Candlemass 2015 Sunday 1st February
I suspect that with many of the adverts on the TV at the moment to do with holidays and sunshine some of us may have started dreaming of where we may be spending some time in the summer? Days that will be filled with the warmth and the light of sunshine. No more dark grey days, no more cold driving rain, but rather just the warmth and brightness that drifts in to sultry evenings with a body which now glows.
Today, the feast of Candlemass is all about light and warmth. The light and warmth that fills our souls and bodies and minds, the light and warmth of God.
As we came into this temple today - we would have been like Simeon and Anna, who all those years ago entered the Temple of Jerusalem, in all its splendour - but also in its darkness ad its shadows. Nonetheless it was the focus for God's people, of his presence with them, of his fidelity to them. 'I will be your God'. To the temple they came in hope and expectation of their God, hoping, knowing that one day he would fulfil his promise to them and they would have their Messiah - his anointed one.
Simeon you will recall has been told that he will not see death until he has seen God's blessed one. That is why he would come in the darkness of the morning - waiting for the light of the new day, waiting expectantly for the light of the new dawn.
On that day, as Jesus was brought by Mary and Joseph to the temple, no doubt may others arrived with their first born sons too, Just as the law demanded of them and they would offer them to God. But today a moment that changes history was made, itself un-dramatic and unnoticed. No clouds parted, no great lights shone, no clear separation of light and darkness, just an ordinary couple and their baby son and old Simeon and Anna. Everyone else simply gets on with their business as usual.
Mary came for the rite of purification , and as Moses law prescribes, every firstborn male must be designated as holy to the Lord. They came to offer their sacrifice of a pair of turtle doves or two pigeons - hinting at the great sacrifice of the year, the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, when the high priest will take the blood of the lamb and enter the holy of holies so that all may be made clean, purified.
Simeon's waiting is over, Mary and Joseph's waiting is over, as he takes the child in his arms, for at last someone else sees and knows what is happening - it is as if scales have fallen from their eyes: Here Simeon is, holding the child and praising God, declaring that God's salvation has arrived, God's promise not just to Israel but to the whole world. This child is not just the light of God's chosen people, the Jews, but he is the light for the whole world; a light which burns more brightly than the sun, a light that kindles the fire in human hearts, a light that warms and cheers and consoles, a light that illuminates all things and can never be extinguished.
But also there are chilling words - this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and he will be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed - and, Simeon says, a sword will pierce your own soul too.
Today is a day which brings an end to our celebrations of the Nativity and begins to turn our thoughts towards the Passion and Holy Week. It is a pivotal day in our calendar. This light which will indeed be rejected, the fulfilment of all the covenants of the Temple - will indeed become the one whose blood is spilled for the redemption of all. God's light for all the world, with a mother who will share in that pain.
We may marvel today at the depth and accuracy of the discernment of Simeon and Anna, and feel that such sensitivity is more than we are capable of. But their closeness to God and their openness to his promptings offer a challenge to us all. It was a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who once said, “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t pray, they don’t.” The deeper our prayer life, the closer our walk with God, the more likely we are to be able to pick up the signs of God’s activity and intention. And while not many of us may be called to be “day and night in the Temple” as Anna and Simeon were, nevertheless all Christians are called to listen to God, and to take time to develop and deepen their relationship with him.
Bishop Stephen Cottrell writing from Anna's perspective at the end of this momentous day says this:
Now it is night again and I am waiting for the dawn of tomorrow. But it will not be the same. The sun will rise, but it will rise on a different world, a world into which a greater light has come.
This is the light we celebrate and proclaim, a light and warmth that will, if we but allow it, fill our souls and our bodies, our hearts and our minds. A light which will drive away all darkness and despair. The light of the new dawn, the light of the resurrection.
The Baptism of Christ 2015
“He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
The great Swiss theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth, had a reproduction of an old painting, the Isenheim Altarpiece, hanging above his study desk. The painting, by Matthias Grünewald, born around 1480, was a powerful depiction of the crucifixion. But what drew Barth’s continuing attention was the figure of John the Baptist standing, somewhat anachronistically, to the right of the cross – he had been executed himself two years or so before Jesus’ death. The aim of placing John there was not a correction to the biblical text, still less a mistake. Grünewald was concerned with John’s attitude to Jesus and represents him pointing a long, bony finger at Jesus – “a prodigious finger”, as Barth called it. Pointing to Jesus, Barth maintained, is the one aim of the theologian and preacher and summed up his own life’s work. We should of course say the same about ourselves, that that same “pointing” should also be the aim of every Christian.
The gospels introduce us to John the Baptist, but the Gospels are not the only ancient source of information about the man. He is also mentioned in the historical work of Titus Flavius Josephus, a Roman Jew born in Jerusalem in AD 37. This work speaks of John as a man popular with the Jewish people and respected for his godliness and strong call to righteousness. Mark corroborates that view, telling perhaps with slight exageration, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”.
But John’s ministry does not stand alone; The gospels introduce him in a way that connects him both to the past and to the future. The description of him as “clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist” is strikingly similar to the description of Elijah the prophet in the Old Testament (2 Kings 1:8); John is connected to the ancient Jewish prophetic tradition. At the same time the Baptist’s words point to the future and the coming of Jesus who would, he said, be “more powerful than I”, and would baptise his followers “with the Holy Spirit”.
