A Sermon given by Professor Kenneth M Boyd
(College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh)
at Crosby Ravensworth
on Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Epiphany 2012; Ephesians3, 1-12; Matthew2, 1-12

This New Year, 2012, marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the most popular of the Victorian novelists. Dickens' more sentimental passages may no longer move readers to tears, and some of his comic or evil characters may now sound too like caricatures, but many of his observations of financiers and politicians for example are still recognisable and relevant; and above all he is a great storyteller, aware that in real life things often do not turn out as expected, and that every life is full of possibilities, for those with eyes to see them. For his contemporaries, I suspect, Dickens' stories may have got across a great deal more of essential Christian teaching than many sermons did: the great themes of riches and poverty, sin and forgiveness, judgement and redemption, faith, hope and love, are all there, most famously perhaps in A Christmas Carol, but also in Dombey and Son for example, or in Hard Times.

That stories could get these Christian themes across more effectively than sermons, of course, should not surprise us, for what are Jesus' parables but stories? Like those of Dickens, they reflect how in real life things often do not turn out as expected, and that every life is full of possibilities, for those with eyes to see them. Like good stories and unlike bad sermons moreover, Jesus' parables do not go banging on about what their moral is, and some of them are quite enigmatic, teasing the hearers to work out for themselves what he has to say to them, now, in this moment.

One of the reasons why Dickens may have been more successful in this respect than many 19th century sermons, incidentally, is suggested by a novel I've already mentioned, Hard Times. It begins with the Victorian schoolmaster Mr Gradgrind declaring: "Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life." Dickens is here caricaturing the idea that modern science and technology can provide all the answers we need for life, which from a Christian point of view is obviously untrue. But from a Christian point of view also, the caricature is rather unfair to modern science and technology, which really got going two or three centuries earlier positively encouraged by Christian belief - the belief that nature was not 'full of gods' as ancient superstition believed, but was the creation of God, who had created humans with the capacity to understand and make wise use of what God had created.

The trouble was, of course, that many people, like Mr Gradgrind, got so fascinated by trying to understand the facts God had created, that they forgot that God had created them. They were able to do this, partly because at that time they still thought of creation - not as the infinitely complex and ultimately mysterious universe modern physics now suggests - but as if it were a great clockwork machine that God, before departing to a great distance, had wound up and left for scientists to investigate and make practical use of. This the scientists proceeded to do, and science advanced; but at the same time unfortunately, many churchmen and theologians, the very people who might have questioned the idea that God had departed to a great distance, tended to see that departure as part of God's plan, and succumbing to the fashion for facts, began to interpret the Bible as if it too was all about facts. Their literalist approach often lacked the imagination to reach the living truth contained in the Bible; and as new scientific advances repeatedly undermined the literalists' claims for its scientific and historical accuracy, it is not surprising that their sermons failed to stem the rise of unbelief in the deep truths of Christian faith.

In today's Epistle, there's a little example of how such a literalist approach might fail. In the RSV English translation, St Paul describes the good news that Christ is for all people as 'the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things'. Now you can see how the word 'plan' could appeal to someone who thought of creation as a machine that God - the Supreme Planner - had wound up before departing, to return in judgement on his work only at the end of time. But the Greek word St Paul uses for 'plan' is more faithfully translated, I think, as 'stewardship' or 'family management' - words that more intimately reflect the involvement of God who chooses to be known in the weakness as much in the wonder of Christ's incarnation - the Word made flesh, not just to be made words again, but to be lived out lovingly in our individual lives and communities. The 'mystery' of which St Paul writes, the 'mystery of love' we are called at Christmas to 'rise and adore', remains a mystery still, not subject to human calculation or control or even understanding. Yet the love at the heart of this mystery nevertheless repeatedly draws near to us, again in ways we cannot understand, to assure us that we are understood, and understood are forgiven, and forgiven are loved.

Now to the Gradgrinds of this world, this is all pure fantasy. A favourite word of our 'new atheist' friends today is 'imaginary'. God, they tell us, is an imaginary being for whom there is no evidence whatsoever, just wishful thinking. There is nothing to the world except what we discover with our five senses and their extension in science. For now, let's leave it to philosophers to point out that there is no scientific basis for these claims: what atheists and Christians alike most fundamentally believe is based rather, on how each interprets their own experience of life; and this being the case, our main challenge as Christians is to live our lives in the light of the mystery: 'O make but trial of his love: experience will decide.'

Today - Epiphany - is another reminder of this. It falls at a time when our pre-Christian ancestors celebrated their festival of light, and the word 'Epiphany' itself also is older than Christianity: in Greek, it means something or someone - in some cases a divine being - coming into the light, or more generally bringing to light what is real, but inaccessible to our five senses. The persistence of these images, and their imaginative elaboration in the stories of the three wise men for example, surely, reinforce rather than undermine the Christian use of them.

The Greek word for light, at the root of 'Epiphany', is also at the root of what, via its Latin translation, became our word 'imagination'. To live our lives in the light of the mystery, we need to use our imagination. We need to use our imagination about life's possibilities, about what others might be feeling, about what we might do to make the world a better place, but above all to realise that the world we normally take so much for granted is ultimately more mysterious, and more miraculous and providential, than we assume amidst our everyday preoccupations. Facts cannot teach us this: only the imagination, tested in experience. That is why we still need storytellers like Dickens, and supremely Jesus, to kindle our imagination; and it is why a wise man once said that 'poetry is the natural language of religion'.

But since I've talked about the mystery of love, and since I, and perhaps you, so often fail to live in its light, let me end with the words by a man I knew who was wise in faith. 'Love', he wrote, 'is the secret of joy… by which you will make many rich'; and then he added, 'so great is this calling that to fail in it is worth more than success in any other'. To fail in love, is worth more than success in any other calling.