“Low Sunday” – Easter 2

Collect

Almighty Father, you have given your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification: grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve you in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Risen Christ, for whom no door is locked, no entrance barred: open the doors of our hearts, that we may seek the good of others and walk the joyful road of sacrifice and peace, to the praise of God the Father.

Post Communion

Lord God our Father, through our Saviour Jesus Christ you have assured your children of eternal life and in baptism have made us one with him: deliver us from the death of sin and raise us to new life in your love, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Readings

Old Testament

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’ But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.’

The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, ‘Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.’

Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.’ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.

Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them:

‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.’

Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21

Psalm

1    Preserve me, O God, for in you have I taken refuge;
I have said to the Lord, ‘You are my lord, all my good depends on you.’

2    All my delight is upon the godly that are in the land,
upon those who are noble in heart.

3    Though the idols are legion that many run after,
their drink offerings of blood I will not offer,
neither make mention of their names upon my lips.

4    The Lord himself is my portion and my cup;
in your hands alone is my fortune.

5    My share has fallen in a fair land;
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

6    I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel,
and in the night watches he instructs my heart.

7    I have set the Lord always before me;
he is at my right hand; I shall not fall.

8    Wherefore my heart is glad and my spirit rejoices;
my flesh also shall rest secure.

9    For you will not abandon my soul to Death,
nor suffer your faithful one to see the Pit.

10    You will show me the path of life; in your presence is the fullness of joy
and in your right hand are pleasures for evermore.

Psalm 16

Acts

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him,

“I saw the Lord always before me,

   for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;

therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;

   moreover, my flesh will live in hope.

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,

   or let your Holy One experience corruption.

You have made known to me the ways of life;

   you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

‘Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

“He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.”

This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

Acts 2:14, 22-32

Gospel

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:19-31

Sermon on “Low Sunday”, Easter 2

In the normal course of the Church year, this Sunday is called “Low Sunday”, because everyone took time to recover from the rigours of the great fast of Lent and the joyful feast of Easter. Today must have the record low of all years since the founding of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Church attendance throughout Europe is at zero. There is no great congregation to celebrate the risen Christ together – only virtual gatherings. It is the “lowest Sunday” because of the corona virus. The lows we have reached have induced a new terror. Everyone’s fears have become real in the light of this disease – no one is immune, even the Prime Minister has succumbed. How can we be anything but “low”?

So, how can we rise? How will we resurrect ourselves from the low of this Sunday? I wonder, will the good habit of Church attendance be re-established when our forced isolation has been eased? Will we return to the building to worship and rejoice with each other when the ban on every congregation, small or great, has been lifted?

I hope we will gather in greater numbers – I don’t think we should remain low, because of this lack of being with one another. We should be learning self-sufficiency even if our being-with is deficient. It is only through being-with- one-another that we develop and learn. The lessons I want to understand from this politically enforced singularity focus on moral behaviour and good manners – two things which, I think, belong with each other, as they reflect each other. They show themselves in our actions toward one another. Morally, we understand ourselves only in relation to those ’round about us. Our morals must reveal themselves through our manner of behaving toward one another.

I think this time of isolation should teach us about how we should behave when we do get to embrace and greet one another in love, the love of people saved, the love of people grieving.

How can we consolidate our graciousness toward each other, how can we show our moral care for the other, except through good manners when we are with one another? The social distancing we have been practising has relieved us of the burden of any close caring contact. It is much harder to look someone in the eye to express any care, when you are two metres apart. How can we pass the peace apart from signing and bellowed speech, when we cannot touch each other, when we cannot reach each other’s heart through the nuanced modulation of speech? Good manners, I think, confirms the moral space we create for each other – the handshake affirms it, our tone sustains it – the embrace of the peace symbolises and substantiates all we believe about the love of God and one another.

