a lifetime. Pilgrimages, particularly. Long journeys to touch, see, experience, something with the meaning of their existence at its very heart.

People would go to Santiago de Compostela, and return with a seashell, symbol of St. James. Or they would go to St Andrews, to visit the bones brought to Kilrymont by St Rule, or to Ynys Enlli, as Bardsey Island is properly called, in the language of heaven, where twenty thousand saints of the Celtic Church lie buried, so that to the Christian soul, three pilgrimages there were worth one to Rome. Or to Canterbury, as witness Geoffrey Chaucer, or to Rome, or to Jerusalem.

And those much slower journeys, each one claiming a much greater proportion of a lifetime than us spending hours in a car going to a new holiday destination, would no doubt be inflected with thoughts and mutters and grumbles along the lines of “This must be it!”


The Wise Men in Matthew’s story aren’t quite on a pilgrimage. Their goal isn’t a place, but an event. And there’s nothing but the celestial sign they’re following to tell them that they’ve got there. We read the story, and we reflect on their open-ended journey of trust, trust that they are being led to something that they don’t dare not pursue, trust, too, that they will somehow know what it is they are seeking when they come across it.

Small wonder that “following the star” – subtly transformed into “following your star” – has become such a cliché in our culture. I suspect that the demand for “religious” Christmas cards – ones with images drawn from the Biblical Nativity stories – has increased over the last few years. It’s maybe because people of faith have, on principle, asserted a demand, and their spending-power has led the market; maybe, too, because the Christmas Story is, when all’s said and done, a vaster store of appealing images than Santa and Frosty the Snowman between them.

But I do also seem to note that far and away the most prevalent Biblical images on Christmas cards are to do with the Wise Men and their star. “Following the star” seems so symbolic of an open quest for truth and meaning, of a yearning for these things, of the religious curiosity of a society that has turned its back on pre-packaged answers, but is still powerfully drawn to the questions.

Three silhouettes of men on camels, headed into the picture on the front of the card, along lines of perspective that converge on a star hovering over the horizon… You will surely have received several variants on that theme this Christmas.


So here’s a wee bit of homework. When you get home, after you’ve had your lunch, dig out a couple. Look at them carefully. Let your thoughts play over the images of people questing for a truth they don’t have yet, willing to follow where it leads.

And then, I’d like you to try something more subversive. I’d like you to imagine word balloons – those things they use in cartoons to indicate speech – over the head of each wise man, saying things like “Are we there, yet?” and “This must be it…”

Because if we are going to identify honestly with the Wise Men in this story, we have to do something like that. There are times when the journey of faith is something we get bored with. When we wonder if we aren’t going the long way round, if we couldn’t chance a short-cut. When, perhaps most dangerously of all, we finally come across something that looks like a promising stopping-off point and think that this might be journey’s end. That we can stop here.

This must be it 2

“This MUST be it!”

That’s what we human beings are like.

And that’s what the Wise Men are like. It’s there in the story. They come to Herod.

Why? Well, presumably because his palace is on their route. Their heavenly sign takes them right past it.

And they see a palace, with a king in it, coming up on their route, and what’s more natural than to say “This MUST be it!”

And they stop following their star. Something else kicks in. Suddenly, their open-ended quest, their willingness to be led, their readiness to be surprised, the things that have led them from Persia to Palestine, all fall away. The amazing intellectual humility that’s the mark of all true wisdom, the willingness to say “I don’t know!” and to follow it up with “Let’s find out!” – all this evaporates.

Four words. “This MUST be it!”

It’s a palace. It’s a no-brainer! He’ll be in there!

Expectation. The assumption that we know how the world works. Perhaps, too, the assumption that we’ve done enough travelling, and done enough questioning and wondering, and we’ve earned journey’s end.



There’s something awfully endearing about the naiveté of the Wise Men. They come into the heart of Herod the Great’s power-crazed, paranoid, sick regime, because they think that the hope of all the world is to be found there. In the very palace of old power, and disappointed hopes, and sameold-sameold. They couldn’t have come to a more worldly, compromised, cynical place to look for hope for the world!

And terribly dangerous as well. We regularly stop the story of the Wise Men too early. We detach it from the story of the Massacre of the Innocents, because if we took that too seriously, we’d get dreadfully uncomfortable.

This year, of all years, we have to take it seriously. This Christmas was the one that followed so closely on the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. This Christmas was one in which the horror of a massacre of the innocents was all too unbearably real. But then, were we to poke behind the really very restricted view of the real world that our news media allow us to have, we would find plenty of cause to return to this theme each Christmas – and not to stray too far from it in between. This is the world into which Christ was born. We may choose not to live in it, along with those whose lives it hurts and shatters – but God doesn’t.

This is the world into which God was born. The world into which God comes, to turn everything upside down, and set us free. The weakness and vulmerability of the Christ Child connects directly with the total powerlessness of the young man dead on the cross, at the other end of the same story. Except not the end. Because that’s where everything is, finally stood on its head.

That’s our faith.

