Sunday, 24 January 2021

Epiphany 3: Running on empty

 Genesis 14.17-20, John 2.1-11

Audio version

Last Monday, the third Monday in January, was - supposedly - Blue Monday. It is alleged to be the most depressing day in the year. Christmas is a dim memory. The days are still very short, and the weather is often grim. 


I read somewhere that Blue Monday was actually invented by travel agents, to persuade people to book their summer holidays. In a normal year that might work as a strategy. But this year isn’t a normal year. This year, there’s Covid to contend with too. Getting away from it all would be great, but we can’t, and we don’t know when we will be able to. A fortnight in the sun, or even a decent day out seem like a distant dream right now. Feeling blue – and worse than that - is quite understandable. Infection and death rates are still high. NHS and social care staff are being pushed to the limit and beyond it. Essential workers in retail and elsewhere are receiving abuse from customers fed up with restrictions. School staff are stretched and many parents home-schooling children while trying to work from home themselves are at their wits end. Our local care home, Lavender Fields, has been badly hit by this wave of Covid, despite all the care their hardworking and dedicated staff have taken. If you are listening to this – as a resident, family member or member of staff – you are much in our prayers at the moment. 


Of course, the roll-out of the vaccine is good news; my heart is lifted every time a parishioner tells me they’ve had it. But the road out of this pandemic is going to be a long one. And it’s leaving many scars, physical, emotional, financial and spiritual too. Many people feel they’ve dug down deep into themselves already, and have reached the end of their own resources. They’re running on empty. 


So today’s Gospel story couldn’t be more fitting.   


Jesus, his mother and his disciples, have been invited to a wedding at Cana in Galilee, but they are just guests. They have no formal responsibility for it. When Mary tells Jesus that the wine is running out, he sounds quite dismissive. “That’s not our business” he says. Apparently, in Jesus’ native tongue, Aramaic, it’s not nearly as abrupt as it sounds in English. He’d just stating the obvious. Providing wine isn’t their job. In fact, wading in and trying to sort out this problem might even seem rude – an implied criticism of the hosts, drawing attention to their shortcomings. 


But Mary knows her son. He won’t ignore people in trouble. It’s not in his nature. If there’s a need he can meet, he will. It’s not just about the wine; it’s about the shame the host family will suffer in the eyes of their neighbours. They’ll never live it down. And what does it say about their hopes for this marriage, their confidence in it, if there’s not enough wine to go round for a proper celebration?


“Do whatever he tells you,” Mary says to the servants, and they seem to trust her. When he tells them to fill the huge stone jars nearby with water, and draw off some to take to the steward, that’s exactly what they do. We aren’t told what they think about it, but they have to be aware that they’ll get it in the neck if they suggest to their boss that they start serving water.     


But they do it anyway, and somewhere between drawing the water out of the jars and pouring it out into the steward’s cup for him to taste, they discover that it’s turned into wine. And not just any wine, but the best wine, rich wine, wine that will make glad the hearts of those who drink it, and make this party famous as the best wedding ever!


Neither the bridegroom nor the steward had a clue how this had happened. But there’s a lovely little detail in brackets in the story, which says that, “the servants who had drawn the water knew”.   The ones who did the work. The ones who took the risk. The ones who trusted this strange wedding guest enough to take him at his word. They’d dared to believe that there might be more to life, more to Jesus, than met the eye, that there could be hope even when everything looked hopeless, wine where there had only been water. And as a result, a miracle happened. 


Of course, it isn’t really about the wine, however handy it would be if we could all replenish our stocks from the water tap, and it’s certainly not an invitation to get blind drunk. This is a story about the joy and generosity and most of all, hope, that God offers to us, his promise that he will graciously provide what we need, even if we don’t know where it comes from – like that gift of bread and wine given to Abraham by the mysterious king Melchizedek in the Old Testament reading, who appears from nowhere with his gifts.


