Aligning heaven and earth

SERMON 

St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly 

The Feast of Epiphany 

Sunday 5 January 2020 

Isaiah 60.1-6 

Psalm 72.1-7,10-14 

Ephesians 3.1-12 

Matthew 2.1-12 

Aligning heaven and earth ©Sue Grimmett 

The sign of a star in the sky is full of symbolic power. Perhaps it is because  in amongst darkness is when they shine the brightest. As in our country  we face catastrophic bushfires which have taken lives and destroyed  habitats, and continue to leave many in fear as the heavens are obscured  by smoke, perhaps the star we find in this story as we celebrate Epiphany  could be a hopeful sign. Images coming from the bushfires are being  frequently described as ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘hell on earth’. In the Gospel story  we have the image instead of heaven and earth aligned. What can we  find in this story of a guiding star and foreign pilgrims and a few strange  gifts to speak to us this day? 

Of course the signs are not interpreted the same way by all the characters  in the Gospel story. The wise ones from the East come filled with joyful  expectation, but the star has the opposite effect on King Herod, who is  filled with murderous intent. The prophetic possibilities are threatening  to his power and control, and the transcendent presence and mystery is  missed, as it always is, by the primal urgency of fear. There is always the  choice available to us, too, to listen to the voice of our fear and turn away  from the visitation of God. 

Where Herod sought to destroy a perceived threat, these wise men  became icons of Gentile perception and receptivity to this unexpected  incursion of the divine. For the writer of Matthew’s Gospel, these visitors  proclaim Jesus as a king whose reign of peace is for the whole earth. They  recognise in the promised child a fulfilment of human longing- that God  and humanity are reconciled. Rejoicing, they give gifts that recognise  Jesus’ identity: gold for a human king, frankincense for divinity and myrrh  foreshadowing his redemptive death. 

Gift-giving can reveal our own nature as well as show our understanding  of the one to whom we offer a gift. We know this instinctively whenever  we scour shops and catalogues for that perfect something for someone  we know well and love dearly. It is a way of making our love of someone  visible.  

G.K Chesterton famously took issue once with Mary Baker Eddy, a  Christian Scientist who told the press that at Christmas she never gave  gifts to friends or family but rather meditated on Truth and Purity so that  her friends would feel the benefit. Chesterton, however, told her roundly  that she was being unchristian because the whole point of the  incarnation was to embody goodwill. Gift-giving is a material way of  expressing relational love: of showing that we know and are known, that  we love and are loved. Christ himself can be seen as a Christmas present,  a human embodiment of divine love.1 

So this Epiphany, where a star and child are in alignment, the question  may be, “How do we become a gift to the world, to bring heaven and  earth into alignment through our lives?” At this time of fear and loss,  where can we find hope? So many in our country are feeling such despair.  Where is our guiding light? 

Just as the choice of gifts by the wise ones from the East were symbolic of  the narrative the Gospel writer is weaving, so too the gifts that we bring  need to be part of a larger narrative. I believe our culture is starved of  narrative and symbol. An individualistic self-focussed culture robs us of  the deeper connection to the great sweep of history and the wider  human story; we all need to find our place in the collective dreaming of  humanity if we to be able to live a life of meaning beyond ourselves and  our short time on earth. Consumerism and hyper-competitive  isolationism will no longer serve us. A culture which has lost its dreaming  will struggle to respond to a crisis such as the one we face now.  

The gifts the magi brought are not only seen as symbols of kingship,  divinity and redemptive death. Poets have found meaning in the gold as  

human virtue, frankincense as prayer and myrrh as a willingness to  sacrifice; three gifts that could shape a courageous life of self-giving love  and bring hope to a fearful world. But a commitment to human virtue, a  life of prayer and self-giving are not the kinds of gifts we talk easily about.  Life is difficult and complex and we find it difficult to live up to our own best selves, aligning our values and our actions: something witnessed to  by the failure of most New Year’s resolutions. So how could can embody  lives of virtue, prayer and self-giving love in the here and now?  

The magi recognised in the child Jesus, the alignment of heaven and  earth, and the only fit response was to worship, offering gifts of love. The  text tells us they were overwhelmed with joy, but soon this story would  bring terror as Herod acts in violence and paranoia, murdering innocent  children. Then, as now, hope sits close to despair. As human beings we  walk through days of darkness, which is why we need to see ourselves as  embodying a greater story that is big enough to carry us through the  times of darkness.  

The greater story of love is that we have been found as we are, in our  violence and confusion, in our failed resolutions and our desire for more. Into this world as it is, a child has been given. In recognising the identity  of the holy one amongst us, we are also given the gift of seeing the divine  all around us- in ourselves, one another and in this earth we call home.  This recognition can come with immense sadness as we feel the pain of  others and the harm done to creation. But it also comes with the  recognition of the sacred ties of relationship that hold us all and a  promise that death does not have the last word. We are enabled to bring  our offerings of acts of kindness, work for justice, the power of  encouraging words, a healing touch and persistent faith to our shared  story- a story that does not begin and end in our single individual life. It is  this collective story which our self-giving God has entered, aligning  heaven with earth and giving us the courage to offer to one another and  the world the gift of ourselves, and in doing so, make love visible. 

Creator God, 

as we witness the tragedy and destruction of bushfires, and grieve all that we have lost, 

Help us to see with fresh appreciation 

The beauty and purpose of all creation. 

Surround those whose loved ones have died 

with your tender compassion. 

Give hope to those whose homes and livelihoods have been lost, courage to those who are facing fires this day 

and strength for those whose energy is failing. 

Inspire in us all generosity and solidarity as we face this crisis together, so that we may with one voice 

lament the devastation and loss 

to all living creatures and habitats. 

May we regard the world with renewed tenderness. 

May we walk gently on this earth, 

and may we bring forth gifts of wisdom 

and healing for our land. 

We ask this through Jesus, the human one, 

whose coming was for all creation. Amen.

1 John Shea, Following Love into Mystery: The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and  Teachers, (Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 2010) p 59

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