john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Matthew 2 - Wisdom comes from the East

    Good Shepherd Morning Communion, Epiphany 7/1/2007

    Isaiah 60.1-6, Matthew 2.1-12

    Wisdom comes from the East: or so we are led to believe. And the story of the Magi, the travellers, the wise men of Matthew's nativity, reinforces this idea and brings it to the heart of Christianity: that Wisdom comes from the East.

    The 'Wise men' came from the East. But what was wise about them?

    They were wise because they understood the signs in the skies. They were wise because they took note of the words of the ancient prophets. And they were wise because they found guidance through their dreams.

    People who understand the signs in the skies today: we call them astronomers and astrologers. We think of them perhaps as scientists, on the one hand, and quacks on the other. There's no connection between them. One belongs in the realm of space research and the other in the realm of superstition. We're not very generous to stargazers today.

    But in ancient times stargazing embraced both science and, if you like, superstition, but I'd rather call it faith. In the time of Jesus and the Magi people connected the physical world easily to the unseen world. And they believed deeply in a God who was at the heart of all things, a creator, an originator, one who kept life growing and who, if you praised him, would bless your crops, bring beneficial weather, make you fertile so your family would flourish.

    And the stars were worth studying for all sorts of related reasons - for their beauty, which strengthened your appreciation of God, for their movements which gave you good insights into the movements of God, and also told you when you ought to plant and when you ought to reap, when you ought to move on and when you ought to sleep. Those who studied them studied life - and knew themselves to have a place in God's ordered universe.

    The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
    Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they display knowledge.
    There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.

    - said the psalmist [1]. Such wisdom is hidden today, but not obsolete. And indeed, it is being rediscovered by many people whose unease is growing about the destruction we're bringing to the planet, and who are looking for gentler ways to live.

    This week the Environment Minister Ian Pearson attacked airlines like Ryanair as "irresponsible" for opposing international plans to cut carbon emissions [2]. His concern is for the future of our planet which is already overheating; there are predictions that 2007 is to be the hottest ever [3], which is not necessarily a particularly good thing.

    There is wisdom in trying to understand the signs in the skies. And there is wisdom in listening to the words of the prophets. Perhaps one day people will remember the words of the Environment Minister Ian Pearson as the words of a prophet. One who looks at the state of things today, finds critical words for those he sees as wrong, directs people towards better ways of living, and paints pictures of what the future will look like depending on whichever path we take. And history will judge whether we, today, have listened well to our prophets.

    The Magi listened to theirs. Prophets like Isaiah whose words spoken centuries earlier suggested that when God's time was right, salvation for all would come under the sign of a star:

    Arise, shine; for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
    For darkness shall cover the earth,
    and thick darkness the peoples;
    but the Lord will arise upon you,
    and his glory will appear over you.

    There is wisdom in trying to understand the signs in the skies. There is wisdom in listening to the words of the prophets. And there is wisdom in trying to find guidance through our dreams.

    The Magi did this, just as Joseph had before them, and would do again. Their story tells us that God speaks through dreams, and if we listen to God in that way then we receive good guidance, protection, we can walk in the ways of peace just as the Magi walked away from Herod's wicked plan.

    Wisdom comes from the East: the threefold wisdom of the Magi helps us to understand what this means for us today. It helps us to understand that Christianity itself is Eastern - it wasn't invented by Shakespeare or King Arthur, it came from the East and today the wisdom of those ancient peoples is here among us in the West.

    The Lord's Prayer, it came from the East - it was what Jesus said when his disciples asked him by Galilee, "Lord, teach us to pray". The Holy Communion, it came from the East - from Jesus' Last Supper with his friends and followers at Jerusalem. The blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit - it came from the East, as early Christian scholars and leaders at the Council of Nicea found a way of describing God as a Holy Trinity, which is very strange but became very true to our understanding.

