Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 6 January 2019.
The seaward approach to Millport pier is marked by leading marks on the buildings facing the sea so that a vessel entering the harbour may avoid the rocks on either side of the approach.
At night, the leading marks are lit up, so you have to identify the proper lights and then keep them aligned. As part of a coastal skipper test I was given the task of carrying out this approach and then stopping at and securing to a mooring buoy. You may be interested to know that this was done without mishap.
I had to find the correct directions from the navigational chart and convert the true approach bearing to a compass bearing, allowing for variation and deviation. And then I had to follow the course.
The wise men from the east had a star to guide them. They were not sure of their destination or what they would find when they got there. And so they blundered into the court of King Herod and set the whole of Jerusalem into an uproar. And King Herod was not going to be supplanted by any rivals, no matter how elevated the relevant prophecies might be.
And then when they got there, they found a baby – now installed in the house, presumably after the other guests and visitors attending the compulsory registration had departed and Bethlehem was able to resume its sleepy life.
In this way Jesus was shown to the world. He had already been shown to Israel – the shepherds of the field, who went away wondering and glorifying God.
But the while the wise men did fulfil words from Isaiah in bringing gifts of gold and frankincense, in their innocence they went further. Isaiah does not say anything about myrrh, even though in an earlier passage, in chapter 53 he gives exquisite, even excruciating detail about the Suffering Servant.
The wise men were following something of God even when they may not have known it.
But there is something else, for what the world saw though their eyes was a baby, and this has long been celebrated in art: the baby Jesus in His mother’s lap being presented to the 3 wise men.
They did not see the church, or its liturgy or music or the splendour of its architecture.
They did not see its tensions as it wrestled with what the revelation of God in Jesus meant, and how easily it was to be distorted, and then fought over.
They did not see the ambition or posturing or impulse to self-glory, self-promotion, the politics or the simple power struggles.
What they saw was the simplicity of a baby in whom God had placed His being without overwhelming the human senses with the fullness of His glory. Here the humility of God was on display, and the wise men honoured it by presenting Him with myrrh, for healing and in token of coming grief and suffering.
In difficult times this is worth pondering. When the world wants to see Jesus it is shown the church, so what is it to see in the church?
The media wallow in every kind of shortcoming and scandal or hint of one that it can find in the church, its members, structures and especially in its clergy.
And people have never taken too keenly to being bossed about, whether by zealous clergy or come to that, over-weening secular or atheistic authorities or regimes.
So the church – and here I mean its people rather than its structures – is the vision of God that is given to those who seek it.
That means that each of us, perhaps in different measure, one from another, is also a picture of the gospel and an image that others may see and remember.
For some the memory is golden – glorious and wonderful, of the kind that the shepherds took with them when they returned to their flocks. There is a richness and a wonder in the things of God that we are called on to reflect, and it is in who and what we are and become. We may not be aware of it personally but others in the church will see it and discern it.
For others it is a memory of frankincense – a sense of sanctity and holiness. Certainly not showy or self-promoting. More a sense that this person is close to God and we ask him or her for prayers according to our needs. We are all to be people of prayer, raising simple requests to the throne of God on behalf of those who ask it or who for any reason feel inadequate.
For others again it is a service of myrrh – an area of self-giving, often without any kind of recognition, but which points to the total self-giving of Jesus. St Paul described it in terms of life being poured out. And yet St Luke also saw in it that sense in which people maybe personally drained but are still filled and refilled with the Holy Spirit.
All of these are pointers to Jesus and His work of proclaiming the gospel of God’s free reconciliation, all the while as He made his way to the cross, despite all other distractions and temptations. And we are all called to reflect these in one way or another: the glory of gold, the fragrance of incense, the depths and mysteries of suffering and healing.