Sunday, 23 February 2020

Listen to Him


Matthew 17.1-9, 2 Peter 1.16-21



There’s no neat way of saying what the transfiguration of Jesus is all about, instead our challenge here is to try and identify parts of the story which will help us and others recognise God, what he has done, continues to do and what is offered to us.

As people of faith we should have minds open to encounters with God which aren’t always easy to explain to others.  Mystical, spiritual experiences or that sense of uplift and wellbeing doesn’t always need to be categorised and explained. If we feel secure in God’s love then our response is more likely to be about giving thanks and praising him rather than trying to rationalise everything.

If we imagine the mountain as a stage setting there are the central characters of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Also on stage Peter, James and John complete the setting as they look on. But then there’s all of us spectators watching them, perhaps finding some personal meaning in the events, perhaps just wondering how the characters really interrelate or quite likely left scratching our heads. And what about Peter, he seems unsure whether he belongs in the story or whether he should be part of the stage set construction crew!

Perhaps Peter came out with all he said about making dwellings just because the experience was so wonderful, terrifying, uplifting and shocking all at once that he couldn’t think straight. I guess we can all look back on times where we wish we hadn’t opened our mouths.

Maybe there’s a lesson for us, whilst there is a time to speak out when we have good cause to do so there’s also a time not to. Occasionally it’s better to remain silent and risk being thought foolish than to open our mouths and remove all doubt.

‘Listen to him.’ Like theatre and comedy timing is everything. Because Peter gets excited, blurts out a load of stuff as he gets caught up in the moment it would be easy to miss this small detail from Matthew, its actually so important in feeling what happened rather than explaining it, he says ‘while he was still talking’. I love little details like this that bring things alive yet can often be missed in our first reading of a text. We all know people who mean well but simply talk too much, don’t pause for thought or to allow a response, sometimes they don’t even appear to have the need for breath. So while Peter was still talking, we sense that he may have been stopped in his tracks when he hears ‘this is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him,’ says the voice from the cloud.

The voice from the cloud doesn’t say listen to me and Jesus doesn’t appear to have said anything up to this point so what exactly are we to listen to?

Is it possible that the words were intended as loving assurance from God to his Son? At this stage Jesus is isolated, separated from family, often misunderstood by his own disciples and facing the prospect of what is to come, (Jane Williams). For me his humanity shows through as he surely draws strength and confidence in the knowledge that his father approves.

Yet it also remains a key question for us to ponder. How are we to listen to Christ?

One apparent piece of guidance is that we will need to stop talking and then we can think about how we might listen. Not only stop talking, stop texting, whatsapping, facebooking and generally distracting ourselves from the life changing need to make time to try and listen to what the Son of God might have to tell us.

We’ve all grown used to the pace of life speeding up, gadgets and technology remind us that there’s no need to waste time, stay connected and keep working on the move, people walking along with their heads down wearing tiny earpods, air buds or great big headphones staring at a device and sometimes bumping into us seems perfectly reasonable to most.  It’s not that there isn’t a time and a place, after all the Church of England has its apps and you might follow our own church on twitter.

Yet it’s more likely to make people stare nowadays if we see someone simply sitting on a bench, empty handed staring into space or with their eyes closed. Are you alright we are most likely to say. Have you lost your mobile device?

As we approach Lent I feel we need to seize the opportunity to do nothing. For some this will come more naturally than others, for some it will be a more realistic prospect than for others. But for all of us, some time spent doing no earthly task is possible and if we try to listen to Jesus who knows what we might hear.

Solitude can be a wonderful thing and should not be confused with loneliness. Solitude combined with inaction could make space to think deeply about things that really matter, to be rooted in the love of God through Jesus in a way that makes our times of work and activity more meaningful and sustainable.

The Dutch priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen wrote:

In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness. Just those words require us to stop and think. We can learn much in this respect from the old tree in the Tao story about a carpenter and his apprentice:

A carpenter and his apprentice were walking together through a large forest. And when they came across a tall, huge, gnarled, old, beautiful oak tree, the carpenter asked his apprentice: "Do you know why this tree is so tall, so huge, so gnarled, so old and beautiful?"

The apprentice looked at his master and said: "No . . . why?"

"Well," the carpenter said, "because it is useless. If it had been useful it would have been cut long ago and made into tables and chairs, but because it is useless it could grow so tall and so beautiful that you can sit in its shade and relax."

For many lent is a time of rediscovering self-discipline and often this manifests itself in forms of fasting and abstention. Nouwen suggested an alternative when he wrote ‘Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you're not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on.

Put it on your to do list, your shopping list even, keep some time empty.

As we prepare to start Lent on Wednesday it’s good to consider how the transfiguration points towards something.

I find it helpful to follow advice from Tom Wright to reflect upon the ‘strange parallel and contrast’ of today’s scene of transfiguration with that of the crucifixion.

We’ve heard today of Jesus revealed in glory with clothes that are dazzling white, at the crucifixion his clothes will be stripped from him and gambled over by soldiers.

Here he is with two great biblical figures Elijah and Moses, who represent the prophets and the law, there on the cross he will be flanked by two criminals.

A bright cloud overshadowed them in todays reading, at the crucifixion darkness will descend over the whole land.’

In today’s reading Peter can barely contain his enthusiasm as he speaks out yet at the time of crucifixion he will be hiding after denying that he knows Jesus.

Matthew tells us that God declares ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased, listen to him!’ At the cross it’s left for a centurion to tell us ‘truly this man was God’s son!’

It is a fitting meditation as we look towards lent and the opportunities this offers us to focus on our journey with God. There’s a hint that we are invited to discover and know God in different ways at different life stages and as we find ourselves in contrasting situations.

If we bring the contrast into our daily lives we may think of situations such as a loving family home versus an unsafe hate filled situation, a time of health, strong faith and well being versus a time of suffering, fear and doubt.

Of course, it’s also Peter, James and John who Jesus invites to watch with him in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and that doesn’t run too smoothly either with the disciples falling asleep. It’s as if we are invited to think ‘crikey surely these guys should have done better’ and yet at the same time we are encouraged. Encouraged because if we reflect on our own failures, we realise that Jesus doesn’t give up on them or us despite everything.

‘Listen to him’ we are told. As we find Jesus’ words in the bible and as we open our hearts to his message we can be sure that he is there with us in every situation good or bad and that his merciful love for us cannot be overcome by darkness, hate or betrayal.

Amen

Kevin Bright

23rd February 2020

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Do not worry - a talk by Vanessa Griffiths

Matthew 6: 25-34 Do not worry

Our activity today was a way to get us thinking about the kinds of worries we face each day – we mentioned the wider world issues like climate change Brexit and social media impact and more personal worries affecting family and friends. 

We can see that our worries can be wide ranging; the more immediate ones like getting to the school in time for pick up because you’re stuck in traffic or a presentation in front of the top boss. Then there are other worries which are more persistent; a credit card debt or a boiler breakdown and the more long term worries like redundancy and illness.

The word ‘worry’ is repeated throughout today’s passage; and that worry is centred around the fundamental needs of life – food, water and clothing. Sadly, even today, the worry about these things still exist for many who are homeless or have lost their jobs or are living in poverty. When we were looking at this passage someone said ‘Food is so much more than what we eat’; that food goes beyond the physical hunger and need to eat but also encompasses the emotional and psychological stress about where the next meal will come from, how to cope with no money, the heartbreak of sending your children to bed hungry or sending them out to school with no breakfast. 

Worry in these more extreme circumstances can be very debilitating too as other emotions follow on – apprehension, distress, fear, panic. Then there is the way we react when we are worried – it can be physical; sweaty palms, racing heart, dry mouth but there are the longer lasting and debilitating effects too; headaches, not being able to sit still, loss of appetite, not sleeping. Worrying can make our lives difficult and challenging and lead to more long term issues like depression. The image in your pew leaflet is a way to show how these worries can burden us; the man with the cares of the world on his shoulders which is in itself a well-known phrase to describe what is feels like to worry.

In these verses Jesus is teaching his disciples (the passage is part of the sermon on the mount), and this particular one is connected to the previous passage where Jesus is talking about not serving two masters, or not being a slave to two masters. Either we will be a slave to the things of earth, like wealth, and serve them, or we will be a slave to God and serve Him. If the things of earth are our master, then we must rely on them for our future and so becomes the cause of our worries. The rich person is anxious to get richer still—to accumulate more wealth such as cars and houses that advertise their success.  Then there is the person who is anxious about job security, health insurance, mortgages and school fees to maintain a certain lifestyle, to keep up with the Jones’. Whilst the poorer person is anxious about keeping a roof over their heads and food on the table, tied up in credit and debt in their desperation to make ends meet.

However, Jesus is presenting the disciples, and so us reading His words today, a way out of this. The passage starts with “Therefore.”  In this verse 25, Jesus is building on the understanding that acceptance of God as master and Lord of all means there is no need to worry about anything as God knows already and he can provide what is needed. 

I wonder if the disciples may have been expressing some of their own concerns and worries, either to each other or even to Jesus. Where will their food come from?  Who’s going to pay for it? Where will they sleep tonight? After all, they’ve left their homes and livelihoods behind to follow Jesus and this means they no longer have the ability to earn money to buy food and no time to work by fishing or sowing seed. Jesus refers to ‘toiling and spinning’ and in those times life was much harder and more labourious; no convenience stores or supermarkets as food had to be grown or it meant taking a boat out to sea to catch fish. Plus, it took time to grow wheat and hard work to reap and make bread; a bad crop or a poor catch of fish meant food became scarce. So, where the next meal was coming from was a real worry, a daily concern. 

Clearly, Jesus is not unaware of the challenges of living though: "Today's trouble is enough for today" he says in that last verse 34. He understands. Yet, he is telling them to take life one day at a time; ‘do not worry about tomorrow’. Jesus is aware that ‘tomorrow will bring worries of its own’; he acknowledges life’s struggles don’t go away, they are always there in one form or another. Jesus is encouraging his disciples not to "worry", not to be overly concerned, not to care too much or to be anxious about these things.  Jesus is teaching them that worry is futile, useless, hopeless even, as it does not accomplish anything. 

Jesus is suggesting that where worry disables us, faith can enable us. The reference to the birds is to remind us that God can be counted on to work for us today and tomorrow. If God looks after the birds surely He can be counted on to look after us? He made the birds, the flowers and us and the world around us. He has invested in his creation and he won’t let us go cold and hungry.  

Jesus tells his disciples that life is more than food and clothes. He says to them ‘… you of little faith’. He is asking them to think about where their faith is in respect of the every day cares of life.  He is chastising them, just a little, as it seems they haven’t taken on board his teachings about the real presence of God, the real promises God has made and the real power that God possesses; the creator God who made the heavens and earth, the birds, the flowers and us. If Jesus' followers cannot trust God in the everyday mundane moments, how can they expect to trust God in the work for the wider world? Excessive worry and anxiety means losing sight of God and being in danger of focusing our energies on things that risk us living a life separated from God. Jesus is calling the disciples, and us, to a different set of values, a different set of priorities. 

Jesus is saying that to live differently is to live in accordance with ‘the Kingdom of God’, to put this first. What does this mean? Well, as Christians we are a community within a bigger, wider community and we are called to live in a different way, in fellowship and in love – a way that has God at the centre, a way of that means we live out the values that Jesus taught us. Or to put another way, the Kingdom of God is living with an attitude of heart, a pattern of behaviour, that is centred around our love to one another, where we do not strive or worry endlessly about our needs but entrust our life to God, where we look to God to provide for us as he does for all of his creation.

Well that’s all very well and good when life is more than food, for those who do not need to worry about where their next meal will come from or whether they will be cold tonight because they can’t pay their heating bill. But still…Jesus is encouraging us to replace anxiety about these things with trust; trust in God. We can do this by praying, by asking God for help. Worrying in itself doesn’t get us anywhere. It doesn’t do us any good. Whatever the problem that is causing us to worry, it is very likely that our worrying about it will not lessen it or make it go away. It will only make us more miserable. So, don’t worry Jesus says, it’s useless.  Jesus wants us overcome whatever is making us worried or anxious today. God likes to take care of His creation – remember ‘God saw that it was good’ which is repeated several times in the Genesis passages and also Genesis says ‘God saw everything that he had made and indeed it was very good’. We are part of this good creation, the world God made and he has a vested interest in it, He sees the world still and us in it, He has a real care love and attention to all of his creation including us, made in his image. He keeps his promises, he gave us Jesus, and so, if he can take care of the smaller creatures he created, like the birds, then we can rest assured that he will look after us. 

The original title in the bible for this passage was "Leave it in the Hands of the Lord" but later it was generally referred to as "Do not Worry".

However, I think the original title helps us; it’s practical because what you leave to God you no longer need to worry or feel anxious about – God has it. So, take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there.  Like the line from Psalm 55 ‘Cast your burdens on the Lord and he will sustain you’. Let us tell God what we need in prayer but also thank Him for all He has done for us already. Overcoming worry is to trust that God will take care of us. This in turn releases us, to put our energy into living in a way that shows God is active in our lives, in our church and in our community. Jesus isn’t giving us a happy pill as such but he is giving us hope; ‘hope for what we do not see ..’ as Paul says in the Romans passage; this hope which allows us to live more positively, to be happy with what we have, to appreciate the world God created for us and the people around us. 

Amen.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Knowing Christ, and him crucified: 3rd Sunday before Lent

Audio version here

1 Cor 2.1-16, Matthew 5.13-20

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” says Paul to the Corinthian Christians, “ I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Cor 2.2

The church in Corinth was just a small group of people who were trying to follow the way of Jesus, meeting together in one another’s homes, breaking bread together, trying to puzzle out how they should live out the message of God’s love . Paul had brought them that message, staying for eighteen months in Corinth, living with a couple called Priscilla and Aquila, who were tent-makers like him. But then he’d moved on to other places where they needed to hear about God’s love.

And in his wake, another travelling preacher had turned up. And that was where the problems had started. We hear a bit about this new kid on the block in the Acts of the Apostles (18.24). His name was Apollos, and Acts tells us that he was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” and that he was “a native of Alexandria”, That last bit might not mean much to us, but it would have said a lot to the people of his time.

Alexandria, an Egyptian city, was one of the great centres of learning in the ancient world. It housed one of the most magnificent libraries of its time, and it was stuffed to the gills with very clever people, philosophers from every nation and culture talking about the things that philosophers talk about - life, the universe and everything - debating fiercely, determined to win their intellectual arguments.

Apollos had grown up in the ancient equivalent of Eton and Oxbridge. It’s still the case that that sort of privileged background can give people a sense of self-confidence and destiny which makes them charismatic and attractive leaders. They believe in themselves, so others believe in them too – which is great if they do know what they’re talking about, but very dangerous when they don’t.

The Book of Acts suggest that Apollos was one of those “golden boys”, a natural leader who assumed everyone would hang on his every word, but who found out the hard way that he wasn’t as right as he thought he was. In fact, the tent-makers, Priscilla and Aquila have to set him straight on some fairly basic bits of the Christian story.  Apollos almost certainly meant well, but if it never occurs to you that you might be wrong, if you’ve never had to cope with failure, if you’ve never come to terms with your own fallibility, then you can be very dangerous indeed. 

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth because he had heard that bitter divisions had arisen. In chapter 1Paul tackles the problem head-on.  “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul, or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas, “ – [that’s Peter, the head of the church in Jerusalem] or “ I belong to Christ”. ‘How can this be, asks Paul? “ Has Christ been divided? “ Later on he tells them. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth, so neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth”.