“In great fear they cried out to the Lord.” In these times of the virus, when we are keeping ourselves to ourselves, as prescribed by law, don’t we cry out in our anxiety? The anxious hearts today reflect the hearts of the people in medieval Europe during the time of the Black Death. How are we to keep ourselves “safe”? How can we avoid the virus and the sinister dangers of depression and despair – those maladies which can insidiously root themselves into the heart of our lives? How can we be healthy when we are no longer with others in a positive manner? Haven’t we become hermits all too easily? This life of isolation has become the norm for so many of us. It has not really affected how we are deep in ourselves. Dropping contact, staying six feet apart has not changed some of us, has it? We shop remotely, we stay at home – no change there. Has this enforced separation really changed us fundamentally? I know that I am as comfortable now as I was before the “lock down” of this legislated isolation. But even though I have not felt so very different, it has made me realise my deficiencies – how negatively I have experienced life. Now I realise just how dismaying my life has been. Now I know the low manner of my life.

And surprisingly it seems that these negative ways of being with one another just seem to appear all of a sudden. We haven’t seen them coming, have we? They are like “the leaven of malice and wickedness” – quietly taking over the course of our lives, without our even noticing the direction our lives have taken. All of a sudden we realise what we are, where we have been thrown. I suddenly realise how spiteful and mean I have always been. What are we to do when we wake up to those realisations about ourselves, when those scales of unseeing fall from our eyes? How can I remain so despicable, as I recognise myself for what I am? How can I be so wicked, especially in this Easter season, when our Lord gave himself up on the cross, and now leads us to the joy of  salvation?

Our destination of heaven has been revealed in the old, old story. The Easter garden is where we understand just what our ownmost possibility is. But when our feet are mired in the clay of the garden, and we see clearly just what we are, then we come under the spotlight of our ownmost possibility. That finality stares us in the face. What are we to do?

Like the Danish theologian, we stand on a precipice, there is no safe place to retreat into – we are exposed and alone, isolated ultimately – we must make that leap of faith into a future of infinite possibility one way or another. At the focus of all time, I must choose – as the old Welsh hymn has it – between truth and falsehood to become what I should be, the culmination of my ownmost possibility, or live the ultimate lie. I reckon the lockdown has given us that  reality of our ownmost possibility.

The existential nihilists might say that this virus has forced us into the limits of who we are, and we must confront the nothingness of our existence. But that would give us no exit from the banality of an earthly life into any of the joyful mansions of the Father’s Kingdom.

We must leap into the bright future of Christ’s promise. Lent was when the government bans on gathering together, the closing of shops and pubs, the social distancing all took hold. We christians have been able to overcome the limitations of governmental recommendations because of our faith, let alone with the marvels of electronic communication.

What is our isolation today when compared to the isolation of Jesus on the cross in those last moments of Good Friday? The old, old story does not end there, in spite of some biblical scholars’ opinions. The old, old story continues in our hearts, where our faith lives. Not in the lowliness of our fear, but in the gracious love of Christ and one another which joins us together even if we are all two metres apart.

Amen

The corona virus

While public worship is suspended, I will be posting the odd comment.

Some have been calling this pandemic a revelation of divine displeasure. Even our politicians have been humbled by this virus, exhibiting their frailty, whether they like it or not, in the face of this emergency. I would like to consider our attitude towards the pandemic of the moment, and I would like to consider it in light of other frights in the past.

In the Cold War, we were paralysed by fear when nuclear holocaust threatened. Joined to this was a great anxiety because of unidentified flying objects. The little green men and other alien beings suddenly appeared, and were written about extensively by many different scientists and non-scientists. They remain in popular culture in the name Roswell and Area 51 in the desert of New Mexico. Now there are zombies and all sorts of ghouls which haunt.

Further back in the past, there are other existential scares. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were witch-hunts, throughout Europe and in North America. Earlier in history the crusades showed how one section of the world’s population vilified another. This pattern of fear has been repeated time and again, arising against neighbour or an unknown – or even invisible – person or being. Whatever its object, the unknown appeared. Clearly the unexplained terrifies.

