Sermons & services

Sermon for the Solemnity of the Epiphany

Published Monday 9th Jan. 2023, at 4:13 p.m.

Well you may have noticed that autobiographies are very much in the news at the moment. Spoiler alert: this is not a sermon on Prince Harry’s book or his motivations or anything to do with that saga. I don’t know if the Duke of Sussex is aware of this, but he, and everyone else who has ever written about their own lives, owes a massive debt to St Augustine, the great North African bishop, philosopher, and theologian. If you never have, I do urge you to read Augustine’s autobiography: The Confessions. Up until then biographies and autobiographies – like Caesar’s Gallic Wars – tended to be simply the reporting of a sequence of events that made up the person’s his life. He was born. He did this. He did that. He did something else. And then he died. All that changed with Augustine’s Confessions. Uniquely and completely originally, what Augustine gives us is an insight into his thinking as he sets out on the greatest intellectual journey of his life: the search for truth and meaning. The search for God. Told in the form of a prayer – Augustine’s words are always directed towards God – it is his own extraordinarily – sometimes brutally – honest examination of the great mystery that is the human person. We still live in a world where people are on that search. The search for meaning in their lives, and the meaning of their lives. The search for truth. It’s couched nowadays in different language. Nowadays, we tend to hear that all of us must look for our true selves: the real me. And that is fine as far as it goes: I mean, where else do I begin the search for me, but with me? But it misses out on a fundamental aspect of the human person. St Augustine went through many phases of his life. He was, shall we say, a bit of a lad. He dabbled in the different forms of philosophy and religion of his day. But after many years – and much prayer by his mum – he eventually came to the conclusion that there was only one end to his quest. Despite all his restless searching for truth and meaning. Despite all the wrong roads. Despite all the fleeting pleasures of this fleeting life. Despite everything, Augustine came to his famous conclusion: Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Augustine’s story is the story of every human: including you and me. Humans have an inbuilt search engine that seeks to find meaning in their lives, and to find truth as well because we will believe that what is true for us, must also be good for us.
And so humans have searched and searched for meaning in their lives. And this is very much a part of our modern world. We are all encouraged to search for the real me, the best me. We are all encouraged – rightly – to see this as a journey, a journey of self-discovery. A journey to answer the question every human life poses: who am I? What is the purpose and meaning of my life? Is there a purpose and meaning not only to my life, but to life itself? But if I may be so bold, I think these are, in part, the wrong questions. Like Augustine’s youthful life, they are questions posed by me, about me, centred on me. And as I’ve said, that’s sort of okay: I mean how else can I think about this other than about me? But what Augustine found was that the key to the question is not what I think about what’s best for me. The real question is what does God my creator want of me? How can I be the best me God wants me to be? How do I search for God? How may I find God? And will it be in God that I found my true self? Where I will find true meaning? Where I will find truth? Because though we will discover lots of truth along our journey, like Augustine, we will have to admit that along the way we will have taken wrong paths. We may have believed untruths. And untruths may contain elements of truth, but they are not complete truth. So early on, Augustine discovered that the highest life was the one dedicated to the pursuit of wisdom: but that search for wisdom took him down false paths, false philosophies, false ways of living. Augustine turned from his youthful pursuits and began to seriously study the bible and its claim that God had become a human being - the Word had become flesh – in order to save sinful humanity. In the person of Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Again and again, Augustine fought against what Scripture was saying. Again and again, he fought against coming to faith in Jesus. He famously entered into a time of spiritual crisis – on the cusp of faith – in which he cried out: how long shall I keep saying: tomorrow, tomorrow? Then he heard the voice of a young child nearby saying: tolle lege – latin – take up and read. So Augustine picked up his Bible, randomly opened it, and read the words of St Paul: put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh. Augustine’s search had brought him to Jesus. Today we celebrate the journey of the three men – wise in the eyes of the world – who find true wisdom, true meaning, truth in the person of Jesus. Might I suggest, brothers and sisters, that Augustine’s journey – the journey of the Magi – is our journey. A journey through all the twists and turns of life until we find the only source of life and meaning: which is Jesus. A journey with shortcuts, dead ends, U-turns, slow lanes, fast lanes: sometimes lanes with no movement at all! A journey where the sat nav – or Google maps – goes a bit crazy and sends us off into the unknown. Or where we think we know better than Google maps, and we go off in our own direction and end up heaven knows where. Enough of the motoring metaphors. But you get my point. It is only in Jesus that our search for truth and meaning in life will find its object. Only He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. This is the way of Christians down through the ages who have answered the inner call to search for truth and meaning, and have found it in Jesus. As the early church theologian, Tertullian, put it: they who have received Christ prefer truth before fashion, or fad. Only by searching for Him and finding Him will we find the truth, the meaning of life: and so find peace. As Dante put it: in God’s will is our peace. And our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. Amen.