The Epiphany 
January 9th, 2000

St Stephen, Lewisham

Epiphany 2000

The Wise Men fell down and worshipped him.

The sermon which some of you heard on Christmas morning contained the following words:

"Christians have said right from the earliest times that God the Son, the Word, was incarnate (that is, "made flesh") and the most important thing that follows from this is that it gives an entirely new value to our flesh, yours and mine. It means that God has chosen to work through human beings. It's what you and I do, or don't do, with ourselves, our souls and bodies, that will very largely determine how God works his purposes out in any given place or time".

This morning we shall take this idea of "value" or "works" a stage further. There are two reasons for doing this:

Firstly, people of today have such very mistaken ideas of what each of us is worth; secondly because "worth" gives us the word "worship" or "worth-ship", and the fact that we come together to worship God (as Wise Men of this and every age have done) means that if we don't understand what "worship" means (like most of our fellow men fail to understand), we shan't make a very good job of it.

It's no exaggeration to say that if we can understand the correct meaning of those two words "Wise" and "Worship" then a whole lot of other things will start falling into place. If "wise men worship God", then we shall do well to follow their example.

Let's begin with the word "wise": and we shall be thinking about people who are wise-towards-God, rather than those who are what's commonly called "worldly-wise".

Being wise isn't the same as being clever. There are many clever people around who manage to be very unwise. We even have a saying for it: they're "too clever by half".

Nor is being wise the same as being well-educated. Some of the wisest people in the world have had very little formal education. The best educated among us here this morning are by no means necessarily the most wise.

Nor does having gone to a good school or college guarantee that we shall become wise as a result. In fact a good mother, a good father and, yes, probably most important of all nowadays, a good grandmother can equip people with more wisdom than any academic establishments.

So how do we learn to be wise? Let's look at three well-known sayings from the Bible:

Number One: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom"

Number Two: "Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the Lord and depart from evil"

Number Three: St Paul (in his letter to the Church at Corinth) says:

"[The Church] has a wisdom to offer those who have reached maturity; not a philosophy of our age it is true… which [is] coming to an end. The hidden wisdom of God which we teach is a wisdom that God prepared for our glory before the ages began. A wisdom that none of the masters of our age have ever known."

So what do these three quotations tell us about being wise?

They tell us three secrets: open secrets, mark you. That's to say secrets which are available to any one who bothers to lift the lid of God's treasure-box and see what's inside. This three-fold secret tells us firstly that Holy Wisdom comes directly from God himself; secondly, it tells us that getting hold of that Wisdom involves what the Bible calls "fear"; and lastly it tells us that it's no earthly use asking the secular world to provide it.

The first and last of these secrets go together and need little explanation. If wisdom is the exclusive gift of God, then it's not much use hoping that the world will provide it; by the same token if we refuse to have anything to do with the Church of God which is his main, preferred, channel for imparting his secrets to mankind, then the chances that we shall acquire God's wisdom are very small indeed. So when people say of the Church "There's nothing in it for me" they could hardly be more mistaken. They just don't know what they should be looking for! It's right there staring them in the face; it's certainly not to be found in the world outside.

But it's the second of these secrets, the truth that Fear and Wisdom (in the biblical sense) go hand-in-hand, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, that fearing God is the first step away from evil…. this secret truth deserves some more explanation.

The word "fear" in English does duty for two different things. The common-or-garden use of it means to be "frightened" or "afraid". People are afraid of the dark, afraid of dogs, afraid of spiders, afraid of going old, afraid of crowds, afraid of death. If these fears loom too large we call them "phobias" and send their owners off to the psychiatrist to be relieved of them.

But there's another sense of the word "fear" which has more to do with a sense of reverence, and wonder and awe towards the object of our fear, and a corresponding sense of our own littleness, insignificance, unimportance and unworthiness. It's this sort of fear, this sense of reverence and wonderment, which brings men firstly to their feet, then to their knees, and finally to fall down and worship Jesus Christ like the Wise Men did.

Now I'm not saying that these two sorts of fear, being frightened and being reverent, have nothing to do with each other: they do. But it's primarily the second kind of fear, the reverence-fear, which puts us in the right relationship with God and enables us to acquire that Holy Wisdom, of which the fear of the Lord is just the beginning. It's only be when we begin to give God he's full worth, that is to worship him, that we are in a position to receive the wisdom God has prepared for us since the foundation of the world.

Let me end this morning with some practical suggestions about improving our fear and worship of God: what we might call our "working-relationship" with him. When a preacher tells us to do something like "fear the Lord" but doesn't give us any suggestion of how we should set about doing so, it's not really very helpful. So, bearing in mind that not everyone finds the same things helpful, here's some suggestions.

Firstly, look on public worship as keeping two appointments at the same time: one with God, the other with your fellow-worshippers. Treat these appointments as seriously as if you were being interviewed for a job, because that's precisely what God may have in mind for you on a given Sunday. If there's a Sunday when you simply can't be there, why not tell one of your fellow worshippers, so that people don't start worrying about your absence; and try and book a weekday appointment instead.

Secondly. Don't be afraid to ask questions. If life's being difficult or there are things you don't understand, then for goodness sake ask! Wise Men become Wise Men by asking questions, and listening to the answers.

Thirdly: always be on the lookout for the particular nugget of wisdom that God has prepared specifically for you on any given Sunday. OK so the preacher was boring. Then look at the mass sheet and see if there's something in the readings which speaks to you there? There isn't? Well pray the intercessions again. You did that? Well go through the creed and see if there's something you don't understand. And ask questions!

Lastly: try practising the habit of worship or worth-ship on your fellow-men. In other words, never miss an opportunity of praising someone for anything that is praiseworthy about them. Practise on your wife, your husband, your children, your friends. There's no better way to learn to worship God than to give a proper worship to your fellow men.

Wise Men came to worship God at the first Epiphany. They still do today!