Sunday, 27 January 2013

Epiphany 4: The light we need

Luke 4.14-21

I’m a great fan of TV detective shows, like many others here I suspect, but there’s one recurring moment in almost all of them that drives me nuts. It is the moment when someone decides to venture into a pitch black basement or a darkened warehouse, apparently entirely unaware of danger, and when they do so, they never, ever seem to think of turning the lights on as they go in. There can be a perfectly visible switch on the wall by their heads, but no… they won’t even consider it. We all know that the villain is bound to be hiding there. “Switch on the lights…” we shout…, but of course they don’t. Are they trying to save on the electricity? Do they make a habit of wandering around in the darkness normally? If they did switch on the light I suppose there wouldn’t be much of a story, but all the same, it drives me nuts…

The point is that light reveals what is there. Light shows us the things we need to be aware of, whether that is the axe-murderer lurking in the shadows, or simply the everyday obstacles that might trip us up. In real practical terms we need light to see where we are going: it simply isn’t natural for us to stumble around in the darkness if we have a choice not to. Light can be many things – decorative, comforting, exciting like fireworks, dazzling, splendid… But the main reason we need it is to show us what’s there, what’s real, how things actually are.

This season of Epiphany, which ends next week with the feast of Candlemas, is all about light, the light of God, revealed in Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness which the darkness does not overcome, as John’s Gospel puts it.  Epiphany literally means “shining forth”. Here is God, says each of the stories we hear in these weeks after Christmas, at work in Jesus, this unlikeliest of Messiahs who starts life in a manger and ends it on a cross. The stories reveal him, like a spotlight picking him out in the crowds where he might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The light of the star proclaims his birth to the Magi, the voice from heaven at his baptism acclaims him as the Son of God, the miracle of water turned to wine causes those around him to realise that this is no ordinary carpenter.

These signs and wonders say “Look at this man! Here is God.”

But today’s story has no miracles, no heavenly voices or wandering stars. It can seem a bit of an anti-climax after what we’ve heard in previous weeks, but the truth is that the light of the Epiphany season isn’t just there to make us say “Wow – here’s someone amazing!” As I said earlier, light can serve many purposes; for decoration, to impress or dazzle, but its basic function is to reveal things, to show us what is there, what is real and true. The stories of the Epiphany season are not just meant to impress us with the realisation THAT Jesus is the Son of God. They are meant to show us what SORT of God he is the Son of, what the priorities of that God are, what he longs for, delights in and weeps over. We may say that we believe in God, or that we don’t believe in God, but the important question is, “what kind of God do we believe in, or not?” It matters, because our answer shapes the way we live and behave. I don’t believe, for example, in the God of the Incas, whom they thought demanded human sacrifice; if I did I suppose our worship might look rather different… It is the God revealed by Jesus whom I believe in and try to follow, and the stories of the Epiphany season give us clues about what that might mean for our daily lives.  

The light of the star reveals Jesus to be a special child, the Messiah, but the point is that it reveals this first to the Gentile Magi – God is for everyone, everywhere, it says. A heavenly voice announces him as Messiah at his baptism, the beloved Son of God, but the point is that nothing in his background would have made him look like a potential Messiah to the religious establishment of the time, and his eventual death on a cross would have challenged that even more. God’s view of the world might be very different to our, it hints. The wedding at Cana reveals the power of God at work in Jesus’ life, but it is a power used not for his own glory, but to show us that in the midst of trouble, when we feel we are running out of hope, joy or strength, God can fill us with abundant blessings.

So what does today’s Gospel story reveal about God?

Jesus is in his own home town of Nazareth, among people who have watched him grow up, an apparently ordinary child in an ordinary family. As far as we are aware, no one has noticed him much till now. But all of a sudden stories start spreading from neighbouring towns. He’s been teaching and preaching there, and what he says has transfixed people. His own folk want to see what all the fuss is about, so when he comes to his own home synagogue they are all ears. They give him a scroll to read from. It is the prophet Isaiah, one of the most popular, well-known and oft-quoted prophets at the time of Jesus. But it’s a big book. Which portion will he choose? There are all sorts of different messages he could bring out of it. It has words of lament – the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon at the time it was written . It has words of comfort – God promises that he will one day lead them home. It has words of challenge, confronting them with the behaviour and attitudes which contributed to their downfall. It has words that speak of mystical visions too, of glimpses of the glory of heaven. Of course, like all books of the Bible you need to read it as a whole to get its full meaning, and in context too. But there won’t be time for that in the synagogue in Nazareth, any more than there would have been here this morning, so which bit will he choose?

