Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
28th Jan 2018
The Feast of the Presentation of ur Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2018.
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
In today’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph and Jesus come enter the Temple to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The meaning of this event also concerns a second narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Simeon and Anna provide a contrast to the young family of Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus. In the meeting of these two oddly matched couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was traditional to present a boy child to the priest and for the mother to be ritually cleansed. This purification had its equivalent in The Church of England not so long ago in the so-called ‘Churching’ of women following a pregnancy. In the Jewish blessing and the cleansing ceremony there takes place in this story a meeting and a greeting between two religious epochs…The Old and New Testament worlds are shown to us in the one time, the one place and in the one child, Jesus. The meeting is expressed as the fulfilment of ancient prophecy and brought to bear in the prophecy of Simeon. He tells Mary that her child “is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel,; a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. And then the sting “and a sword will pierce your own soul, too”.
Luke paints this message on the broadest possible canvas : not only of history, but of the Divine purpose. The Old Testament man Simeon is more than a mere bystander. In the closing days of his life, he is privileged to utter prophecy in the recognition of the child as a prayer to God the Father: “Mine eyes save seen thy salvation” he cries “which thou hast prepared before the face of all people…” And this is very moving, as we see the old man, coming to the end of his life, meeting the new born baby and witnessing the outcome of his own life’s longing. He sees his own salvation. And TS Eliot marks, in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and death in the immensity of time and sets them alongside Simeon's completed life.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.
TS Eliot ‘A Song of Simeon’.
Today is a Feast Day of Candles. There is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple. In the carrying of candles, we bring the story to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. We bring back into life things done and spoken long ago, and of the holding in our hands, as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people’. By these means we, after all these years, we claim real ownership of those things which this meeting offers and proclaim them as Epiphany.
Last week I was in York, and waited on a cold morning for a free guided tour, which was to take place at 11 am. The tour guide came up to us and sais “You are an exceedingly privileged group. You are the first group of pilgrims who will see this morning the newly restored great East Window since it was covered some ten years ago. You will see this glorious miracle, the largest medieval stained glass window in the world, all wrought in glass, as the medievals saw it. Well, we couldn’t believe our luck, and nothing could have prepared us for what we saw; this miracle in glass. We were told that Medieval Church glass is exceedingly rare, and that York Minster has 40% of the Medieval glass contained in the whole country. It is, literally, a wonder of the world, and a wonder to behold. It tells in stained glass the story of the Christian salvation from Creation in panel after panel of images shot through with animation and narrative power and luscious colour.
On that day, standing before this immense, miracle window, my eyes were ‘seeing salvation’ through the same human eyes, minds and souls of those for whom this window was the expression of a passionate avowal of their Christian Faith. This same passion is uttered by Simeon to literally ‘bring down the curtain’ on the Old Testament and ancient prophecy. Now the promise is made in Jesus. The Light which illumines the light and dark places of this world’s being and which shines on me, now, in particular.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
21st Jan 2018
Epiphany 3 Year B
The Wedding feast at Cana.
Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory. John 2.11
This holy season of Epiphany contains a natural kind of exuberance, like the bubbles in a glass of champagne. For Epiphany is the coming into being of Christ as the glorious manifestation of power and presence. Outward and seemingly ordinary events become charged with the presence of the Creator God and burst into life. The Baptism of Christ was accompanied by the opening of the heavens and the voice of God crying ‘This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased’. We understand the Season of Epiphany as the beginning of several epiphanies or glorious manifestations. The coming of Jesus Christ as our Saviour has its own unstoppable momentum,
You go to my head,
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne.
Writers Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein.
You may think this champagne image a bit frivolous, until you realise that today’s Epiphany happening, the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana, is the first of Christ’s miracles. And because it is the first miracle it has great significance for the Christian Church in the manifestation of God’s glory. It comes to us in the writing of Archbishop Michael Ramsey:
The glory of God is the living man
And the life of man is the vision of God.
St Irenaeus, inscribed on Archbishop Ramsey’s gravestone.
Christ’s life is to be our example, and it is to be a life lived to the full, brimmed full of expensive and exuberant love. It is a life of intimate connectedness and friendship and personal understanding and generosity. And this is revealed, sensationally, at the Cana wedding feast in the miraculous supply of wine. This is Christ’s epiphany as loving provider and life giver, or in the words of one of modern hymns, as ‘The Lord of the Dance’. “I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance,” said he... The psalmist puts it in more elevated terms when he says “With you, O God is the fountain of life, and by your light we see light”. (36, 7b,8). God is the fountain of life and the waters of life dance to the tune of his voice. He is, before all else, a life giver.
Parties of whatever kind, and specially wedding parties, where members of different families are meeting in an intimate atmosphere as strangers, need some social ‘oiling’ to get them going. In one of Alan Bennett’s plays, ‘Single Spies’, none other than our Queen Elizabeth II is featured, and we overhear a conversation that she’s having with the Keeper of her paintings. ‘Of course’ she says dryly, ‘When I meet people they’re always on their best behaviour, and when people are at their best they are invariable at their worst, and this is so fatiguing...’ The provision of good wine or drink is both an emollient, an ice-breaker, and also an act of celebration in itself, a toast to the bride and groom.
