walking The Way In the Light: Celebrating New Relationships
Living in a multi- cultural society can be exciting and inspiring. It can also be challenging and confusing.
Matthew, who wrote down the story of the wise men following the star was a Jew, who had become a Christian and was trying to reconcile the two faiths. It was exciting and inspiring. It was also challenging and confusing.
For Matthew it was not a case of either/or: “Jew is Jew and Christian is Christian and never the twain shall meet.” For Matthew, Jesus was the fulfilment of his people’s hopes. He was the Messiah promised by Jewish prophets hundreds of years earlier. And Matthew seldom lost an opportunity of saying so. If you look through his Gospel, you will find Old Testament (Jewish scripture) quotations inserted all over the place. “This happened to fulfil what the prophet said….” “As it is written in the scriptures…” (It is a bit like Del-boy in Only Fools and Horses who, whenever he wanted to give his brother Rodney some good advice, prefaced it with the words “Mum said to me on her deathbed…”) Matthew wants to give the story of Jesus Christ authenticity.
He is the only one of the Gospel writers to tell the story of the Magi, which means that he must have had a strong reason for doing so. Why did he think that his people needed to hear this story? Most scholars suggest that this passage from the Jewish prophet Isaiah was his inspiration: (read together)
“Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you; your sons come from afar, and your daughters are carried on the hip.
Then you will look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. “(Isaiah 60, 1-6)
What can you see in this passage that puts you in mind of the story of the Magi? (light/ people coming from afar/ gold and incense/ kings)
We can see some definite links. So what was Matthew trying to tell his people, the Jews? What was he also trying to tell his new fellow Christians who were not Jews? And what has this story got to say to us at the start of 2020 in the UK?
The most obvious point is that people of all cultures have spiritual needs and longings. The foreign kings who followed the star in Matthew’s story represent the foreigners Isaiah had spoken of, who would seek and follow the light of God. There was a powerful truth there for Matthew’s people: they did not have a monopoly on God. They were not the only people with genuine faith.
This is also powerful truth for those of us who make up the UK church today. We are not the only people seeking God. Organised religion may indeed be in what looks like a steep decline, but deep spiritual need is still present in huge numbers of people who never come near a church.
Might this story then, be about the creation of new relationships? Matthew and other leaders in the early church faced the huge challenge of bringing Jews, Christians and people of other cultures together to worship God.
We face a similarly huge challenge of bringing the “church” and the “unchurched” together to worship God. Can this story help?
Look at the passage from Isaiah again. It is beautiful language and inspiring imagery. You can just see pictures of people walking out of the darkness and into the light.
But when I read it, I found a slight uneasiness at the back of my mind. Is there an element of national and religious “superiority” coming across? These foreigners will come to you because you have everything right and they have everything wrong. They will bring their tributes- precious gifts from their lands to give to yours. All the wealth of land and sea will belong to you.
This might not be what Isaiah means here but unfortunately there is a lot of this thinking in the Old Testament: you are the chosen people and it is God’s will that you should rule the world.
Relationships in which one party wants control over the other are doomed to fail. We know that. We see it in family relationships, where a controlling partner or parent ends up estranging or destroying the other. We see it in business, in politics, in religion, in international relationships: people will not put up indefinitely with being controlled. It goes against our basic human nature and until bullying world leaders are prepared to accept this truth, we shall never know world peace. And it may well be that, until people of faith learn humility and relinquish their need for control, organised religion will never succeed in introducing the “unchurched” to God.
It is true that the desire to control can spring from a genuine longing to keep vulnerable people safe and from a compassionate desire to offer swift and straightforward solutions to complex questions and situations. It can spring from a wisdom or an expertise that truly does know what is best for the people concerned.
It is just that control reflects our own insecurity. We are afraid of life. We are afraid of being alone. We are afraid of change and of loss. And so, we try to keep what we love, including people, under our control. It does not help them because they are being denied their human freedom. It does not help us, because we are locking ourselves as well as them right away from the freedom to explore, to challenge and to change.
Over Christmas I saw a bit of that film from the nineteen-eighties, ”Batteries Not Included;” the one where a little coffee shop is under threat from bully-boy developers and is saved by these weird flying-saucer-type creatures who re-build everything quicker than the bulldozers can knock them down. Far-fetched of course but the character played by Hume Cronyn came up with a memorable line: the quickest way to destroy a miracle is to ask it what it is doing here and where it is going. He is right: once you start trying to get the miraculous under your control, it stops being miraculous.
And relationships- human bonds formed by love- crossing boundaries of age, gender, race and culture- are miracles. We cannot explain love. We cannot even explain what makes human community come about. But the quickest way to destroy these things is to try to control them.
