Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Over Christmas St. Philip’s has had quite a number of visitors and some of you may have been away for a break, perhaps to see friends and relatives, so I don’t know how far you have come to be here today, or if you set out knowing we would be celebrating Epiphany, but plenty of people are hoping for one – an epiphany, a magic word or feeling, flash of inspiration or understanding, a sign – something special that helps us appreciate and enter into the great mystery that can give life purpose, meaning, even a fresh start. Some still look to the stars for answers, for example, after travelling 6.5 billion kms, stuck in the dark shadow of a cliff on an icy comet, Philae a small man-made probe sits dormant for lack of light falling on her solar panels after transmitting data that may reveal organic molecules that were built into the earth and shed light on the origin of life around 3.6 billion years ago.

It’s amazing the great lengths folk will go to answer burning questions, or how much effort people have been prepared to make, spending whole lifetimes to train their minds, or travel to explore a subject and gather information that we can access with a few keystrokes. Take those Magi, probably priestly scholars from Persia – if they came from Percepolis, a centre of learning to the east they’d have travelled about 2400 kms as the camel flies in search of a child born to be King of the Jews – believing that is what it said in the stars, or what the appearance of a comet could signify. What were they really seeking – wise men who not only searched through ancient scrolls, but looked for purpose and meaning in patterns, or events that broke those patterns, by studying mathematics, movements of objects in the night sky and dreams? Why would they want to pay homage to a child born to be King of… a dirt-poor people ruled by a puppet monarchy that paid tribute to Rome? Why would they have been overjoyed to find the baby in an ordinary house rather than Herod’s palace yet gave him gifts fit for a king? It’s a mystery.

Today, while scientists try to figure out how, where and when life began, more and more people are asking why we are here, what’s the point of it all? And when we read about the tragedies, atrocities and recent spending spree in some countries, while there is widespread suffering in the world, it makes you wonder. Sure, I find the latest scientific advances and theories about the origins of life fascinating, but I have found more purpose and meaning in trying to know the Who – the One who could control such creative force to start and sustain the universe yet still care about every one of us. Alongside science, maybe like the Magi, my own journey has involved pilgrimages, studying scripture and other religious writings to see what the mystics, prophets and poets have had to say, but finally found the answer through an epiphany, or actually several – discovering Christ everywhere and in everyone.

You see, I’ve been to Bethlehem – twice, the first time by accident really, if you can ever call a strange, most unlikely set of circumstances a coincidence or accident. It was very early in the morning of Christmas Eve during the first recent Iraq crisis – the bombing began shortly before I boarded the plane to Tel Aviv, but I had promised to complete an important scientific experiment for a friend and colleague who had just suffered a heart attack. At a chemical plant in Haifa – not the safest place in the circumstances – we had been working around the clock in a disused airplane hangar which was freezing cold, and nothing was going right, when we tried to scale up what we’d already proved in the laboratory. The experts, some with their prayer shawls wrapped around them, others wringing their hands, either out of anxiety or an attempt to warm them up, made me realize the lab had been much warmer, so we needed to build a heated enclosure around the equipment. While they got all wheels and gears, an Arab driver was assigned to take me out of the way for a few hours. Bethlehem was on my list of must-sees, not thinking it would be dangerous because the bombing had escalated. Walking up the deserted street to Nativity square, its shops boarded up and rocks everywhere left from a riot the day before, my guide seemed to take it all in his stride, asking if I’d like him to accompany me into the Church. He was Muslim, but having already taken me to places on my list like the Holy Sepulchre, so it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know I was Christian.

He waited just inside, while I went in search of the cave-like crypt that so-say marks the birthplace of Jesus. It was eerie being there alone, as I thought, kneeling in that tiny, sooty space, praying for peace with the distant sounds of fighter-jets breaking the sound barrier high overhead. I confess, I did wonder why – why we were put on this planet, why cannot live in peace, why we try to make a difference with so little to show for it, and why I even bothered to pray. But we pray anyway, believing that if our intentions are good, they please our Maker and mysteriously cooperate with God’s plan. Time was running out – time to stop asking questions and see if warmth was the answer to the problem we had to solve (in more ways than one).

Wearily wondering if I’d make it back to Vancouver for Christmas, what with the time change, I slowly took one last look around as I walked up the nave, noticing a soldier in the shadows, his gun at the ready and my Arab guide missing. I started to panic until I smelt cigarette smoke, and found my Muslim guide outside with an Israeli soldier, happily smoking and chatting away.

They had been guarding my safety, while I had been praying for theirs. Why? Because something extraordinary happened about 2000 years ago – someone special was born who was able to demonstrate the power of love to cut through debate when it descends into hate by being divisive rather than enlightening, someone who revealed the power of goodness that always was and still is present in human nature, no matter how far from its true potential we may travel, nor how dark our thoughts may descend. That was an epiphany – I think we have them all the time – opportunities to marvel at life all around us and the great Mystery that permeates it. We may call it by different names, or be slow to even acknowledge it, but the Glory of God that might strike us in the radiance of a distant star or glow of dawn, can also be seen in the radiance of a love shining from the faces of newly-weds, new parents and grandparents, in old friends greeting one another, in someone delighted that a meeting or test or operation has gone well, in those who are transfigured by joy having found forgiveness, purpose, the pleasure in a relationship, or final peace as they approach the transition from this life to the next. Such radiance is so attractive, it’s draws us into its power, perhaps shining a new light on our lives, our decisions, new directions and our potential for happiness.

We know it when we see it – we just have to be willing to look and see how good it is. No matter how far we travel or how long we take to get to that point, once we’ve seen the love of Christ at work, we start to notice in the unlikeliest places and people, and it warms our hearts. We may not go home by a different road, but maybe we’ll take a different path through life’s ups and downs, viewing or approaching things differently – finding purpose and meaning by offering whatever we do to God’s Glory and that can make the world of difference in how we value our work, our lives, our world and one another – in fact it casts a new light on everything.