Sunday, 29 January 2017

Candlemas and Baptism: Light of the world

When Emma and Leon asked if Henry could be baptised on this particular day, as they’ll tell you, I jumped at it. It was, I assured them, an ideal day for a baptism – the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas.

Perhaps when you heard the words I just read from the Gospel you understood why. What was the story about? It was about two parents bringing their first born son for God’s blessing, and about his community of faith, or at least, two members it, welcoming and affirming him. And that’s what we have here this morning too, except that there’s a whole church full of people for whom Henry is the star of the show this morning.  The other difference is that Emma and Leon haven’t had to bring a sacrifice with them, as Mary and Joseph did, but frankly, that’s a profound relief. I really don’t know what I’d do with a pair of live pigeons this morning!

The feast of the Presentation of Christ marks the end of the Christmas season in the Church’s calendar. It began at midnight on Christmas Eve when we celebrated Christ’s birth, and went on throughout the next forty days or so until now as we’ve pondered, along with Mary and Joseph, what the birth of Jesus might mean, how it might change us. Today that season comes to an end as we hear this story of Simeon and Anna recognising a light in the infant Jesus which would light up the world, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of God’s people Israel.” It’s that association with light which gives this day its alternative name of Candlemas, and it was traditionally the time when the candles that were used in church through the year were blessed. Often people would bring candles from home for blessing too. In an age before artificial light, the flickering light of a candle was all that stood between you and the darkness of the night. We rarely encounter real darkness now. It can be banished with the flick of a switch. For our ancestors though, light was a precious commodity. Candles were used sparingly, and valued highly. It’s no surprise that people wanted to have them blessed. They had spiritual significance as well as practical value, symbols of the God whose first act of creation had been to say “let there be light”.

In Jesus, Christians saw God making a new creation, bringing light again into a darkened world, light which even death on a cross couldn’t put out. In pictures of his birth, artists often painted him as literally light-filled, a “glow in the dark” baby – perhaps you had some of those sort of images on your Christmas cards? Of course, he didn’t really look like that but that was the only way of capturing in paint the inner truth they were trying to convey. This was the child who would light up the lives of those he met. This was the child who would come into the darkness of despair, loneliness, and failure, and transform them with glory, who would bring people out of the gloomy prisons of their oppression, into the sunlight of God’s love.

As Mary and Joseph approached the Temple to present their child there and make the sacrifice the law demanded, they didn’t seem to have seen more than a glimmer of this light though. Despite the angels announcing his birth and the shepherds coming to wonder at him, they hadn’t grasped the immensity of the change he would bring, and why should they have?  Of course their child was special to them – every child lights up the lives of its family and friends - but we often struggle to see beyond this. Try as we might we can’t imagine our babies as adults,  as High Court judges, engineers, actors, nurses, solicitors, software designers, shopkeepers, or whatever  their path through life will lead them to. For Mary and Joseph, imagining Jesus as Messiah must have been even more of a stretch. You know how it goes in the Life of Brian, “He’s not the Messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy…”

As they made their way through the crowded precincts of the Temple, then, they weren’t expecting anything special to happen. They were simply doing what the law required, what every family did. The Temple would have been full of people like them bringing sacrifices and prayers for all sorts of reasons. There would have been people debating, talking, praying, pushing and jostling, and animals too, being brought , perhaps noisily, for sacrifice. Who would notice one little peasant family in the midst of all this hubbub?

There is no logical reason why Simeon and Anna should have spotted them, singled them out. Luke doesn’t explain how they knew this child was different, other than that the Spirit of God told them he was. What we do know, though, is that these two elderly people had spent their lifetimes tuning into God, and perhaps that’s why, when it mattered, they heard and saw what no one else did.  Simeon was devout and looking forward to the moment when God would act, we are told.  Anna had spent most of her long life fasting and praying in the Temple. Both of them were people of prayer and people of hope, in the habit of being on the look-out for God, despite long years of waiting. And they had had to wait. They were old enough to remember when the Romans had taken over their land some 60 or so years before. Where was God when that happened, and in the dark years afterwards? While many might have despaired, Simeon and Anna held onto their faith, waiting, watching, living right, when the world around them seemed hell-bent on going wrong, listening for the voice of God. And on this day, because of that faithfulness, they heard it. This was the child. This was the one who would change everything, the light that would light up the world.

