Crows Nest Uniting Church
Epiphany • 4 Jan 2015


Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12


Rev. Chris Udy




For some reason
the stars have always held a fascination
for people who want to understand
the biggest and deepest questions of life.
Traditional societies saw their gods and heroes
moving across the sky.
They recognised that those movements
were both regular and predictable -
and out of their worship
came an understanding of the universe
as ordered and structured and lawful.
The earliest scientific thinkers
like Galileo and Newton
not only charted
the movements of the planets
they also wrote theology -
usually quite pedestrian theology -
and they understood their life and work
as charting and revealing God’s creativity.
Modern astronomers and physicists
also approach their work with profound wonder,
which is a kind of worship -
and although some of them
are pretty negative about religion
they seem to be constantly talking about God
and pondering God’s role in creation.
 
Paul Davies is a scientist,
and not a theologian,
but over the last few years
he’s been consistent
in challenging some of his colleagues
over their conclusions
about the point and purpose of the universe.
For a long time
theologians and religious people
have been criticised
for holding onto ideas -
like the idea of God -
that could neither be proved right
nor proved wrong.
Most scientists would say
that unprovable ideas like God
have no place in science,
and are both confusing and unnecessary.
But the more we understand about the universe
and the more we learn about life,
the more it seems
that the order and structure
and lawfulness of the universe
is moving in a particular direction -
and that the design of universe is predisposed -
or biased, or maybe even intended -
against scientific expectations -
to produce complexity, and life,
and intelligence, and understanding.
If the universe is simply random and chaotic
you’d expect things to wind down, to dissipate,
to become less complex and more simple -
but that’s not what we see -
and in fact the opposite is happening.
Paul Davies writes:
‘We now know
the universe began
in a state of almost total blandness.
The richness and diversity
of (the) physical systems we observe today
have emerged since the beginning
through a long series
of self-organising processes.
Viewed this way,
the conspicuous story of the universe so far
is not one of decay,
but of unfolding enrichment.’ (SMH 1/1/03  p.11)
Paul Davies even quotes
one of the 20th century’s greatest astrophysicists -
Fred Hoyle –
as saying “It looks like a superintellect
has monkeyed with physics”.

(http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3836881.htm)

 
A ‘superintellect’ that can
‘monkey around with physics’
almost sounds like something we might call God –
and, as you can imagine,
that suggestion doesn’t suit some physicists,
who have recently suggested
that the apparent order
and design of our universe
is just an accident - an aberration -
and that, really, there are many many universes -
what they’re calling the ‘multiverse’ -
where there is no order, no structure,
and no evidence of design at all.
Our universe is just one of those many many,
and it just happens to be the one
where, by pure chance, things fell out right,
for order, and life, and understanding to grow.
The only problem is -
according to Paul Davies -
the existence of the multiverse
is an idea - like the existence of God -
that can’t be proved right,
or proved wrong.
“In the beginning was a multiverse” he jokes,
“with a set of wonderful properties
that we're not going to explain.
The big problem with the multiverse
is that we're trying to say,
well, we can't explain this universe, as we see it –
[so] we'll appeal to some bigger system
which we really can't observe.”
So, Paul Davies says,
we’d really do better to believe
that the universe has been “fine-tuned
to produce intelligent minds”

(http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/3836881.htm)

which leads us back to the realm of religion,
and we’re left with the mystery of the stars,
that seem to dance to music we can’t hear,
composed to a design
we’re still just beginning to see.
 
Today we celebrate Epiphany -
which means ‘showing’ or ‘revelation’,
and we read about the Magi and their journey
to bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh
to the baby Jesus.
The gifts are symbols of life and meaning:
gold represents the truth we find
through having wealth and power;
frankincense - or incense -
represents the insights of ritual and religion;
and myrrh is the perfume of death -
the ultimate meanings of life
that we gain through our own experience
at the thresholds of life.
 
And the Magi - the wise men themselves -
are another gift again.
They represent the meanings we receive
through scholarship and knowledge.
They arrive in Bethlehem
after a long journey of learning,
and they bring their gifts to Jesus
in an act of worship and respect -
as if to say that their scholarship and their learning -
the wisdom of the wise men -
is not and end in itself, or complete in itself,
but needs to find a point,
or a purpose it can serve.
And when the Magi have presented their gifts
they also do something we might consider
strangely unscientific.
They have to make a choice -
either to be enlisted
and controlled by political power
and deceived into betraying Jesus
and all he represents -
or to take another way on their journey -
so they choose to turn their backs
on Herod’s intrigues and invitations -
the seductive power of political influence -
and they take another way home -
and the insight that they use to make their choice
comes from a dream –
from their attention and respect
for life within.
 
The days of Renaissance women and men are long gone.
They say that Leonardo da Vinci
knew everything worth knowing in his time -
that he had mastered every branch
of theology and the art and science of his day -
but today it’s impossible
for one person to study and master
all the disciplines of prayer and science and art
that give our lives meaning and purpose.
Instead we have to specialise,
we choose an area of knowledge or skill
and try to sell our expertise
to employers or to a community
where what we know and what we do
is valued for the money it can make
or the power it delivers.
Sadly that often means
we find ourselves competing
for recognition or understanding
or influence, or funding,
or simply for a living -
and we find ourselves suspicious and defensive
against people who,
in different circumstances,
might otherwise have something
helpful and constructive
to add to our understanding
of life, the universe and everything.
So the doctors battle the accountants,
and the teachers criticise the bureaucrats,
the greens attack the miners,
and the physicists laugh at theologians,
all of them secretly dreaming of a perfect universe
where everything is organised
according to their rules,
and where the ultimate purpose of life
reflects their prime importance.
 
But what we have is a world
where everyone needs everyone,
and where we have to trust - to believe -
that the people we rely on
to explain the things
we haven’t had time to learn
are telling us the truth as they see it
and treating us with respect.
The truth about life, the universe and everything
can’t be explained in one discipline
or contained in one system,
or understood by one person.
Discovering truth and meaning
needs a team approach -
and maybe that’s why, traditionally,
although Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say,
traditionally there were 3 wise men -
not just one -
and maybe that’s why all their gifts -
the gold, and the frankincense and the myrrh -
were offered equally and together
and all received as appropriate and worthy.
We also need to recognise
that we live and work
in both the outer world -
the world of objects and bodies and processes
and what we can touch and see -
and also the inner world
the world of the spirit,
of emotions and symbols and hopes and dreams.
 
In Epiphany we also remember
that God’s revelation
is best received and understood,
not in things -
not in objects or possessions -
nor in words or ideas or principles or laws,
God’s revelation has found its highest expression
in the life of Jesus:
in Jesus who was born and had a body,
but is now gone from among us.
And the closest thing we have
to the revelation of God in Jesus
is not the Bible,
or the institutional Church,
or science, or philosophy
or any other system of ideas:
we best receive and understand God’s revelation
in those who bear God’s image -
in the people who share life with us,
and who, when treated with respect,
and honoured with our trust,
will help us find God’s purpose
for our lives,
for the life of the world,
and maybe even, given time,
for the music that moves the stars. Amen.