Monday, 31 January 2011

What does salvation look like to you? A sermon for Candlemas by Stephen Snelling

Malachi 3.1-5, Psalm 24, Hebrews 2.14-end, Luke 2.22-40

Today is a festival of the church with three different names pointing to three different things. All of these rituals date from before Jesus’ time and two give us a glimpse of life in first century Jerusalem. Many of you will know that the oldest name is ‘The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ and derives from the fact that Mary, as was the common practice in her time, would have presented herself in the Temple to undergo a rite of purification after giving birth; she would have sacrificed ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’. In traditional Jewish culture, a woman presented herself 40 days after birth for a boy and 60 days after birth for a girl. If a woman was considered ritually unclean for 40 days after having a boy, she must be very unclean indeed after having a girl to have to wait nearly three weeks longer.

As sensibilities changed, however, so the name of the feast has changed too, and it is now commonly known as ‘The presentation of Christ in the Temple’. Jesus, as the first born, is brought to the Temple to be presented to God; as the reading from Luke has it, ‘every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’, and his family, as devout people, were following this practice. The firstborn son was regarded as belonging to the Lord and had to be redeemed with an offering of money.

Today is also known as Candlemas, a festival which owes its origins to pre Christian festivals in Europe and Ireland. It is half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – it’s a cross quarter day and the mid point of winter. It also known in Europe and North America as groundhog day – the day when it’s possible to predict the rest of the winter weather depending on what the groundhog, or bear or badger does when or if it comes out of its winter hibernation. Prosaically, it’s also the day when the church blesses the candles for the coming year.

So here in our Gospel story we have four adults and a baby - let’s take some time to see what happened that day in the Temple.

Now we get to hear lots about Mary and Anna and Simeon so let’s start with Joseph. Over the last ten months or so he’s had a pretty tough time of it. First of all there’s Mary saying to him “Joseph, we need to talk” and then she drops the bombshell that she’s pregnant. I expect that many of you saw the BBC’s production of the Nativity Story in the days leading up to Christmas and saw how, understandably, Joseph reacted angrily to this news and carried that anger with him up until the time that Jesus was born. Now going through the Jewish rituals of purification and presentation I wonder what he’s really feeling – perhaps those doubts and uncertainties and anger well up inside him again – Did I make the right decision? Did I hear God correctly? My job is to make and repair things but this baby – it’s not mine, why should I care for him and his mother? I wonder how he felt if and when Mary told him what Simeon had said?

But there’s something of Joseph in us isn’t there? Don’t we get angry about things and ask God why he’s done them? Don’t we have doubts? Don’t we have worries because we care? But Joseph came to trust God in time just as we must do how ever difficult it seems at first.

But for the other three that day was to be special in so many ways.

Simeon was, I imagine, a bit of an institution around Jerusalem. Everyone knew about old Simeon, holy and fearful Simeon. He had everyone’s respect, and he had this wild claim: God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. So Simeon spent the rest of his life looking for salvation, waiting for “the consolation of Israel.” Simeon knew about “Advent-waiting.”

But on that day the Temple in Jerusalem would have been a busy place with many people changing money, buying animals and birds to make their sacrifices, there would be people worshipping and praying. It would have been so busy. So how would Simeon have known as he waited in the Temple that it would be this day among all others when he would see the Messiah – a Messiah that people expected to see as a full grown man.

Well Luke tells us that on that day Simeon was “in the Spirit” and so Simeon knew who the baby Jesus was when His parents brought Him into the temple.

Simeon held the month old baby Jesus in his old and failing arms, and he praised God for making good on His promise – not just His promise to Simeon, but to the nation: the Saviour had come to Israel!

So Simeon gives thanks to God in words that are sung day by day at Evensong the Nunc Dimitis. Simeon had seen God’s salvation at last in the form of a baby. And Simeon sees that this salvation is far greater that the Jewish nation expected – it was for all people not just God’s chosen nation. This Messiah would also be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles – to the nations, to all people” . . . . the glory of Israel would soon shine out to every tribe and nation.