But what’s all this got to do with Henry and his baptism? After all, he really isn’t the Messiah… And yet, the promise of Christian faith is that the light of God which shone in Christ shines in all of us too, if we will let it. Today’s service, being Candlemas, will have a lot of candles in it. But candles are a part of every baptism service, as a reminder of that truth.  At every baptism service, we light our Paschal or Easter candle, the candle which reminds us of the story of Christ dying and rising on Easter Day. At every baptism too, we light a candle from it, for the family to take home, to keep, to light when they want to pray for and with their child. That candle reminds them of the light of Christ which burns in their child, maybe sometimes covered over, obscured, hard to see, maybe sometimes flickering and unsteady, but there nonetheless – a light that nothing can put out.

At this service of Candlemas, though, we will all remember that together. At the end of the service, we’ll all hold lit candles, and during the responses that close the service, we’ll blow them out, as we say goodbye to this Christmas season. That might seem an odd thing to do, but it isn’t a sign that Christ’s light has gone out, so much as that his light has gone in, that it has sunk in to us, becoming part of our lives day by day, night by night, guiding our footsteps and lighting our path.

We don’t know who Henry will be when he grows up, or what he will do. We don’t know what he’ll be remembered for. We don’t know what successes he’ll achieve, what failures he’ll have to deal with, what struggles he’ll have to face. But like Simeon and Anna, we welcome him today, and we confidently proclaim that the light of Christ shines in him, as it does in all of us, and that God holds him in the palm of his hand.


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Epiphany 3: Confronting the powers

About a hundred years before Jesus was born a great victory was won by a man you may never have heard of called Aristobolus I – no, I hadn’t heard of him either. He was the king of Judea, the territory around Jerusalem – he had seized power for himself after a family feud. If that wasn’t enough, he was also high priest.  

Aristobolus wasn’t content with the power he had though. He wanted more. He was a bit of a megalomaniac. In particular, he had his eyes on the lands to the north of Judea, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. Once they’d been part of Israel. They were the ancient tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, but 600 years before him the Assyrians had conquered them and scattered their populations around their vast empire. They’d resettled the land with people from other countries and faiths.  It had become a ragbag of nationalities, cultures and backgrounds. That was why the prophet Isaiah called it Galilee of the nations, that’s why he described it as a place where people walked in darkness, a place where those defeated tribes had been brought into contempt, a place of anguish.

Aristobolus wasn’t having it. He wanted to make Israel great again – sounds familiar? So he marched north with his armies and, after a bitter war, he won.  But now what? The problem was that many of the people of Galilee weren’t Jewish. They were descendents of that ragbag of nations the Assyrians had settled in the land. Aristobolus’s answer was simple. If they weren’t Jewish they would have to become so, by force if necessary – which it mostly was. He wasn’t taking no for an answer. They were made to convert. As far as Aristobolus was concerned the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali had been reborn. The people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, his light, whether they wanted to or not.  He, Aristobolus had “made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.”

Of course it didn’t last. In fact he’d hardly had a chance to enjoy his conquest when he died, and about 40 years later, the Romans conquered not only Galilee, but Judea too, and parcelled up his kingdom among puppet kings like Herod. So much for making Galilee glorious, making Israel great again. So much for casting light on people who walked in darkness. His mighty conquest had been no more than a flash in the pan.

So when Matthew quotes that very same passage from Isaiah, and applies it to Jesus, he is being much more provocative than we think. This was all very recent history to the people of Jesus’ time. We often tend to read the Gospels in a very individualistic, spiritual way when at the time they were political bombshells, full of subversive messages.

Right from the start of Matthew’s Gospel he sets us up for a story that is going to be about power and how it is used, kingdoms and how they are built and ruled. It’s Matthew who tells us the story of Jesus’ birth through the lens of the visit of the Magi – there are no shepherds and manger in his version. They go straight to King Herod initially and spark off a firestorm which ends up with the massacre of the children of Bethlehem and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt as refugees. Then Matthew tells us about John the Baptist, who thunders at those who oppress others and confronts those who thought they held the reigns of religious and secular power. We follow Jesus out into the desert, where he confronts powers of a different sort, the spiritual powers which threaten to derail his ministry before it starts. Is he going to win a following through miracles. Is he going to heap up glory for himself?  What kind of leader will he be – one like Aristobolus, leading by force, ambitious for worldly acclaim and wealth?
Jesus rejects that temptation – his way is going to be completely different.

And that’s where today’s Gospel begins. Jesus comes out of the desert and hears that John has been arrested. He could have decided to give it all up there and then, but he doesn’t. He steps straight into the space John has prepared for him, and begins to preach the same message. And it is the same message, exactly the same message, word for word, which John had preached just a chapter earlier in the Gospel. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Jesus knows that he will face the same corrupt political forces which had imprisoned and would eventually execute John, but he carries on preaching anyway.

That’s the backdrop to the calling of his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John. They aren’t just called away from their settled lives to the hardships of a travelling ministry. They aren’t just called away from their families and their private, self-contained lives. They are called into a battle with some mighty and very dangerous opponents.

The safest thing, if you live under an oppressive system, is to keep your head down and hope no one notices you. But they decide to take up the company of someone who is very deliberately challenging the powers that be. The danger to Jesus and to his followers couldn’t be clearer. When they rise up and follow Jesus they are embarking on a path which will lead most of them, ultimately, to suffering and to death.

So whatever made them do it? Why did they chuck in their comfortable lives and head off into the unknown? What did they see in Jesus, in that split second that he called them, which convinced them that he was worth following? What did he see in them?

Let’s think about the first of those questions first. What did they see in Jesus. Matthew doesn’t give us any clues about why those fishermen chose to follow him. All we know is the message he was preaching. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It doesn’t sound like a very appealing message at first hearing. We don’t tend to like the idea of repentance these days, sackcloth and ashes are out of fashion. But the real meaning of the word translated “repent” is “change your mind”.

Repentance is about finding a whole new outlook on life.
We might be used to looking at the world with cynicism and despair. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “learn to see the hope God has for you.” That’s repentance. Or we might feel that our lives are pointless, that we are just on an endless treadmill. “Change your mind” says Jesus, “you matter, your life has a purpose, God is at work in you”. That’s repentance too. Or we might look at the forces, political, personal, ranged against us and think, “what chance have I got against all that”. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. “ That’s what repentance looks like in practice. It’s not about despair or misery; it’s about hope.

If that’s the case, no wonder these fishermen leapt up and followed Jesus. Things could be different, were going to be different.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near” he said to them. “God is here. He’s at work in the world, at work in you, if only you open your eyes to see it.” Put that way, I’m not surprised that these fishermen leapt to their feet and followed him. They had sat too long already in the darkness of oppression, injustice and hopelessness, but now the light had dawned. Of course they wanted to know more. Of course they wanted to follow.

But if that’s what they see in Jesus, what is it that he sees in them? Why does he call these ordinary fishermen to be his followers? Again Matthew doesn’t give us much of a clue, but I think that’s the point. It’s not who these people are the matters but who they aren’t.  They aren’t superstars. They aren’t particularly rich or well-educated. They aren’t even necessarily good or religious people. In Matthew’s version of this story they are simply the first people Jesus comes across. God doesn’t just call extraordinary people, Matthew is telling us, people with gifts and talents that single them out from the crowd. He doesn’t just call those who are especially intelligent, resourceful, strong or brave.  He calls everyone.

For most of us, thank God, that calling won’t involve martyrdom, but all of us are called to do something – or maybe a succession of somethings during our lives – which will make a difference in the world in some way or other, to work with God in creating his Kingdom where we are, in our workplaces and neighbourhoods. We create that kingdom as we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, as we love those others have no time for, as we learn to react with mercy and forgiveness, not fear and hatred to those who hurt us. This is a ministry we are all called to. There are no exceptions. There is no one too young, or too old, no one too insignificant, and no one too important either, to be called by God to do this work.

This week, as we have watched a divisive president take up office in the US, when our own nation is debating what sort of future it wants, what sort of kingdom we are, it is all the more important for us to realise that we all have a part to play in shaping the future. God calls us very urgently to work with him now, just as he called those fishermen two thousand years ago. He calls us to create a future where we can be drawn together by love, not driven apart by fear, where we build bridges, not walls, where we learn to seek and to find God in the stranger, and even in the enemy, as well as in the friend.

If God could work through the random bunch of people we find following him in the Gospels - people who get it wrong as often as they get it right - he can surely work through us too. All we need to do is to change our minds about ourselves, to learn to see ourselves as God sees us, full of promise, full of hope, chosen and called. “Repent – change your mind – for the kingdom of God has come near.”

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Epiphany 2 Breathing Space: Remaining with Christ

“They came and saw where Jesus was staying, and they remained with him that day.”

Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, we find people making their way to Jesus. He doesn’t seem to seek them out, as he does in the other Gospels. Instead, they seem to be drawn to him.

John the Baptist has pointed him out. “The Lamb of God” he calls him, but it’s an enigmatic title. Lambs were for sacrifice, associated particularly with the Passover festival , that great moment when the people of Israel remembered the time they had been led from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Passover festival was a great time of rejoicing for the people, but not such good news for the lamb. What is John saying about this man? Who is he? What is he going to do? Why will it matter?  Nothing is clear to these followers of John, but they want to know more.

So off they go after him, following at a distance it seems. Maybe they want to be noticed, maybe they don’t, but Jesus realises they are there and turns around to talk to them.  “What are you looking for?” he asks. Their answer sounds a bit odd. “Where are you staying?” It sounds as if he has caught them off guard, as if they are a bit lost for words. They don’t ask him who he is or why he has come or what he has come to teach. As answers go, it is a bit inane – what difference does it make where he is staying?

Jesus could have answered by simply giving them his address – “third house on the right beyond the butchers shop,” or wherever it was. But he doesn’t. He hears what they mean rather than just what they say. He hears the hunger lurking under the surface of this apparently trivial question. He knows them better than they know themselves.

Their deepest need isn’t to know where he is; it is to be where he is. That is a whole different thing.

Knowing where Jesus is, knowing about him, is something we can do from a distance, without getting involved. If these men had had his address they could have said “Ok, fine – we’ll drop in sometime” and never done it. We can study the theological literature about Jesus, listen to the sermons and debate our opinions without ever being touched by him personally. But Christian faith calls us to more than that, just as Jesus calls these disciples to more than simply knowing his address.

“Come and see”, he says them. And they do, “remaining with him that day”. It was about four o’clock when they were invited to go with him, so we have to assume they sat with him as dusk fell and night came. What did they do? Well, I am sure they talked – about God, about themselves, about him. I am sure they shared ideas and argued about theology. But if they “remained with him that day” they must also have prepared a meal, chopped the onions, cooked the bread, done the washing up, lit the lamps, stoked the fire, all the everyday things that people do when they spend a decent length of time together. As well as the talk there must have been silences, as well as the deep theological stuff there must have been small talk – “pass the salt”, “mind that chair- it’s a bit rickety”. Maybe there were other people around too, family members and friends dropping in and out, making them welcome, joining in the discussion or just wanting to know when dinner would be ready.  

The joy of this image of these two men “remaining” with Jesus, for me, is as much in its ordinariness, its picture of Jesus simply being with these two curious disciples of John, letting them see him as he was in all his raw humanity, letting him see their raw humanity too.  

The word “remain” in this story – “they remained with him” – is translated in some versions as “abide”. There’s quite a lot later on in John’s Gospel about “abiding”. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that they need to “abide in him” and let him “abide in them”, just as he “abides” in his Father. He uses the image of a vine, with branches grafted onto it, with the life of the parent plant flowing through them. It’s no good if those branches are just tied on for an hour or two now and then, though. For a graft to take it has to be permanent, abiding.

It’s the same for us. We are invited first to “come and see”, but the hope Jesus has is that having “come and seen” we will then remain and abide. God calls us, says St Paul, “into the fellowship of his Son”. His invitation to us is to share his life, and let him share ours, day by day, on Monday mornings as well as Sunday nights; in the ordinary things we do as well as the special things.

In the silence tonight, let’s imagine ourselves in that house with Jesus, making ourselves at home with him, just as he hopes we will do. How do we feel about “abiding” and “remaining” with him, and letting him remain with us.


