It was a great joy to baptise Charlie in this morning's service! Here's the sermon I preached for it.
It’s January 26th. 2020 is well underway. New Year’s resolutions have probably been made and forgotten by now. Veganuary is nearly over. The end of dry January is in sight, if you’ve been observing it. But here in the church, it still seems to be Christmas. If you’re visiting us, you may have noticed that the crib is still up under the Lady Chapel Altar, and wondered why. Are we just too lazy or disorganised to have taken it down? But actually we haven’t gone daft, because as far as the Church’s calendar is concerned, it is still Christmas.
It didn’t start until Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; we don’t begin to celebrate Christ’s birth until he’s born, which makes sense when you think of it. But then we carry on celebrating it, through the twelve days until Epiphany Sunday on Jan 6, and on through Epiphanytide – a sort of sub-section of the Christmas season, until the Feast of Candlemas on February 2, next Sunday, when we end the season with the story of the baby Jesus, at six weeks old, being taken by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem, where Simeon and Anna, two elderly people who are looking for God’s promised Messiah, acclaim this ordinary baby as the one God has chosen, “The light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of his people Israel” as Simeon puts it.
Light is the dominating theme of this season. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek and literally means “shining forth”. The stories we tell at this time of year are full of that light. There’s the light of the angels who announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds, dazzling them with a vision of glory. There’s the light of the star which leads the Magi to find him. But all the stories that feature in our Bible readings at this time of year have something to do with light, with sight, with revelation. In many different ways, people who walk in “deep darkness see a great light”, as our readings today said. They understand the world, themselves, Jesus, God in a new way, in a new light, as we might say.
In modern parlance, it’s the “lightbulb” moment, the moment when we have a new idea, a moment of inspiration. But people were having lightbulb moments long before there were any actual lightbulbs.
In the Bible reading we’ve just heard there’s one of those lightbulb moments. Jesus is in the fishing village of Capernaum, walking along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee. He’d moved there when the people of his home town of Nazareth had rejected him. It was a busy place, with a thriving fishing industry. There are numerous beaches along the shore where boats could be launched onto the waters of the fish-filled inland sea. And fishing was a lucrative business, especially with all the Roman soldiers around - Galilee was a base for the Roman occupation of the area. The Romans loved fish. They ate a lot of it. They were particularly fond of a concoction called garum which was made from fish guts fermented in brine – I’m probably not really selling that to you – but they thought it was great, and they put it on anything they could, including porridge. It was the ketchup of its day. They were convinced most things were improved by a slug of it.
Anyway, the point is that fishing was an important and fairly secure occupation. And in this story we meet four young men – two pairs of brothers - who are obviously doing well from it. Simon and Andrew are standing in the lake, casting nets into its shallow waters. I stood in that same lake last year, and the shallows were still full of fish, nibbling your feet if you let them. James and John, were in their father’s boat, mending the nets – the perennial task of fishermen. It’s a picture of ordinary people doing what ordinary people did – and still do – minding their own businesses, getting on with the job of providing for their families, not expecting anything out of the ordinary to happen.
But then Jesus comes walking along the shore towards them. He stops by Simon and Andrew and simply says “Follow me” And “immediately” says Matthew, they left their nets – the precious and valuable tools of their trade – and followed him. He gets the same reaction when he calls James and John. They are out of that boat like a shot – their father’s thoughts aren’t recorded! – and off after Jesus.
It’s a baffling story in some ways, because the Gospel writer doesn’t tell us what they are thinking, what it is that induces them in that one moment to leave behind their settled lives and follow Jesus. But perhaps that’s the point. We are left to wonder, to think about what would make us do such a thing. All we know is that something changes in their lives at this point. Suddenly their priorities are transformed. They see a whole set of different possibilities, and they want to find out more.
I guess we’ve all had moments like that, moments when we know we need to seize an opportunity or it will be gone, moments when we see something, or someone, anew, and know we have to do something about it. It may be the moment when we realise we’ve fallen in love, and need to say so, or when we see that job advert and know we have to apply for it. It may be the moment when we know we need to blow the whistle on something unjust, or take some action to oppose it. Tomorrow is Holocaust memorial Day, the day when we remember those who were murdered by the Nazi regime, those millions of Jews, Gypsies, LGBT people, and political dissidents who were swallowed up by the machinery of evil in the concentration camps. But it is also a day to remember those who survived, often because of the split-second courageous decisions of others to shelter them or enable them to escape, despite knowing that it might cost them their own lives if they were discovered.
Each of us has moments when we glimpse a light that reveals a new way, new hope, new life. The light may have been there all along, but it’s only at that moment that our eyes are opened to it, that our attention is caught by it. In the language of the church, it’s an Epiphany moment.
What is it that captivates those first disciples on the Capernaum seashore? We can’t be sure, but it’s likely that they’d already heard something about this new preacher who’d come to town. He’d been preaching about a new kingdom, a new way of living, where all were equal, equally loved, equally valued. There were no insiders and outsiders; everyone was in. Women and children, poor and rich, Jew or non-Jew, saint or sinner; it didn’t matter. The lowest and least person was as worthy of notice, of time, of listening to, as those who thought of themselves at the top of the pile. It was the message that got him crucified in the end, because it was a radical challenge to the rigid hierarchies of his day, as it still is today, a radically different view of how the future could be. Somehow, in this lightbulb moment, these fishermen get a glimpse of a different world – light shines in the darkness, and they know they want in.
And maybe the call is so compelling because it isn’t just a call to see the light, but also to be the light.
Jesus doesn’t just call Simon and Andrew to follow him, to look and learn, he tells them that they will be “fishers of people”. We need to be a bit careful with this image because the problem with it is that the fate of a fish caught by a fisherman is to be battered and deep fried and served with a side order of chips and mushy peas. That’s not what Jesus means Simon and Andrew to do– you should never push an image too far! What I think he’s actually saying is that he wants them to use the skills they have built up as fishermen - patience, courage ,persistence - to notice the people around them, to care for them and love them, to gather them together into a new community where they can learn to live as Jesus teaches them to. Jesus calls them to make a difference, to be the light for others that they have seen in him.
And that brings me to little Charlie here. Epiphanytide, this light-filled season, is a great time to be baptised, because light is central to baptism too. In a few minutes we’ll light our big candle here, the Paschal or Easter Candle. We have a new one every Easter to remind us of the story of Jesus dying and rising to new life, light that the darkness of death couldn’t put out. It’s in that light, which tells us of God’s never ending love, that we make our promises to love and care for Charlie. And then, at the end of the service, we’ll light a small candle from that big one, for you to take home, to remind you that the same light of God’s love shines in Charlie. Don’t just put it away in a safe place, a reminder of this day. Light it as often as you want, to pray for Charlie, and with Charlie, so that it can remind him that, like all of us, he is called not just to see the light, and to live by it, but to be the light for others, shining with the love of God for a world that still so desperately needs it.