Sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemass)
31st Jan 2016
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2016
My eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all nations to see.
Today’s great Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple extends and enriches the vision of the prophet Malachi that ‘The Lord you are seeking will enter his Temple’. In his prophecy is the meeting in the promised One of past and present realities. Mary and Joseph and Jesus come to enter the Temple and to receive the purification rites as laid down in Jewish Law. The profound meaning of this event is made clearer to us in the telling of a second or background narrative concerning two elderly guardians of the Temple, Simeon, the old priest and the prophetess, Anna. Both are elderly. This couple provide a contrast in time and in place to the young family Mary and Joseph and their child Jesus -- In the meeting of these two couples, Luke tells us that this is no chance or ordinary meeting, even though it was routine and traditional to present a boy child and for the mother to be ritually cleansed after the birth of her child. This is a meeting and the greeting and the blessing and the cleansing ceremony which is taking place between two religious epochs…The Old and New is being revealed in the one time and the one place and in the one child, Jesus.
Luke paints this message on the largest 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, meet the new born baby and witness the outcome of his life’s longing. He sees salvation. And TS Eliot marks in a poem ‘A Song of Simeon’, the great themes of life and eath in the immensity of time and sets it slongside Simeon as one whose life has come to completion:
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’.
As the hymn ‘Tis Good Lord to be Here’ tells us, the child is for us and for Simeon and for Anna,
Fulfiller of the past
Today for the Church is a Feast Day of Candles; Candlemass. In it there is always intended to be a procession in our churches as we follow Mary and Joseph into the Temple, and in the carrying of candles, bring to life in the manner of what the French have called a tableau vivant. A coming to life in us of things done and spoken long ago, and the holding in our hands as Simeon held in his arms, ‘The Light to Lighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people. As the Christ was presented to Simeon and to God and the world, so we in the procession present ourselves to Christ as his lights. We as the Church revivify the echoes of passion and of prayer that echo down to us from the Temple chamber. The fulfilment of the past is granted in the utterance of Simeon, and in this happening there is another thing, which is the interlocking of human destinies. If Simeon is right, then ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ is a light which is the Creator’s light, shining on all people, and not just the chosen few or a hidden minority. All life is here.
This is the sensational message which Candlemass, the Feast of Candles offers us. That Christ is both fulfiller of the past and hope of things to come, and that all of us in Christ are set on a shared destiny. The light is the light of holiness and of truthfulness for us all. Like a bell, it rings for us and it rings true. In Christ we throw in our lot with one another and share a God-shaped destiny. In this we may find peace, as time marches on and waits for none of us.
John Donne (1572-1631), Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris:
"Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
For us in the Church, the effect of the Presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple has been to provide identity for the church and to draw us together with our interrelated fortunes and our experiences of the real in the here and the now of our existence. And in this we see the glory which has been prepared for us from long ago. In this we are given in Jesus the present moment that is in Him the fulfilment of the past and the hope of things to come.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
24th Jan 2016
The Third Sunday of Epiphany Year C
He rolled back the scroll, gave it to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them: “Today in your hearing this text has been fulfilled”. Luke 4.21
Our three readings all ‘read into’ one another. The Old Testament Reading (Nehemiah 8.2-6,8-10) and Gospel Reading tell us of the awe and of the wonder associated with sacred scripture. When Jesus reads the text out of the scroll and of bringing ‘Good News to the poor’ he is not speaking not as a news reader but as the Messiah, the chosen one. He declares that in his own being this piece of scripture has (note past tense, something that has already come to be) already been fulfilled. St Luke the artist writer adds two lovely details, of how he handed back the scroll to the assistant, and of how ‘all eyes were fixed on him’. No wonder! In Jesus, what has been written as sacred now stands before them as the real thing.
But there is more. There is the fact of what the Messiah has come to bring : Good News to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the downtrodden. And the second reading from St Paul (1 Corinthians 12.12-30) advances the idea of a church as ‘The Body of Christ’, which though having many parts, is not a disparate community but is actual the physical embodiment of Christ who is for the Church its source of life, its embodiment and its beating heart. It is in this respect that Christ ringing declaration of himself as ‘fulfiller of the past’ is now made present before their eyes as he is present for us in the Church.