God had come to His people, and through them, God had come for all people. This is what salvation looked like to Simeon that day: salvation was getting wider because salvation was now for the Gentiles. But Simeon saw something else that day, something not so obviously glorious. As Jesus’ proud parents stood by amazed at the glory God had brought into their poor lives, Simeon turns aside to Mary (so that the others in the temple would not hear this) and he whispers to her:

“Look, Mary, this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and he will be a sign of conflict, a sign that the secret thoughts from many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce even your own soul.”

So what did God’s salvation look like to Mary that day?

I think that it looked different than what Mary had probably thought of during the time that she was pregnant and in the month of new motherhood.

A sword to pierce her own soul: this was a term used for feeling deep, crushing pain and great sorrow. The angel Gabriel told Mary this she would bear the Son of God, the Saviour, the holy Messiah. The angel did not say anything about pain or suffering, about rejection, or a violent death.

Now I’m sure it was difficult for Mary as a young teenage mother to suddenly be given the task 10 months ago of bearing the Messiah: Imagine having to tell people the story of a virgin conception – gaining Joseph’s trust, and her family’s approval. But Mary had what we all need to get through tough times: the strength of the angel Gabriel’s message and support of those around her: her cousin Elizabeth, her husband’s commitment – this is more support than many poor single mother have today.

When you think about it, for Mary, it had only been good news up until now . . . . difficult news, but good news: you, Mary will bear the Messiah. And that good news would have got her through her difficult times.

But now, Simeon was telling Mary about a sword, a sword stabbing her through with pain. Her Son Jesus would show people for who they really were (no more secrets) – Jesus would drive a wedge between those who would follow Him (and receive God’s Salvation) and those would not. Jesus will bring division and pain, Simeon was whispering quietly to Mary. Some would accept Him, many would reject Him. And a few of them, whether Mary knew it or not, would kill Him – this new mother would bury her own Son.

We remember our other evening canticle – the Magnificat - sung by Mary during her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. The words that tell us that “The Lord brings down rulers, the Lord exalts the humble.” Like the rising and falling described by Simeon. The world would reverse, and turn upside-down. Mary knew that – but she didn’t know that her own heart would fall one day, as she would watch her Son get nailed to a Roman Cross, hanging to die.

This is what salvation looked like to Mary that day: salvation would include great change and great suffering. Salvation would mean rising and falling – even for the mother of the Messiah. The consolation of Israel and the salvation of the Gentiles will come, but at a great price, and Mary will not be immune from the pain.

But there is also hope in Simeon’s words to Mary: the word “rising” that Simeon whispers to Mary is literally the word for “resurrection.” No one was expecting Salvation to involve the death of the Saviour, but no one was expecting Resurrection from the dead either.

There is at least one more person in the temple that day who sees God’s salvation, and this is a surprise too. What did God’s salvation look like to Anna?

Anna was a widow, she was at least 84-years-old, probably with no consistent means of supporting herself, and she lived and worked in the temple’s public courts. Her work was to pray and fast, and she was held to be a prophet, speaking words of hope and challenge to the people (even though she was not allowed in the inner courts).

And when Simeon saw Jesus for who He really was, Anna saw Jesus too – and Anna told any one who would listen: this child was the redemption of Jerusalem! This old eccentric widow, penniless and living on the margins, proclaimed that salvation had come in Jesus.

And what of us enlightened Gentiles? What is salvation for us? I think that, for us, it is not about being certain and sure and invulnerable; it is about putting our trust in the God who loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. It is, as the writer of the Hebrews put it “the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

We are here today at a turning point where the Epiphany season ends, the crib is packed up and put away until next Christmas and the candles we will light at the end of the service and then extinguish represent that the Light of the World is now burning brightly inside us. We turn to look forward to Lent, Good Friday and the glorious Easter morning when we light the Paschal candle so that the light of the risen Christ may shine out again.

