In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On 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 gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
So today, we celebrate one of the best-known episodes in the Christmas story, when the wise men travelled on a great journey to meet the new born king of the Jews. But here’s a question for you: were they at home at the beginning of their journey, or the end of it?
The more you delve into the Biblical account, the more you come to realise the truth that is brought out wonderfully in TS Elliot’s great poem, the Journey of the Magi. He depicts the wise men journeying, all the time thinking of the home they’d left, only to find themselves truly at home in the presence of Jesus. And when they returned from their journey, they found they were no longer at home in the place they had left and now began a new journey, preparing for the time when they could be reunited with that king at the end of their lives.
The whole Christian life is a journey like that. And today, we are setting out young Henry and Lara on their journeys. And baptism tells us the same message as the Magi – that it is in journeying to Jesus that we journey to our true home, and therefore our true identity. We may spend most of the journey looking back, thinking that we’ve left home behind us, but our true home lies ahead in meeting Jesus personally. Of course, we will only meet Jesus face to face after this life. But we can meet him personally at any time. We can meet him in prayer, in worship, in our fellowship together, in our sacraments of Baptism and Communion and, above all, in his Word. But fundamentally we meet him when we open our hearts to him and invite him into our lives.
Now that’s precisely what we are doing for young Henry and Lara today, inviting Jesus into their lives to be their king, their father and their guide. It’s the best possible start because it is setting their feet on the surest path there is: the journey to Jesus. But it is only the start of their journey. And we, as their new family, especially you who are their parents and godparents, but all of us, have a responsibility to keep them on that path and to introduce them personally to Jesus so that they, like the Magi, can find their true home, their true identity in meeting Jesus personally.
Baptism is fundamentally a ritual of identity. It is a naming ceremony, even if it has no longer a legal function. But more fundamentally, it goes to our identity as a child of God.
And to be a child of God means to have a relationship with him: the deep and intimate relationship of a father and child. And in fact that makes sense, because our identity is fundamentally made up of our relationships. To be human is, in one sense, to have human DNA. I can tell a human being from, say a dinosaur or a unicorn, fairly easily. I can recognise the characteristics that make them human, but to be human is so much more than just our human characteristics. We are so much more than just one more example of the human species. Our true value, our true identity is found in the relationships we maintain. We matter because we have meaning in the lives of each other.
So today, Henry and Lara are joining the Church. They matter to us. They have meaning because they have a part in our lives. They are becoming part of the family that shares God as our father. And their true identity will be discovered (as it is for each of us) by coming to know God as our father and coming to know each other as brothers and sisters. It’s why you can’t be a Christian without being part of the Church. And it’s why you can never find your true self just by looking inwards – that will only ever tell you where you’ve come from – and that is not your true home. Your true home, your true self can only be found ahead – journeying into Jesus. And so the promises that we all make today to incorporate them into our family really matter. Today, we are asserting that Henry and Lara’s identities are found in our love for them, in our relationship with them as fellow children of God. That is who they are, far beyond their names or their human characteristics.
That journey into Jesus shows us what it truly is to be human. Christmas reminds us that the journey to our salvation necessarily began with God becoming a human: God took our nature on himself in order to bestow his nature upon us. Somehow, we are set free in that moment when God takes on our form and fulfils the true potential of what it is to be human by giving us his nature. It is a transformation so profound, so overwhelmingly joyful, so utterly life giving that Christians have only one description for it – it is like being born again; as though our old way of life, before we met Jesus, was never fully alive, we thought we were at home, but we never fully were. But now we have been born to new life in Jesus, a life in which we have finally discovered what it truly is to be human, what it is to be truly alive.
There is something about following Jesus that makes us more human than we were before. Some people think that being Godly is about becoming other-worldly, so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly use. But Jesus wasn’t like that. What first struck people about Jesus was that he was more human than any other person they had ever met. And eventually they twigged why that was – he was so human because he was God. That’s what God does for us. When God comes into our lives and makes us more like him, he unlocks the true potential for humanity within us.
And we’ll be saying that when we make Henry & Lara’s baptism vows in a moment: that sin actually corrupts who we are and diminishes our humanity. It makes us less human, less able to relate to God and our neighbour, less capable of giving and receiving love, more isolated and lonely and therefore less truly ourselves. But when that sin is washed away and God’s nature comes upon us through the Holy Spirit, we become more human, more alive, more ourselves, because Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life: the true journey, the true humanity, the true life.
So to be Godly is to be more human. But to be truly human is also to be Godly. This is why Christians assert that every human life is sacred. The true nature of humanity is not diminished by our being disabled, or disfigured; nor by illness or suffering. The true nature of humanity is only diminished by sin, but it is restored by Jesus, by God setting us free from our sins, inhabiting our nature and conferring his nature on us.
Now we believe that, in a few moments time, when we pour the waters of baptism over Henry and Lara, God is going to do something real for them. It’s not just symbolic. In that water God really does wash away their sin and pour his Holy Spirit into their lives. Their journey to Jesus begins. And with it their journey to their true home. But it’s only the beginning, and not the end of the journey.
Like the wise men, the journey only ends when they meet Jesus for themselves. Like the wise men (and like most of us) they will spend much of their journey looking back over their shoulder at where they had journeyed from. The way everyone else lives will seem far more attractive, far more like real life, but it isn’t. The real life lies in journeying with Jesus every day, in meeting him in person and in coming to know him deeply. That is the route to the overwhelming joy experienced by the Magi and by every Christian for the last 2,000 years. And to help them find their way on their journey, we must keep journeying ourselves. Like the wise man, we must be no longer at home in the places we have left behind, but spend the rest of our lives on a new journey, deeper and deeper into Jesus until we find our true home and our true selves in being deeply, and forever, with Him.
Preached: – Morland 6 January 2018