Sunday, 28 February 2021

Lent 2: What's in a name?

 Audio version

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet." So said Juliet to Romeo in Shakespeare’s famous play, but she was wrong. The fact that he was a Montague and she a Capulet, from rival families, may not have worried her, but it worried others, and the results were fatal for both of them.  

 

Names matter. They aren’t just technical reference tags, like your National Insurance number, or the serial number on a machine. They carry all sorts of other meanings and associations. That’s why choosing a name for a baby is so difficult, and, usually, done with great care. What are they going to feel about those names when they are grown? Is your daughter going to thank you for calling her Fifi, when she becomes a High Court Judge? But you have to call them something, and it is the power, and the burden, of parenthood to make that choice.

 

Names feature in our readings today. In the Old Testament reading Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah. Commentators argue about whether there is anything really significant about the old and new names in themselves. Possibly Abram might mean “exalted ancestor” while Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude”, which is what he becomes, but no one is really sure, and Sarai and Sarah are two variants of a word that means “princess”. But small changes matter, and the crucial thing here is who is giving them these identities, not their tribal ancestors, the parents who (ninety-nine years ago in Abraham’s case) decided on their name, but God himself. In naming them, he declares that he’s the one whose family they truly belong to, above and beyond the old tribal identities that once shaped them. They are children of God, part of a family that will eventually encompass a multitude of nations. Back in Genesis chapter 12 God had told Abraham that through him, “all the families of the earth will be blessed”– God’s work through Abraham and Sarah won’t be about setting one tribe over another – Montagues against Capulet - it will be for the whole human race.

 

 

Today’s Gospel reading follows hard on the heels of another significant name change. It comes straight after the passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus tells Simon, the fisherman from Bethsaida who has become one of his closest followers, that from now on he will be called Peter, as he is here – from the Greek petros, a rock. He’s just acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus responds that “on this rock I will build my kingdom”. But now Peter seems to be rocky in a way Jesus didn’t intend. He may have accepted that this carpenter from Nazareth could be God’s messiah, but he can’t accept that God’s plan for him could ever include a humiliating and painful death. It doesn’t make sense to him, and it provokes a gigantic, rocky wobble.

 

It probably doesn’t make it any easier for him that this story is happening in the territory of Caesarea Philippi. We’re told that in the passage before this.Caesarea Philippi was a town which had been founded, and named, in honour of the Roman Emperors, the Caesars, by one of King Herod’s sons – the Herod who killed all the babies in Bethlehem. This particular son, Philip, who ruled this area after his father’s death had snuck in his own name – that’s the Philippi bit – for good measure. If you are going to suck up to the big boss in Rome by building a town for him, it never does any harm to remind him who’s idea it was! It was a strategically important town, on the lower slopes of Mount Hermon, where the River Jordan rose, which provided much of the precious water that irrigated Israel. There was a famous shrine to the Greek god Pan there too. So it was a place which reeked of secular and religious authority. Everywhere you turned there were reminders of who was in power – even in the town’s name itself – reminders of who you needed to swear allegiance to if you wanted to get on, or even just stay alive, in this dog-eat-dog world.

 

It was extraordinary that Peter had affirmed Jesus as the Messiah at all against that backdrop.  What was a carpenter from Nazareth compared to the might of Rome and the splendour of the Herodian dynasty? But as it turned out Peter had only got halfway to where he needed to be. It wasn’t just who had power that mattered, but what that power looked like. In the Kingdoms of Rome and of the Herods, power equalled military force, casual brutality, and swift and severe retribution for anyone who stepped out of line.

