Third Sunday before Lent – 16 February 2014
Suppliers of greetings cards, chocolates and red roses will be celebrating this weekend. Friday was Valentine’s Day, and for weeks the tills have been ringing joyfully. Churches rarely celebrate St Valentine these days… partly because, among so many different stories about him, it’s difficult to distinguish fact from fable. One tradition has Valentine, imprisoned for his Christian faith, falling in love with his Roman gaoler’s blind daughter. He sent her a letter, which miraculously restored her sight. The letter was signed, “From your Valentine”.
Whatever the facts, a Christian saint is now firmly associated with love. How appropriate, since that’s what the good news of Jesus Christ is all about! How ironic then that in the midst of all those romantic cards and chocolates, roses and great big hearts everywhere, today’s Gospel speaks of lust, adultery and divorce.
Nevertheless, that reading (and the Sermon on the Mount it comes from) really is about love: God’s love for all of us; and our love for others… “significant others” or not! Let those Valentine hearts remind us how the Sermon on the Mount is about the heart ,and by that I mean the very core of who we are as human beings. Jesus reminds his followers of the importance of what goes on inside us, our thoughts, our feelings and not just our outward appearance and actions. Our attitudes to God and to other people are what define us as Christians.
As always, the context of this entire passage is so important. Jesus had just shocked his followers by telling them to be more righteous than the scribes and Pharisees or they’d never enter the kingdom of heaven. Yet the religious establishment were supposed to be the very models of righteousness.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus rails against the Pharisees for their strict interpretation of the law, their rigid application of petty regulations, and their blindness to the love that lay behind the Ten Commandments. He taught that all commandments can be summed up in just two: love God with all our heart, and love our neighbours as ourselves. That’s true righteousness. And that’s the context for today’s Gospel, this different, radical interpretation of the commandments. Not just “thou shalt not murder” but: thou shalt not even get angry with anyone. Not just “thou shalt not commit adultery” but: thou shalt not even look at a woman with lust. Respect each other!
It’s what lies behind the act of murder, or our covetousness, greed or adultery that Jesus really wants us to deal with, what’s going on inside our hearts, before we get to the stage of killing someone or being unfaithful to our partners or stealing someone else goods. We need to tackle the anger, the selfishness, the failure to value someone else’s dignity and freedom. That is also the context for what Jesus says about divorce. Today, when we’re thinking about Valentine cards and love letters, it’s a shock to remember that a wife in Gospel times could be cast aside on receipt of a document. And as women couldn’t earn their own living, she would be reduced to abject poverty.
God values women and men alike. Jesus broke the taboos of his day and taught women when that was totally frowned upon by the religious establishment, and broke all the rules by speaking to unaccompanied women. He would have nothing to do with the shameful custom of divorcing a wife just because her husband no longer found her attractive. That is the context for what seems on the surface a hard and fast prohibition of divorce, which has caused a great deal of pain to good Christian people whose marriages have, for one reason or another, failed.
If we turn our attention away from the cardboard hearts to the ones that beat inside us, we have a better chance of developing good relationships with one another as human beings. Each of our hearts was created by a loving God who values us all, and gave us the capacity to love our neighbours and thus to become more like God. I have often described the Bible as a love letter from God. Its entire message can be summed up in those three little words: I love you. Jesus lived, died and was raised to new life for us, because God loves us. The Spirit breathes God’s love into our lives today because he loves us. God our heavenly father keeps his covenant, his promises to us because he loves us.
Some of us didn’t send or receive Valentine cards, either because we object to the commercialisation or because we don’t have a human lover to exchange them with. But every one of us, whether single or in a committed relationship, whether married or divorced, male or female, can be sure of a love that will never falter and never fail us: and that is the love of God which holds each and every one of us day by day. That rejoices in each of us for we are precious and of ultimate value to him. For God our Father has placed the greatest love of all on our lives, in that he allowed his only son to take our place on the cross. God loves you and in his name and by his power he calls you to in turn to love him and to love your neighbour.
Last Christmas Gill and I were awaiting our first grandchild, due on Christmas day – in the event she was late and arrived on 5th January. There had of course been a growing sense of anticipation and lots of preparations going on. There have of course been all the practical preparations, cots, buggies, nappies and the knitting needles had been red hot – but there had also been other preparations – getting used to the fact that there was to be this new member of the family, parents becoming grandparents, brothers becoming uncles and a son becoming a father – that’s scary!
So there has been a lot of expectant waiting and wondering. A waiting and wondering that was filled with hope and with an ever hastening sense of anticipation as the due date came ever closer.
Of course we wait and wonder expectantly about many things – in the morning up and down the country, and indeed all over the world, children will be waking up in eager anticipation of what Santa might have brought them. Most of us are eagerly anticipating in a few hours time, our roast turkey. No doubt today there will be some lovers who will be hoping that a certain a question may be asked, and that a love which has grown and deepened over time can now find its fulfilment as a commitment to marriage is made as an engagement ring is slipped onto the third finger of the left hand – if this happens then of course their will be the eagerly expectant time as all the preparations are made for a wedding day and the hopes of a life filled with love and laughter and joy and happiness and mutual support are anticipated.
Christmas is all about being expectant, about wondering, and about waiting with hope and anticipation. Christmas is not simply about the 9 months of pregnancy finding its natural conclusion– though we are here as witnesses to the joy of the birth of Jesus. But Christmas is about a waiting that had gone on for thousands of years. God had created the world with love and with eager anticipation. He gave birth to the planet earth and the solar system iwith all of its stars and planets, suns and moons and he saw it all and it was beautiful. We come to rejoice with Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and all who come to the crib to witness what God has made as he gives us his Son and to know that he is beautiful and all goodness is contained in him.
