I was listening to a podcast of a programme on Radio 5 Live the other day called ‘Losing my religion’. It featured Irish TV presenter and model Laura Whitmore. She grew up a Roman Catholic but has been questioning the faith of her childhood. The title was as much a question as a statement. Had she already lost her religion, how much persisted and what shape was her evident spirituality taking today? As the programme went on, I was left with a sense that what she was really experiencing was a coming of age, where she wanted a faith that fitted contemporary understandings, that could cope with complexity and uncertainty. Narrow and simplistic answers were just not doing it for her, and they don’t do it for me either. I couldn’t help thinking that if she came in here she would find a ready home of enquiring and thoughtful faith, one which takes the 21st century seriously with a spirituality and faith that can cope with, even embrace wholeheartedly, science, philosophy and the honest presence of uncertainty where some questions don’t get fully answered. Here the spiritual is expressed in language which doesn’t confine, but rather expresses for us glimpses of the vastness and greater scope of a creator. The mystery is bigger.
During the programme Laura Whitmore spoke to an alternative spiritual guide who talked about a spiritual pathway to help with climbing the ladder to reach the divine. The implication was that we have to go in search of God and it is through our efforts, through climbing spiritual ladders, that we find God, as if God is playing a game of hide and seek, sitting in an out of the way mountainside, high above. If these practices and methods are followed God, the divine, comes into view and within reach. We need to know the right techniques and hit the right buttons to know how to ascend the spiritual ladder. There are many people in the spiritual market place offering programmes and techniques to deepen our awareness and help us rise up the mystical ladder. This idea of a ladder to climb is the opposite of what Christianity teaches.
Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany. This is when the wise men called by with their gifts for the infant Jesus. The wise travellers had set out on an incredible journey, guided by a star which made them wonder. They set off to find, but the God they searched for had already made himself known. Far from hiding, far from being up high, he was there in the child in the manger. And just in case they couldn’t work out where he was, there was a great big star in the sky; the equivalent of a flashing arrow pointing down over where the Christ-child was waiting for them. Today with them we open our treasure boxes and lay the symbols of life before the Christ-child, the divine coming close to us, rather than expecting us to get close to him. Today and indeed over the whole of this Christmas to Candlemas season, when we particularly reflect on all of this, the Christian faith says something very different to the spiritual ladder guides about how we find God. It is not down to our efforts, to follow clues if we can just decipher them to find the right practices to open up the mystery. God is not playing hide and seek, not making it hard for us to find him. Quite the contrary, this season gives us a story where God comes to us, breaks open the heavens and turns out to be much closer than we thought.
This goes much deeper. The presence of God in the midst of life means that we don’t find spiritual fulfillment in escaping the world. In fact we will find that the deeper we go into real living the more we find God present and made known to us. The world is God’s creation and so there is something profoundly spiritual and divine in the material, in the substance of matter. Because we know that everything has a finite time to it, then for God to bother with this means that there is something of the inner purpose of God in the world and in the created-nature of the world. This is a deep expression of what John’s Gospel refers to as ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. The Word that was in the beginning, and through whom everything that there is came into being, the product of this is a deep expression of the heart of God (John 1). This is mind-blowing and yet at the same time this is the only kind of God worth bothering with and who has anything worth hearing to say to us in the midst of life. Epiphany shines a light on the divine within the material, where we are now, present and not hiding.
So when we want to find God, we don’t go digging on other planets, seeking what we can see beyond the stars, but we look more deeply at where we are and who we are. A great former Archbishop of Canterbury, and author of the welfare state, William Temple described Christianity as being the most materialistic of all religions because God is in the midst of us, the spiritual comes close. He is made known to us and ‘making known’ is the meaning of the word Epiphany.
Some of this came home to me when astrophysicist and theologian David Wilkinson gave a talk in the Cathedral last year on science and faith. The vastness of the cosmos, the fragility and transitory-ness of life and the universe – it has a beginning and will have an end – this raised the very natural question of why the divine would bother with something time bound when God is eternal. Big questions arise when following stars. The far side of the moon is being explored and NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has flown past Ultima Thule, a lump of rock 4 billion miles away. As we reflect on these mind-expanding missions, that God bothers with our planet and human life, is a wonder. There is something about our transitory existence that reveals something very deep about the purposes and passion of God.
The wise men capture this in their journey, in their worship, in their gifts. Gold is a precious metal, valued and it has been the basis of trading for millennia. It brings our striving, our planning, our creativity and the business of getting on with life to the crib, to be laid before the origin and purpose of this activity. Frankincense, a sweet smelling resin, is burnt to freshen the air, rise as a symbol of prayer and give a sense of mystery to worship. It raises our aspirations beyond the mundane and in the ordinary invites us to look so much deeper in order to find there the presence and purpose of God. Myrrh is a compound with wide-ranging healing properties. It is for embalming, it is for curing, it is an anesthetic. So with myrrh we bring the pain and passion, the very things that make us human and not just robots or biological accidents. This is what separates us from artificial intelligence and leads to so much creativity, sense of urgency and ultimate sense of dependency on God.
So today we join with the magi, as they gather at the infant Jesus, offer their gifts, and with them rejoice that God comes close to us, we find God by looking more deeply where we are, rather than through special techniques. God is made known by God making God-self known, not by our efforts and questing. The wonder of mystery may call us to go looking, but only because God has already come close, indeed the created universe is the product of this coming close. The spiritual quest is not to find a hidden God but to get us into a place where we can notice what is at our feet all along. So if you want to find God or grow spiritually, you will do this by looking deeply into where you are, into life as it is and be surprised by the star light shining, because God is already present and waiting for us.
Sermon for Epiphany, preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 6th January 2019