The completely other throws everything back into the chaos of a beginning, when a new world is created. The current situation is an example of this. Our reactions to a completely new, unknown future reveal our brave new worlds. From the person who ignores everything to the person overwhelmed by every single announcement that appears on the news, is the range of possible behaviour. From the hand-washing of the Lady Macbeth to the playtime of children in dirt whatever the source, we can see all the types of activity people have taken up to create a cosmos around them in these parlous times.

How can we moderate our behaviour in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe? We do need to wash our hands of all the filth of the past, metaphorically and literally, as the start of our purer lives, our futures – “Life in all its fullness” as many have been wont to call it.

Life has changed dramatically in the last month for people throughout the globe. Their private and public worlds are being transformed around them, despite their best efforts to be “normal”. After 9/11 we searched for a “new normal” so that we could settle into a routine where no thought was needed to continue. Perhaps that is wrong – perhaps there has never been a “normal – perhaps we need to remain in the world where flux is ever present, where there is no routine, but everything around us is new and vibrant, challenging, even dangerous. Where love is on the edge of experience informing every moment of life in all that fullness for each and every one of us.

Lent Three, All Age Worship

Collect

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Eternal God, give us insight to discern your will for us, to give up what harms us, and to seek the perfection we are promised in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Merciful Lord, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm

1    O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us heartily rejoice in the rock of our salvation.

2    Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving
and be glad in him with psalms.

3    For the Lord is a great God
and a great king above all gods.

4    In his hand are the depths of the earth
and the heights of the mountains are his also.

5    The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands have moulded the dry land.

6    Come, let us worship and bow down
and kneel before the Lord our Maker.

7    For he is our God;
we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.

8    O that today you would listen to his voice:
‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, on that day at Massah in the wilderness,

9    When your forebears tested me, and put me to the proof,
though they had seen my works.

10    ‘Forty years long I detested that generation and said,
“This people are wayward in their hearts; they do not know my ways.”

11    ‘So I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter into my rest.” ’

Psalm 95

Epistle

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Gospel

So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

John 4:5-42

Address on Lent Three

We have just reflected on healthy water, running water that is safe to drink.

“Living water” is what the Greek says in our gospel reading – “Living water” is a strange phrase, isn’t it? What do you think it means? You probably think that it means “the water of life”, some sort of elixir, like what Pons de Leon was looking for as he explored Florida. After all, “the water of life” is the theme of this week’s worship, so your expectations have already been set. They are related phrases, aren’t they?

So just what does the original Greek phrase, “living water”, mean? A long time ago, my teacher took a look at this phrase and relayed what it meant in another context. In the text he was working through with us, “living water” had to do with the water that was used for baptism. In this phrase, living is a verb used as an adjective to modify water, like the word ‘burning’ in the phrase, “burning flame”. In this case the word living is related to the word that is used for life, when Jesus asks us to step up to life in all its fullness.

In the text that my teacher was explaining, the water used for baptism should be running water, like that of a stream or a river – in other words, we are asked to use running water so we can re-capture the archetypal baptism of Jesus which took place in the River Jordan. There the water buffeted John and Jesus as they stood in that flowing river. The water was swirling about, taking all that was not firmly rooted with it. Imagine the scene, John and Jesus facing each other, their garments billowing about them, the coldness of the mountain streams attacking their legs. Perhaps they rocked about because the current was so strong pressing ’round about them. Everything is being taken away that is not essentially part of them, and John baptises Jesus in the perfect baptism.

We have all stood in brooks, haven’t we? You remember the water streaming all around your boots, pressing on your ankles. You felt the coolness of the water through all the layers of leather, rubber and wool – eventually. We experience this water as what they call “elemental”, don’t we? Like the wind, this running water has its own force and makes us wonder at our place in the universe. I think this is why the early church said that the best water for baptism is this running water. This is water in the outside world where we don’t really control it.