Today Christ brings the light of God’s Holy Spirit into our lives and wants us to take his message of salvation into the world. He wants us to be his light of love and salvation in today’s world. So what we can all do is to carry the light of practical love that burns in us into the dark places of this world: places of violence and fear, of poverty and starvation, of desolation and mourning. In Christ we have the challenge of being his light in the world. Let us rise to it.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

"Follow me" : a sermon by Kevin Bright

Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 1.10-18 & Matthew 4.12-23

Where does this sound like to you?

A diverse, competitive, multicultural society. A society where wealth creation and trading attract people of many religions and races to settle. An ethos difficult to permeate with God’s message when so many are caught up in this.

21st century London and surrounding area or 1st century Corinth? Well, both it would seem.

A church with disputes and divisions, that drives some to split off into new groups. 21st century Anglican Church or 1st century Corinthian church? The same answer seems true.

In Corinth at the time of Paul’s letter it wasn’t the prospect that women may become bishops which was causing problems, it seems that fierce loyalties had developed to the missionaries who brought the gospel message to the different groups, at the cost of the gospel message itself.

So this is what Paul is addressing when he asks the sort of question an angry schoolmaster bellows at you states, ‘Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul? Of course not and the people of Corinth knew the answer as well as we do 20 centuries later, we should be united in Christ, he should be our common focus. If the gospel message were lived out our communities would look different, the weak and poor would be pushed to the front because they need the most help and resources would be shared equally for a start.

Whilst this answer may seem obvious our natural desire to compete, our insecurities and fears will regularly get in the way of making it a reality.

I’d love to be all smug and critical of over competitive people but I fall into all the typical categories along with many others.

Try telling the parents of a child attempting to get into a top school that their daughter shouldn’t be competitive in her exams and interview. Would a businessman who just completed a deal feel so good about it if his competitors weren’t bothered that he had beaten them to it? Would winning the Ashes mean so much to us if we thought it meant little to the Aussies? I’ll be going after this service to see the Luke’s semi final match for Sevenoaks Town FC and I really do care whether they win.

Some may say that this sort of competitiveness is natural and perfectly acceptable but there will be those who can’t relate to it or even deem it unhealthy.

In my view it is the further development of our natural competitiveness which needs to be most guarded against. Such as the notion that because we are well rooted and firm in our own beliefs that there is not room for others to co-exist in a positive way. Such as the need to dominate other people to the extent that when things don’t go our way that we escalate them beyond the original point of difference with the intention of forcing them to back down, of weakening and humiliating them.

What we need to do is look at how God shows his power. How his values make much of what we strive for unrecognisable from anything he would see as power.

To those of us who have been sitting in these pews for many years it is that familiar message about Jesus turning the world upside down, about a demonstration of love that really goes against the grain. Are forgiveness, sacrifice and suffering what we recognise as symbols of power today?

So when Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee what was it that drew Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John to him? As far as we can tell they are not aware of Jesus baptism and time spent in the wilderness let alone the visit of the Magi.

There is no mention of advantage, position, status in a new organisation and yet still they are prepared to leave what is a steady family business and follow Christ without question.

We’ve considered the modern day equivalent many times, drawing parallels with people called to ministry and to serve in all sorts of ways. Whilst this is all relevant it’s often the case that Jesus doesn’t actually ask everything of us, if fact for the majority of us our relationship with Christ is more likely to be shaped by many small visits, more similar to Jesus saying ‘can you do me a small favour’ than ‘I need you to leave everything you value and follow me’.

We spoke last week of what are our ordinary daily routines and it is by making regular spaces in these to hear Christ’s call that we can heighten our awareness of his love for us. The more we do this the easier we will recognise his ‘voice’.

It might help to think of it as the neighbour who needs a hand, the new person who needs to be introduced and included, the charity that needs some help, the relationship that needs to be rebuilt, all these and more are the sort of reasons Jesus asks us to follow him.

The other part of the message Christ proclaims is ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ We know that to repent is to change direction, to stop what we are doing, turn around and do the opposite.

Some have misunderstood repentance and interpreted it as wallowing in guilt, and ‘beating yourself up’, whereas true repentance is a very positive life affirming action that requires effort, willpower and a mind open enough that it can be changed.