God is in the business of giving us what we never dared to expect and know we could never find for ourselves. But sometimes, like those at the wedding in Cana,  hope, joy feel as if they are in short supply. What are we to do then? Where are we to find these gifts of God? Perhaps Mary’s words to the servants are words for us too. “Do whatever he tells you”, she says. We can’t turn water into wine. We can’t find the strength we need at times like this when life feels beyond us, but we can “do whatever he tells us” and leave the rest to him. 


And what is that? What does Jesus tell us? He tells us to “love the Lord our God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.” 

First, love God, he says. What might that mean when we have run dry? At its most basic loving God means telling him what we feel and think, how it really is for us, being with him honestly. Sharing who we are is at the heart of every loving relationship, and it’s no different with God. We don’t need to pretend. We can turn to him in prayer, just as Mary does to Jesus and say “I have no wine” “I have no joy, no energy, no hope”. That’s what loving God might look like just at the moment. 


Then Jesus goes on to tell us to love our neighbour, and ourselves too. How? Love for others and for ourselves isn’t usually shown in grand gestures. It’s the small things that count. Filling some jars with water and drawing it out wasn’t rocket science, but it made all the difference. The miracle wouldn’t have happened without it. Often, all it takes is everyday kindness. Kindness to those around us, and ourselves, says that they matter, that we matter, that we are all God’s children, loved by him, of worth to him, whatever is happening around us.  Even if it’s just a thank you to the shop worker worn down by abusive customers, or a word of encouragement to a friend or family member, or taking some time to care for ourselves, it can open us up to God’s presence. 


“Do whatever he tells you” said Mary – to the servants and to us. Last Monday may have been blue. This Monday may be just as blue. But the good news of this story is that when we’re running on empty, God isn’t. Sorrow is real, but joy is real too. Despair is real, but so is hope. When all we have is water, the wine of God’s love can richly sustain us.   

Amen



Sunday, 17 January 2021

Epiphany 2: the call of God


1 Sam 3.1-20, John 1.43-51

 

This is the season of Epiphany, in the calendar of the church. It’s part of the greater Christmas season, which goes on until Candlemas on Feb 2, so if you’ve still got your decorations up you shouldn’t feel in any hurry to pack them away! Epiphany means “shining forth,” or “revelation” . It starts with the story of the Magi, for whom a shining star in the heavens leads them to the revelation of a child born to be king, but this season then continues with all sorts of other stories in which people have a revelation, seeing Christ, themselves, the world around them in a new light. Their epiphanies are the moments when the lightbulb goes on in their heads, the penny drops.

 

In today’s readings we have two stories about people who took a bit of getting through to, who just couldn’t seem to hear or see things which later seemed obvious to them. Nathanael can’t believe that Jesus might be the Messiah; Samuel takes all night to realise that God is speaking to him and the old priest Eli has been deaf to the voice of God for many years. I expect we can all sympathise with them. I’m sure we’ve all been confronted with a truth about someone or something which, looking back, we feel we should have known all along. Worse still, perhaps we realise that we did know it, but couldn’t acknowledge it.

 

This pandemic has been one wake up call after another, a time which seems to have caught many people napping again and again and again, failing to take seriously enough the warning signs and the risks, despite the fact that emergency planners have been warning of the danger of pandemics for decades. Why didn’t we want to heed the possibility that something like this might happen?

This reluctance to see and hear what is right in front of us isn’t limited to pandemics, of course. We will all have experienced it in other ways too. Why didn’t we spot the warning signs of a relationship that was getting into difficulties? Why didn’t we take notice of the niggling symptoms that later turned out to be a serious illness?

On a more positive note, many people take years and years to realise that they are being called to a particular career, vocation or ministry.

In hindsight it was obvious, but what was it that clouded our vision and stopped our ears beforehand?

 

In Nathanael’s case it seems to be prejudice which gets in the way of him seeing the truth about Jesus. “A Messiah from Nazareth! You’ve got to be joking” he says to his friends. We’re not sure why Nazareth seemed so dodgy, but presumably people at the time would have understood. It might have been because the northern territory of Galilee was more mixed ethnically and religiously than the southern lands around Jerusalem. It was also where the majority of the occupying Roman soldiers were stationed, forcing the people into greater collaboration with them. Or perhaps Nazareth just had a bad reputation – a backwater, hicksville place people wanted to avoid. Whatever it was though, Nathanael seems convinced that Nazarenes are not Messiah material, and he can’t get past that.   

 

It was only when he meets Jesus that he realises his mistake. This man knows him, somehow, even better than Nathanael knows himself, because he sees Nathanael’s potential as a disciple, something which was way off Nathanael’s radar.

 

The story of Eli and Samuel is a more complex tale, and a sadder one. Eli was the old priest at the shrine of Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. He had two adult sons who should have followed him as priests in this important position. But they have gone off the rails and are abusing their positions and stealing the offerings. Eli knows this at some level, but he’s never quite found the courage or energy to confront them. In the end, of course, they are responsible for themselves, but at least Eli could have tried to influence them, and it seems he hasn’t.

 

The message God gives to Samuel is grim – it is the end of the road for Eli’s household. His sons will eventually be killed in battle, and Eli himself will die of sorrow. No wonder Samuel seems reluctant to pass this message on. But Eli finds the courage at least and at last, to urge Samuel to tell the truth, no matter what it is, and by doing that he teaches Samuel a vital lesson which he will need to draw on often in the future – that the truth, however painful, can’t be avoided forever. Samuel goes on to be one of Israel’s most important prophets, instrumental in the lives of King Saul and King David . He is often called by God to challenge them – and those who challenge kings need all the courage they can muster. I like to hope that Eli took some comfort in seeing that, for all his failures, he has been able to play some little part in God’s work.

 

And that is what it is about – God’s work. Because it is most often where the pain is and where the mess is that God is. We see this in Jesus, born in a dung-strewn stable, growing up in that dodgy town of Nazareth, dying on a cross, alone and reviled, looking to all the world as if he had failed. Who would have thought that God could be in these squalid places, in these squalid things? Not the Magi who headed first for Herod’s palace. Not Nathanael with his blinkered views. Not the horrified disciples who ran away from the crucifixion. But that is where God was, at work in the world through Christ. And that is where he still is. In the places, the people, the situations we would rather not see at all – the things within ourselves we’d rather bury or ignore. It is there that God waits patiently with his healing and his love because it’s there that we need him most. Turn away from that place and we turn away from God too.

 

I wonder what would happen if today we were to say, as Samuel does, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?” I don’t know, and that’s why it frightens me, as perhaps it does you, but if we are serious in our search for God’s presence in our lives and in our world then the place we are avoiding is probably the very best place to start.

Amen

 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Baptism of Christ

 “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” said our Old Testament reading today.

 

I guess that’s a pretty good summary of how the world feels to many people right now. Insurrection in the USA, Covid almost overwhelming the NHS, uncertainty everywhere, fear for the future, and many of the familiar landmarks of our lives swept away – the social interactions, the activities which give shape to our days and weeks.. And lurking in the wings, the devastation of climate change which dwarfs all of this. The challenges are huge, and real, and we often feel very small in the face of them, whirled about in that formless void, out of our depths in that deep, dark water.

 

Perhaps Covid has come as a particular shock to the people of the developed world because many of us, much of the time, have the luxury of living relatively stable, comfortable lives. That’s not to say that there isn’t poverty and desperation around us, but we are used to having a more or less functioning government, health service and social support. There’s an assumption that the vulnerable should be cared for, even if we don’t always do a very good job of living up to it. But that isn’t so elsewhere. Yemen has endured decades of instability, civil war, abject poverty, and almost unimaginable suffering, and now has Covid to deal with on top of it. It’s sadly a story that is repeated in many parts of the world, where, as throughout human history people live with the knowledge that they are just one bad storm, one failed crop, one bomb or stray bullet away from disaster. Life is precarious, uncontrollable. That formless void, those waters of chaos are ever present, and we have perhaps been much more aware of that this year.

 

The people for whom today’s Old Testament passage was written - the opening words of the book of Genesis – lived with that knowledge too. They come from the time when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon, having lost their homeland, their Temple and their way of life..

 

And yet their response to this, wasn’t to despair; it was to tell stories, the old stories which had shaped the nation and the faith they worried they might lose. Most of the big stories of what we call the Old Testament – the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the rest - were gathered together and shaped anew during this exile to remind them of the bigger story of God’s call to them, and his faithfulness.

 

In some ways their stories resembled those of other ancient cultures around them. The Babylonians, among whom they lived also told a story of the creation of the world which started with a formless void and the waters of chaos. But though the opening words were the same, the way it continued was very different. The Babylonian story, like most ancient creation myths, started with great battles between the gods which could have gone many ways, and human beings created to do the work the Gods didn’t want to do themselves. But the book of Genesis doesn’t have any of that. Instead, there is simply the declaration by God ‘Let there be light’ and there is light. He says that the waters should be separated by dry land,

that there should be plants and birds and animals of all kinds, and to crown it all, that there should be people, made in God’s image, to be loved and celebrated and enjoyed for themselves. And it is all good, says God.

 

The Jewish idea of God was very different from any of the civilisations around them, for all the things they had in common.  The Jewish scriptures spoke of one God, ‘enthroned above the flood’ as today’s Psalm put it, in command, however stormy the weather might seem to be down below. There is no conflict, no question about who is going to win this struggle. His people are ultimately safe in his hands. That doesn’t mean, of course, that nothing bad will ever happen to them – remember these words were written by and for people who’d lost everything – but those who wrote the Bible believed, and affirmed, that the end would never be in doubt.

 

The Scriptures proclaim that we matter to God, and so does everyone and everything else we share this planet with. We’re not mistakes or accidents or tools to be valued simply for what we can do. We are God’s good creation. That can profoundly shape our lives if we take it seriously. It can give us hope in desperate times, dignity even when we are face down in the mud, a reason to love and value not only our friends but also our enemies, as fellow children of God. If we matter to God, we should also matter to each other. We are of value not because of what we can do, but because of who God is, a God who loves his creation.  

 

And that brings us to today’s Gospel story. It’s another story involving water, the story of the baptism of Jesus. John’s baptism symbolised the washing away of sin, so on one level, Jesus didn’t need it – there was nothing to wash away – but nonetheless, Jesus insisted it should happen. Christians believe that in Jesus, God shared the whole of our experience, including the human experience of being out of our depth in those waters of chaos – real or symbolic - that Genesis speaks of, the feeling that we are being overwhelmed, drowning in an ocean of mess and complexity. Jesus will share that experience too, as he dies on the cross, drowning in the hatred of those who had him crucified, with the darkness of death closing over his head. Then he will need to remember the words his Father spoke to him back at the beginning as he came up out of Jordan’s waters. “You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased.” God hadn’t abandoned him, wouldn’t abandon him, couldn’t abandon him, no matter what it felt like, because he was not a God who abandoned his children, not ever.  

 

What makes that message even more powerful is that God speaks these words to Jesus before he’s done anything that we might think deserved praise or even notice. He hasn’t preached a word or healed anyone at the point when John baptises him. All that lay ahead. He was Beloved just because he existed. God was “well-pleased” with him, just because he existed. And that’s not just a message for Jesus; it’s a message for all of us. We are all beloved. We are all blessed. We are all held by a God who doesn’t abandon his children, not because we have deserved it or earned it, but simply because we exist. And so is everyone else, however hard we might find it to believe that sometimes.

 

There is no easy route through the difficult times we are all facing at the moment, but the message of the Bible is that we don’t face them alone, and that even if we drown, even when we are swallowed up by failure, or weakness or trouble, or even, ultimately by death, the God who is enthroned above the floods can bring us through those deep waters to new life and new creation by his love.

Amen.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Epiphany

 

Matthew 2.1-12, Isaiah 60.1-6

Another Route?

Often when exploring and contemplating events from the bible it is helpful to create ‘word pictures’, that might build up images in our heads and make us feel involved in the stories that we hear.