Jesus has no hesitation. He goes straight to chapter 61 and begins to read. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” he says, and he goes on, “because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And there he stops. People are probably a bit surprised at that, because actually that’s halfway through a line – it should finish “and the day of vengeance of our God.” But Jesus doesn’t say that. He just stops. And he rolls up the scroll, which probably takes a little while… And he gives it back to the attendant, which probably takes another little while…And then he sits down, in the centre of the synagogue in the place where you’d expect the preacher to be – Jewish teachers sat down to teach…And everyone watches…And everyone waits…  And finally, after what must have seemed like a suspenseful age, he opens his mouth to speak…
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing…” God’s kingdom is coming to be, here and now, he is saying, right where you are. They are amazed - is he claiming to be the chosen one of God this prophecy talks about? Yes, he clearly is. But he is also telling them that this is what it looks like when God is at work – the poor start hearing good news, the oppressed are liberated, captives are freed, people see anew… It’s not just that God is at work, but that this is the work he is at.

Faith can mean many different things to people. They can come to it, and cling to it, for many different reasons. It can be about having a place to gather and a community to relate to. It can be about having mystical experiences. It can be about finding personal reassurance and comfort. It can be simply a matter of habit, a soothing ritual which helps to mark out the times and seasons. It can also be used for darker purposes, of course; as a tribal marker to divide us, who believe this, from them, who believe that, or to reinforce power structures, or make people conform.

But what Jesus reveals here is that none of this – however good or bad – is really at the heart of what God calls him and his follower to live for and to die for. We can have all the mystical experiences we like, and the best and most beautiful worship. We can get involved in every activity going, and turn up at every service faithfully, but if what we are doing doesn’t end up with the poor hearing good news, captives being released, sight being restored, freedom for those who are oppressed, people knowing that they are loved by God, then we are missing the point. There are many ways of fulfilling that mission – it is as much about the way we treat others in our everyday, personal lives as it is about political campaigns - but God’s primary purpose, says Jesus, the non-negotiable bottom line, will always be about love, love which leads to justice and healing, integrity and wholeness. If what we do doesn’t lead to that, it doesn’t lead to anything worth having.

That’s the Epiphany light that shines from this story. Perhaps we’d rather it didn’t. The gentle starlight of the Magi and the voice from heaven at Christ’s baptism tell us things which are appealing and affirming. The abundance of wine at Cana is something I can always be doing with… But we need this message too, which sets us on the course of costly service and courageous justice-making, otherwise our faith can easily become no more than twinkly window dressing, nice to look at but never really revealing the things which lie in the shadows, and need to be set right.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

Baptism of Christ: The waters of baptism

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, the moment when Jesus, like us, goes through the waters of baptism. Luke’s account of this moment is actually rather vague. He seems far more interested in God’s acclamation of Jesus as his Son, the Beloved. The baptism itself almost slips past unnoticed – “when all the people were baptised, and when Jesus had been baptised and was praying…” Blink and you’ve missed it. Luke doesn’t tell us how Jesus was baptised, what he understood by it, or why it mattered that it happened.  This vagueness has left all sorts of problems for Christians since. Often baptism has been a bone of contention between different branches of the Church, and a bit of a mystery to people both within and outside it.

After one of the baptisms I did last year, a woman came up to me with her little girl, who was about four years old I would guess. “My daughter just asked me a question” the woman said, “I didn’t know the answer, so we thought we’d ask you. She wanted to know why you poured water on babies at baptism...” And there they stood looking hopefully at me, trusting that I would provide them with a pithy, simple response which a child of four could understand…

I can’t remember what I said, but I can remember knowing that there was no chance I could give them what they were looking for. The fact is that baptism is as hard to pin down as the water we use to do it. What is it about? Who is it for? What does it do? These are questions which people have answered quite differently over the centuries, and often argued bitterly about.

Some branches of the church insist that only adults can be baptised, others baptise babies as well. Adult baptism stresses our personal commitment to God; infant baptism stresses God’s commitment to us which is there from the beginning, before we can speak for ourselves. Some see baptism mainly as the way people join the family of the Church, a collective view, or as the start of a journey of faith, part of a process. For others, though, it is all about the washing away of original sin, a sin they believe is inherited automatically by every human being. If you believe that, which I don’t, it turns baptism into an individual thing, and one which does what it needs to do in one fell swoop. It doesn’t matter whether the person concerns ever sets foot in church again.  Original sin was an idea which really only became widespread in the fourth Century, but it has been very prominent in Christian thinking since then, especially around baptism, leading people to baptise babies as soon as possible after birth, especially if they are in danger of death.

