Sunday 10 January 2016 – Baptism of Christ

Sermon: Sunday 10 January 2016 – Rugby School: Epiphanytide
Baptism of Christ
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester

‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage’ Matthew 2:11

Just a bit before Christmas the Church of England got itself into a public media spat over a short film which was to be shown in cinemas as part of the raft of adverts prior to watching Star Wars over the busy Christmas period. It was a short simple but visually interesting portrayal of a whole variety of people of different ages and cultures each saying a line of the Lord’s Prayer. Unusually it was not cringe worthy. But the three leading cinema companies refused to show it because it carried ‘the risk of upsetting or offending audiences’.

Well we could get into a conversation about freedom of speech or the rights of belief within the public square but there is another more important matter going on related to the familiar bible story we heard from Matthew. He is the only one who tells us about the magi and about their offering of gifts of gold for a king, frankincense for a priest and myrrh for someone who is to die.

The magi are astrologers. They have appeared in the bible a long time before Jesus was born – in the book of Daniel as part of a great court in Babylon, modern day Iraq. One of the oldest astronomical workshops in the world was in Iran. Saveh is south west of modern day Tehran. It was also a great religious centre for Zoroastrians – they also looked for a saviour. A tradition says the wise men are buried there. Gold, frankincense and myrrh are mentioned nowhere else in the bible but were used in Zoroastrian worship. There were their puja, ardaas, salah, tefilah- the worship of I am familiar with in multi-faith Leicester.  Above all these were gifts of worship.

Worship is a very odd and peculiar thing. Does it have a value? At one level we might describe it in terms of services and rituals but at base line it is the direction of our love and of our attention away from ourselves to another. It may be corporate but it is deeply personal.

Worship appeared twice in today’s reading but was translated as homage. It literally means to draw close as if to kiss. It is about giving worth to something and for Christians that means especially giving worth to God. Now the bible is littered with stories of people and communities who know a lot about worship but yet they forget a lot about God. It is because the object to which worship has become directed is not God but instead things, distractions, what the bible calls idols.

The theologian John Calvin described humankind as a master craftsman of idolatry. And this is where the real significance of the cinema spat about the Lord’s Prayer really comes into focus. I have yet to find a reliable cinema which allows me to skip the great array of adverts before the film. Prior to discovering the next cinema launches I am immersed in beautiful glamorous worlds of fashion, perfume and aftershave, fast cars, exotic holidays scuba diving with dolphins.

So the cinema owners have no concept of the irony of their response to the Lord’s Prayer which apparently was potentially upsetting or offensive whilst they don’t notice that all of these adverts are completely value laden, choca-full of beliefs, drawing people into commitment and worship of a kind. They are potentially offensive and upsetting. We find ourselves saying ‘I love that’, or ‘I want to be like that’ or ‘that will make me happy’.

There is a kind of secular version of worship which is very potent in our image conscious and commercially shaped world. And the advertisers know that you as younger people are one of the most susceptible groups so they target you in the hope that your pestering or rather more sophisticated methods will hook you in as a purchaser or client.

Lest you think I’m a dull party pooper, I’m not! And beautiful things are part of God’s good world.  However if they become the focus of my worship, what does that do to me in the longer term?

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a 19th century American writer. He wrote: “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behoves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.”

The clamping down of divine worship is very often one of the markers of unjust totalitarian regimes because when people choose to worship God they are actually saying that God is not a thing and that people are not a thing. Things can easily be controlled by measurement or constraint, or they can even be destroyed, because even thugs and despots know that things always have less value than people. The worship of God does not have a monetary value.

Great human beings who have found themselves to be imprisoned unjustly or tortured have kept on worshipping and saying their prayers because even when everything has been taken away, even the majority of human dignity, worship insists that we are much more than this, that we are God’s children from whom we have come and to whom we return.

Worship cannot be commoditized into pounds and pence. So much of my time even as a clergy person is about money, budgets and excel spread sheets but twice a day I go to prayers in the cathedral to remind me that this is not my God and that I cannot be shaped into a unit of production. Worship is in one sense a waste of time but a waste of time which actually is a great act of defiance about the fundamental nature of this world and about the fundamental nature of human beings.

For the magi, this desire to express worship to the new born Son of God in Bethlehem drove them to step beyond their established experience, to madly follow a star and risk a long journey. But even more they were to risk the wrath of a tyrant king – one Herod whose insecurity at the news of a new born king led him to a barbarous ISIS-like declaration that all the baby boys were to be slaughtered. Some idols are easy to spot like that. The ones which are trickier to notice are actually all around us hooked into our desires and appetites.

The worship of God, like everything else, can be perverted and misused but at best the worship of God with a capital G is an antidote to so many idols which will not only prove to be facile or a let-down but at times even be dangerous .

‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage’ Matthew 2:11

© The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester