Reflection and Prayers 3 January 2021
Led by Iestyn Henson
CALL TO WORSHIP Isaiah 60:1-6
In our services during Advent, we spent time looking forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus by looking back at his genealogy. It was an interesting short series, and one in which I hope we came to a renewed appreciation of some of the history and traditions of the biblical background to the nativity.
As a strategy or technique, in literature as in life, reviewing what’s gone before is a sound way of preparing for what’s to come. Think for a moment of a TV drama serial – before the opening credits you’ll often have a short section of ‘flashback scenes’ to remind you where we are in the story, and the key points of how we got there. And then, if any of you have ever prepared an annual report, or been asked to come up with strategies for future developments, one of the key considerations is balancing the ‘looking back’ (and the lessons learnt from the past) with the ‘looking forward’ and planning for future action.
In fact, whether consciously or not, balancing our past and our future, is something we are doing all the time, because, arguably, relatively little of our lives is lived in the present. We are forever remembering what has gone before in order to plan properly for the future – it’s natural and it’s ordinary – and some would argue that this ability to look ahead because we can look back is one of the things which makes us distinctly human.
The New Year is one of those times when we do this consciously in many ways. Generally speaking, we like to reflect on the year that has just gone, and look forward to the coming year, wishing each other well, ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘Blwyddyn Newydd Dda’! It is a quirk of our history, and perhaps our geography, that our New Year starts in January – as Dr Who fans will tell you, time is a bit more wibbly-wobbly than that. As other cultures show us, not to mention our academic calendar or our tax returns, a New Year can be marked on dates other than 1st January. Nevertheless, it makes sense to us, that New Year coincides with the days starting to get longer, so that ‘mid year’ is when we see most daylight and experience most warmth.
The calendar year of 2020 which has just ended will inevitably be one which is scruitinised in the greatest detail – indeed, it already has been, and I’m sure that historians and social commentators alike will bring their professional viewpoints to bear on future generations, just as we have our own stories to tell. Such reflection however must be balanced with an appropriate look forward. In public life, we rely on our politicians to learn from what has gone before, to best plan for the year ahead, whether in matters of public health, economy, international relations now wholly outside the EU, or other pressing concerns such as the climate and flood defence. More privately, our lives changed in 2020, and may never be the same again – we too must learn from that if we are to plan for the future as best we can.
As I expect you know, this week will mark the end of the Christmas period, with the celebration of the feast of Epiphany on Wednesday. It’s a more significant day in some Christian traditions than in our own, but we are going to observe it in our own way this morning by hearing again Matthew’s account of the visit of the Magicians. As we listen to this, think about the balance between looking back – our remembering the stories – and the elements where looking forward are important, whether that’s ancient prophesy or future planning.
READING: Matthew Chapter 2:1-15
Earlier this week, whilst browsing ‘Christmas Specials’ on one of our hundred and fifty TV channels (!) I stumbled across a BBC2 ‘Sky at Night’ programme, looking at the various theories surrounding the Star of Bethlehem. From both a scientific and historical point of view, the presenters examined each theory in turn, before giving their honest and best opinion as to which of the theories is most plausible, mindful that they are still only theories, and no-one can be absolutely sure. I won’t bore you with the detail, you must look it up yourself (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMMkWvGz9jI) but there aren’t just one or two but seven serious ideas – with Monty Python’s aliens from another planet relegated to its proper position, as the jokey eighth!
The theories include meteors and shooting stars, they include the conjunction of planets, as we might have seen this last month if it had only stopped raining, they include the observation of the death of a far off star, and the perennial favourite, a comet. And they are all plausible, not just because of what we know today of stars, space and physics, but also because the records from 2000 years ago are not limited to Matthew’s gospel. There is significant and reliable evidence from the middle east and (best of all) from China that there was most certainly an observable celestial event which was visible for several months in about the year 4 BCE. We know too that ancient civilisations regarded the sky at night as important to life here on earth. For a start, the monthly and annual cycles of the night sky were used to set our calendars; the earth’s position in relation to the sun is, after all, responsible for our seasons. And ‘one off’ events were likewise regarded as significant. If, as we might suppose, the Magicians mentioned by Matthew were Zoroastrian, this would indeed have been incorporated into their religious thinking as well as their culture and society.
And so, without affording Matthew’s account the status of a history book or objective news report, we can nevertheless say that Matthew Chapter 2 most certainly rings true, from both an astrological and cultural point of view, and the timing is just about spot on too, if we take the Chinese account which is exactly 2024 years old. Whatever the star was (and after an hour of so of debate, the comet just about came out on top for the experts), what we can say is that this was something which made humankind take notice and record. Like much mythology, lurking in the background was the germ of something real and something important.