The “official” views of Baptism are many and various, then, but that is just the “official” views. People who come to me to ask for baptism often have their own ways of looking at it, and they can be even more varied.  “It’s about giving my child something to belong to” “It’s about putting my child in God’s care” “It’s about setting them on the right road” “It’s about giving thanks for them, welcoming them into the world”.

I recall one mum saying that her auntie had told her that if her baby was baptised he’d never have another day’s illness in his life. That needed a bit of exploring, otherwise she might have sued me under the Trades Description Act when her child next went down with a cold… but I understood where she was coming from. She knew deep down that baptism couldn’t guarantee her child good health, but it gave her the sense that she wasn’t on her own as she tried to steer him through the perils of life.

Sometimes these days, baptism seems to take the place of a wedding in people’s lives. The arrival of a child makes an unmarried couple feel united in a new way. Baptism expresses that new sense of common purpose they’ve found in their child. Often a wedding follows close behind –  sometimes people just need a chance to get used to the idea of a commitment…  

Many Christians, I am sure, would be itching to leap in and set these folk straight. Surely all this is a long way from the “real” meaning of baptism, they want to say. But the longer I go on the less I’ve wanted to do that. If the official theology of baptism is so varied, then who am I to say that these unofficial views are any less valid? Part of the reason why I include so many different symbols in our baptism services here – not just water but also oil, candles, shells and shawls too – is that each of them opens up a new layer of meaning, and it seems to me that somewhere in all this families ought to be able to find something that honours whatever it was that brought them to that point. One thing I am certain of though; if we don’t honour the family’s intention, their initial reason for being there, then the baptism won’t be real for them at all. It won’t help them express what they need to say to God, and it won’t help them hear what God needs to say to them either.

And that brings me back to our Gospel story for today, because although Luke is maddeningly vague about Jesus’ baptism, what he does say actually conveys something I think is absolutely vital about it.  “When all the people were baptised, and when Jesus also had been baptised…” he says. What Luke tells us, almost by accident is that, for whatever reason, Jesus is determined to share the experience of those around him, to do what everyone else has to do, to go where everyone else has to go.

What we need to know to understand this story is that by the time Luke is writing, the baptism of Christ was something which had become rather inconvenient and awkward for the Church. Mark’s Gospel, the earliest one, written around 60 AD, 30 years after Jesus’ death, painted a picture of him as a good man, God’s Messiah, but someone who was very much made of the same stuff as the rest of us.  As time passed though, the emphasis shifted and Christians started to speak of Jesus not just as good but as completely sinless.

They battled over precisely what that meant for centuries, and one of the flies in the ointment was this story of Jesus’ baptism. Why would a sinless Jesus need a baptism of repentance? Mark simply tells us that Jesus was baptised by John – it was no problem for him at the time he was writing. But Matthew, writing a decade or so later has John the Baptist arguing that he shouldn’t baptise Jesus; Jesus should be baptising him. Luke, written around the same time, takes the line that the less he says the better; hence the bafflingly brief mention.  When we get to John’s Gospel, written at the end of the first century, he leaves out the baptism completely. John the Baptist and Jesus simply have a conversation which happens to take place by the river Jordan, but no one actually gets wet at all…

Strangely enough, though, what all this evasiveness does is to strengthen the argument that Jesus really did get baptised. Who would make up something  which was so obviously inconvenient? Biblical scholars question lots of bits of the Bible – did they really happen? – but this isn’t one of them. Jesus was baptised, and that tells us that, whatever we think it means to say he is the Son of God, it doesn’t mean that he keeps his distance from us. He’s fully part of the life of the world with all its dangers and distress, quite literally immersed in it. If his baptism tells us nothing more about the baptisms we go through than this, then that’s enough for me. “When you pass through the waters,” says God in our Old Testament reading, “I will be with you”, and here is Jesus, living out that promise.

Why do we pour water on babies’ heads at baptism? Well, water is a symbol of life, something without which life couldn’t exist. We need it to drink and to wash in. It reminds us too of the dangers of life. Water can overwhelm us and drown us; in the end death comes to us all. But in all these waters, God is with us, giving us life, washing us clean, taking us through death to new life. He is there not just once, when the water of baptism is poured over our heads, but always.