At the time Jesus brought his message of repentance this would have been understood by those bent on military action against occupying Romans that their hopes for a military victory were seriously misplaced, that this was not God’s way. They needed to change their thinking that a violent uprising was the way forward because the kingdom of heaven (or God) had come near through the presence of Christ and this kingdom was not one where violence had any place.

Could it be that the fishermen that gave up everything to follow Christ could somehow understand and take on board this message, despite all their imperfections and weaknesses they seem prepared to try a whole new way of living?

Tom Wright suggests that many people may not be quite so keen to follow Christ if they new at the outset where it was leading. This may seem a strange comment coming from a recently retired Bishop and current biblical scholar. I don’t recall seeing it in any literature for the Church of England. Considering becoming a Christian? You might not be quite so keen if you knew where it was leading! At first glance it’s right up there with other classics such as ‘being told to pray for those sick of this Parish’ and ‘don’t let worries kill you, let the church help’!

Yet if you take time to think about it the reason we may not get it straight away is that it is so painfully honest. It gets to the crux of what following Christ is all about and is a stark reminder that being a Christian isn’t some sort of protection policy against life’s problems and sad times.

Would Peter and Andrew have had any idea that they would end up being crucified when they set out with Christ? God wouldn’t burden them with such knowledge, if our futures were all known this would be too much to bear and mercifully God intends it that good and bad they are unveiled to us one day at a time.

In trying to understand how God is with us, how he can grow us to face lifes challenges it may help to look back at the first time we met someone who turned out to be a lifelong friend, or when we met our life partners. We set out on a journey with good intentions but over time a deep bond develops and there reaches a stage where we realise we would do anything for them, comfort each other through heartbreak, do whatever it took to protect them and even give up our own lives if it meant that they would be safe. Relationships can grow in ways beyond our initial understanding both with God and each other.

Thankfully most of us are not called to the dramatic but Christ still wants us to follow him in the ordinariness of our lives.

So let’s be alert for the time when he says:-

Follow me to the supermarket and do your best to buy ethically
Follow me to work and trade honestly
Follow me to school and make an effort to include those who get left out
Follow me into the quiet places and make time to reflect and pray

If we try to do this, despite all our imperfections we will find that we are gradually changing direction and may even get a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’


Behold the Lamb of God

Epiphany 2 11 Breathing Space

Isaiah 49.1-7, John 1.29-42

Behold the Lamb of God, says John the Baptist to his followers. This is the Messiah, the one God has promised – follow him, not me.

John’s words are familiar to us. Jesus is the Lamb of God. We’re used to that idea. We hear it in our prayers and hymns. We see it painted, sculpted and embroidered in our church buildings. But what do those images convey to us?

I’ve printed out a few pictures for us to look at tonight. The first is a detail from Van Eyck’s “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”. The lamb stands on an altar, with blood gushing from him into a chalice. The second image, of the Lamb and flag, is as familiar on pub signs as it is in churches. It reminds us of the victory of Christ, his triumph over death. These are very obviously symbolic pictures. They remind us of the Eucharist, of the blood of Christ, of sacrifice, of the words of Revelation about the Lamb on the throne. But that’s the problem. The symbolism in these pictures is so rich that it can completely take over. We look at them and we see all sorts of things that remind us of Jesus, but we don’t really see lambs. When did you last see a real lamb standing on an altar, or carrying a flag? These lambs have really lost all their “lambiness”. And because they have lost their “lambiness” they have also lost some of the impact which they were meant to have.

That’s why, of the three pictures I have put here, the one I find most powerful is actually the third. It is by Zurburan, painted around 1640, and there is absolutely nothing about it to indicate it has anything to do with religion at all. It’s not a detail from a bigger picture. This is it, just this very realistic animal – you can see every hair – lying on a plain flat, featureless surface, with its feet bound, still and helpless. This lamb is well and truly tied. It isn’t going anywhere. Any fight it had has gone out of it. There is nothing it can do and it knows it. And we know, as we look at it, that soon it will be dead.