 

In that sort of society, either you fit in and do what you are told, no matter whether its right or wrong, or you stand up against it, and pay the price. It’s a stark choice. As Jesus says, in trying to save your life physically, you may find you lose it spiritually. You may get to live, but you have to live with yourself, knowing deep down that you are a collaborator, an enabler of oppression. Just this last week, a 95 year old man was deported from the US back to Germany, having admitted that he was a concentration camp guard at a camp near Hamburg during World War 2. He oversaw some of the deadly forced marches which took place as the war was drawing to an end. It might look as if he’d got away with it all these years, but what does it do to you to live with that on your conscience, and now he has been expelled from the land he called home for the last 60 or so years? What has it profited him to “gain the whole world” if he has spent his whole adult life knowing that he was part of that machinery of evil? You don’t have to believe in eternal punishment, or even life after death, to see what Jesus was getting at here. We all make choices, and then have to live with the choices we make.

 

Jesus, and his followers will be faced with the choice between a courageous stand against oppression or the temptation to go with the flow, knowing that it is wrong. When Peter tries to turn Jesus away from the course of action he knows he must follow, he shows how deeply his mind has been shaped by the shadow of Rome, Herod and their like, where success comes adorned with thrones and sycophantic admirers, and anything else is failure.  He has his mind on earthly things, not divine things, as Jesus puts it. No wonder he can’t cope with the idea of Jesus being crucified.  He can’t imagine God could be at work through pain, death and humiliation, and he won’t get his head around it fully until Jesus is raised from death. That’s when he will really grow into the new name Jesus has given him, when he’ll stop being rocky, and start being the Rock upon whose faith others can rely.

 

Today’s readings, then, invite us to look at our own identity, and where it comes from, the names we know ourselves by, and who gave them to us, the things that have shaped our outlook on the world, and whether they lead us to fear, or faith. They call us to see that, whatever tribes and families we come from, whatever society we grew up in, our true name and nature come from God, the God who is with us in failure just as much as success, in weakness just as much as strength, in death just as much as life.

Lent 1

 Mark 1.9-15 & Genesis 9.8-17

Audio version

A sermon by Kevin Bright.


Wow, Mark certainly gets down to business doesn’t he!

It hits you when you actually open a printed bible rather than finding the text online because the words we heard today are two thirds of the way down the first column on the first page.

Matthew and Luke don’t start their descriptions of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness until the fourth chapter and unlike Mark they then go on to list them and provide a more detailed account.

Mark has a sense of urgency to start proclaiming the good news.

After telling us that Jesus was baptised by John in the river Jordan we hear that the ‘Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.’

Like Matthew and Luke he still tells of Christ being tempted but his is the only Gospel to tell us of the angels who ‘waited on him.’

"He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him."


It’s a really powerful detail and worthy of careful contemplation.


Perhaps it helps if first we take a step backwards and identify the times we really felt that we were in our own wilderness.


For some this will be times of great personal sadness, grieving a loved one or times of fear and anxiety when darkness feels like it is closing in.


Perhaps we feel that we are all stuck together as never before in a wilderness of uncertainty as we enter our second consecutive Lent in lockdown with much of what makes life joyful denied to us. Forty days and forty nights we might have been able to tolerate but this could yet be 400 days and nights of restrictions in one form or another.


My daughter received a valentine’s card with hearts surrounding a smiling Boris Johnson (I don’t think it was from him) which read ‘My love for you is like the UK lockdown – it will never end’.


It seems that we all had better start looking for angels.


Mark doesn’t imply that we should skip the bits where we face up to temptations, wrestle with the tempter or acknowledge our greatest fears, our own beasts that threaten to overwhelm us, but even in these situations we need to keep an eye open for the angels.


Sometimes it’s easier to see the angels that have waited on us in our times of need when we look back, they weren’t quite so obvious when we were suffering. I don’t think that you need my help to find the angels among us in this time of Covid, nor in times of personal sadness and despair, it’s for each of us to reflect upon our personal wilderness experiences in order to identify the angels we met that make real God’s love and care for humanity.


Lent can be a time to move our minds out of a rut and with God’s help identify where we need to change course, break bad habits and restore health to our relationships. Relationships with God, his creation and each other.