That message came home to me very powerfully one summer when I was on a walking holiday in Cornwall with a friend. We happened on a footpath to what was enigmatically called a “holy well” at a place called Madron, near Penzance. The path was very overgrown, but at the end of it we came to an ancient spring. Beside it stood a cloutie tree – a tree which people had tied strips of cloth to as wishes or prayers, and just beyond that stood a tiny, ruined church. It had no roof. It was little more than a pile of stones in fact, but inside, you could see an altar at one end, and at the other end a stone trough which had obviously been the font. The fact that it was a font was clear because the stream from the spring had been channelled so that it flowed through the wall of the church straight into it. Those who’d worshipped there would have been constantly aware of the running water, and even now, when the church had long since fallen into disuse, that water of baptism was still flowing, all day, every day.  I’ve never forgotten that. We are baptised in a ritual that takes place once, but that moment is a reminder that the stream of God’s love flows forever. It is poured out afresh every moment. It never comes to an end.   

We’ll never be able to pin down the waters of baptism, to explain and understand them - that’s in the nature of water. It takes new shapes all the time, filling the spaces we make for it. But that water of baptism comes with a promise we can hold onto for the whole of our lives. “When you pass through the waters – whatever they are - I will be with you.”

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Epiphany Sunday: The beckoning star

The trouble with television these days, say many people, is that it is all repeats, especially over Christmas – films you’ve seen before, reruns of old Christmas specials…Even what’s actually new can seem like just rehashing of old themes – a big bust-up on the soaps, Doctor Who saving the day from yet another Christmassy threat.

And it’s no better when you get to church. It’s that same old story again – the one with the woman and the baby, the manger and the shepherds, the wise men and the star. You’ve heard it a hundred times before; I’ve told it a thousand…. Sometimes I rather wickedly wonder about introducing a surprise or two. “Come on in and have the best room,” said the innkeeper – “there’s plenty of space…”  Perhaps the shepherds could sleep through the whole thing, or the magi miss the star behind a cloudy sky… or even “It’s a girl!”…

But no. Tempting as it is, we all know that there will never be room at the inn. The shepherds will be filled with excitement and the magi will make their long journey to Bethlehem somehow. And it will always be a boy.

Our familiarity with these stories, though, can blind us to the fact that they were far from predictable to those who first heard them. The whole point of the things that happened within them was that no one could have seen them coming. This wasn’t how the successor of David, the Messiah, the chosen one of God was supposed to appear in the world, born to an ordinary family in a cowshed, welcomed by shepherds and foreigners rather than the religious experts. It was a story full of surprises.

The part of the tale we have heard today – the magi coming to seek the Christ Child - was no exception. The fact is that these Magi have no idea what they’re doing, where they are going or what they are going to find when they get there. It is all surprise to them.  

 “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask King Herod, apparently not knowing of his brutal reputation, his paranoia and jealousy. Their question will have devastating repercussions for the children of Bethlehem, but they don’t know that. Their ignorance of Herod’s true nature shows just how unfamiliar they are with this part of the world. I don’t know whether you have ever found yourself in completely foreign territory, where you don’t know the language and customs; it’s easy to get it wrong in those situations when you can’t read the unspoken rules as you normally would. That is the situation these Magi are in as they blunder around in Jerusalem leaving a trail of suspicion and alarm that will trigger a massacre in Bethlehem after they’ve gone home.  

Matthew doesn’t tell us exactly where they’ve come from, except that it is somewhere to the East. The point is, though, that it was a long way away; these men were undertaking a demanding and risky journey into a culture and faith of which they knew little or nothing.

And that tells us something else as well. These men really, really wanted to find this child.

What would you make a journey like this for? What would induce you to leave everything you knew, home, loved ones, security and recognition, to travel so far into the unknown? It seems to me that people who do this are usually either propelled by great fear, seeking refuge from war or oppression, or drawn by a great wonder, something they know they simply have to see. That is what has happened in this case. These magi know, somehow, that this star signals the arrival of something, someone, they can’t live without, and they aren’t going to be put off by the distance, the hardship, or the mistakes they make along the way. When they find what they are looking for we are told that “they were overwhelmed with joy” – the Greek actually says that they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. It’s a great pile up of words denoting happiness. Never mind the pain and uncertainty of the journey, never mind the unlikeliness of the surroundings, and of the family itself – very ordinary, not at all what you’d expect for a king - never mind that most people would say that this foreign Messiah is nothing to do with them anyway, it has all been worth it.