St John started his Gospel with a seriously multi-cultural statement: In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God. The Jewish world, the Greek world and even the Roman world would have known what he meant. “The Word” for each of them was the fundamental meaning at the very heart of life.
Having brought them together, John goes on to state boldly that “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” suggesting that Jesus Christ embodied this fundamental meaning of life. And that Jesus Christ became the means of true life for all; life given by God. Not by me, says John, not by any other person, not because someone else is telling you what to do- this life is given by God so that you may come to know Him and find something of Him in you.
I get to read this passage at the Carol Service each year and it always fills me with a tremendous sense of awe. John is not pounding the pulpit- this is what you need to believe. He is whispering in the face of a miracle - look and see what God has done. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&
How is it that new relationships happen? Generally, when people find a common bond. Like support groups set up for those experiencing similar pain; sport, music, dance, art, nature preservation, animal welfare: interests that draw people together and provide them with an outlet for their gifts and for dealing with stress in their lives; charities set up to make life better for the poorest and most vulnerable; families created initially simply by two people who love each other and it all moves on from there. Again, on television over Christmas, there has been a lot of coverage of various people doing new things together; exploring different skills with men and women they had never met or thought to meet and so many of them express this amazed delight that they have become part of a whole new community they scarcely knew existed.
And these communities can overcome barriers set up by race or culture; by the scars of past hurt; by different ideologies, even by different faiths as people are confronted by the amazing truth that we are all human and that that alone is enough to create a bond. It is “miraculous.” And it is affirming. Perhaps the greatest amazement and delight is seen to come from the realisation that each person has something to give. “I never thought I could do this.” “I never believed in myself before.” “I thought I had nothing worth sharing.”
“To those who believed in him, Christ Jesus gave power to become children of God,” wrote St John. Here was a community formed of men and women whose common desire was to know God and to live a “real” life. Like the Magi they followed their longings, they moved cautiously out of their comfort zones, they made mistakes, experienced disappointments but still kept searching until they found what they had been looking for. And, to their amazement, they found a whole lot more people on the same journey; they found a common desire and a common bond with those from different cultures whom they had never thought to meet; most wonderful of all, they found that they had something to offer, something to share which meant that this new community grew and flourished through their joyful confidence.
It was not about control. It was not about competition to see who was the best. It was, St John said, about the “grace and truth” which came through Jesus Christ. Grace to recognise the truth of our common need; grace to accept the truth of God’s love; grace to believe in the truth of God’s light even in a dark place; grace to follow that light; grace to know the truth that we are that light for the world.
The first step in any new relationship is believing that you have something to offer. If all you can think of is of what you hope to gain and what you need from this person or from this community then we are back to the “control freak zone” again.
Maybe what Matthew was hoping to inspire in his people was the belief that they had something worth sharing with other nations. They had a light and a truth that could bring hope and peace to the world. There was no need for them to engage in power struggles; no need to sulk and withdraw when they felt that their power had gone. They were blessed with the light of God and others would be drawn to that light if they were willing to share it. Not control it; share it.
Over the next few weeks we shall looking at what it means to “Walk the Way of Jesus” in the light; in the good, inspiring places. You might think that there are no good inspiring places in your life right now…. (I often think that) but let’s try believing in God and let’s ask him to lead us to the good, inspiring places where He has something new to show us.
Let’s rediscover our “light”- that which we have to offer to the world.
I know that marching up to total strangers and starting a conversation about religion is not the preferred mode of evangelism for most of us here but do let us remember that there are a vast number of people out there who are despairing, without purpose, struggling to keep going, wondering why they bother with life, needing just one small spark of light to shine for them in a dark place.
And let’s try to engage with a few of them as they cross our path. Not necessarily by talking religion but simply by speaking, finding common ground. Let’s face it, most people have something to say about the weather, Boris Johnson, Brexit and Donald Trump, so there is a start. Let’s ask God each day to lead us to the people who might need a little of our light and at the end of each day, let’s look back and ask whether He did it? We might just be surprised. And we might find that we have a lot more light to give than we ever believed we had.
I should like to finish by sharing a Prayer reflection from the URC prayer handbook for 2020. Written for this Sunday, based on the words of Isaiah, it is by Karen Campbell, a Church related Community Worker. Say it slowly together.
Our hearts hang heavy within our breasts.
A changed and changing religious landscape
And the troubles of the world loom ever large.
What can we do? What shall we do?
Arise! Shine! Your Light has come!
The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Get up. Go out. Make a start.
Believe. I am with you. I always will be.
Lift up your eyes and look for me.
Feel my presence and let your hearts sing.
Shine-so that people will see.
Shine- so the world will know
Do not be subdued nor overwhelmed
For through the clouds my might will shine.
Our light has come.
(Karen Campbell. URC Prayer handbook 2020)