Sunday, 8 January 2017

Epiphany Sunday: God in the mess

Today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. It’s an ancient feast, going back into the early centuries of the Church, and it was the main celebration of Christmas at first, as it still is in some parts of the world. It was especially popular once Christianity became the imperial faith of Rome and then the faith of kings and emperors across Europe in the Middle Ages. It’s easy to see why when you look at how the story has been presented in paint, mosaic and stone over the years. The Magi were pictured as exotic visitors from the East. Their feast was the ideal opportunity for a bit of bling, for fine fabrics, rich colours, shiny gold and silver and precious stones. They were much more appealing to royal courts than a bunch of drab looking shepherds in homespun clothes.
Gentile di Fabriano. 1423 Adoration of the Magi. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Medieval kings were fond of staging re-enactments of the Epiphany story as part of their court celebrations, and you can guess who got to play the part of the Magi – they did! They weren't letting anyone else hog the limelight and the best costumes. The story of the Magi was used to legitimise their power and wealth. If they had been welcome at the crib, so would any powerful, wealthy person. That’s true, of course, but they didn't stop to ask whether it mattered how you came by your wealth and power, or what you did with it. Medieval kings shoehorned themselves into the picture, no matter how much they had to distort it in the process. That’s why these Magi gradually became thought of as kings, despite the fact that Matthew doesn't call them that at all, or even hint that they might have been. The only king in Matthew’s story was the murderous king Herod, but no one who valued their lives was going to point that out to a Medieval monarch.

But if these visitors weren’t kings, who were they? There’s a lot of debate about that. In the ancient world, a Magus – that’s the singular – could be any of a large range of people. Originally, they seem to have been priests of the Zoroastrian faith, from Persia, but by the time of Jesus, the word could be used for anyone who practiced what were seen as magical arts – magic comes from Magi. Some Magi observed the natural world – the stars and planets – looking for divine messages in them, and gave birth unwittingly to what we now call science. Others were philosophers or gurus, claiming some special secret knowledge which they would share with their devotees. Some were no more than snake-oil salesmen, con artists, people looking to exert power and gain wealth by trickery.

These visitors to the infant Christ obviously had an interest in astronomy – they spotted the star - but we don’t know much more about them than that. They were rich enough to afford costly gifts, but it might be that the gold, frankincense and myrrh they brought was all the wealth they had. They certainly weren't the kings that later history turned them into, and they weren't even necessarily the “wise men” our modern translations tend to call them. After all, going straight to the reigning king to tell him that he had a rival in the shape of a vulnerable baby was hardly a sensible move. So all we can really say is that these Magi were from far away, Gentiles not Jews, and that they were seekers. They were people who knew that there was more to know, people who knew that they needed something, and that they needed it enough to trek a long distance and give gifts of great value to find it. They didn’t know where they were going, or what they were going to do when they got there, or what difference it would make; they just knew they had to make the journey.

Their story is really a long way from the gilded, shiny tale those Medieval monarchs wanted it to be. It’s a story of confusion and terror, a story with a bloodbath at its end, as King Herod tries to obliterate the competition for his throne. The Holy Family become refugees in Egypt as a result.
The whole thing is, in short, a bit of a mess. 
And yet it proclaims that in the midst of that mess, God is present. He’s present for people who don’t know what they are doing or why they are doing it, for people who get it spectacularly wrong. He’s present in the midst of bloodshed and grief, in the face of hatred and jealousy. He’s present for those who don’t fit in, for those who come from far away and feel like clueless outsiders. He’s present for those who live in “thick darkness” as the prophet Isaiah put it in our first reading. He’s present for people who are in a mess, people who have made a mess. And that, surely, means he’s present for us, because somewhere in that messy list, we can all find ourselves, if not now then at some point in our life. So this story is very good news, not just for kings and emperors, but for everyone.

Mess has been a bit of a theme for me this week. As you may know, on Wednesday morning I discovered that the church hall had been broken into and vandalised. Broken crockery everywhere, broken windows, and a plate of spaghetti hoops thrown at the kitchen wall. The perpetrators had obviously had a field day, high on something or other. Fortunately, a team of people swiftly rallied round and cleared up, and Martin got the insurance claim underway and sorted out the glass repairs. Mercifully too, the newly refurbished kitchen hadn't been damaged, apart from the aforementioned spaghetti hoops. So it could have been worse. But it was no fun discovering this scene of devastation on Wednesday morning, and of course, although the insurance will cover the damage there’s the excess to pay and the nuisance of sorting it all out.

It wasn't just the physical mess that struck me as I surveyed the wreckage though. That was fairly easy to deal with. It was the other mess which really saddened me, the mess of the lives of those who had done it. What kind of state do you have to be in, how hopeless and purposeless do you have to be to create such wanton destruction? What does the future hold for you if you’re that far out of control, so disengaged from your own community that you can trash a space that’s there for you too? How far awry does your moral and emotional compass have to be for you to do things like this?  

