The beginning of a New Year is often a time for a bit of clearing out and re-organising. I wonder if you’re the sort of person who has “a place for everything and everything in its place” or if you’re a bit more relaxed about things. I aspire to organisational standards of the type seen in the IKEA or Lakeland catalogues, but frequently fail.
I remember one occasion when A was away, the children were smaller and after I had put them to bed, I was looking forward to a treat of a Marks and Spencer meal which could be cooked simply by leaving it in the oven for 20 minutes. When the buzzer went off, I went to the kitchen and found, to my astonishment that the oven was empty. I remembered taking the meal from the fridge, and putting it on a baking tray but after that my mind was blank. I could have sworn I had put it in the oven – but it wasn’t there. It wasn’t back in the fridge either, and so I began to search the kitchen for my meal, feeling quite hungry and alarmed by this time! Eventually the meal was located – in the cupboard from which I had taken the baking tray. It did not escape from the oven a second time. Having looked in the expected place for my meal and failed to find it, I needed to re-think and search for it elsewhere.
If you’re organised, of course you know exactly where the thing you need can be found. In today’s Epiphany reading we hear that the visitors from the East, the Magi looked for the new king of the Jews where they expected to find him – in the palace of the capital city. Just as one might expect to find a cooked dinner in, say, an oven. But of course the new king wasn’t there, and after consultation with the learned people of that city, they discovered they had to look elsewhere for the new king.
So, off they went to Bethlehem – city of David and honoured as such, but in reality a small town of no particular importance. Not somewhere you’d expect to find a royal family.
And I wonder if their amazement increased as they discovered that this new king was born into a very ordinary family – a tradesman’s family in circumstances which had a faint whiff of scandal about them. I wonder too if they found the whole thing just too difficult to believe. Were they tempted to turn around, and go home taking their expensive gifts with them? Not finding the new king where they expected to find him, or even perhaps in the kind of family the might have expected to find him in, they could have given up their quest as a lost cause.
But they didn’t. They were overwhelmed with joy when they found the unlikely-looking new king and him with the help of the mysteriously obliging star, and we’re told they paid him homage. They also had enough sense not to go back to Jerusalem as the vicious and jealous Herod had asked them to. Somehow, these men, outside the people of Israel had looked for the living God of Israel , and found him in a rather unusual place – and those at the heart of Jewish hierarchy had failed to recognise at all that God had come among them.
That for me is the heart of Epiphany – God being found in an unexpected place and recognised by unexpected people – it was to shepherds – outcasts- that the birth was announced, and it was Magi – outsiders who recognised its importance.
So where do we look for God? Are we prepared to look for him in unexpected places? Are we prepared to be led there by unexpected people? Do we accept that it is sometimes those who we regard as outsiders who may be the ones to whom God is revealing himself? Or that we, inside the church who think we know where God is to be found can fail to see him when he reveals himself somewhere new?
The beginning of a new year is also a good time to take stock, to assess where we are, where we have been and where we want to be. I wonder if we can do that and think about what sort of church we are here in Swaythling and what sort of church we want to become. We expect to find God here in the building, and I believe we meet him every time we share bread and wine together. But do we also expect to see him in our schools, our shops, our places of work, among our friends and neighbours who would profess no faith?
Having found the living God the Wise Men didn’t retrace their steps. They returned to their own country via another route. Their encounter with the living God had meant they couldn’t simply go back the way they had come. Our encounters with God should leave us similarly unable to simply get back to doing exactly the same as before – we are changed by the experience.
This week, I challenge you to look for God– and let me know where you find him! Epiphany reminds us that God doesn’t conform to our expectations of where he is to be found and who is to discover him – and I pray that we will all be more open to finding him in places we may not have considered looking before.