Novelist Stephen King is best known for his horror stories. In 1991 he published a story called Needful Things – an elderly gentleman arrives in a small country town and sets up a little gift shop. It's a quaint little store with nooks and crannies in all the right places, and the gentleman himself – Mr Gaunt – reminds everybody of their favourite uncle. The gifts are quirky, if a little old-fashioned, and so within a few weeks just about everybody in town has been through for a look at the stock, and a chat with kindly Mr Gaunt. Turns out this is a store you can lose yourself in – in more ways than one. Because everybody who comes into the store and starts browsing finds – underneath the piles of dusty paper-weights and china dolls and calligraphy supplies and parchment – the one thing he or she can't live without. The one thing that – as soon as they clapped eyes on it – they recognised as what they have always wanted, always hoped to find in a little gift store like this one – now that they think of it, the one thing they always knew they needed but never even knew existed. The one thing – now they knew it did exist – that they couldn't live without. But priced just out of reach.
But Mr Gaunt is in the business of making wishes come true, and so he offers the desperate shopper a deal. You can have it, he says expansively. My pleasure. Just – perhaps a little favour? A harmless practical joke on one of your neighbours? Indulge an old man's sense of humour. And so the deal is done, the townsfolk start to turn on each other, the worthless objects they guard so jealously make them selfish and paranoid – and Mr Gaunt who naturally turns out to be the devil himself moves on to the next country town to use the acquisitive self-centredness of its citizens against them.
This first day of the new year, it seems like a good idea to pause to reflect on the things we 'buy into' in our lives – what our actual behaviour tells us about where our central priorities lie – the actual centre of our lives around which everything else revolves. We also observe today – because the actual day falls between Sundays this year – the feast of the Epiphany, the ancient feast-day of the Church that celebrates Matthew's tale of foreign kings or magicians or astrologers coming to visit the infant Jesus. The word Epiphany is quirky enough in itself, literally meaning something like a sudden apparition from another dimension – in our common speech we use it to mean a sudden moment of insight, the idea that springs fully formed into your head when you're cleaning your teeth, the 'ah-hah' moment. And in our Church calendar we associate it not just with the birth of Christ at Christmas, with the entering of the divine into the physical here-and-now world – but with the realisation that there is something here to be noticed if only we will look. Something that bursts in from outside us, that changes everything. If just we can be bothered paying attention. Epiphany asks the question: Where do we see God to be present among and in us? What are the signs of the sacred among us? It is with that quest, that search, that discovery, that we concern ourselves today as we consider the main thing.
It's a quest that we are all on, whether we like it or not – and as the Stephen King story points out – a quest on which we all too often take a wrong turn – mistake something worthless for the main prize. But I think a close examination of Matthew's story of the wise men from the east who follow the leading of a star to Jerusalem and beyond in search of the one who would make all the acquisitions of wealth and knowledge relative, gives us a few clues about our own quest. And there are three things that this story tells us about the quest, about the search for what's most important.
The first is that they follow a star. According to Matthew's story, these travellers are not kings but magoi, something like a cross between astrologers and scientists but at any rate people who looked to the heavens for guidance and to the natural world for signs. The quest for the main thing begins for them with an upward look, with a posture of prayer and an attitude of humility. Their journey begins, in other words, with the assumption that the spiritual world and the natural world – and the social and political worlds too – are not separate but interpenetrate each other. It's an assumption that distinguishes them from we supposedly enlightened 21st century men and women who for the most part assume we inhabit a mechanistic material universe and a social and political universe driven solely by the clash and interaction of self-interest – with the holy, the divine or the spiritual world confined – if we admit its existence at all – to our inner landscape or even to the remoter dimension of the hereafter. Without abandoning the benefits of a modern worldview driven by science we do, it seems, have much to learn from the ancients who more readily than us looked for signs of God's leading in the world around them, in the subtle undercurrents of nature and in the movements of empires and the dreams of women and men. The attitude of prayer is fundamentally one of perceptiveness, of paying attention not just to your own circumstances and your own needs and desires, but to the signs of movement in the world and the community around you that show where God's Spirit might be leading. And so they put their own agenda behind them, they accept the instruction of the cosmos and they follow the star. This is the first lesson for us, and of course it has nothing to do with futile literalistic arguments about how a star can lead people across a desert or signal the arrival of a king.
The second thing is that the quest continues with a journey. Perhaps it is not coincidence that Matthew's story of the magoi involves a similar sort of journey of faith to that of Abraham and Sarah, who left their home in the east and journeyed across the same landscape on the assurance that God would be with them, that all peoples would be blessed through them and that their descendents – among which we surely must be counted – would be more numerous than the stars in the heavens. In purely physical terms the journey of the magoi driving camels across the deserts and mountains of Mesopotamia and the Middle East would rank with any of the tales of courage and endurance in the modern world, with ever-present risks of predation and thirst and exposure – but the point is this – that standing as a metaphor for the quest for what is truly most important in lives the journey of the magoi tells us that we can't do it from the comfort of closed minds and sheltered lives. To encounter the numinous in your life – to touch the spirit – means to sacrifice other options, to leave behind some creature comforts, to get out of the rut of easy routines and self-centred choices, and to take some risks. The goal of the quest for the spirit doesn't just land in your lap as you watch TV, but comes into focus only as you travel towards it. The journey as a metaphor might stand for the choices we need to make in how we can sacrifice our own self-obsession and think more about the lives of those around us, how we can move out of our own comfort zone and give up some of our own resources and our own certainties in order to provide for the needs of others.
The journey also involves opposition, and the need for intelligence and discernment, as the magoi discover when they make a wrong turn and find themselves in Jerusalem being interrogated by the wily despot, Herod. The journey of the spirit – the quest for what is truly most important in our own lives – will lead us into places where we need moral courage, where the easiest thing might seem to be to go along with somebody else's agenda but the important thing is to think clearly about right and wrong, to remain true to our purpose.
And the last thing is this. That when the magoi reach their goal – and we can trust that we are in fact led reliably – they offer gifts. Matthew tells us they are overwhelmed with joy. The New American Bible translation reflects the Greek even better I think – they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy – four Greek superlatives piled one on top of the other. This is not just being mildly excited, but connecting with the very source of joy, because they have discovered that which is undeniably the object of their quest, the very main thing embodied in the unlikely looking surroundings of a farm shed. And they give the costliest treasures of their lives – yes, myrrh might sound a bit funny as a birthday gift, but the point is that the realisation of the treasure of the spirit makes everything else relative and leads them to offer up those treasures of earthly wealth that all too often we cling on to for security. Even when you encounter the treasure of the spirit there is something you have to give up in return. To realise the joy of the spirit in your life and to own it as the one thing you can't live without – means giving up some of the other stuff we all too often act as though we can't live without. If the spirit is the main thing, then your iPad or your expensive car or your overseas holiday isn't.
Like the townspeople in the Stephen King story, we make choices.