It’s easy for us to feel angry about the damage done to the church hall, but I believe God wants us to be just as angry about the damage that must have been done to the lives of his children to turn them into mindless vandals who are capable of this.  That doesn't mean the law should be soft on them if they’re caught, but it matters that we understand that God is just as much with them and for them as he is for us. He longs for them to see the starlight that’ll lead them home to him, just as much as he longed for the Magi to see it. He longs for them to find meaning and purpose for their lives, to know they’re welcome, as the Magi were – you don’t have to break in if you know you’re welcome! 

This story of the Magi is for them, but of course, it is also for the rest of us too. Most of us probably wouldn't smash up other people’s property or throw plates of spaghetti hoops at the wall, but we’re all capable of making a mess of life – our own and others, deliberately or accidentally. We can vandalise people’s spirits by putting them down, smashing their confidence, disregarding or condemning them. That can cause damage that is far harder to put right. We can all find ourselves stumbling about in the “thick darkness” Isaiah talked about, directionless, lost, causing mayhem as we go. We all need that star to call us home.

The Magi weren't really the shining heroes those Medieval kings wanted them to be. They were just people who knew their need of God, and were desperate enough to make a messy, costly journey to try to find him. When they did, it wasn't in the political and economic heart of the nation – King Herod’s palace. It was at the heart of an ordinary family who had an extraordinary willingness to welcome those God sent to them, whoever they were and wherever they’d come from, even if it threw their own lives into turmoil. That’s exactly how the adult Jesus behaved – this foreshadows his adult life. He allowed his life to be messed up so that others could find the love of God.  The Magi go home, we’re told, “by another road”. That’s not just a geographical detail; it is a spiritual one too. They’ve been changed by the journey, and the welcome at the journey’s end.

There’s an old Epiphany tradition in which priests bless small pieces of chalk.  The chalk is then taken home and used to write a message above the doors of those who receive it. The message reads, rather cryptically, 20 + C + M + B + 17. The 20 and the 17 are the year, of course. The C,M and B are either Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – traditional names given to the magi in Western Christianity – or alternatively they stand for “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” – Christ bless this house. Altogether it is a sign to anyone who sees it that this is a house committed to giving a Christian welcome to those who are looking for it, wandering Magi, the questioning and confused, and  to Christ himself, who comes to us in everyone we meet.  

I have some chalk this year, which I’ll bless later in the service. If you’d like to you are welcome to take a piece home and to write that sign over your door. If you live somewhere you can’t really chalk, I've made some little signs which you might be able to fasten to the door, or put in a window instead.

Like those Medieval kings, we all like a bit of bling in our lives, but in the end, the light of God’s love, known in the love we give and receive, and in the welcome we extend to others, is far brighter and more glorious than earthly gold, far sweeter than frankincense, far better for healing than myrrh. May that light shine in our hearts today.


The Blessing of the Chalk
Welcoming God, who led the Magi to their true home in the heart of Christ by the light of a star, bless this chalk today. May the signs of welcome we make with it be matched by the welcome we give in our hearts; to the wandering and confused, to the lonely and the lost, to those who seek for you, and those who do not know what they seek. May they find you in us and may we find you in them. In the name of Christ. Amen

Sunday, 1 January 2017

The Naming & Circumcision of Jesus

Luke 2.15-21, Galatians 4.4-7, Numbers 6.22-27

What’s in a name?

I’m sure we would all agree that 2016 was an eventful year both politically and by the sheer number of celebrity deaths. It was heart breaking to see the death and suffering in many places around the world, particularly Syria where I’m sure we all pray that the first shoots of peace may grow and take hold.

We enter 2017 with hope and for those of us who have made it here today we mark this festive day in the Christmas season which is the feast of the Naming and circumcision of Christ. It’s a good theme to preach on as I found new paths to explore in a way that can be hard to find in the major Christmas services when so many have their own ideas and preconceptions about what Christmas is or what they want it to be.

I don’t know whether you can think of anyone who is particularly arrogant but if so there is a fair chance that you find them somewhat irritating at times. In certain situations such people seem to often have a sense of entitlement. Many political commentators state Hillary Clinton’s apparent sense of entitlement to be US president as a factor in her defeat. In my early years of employment I worked at a family owned firm where colleagues of a similar age had a sense of entitlement to promotion and business ownership because they knew that nepotism rather than meritocracy would prevail.