When speaking of the wise men most of us already have our own ideas embedded in our brains, many of them from Christmas cards showing 3 characters with camels riding through the desert on their journey to Bethlehem.

This Pandemic year, there’s been cartoons circulating where one wise man says to the other two, ‘if anyone asks, we’re all from the same household’ and some of the three men arriving in Bethlehem after their long journey only to realise that they’ve forgotten their face masks, something we can all relate to!

It’s all symbolic of a Christmas none of us expected when we began 2020. Like many others, in my house there are gifts still waiting to be given when it’s safe and sensible to do so, it feels a bit like the wise men being told to prepare, but then to put their plans on hold.

Perhaps we too are people forced to go by another road from that we expected when we set out at the beginning of last year.

We don’t know how many Magi visited Jesus at the time Matthew tells of but with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh it fits well to have 3 bearers of gifts fit for a king in our nativity scenes, even if they are only representative of a greater number.

There’s a lot of other stuff around these men that has found its way into art, music and folklore which isn’t actually mentioned in the bible, but it speaks volumes of the enduring appeal of these people as characters in a story and how differently we may each relate to them.

Perhaps they are like many of us as we set off on a Christian journey, but unlike the shepherds who received angelic guidance to find God’s revelation, it sometimes has to be enough to just keep trying to head in the right direction, trusting that God will be there at the end.

Currently there is this tension between the routine journeys we are not making versus finding where we are on life’s big journey.  Many people have told me that they actually miss the train to and from work or crawling through in rush hour traffic in a way they never thought likely. Maybe it’s enforced change that seems so unpalatable.

Yet rather than impatiently longing for a return to the previous normality we could use this extra time to reflect upon where we find ourselves on our personal life journeys. When we look back on this stage of our pilgrimage will we feel that we considered our fellow travellers?

God definitely offers possibilities beyond  those we may have seen so far and it is possible that new horizons beckon us.

Imagine the journeys of those fleeing war and persecution. There is no certainty of the route, the conditions, whether they will meet kindness or evil along the way.

Think of those fleeing domestic abuse, will there be protection and guidance as they take those first few steps to what they hope will be freedom and safety?

What we meet on each of our journeys through life may make God hard to find or be his very revelation, but few will have a smooth journey and some will find it hard to keep going at times.

The Magi understood that they had met the true king of the Jews and that this would not be well received by Herod, who must therefore be an impostor and their judgment proved well placed when he later lashed out by killing all Bethlehem children under 2 years old.

‘They left for their own country by another road’ we are told. They saw things differently after meeting Jesus. Did they get an insight into the change that was ahead? The servant king, a helpless baby contrasted with a tyrant.

It becomes apparent that the best each one of us can do is to recognise that we depend upon each other when the star fades and we feel uncertain as to which is the best way forward. We are not left looking onto wise men journeying in picture postcard perfection but are fellow travellers finding ourselves in anything but the perfect Christmas scene, recognising that we step out each day in God’s grace.

The trouble with so many Christmas cards is that the star is so bright, Bethlehem so obvious, it’s all cut and dried. To be fair it wouldn’t be great on a card if it weren’t so, but neither does it reflect our own struggles for spiritual discernment.

Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus himself helps us to understand this when he speaks of the kingdom of heaven as being like ‘treasure hidden in a field’ like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like a tiny mustard seed.’

We may not always recognise his kingship, manifesting itself in unpredictable ways, but however Epiphany may be understood or recognised by each one of us being open to finding God in unexpected places is all part of the journey.

Isaiah tells of light being brought into the darkness which will draw kings and nations to praise it. His portrayal of God’s revelation is one that grows as the light spreads further together with much rejoicing.

Isaiah knew that although the Israelites had returned from exile to ruin and poverty that once they came to recognise the grace of God in their lives things would begin to change, he told them ‘you shall see and be radiant’. This radiance would enrich their lives through new and restored relationships.

Both Isaiah and Matthew reassure us that each one of us is loved and called by God, a message of hope and comfort for all who currently find themselves in darkness that they will once again emerge to find the light.

Amen

Kevin Bright

3rd January 2021