But if the stars and the planets in movement were terms of reference for Chinese historians or middle eastern soothsayers, Matthew’s terms of reference were somewhat different. For Matthew, consistently and with preoccupation which borders on the obsessional, the meaning of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is framed by the ancient scriptures of the people of Israel. For those who want to count, Matthew quotes what we now call the Old Testament over 60 times, and at least 20 of those are directly Messianic references. For Matthew, or for the editorial team which attributed the gospel to him (it almost certainly wasn’t the apostle Matthew who wrote the whole lot), putting the Jesus story in the context of ancient prophesy is fundamental, for they were writing for a predominantly Jewish audience. The language, the structure, the argument, are all steeped in Jewish culture and tradition, and these things are some of the most noteworthy when comparing this synoptic Gospel with those of Mark and Luke; it’s not so much the content, but the treatment of it which is so very Jewish.
Now, there are some who would cast doubt on some of the material which is to be found only in Matthew – including the story of the Magi and their gifts. The thinking is a sort-of inverse logic: Matthew, being preoccupied with prophesy, simply writes stories which fit the expectations. The flight to Egypt is a case in point – outside the reference to prophesy which we heard, it doesn’t make much sense. Of course, this is entirely possible, but given that there were plenty of stories of Jesus circulating, and plenty of other references to use, I’m not sure why Matthew would make something up. Added to which, here we have a story of the visitors from other nations, and no sign whatsoever of Matthew quoting Isaiah 60 – the bit where we get the Kings and Camels from – and this despite the mention of gold and incense. It seems to me that whatever story Matthew had received, he wasn’t about to change it for the sake of this prophesy; (with tongue in cheek) never mind, say that nativity play writers, we can always change it later …..
Linking this to our introduction, I want to suggest to you that what Matthew does with the story of the magicians, and for that matter with many others in his account, is to undertake the sort of ‘looking back review’ that we continue to do today. Matthew has received not only stories of the life and times of Jesus, but is steeped in the history and tradition of the people of Israel. And so Matthew looks back, and says that now we have a fuller picture of the context, there are lessons to be learnt. Most obvious from that is that Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was the Messiah promised by the ancient prophets: “here’s what they said, here’s how that fits to the story”.
But I think Matthew is doing much more than simply playing a game of ‘told you so…’, because the real message is one of continuity, and of saying to the people of Israel that Jesus, and therefore these Christians who follow his teaching are genuine and legitimate people of God, in their ancient understanding of that. We’ve wondered before whether Jesus had any intention of founding a new religion – it’s unlikely, on balance. For Matthew, there’s no question: Jesus fulfills God’s promise to God’s people. Matthew can say this because he has done the review properly – he’s taken a look back, and then has gone back some more, joined up the dots and drawn us to his conclusion.
At which point in an online Sunday reflection, I start to wonder how might I stand any chance of doing the same, with about five minutes to go……
Mulling all this over during the week, it struck me that like all good reviews, what we have here points to both risks and rewards; there are certainly lessons which we can learn from Matthew’s approach, positively and negatively. Let’s leave the positive to last – so we can finish on a high.
What are the dangers or risks of this review approach? I think there are two, which are related. The first is to forget that for all his looking back, Matthew was writing in the present and for the present. Whilst it’s great to think that here we are 2000 or so years later, still reading these books and pondering their meaning, I doubt very much that Matthew or many of the other New Testament writers had us in mind in the process. In stark contrast to more ancient religious texts, the books we call the ‘New Testament’ are relatively light on ‘prophesy’ – and indeed, even the most overtly prophetic book of our canon, the Book of Revelation, bears something of a health warning, in that, as Martin Luther observed “Christ is neither taught nor known in it”…(see https://gervatoshav.blogspot.com/2009/02/martin-luthers-preface-to-revelation-of.html). Which leads to the second danger, which is to forget that in Christ – birth, life, death and resurrection, the Kingdom of God, or God’s New World is already here. In plain language, but hopefully not controversially for the good people of Pontypridd and Treforest, Christian traditions which point towards second coming, judgment and all that, miss the very point which Matthew and the whole of the New Testament makes. In the present tense, in the here and now, a child is born, a son is given, Immanuel, God is with us.
Those are the risks: forgetting that the Gospel is for the here and now, and failing to behave accordingly.
