The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Although the twelve days of Christmas are over, our celebration of the birth of Jesus continues. Today we turn from the shepherds to the wise men and witness their visit, led by a star. The poor of Israel have come to worship. Now the wealthy and wise from the East come to worship the child Jesus. And from our homes in London and from around the wide world we too come to worship.
This year we mark many anniversaries of battles: the Armenian conflict and Gallipoli a hundred years ago; Waterloo two hundred years ago; Agincourt 600 years ago. We also mark the first meeting of parliament 750 years ago and Magna Carta 800 years ago. These anniversaries all derived their force from a longing for power. Even the first meetings of parliament and the signing of Magna Carta would not have occurred apart from the uneasy battle for power between the king and the barons. More recent battles speak clearly of disputes within Europe, of jockeying for position and influence and of the terrible destruction of life caused by such struggles. There must be a better way. But the world does not seem to have found it.
There is a better way. And the wise men stand for those who have found it. We know little about them. They came from the East, magi, astronomers, perhaps astrologers. These wise men came to worship the infant Jesus as Lord and God. They came to pay him their respects, to offer him homage, to become his liegemen of life and limb, to find their meaning in him.
There is deep in us all a need to worship God. It can easily be diverted to worship for substitutes for God. We see it in the cult of celebrity, the cults of film stars and pop stars and rock stars, the cults of the beautiful and brave. And if we do not worship some human being, we have a tendency to worship an idea or to worship power or wealth or influence. Or failing that we find a route out of positive worship, into something deeply negative and destructive, into the abuse of drugs or drink or sex or into violence. That is a way to real sickness of mind, soul and heart if not of the body. These are all substitutes for the true God. None of these contingent gods can provide anything but passing satisfaction. None of these false gods can bring joy or happiness or peace. They bring only conflict and destruction.
Perhaps worse is when we focus on ourselves and come to worship ourselves, to put ourselves first, above everything, caring only for what pleases us, what satisfies us. Ours is often described as a me first world—always me, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. We should not blame the advertisers, who are only pandering to our tastes, to our self-centredness. But it is in the advertisements that we see it so clearly. A range of beauty products has the tag-line 'because you're worth it.' Go on, spoil yourself, 'because you're worth it.' An advertisement has a beautiful woman dressed in gold in a gilded room climbing up a gilded rope out of her gilded cage to a new world above, perhaps to an image of heaven. What does she find? A gilded perfume—heaven in another beauty product. And as soon as Christmas is over, the sell is for what makes us slim, what gets us fit, what makes us beautiful. Me, me, me.
Personal satisfaction—that can be a goal even for us who have come to church to worship God, and it is a diversion from true worship. I do not wish to be harsh. But a few years ago in the United States a Gallup poll surveyed people's reasons for attending church. The target group attended at least monthly. 23% said it was for spiritual growth and guidance and a further 20% because it kept them grounded and inspired. 13% valued the fellowship of other members or of the church community. 12% said they had been brought up that way. 15% said it was their faith. 12% identified the reason as their belief in God. Just 15% said they went to church to worship God. So, for two thirds of the group it was about their spiritual growth or feeling inspired or enjoying the fellowship or the way they were brought up. The consumer society in religion. Me, me, me.
The wise men we must presume came to worship for God's own sake, to honour God for his beauty and goodness and loveliness. They also brought gifts: of gold recognising Jesus as king; frankincense honouring him as the Son of God; and myrrh, for embalming, recognising his future passion and death on the cross. The shadow of the cross falls over the stable, over the baby's crib. He was born for this. Many of the Christmas carols bear witness to this, even the jollier ones.
'The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.
The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Saviour.
The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall,
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.'
Our salvation is a free and beautiful gift of God's grace, worked through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we must see and acknowledge its cost. A costly gift demands a costly response. Jesus gives himself for us and for our salvation. We give ourselves in worship to him. We offer him our lives, if we are to take up our cross and follow him. In baptism, we die to ourselves that we may live to him.
Words of St Paul to the Romans, 'I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.'
And these words of T S Eliot in the Journey of the Magi:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.