The fact that Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ focuses so much on these foreigners is not an accident, of course. It reflects a reality the early church was struggling with. Many of the first Christians were Gentiles too, like these Magi, non-Jews who had come to this new faith from a long way away – metaphorically if not literally – and who knew nothing of the culture, laws, expectations and assumptions of their Jewish brothers and sisters. That caused all sorts of tensions, and it was touch and go whether they’d be accepted.

In our second reading today we heard St Paul talking about these Gentile believers. These were people he would once not have associated with at all, people he was convinced were unclean. But he’d come to realise that this wasn’t how God saw them. In God’s eyes they were not a danger but a blessing. In his former life Paul would never have imagined he could declare Gentiles to be “fellow heirs, members of the same body, sharers in the promise”, but now he’d changed. People he would have once denounced as a deadly threat to the purity of the faith he had grown up in had become for him a life-giving, love-bringing treasure, who came bearing “the wisdom of God in all its rich variety”.

Matthew’s Magi symbolise the new and inclusive vision of the family of God which people like Paul had championed – God’s welcome is for Jews and Gentiles alike. This may seem like old hat to us; it’s not something that bothers us, but in fact it is still just as relevant. It is relevant not only to the issues of inclusion which the Church as a body faces today, but on a personal level too. Each of us as individuals, wherever we have come from, needs to know deep down that we are welcome in God’s presence if our faith is to grow and thrive, and for different reasons we can have trouble hearing that.

It maybe that there are some here today who, like those Magi,  feel  as if they’ve come from far away – and perhaps feel that this Christian faith thing is still just a glimmer on the horizon, something which could just be a mirage, an illusion. But something has drawn you here, and whatever it is, it is worth responding to. Like the Magi, you might feel you are in foreign territory, encountering words and practices that seem ancient and odd – probably because they are ancient and odd. It might be a winding path, and you might encounter people along the way who give faith a bad name. But whatever it was that drew you here is a star worth following, a call worth heeding and taking seriously. If you’ve come this far it is because there’s something in this story that you need to find, and treasures the rest of us need to receive from you from the ups and downs of your life too.

For many of us here though, Christian faith is familiar territory, home ground over many decades, something we’ve known all our lives. If that’s so, perhaps by this stage our faith ought to be rich and deep, our lives marked by the kind of love, joy, peace and patience which the Bible says are the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps we ought to feel full of knowledge, with the Bible at our fingertips…I can see some of you desperately hoping that there isn’t about to be an exam…

The truth is, though, that for all sorts of reasons it is quite easy for us to find that despite having hung around in churches all our lives, we haven’t really grown much at all. When something is so familiar that we can do it in our sleep, that’s often exactly what we do do. We know there is more exploring to be done, questions to be asked, things to be discovered, but somehow we never seem to get started. Other pressures in our lives – real, urgent and important – squeeze out time for the reflection, prayer and service that will deepen our Christian lives. Or perhaps we’re afraid that if we question our faith too much we’ll destroy it. Or maybe we just don’t want to admit after all this time that we don’t know where to start. There are as many reasons why we might not really be feeding our faith as we should as there are people, but if we don’t do so, we’ll find that all we have left is the empty shell of habit, and that won’t be strong enough to sustain us when we really need it to.

I’m often struck by the fact that while the Magi travelled thousands of miles across the desert to Christ, it doesn’t seem to have even occurred to Herod’s religious advisers – people who should have been dead keen to know more - that they might make the short trip down the road to Bethlehem from Jerusalem to check out this report for themselves. Bethlehem is only about 6 miles from Jerusalem. If the Messiah, the long awaited deliverer, the saviour of the world, had been born in Borough Green, would we have just shrugged our shoulders and let someone else check it out? Sometimes it seems as if that is just what we do, taking for granted the things that others might travel long and hard to find.

Mercifully God’s star of welcome shines for us all, this day and every day, whether we’re travellers from afar who feel like strangers in a foreign land, or old-timers who have become blasé about the treasures of faith – the loving community we are invited to help to make, the stories which inspire us, the sense of God’s closeness which we can feel when we pay attention to worship rather than just reciting the words mindlessly. God loves us just the same – whether we are arriving for the first time, or returning for the umpteenth.

My prayer is that today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, we’ll get a glimpse of that star light again, a glimpse which will draw us to the God who seeks to bless us all with his boundless riches, and make us a blessing to others too.