Sermon for Candlemass 2021 (The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple)
31st Jan 2021
The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemass) 2021.
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”. There is blessing and foreboding.
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.
Some time ago 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 all those who beheld it, and 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. That light, perhaps as ‘the light at the end of a dark tunnel’ is held out for us now at this time as it was held by Simeon, as a light which is the profound hope underlying our Christian calling and whose presence and glorious vision is unsurmountable..
As we present ourselves to God we are aware of an experience of life as a mixture of light and shade. The light of Christ in this time of coronavirus comes as our present and future light. We are being called to bear witness to that same light – that it may illumine and reveal God’s purposes for all of us in the present time of great challenge.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany
24th Jan 2021
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 which we observed last week 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 Irenaus, 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 curator 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 momentary pleasure or satisfaction. There is a life to be lived which takes us beyond 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 is our ’all in all’.. 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 a sure one. 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 Second Sunday of Epiphany
17th Jan 2021
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany Year B
“Come and see”. John 1.48
Nathaniel said “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
It is meaningful for us to compare the infant Samuel in the Old Testament and Nathaniel in the New. The account of Samuel and Eli’s sleep in the sanctuary of the temple alongside the ark of the covenant and with the faint light waiting to be extinguished is very lovely. They old man and the boy share a time of sleep in the place of the divine presence, in which the child hears the voice of God - and yet thinks it’s the old man calling. Eli knows after a while that it is no longer right to tell the Samuel to ‘go back to sleep’ but to instruct him to respond: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. The Nathaniel account is a distinct contrast. It takes place in the great outdoors and in day time. But the issue remains the same, and it is one of the divine call and of human receptivity. Jesus has been found by Philip who now claims that he has met the Messiah, the promised one, and he names him as the son of the carpenter Joseph from Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel says offhandedly, to which Philip then replies ‘Come and see’. The call of God is one which tests our human perception. In the case of Samuel and Nathaniel comes the prompt not to see the presence of God as something incidental and distant, but one which may come calling…
Our worship of God involves a gentle challenge to our receptive capacity. Our lives and their meaning and destiny are bound to the life of the God we worship. The two are inseparable. We recognise our need of God, not from the point of view of a defensive and distracted mentality, but in the one whom we know has loved us beyond our telling. Philip’s reply ‘come and see’ is an invitation to come to God in whom to know is to truly be. To inhabit God is to inhabit the true reality. “Come…..and see…” Philip says, “Come, and receive...”
But receptivity doesn’t always come to us naturally. Henri Nouwen knows this when he says,
Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God's loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Claiming and reclaiming our chosenness is the great spiritual battle of our lives, for in a competitive, power-hungry and manipulative world, it is all too easy to forget that God has always known us, and God has chosen us – even when we slide into self-doubt and self-rejection. Knowing that we have been and are known by God, and that we have been chosen, is the first thing we need to claim as we behold what we are and become what we receive in Him.
We are in fact and in deed, “blessed.” The word “blessing” comes from the Latin word, benedicere, which literally means to speak well of someone, to say good things about someone. We all have a deep need for affirmation, to know that we are valued not just because of something we did or because we have a particular talent, but simply because we simply are. This is for many of us a difficult realisation; because we so often place ourselves in the way of our own healing.
In a modern society where there is so much acquisitiveness, the idea of receptivity may save us from what is ephemeral. The experience of receptivity, channelled in God, is creative and fruitful. What then might a receptive Church look like? A receptive Church is one which has learnt to discern what remains true for us from what is suspect and counterfeit. This is particularly true of those situations where the language used and the assumptions made about our world turn out to be manipulative and lacking in human respect. A receptive Church is one which practises thanksgiving for what has been received. Thanksgiving as a gift and a necessity – preventing us from becoming casual and unthinking in our dealings with one another. A receptive Church is one which has learnt to listen, not only with the ear, but to listen to persons in the fullness of their being, no matter whom they may be and no matter how difficult this may be. A listening Church is one which can include and can hold together difficult elements in the one work and witness. A receptive Church is one which continues to learn what it is to practise the Christian Faith not as something completed and finished but as something which is continually being worked out and which will have no ending in this life. A receptive Church is patient. It has to be!
A spirituality of receptivity is one which is capable of inhabiting places of silence and even of disonance with composure. It is a spiritual practice which acknowledges God before all else. In John’s Gospel he speaks of God as not just pertaining to love but of actually being love itself. And love is not divided. A receptive church is undivided. To receive God is to be in receipt of a love which has already been freely granted to us. To be receptive in this way is to respond naturally to what God already is and to what God already gives – his own being. Our hope is to come to know this. But we place so many things in the way and we are all too aware of how we blank God out of our existences. Even so a receptive church is not discouraged; it lives in hope which is the Christ of mercy; He the One in whom we can see ourselves as we really are in the promise of his forgiveness. He remains present.
Nathaniel has said that “nothing good can come from Nazareth”, but indeed something has come from Nazareth – goodness itself. In fact, its very incarnation. This is a part of his Epiphany; his and our glory.
To ‘come and see’ in this instance is to come before God as receptive beings, to inhabit that place and that love which is above and beyond all other considerations, and which makes it possible to reach beyond ourselves to that place of witness which is proved real. And in all this God lies before us to guide us in the right way.
Here is a well-known poem by George Herbert; a celebration of joy in response to God’s freely given grace in the repetition of summoning and receptive phrases:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a light as shows a feast,
Such a feast as mends in length,
Such a strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a joy as none can move,
Such a love as none can part,
Such a heart as joys in love.