And that’s why the Wise Men had to go to Jerusalem, to Herod, before they came to Bethlehem, and to Jesus. The distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, between Herod and Jesus, is for them the final distance between illusion and the truth. The jolly old buffer, who hides his paranoid wrath well enough to convince them that he only wants to go and worship this new child-king himself, seems to run the world, or at least this corner of it – how could these good, high-minded people imagine what he was capable of? His palace is a happ’nin’ place, where it’s at, where things are decided and power flexes its muscles. Doesn’t that look a lot like the kind of reality you’d be mad not to take seriously? A few days later, and the real meaning of their encounter with Herod becomes that part of the Christmas story we are usually far too uncomfortable to look at.

“This MUST be it!”

But it’s not. And, God bless them, they start their journey again.



In fact, in many ways, the journey of the Wise Men really starts at this point, where they recognize that this isn’t it. And it isn’t just that they aren’t quite as near to their goal as they thought; at this point, they could hardly be further from it. Their real journey isn’t the hundreds of miles from Persia to Jerusalem. It’s the handful of miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, from Herod to Jesus, when, finally and completely, they recognize that looking for God in the expected places, the places of power and influence, is stupidity.

They re-start their journey. They start following the star again, and won’t stop until it tells them, somehow, when they’ve got there.

And that, surely, is the point. They recognize what they’ve been brought to see, when they drop their expectations. When they regain their readiness to be surprised, and to be forced to rethink everything they thought they knew. When they put aside the old, comfortable frameworks of thought, and allow their understanding to be shaped by what God puts in front of them. Not absolute power, but extreme powerlessness. That’s where God is.


Oh, by the way – Happy New Year!

Have you made any resolutions?

Have you broken any resolutions yet?

Was this year meant to be a journey into a brave new world, in which you would be a different person, living a new life in a new way?


At any event, you can’t have missed all the adverts on television for nicotine patches, diet meals, exercise DVDs, slimming clubs…

I’m not knocking any of these things. These are important and admirable things to be doing, and we need to support everyone we know who’s engaged in trying to make a difference to the way they live their lives.

But the awful power of old patterns and old ways makes it desperately hard, sometimes. And we despair, because we think nothing will ever change. Our sense, as human beings, of captivity to things we know shouldn’t hold us captive, is more than just depressing. It feels like a symptom of a deep unfreedom. It is.

And that’s really the issue. And it’s an immense issue, because it shapes our world. Despair. Captivity to old patterns, on every scale, from our desultory attempts to change our own lives by our own strength, to the ancient patterns of fear, suspicion and hatred that shape global politics, to our hatred of the ways our world makes life so hard for so many, and our inability as a human family to do anything about it. Captivity. Complicity. Despair.

Reflect on that strange moment in the story of the Wise Men, when they came to Jerusalem, to Herod’s Palace, and thought

“This MUST be it!”

The end of the journey. Mission accomplished.

But it wasn’t. In fact –and this is how faith works – it never is.

There’s one other detail we usually overlook in this story. The Christ Child in the house wasn’t the end of the journey for the Wise Men. They couldn’t just retrace their steps. The episode in Herod’s palace saw to that. They had to go home by another way. Every step of the way home is part of a new and unfamiliar journey for them now.

So too for us. 2013 is likely to be a difficult year for all sorts of reasons, for all of us. I won’t depress you all by talking about economic prospects! The whole world is in a difficult place.

But here’s the strange thing. In a world like that, “This MUST be it!” is hardly good news! And faith says “This isn’t it! We can’t stop here!” Because we’re on a journey. We aren’t home yet, we aren’t there yet, and every step of the journey is new to us.

But as time begins to flow again, after the holidays, and the second week of January beckons us, we look back to Christmas, and, like the Wise Men, reflect on what we saw.

Christ for the World.

God with us, in all of this. And God as the destination of all things, in Christ.

“This MUST be it?” No, we’re not there yet. And thank God for that.

not there yet


  1. Great insights! True Ephinanies, but I was so hoping that you would continue the text. The Wise Men’s dream to not go back by to see Herod. Did they share it with Joseph? Did they warn Joseph’s neighbors, so they could tell the parents with toddlers and babies? Apparently not. But, the Wise Men were safe. And that’s all that mattered.

  2. Thanks! I suppose, though, that a sermon can only be SO long…! And I wanted to concentrate on the danger that, even when we think we are open to God’s radical leading, we can be ambushed by our expectations, and, when we reach a point that fits in with our preconceptions and prejudices, stop listening any more.

    You did set me thinking, though. The dream in the text is clearly God’s communication, but I’ve never understood it as amounting to more than “Don’t go back – and go home another way!”

    It’s Mary and Joseph who get “tipped off” in the text, and they are only told that Herod wants to kill THEIR child.

    It’s the Wise Men’s following of the instructions in the dream that catalyzes the Massacre of the Innocents: verse 16: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men.”

    It seems to me that the Massacre of the Innocents is framed by Matthew as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, which he quotes. That’s what shapes the way the text is expanded from a tradition that Magi visted the baby Jesus to the subtle and complicated story of Mt 2.

    Unfortunately – and I think this is what you pick up on very accurately – it also generates a story in which the God who calls the Magi from the east, and brings them to the “house” where the baby Jesus is, and warns them not to go back to Herod, and then warns Joseph to flee to Egypt with his family, DOESN’T intervene to save the children whose death comes about because of Herod’s reaction to being “tricked.”

    I think that’s a conception of God that raises lots of questions – thanks for spotlighting that.

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