The water all around us nowadays shows us its power, doesn’t it? For the past six months we have seen the strength of water in our lives. We cannot stop the rivers rising and overflowing, even though we have spent millions on flood defences. The rivers have breached walls in so many places in the last twelve months.

Water can even enter our houses, if it really wants to. Water seeps in and invades our lives. We are helpless as we face its power. We know the strength of water whether in violent storms or in the steady trickle of a leaking pipe. Water can uproot just about anything, given time. Haven’t we all seen pictures of trees racing downstream on flood-water? On the banks of the Severn we should be very much aware of the power of living water as it races past us usually to empty itself into the chaotic waters of the sea.

This is water in its rawest form, its most elemental, calling into question everything we think permanent and important. Violent storm-water can make us question our very existence. The floods of the past months conjure this vision up for us. These doubts welling up in our hearts make us wonder fundamentally, don’t they?

We have all heard the phrase “waters of chaos”, haven’t we? – Metaphorically, they characterise the undifferentiated state of being before anything comes into existence. Water plays a part in all creation myths, in particular the ancient Hebrew creation story “In the beginning…”. The middle east is rife with them. In all of them, the first waters are the whence from which life is drawn. We can understand this, can’t we? especially when we think of the minor floods we have experienced in this country when compared with the flood upon which Noah floated in his ark – even though we feel we should have been as prepared as Noah for the storms which tossed him. Even the scientists today speak of the primordial watery world and the mud from which all life rose.

Such is the destructive power of the flood, but also the life-giving power of water when it flows in a regulated way – when we understand where and how water flows, life is granted. This safe water is “living water” for it allows for cleansing and use at the heart of our lives.

We should bear this in mind now, when we think of baptism in Lent, for we are purging ourselves through our fast, aren’t we? And our baptism candidates are preparing themselves for their great journey. The cleansing of the living water of baptism should take everything that is not our very own away. The waters of chaos leave us with our ownmost possibility, our own lives – nothing more, nothing less – after all, what else is there except our individual existence, that real life which we have been given.

Out of the chaos of the flood, we find our lives. When we find ourselves tossed out of the flood to lie on the bank by that living water, we can take it in. We can now dip our cup to overflowing and receive the bounty it offers.

But what an event leads up to that realisation! – We have survived the battle with the waves. We have perhaps swallowed too much, and are overwhelmed for a bit. We are exhausted because of our exertions in the chaos of our lives up to this point. We may be ready to close our eyes to sleep finally. There are some who succumb to that temptation, not struggle against exhaustion, to remain in that undifferentiated mass without consciousness, nor with a conscience. There are, however, some who stand up and alone to become themselves, surveying the world around them to conquer all sense of desolation, to take on the life given to them, to enjoy what the living water has given them through their struggle.

“Living water” is a metaphor for baptism and our life of faith. This water of life is always moving – changing and challenging – sometimes even overwhelming us, but always it brings that verbal adjective to a reality in our experience. It is now in our lives providing us a life running through us to others as we care for them, as they experience their own waters of baptism.

Amen

First Sunday of Lent

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, you have renewed us with the living bread from heaven; by it you nourish our faith, increase our hope, and strengthen our love: teach us always to hunger for him who is the true and living bread, and enable us to live by every word that proceeds from out of your mouth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Psalm

1    Happy the one whose transgression is forgiven,
and whose sin is covered.

2    Happy the one to whom the Lord imputes no guilt,
and in whose spirit there is no guile.

3    For I held my tongue;
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all the day long.

4    Your hand was heavy upon me day and night;
my moisture was dried up like the drought in summer.

5    Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and my iniquity I did not hide.

6    I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

7    Therefore let all the faithful make their prayers to you in time of trouble;
in the great water flood, it shall not reach them.

8    You are a place for me to hide in;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with songs of deliverance.

9    ‘I will instruct you and teach you
in the way that you should go;
I will guide you with my eye.

10    ‘Be not like horse and mule which have no understanding;
whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you.’

11    Great tribulations remain for the wicked,
but mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.

12    Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord;
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.