Fulfiller of the past,
Christ has no body now but yours
It is important firstly that we understand the age-old importance attached to the written word, and of the importance associated with sacred scripture as containing ‘proof’ text for the believing community. That remains vitally true for the great monotheistic religions – Judaism (The Torah) Christianity (The Bible) and Islam (The Koran). All exist as religions of the Book. And the texts that lie within them are sacred, holy and inviolable, even though they come under scrutiny and interpretation from theologians and the faithful. And we have examples of how these texts are rendered truly precious in the Book of Kells, and in the beautiful calligraphy that decorates some of the world’s most famous mosques, and of the Jewish Torah still housed in beautifully decorated scrolls of parchment.
In this church, the whole first third of the Mass is taken up with that is called ‘The Ministry of the Word, at whose heart lies this sermon but more formally our three readings from scripture, which enjoy an ascending hierarchy, from the Old to the New Testament, and then to the Gospel Reading, containing the words of Christ himself. This reading is given greatest importance, having its own organ fanfare, a procession with candles with the Gospel Book held aloft both at the beginning of this service and before the Gospel is read. The Gospel book is censed and alleluias sung in its presence. In liturgical terms the Gospel reading is designed to emerge out of the Mass like the tolling of a bell. The Gospel is a ringing declaration of God’s purposes, just as it was in that synagogue. In Christian churches, all eyes are ordered to turn toward the Book as they were turned to Christ in the synagogue. Only now the text from the Gospel reading is to be fulfilled in our presence and in our own life together as Christ’s Body, The Church.
And so this Gospel reading from St Luke takes us in the person of Jesus Christ from TEXT to CONTEXT. The scriptural texts and The Gospel Readings are not there for their beauty and instructional value alone. They are read solemnly and with fanfare because they are to awaken us to the realties that face us in the current time. Scripture texts are there to be ‘fulfilled’ and to be ‘revealed’ in our life together. In this way the Word is there to become flesh.
The Moderator of the Church of Scotland on presenting our Queen with the Bible at her Coronation:
We present you with this Book,
the most valuable thing that this world affords.
Here is Wisdom;
This is the royal Law;
These are the lively Oracles of God.
The Collect for Advent (From The Book of Common Prayer):
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Do we read the Bible as though it mattered to us and to our lives? The Reading of Scripture has been described as ‘Lectio Divina’ ‘Divine Reading’, but this is not like reading a newspaper or a novel. This is reading as prayer and contemplation, in which words and phrases become infused with the divine. It is through our reading of scripture, and in its ‘inward digesting’ that we become alive to the truth that would both grant us wisdom and st the same time set us free. In such a way, scipture can and has surely been fulfilled in our presence?
Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ
10th Jan 2016
January 2016 (Year C)
“The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove” Luke 3.21.
It was Harold Wilson, former British Prime-Minister, who coined the phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’ . We might equally say this of the season of Epiphany. Last week we learnt of the appearance of the three wise men and the revelation of Jesus as the manifestation of God’s glory to the nations. Things still felt rather ‘Christmassy’ then. But now, within the space of a week, all is changed. A very long time, thirty years have passed, as we witness the Baptism of the adult Christ and the inauguration of his ministry. The change is very abrupt.
In the Christian Church, we come to understand this change as the necessary outcome of the Epiphany. The appearance, the manifestation of Jesus, leaves no time for further star-gazing or wondering. It’s now become a case of basics and realities. The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Baptism is what comes first. Mark’s account of Jesus’ Baptism has him coming out of the waters and of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. But for Luke, this morning’s Gospel has the Holy Spirit descending not only upon Jesus but also upon others after all had been baptized. This is a very significant emphasis because in Baptism it places both us and Jesus at the one singular moment of destiny. This is profound Church teaching. It tells us that we are Baptized not only for ourselves and our lives alone but in the life and death of Jesus Christ and in one another.