The only hint that Zurburan means us to see anything deeper in this picture is in the title - his title. “Agnus Dei” he calls it. “The Lamb of God.” And suddenly, to me at any rate, the reality of what it means to call Jesus the Lamb of God hits home. The simplicity of this image, far more than the rich symbolism of the others, captures what Zurbaran thinks it felt like to be Jesus, ostracised, persecuted, humiliated, powerless as he faces the slaughter that is coming to him on the cross.

Jesus had no status, no friends in high political places, no armies, no wealth, and while sometimes the crowds flocked to him, when it mattered, when he needed support, when he was arrested and killed, even his closest friends fled. He started his life as a helpless baby, bound in swaddling clothes and he ended it equally helpless, nailed to a cross – as helpless as this lamb is, looking to the world like a complete failure.

“ I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing…” says Isaiah in our first reading. If this lamb could tell us what it feels as it faces death, I expect it would say the same. What is the point of living if it all ends like this?

But of course this lamb isn’t just meat for the pot. This is a sacrificial lamb, and that changes everything. Jewish people believed that animal sacrifice in some way repaired their relationship with God – it made a difference, even if the lamb didn’t know it. We don’t have to understand or agree with that view, but that’s what they thought. The early Jewish Christians naturally drew on that imagery they had grown up with when they thought about Jesus. They saw the difference he had made to them, the barriers that had been broken down, the lives that had been healed, the way he had drawn them closer to God and each other. And when his commitment to them led to his death, they naturally saw that as a sacrifice like that of the lambs in the Temple, a death which made a difference, not one which was meaningless. That is what Zurbaran is trying to tell us here as he focuses on the “lamby” reality of this animal.

We feel for this lamb. He brings us in close so we can hardly fail to. It reminds us of those times when we have felt hopeless, paralysed and bound by the sorrow and pain of the world. Can there be any point to it all? This picture hints that there just might be, that we might be able to find good, and find God, even when all the outward signs in our lives look hopeless.

The quote from Isaiah I used earlier wasn’t complete, of course. “I have laboured in vain, “he says, but then he goes on, “yet surely my cause is with the Lord and my reward with my God.”

Tonight we give thanks for the Lamb of God, whose suffering was not pointless, nor his death a waste, and we pray for all in our world who feel like lambs sent to the slaughter, helpless and powerless, that they will know God’s presence with them, even in the darkest moments.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Christ . A sermon by Stephen Snelling

Isaiah 42.1-9, Acts 10.34-43, Matt 3.13-end.

I expect that, like Deborah and me, you took your Christmas decorations down this week. Suddenly it seems a long time since Christmas and a very long time before the next one. Everything looks ordinary again, back to normal. Even Tesco’s in Manchester was reported to be selling Easter eggs on December 30 although I didn’t see any in Riverhead when I was there earlier this week!

And, strangely, though we will still have the crib until Candlemas on February 2, that is where we are liturgically – back to normal. Since Thursday, when we celebrated the feast of the Epiphany and the visit of the Magi, 30 years have passed. Jesus is no longer a baby. Instead we meet him today as he begins his ministry. Apart from a brief passage in Luke’s gospel concerning Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem at the age of 12, we know nothing at all about the intervening years. We can only assume that he lived a pretty ordinary life, in a normal family, as the carpenter’s son, in Nazareth.

So, after the events surrounding his miraculous birth it is, ‘back to normal’. And Christ’s baptism is a timely reminder of this. Because 90% of Jesus’ life was not spent in the limelight. As John’s gospel reminds us, the Word became flesh, and lived among us – lived among us, for the most part, incognito. These thirty missing years are just as important for us as the bits we know about. Because it makes us realise that Jesus does indeed, really and truly, know what it is like to walk in our shoes in ordinariness of our daily lives. God is with us, really and truly, in the reality of everyday life.

But today we move on to that moment when Jesus, starts his public ministry. When he leaves behind the years of incognito living, to be revealed as the Messiah. Now you will remember that the Jews had certain views of what their Messiah would be like – that he would come at the head of a great army to defeat the Roman invader and to throw out their hangers on. So they were expecting something spectacular.