    Wisdom comes from the East. It has enriched our history and continues to enrich our lives. So we might be open to encountering new forms of Eastern wisdom when they come our way. Confident in our Christian faith we needn't be threatened by other Eastern religions and those who practice them. Instead we can learn together with them.

    I'm encouraged to know that Bishop James has, for the last few years, been part of a small group in Liverpool made up of four Jewish, four Muslim and four Christian leaders. The idea of their meeting is to get beyond the platitudes of religious and political leaders, to look at their differences frankly and to speak with each other truthfully. And this they have done with passion and integrity [4]. Wisdom from the East meets in the West and contributes towards a better, more stable and understanding society.

    A very different initiative is our very modest beginning of a Tai Chi group here at the Good Shepherd [Wednesday morning]. Tai Chi is a Chinese martial art. It's not ancient - it originated in the 19th century. But it is therapeutic, helping to bring health through relaxation, helping to teach awareness of our balance and what affects it, and to improve our ability to moderate extreme behaviour and attitude both mentally and physically.

    Tai Chi came from the East - and it carries its own wisdom. If we try it we might discover the value of it in our lives.

    Wisdom comes from the East: this is a great theme. I think we could apply it closer to home as well. 2007 sees the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. And the man who led the campaign for abolition came from the East: William Wilberforce, who came from Hull, in the East of England, more exactly the East Riding of Yorkshire.

    It was a simple Christian conscience which provoked Wilberforce to campaign against slavery. He said, "Let everyone regulate his conduct ... by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us, and the path of duty will be clear before him." He said that he was "Feelingly alive to the sufferings of my fellow-creatures" [5]. His motivation to abolish slavery was quite straightforward but very wise.

    Wisdom comes from the East: I think it also comes from East Liverpool - which is where we live. My first journeys into this part of town came as an apprentice at the age of 16, when I used to come on day release from work, to the North-East Liverpool Technical College on Muirhead Avenue [which isn't there any more...]

    And there I benefited from the wisdom of those who taught me a trade, passing on their practical skills in all the tiny details which helped me learn how to do my job better and well, sharing their technical knowledge which helped me understand why certain things worked in certain ways, the reasons behind what I was doing.

    We also had something called Social Studies which didn't have anything to do with fabrication and welding, not directly, but it was a lesson which helped us learn how to think about some of the big issues of the day and about our place in the world. All very valuable stuff to me, and as I returned home to the West of the city and spent my working days in the South End, I drew on all this wisdom which I'd learned in the East.

    Wisdom comes from the East - I know I'm stretching the point a bit now. But only a little bit. Because here from the people of the East of the city I encounter wisdom every day.

    There's the wisdom of those who have lived a while and brought up generations of family, and who through that, have a lot of insight about how human beings behave.

    There's the wisdom of the long-term ill or disabled who are learning how to come to terms with their condition and still make the best of life.

    There's the wisdom of those facing marriage who have thought and talked and considered all the options and potential pitfalls and possibilities; those marrying for the first time after learning how to live together, those remarrying drawing on the lessons they've learned from their earlier relationships.

    There's the wisdom of people who have learned very well how to handle money, because they've never had very much, if any money, to spare.

    There's the wisdom of people of faith who let the words of their God affect the way they live in the community.

    This church is full of people of wisdom - and if you think I'm not talking about you, think again.

    And in 2007, as in every other year, this church will flourish when we share our wisdom with each other, as we work together on the task of how to be faithful and witness to God in this place. The Magi brought their gifts to Jesus - a real mixed bag of gifts they were too, but they were wise to do so.

    And so at the start of the year let us once again bring our gifts to Jesus, and in these coming days and weeks ask him how he would like us to serve him, and for the wisdom to follow where he leads.

    When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him their gifts...

    [1] Psalm 19.1-3
    [2] Source: BBC
    [3] Source: Met Office
    [4] Bishop James shared this in his Presidential Address to Liverpool Diocesan Synod, 11 November 2006
    [5] Wilberforce quotes from