One of the most beautiful paintings in the world is hung at The National Gallery here in London. It is Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’, which was painted in about the year 1448. The painting is not at all straightforward, and we see that the Baptism does not take place in first century Palestine in fifteenth century Italy and surrounded by high and verdant Tuscan hills, with a small town, San Sepulcro, in the background. Baptism is always contemporaneous. The painter Piero was interested in placing his figures in a strict geometry and we see that John the Baptist is painted with his right arm and left leg balanced precariously over the waters. In doing this the painting shows us lines of energy which run from the water through the Baptist, who acts both as a bridge and a conduit through which the life-giving waters convey a Christ whose body is dazzling white. John's precarious balance allows us to see that the step beyond the water is the one which takes us in a new direction. The comparison with Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for a man, but a giant leap forward for mankind’ is apt. The action is immediate and urgent and specific.
How is our own Baptism to be known and expressed? The first observation is that our life is no longer ‘any old life’. Great grace was given in our Baptism and in the blessing with water came the mark and a seal of the Holy Spirit. Now we come to see our lives in the light of Christ. In St Paul’s phrase we are for all time ‘in’ Christ. What is being asked of us is not that we strive for a whole lot of impossible perfections, but that, in the ordinary course of our lives we go on in a loyal way, and within the confines of our own particular lives and their demands, do our own bit in the way of being generous and helpful, listening and praying and aiming to stay true to the Jesus who is the patterning for our lives. But of course the great danger is that we fall into a complacent notion of what constitutes the Christian life 'so long as it doesn't get in our way'. To counter this, the Baptism of Christ, coming as it does so abruptly, coming as it does as a kind of intrusion, keeps that tension with the ‘quantum leap forward’ or ‘the leap of faith' which it signifies. For we are Baptised into Christ’s death. The waters are the waters of a kind of descent into hell. The re-emergent self is the one which is now one on Christ, and ready, in the ordinary things of life and in the emergencies that may come, to own that, whatever may befall us, ‘we will be true to thee ‘til death’. This is quite a pledge, this pledge of our Baptism. It is bound to require of us reserves of spiritual resource and courage that we may not feel we possess. Here are some words from The Rev’d Prof. Leslie Houlden:
The explosion that was Jesus’ coming and being among us echoes still – and echo it must for each of us: not just rubber-stamping the way we are, but disturbing us and forming us more and more, with sensitivity and love, and with revolution when the need arises.
It is very hard to combine a sense of that need with the inevitable routine that dominates most of our lives: how to know in the ordinary and how to be stirred amid the humdrum. We need imagination and we need deliberate attention to God and to the figure of Jesus in his crisis-filled manner of life, if we are to keep the spark of faith alive within us at more than a formal level – like a pan of water for ever just simmering! Jesus’ baptism holds us to the sense of crisis – which he held to the end.
The explosion that Houlden speaks is the one which has us live as agents of transforming love. The breakthrough may come each day as our prayer, our consciousness of God, may re-awaken in us an active expression of his being.
The abruptness of the Baptism of Christ is the reminder we need that this Epiphany glory is not one of tinselly shine, but for the transformation of hearts, minds, bodies and souls.
TS Eliot reminds us that this is immediate. He knows it just as Luke and Piero knew it.
“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets.
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2016
3rd Jan 2016
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany 2015
Some wise men came to Jerusalem from the East. Matthew 2.1-12.
In only eight says, a period of time the Church calls an ‘octave’, we have taken our leave of the season of Christmas and now enter upon the season Epiphany. This is a word meaning ‘manifestation’ and in this seemingly small amount of time we come to understand the birth of the Christ child in a distinctly new way. From now on, this will occupy a vastly enlarged landscape than the local ones ranged around Nazareth and Bethlehem. From the Christmas card dream scene of the stable at Bethlehem there now open up new and enlarged realities. The birth of the Christ is now become as much a part of the gentile as for the Jewish dispensation. The word “Magi” comes from the Greek magos meaning “one of a learned and priestly class.” The Persian word used to describe these men in their society was magush meaning “magician.” There are at least 85 paintings of the coming of the Magi in the Roman catacombs. They not only show the early believer’s adoration of Christ, but they wonder at their world as they shout, “Gentiles, not Jews, were the first people to recognize who Jesus was and to worship Him as the Messiah!”