That’s the background to the words we heard today, and it’s important to hear them with that context in our minds.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. [Like that clever Alexandrian Apollos, we are meant to understand] .I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul was was a clever man too; he could do “lofty words and wisdom” as well as Apollos if he wanted to. He’d been brought up in Tarsus in what is now Southern Turkey,  another city with a tradition of learning. He’d been “well-schooled in the scriptures” like Apollos. He’d been a Pharisee who studied the Hebrew Bible with care. But the confidence he’d once had in his own cleverness had been thoroughly knocked out of him one day as he travelled along the road to Damascus, on a mission to persecute the followers of Jesus. He’d been convinced that they were dangerous heretics. They insisted that Jesus was the Messiah,but how could that be? If Jesus was the Messiah, why had God let him be executed, and on a cross too, a death deliberately designed to shame the one who suffered it? Surely God wouldn’t have allowed this to happen to his chosen one. Paul – then known by his Hebrew name of Saul - had campaigned viciously against Jesus’ followers. His determination to root them out had cost many Christians their freedom, maybe even their lives.

But as he travelled towards Damascus, he was thrown to the ground by a bright light, and face down in the dust, he heard the voice of Jesus, apparently speaking to him from the right hand of God, enthroned in heaven. Everything Paul thought he knew crumbled to pieces. All that certainty was gone in a moment!  And now what? Blinded by the light, Paul was led into Damascus, and he sat there, with no idea what to do next. He couldn’t go back to his old life, as the chief persecutor of Jesus’ followers, but surely they wouldn’t want to welcome him as one of them, would they? That  was far too much to ask. But, amazingly, miraculously, the Christian community did accept him. Ananias,  surely one of the bravest men in Scripture, was told by God to go and pray for him, and Ananias went – to this man who he ought to have run a mile from.

And Paul soon found himself surrounded by the love of the Christian community in Damascus, healed by their love, turned around by their love. It’s no wonder that he talks about love so often, and so movingly, in his letters. Love that is patient and kind, that keeps no score of wrongs, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Those familiar words from 1 Corinthians 13 aren’t about romance, however often they are read at weddings. They’re about the people who dug deep into themselves to forgive this man who’d  had  people like them – maybe even their own friends and families - arrested, persecuted and even killed perhaps.

Paul was a clever man, like Apollos. He knew his way around the Hebrew Bible, and Greek philosophy, like Apollos. But he also knew that the most important lesson he had ever learned had been the one which came to him when he was flat on his face in the dust on the Damascus road. For us too, it’s often only when we have been thrown down from our high horses, when we’ve  lost everything, when we’re broken and spent, that we find what we most need to know, that God loves us when we feel that there is nothing loveable about us, when we are disgraced, ruined, bereft, just like that unlikely Messiah, who hung on a cross, seeming like a complete failure to those who saw him, a man whose mission had come to nothing. When Paul talks about knowing “only Jesus Christ, and him crucified”, he is proclaiming that the Messiah we need isn’t one who can win every argument hands-down and blast his opponents to smithereens, like an Alexandrian philosopher. It is one who has faced the humiliation, the failure, the many different forms of death which come to us as we go through life. That kind of Messiah liberates us to be who we are, not who we think we ought to be, to stop pretending and hiding, because we realise that it is the people we are that God loves.

And that brings me to the Gospel reading.  It is easy to read this passage as being about evangelism, as an exhortation to get out there in the world and be salt and light to others, brightening up their lives, bringing flavour to them. But that can just make us feel guilty and pressured. Are we salty enough? Are we shiny enough?

And I’m not sure that this is really what Jesus is saying at all. He doesn’t say “you ought to be the salt of the earth”.  He says “you are the salt of the earth”. He doesn’t say “you should be the light of the world”. He says, “you are the light of the world.”. Salt can’t help but be salty;  if it isn’t salty, it isn’t salt. Light can’t help but shine – if you don’t want it to illuminate things, the only thing you can do is put a bucket over it, which, as Jesus points out, is just daft. I don’t think Jesus is really talking about  evangelism here at all. I think he is talking about authenticity, trusting that God will be at work in us if we are being the people he has made us to be, whether we are succeeding or failing, in good times or in bad.

