Sermon: Epiphany, 4 January 2015, St John the Divine

Reading  Matthew 2.1–12

Preacher  Revd Alan Sykes

Recently I’ve become fascinated by the biology of the cell. Previously I’d had zero interest in any kind of biology. At school I gave up biology as soon as I could. Actually, it’s truer to say that biology gave me up as soon as it could. But never mind, it’s never too late to start learning.

I’ve learned that our bodies are made up of trillions of tiny cells and each cell is a veritable factory manufacturing what our bodies need to keep going. Some people even liken the cell is like a city, such is its sheer complexity.

If you don’t know much about how cells work, I urge you to investigate – even if only to get some overall idea about it. It is truly astounding. There are plenty of short, painless videos on the internet.

Not everyone would agree of course but the sheer intricate complexity of the cell leads me at least to conclude that only God has the creative power to make it all happen.

But things don’t have to be complicated for us to conclude that God is at work.

The Middle Ages are seen by many as an era of darkness and superstition. And again, some would disagree, as with most things. I’m not going to argue the point either way but it’s undoubtedly true that the Middle Ages did produce a crop of very fine spiritual writers, so those centuries that we call medieval can’t have been completely without merit.

One of the finest of those writers was Julian of Norwich. We don’t even know her real name. We call her Julian because she was an anchorite (a kind of hermit) attached to the church of St Julian in Norwich. We call her Julian merely because of that association.

In her book Revelations of Divine Love we find this passage:

‘And in this he showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marvelled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God’.

All things reflect the glory and the love of God. They reveal God. If we reflect on them deeply enough, they make God manifest. Our problem is that so often we take things for granted. We get used to them existing and we forget just how astonishing it is that anything should exist at all and be sustained moment by moment in its existence. That includes ourselves.

Such reflections can get us a fair way towards a knowledge of God, but to get further along the road we need a little bit of assistance. We are not naturally attuned, at least not fully, to the being of God.

I believe very strongly that God is beyond what the human mind can even conceive of. We don’t have the mental apparatus to be able to grasp God. We may not be able to grasp the whole of God but that doesn’t mean we can’t grasp something of God.

But we do need a little bit of help. And because God wants us to know him, he provides that help.

The Jewish people, in the centuries after they became a people, were given the prophets and the scriptures. God made himself known to them as best as they could understand. Their whole history became a kind of parable about the human relationship to the divine.

Today we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord, another stage in our being made aware of God by God. We see God in this infant who was laid in a manger. Jesus tells us what God would be like if he became a human being. And here he is. Jesus makes God comprehensible and tangible to us. And not just a bit of God but his very essence.

Now, Jesus probably looked pretty much like anybody else – as a baby and when he grew up. To recognise him for what he is the magi needed the help of a star and some esoteric knowledge to track him down and recognise him.

A few days previously the shepherds had been told by angels where to find him. They wouldn’t have been able to work it out for themselves. They’d have just carried on abiding in the fields and been none the wiser. They needed angelic assistance.

And we need help as well. We can’t achieve any great depth of spiritual knowledge about the nature of God purely by will-power or by using our brains. They can assist, of course, but in themselves they are limited.

What we need is the presence of God around us and within us (which we have naturally and abundantly), and God himself – what we call the Holy Spirit – guiding us into all truth. Our natural capacities working in conjunction with God’s Spirit within us – that’s how we achieve true knowledge of the divine, the knowledge that marries our brains and our hearts, and puts us in a place that we might call heaven itself.

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