This is a sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany. The Scripture it references is Ephesians 3:1-12.
“Wise men from the east” came to show their respect and reverence for the child Jesus.
Wisdom’s a funny thing. We tend to think of it as being a bit elusive; a bit difficult to pin down. A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades devoted to spiritual practices. (Just think of those two great icons of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda and the Dalai Lama).
This was the sort of wise man who came to visit Jesus. The word used to describe them, magos, referred to priests of the Zoroastrian (Persian) religion; educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astrology, and the occult. They were widely noted for their honesty and integrity. These men were powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.
And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for people like these; that is, for other people. As long as there are holy men on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.
But the problem with this, for us, is that in Christianity, wisdom is an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is a problem. Each of us has our own life to work through.
But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Christian terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship. Put very simply, what we mean by “wisdom” is the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it. And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.
It is, however, a big topic; too big for one morning. So today I want to focus on just one aspect of wisdom, and what it means for us.
And I want to pick up on what Paul said in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, where he described the wisdom of God as having “rich variety.” I take this to mean that, if wisdom is doing what God wants us to do, and there is “rich variety” of wisdom, this means that God doesn’t want us to be all the same. I am me, and each of you is an individual person, and we are created to be different in our relationships with God.
I think Jesus brought this out very clearly when people criticised him and his cousin, John the Baptist, for being different; as if this meant that somehow one or the other (or perhaps both!) of them had to be wrong. But instead Jesus answered that wisdom is vindicated by all her children. It was okay for John the Baptist and Jesus to be different, because each was doing what God wanted, in his own unique way.
And this is part of what it means the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known. And that has several implications for us. It means first that I can allow others to be different to me. It doesn’t make me wrong, it doesn’t make someone else wrong, if in genuine good conscience and sincere attempts to please God we end up doing different things. It means that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is being made known.
It also works on the level of team ministry. One thing I miss, in this parish, compared to others, is that I’m the only priest in active ministry here; I don’t have another ordained person to bring different perspectives, experiences or – indeed – wisdom to what we do and how we teach. It does strike me, though, that we have some very capable and wise lay people; and one of the things I want to explore in the future is the possibility of equipping and licensing some people here to be lay preachers. That would be part of the rich variety of the wisdom of God being made known in this place.
I also hope, in a year or two, to be ready to offer this parish again as a placement for a student preparing for ordination. At this stage I’m still settling in and we have a lot of work to do together on future planning; but once that’s under way, it would be good for us to share in the rich variety of the wider church in having a student here, and good for a student to have their experience of the rich variety of the church enriched by being in a parish which is – in my experience – somewhat unique, at least in Melbourne.
This principle is also important on a slightly bigger scale. The Anglican church in Melbourne is very diverse, and sometimes that brings with it tension and conflict over areas where different traditions and spiritualities collide. But the fact that we have those different traditions and spiritualities is a good thing! As we seek to reach out to the broader community around us, the more we are able to offer the fullest possible range of the rich variety of the Anglican church, the more likely it is that different people are going to find something in our worship and teaching worth exploring. Denying the wisdom of God in those who differ from us isn’t just petty, it borders on blasphemy.
And, on an even bigger scale again, this is important ecumenically. The full breadth of the Church – from the Copts and the Orthodox on one extreme to the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the other; each contributes something to the rich variety of the wisdom of God. I might not want to be a Copt or a Quaker, I might even have areas in which I am critical of them, but if I think I have nothing to learn from their differences, I am limiting the wisdom of God. And that’s a very dangerous thing to do.
Recently I’ve been doing some reading on the close link between our worship and our mission as a church. Our worship has many different components; it includes praise, acknowledging our own wrongs and committing to change, thoughtful reflection, asking God to intervene in the brokenness of the world, and so on. Our worship itself reflects the rich variety of the wisdom of God. And the author I was reading posed some sharp questions. What does our worship do in us? If we find ourselves in communities of worship week after week, has it made a difference in our lives? Has it changed us? Has it made us see the world differently? Has all our worship had any lasting transformative effect, or does worship comfort us in ways that are misleading? Does our worship actually extend beyond an hour or so on Sunday morning, to be part of the fabric of our thinking and acting day by day?
The author I was reading was not, at that point, explicitly considering the question of diversity in the Christian life, but it seems to me that making room for expressing that diversity is one way to work towards ensuring that our worship is all that it should be.
So what do we do with that? We celebrate diversity in the Christian life. We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others. We welcome people with different backgrounds, life experiences, and personalities to be part of our community. We look to actively include diversity in our various ministries, and we work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past. That’s how we are going to get the most benefit from the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and be most well equipped to make it known to the world around us, inviting them, like the wise men of long ago, to meet with Jesus with respect and reverence.