This passage follows straight on from what we call the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…  Blessed are a whole lot of other people, says Jesus,  who are going through hard times and whose lives are falling apart, as Paul’s did. Why? Because these are the times when we usually discover most deeply the love of Christ, the comfort of Christ, the presence of Christ, “and him crucified” ; Christ who is with us when everything else we trusted in has been taken away, Christ who calls us simply to be who we are, and know that, as we are, we are blessings to the world, because we are made in the image of God, who is the source of all blessings.
Amen

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Coming to the Temple: Candlemas

Audio version here



This past week has been an eventful one. It began with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. There was moving testimony from those who lived through that terrible time. Never again, they said.  But of course, it hasn’t been as simple as that. Genocides continue to happen. Conflict continues to erupt. And those who hoped that the founding of the state of Israel would at least give a secure and peaceful home to those who had suffered so much have discovered that it is all far more complicated than they had thought, as it was bound to be, in hindsight.

In our own nation too, some have rejoiced while others have mourned as Brexit day dawned. We don’t know what the future holds, but the one thing we can be sure of is that it won’t be simple, and that Brexit is far from “done”. We are just at the beginning of a process which will take years to complete.

Human beings don’t like complexity. We all long for simple solutions, for “happy ever after endings”.  The people Malachi was prophesying to in our Old Testament reading were no different. His words probably date from some time in the century after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon. They’d been there seventy years, so when Cyrus, the king of Persia, overthrew the Babylonians and sent them home, they were elated.  

Their prophets, Isaiah and Ezekiel, had told them God hadn’t forgotten them.  Ezekiel had had a vision of the new Jerusalem, and the new Temple that would replace the one the Babylonians had destroyed.  He saw the God coming back to dwell in it.  “The Glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east;” he said, “the sound was like the sound of mighty waters and the earth shone with his glory… As the glory of the Lord entered the temple…the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the Temple.” (Ezekiel 43.1-5).

But the hopes they’d had as they set out for home soon evaporated. The Temple they rebuilt was a shadow of the one they’d lost.  Many of the treasures that had filled it had disappeared or been destroyed by the Babylonians,  including the Ark of the Covenant, the box with the Ten Commandments in it, which had symbolised the presence of God in their midst. The splendour that Ezekiel had envisaged never really became a reality. The glory days never arrived. They were still ruled over by other nations. Where was the fulfilment of the prophecies of Ezekiel and Isaiah? “Is this it?” they are saying. “Is this as good as it gets? Why doesn’t God pull his finger out and make us great again?”

It was against this backdrop that the idea of a Messiah really started to develop, a leader who’d finish the work that the return from exile had started. That’s what Malachi promises them. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” he says. But there’s a caveat, a warning, for them. This won’t be like some superhero swooping in from the sky to magically make everything right from the outside. The change they look for will start within them, and it will be painful and costly. Malachi compares it to refining silver and gold, something that involves crushing rock and heating it until the metal runs out. He compares it to fulling cloth, a process in which the cloth is basically trampled on, beaten up, to make it smooth and firm.  There won’t be any short cuts or opt outs. When God gets to work, don’t expect an easy ride, he says.

If they want God’s glory to be revealed in their midst, it will involve changing the way they treat each other – living lives that are faithful and honest, not oppressing the hired workers so they can get a cheap deal. It will mean caring for the vulnerable , the widows and orphans, welcoming the strangers in their midst. Living justly isn’t easy – it can be costly and threatening – that’s why we so seldom achieve it. But  we can’t expect to shine with God’s glory if we won’t let him clear away the muck that obscures it in us.

But that’s not an easy thing to accept. We don’t want hard work or pain. We want a superhero who will wave a magic wand over our troubles to make them go away.  

Perhaps that’s why, in our Gospel reading, only two people in the Temple spot the moment when God actually does show up in their midst, when the Lord does indeed “come to his Temple”,  because anything less like a superhero is hard to imagine. He is just a tiny, vulnerable baby.