Psalm 32

Epistle

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Romans 5:12-19

Gospel

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,

“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you”,

and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus said to him,

‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:1-11

Sermon on First Sunday of Lent?

One of the major themes in the christian spiritual life follows the title of Thomas a Kempis’ book, The Imitation of Christ. It is a classic book that everyone must be acquainted with in some way, if only to know the title. The book espouses a wonderful ideal, to be able to achieve the saved life by incorporating the Jesus into our own lives. We all hope to achieve this divine end as christians, don’t we?

For instance in our Collect for today, we pray

Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are

Here we are at the beginning of Lent, the season of temptation. We are supposed to be fasting just as Jesus did at the start of his ministry. Each of us is making our way to our ownmost possibility, through Calvary and then on to heaven. By fasting we are imitating Christ through Lent, in Holy Week we participate in the passion through the rites of the Church and we live out our own resurrection in a perfect imitation of the Easter event.

The Collect, however, makes a qualification about our exemplar Jesus, doesn’t it? – The Collect adds the phrase, “yet without sin” This should start alarm bells off and, unless our hubris deafens us, we should hear them as they ring true about our very nature as human beings. We are “Saved sinners” and the phrase describes each and every believer – as christians we do not have the divine perfection of human innocence which Jesus has. After all, aren’t we always falling short of the ideal of being perfect in our humanity? Jesus did embrace this essential quality which we are, but tellingly, “without sin”.

However, according to our confession of faith, repeated whenever we worship together, Jesus was also perfect in divinity. Are we “divine”? Have we that quality which is the perfection of all being in our lives? No, I don’t think so. I certainly do not embody this quality. We are limited in our capacity but we do aspire to perfection in every aspect of our lives. Or, if we see ourselves as divine, I imagine we are listening to voices other than our own conscience, voices which indeed may be drowning out those alarm bells we should hear. I think we could be listening to deluding voices, suggesting that we are more than we really are. I imagine this is why witchcraft, mystery and suspense hold such a sway over so many. After all, isn’t Harry Potter or Hermione Granger the person we want to be? We could talk for a long time about these heroic characters of modern legend and how they embody the illusion of the world, those delusions all religions try to dispel.

Religion speaks to human failure in general, that we do not attain the humility of a perfect humanity, the conscience that crowns human humility. We need only observe the people around us to realise just how we can deceive ourselves. In our own self-reflective recounting of our day, in that lenten discipline of daily self appraisal, I believe we can see just how we might be fooling ourselves. Perhaps we realise that we act without humility, perhaps we realise that we have even acted without conscience. Sadly that seems to be the way “they” in the great mass of humanity around us, seem to act day in and day out. But more tellingly those seductive voices tell us to act without recourse to conscience. Indeed they encourage us to act without reflection on what is righteous, what may reflect the divine – or even true humanity in any situation.

How bitter an experience it is when we throw ourselves against the crowd round about us, when a humble conscience takes over our lives! Just how can we survive the dreadful pain of that isolation – that we are alone with God?

The one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church has been struggling with this conundrum since Jesus hung on the cross at Calvary. Happily for us, there are a range of possible answers to this mystery – the whence and whither of God with us.

Last week I considered the wide range of worship and church polity as offering possible solutions to this isolation, modes of humble living in the world with others. When conscience isolates us from the crowd, when we are isolated from every other person. When we have to make those decisions for ourselves, alone, aren’t we perplexed?

Where is the guide which will lead us through the tangled web we weave when we attempt to deceive ourselves let alone others, when we listened only to the crowd which admits it has no interest in justice, righteousness and the good?  Instead of the external mode of being with people ’round about us, will the historical churches guide us in that spiritual life? Does the Church teach us about life in accord with conscience?