The fasting element can be a first step toward getting ourselves in a place where we can think, reflect and pray more deeply. Denying ourselves alcohol, chocolate or Netflix may prove to ourselves that we still have some self-discipline and are serious about this, whilst others already know that they are serious and focus solely on the positive action of truly acknowledging that we exist only by God’s grace.


In the story of Noah we hear that God set ’his bow in the clouds’ as a sign of his covenant with the earth.


During this time of Covid rainbows have proliferated and become both a sign of hope for a brighter future on our earth but also a recognition and thanksgiving for the many angels working tirelessly to care for and support their fellow human beings.


George Matheson, the Scottish hymn writer knew a thing or two about life’s challenges, losing his sight at an early age.


His hymn, ‘O love that wilt not let me go’ finds meaning in God’s rainbow promise and contains the words that you will probably recall..


O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain

And feel the promise is not vain

That morn shall tearless be.


When Noah takes the animals into the ark he is acknowledging the responsibility of humankind to care for God’s creation. Early in Genesis God said of humankind ‘let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle and over all the wild animals of the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’


As God loves and cares for us he expects us to reflect this not only among each other but also in the way we relate to the world around us.


Record numbers of people have sought canine companions in the last year, gardening has grown and found new enthusiasts and almost every route you hike seeking some solitude has to be shared with other muddy boots as the great outdoors appeals like never before.


Is this just a temporary improvement in our relationship with nature which will promptly cease once Bluewater re-opens and a symptom of a situation which can sometimes feel like house arrest. 


You may have seen a recent news story where a wanted criminal surrendered himself to face jail as he couldn’t stand his domestic situation another day. Perhaps true punishment for him would be an electronic tag which confined him to the house.


It would be nice to think that whilst Covid has undoubtedly brought much misery and suffering that it could prove to be a catalyst for an improvement in our relationship with God’s creation and an acknowledgement of each other’s value to God. 


One temptation we all need to fight against is to think that we don’t need each other or have a responsibility to each other. So there was a ray of hope to learn that the G7 countries are planning to provide vaccinations to those unable to access their own. It’s not all bad news.


I also saw that the Mayor of London received his jab recently and subsequently tweeted’ Love that as a Mayor of Islamic faith, I received my COVID vaccine at a local church, from Reverend Dr Sue Clarke, who came out of retirement to volunteer as a vaccinator. This is London: our diversity is our strength.


As Christians we should be able to look at all around us and declare ‘this is humanity, our love for each other is our strength.’ At such times we can be sure that God, once again, is well pleased!


Amen


Sweet Chariots: Sunday before Lent

Audio version

“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” If that spiritual came into your heads as you heard the Old Testament Reading earlier, I wouldn’t be at all surprised, because that’s what inspired the song, which is why I asked Philip to record the snatch of it you’ve just heard.  It’s a song that comes from the era of slavery in the USA. It’s often suggested that it was written or perhaps written down by Wallis Willis, a freed enslaved man, but its origins will probably never be known. Like all the best folk songs, it probably grew and changed as it was passed on from voice to voice, because it communicated so powerfully to the people who sang and heard it. Like “Steal away “ it’s thought to have contained coded references to the underground railroad – the escape route for slaves from the South to the North of the USA, but even without those associations, it’s a powerful expression of the longing to be scooped up out of the troubles of the world – and a powerful expression of the faith that that would one day happen. “If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I’m coming too” says the last verse.


Swing Low is often associated with the England Rugby team now. According to a very thought-provoking video produced by England Rugby in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, that association seems to have come from it being sung by fans as a tribute to the player, Martin Offiah in the late 1980s. His nickname was Chariots, from the  chariots of fire in the story - it was a play on his surname,  Offiah… There is lively debate now about how appropriate or not it is for fans to sing it, stripped of its context as a song rooted in slave times, which the video explores. I’ve put a link to the video in today’s newsletter, and I highly recommend it. It includes more about the history of the song, and contributions from a number of Black and mixed race rugby players, including Martin Offiah, who have a variety of views on the song. All agree, though, that the key is that its history should be known and honoured, and have found a new respect for the song as an anthem that can lift anyone’s eyes and hopes in times of trouble. This too shall pass, it says. No matter how bleak life might feel, no matter how others might treat us, we are people of dignity and worth, because we are children of God and he has not forgotten us.  