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to make a sacrifice for him, they were just doing what every new family did. It was laid down in the law. No doubt there were many other people there doing the same. The Temple would have busy, crowded , noisy. But in the midst of all of this hubbub, Simeon and Anna were praying and watching, as they had done for years, asking the same old questions. “Come on God. Where are you? When will you act?”

We don’t know what makes them notice this one little family among so many – there is nothing to distinguish them. Maybe it is just that, after so many years of prayer, they are tuned in to the voice of God’s Spirit. But somehow they know that this is the moment, that the Lord has “suddenly come to his Temple”, and it’s not at the head of an army, not in clouds of glory from the sky. This Lord has no power; he can’t even talk. He seems to have nothing to offer. He’s utterly dependent. But that means he’s also utterly open to those around him. Babies can’t judge or discriminate. They have no preconceptions. They take things, and people, as they are. They have to.

If we are looking for God, this story tells us, this is where we are most likely to find him, not amongst the powerful, but in those who who are needy and vulnerable, not in times when everything is going well, but in the times when we know it isn’t, not in tidy, simple solutions – which usually turn out not to be solutions at all – but in mess and muddle and compromise.

It goes against the grain, of course. As I said earlier, we don’t like complexity. So Donald Trump and Benjamin  Netanyahu declare a peace plan for the Middle East, without actually involving the Palestinians in the discussions – it’s easier that way. And both sides in the Brexit debate convince themselves that if only those other people would think like them it would all be fine. We shut our eyes to the mess, and try to pretend that it isn’t there.  

But if we shut our eyes to the mess, to the powerlessness, to the complexity of life, we shut our eyes to God, . We miss him in the crying baby, in the person whose life is falling apart, in the situations we have given up for lost and walked away from. We miss him in the places where we need him most. Ultimately, this child in the Temple will end up nailed to a cross-  “a sword will pierce your own soul,” says Simeon to Mary. But that very act will show us that even there, in the messiest, most helpless place possible, God is present. 

As the letter to the Hebrews said, God, in Christ, became “like his brothers and sisters in every respect”  because that was the only way he could help us. He doesn’t  offer a quick fix, or a happy-ever-after magic wand to wave over our troubles; even if he did, that wouldn’t really help us, because it’s not what we need. We need a saviour who is where we are, who starts small, as small as a baby, if we’re truly to be transformed.

I read a book recently by the late Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen, and I’d like to finish by telling you a story from it. In the mid 1980s, Nouwen gave up his respected academic job at a university to live as part of a community with adults with learning disabilities .  He was still in demand to give talks around the world, but the community made a decision that whenever he travelled, he should be accompanied by one of the learning disabled adults, so they could do the work together. That meant that, on one trip to an academic conference in New York, Bill came along too. Bill had a whale of a time in the swanky hotel where the conference was taking place, and as Nouwen climbed up onto the platform to give his lecture, Bill got up and joined him, pitching in now and then with comments of his own – after all, they were supposed to be doing this together, he said.  Later Bill did the rounds at the reception, chatting to people enthusiastically, and in the morning at breakfast, he made sure he’d said a proper goodbye to all the new friends he’d made, the learned scholars who had come to the conference. “We did it together” said Bill to Nouwen as they left. As Nouwen reflected on what had happened, he wrote this: 
In the past, I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself. Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered. Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, but that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten. I hoped and prayed that Jesus, who had sent us out together and had been with us all during the journey, would have become really present to those who had gathered in the Clarendon Hotel in Crystal City.

Malachi looked for a time when “the Lord would suddenly come to his Temple,”  when God would show up and get to work. Simeon and Anna recognised that happening in the shape of a tiny, helpless baby. Nouwen recognised it happening  the openness and trust Bill showed to those around him, which transformed an academic discussion into a place where true friendships were made.  I wonder where we might recognise it in our lives this week, if we can find the courage to  open our eyes to it?
Amen

Nouwen, Henri J. M.. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership . The Crossroad Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.