But Jesus? The Christ. God’s Messiah. The Long-Awaited One, the Saviour, the Holy One of Israel finally arrives, reaches manhood, and begins his ministry by what? An act of power? No. A healing? No. An incredible sermon? No. Confronting the hypocrisy of the establishment? No. Threatening the Roman oppressors? NO. By being the next one with mud squishing through his toes, ready to get washed over. Jesus starts his ministry standing in a river with sinners.

Can you picture it in your mind’s eye?

The line of people stretched down the hill to the banks of the muddy river. One by one the people stepped into the murky water, and voiced their repentance for how they had lived confessing their sins, they longed to be clean.

They wanted it bad enough to put up with an eccentric traveling preacher, John, who smelled bad and roared his displeasure at the insincere. One by one, their toes squished through the mud on the river’s edge and they stood in water until the Baptist pushed them under and the Jordan washed over them, one by one.

One by one the line of people moved forward until the two cousins stood looking at each other, the Baptist and Jesus. And the feistiness and arrogance drained out of John, and he said “No! No, this is all wrong I am the one who needs to be washed clean, not you.”

Why did Jesus come, after all? The divine child is a man now, ready to begin his public ministry. He is a man, the book of Hebrews says “who was tested in every way as we are . . . . but without sin.” Why, then, did he come on this day to the river, if there was no need for him to repent? Why had he come?

“It’s okay,” he says. “Let it go ahead and happen this way now. It needs to start like this.” And so John become the first in a long line of preachers with a healthy inferiority complex: “I’m not worthy to baptize you . . . . I’m just like all these others.” And Jesus might as well have smiled and said, “You’re right.”

It’s not the last time that Jesus will surprise people by coming in submission and humility. Not the last time he will experience the earthiness of human life. Nor the last time he will consent to do what rightfully should fall to others.

You may wonder why Jesus needed to be baptised at all. Isn’t baptism a sign of washing away of sins following repentance? Isn’t Jesus supposed to be perfect? If so why should he need baptising? That’s clearly what John the Baptist thought, judging by his reluctance to baptise Jesus. But Jesus’ baptism is about something else. It is certainly for Jesus, as for us, an initiation. In his case a public initiation into his ministry, suffering and death – something which comes with that seal of approval of the heavenly voice. It is also a reflection of his incarnation, which identifies Jesus absolutely with our fallen humanity. But perhaps even more it is the heralding in of a new era, an era about which John speaks when he says: ‘I baptise you with water but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.’ For as Jesus rises up from the river Jordan, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit, appearing like a dove, descends upon him, with the Father’s voice, echoing with those words: ‘You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.

And these are not just any old words. ‘You are my Son’ – reminding the Jews of Psalm 2, which clearly spoke of the coming Messiah. And ‘with you I am well pleased’. Part of the Servant Song from Isaiah 42 – words which give an early indication of the sort of Messiah Jesus was called to be. Not a worldly ruler, but a suffering servant.

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, God’s voice comes directly only twice - all the times he speaks through Jesus. It happens only here at Jesus’ baptism, and again at the Transfiguration. If it only happens twice, it must be important, and it IS. It’s like God is saying: This is it! This is the One! This is the one who pleases me, who reflects me, who comes from me! (The transfiguration adds three words: “Listen to him!”) It’s almost as though God is a proud parent, with such investment and expectations for the child, standing a little taller and with obvious deep pleasure saying, “This is MY Son, MY daughter. He belongs to me…She’s in MY family.”

God reminds us that he will speak to us through the words and actions of Jesus and through the workings of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes in the most unexpected ways. As part of my training I spent a fortnight with the chaplaincy team at Maidstone Hospital I spent a good deal of time on the wards talking to people – I was supposed to be bringing God to these people but at the end of my time there I found that they had brought God to me.