But back to the Old Testament story which inspired it… If you’re not familiar with the background it may be a bit baffling. What is going on here? Who are these people with confusingly similar names – Elijah and Elisha? 


Elijah was one of the most important of the Old Testament prophets. He stood up against the despotic King Ahab and his Phonecian wife Jezebel, whose name has gone down in tradition as a byword for wicked women – she brought into Israel the worship of the Canaanite god God, Baal. Elijah challenged their power, and often felt like a lone voice as he did so. It was Elijah who summoned Jezebel’s prophets and holy men, to a contest on Mount Carmel, when his God famously ignited a soaking wet sacrificial pyre with a thunderbolt, while the prophets of Baal failed to raise their god to do anything to theirs. It was Elijah too, who fled into the desert when Jezebel tried to kill him, and ended up in a mountainside cave, hearing the “still small voice” of God which reassured him that his work hadn’t been in vain. In the wake of that incident, God told him to recruit his successor, Elisha, who would continue his work. In the story we heard today, Elisha realises that Elijah’s life and his ministry is coming to an end, and asks that he might have the strength and grace to pick up his mantle. He then watches as Elijah is taken up into heaven in those famous “chariots of fire”, which led to the belief that Elijah didn’t die, but was taken up to heaven bodily. 


That in turn gave rise to the conviction that Elijah would return to herald the coming of the Messiah, along with that other great Old Testament figure, Moses. 


And that brings us neatly to the Gospel reading, and might help us make sense of its strangeness. Jesus takes his three closest disciples up a mountain – significant things often happen on mountains in the Bible! – where they see Jesus shining with God’s glory, flanked by Elijah and Moses, talking with them. It’s a moment of affirmation that Jesus really is God’s chosen one. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him”, says a voice from heaven, echoing the words that were heard at his baptism. 


This story of the Transfiguration can seem very peculiar to us. It obviously stunned Peter, James and John too – so much so that Peter just said the first thing that came into his head when it happened, engaging his mouth before his brain was in gear, as we all tend to do in these situations. But for all its strangeness, this was obviously a very significant story for the early Christians who first wrote it and heard it. It’s included in three of the four Gospels, and in all of them it comes just before Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and starts to head towards the city where he will be crucified. That’s why we hear it on the Sunday before Lent, as we too turn our thoughts towards the end of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. 


Jesus had looked like an unlikely Messiah from the start – a carpenter from Nazareth? Really? – but it was completely inconceivable that God’s Messiah, his chosen one could be nailed to a cross, dying a deliberately humiliating and disgraceful death, apparently a complete failure. The early church had an uphill struggle to convince anyone that such figure could be God’s Son, that this could possibly be of God, part of God’s plan. They lived in a world – perhaps we still do – where being powerful, or at least looking as if you were, meant everything. The message that a crucified man could have been blessed by God, used by God, even be God, that God could be known in weakness and death was profoundly counter-cultural, as it still is to many today. But that was at the heart of the Christian faith, and for those who had grasped it, it was completely liberating. Like those slaves who sang of their trust in God’s love when those around them treated them as sub-human and disposable, it was literally life-saving, soul-saving to discover that no matter what shame was heaped on you - even crucifixion – you were still of infinite value to God. 


We are not enslaved people, but  we can all feel that there is no way out, no future, that the weight of the world is on our shoulders, so this message still matters, these stories still matter. They remind us that that God sees us, that God remembers us, that God can  lift us up, and that can give us the hope, the energy, the peace which will carry us home, not just after death in a “sweet chariot” but in life too, helping us to look for God’s presence, God’s glory, God’s love right here and right now. 