Jesus now enters the narrative and immediately submits to John’s baptism in the Jordan. The gospel accounts speak of how Jesus comes out of the water, and the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit descends upon him like a dove. People of Jesus’ time thought of the cosmos as literally having three tiers: the underworld of the dead, the world of the living and the heavens in which God dwelt. So this tearing of the heavens is an obvious image of heavenly glory breaking upon a world of sin and brokenness. Jesus is then being confirmed as the one that was in his person the revelation of God’s glory to the world. The vision is then confirmed to him as the voice of God the Father declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The people to whom John the Baptist ministered were familiar with the tradition recorded in our Old Testament of prophets who spoke God’s word, and they saw John as faithfully continuing that tradition in their own time. But John also introduced something new: he bore witness to Jesus who, in a calling higher than that of any of the prophets, would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit. John’s stance on this point inspired the artist, Grünewald, to paint his anachronistic but powerful altarpiece, which in turn inspired Karl Barth.
The question for us is whether we too seek to follow the examples set by John the Baptist, Matthias Grünewald and Karl Barth in ourselves pointing others to Jesus. Are we prepared, in the deeply sceptical environment in which we live, to declare publicly that Jesus Christ is indeed the Son of God, the beloved of God the Father? Are we prepared by the way we live, following God’s law of love, to demonstrate that this Jesus has made a difference in our lives? Do our lives demonstrate that the heavens have indeed been torn apart and God’s Spirit has descended not just on Jesus at his Baptism, but upon us also as Jesus fulfills is promise in us and baptizes us too with the gift of the Holy Spirit?
Jesus Baptism by John marked the start of his itinerant ministry, we too are called to walk with him, to proclaim God's love in word and action today - will you follow the example of John the Baptist and point to Jesus in the way your life is lived. Will you follow Jesus in reaching out to all people and serving them in the name of God. Will you invite others to join you on the journey of faith?
The Second Sunday of Christmas 4th January 2015
The well-known story of Christmas has just been relived through nativity scenes, plays and sermons here and around the world.
Mary, the new mother, had experienced much in the last nine months of her young life. First, she had been visited by the angel Gabriel and told she would give birth to a son, to be named Jesus, even before she was married and was still a virgin. Though this news must have confused, even scared her, the Magnificat stays with us as an expression of a soul glorifying God’s greatness, recognising God’s redemption and covenantal faithfulness, and knowing her life as blessed. She had had this miracle pregnancy affirmed by Elizabeth, herself pregnant despite her age and years of barrenness. Mary’s condition had humiliated her loving fiancé, yet he had had a dream that kept him with her. She had travelled for days with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem in her last weeks of pregnancy, and had just given birth in the poorest surroundings imaginable – a stable, where she only had a manger to rest her baby.
And then the shepherds arrived, fresh from their night’s vigil in the fields, full of noisy excitement to see what they said had been announced to them by angels too. They had acted as if her baby was theirs as well, and Mary had to absorb this truth, as we are still absorbing it today, all of us everywhere.
Like many mothers (and even fathers) before and after her, Mary was treasuring these first days of motherhood, storing up the memories of the first moments and first sights as a first-time mother, secretly storing away in her heart all the memories and meanings, stories and space, grace and presence, peace and passion. Her son had arrived, his life and his story were unfolding, and Mary’s journey as the mother of this child was just beginning.
And, on the edge of it all, Mary is held in silent contemplation.
Mary had had both heavenly and earthly messengers telling her about her son’s significance: angels and shepherds. The titles they gave to her new-born baby were full of awesome promise: Christ, Messiah, Son of the Most High, King, born in David’s city, the fulfilment of all human hope, not just for Israel’s time and context, but for all eternity. The titles “Lord” and “Saviour” that the shepherds passed on to Mary from the angelic message in the fields were properly divine names, previously applied to God, not a human being, never a baby. And Mary pondered over them, as must we.
Despite being of the line of David, no extended family were present, no place was made ready for his birth, no lavish, comfortable surroundings welcomed him. He slept in a cattle-feeding trough, recalling Isaiah 1 and the devotion of the ox and ass in contrast to Israel’s infidelity. Israel knew they waited for a Messiah, but no space was available when he came. What space have we created?
Matthew records Jesus’ first visitors as the Eastern sages, but Luke writes of the simple shepherds – the unclean of rabbinic tradition, amongst the lowest of the low in social status. And in their presence we see the reminder of Jesus as Israel’s good shepherd, the one with the poor and marginalised as much today as ever.
As the waves of praise and joy succeed one after as we focus on the heavenly and the earthiest, the dazzling chorus and the obscure hillside at night, the glory of the highest with the poorest, the scene becomes suddenly empty with the withdrawal of the noise and visitors, leaving the baby in the manger with his mother. And Mary contemplates the goodness she has known, the truth she has heard, the beauty she has seen, not perhaps making sense of it all just yet, but holding it all as precious and life-transforming possibility and promise.
As we begin this year of our Lord 2015, we can do no better thing than to also ponder these greatest of truths and begin to ask God where his transforming possibilities and promise are for us in our lives today - I have been reading over your Mission Action Plan response forms and some central themes are emerging from them. I have to tell you that I have felt very strongly recently we are on the cusp of something very special. Will you give yourself to pray, and to work for and to speak of the glory our God who is the Word, from the beginning of time, who has come amongst us, who has lived and died for us, who has won for us the grace and glory of resurrection life, who has empowered us by the sending of the Holy Spirit. Will you pray God to fill your life afresh with that transforming grace of the Spirit that we may be empowered to achieve all that our God is asking of us?
Happy New Year.