So in this season of Epiphany, let us celebrate the fact that God has made his home here among us. As we remember Christ’s baptism, let us remember our own baptism and then open ourselves to hear the words we scarcely dare to believe: ‘You are my beloved Son, you are my beloved daughter. You are in my family’

God wants us to be at one with him, he longs for us to do his will. We cannot be rebaptised but we can renew our commitment to him. I was fortunate enough to train with some Methodists and at this time of the year, they hold a covenant service, where they renew their commitment to God's will. Let me read their covenant prayer to you and as you approach God in this Eucharist see if you, too are ready to renew your commitment to God.

" 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 blessed God, 
Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. 
So be it. 
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven."


Sunday, 2 January 2011

Epiphany Sunday 2011: Arise, shine, for your light has come

Isaiah 60.1-6, Ps 72.1-14, Eph 3.1-12, Matt 2.1-12

Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The Epiphany season, which begins today, is a season of light. Epiphany means “shining forth”. It is part of the Christmas season, which begins with the story of a baby in a manger, but certainly doesn’t end there. The whole season lasts until Candlemas, on Feb 2nd, and as it progresses we hear all sorts of stories of people recognising Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, seeing him for who he is. Stories which are full of moments when the penny drops, when the light suddenly goes on. And as we hear them we are invited to ponder who we think Jesus is and why he matters.

The stories we hear in the Epiphany season are varied. Our readings, prayers and hymns remind us of Jesus baptism, the calling of the disciples, Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Candlemas story which finishes the season, when Simeon and Anna recognise the infant Jesus as “the light that lightens the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel.” But they are all held together by one theme, the theme of revelation – God shining forth, showing himself to us. And to begin this cycle we hear the story which we probably associate most strongly with Epiphany, the story of the Magi, with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh who follow the light of the star to find the Christ child in Bethlehem.

It’s a wonderful story, but one which has often baffled people just as much as it has enlightened them. It has accumulated vast amounts of baggage which obscures its original meaning. But that meaning is still there to be found if you are prepared to dig a bit, so that’s what we are going to do. The biggest piece of baggage we need to shed, of course, is any idea that these magi are kings – wealthy, powerful people. It’s an idea with a long history and a deep hold on the popular imagination, so it’s not easy to shed. It goes right back to the time when Christianity had just become the state religion of the Roman empire, and it got even more deeply entrenched as the church grew in power and wealth through the Middle Ages. As it did so, there was a great incentive to find things in the Christian story which legitimised power and wealth – made it ok. Turning the Magi into kings was one way of doing that.

The Medici family, for example, who effectively ruled Florence in the fifteenth century and were filthy rich, loved the story of the Magi. See! The rich are welcomed by God and approved of. Greed is good, as modern parlance would put it. With a skilful use of tunnel vision they focussed on the Magi – interpreted as kings - and ignored all those other pesky passages which talked about the dangers of heaping up treasure on earth, of the impossibility of getting camels through the eyes of needles, of God putting down the mighty from their seats and exalting the humble and meek. The Medici loved this story so much that they literally had themselves painted into it. The image I’ve printed on the pew leaflet is one example among many. It is Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” and the “wise man” kneeling before Jesus is actually a portrait of Cosimo de Medici. The one kneeling centre stage is his son, Piero, and the snooty looking young man in the bottom left hand corner is his son, Lorenzo the Magnificent as he came to be called…and doesn’t it just show!

But there’s nothing in the Gospel story to suggest that the Magi were kings, or that they were wealthy or powerful – their gold, frankincense and myrrh might have been all the possessions they had for all we know. It is the symbolism of the gifts which Matthew cares about, not their financial value. They point to Jesus as king and priest.

So if the Magi aren’t kings, what about calling them wise men, as the translation we read today says? That’s a bit misleading too, because actually they don’t display much wisdom in this story at all. They might know all about the stars, but they don’t seem to know much about the human heart, especially about the jealous human heart of a man like King Herod. They blunder around Jerusalem stirring up excitement with their indiscreet questions about the Messiah. In doing so, they not only put Jesus’ life in danger, they also trigger the massacre of all the other children of Bethlehem. Where’s the wisdom in that? The story doesn’t point to their wisdom, but to God’s revelation of himself to them. They don’t know where the Messiah is. They can’t find him – that’s the point. It is God’s work, and God’s wisdom, not theirs, which leads them to discover the new king they have been searching for.

