Magi’s Gifts: Restoring balance with hope and thanksgiving

magi

About a decade ago various groups came up with the smart idea of looking ahead and thinking what would life be like in 2020. They went on to ask what they needed to do in order to be ready for this and then the next stage was to plan the route to get there. They called this having 2020 vision, which was not only the target date but also a play on the Optician’s perfect score for eyesight, having 2020 vision – seeing clearly the road ahead. On a good day I have it with my glasses on, on a bad day, when my eyes are tired, or the lenses need cleaning, it’s not quite so clear – and that is probably a good metaphor for vision setting too. 2020 is a date that has been in the distance for such a long time, but here we are, in the words of the SatNav voiceover, we have arrived at our destination. I don’t know what you thought 2020 would look like, but this is it. 

The future is very difficult to predict and I think we would all find it rather hard to crystal ball gaze 10 years ahead from where we are now. The pace of change is so fast and so unpredictable that we need to set our sights a bit closer in front of us.  The best way to plan is, of course, to have a good sense of what it is we think we are here for, to be clear on purpose and for those of us of faith, of the faith of Jesus Christ, it is to be someone whose life is governed and guided by the good news of the gospel. How does the story of our faith inspire, ignite and give insight into what we do? 

Just before Christmas I came across a spiritual discipline for reflecting at the end of the day, and it rather appealed to me. It was to sit quietly and asked three questions:

  • What has troubled me today,
  • Where have I seen a glimpse of glory and 
  • What do I hope for tomorrow?

What has troubled me, distressed me, been of concern? Where has the glint of sunlight broken through the clouds and made me aware of God’s loving presence and helped me see signs of God’s blessing? Looking to tomorrow, not ten years time or 20 years time, but simply what is my hope for tomorrow? If you are a journaller you can write this down, and according to mental health guides, this is a good way of helping with wellbeing. After I have downloaded the day, I have started asking myself these three things: what has troubled me, where have I seen glimpses of glory and what do I hope for tomorrow.

The other day I went through the photographs I’ve taken over the past decade and put together a selection. Looking back over these made me aware of the moments of God’s goodness blessing, things I had overlooked or forgotten. We are, according to an article I read on New Year’s Day, hardwired to see the negative because it is a defence mechanism. So spotting the blessings, the glimpses of glory and moments to be thankful for, was quite revelatory and restorative. 

These three questions fit with the three gifts brought by the wise guides who came calling on the infant Jesus which we remember today as we celebrate the Epiphany. Opening their treasure boxes they brought out gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Or to fit this reflective tool, in reverse, gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. 

Myrrh, as we know, is the medicinal compound. It heals, it cleanses, it soothes. It is perfect for the things that have troubled or distressed us. God brings to these healing and peace. What has troubled you, where do you need myrrh to pour over it and cleanse, soothe and heal? Each day will bring pains, small and great. It can be that these are the easiest part of the day to bring into the open, so the first treasure box to spring open. But we open it to seek God’s healing, possibly forgiveness, certainly grace. What has troubled you? What do you need myrrh for?

Frankincense, the sweet smelling odour of worship and adoration, brings us to bow down in worship. It is the perfect symbol for the glimpses of glory, for the moments when thanksgiving burst into song. It might be the catch on this box is a bit stiff and we have to ease it open so that we can see it, but persist, keep at it because there will be a gift in the day somewhere. Hard as it may be, it will be there. The film director Ridley Scott used the industrial landscape of Teeside’s chemical works as the inspiration for the opening shots of his 1982 film Bladerunner. He said, as he walked along the scene he found, there was a beauty in the darkness. In the most unpromising of places there can be signs of glory and blessing. It might be of course that this box springs open readily, and the signs of blessing are clear and easy. The song flows from a heart that is filled with joy. Be thankful for those signs, they are the gift to lift the heart and see us through the hours. Where have there been glimpses of glory? Where is the incense to burn for sweet fragrance of awe and wonder, worship and wellbeing?

Gold is money and money makes things happen. One of the desires many of us have, ambitions if you like, is to make a difference. The church is called to do this, to be an agent of God’s grace and sign of his Kingdom. Our hope for tomorrow, whatever timescale we have in mind as we look, is to live in the light of God’s kingdom present and active now. In the words of Matthew’s central theme in his gospel, ‘God is with us’, so living in the light of this realisation is all we can desire. What do we hope for tomorrow, what change to  see happen or to see dawning?  This box may have a temperamental catch on it. The temperament may be ours – glass half full or half empty and how you see that will depend on whether you think you’ve drunk half and enjoyed it or drunk half so you’ve nearly run out! Having hope for tomorrow is the reason we get up. The day is worth embracing because there is hope in it. Find that and we might find we face the day with more of a spring in our step. The most important hope is that God is with us, his presence brings purpose and a point, we are part of his loving holding of all that there is, and so we can walk in confidence that whatever, we are held. More down to earth we may well want something more tangible, a sign of hope where the new day brings promise. What do you hope for with the new day? What is the gold you bring?

So at the dawn of a New Year, I commend a reflective practice which helps us face the pain and trouble, embrace the glory and blessing, and walk on in hope and joyful expectation. Around  this church in the city centre, high up on the surrounding buildings, there are three characters, Anthony Gormley’s statues – one is looking, one has arms outstretched, and one is walking: looking to face the troubles, arms outstretched embracing the glory and blessing, and walking in hope into the new day. Our three magi in the city centre with their myrrh, frankincense and gold. All held in the overarching purpose of God, in whose love we live and move and have our being. These three magi can help us restore our 2020 vision, to get life into balance with hope and thanksgiving.

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 5th January 2020

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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