Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Epiphany of Our Lord 2014
6 January 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Can we come to see God, to know God? The question is as old as time. And it has seemed to tease people throughout history and throughout the world. Can we come to see God, to know God?
Even though, for hundreds of years, philosophers and the wise men of the world have assured us that the question is meaningless, that there can be no answer, that there is nothing beyond us and our own self-interest or beyond us and our need to rub along together somehow or other, even though for many, it seems, the answer is No, the question still goes on nagging at us. Somehow, deep in us is a longing, a need, that can only really be answered in relation to God. So, can we come to see God, to know God? And if so, how? Those are the questions today’s celebration seeks to answer.
What is an Epiphany? Surely a moment of understanding, a break-through, when something that was misty becomes clear, when the clouds part or the penny drops. The sub-title of the feast in the Book of Common Prayer is ‘The Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’. Christ’s manifestation, his showing forth, his revelation. The moment when people came to see and to understand, to know that, in Christ, they could see God.
And the question how we can come to see God and to know God is the great question the Gospels themselves aim to answer. Just take a couple of moments from St John’s Gospel. His second chapter begins with the account of the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee. Jesus, at the request of his blessed Mother, turns water into wine, gallons of it. Everyone is amazed. St John finished the account in these words, ‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ His disciples believed in him. Then again, very near the end of the gospel, St John recounts the absence of Thomas from the first revelation of the risen Lord and his presence on the Sunday after Easter when the risen Lord Jesus appeared in the Upper Room again. Thomas had doubted – unless I see for myself, he had said, I shall not believe. But now he does see. St John finishes the account in these words, ‘Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”’ Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. That is, of course, us. St John has us in mind. We have not seen. But we too can come to believe.
St Matthew approaches the same question in a different way. Today’s Gospel reading is an important part of his answer. The wise men, the magi, people well trained in reading the runes, finding meaning in the stars, interpreting what is happening, are enthralled, fascinated by what they have come to see there. So they embark on a great journey. They come from the East. That might mean from Persia. It seems that the word magi might have its derivation in Old Persian. So, perhaps, they are Zoroastrians. Perhaps the details matter little. St Matthew sees them as men who are wise in the ancient wisdom. They come to see the Christ and in him they come to see God, to know God. They fall down and worship.
The wisdom of our age finds the idea that you can see God and know God, let alone that it might be right and proper to worship God, a little far-fetched, just too hard to accept. Our age tends to prize evidence, to look for proof, for convincing argument that can be traced through and batted backwards and forwards. Our age tends not to trust our instinct, our feelings, our innate sense of how things are.
But there is nothing new about this worldly scepticism. It was something with which St Paul was familiar. You may recall St Paul’s words, ‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’
We can put all this another way. These deep truths of God are not to be grasped by brain-power, by human logic, by the cleverness of the world. They are not truths that can be subjected to the binary systems of our computers. The computer will always say No.
In the opening stanza from Choruses from ‘The Rock’, T S Eliot, whose memorial is here in the Abbey in Poets’ Corner, wrote in 1934 of how the world’s wisdom, the world’s understanding, had come somehow, through inexorable logic, through an excess of information, to miss the point.
‘The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.’
Can I put it like this? Wisdom and the religious instinct, the need and longing for the possibility of worship, the recognition of what is beyond, what is mysterious, what is indescribable, ineffable, literally unspeakable, can never be accessed through the normal processes of ratiocination. They can only be grasped, seized hold of, and then gripped. Then they will grip us. Gradually, perhaps over a life-time, they come into focus, become clear. But they never will become crystal clear this side of death. We see through a glass darkly. But we can see. We can know. We can see God. We can know God.
How then can we see God? How can we know God? Like the magi, the wise men from the East, we must fall down and worship. Only through an encounter in worship with God can we come to see God and to know God.
The parachutist cannot know his parachute will open as long as he stands on the brink at the open door of the aeroplane. It is only when he jumps that he can know whether or not the parachute will open. So it is with faith and belief. First jump. First pray. First worship. First believe. Then and only then can you see God. Then and only then can you know God. I believe in order that I can understand.
‘And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.'