So, if they aren’t kings and they aren’t wise men, who are they? The answer is that they are who the Greek text says they are. They are Magi. That’s Matthew’s point and we do both him and ourselves a favour if we take him at his word on that instead of trying to translate them into something else. We haven’t got an exact parallel today, but the Magi were a sort of cross between scientists, philosophers, astrologers and priests. That might sound odd to us but it didn’t to people at the time, because they didn’t put those things in separate boxes as we tend to. The Magi were of the Zoroastrian faith and they believed that the gods communicated with them through the things they saw in the world around them and the skies above them – hence the star-gazing. What is crucial for our story, though, is that the Magi had originated in Babylon, and Babylon is tremendously significant in the Bible.

Babylon was a hotbed of science and philosophy and religion – all the things that Magi loved. The Babylonians gave us things like the sixty minute hour and the seven day week, for example, as by products of their attempts to measure the passage of time and predict the movements of the heavens.
But Babylon to Jewish people was also the ancient enemy, the nation which had destroyed Jerusalem 600 years before Christ, the place to which they had been exiled. The exiles thought they would never come home again, and it was while they were there, that they started to gather together their ancient writings into what eventually became our Old Testament, as they realised how vulnerable their culture was. And as they did so the prophets spoke to them. Prophets like Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah encouraged them to trust God’s promise that he would one day lead them home. Their prophecies even described a time when Babylon would come to Jerusalem to worship and bring tribute – we heard one of those prophecies in our first reading today. To be honest there was often more than a hint of the revenge fantasy about these prophecies. Babylon wouldn’t just come to Jerusalem; it would be humiliated there as its people knelt in homage. You can understand the exiles enjoying that thought, but the desire for revenge is never healthy. The world God wants is not going to be built by replacing one oppressive regime with another. There is no peace in that, none of the wholeness God wants for his children.

But the image took hold, and Matthew very deliberately triggers it in the minds of the Jewish Christians for whom he wrote his Gospel. “…after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi from the East came to Jerusalem.” Magi from the east! Babylonians…! It’s all starting to happen as we expect! But then comes the twist, the surprise that makes all the difference, because when the magi from the east get to Jerusalem, what they are seeking for isn’t there. People had looked forward to this day for centuries, when their ancient enemy would come begging to worship the Jewish God and follow his Messiah, but they have no Messiah to offer them. Herod, the religious authorities, the people of Jerusalem have no idea what is going on. God has bypassed them completely. And when the magi find the Christ Child, though they are overwhelmed with joy and kneel and worship, they don’t feel any need to hang around in Israel or become Jewish. They go home, taking whatever it is they have found and making sense of it in their own way in their own culture. And it doesn’t seem to matter a bit to God.

I said at the beginning that the stories we tell in the Epiphany season are all about revelation, the way people see God afresh in Jesus and become convinced that he is God’s Son. They weren’t talking in biological, genetic terms when they called him Son of God – they didn’t have our understanding of DNA and the biology of conception - and we can’t be sure exactly what they did mean by it, but at the very least they were saying that in Jesus they saw God’s likeness more clearly, more deeply and more completely than they had ever done before. The things he said, the things he did, his authority, his power to change people not through force but through love had all the hallmarks for them of the nature of God who was the source of life and love and the true peace that heals the world. In him they met the God of their ancestors, the God they already knew. But they also met a God who surprised them, a God who wouldn’t be put in a box, who you couldn’t control or corral or claim as your own exclusive property. They met a God who didn’t want to humiliate his enemies but to forgive them and welcome them. They met a God who challenged every last assumption you had and if it wasn’t rooted and grounded in love, called you to get rid of it.

The story of the Magi encapsulates that revelation of God, who rejects revenge, possessiveness and self-righteousness, and calls his followers to do the same. I pray that this Epiphany we will see his star shining into the places where suspicion and hatred still hold sway in us, and that we will have the courage to follow that star and find his great and generous love which alone can overcome them.