Sermon for the Baptism of Christ
10th Jan 2021
Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ
“He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him”. Matthew 3.12b.
The Church’s calendar beats to theological time, and this morning as we behold the Baptism of Christ we seem to be a long way from the Magi and the Bethlehem stable. Things then felt ‘Christmassy’. But now, within the space of a few days, all is changed. The Baptism of the adult Christ and the inauguration of his ministry reveals a God-shaped destiny.
The appearance, the manifestation of Jesus, leaves no time for further star-gazing. It’s now a case of ‘first things first’ The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Baptism is what comes first. The Gospel account of Jesus’ Baptism has him coming out of the waters and of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. The scene offers an icon for the Holy Trinity. This is a very significant emphasis because in Baptism God is leading both Jesus and all of us in the one call. This call tells us that we are Baptized not only for ourselves and our lives alone but in relation to others too.
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’, 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 but in fifteenth century rural Italy amid Tuscan hills, and 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 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 in Jesus Christ 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 The Church invites us 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, to 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'. 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 Baptized into Christ’s death. The waters are the waters of a kind of descent. The re-emergent self is the one which is now readied, in the ordinary things of life and in the emergencies to come, to own that, whatever may befall us, ‘we will be true to God ‘til death’. This is quite a challenge. 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 even with revolution when the need arises.
The explosion that Prof Houlden speaks, the explosion of Jesus’ entering in on the human scene, is the one which has us live as agents of transforming love. The abruptness of the Baptism of Christ is the reminder we need that the Epiphany glory is not one of fantasy, but one which would set us on a very particular course. I know this, Matthew knew it and no less than the Holy Trinity agrees with us!
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
3rd Jan 2021
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
Today is The Feast of the Epiphany - that great festival on which Christians have celebrated the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
Just as the showing forth of the glory of God in Christ takes many different forms, so our season of Epiphany commemorates many different things. First, the coming of the wise men from the East to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ; then The Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved son of God; then the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the Temple at Jerusalem, where the learned doctors were astonished by his understanding and his answers; and then, a series of Jesus' miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana; the healing of a leper, and the centurion's palsied servant; and the calming of the troubled sea. Then, at the end of the season of Epiphany, we have prophetic lessons about the final coming of the Son of God, in power and great glory.
Many different things - a great diversity of commemorations; yet they are tied together by one common theme. They are all aspects of the showing forth, the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus these many commemorations of Epiphany make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle - the miracle of God with us, God in our flesh, Emmanuel, God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch, God manifest in human life, judging, restoring, and transforming our world by the grace and truth he brings.
On the Feast of Epiphany we commemorate the coming of the wise men. Those learned travellers - perhaps Chaldean scientists, astronomers (actually, we know very little about them) - came first to Jerusalem, the Royal City, the obvious place to look for the new-born Jewish King. But, instructed by the Scriptures, they were directed further on, to Bethlehem, and it was a strange sort of King they found there: they found a little child there, with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. There, at the stable in Bethlehem, they offered their symbolic gifts; gold, acknowledging a king; incense, the symbol of God's presence; and myrrh, the ancient funeral spice, recognizing the mortal human nature of the Son of God, destined to suffer and to die in sacrifice for all mankind.
What was there, after all, about the humble manger scene to suggest the divinity, the kingship, and the sacrificial destiny of the Infant Christ? How was divine glory shown forth there? Surely, it was a glory visible only to the eyes of faith: faith, to see in a helpless infant, who cannot even stutter, the Almighty Word of God; faith, to see the King of Kings, and Lord of all the worlds, in a swaddled baby, who cries for mother's milk; faith, to see the Very Son of God in the poverty of a cattle stall, exposed to all the bitter winds of human indifference and disdain and the arrival of impending danger.
It does seem unwise of the wise men to come to Bethlehem and to seek after a helpless babe born of Jewish artisan parents. But this is their wisdom: a restless wisdom which seeks to find something previously unknown, something that will change their lives and the lives of others for their own good. This is a reminder that faith ever calls us back, to work out our salvation in the common, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, the disciplined routines of Christian worship, prayer and study, and in works of Christian charity. And yet faith also beckons us forward, is a point of departure, and our response to the given-ness of God’s grace is to accept it and to follow our guiding star, wherever it will lead us…
Christian life is not about emotional excitement: it is rather the careful, thoughtful learning of the Word of God, day by day, year by year; the nutriment of the Christian sacraments, and the deeds of love and mercy which flow from Christian charity. In the normal, everyday things of the Church's life - the words of Scripture, prayers and sermons, the outward signs of sacraments - the world sees only human words, only poor and common things: halting human speech, a bit of water, bits of bread and wine, and so on. But faith has eyes to see in all these things the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the Son of God, the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel. And faith has gifts to offer him; not much, perhaps, in worldly terms, but by his own grace we have that one best gift, acknowledging his divinity, his kingship, and his sacrifice, the gift he treasures most - the gift of adoration, the gift of the humble obedience of mind and heart.
Epiphany is a time to go with the wise men and “to see what things have come to pass”. It is a time to follow our deeper instincts and to go for that which has the power to make us whole. And our response is one which finds us here at worship, in this place and at this time each week we kneel before the God who appeared to the wise men as an infant child and who comes to us now as our life’s true nourishment and with it the experience and the promise of the glory which was and is and is to come.
"Fear not to enter his courts, in the slenderness
Of the poor wealth thou canst reckon as thine,
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness,
These are the offerings to lay on his shrine.
O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"