Amen 


Sunday, 7 February 2021

Wisdom and Word: Second Sunday before Lent

 Audio version here 

Proverbs 8. 1, 22-31, John 1.1-14

Are we having fun yet? Probably not, is the answer. So many of the things we do for recreation are off limits at the moment. Pub lunches, concerts, sporting events, even just a friend popping in to see you for a coffee - they all feel like distant memories.

The word “recreation” is an interesting one. We often use it to mean just something that feels like fun, whatever that is for us, but at its root, recreation isn’t simply about letting off steam or having a rest or distracting ourselves for a while from things we’re fed up with. The clue is in the word itself. It is re-creation. True recreation should re-create us, make us new, heal us at a deep level. A meal in a fancy restaurant might do that, but we can find that all we’ve got to show for it is an increased waistline and a decreased bank balance. Not all recreation re-creates, and sometimes true re-creation comes through things that didn’t seem like fun at all at the time. It’s only looking back that we realise they were just what we needed.  

Today’s Bible readings are all about creation and re-creation. They might not seem like the obvious ones, though. They’re not the stories from the book of Genesis, where God says, “let there be light” and there is light, or where he creates Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Instead, we heard about the mysterious figure of Wisdom, personified as a woman, in our Old Testament reading, who rejoiced with God as the world was made. And in the New Testament that famous passage about the Word of God, through which “all things came into being.” The identity of that Word isn’t named in the passage, but we all know who John means by it, and John knows we know. He’s talking about Jesus.

Wisdom and Word; two very important concepts which overlapped in Hebrew and Greek thinking and aren’t easily translated accurately into English. Wisdom is more than cleverness, and Word is more than just something that is spoken. A very inadequate way of summing them up might be to say that they were thought of as the ways God got things done, God’s action in the world. In the book of the Wisdom of Solomon, which is in the Apocrypha, so not found in all Bibles, the writer imagines a prayer that Solomon, famous for his wisdom might have prayed. “You have made all things by your word, and by your wisdom you have formed humankind…Send her forth from the holy heavens, and from the throne of your glory send her that she may labour at my side.” (Wisdom 9.1-2 & 10) It was God’s Wisdom, he goes on to say, that rescued the Israelites from the trials and tribulations that came on them through the ages – going with them into slavery in Egypt and leading them out again.

By the time of Jesus, a parallel idea from Greek philosophy of the Word, logos in Greek, was commonly used to talk about the organising principle behind the universe. That’s what John’s drawing on when he calls Jesus the Word. He is the one through whom God is creating a new world, a new kingdom. He is the one who now says “let there be light” to the darkness he encounters. And there is light. St Paul describes Jesus as the Wisdom of God too, in 1 Corinthians1.24, a wisdom that might look like folly to some. The cross looks like failure, nonsense, says Paul, and yet through it, God acts to save us.

Of course, Jesus isn’t just a personification, like that figure of Lady Wisdom – a way of speaking about something abstract so we can understand it more easily. He’s an actual person, the Word made flesh. He’s the expression of God, God making himself known, in a way that those who encountered him could hear and see and touch directly. He embodied what had previously just been an idea. When people who had been mangled and broken by life met him, they found re-creation, healing, a new identity as children of God. If anyone is Christ, there is a new creation, said St Paul in another place. (2 Cor 5.17)


The concepts in the readings we heard today might be a bit complicated – all that Hebrew and Greek philosophy – but when we dig down, though, they are all about something we all long for, a world made new, ourselves made new.