It’s one thing to think that we may be entitled to a certain status or job but what happens when this extends to our relationship with God? This would have been a real consideration for Paul. Raised as a Jew he would have been told as a child that he was one of God’s chosen people giving rise to the possibility that he felt entitled to God’s love in a way which was distinct from having a faith or recognising God’s love for us.

We know that Paul was once a persecutor of Christians changed when he met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus which fundamentally altered his arrogant expectations into a meaningful relationship with God. A potential problem with entitlement is that it can be a ‘one way street’ where the expectant recipient knows everything that they should have but fails to balance this against the acceptance of responsibility, duty, service and sacrifice.

In the short passage from Galatians we heard that’ God sent his son, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so we might receive adoption as children.’ A more constructive relationship with God emerges as Paul starts to realise that all he has to do is accept the generous love he is offered. In doing so humility takes over as Paul understands the sacrifices God has made for us and the relationship shifts from entitlement to grateful acceptance. In this form it is impossible not to be changed ourselves, leaving little space for arrogance to survive.

Mary is also forced to think about her relationship with God. Maybe she thought to herself that the angel Gabriel could have given her more information when he came with a message as she finds herself with visitors who seem to already know a lot about who Jesus is. No sooner has she followed through God’s will to bring a child into the world, something which understandably would have her feeling rather special, than God teaches that the child will have to shared for all. Following some reflection she completes the instructions from the angel and names her son Jesus and has him circumcised on the eighth day after his birth in accordance with Jewish rituals which were so important they even allowed circumcision on the Sabbath when every other form of non-essential work was forbidden.

She follows instructions found in Genesis 17: “And God said to Abraham: ‘As for you, you shall keep My covenant… Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations…’

Do you ever wonder whether Mary liked the name Jesus, would she have chosen it herself? It’s certainly better than Kevin, I’d certainly have never chosen that for myself. When I looked it up it seems Kevin is the anglicised form of the Irish name CaoimhĂ­n. Saint Kevin established a monastery in Glendalough, Ireland in the 6th century and is the patron saint of Dublin. The name peaked in popularity in 1960’s.

If you haven’t already done so try looking up your own name. The naming of a child is something parents often agonise over, my niece and her husband changed their daughter’s name after a couple of months reminding us how difficult the process is for some. The chef Jamie Oliver’s children are called Poppy Honey, Daisy Boo, Petal Blossom, Buddy Bear and River Rocket Blue Dallas but there’s no suggestion that any modifications are being considered.

The former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nasir Ali would always explain the meaning of each persons name at a baptism or confirmation, reinforcing the importance of the choice made.

Shakespeare challenges our thinking on this in Romeo and Juliet. Spoken by Juliet, Romeo & Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2 “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet is not allowed to associate with Romeo because he is a Montague. If he had any other name it would be fine. She’s complaining that his name is meaningless. If the rose had any other name it would still be the same. So with Romeo; he would still be the same beautiful young man even if he had a different name.

“What’s in a name? The name Jesus didn’t have the significance that we understand today. It was a typical Jewish boy's name, a common name of the common people. This seems to be the point, to give Him the name as one of His people. In Latin America, the name Jesus is still common. Jesus (and Joshua) both meant ‘Saviour or God is salvation’ in Old Testament times.

The naming of Christ also signifies the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God embodied in a small child named Jesus and the might of the Jewish and Roman authorities, they would all come to know Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is also known in countless other ways as Lord, Saviour, Master, and Redeemer. But of the 90 times Jesus was addressed directly in the gospels, 60 times he was called Teacher. This was the word the multitudes used. This was how the disciples referred to him. Jesus himself used the term when he said, “You call me Teacher and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13).

Jesus Christ can be known to us by many names, our Prince of Peace, our Counsellor, our Advocate and ultimately our Saviour. Our understanding of God may also lead us to the conclusion that we have always been known, that we, like Jesus, have been both known and ‘named’ before we were conceived. Think of the Psalmist’s meditations on an all-knowing God: For it was you who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’ womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works that I know very well. Psalm 139: 13-14 (NRSV)

So as we embark on a new year unsure of what lays ahead for us, good or bad, we can draw strength and comfort from the fact that we are each wholly known by God in a way that goes beyond our earthly names. God who loves us so much that he sacrificed his only son and gave him the very name which offers us salvation.


Kevin Bright

1 January 2017