Ah….but there are also rewards to the review approach we’ve looked at today, because as ever, there are always ideas and encouragements, always pointers. I’ll remind you that Matthew is concerned with continuity, with convincing his readership that we all inherit the promises of the ancients, in and through Jesus. And we can still draw on that continuity, not so that things always stay the same, but so that we keep sight of the Good News. After all, like the magicians, we too are ‘nations drawn to the light’ (even if we don’t travel by camel). So we too can have confidence to review what has gone before in order to know the good news in the here and now, and thus plan for the future too.
Going back to Matthew’s second chapter for a moment, I wonder if, like me, you have often wondered about the two dreams at the end of the passage we heard? First the magicians, and then Joseph receive a warning, relating to the thread coming from Herod, and the way it’s written has always seemed to indicate that the changes of plans and direction were very much last minute – Joseph in particular, who we are told got up and left during the night. Of course, it may well have happened exactly like that – a very sudden realisation of the true nature of the danger, and a need to act swiftly and decisively. This is speculation, of course, but I think it equally likely that the magicians and Joseph (Mary too, I’d like to think) had more time together than the few minutes it might take to hand over a gift or three. And surely in conversation, they would have spoken about the detour to the palace, their impressions of Herod, their suspicions of his capabilities? If so, dreams may well have been that experience of thinking on a problem overnight, of ‘sleeping on it’; if they were anything like us today, contemplation may have naturally gone hand in hand with seeking God’s guidance through a knotty problem. I’m not sure that dreams and prayers are that far apart.
And through this then, we see the rewards of reviewing our experience when deciding what to do next; sleeping on it, praying about it, dreaming about it, being guided by God, whether taking our time to decide what to do next, or being ready to react and respond with more urgency, as circumstance dictates.
I want to finish by explaining why I’ve not chosen a nativity hymn to end the service (mindful that if we were meeting as a regular service, I’d not have to think in terms of either/or!). I thought long and hard about this, and from an early point in the planning, I decided that a hymn looking forward to the new year would be more suited and more appreciated than a final Christmas carol, almost for the sake of it. If you are in any way disappointed by that, then I can but apologise. At certain times of the year, and in many different circumstances however, I’m not the only one for whom ‘One more step’ is a ‘go to’ song – I’m not even the only one in our family who counts it as a favourite, and Isobel doesn’t even know that she effectively chose it this morning in a throwaway comment last weekend. But it most definitely fits with Epiphany, it fits with New Year, it fits with everything that is going on and around in our lives at the moment. It encompasses all the timelessness of God, older than the world, younger than a baby in a crib, wrapped up for us in the inevitability of challenge and change. In and through Sydney Carter’s words, we’ll pray together for the conviction of those travellers from the east, finding light and life wherever we go.
We’re going to pray a short series of prayers, with a brief period of silence in between each, for private prayer and reflection.
Let us pray together:
Loving God, we come now with our prayers for your people and your world, in conversation, to listen as we speak. Help us to be open to your call, as we continue travelling to meet you, together following your bright light.
We pray this morning for your people as the world turns again to its new year. We know that as well as being a time of looking forward, of anticipation, it can also be a time of difficulty, of worry and concern. We pray for all those who are apprehensive about the year to come; for those who are unwell or fear illness, for those having treatment at home or in hospital, for those concerned about their jobs or livelihood. We pray especially this morning for those who are lonely, for those who find any form of lockdown difficult, and for those who have lost loved ones during the past year. In a moment of quiet, we name those of our families, our fellowship and our community.
We pray this morning for key workers, for those we rely on during the current pandemic. We pray and give thanks especially for our National Health Service and all those who work in care. May we appreciate fully their role, and how their service is a living example of the values we hold dear. May we do what we can to support each other, and show each other love during the year ahead.
We pray for our leaders, in political life and within our community. We know that the decisions they take are almost unbearably difficult, and that balancing social, welfare, health and economic concerns cannot please us all of the time. But we pray that they take decisions with compassion, with care, and with a sense of justice for all.
We pray also for leadership during these times of change. We pray especially for leadership across the European continent, that despite changes to relationships, mutual respect and cooperation will be maintained. We pray also for the political and social leaders of the United States of America, as they transition to new presidency, and that the new year will be marked by a time of reconciliation and healing.
And finally, Loving God, we pray for ourselves. We pray that in this new year we can be true to ourselves, and true to our faith in you, the source of light, life and love. If we have made new year resolutions, with pray for strength to keep our promises, to others and to ourselves. And if we are just continuing our journey, we pray for help in following your light.
All this we pray in the name of Jesus, who welcomes us to follow, as he did the travellers of old.
HYMN: One more step along the world I go