The Story is our Compass 

Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 43.1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8.14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The Story is our Compass                                                   ©Richard Browning 

Well here we are – pandemic church. COVID is well and truly on the loose. As we gather we pray for those who are sick, for those who justifiably live with heightened anxiety; we pray for health workers, doctors, nurses, ward staff, many of whom are beyond fatigue. May we not be ignorant or deceived by rumours and untruths. May we not be afraid, for as we hear afresh, the one who creates and knows and loves is with us.

The season of Epiphany is that stunning period between Christmas and Lent where we take the time to go:

So what just happened?

What are we looking at?

Light has broken in and no darkness can put it out. What does it mean?

How do we see in its light?

Epiphany is not a day but a season: Light has dawned, can you see? Truth abounds, pay attention.

The coming Sundays of Epiphany will present story after story to describe and name this thing Jesus.

Today’s readings hold up Jesus as the Redeemer and inheritor of Isaiah’s prophetic proclamation: “do not be afraid, I have redeemed you, I call you by name”. Jesus is

the Winnower, the one who removes every damn blight from every damn body;

Jesus is the Anointed One, the Christ, covered by the Spirit;

Jesus is the beloved of God, the Son.

For a moment though, I pause at the story of Epiphany one last time. How extraordinary it is that sages from another language, culture, land and faith can know about another’s language and faith, and in seeing something, leave everything and travel, bringing gifts to kneel in acknowledgement. Whatever is this Light, it is no longer for one chosen people, it is for every people; this Light is for the nations.

These foreign philosopher kings are the start of what will be a familiar pattern in the Gospels: the outsider gets it, often before all others, including the disciples. John the Baptiser is not mainstream. He sees. The foreign Magi see. The blind while still blind, see and call out (Luke 18.38). The alien Syro-Phonecian petitioner and the demons that possess, they all see (Mark 7.24 and Luke 4.41). The sinner who anointed Jesus with oil and washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair (Luke 7), she sees, as does the treasonous tax collector Zachaeus. The crucified criminal and the Roman soldier at their feet, they see. Over and over and over again, it is those at the edges who see. In the reading from Acts today we hear, of all people, those apostate aliens, those from Samaria, even they come to see. The Holy Spirit descends even on them.

Not surprisingly then, but still alarmingly, subversively, the first to see and bear witness to the resurrection is a woman.

May we be open, like those at the edges, to see with clarity and acuity.

So these Magi. They see. My question about them is this: how did the star guide the star-gazers from the East? Christmas pageants put a star on a stick carried by a child walking ahead. But as we know, no celestial body can lead a human like a guide to a point. On this spinning rotating earth, a star can point to north, or south, but not to a place. There is only one way. You have to know the story. That is it. And that is the message of today’s homily: know the story and you will be able to see the signs and find the way; the story is our compass.

  • A physio can squeeze a person’s calf and see no movement at the foot and know, this is not a simple tear, it is a complete rupture of the tendon. It is one of the signs.
  • A gardener can look at the white mould on the recently planted avocado tree that is no longer thriving and because they are familiar with the story, know the tree must be moved to a better drained location or its sodden feet will rot.
  • An ancient druid can govern a henge of stone and on one day, the shortest of them all, capture the sun as it shines like a laser through an eye and project onto stone the other side of the circle. This is not magic. It is the hallmarks of one who knows the story, and in knowing the story, can read the signs and keep a calendar.

Knowing the story allows recognition of the sign and understanding about what must follow. The path becomes clear.

We don’t know what the Magi saw. It could have been a triple planetary conjunction of Mars and Jupiter and Saturn. Or a nova in the constellation of Pisces, or something. Whatever it was matters no more. The Magi knew the story behind the sign well enough to know who were the story’s keepers and where to find them. So they went to them and asked: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star” (Matthew 2.2).

Reading signs is not magic. It requires familiarity with story. This is why we cycle through our story over and over, year after year. So that we can know:

  • The light that shines is the light from which all light is drawn (Genesis 1.1fl).
  • Jesus is the one in whom all things are made. In him is life, and the life is the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1.5)
  • This light is posited within each and every human, it is called image and likeness: every earthling made in the image and likeness of God.
  • See this and every thing changes. Every human is a bearer of the image of God: every alien, foreigner, edge dweller and outcast, every child, every elder, every criminal, every saint: bearers all of the image of God.

Know this story and see everything through its light. Nothing is ever the same.

See the light of God who comes among us as the Suffering Servant, the child born among animals, anointed by God to redeem humanity. He will be crowned not with jewels but thorns; lifted up in coronation, not on a throne but a cross, accompanied not by cherubim but criminals. This anointed One baptised by John is a vanquisher, not of enemies but of enmity. It is from the cross we will come to hear the ultimate statement of enemy love: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”.

Know this story and everything changes, the story will be as a compass, and keep us trained in the Light. Be attentive to this Light and the light will rise in our hearts and allow us to see the light in the world.

This stunning imagery belongs to Peter and can be found in his second letter. He writes: be attentive to the light “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1.19).

A week ago, the world farewelled one in whom the morning star had clearly risen in his heart. Desmond Tutu was buried in a simple pine box. His whole life was immersed in this story. It was the intelligence that framed his compass: Jesus the Christ. Tutu was animated by Jesus the Light allowing an alarmingly simple seeing: there is no being save a being with, and every single human being is a child of God. Tutu fought against the wickedness of apartheid. He thrust himself into the centre of the murderous mob hellbent on burning alive one of their own in the unspeakable horror that was called necklacing. He laughed and danced like a child. He received testimony that did not absolve wicked, racist acts and systems, but helped a nation claim a future, for as he says, “without forgiveness, there is no future”.

This reflection comes on the anniversary of the violent assault on Washington’s Capitol Hill. It comes in this moment the world’s number one male tennis player is holed up in detention for three days only to discover right alongside Djokovic are innocent humans holed up in endless detention, over nine years and counting. It comes as the signs of pandemic and a warming planet escalate before our eyes. What is path we are to take?

The answer is in our story. Know our story. Find in it the material for our compass. As the Dean prayed at a Thanksgiving Service for Desmond Tutu in the Cathedral on Tuesday, may we dare to be as courageous as Tutu, and being so immersed in the story, that the light of Christ would rise in our hearts that we would love with reckless abandon, and work for the advantage of all, especially the vulnerable and exposed.

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