As it is Lent, let’s consider whether this inner life can be captured, whether we ourselves can live out our conscience. There are many spiritual disciplines offered by the Church. Which shall I choose? In which will I feel comfortable? I wonder, though – is that the right way of approaching this problem of Lent and its attendant fasting? Perhaps we should find what makes us uncomfortable and forces us into the spiritual – as opposed to the fleshly about which Paul speaks so eloquently.

What degree of discomfort can we deal with? What constraints of discipline will bring us to understand our singular self, to experience the “I” in the presence of the “Thou” of our God? We must remember that God does not tempt us beyond our endurance – I would suggest only the crowd does that. So we should enter into our fast with eagerness to become truly what we are.

When I give up chocolate, don’t I stand over against the crowd? Fasting does separate us from the people ’round about us, doesn’t it? Who could possibly give up chocolate in an age where indulgence is the norm!? After all, didn’t all the ads suggest we needed to indulge ourselves all through that smaller period of fasting called Advent!? This giving up of chocolate does isolate the fasting person from his (or her) neighbours, doesn’t it? This could be just the start of a life of conscience – if we are able to endure that isolation for more than forty days. Fasting should condition us for that isolation which throws us into a world where God confronts us in no uncertain terms, where we encounter our ownmost possibility, where we can imitate Christ in the desert and overcome all the devil’s temptations, from endless indulgence (bread from rocks), immortality (hurling himself from the pinnacle of the Temple), or ruling all the earth (subjecting all beneath our feet). I only hope that more people will imitate Christ and divine humility will inhabit human conscience.

Amen

Second Sunday before Lent

Collect

Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, give us reverence for all creation and respect for every person, that we may mirror your likeness in Jesus Christ our Lord. Post Communion God our creator, by your gift the tree of life was set at the heart of the earthly paradise, and the bread of life at the heart of your Church: may we who have been nourished at your table on earth be transformed by the glory of the Saviour’s cross and enjoy the delights of eternity; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

Psalm

1  Blessed are those whose way is pure,
who walk in the law of the Lord.

2  Blessed are those who keep his testimonies
and seek him with their whole heart,

3  Those who do no wickedness,
but walk in his ways.

4  You, O Lord, have charged
that we should diligently keep your commandments.

5  O that my ways were made so direct
that I might keep your statutes.

6  Then should I not be put to shame,
because I have regard for all your commandments.

7  I will thank you with an unfeigned heart,
when I have learned your righteous judgements.

8  I will keep your statutes;
O forsake me not utterly.

Psalm 119

Epistle

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 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. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Sermon on Second Sunday before Lent

“God-given growth” is the theme we have for today’s worship. It is easy to see how people grow, isn’t it? – The change from infant to adult is just one way to understand it. As christians we grow in many ways, but using Paul’s words, we go from babes fed on milk to adults feeding on solid food, or from fleshly to spiritual. How do we recount our own growing up? How, then, can we tell the story of our lives?

Normally we describe a time line and peg that line on a map of the globe, don’t we? This occurred to me again as I watched an episode of Star Trek as we were waiting for our supper to cook the other night. This is germane because Voyager was in what they called “chaotic space”. In that episode, there were no fixed points. Chakote was the focus for this episode as he was battling with internal and external chaos in that area of space they inhabited for the episode. In this episode, Chakote met up with his deceased grandfather, a holographic boxer and a groundsman of indeterminate, but older, age from the Star Fleet Academy, all amidst a strange landscape of his own dream quest. He was thrown into chaos, much like all of us at many points in our lives. Chakote must make order of this chaotic space and time in which he finds himself – much as each one of us has to make ourselves at home wherever we find ourselves: in other words, we endeavour to dwell in a world of meaning guided by some kind of ultimacy. We have to grow into this bewildering world which may reveal itself to us in such oppressive ways. Sometimes we don’t think this growth is God-given, do we? No, we are in the midst of chaos where there is only immediate danger, people and things stand in the way of what we we think are beyond ephemeral.