It’s no accident that we hear these readings about creation and re-creation today. In the Church’s calendar, this is the Second Sunday before Lent. It doesn’t sound very inspiring, but it does what it says on the tin. It tells us that Lent is just around the corner. At its heart Lent isn’t about giving things up, like wine or chocolate. It isn’t about making ourselves miserable as we contemplate our faults and failings. It’s a time when we are reminded of the basic truth of Christian faith, which is that it's ok not to be ok, that we don’t have try to mend ourselves – we can’t anyway. That’s God’s job, not ours. I don’t know about you, but I find that hugely reassuring, a great relief. God’s Wisdom delights in the human race, rejoices in the inhabited world, we are told. She dances for joy in hearts that are open to God’s help. At last, at last, God can get to work in those hearts. The Word of God comes among us, full of grace and truth – telling us what we need to hear, but also showering us with love that we haven’t earned, can’t earn, don’t need to earn – it is his gift.

We may not think of Lent as a time of recreation – if all we mean by that is fun – but it can certainly be a time of re-creation, of healing and growing, if we will let it be. And all we have to do is show up, as we are, in the presence of God. He can do the rest. As someone once wisely said, “God can mend a broken heart, but only if he has all the pieces.”

So, two weeks away from the beginning of Lent – Ash Wednesday is on Feb 17th – how are we planning to bring ourselves to God this year. There are many ways to do so. Sometimes giving something up really does help – it clears the decks, de-clutters us a bit. But we can take things up too. We can do something extra to serve others. We can make space for prayer and reflection.

There are lots of resources around to help us do this, online and offline, but if you’d like to join with others from Seal Church this year, you’d be very welcome, whether you ever been part of a Lent Group here before or not. Our Lent course this year will focus on four questions Jesus asked people who came to him, simple questions which made them think, and might make us think too. There will be various ways of accessing the course. You can join in Zoom sessions with others either on Monday mornings or Monday evenings – email me to get the links. Or there will be videos covering the same material, which you could use on your own or with friends, and printable versions too.

Whether you join with us, or do your own thing, though, I hope you’ll find a way of opening yourself up to God’s wisdom and God’s word this Lent, so that we can all discover God at work in us, rejoicing and delighting in us, bringing us the grace and truth that will truly re-create us.

Amen

Monday, 1 February 2021

Candlemas: small signs

Audio version here

Luke 2 22-40

Today we keep the feast of Candlemas – the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, to give it its full title. Its actual date is February 2nd, but we observe it on the nearest Sunday. It’s the last day of the Christmas and Epiphany season, the time when we turn from focussing on Christ’s birth to thinking of his ministry, his death and his resurrection. Traditionally it is the time when the last of the Christmas decorations are taken down – we always keep our crib set up, in church and at home, until now and this year we’ve left the vicarage Christmas lights and tree up throughout January too, because, let’s face it, we need as much cheering up as we can manage at the moment! But now it’s time for them to go away, not because we don’t need light in our lives anymore but because, finally, we are starting to see light returning to the world around us and the first signs of spring. 

Candlemas falls on one of the four “cross quarter days” in the calendar, which come halfway between the solstices and equinoxes. They’re the moments when we notice one season just starting to give way to another, and they have been marked throughout recorded history, whatever faith people followed, in one way or another. The others coincide roughly with May Day, when spring blossoms into summer, Lammastide, at the beginning of August, an ancient feast celebrating the first fruits of the autumn harvest,  and Hallowe’en, when we can’t deny that the winter darkness is starting to take hold. We seem to have a deep human need to notice these moments when the seasons start, subtly, to shift, and this time, which we celebrate as Candlemas is no different. There are many weather forecasting traditions linked with it, aimed at predicting how much longer winter will go on. An old English rhyme says “"If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another fight. If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain, winter will not come again". In Germany, it was thought that if the badger came out and saw his shadow on February 2nd, there would be six weeks of winter ahead. German immigrants took that tradition to the USA, where the presumably more common groundhog was substituted – hence Groundhog Day. 

Cross quarter days are all about beginnings, the first, small signs of change. Not summer in all its glory, or winter in all its fury, not the fullness of spring or autumn, but the moment when, if you have your eyes open, you can start to see that the year is turning and that the next season will soon come. 