In the wedding feast at Cana, we are being given us a foretaste of the life that he has come to bring. His ministry is to be intimately bound up with the lives of those around him, and he is to promise his followers as he promises us in this Eucharist, not just life, but life in its fullness. His and our cup of life through the Holy Spirit is to run over, and promise deep and unspeakable joy.
In Christ we have fullness of experience at the earthly level. The fount of life is also the God who refreshes us within the very heart of ourselves, and warms our hearts with his gracious and generous love. There is no part of our lives that cannot be loved back into union with ourselves, with others and with God. However stubbornly we play dead with those parts of our nature that need healing, God beckons us into loving union with him through the life of his Church. This is why the Church has been referred to as ‘the bride of Christ’ : The Wedding Feast at Cana speaks of Christ’s willingness to espouse his ministry to the guests then and to us now, as he calls you and I into union with our maker. The only joy worth having is the joy of union with the Creator, and not with artificial substitutes.
Christ meets us and we meet him in this Eucharist, and as we say our prayers to God here and elsewhere and as we continue our journey in the Christian Faith, and as we encounter God here we become aware too that there is a joy to be experienced which lies beyond mere pleasure or satisfaction. There is a life to be lived which takes us beyond mere existence for its own sake. We have, after all come to church because we know that this deeper, richer seam of life is available to us in the worship of the Church and in union with Christ. We are living not for ourselves alone but for him who gave himself for us. For Him who reconnects us and our lives with our Maker. With him who, even though we still have to struggle with all that life throws at us, nonetheless find their meaning in Christ. It is in Christ that God can, in us, accomplish more than we can imagine or ask. And the sign that this joy, this glory, is present, is sure. As Isaiah says to us in this morning’s OT reading, “As the bridegroom rejoices in the bride, so God will rejoice in you”. (62.5).
But in the meantime we struggle with what we have to bear in the knowledge and good purposes of his grace...
Some words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, scribbled in note form on the days leading up to his ordination to the priesthood in 1929:
‘My grace is sufficient for thee’. How do I need to look away
From self to God; I can only find satisfaction in Him.
My heart to love Him; my will to do His will;
My mind to glorify Him; my tongue to speak to Him and of Him;
My eyes to see Him in all things;
My hands to bring whatever they touch to Him;
My all only to be a real ‘all’, because it is joined in Him.
And this will be utter joy – no man can take it away.
Self, self-consciousness, self-will, the self-centre cut away,
So that the centre which holds all my parts is God.
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
7th Jan 2018
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2017 (Year A)
"When they saw that the star had stoped they were overwhelmed with joy". Matthew 2.9.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and this word is taken from the Greek epiphanos, which means ‘the showing of a sign’. The sign here is the manifestation of something startling, the appearance of God in the form of Jesus. The sign is the birth of the Messiah, the one which draws the three wise men to travel to see that which had been and promised by Isaiah and announced by the angel Gabriel; of the appearance of the Messiah as a baby, “wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger”. Of the impossible possibility of a child who is Emmanuel, ‘God with us’.
This sign then has its effect upon those who witness it. The sight of the child in the manger at Bethlehem is the one which changes the understanding of God’s identity and purpose for the world he has made for ever:
The heavenly babe you there shall find
To human view displayed,
All meanly wrapped in swaddling bands
And in a manger laid.
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace
Good will henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
We are not see the Story of the Three Wise Men then, as one which has been ‘tagged’ onto the Nativity for extra effect. It is has a crucial significance in the message of the coming of the Son of God. We continue to remember that the divine name given to Jesus is ‘God with Us’. His coming to birth has caused a rupture in what Eliot calls ‘the old dispensation’ . It has challenged the fixed separation of heaven and earth; and of the existence of God as all powerful and yet remote.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
TS Eliot The Journey of the Magi.
It suddenly begins to change lives and whole outlooks. The Letter of Paul to the Ephesians proclaims the new epiphany to include the gentiles (all people) who have, as he puts it ‘become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Jesus Christ’.
Like the wise men who have travelled from afar to see the Sign, we too trace that same journey in our own Christian lives. It is the journey we make in our hearts as we come to the place where we see and know Jesus and where we stop and stay. We may, out of the joy and the peace of his appearing, offer him the best gift we have to give, the gift of ourselves and of our lives; of the deepening of our witness and our time in the service of the Church. In this respect, the Methodist Church marks this time with an act of determined renewal in the life of faith, as it recites its own Covenant Prayer:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessèd God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
To speak like this is to speak of this Feast of the Epiphany not only as a Feast of Signs and mystery but also of self-dedication. Epiphany occupies a time and a place in which the divine presence is revealed to us. Then we are called to respond wholeheartedly. Christ’s Epiphany is our epiphany too, a necessary reminder of the need for daily conversion and the continual and joyful re-kindling of faith. This is needed so much at a time when the refreshment that the Christian faith offers our world; its spiritual oxygenation, is needed now more than ever.