This world that God created though got it wrong, we got it wrong. We decided that we knew better than God. We wanted to be in charge and we turned from God. We turned from his way of love and became selfish. We forgot the needs of those around us and the responsibilities which are ours within society and our greed took over. But God, being God, like any good parent, didn’t stop loving us and so he called a people to himself that they might be a light in the darkness of this world. That they might live under his authority as an example to everyone else, that we might, by seeing their holiness, by seeing the reality of God in their midst, realise the error of our ways and turn back to God. Sadly they too got it wrong as a people and they also turned away from God’s special calling to them. They made other gods for themselves and took authority upon their own shoulders and ignored God. Some claimed to speak in the name of God and to live under his rules, but what they had done was make rules for themselves and tried to force their rules on others. Again and again God called to them, I will be your God if you will be my people. I still love you, he was saying, and just as a mother hen protects her chicks under her wings I will protect you, if only you will come back to me.
Some people could see the bigger picture and truly were Godly men and women and they did try and call people back to follow God and love him with all their heart, but they were oppressed by others who were frightened of what they had to say. In the end God decided that the only thing he could do to prove to them and show them how much he loved them was to entrust into their midst, into their hands, his own son. The birth we celebrate today.
I think that as Christians, as a church sometimes we try and make the truth to complicated and people get turned away. Today is what our ‘Good News’ is all about, the birth of a tiny, vulnerable baby. Emmanuel. God With Us!
Jesus was born with the hopes and dreams of God, who made the world. He was born with the wondering and hopes and expectations of Mary and Joseph, who found themselves visited by shepherds and little later by strangers from the East bearing extraordinary gifts. They must have been confused and excited and frightened.
‘Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting Light; The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’
Not for 9 months have we waited, but all our lives and today we proclaim the truth that Emmanuel, God is with us, O come to us abide with us, enter in, our Lord Emmanuel. In this world of sin, the dear Christ enters in.
God is still waiting expectantly, he is waiting with hope, that the truth before whom we come to kneel and adore tonight will be born afresh into our lives and that through us all people will come to hear the great glad tidings. That in this new life held so tenderly in his mother’s arms, is our great hope, Let us be the ones who hold him tenderly today.
Advent 4 2013
How many lovely experiences have you already had today? Have you appreciated the first sights or sounds of the day? Did you hear the dawn chorus of the birds? How did it feel looking out on the cold winter’s day from the warmth of your home? Do you truly appreciate a child’s voice, a friend’s phone call, the beautiful patterns of frost on the windowpane, the little creatures in your garden? Have you appreciated seeing familiar faces here today in our church or our neighbours in our community?
According to Jewish tradition, everyone should recite one hundred blessings every day. Even everyday occurrences should prompt gratitude to God. Jewish people may say blessings before enjoying material pleasures, such as eating, drinking or wearing new clothes, acknowledging God as the creator of the thing that they are about to use. The blessing for bread praises God as the one “who brings forth bread from the earth”, and grace is said after meals, thanking God for the food and the natural world which has provided it. By reciting these blessings, Jews recognise that God is the creator of all things, and each of us, individually and communally, enjoys them as gifts.
Blessings are also recited at special times and events, such as when seeing a rainbow or hearing good news or receiving gifts, acknowledging God as the ultimate source of all things in the universe. The blessings express the realisation that God is far above us but simultaneously close to us – transcendent and yet intimately related to us.
The Hebrew sacred scriptures, our scripture’s are brimming with the expectation of the justice and peace that the Messiah and the reign of our God will one day bring to this world.
We hear the word “Emmanuel” in our readings twice this Sunday, first in the reading from the prophet Isaiah and then in the Gospel from Matthew. It means “God-is-with-us”. Matthew not only begins his Gospel with this theme but also ends with it: “And know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time.” Matthew explains how, in Jesus, God came to live with us, inviting all of us into God’s home – the kingdom of God.
It is as “Emmanuel”, or “God-is-with-us”, that Jesus will help us out of our difficulties. Everything in Jesus’ life – his mission, teaching miracles and healing, his chasing away of evil, and the events of his last days – are an expression of this “God-is-with-us”. No wonder that many commentators judge the name “Emmanuel” to be the core and at the same time the summary of the Good News according to Matthew.
Advent is a time to prepare not only materially but also spiritually for the coming of the Lord. It is an opportunity to take time out of our busy lives, our tasks and appointments, and simply recognise God’s loving presence in all humanity and in the natural world. Even if it is no more than catching brief moments for reflection, try to take those moments in these last few days before Christmas. Perhaps notice the beauty of the sky and be aware of breathing, taking in the fresh God-given air that keeps us alive. Perhaps be more alert to the beauty of the bare trees and the patterns they make against the sky. Pay special attention to the gift of family and friends, and bless God for all these things.
As Christmas draws near, we may have a heightened awareness of God’s presence among us and openness to being changed and blessed by it. Become aware of moments, events, encounters, and things you hear, touch, smell. Have you ever noticed the intricate skin of a tangerine or the change in atmosphere that the Christmas tree brings to the home? Note whatever brings you delight, enjoyment or gladness. Note whatever is around you that is pleasing – the wood of the table, the wind in the trees, the colour of someone’s hair, the touch of water against your skin, a child’s voice, a colleague’s smile, something unexpected, something of beauty. Offer a blessing for it.
Complaining comes easily to many of us, but as we build up to Christmas Day let us develop a positive approach, appreciating what we have and acknowledging the quiet presence of God in our lives who has given us everything. Recognising our blessings can change how we look at the day and transform it. Let us seek to develop a sense of gladness and thankfulness. Let us rediscover our capacity to praise, making peace with ourselves and with God.