But you do have to have your eyes open. At this time of year there aren’t  “hosts of golden daffodils”, with their in your face unmistakeable bright yellow flowers, just tiny white snowdrops poking through the cold ground. One of the other common names for the snowdrop is the Candlemas Bell. You have to get down close to them to appreciate their beauty. They aren’t showy, or shouty, but they are a sure sign that winter won’t go on forever. 


The story which the Church tells at this time introduces us to two people who have trained themselves to open their eyes – and their hearts – to see the things that others might miss, the small signs of God’s life and light dawning on the world.  It’s the story we heard in our Gospel reading of the infant Jesus being brought to the Temple by Mary and Joseph forty days after his birth. 

Simeon and Anna probably saw hundreds of people every day going in and out of the Temple. They were both regulars there. In fact, Anna lived there full time, we are told, night and day, praying and fasting. Like so many others in Israel they were longing for God to act, to send his promised Messiah to them, and the Temple was an obvious place to wait and to hope. Yet Simeon and Anna seem to have been the only people to have spotted that Jesus was the one, a tiny, vulnerable, ordinary child of poor parents - too poor to be able to afford the sacrifice of a lamb prescribed in the book of Exodus. Maybe others were expecting a mighty military leader, entering the Temple at the head of an army in triumph. Maybe they were expecting him to be heralded by trumpeters or announced by golden letters written on the sky. Not like this, in a child who couldn’t even speak for himself yet.  

There was, apparently, nothing that would have singled Jesus, Mary and Joseph out, but when God prompted Simeon and Anna to notice them, they don’t seem to have questioned the likelihood of God’s choice. I suspect that was because in their long years of prayer and contemplation of the scriptures, they had come to understand that God had a habit of beginning small. They would have read in those scriptures about another vulnerable baby, left in a reed basket on the river Nile, rescued by an Egyptian princess who called him Moses. He grew up to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. They would have read about David, the little shepherd boy, overlooked and unnoticed, who’d grown up to become Israel’s greatest king. They would have grown used to the idea that God had often worked through those who seemed insignificant or unlikely. Elderly, childless couples like Abraham and Sarah, the ne’er do well trickster, Jacob, and Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, whose brothers hated him so much that they sold him into slavery. There was Ruth too, a widowed refugee from Moab, too, who had bravely come to a new country with her Israelite mother-in-law, who became David’s great-grandmother. The list goes on and on. God nearly always seemed to work through the last people you would expect, who most wouldn’t have given a second glance to. 

So, Simeon and Anna were ready when this little child was brought into the Temple. Their hearts were tuned to God. A tiny child of ordinary parents from a backwater town in Galilee? Why not? They had learned to expect to see God’s hope in small things, small people, so they could embrace that hope – Simeon did so literally, as he took Jesus into his hands - and they could proclaim that hope - long and loud, in Anna’s case - as they bore witness to what they’d seen. 

At the end of this service, if you’ve been able to light a candle safely, I’m going to invite you to blow it out, as we bid farewell to Christmas. It’s an odd little ritual – we’re more used to lighting candles than extinguishing them in prayer. It’s a reminder, though, that the light we most need isn’t out there; it’s within us. As we blow out our candles, we’re not saying that the light of Christ has gone out, but rather that it has gone in, that “the Lord whom we seek” has come to the temple of our hearts, to borrow the language of our Old Testament reading. We may feel that the light in us is just a small, tentative glow. We may not feel we are ablaze with glory, but even a small light can make all the difference in a dark place, just as the tiny, fragile snowdrop, the Candlemas bell, can give us hope that spring is on the way. 

So, on this feast of Candlemas let’s tune our hearts to God, so that we can learn to see his hope, however it comes to us. Let’s embrace that hope like Simeon, and proclaim it like Anna, so that those around us find it too. 

Amen