This birth has turned the world inside out. The Magi travelled from afar in search of the truth, of what kind we cannot tell, but certainly it was their truth, or their hoping. Their searching had finally borne fruit in this child in a way they could not have possibly imagined, and in homage, they lay down the tools of their trade, of gold and frankincense and myrrh. The Magi come to know in their hearts that he is the Promised One. In following the star, the sign of destiny, they honour the child who will fulfil all human destiny. Their visit is transformative for their lives and for the life of the world they inhabit. It is a quantum leap for the life of the world, opening up a new vision of God in a new hope. TS Eliot puts it so well in his famous poem The Journey of the Magi:
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
For now you and we are walking not towards Bethlehem but rather towards Jesus the Lord who will come one day to meet us. The road we travel is the one set in the midst of our busy world and you and I must walk it with eagerness and with integrity. You and I must offer lives that are shaped by the Christian call and its quest, in the grace of the Christ we love and serve. Nowhere do you and I express our intent than in this Mass, when we are gathered up into the life of heaven itself. It is here that our lives are laid bare before Christ as we confidently ask him to guard and guide us in all we are and do, and to have mercy upon us when we stumble and need to be forgiven, and to lead us forward in the building of a world shaped in his image.
Epiphany provides not only for the glory of the Messiah’s Birth but has us also experience the dangers and the challenges of his coming to what we call ‘the real world’. For Herod it is who treats Jesus as a suspect, a threat, a danger, and like all paranoids, is prepared him kill to get his way. This same temper is being borne out in the Middle East today, where centuries old Christian communities are been driven out, their ancient artefacts destroyed and barbaric violence meted out to those who get in the way. How revealing to contrast Angela Merkel, the leader of the German nation, who has praised her own people for backing the enormous aid being given to establish new homes and livelihoods for the 1.3 million immigrant population being resettled in her country,
She has stood firm about the need to embrace migration, urging Germans to see the challenge as an 'opportunity for tomorrow'. The chancellor, who grew up in East Germany when it was behind the Iron Curtain, said in her New Year TV address: 'This New Year is about one thing in particular: our cohesion. It is important we don't allow ourselves to be divided.' In a direct riposte to those staging anti-immigration rallies, she said: 'It is crucial not to follow those who, with coldness or even hatred in their hearts, lay a sole claim to what it means to be German and seek to exclude others.' The efforts to cope with the challenges would be worth it in the end she has said, because '…countries have always benefited from successful immigration, both economically and socially'. 'I am convinced that, handled properly, today's great task presented by the influx and the integration of so many people is an opportunity for tomorrow. It is in terms of our text this morning, the laying of gifts at the manger of an itinerant family.
The opposite of this generous and peace-building action is the controlling Herod-complex borne out in the many emergent forms of intolerance which lay just below the surface even of or our own so-called tolerant societies, and where we all have to own and recognise our subtle and self-aggrandising intolerances if we are to recognise the real need for human compassion in its fullest expression. This year is, after all, to be a year Year of Mercy. Our Lord Jesus was to say:
“Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the
righteous, but sinners." Matthew 9.13
Compassion is transforming of the human condition. Once you and I have encountered the Christ Child we can never allow our hearts to grow cold. We have seen in Jesus the true meaning of life. Our consciences may often be troubled, and we can ignore our deepest feelings, the call of God in our daily lives; we can suppress all these things. But the underlying truth remains the same and cannot be changed because it is God’s truth. And it has been revealed to us, not in power and control, but in defenceless love.
The mystery of Christmas therefore lays upon us all a debt and obligation to the rest of humanity and to the whole created universe. We who have seen the light of Christ are obliged, by the greatness of the grace that has been given us, to make known the presence of the Saviour to the ends of the earth. This we will do not only by preaching the glad tidings of his coming, but above all by revealing him in our lives.
May your own guiding star, in the coming year of 2016, shine brightly, and in God’s good way and in his own good time, deliver unto you his Son, Jesus Christ. And may he be for you your conscience, your love and your steady conformation into his likeness. Amen.