Last week, before we sat down to watch that episode of Star Trek, I picked up a small but, for me, significant tome, “The Dynamics of Faith”, in which the theologian discusses the various ways order is established in life, he describes this process through the expressions of faith within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. He outlines the range of the Church’s worship from a formal, sacramental type which morphs very slowly, but surely, into an absolutely free form of worship. The writer used other heuristics to explain how faith expresses itself in so many different ways, but this one is enough for me at the moment to get on with. This range of worship can guide our consideration of how we grow by examining what sort of worship allows us to feel comfortable as it challenges us to grow in faith, by reaching beyond the immediate.

The most formal and sacramental church in my experience is the Eastern Orthodox, which runs from the Russian through the Greek to the Coptic Egyptian. All its worship is focussed on the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is a very different worship when compared to the anglican holy communion. The language is ancient, not a modern vernacular, and no change in the liturgy is ever envisaged. The Russian church uses an ancient Slavic, the Greek church uses koine which is neither the ancient Greek of Homer, Euripides and Plato, nor is it anything like modern Greek, and the Egyptian church uses Coptic, and who among us has heard anything about that language revered as it is?

The rite of the orthodox church is absolutely fixed in a culturally acceptable form depending on where in the world you find yourself. The ancient ceremonies are respected and would be the same as 1,000 years ago and should remain the same 1,000 years from now. Why that is so can be relayed through a story I find revealing – the pagan Tzar sent a delegation to Greece to find out about christianity, and when it came back all they had to say was, “We have seen heaven on earth.” So, how could we expect any change in this formal, structured worship? Really, would we want to change anything of that revelation?

The other extreme is the Quaker Meeting. – When Friends meet, there is no liturgy, there are no symbols on display. In this worship one sits and waits upon God. There is nothing from any authority, everything arises from the movement of the Spirit, the spark of God, within each worshipper. How very different is this meeting house from the orthodox church building! There are no icons, no altar, no priests, no acolytes, no chalice, no paten. The Friends sit in a white room with clear glass in silence. There is no decoration, nor are there any officials.

Between these extremes lie so many other church groups. If we just look at our own communion, we anglicans show a great diversity of organisation and expression of our belief. Some of our churches, like ours here, are what is called “low” where you would not know the difference between those churches and a congregational or a reformed gathering, almost bordering on the experience of the Quaker meeting but we have music, movement and worship leaders of all sorts. Then there are the “high” churches where the priest and his acolytes and choirs obscure the sacred rites from the congregation, much in the same way as the iconostasis hides the sacramental mystery from the orthodox congregation gathered in worship. So within our own anglican communion there is great diversity of religious expression and we have to find our place in that very broad church.

Many have moved from congregation to congregation to find that place where we can feel at home – where no longer are we confused by the chaos of our thrown existence. We have established a world of meaning through the rites and symbols of a common language we share with our neighbours and friends. In other words, the world of each different church can serve us for a time, long or short.

But we do wander in our life journeys, don’t we? Sometime we find ourselves a place here or a time there. They may be very different sorts of spaces, don’t you think? When I was a child, I lived near Boston. When I went to university, I found myself in Chicago, then I came to this country, and here I have lived in big towns and small villages. In every place, I have had to make myself at home. My time line and my journey’s route are part and parcel of the story I tell of my life.

This wandering can be seen to be the same  sort of journey we have in faith. It would seem that sometimes we need the rigid structures of a fixed liturgy, where things all have their proper place and there are no surprises in our worship. At other times we need to have a freedom where nothing can be predicted – every moment is its own, and each is extraordinary. In both extremes we are free to engage with the ultimate concern of our lives. There is nothing to deflect our attention away from God. The emptiness of the Quaker meeting or the symbolic overload of the orthodox liturgy within the vault of heaven on earth both allow each one of us to grasp the ultimate care of our own lives.

We often feel as though we are in chaos where space and time make no sense, and so neither does our experience, but in this chaos we do find order, it grows within and without. The world is given shape and purpose and we discover the epiphany of our God in time and space for ourselves in the immediacy of experience.

My conclusion is that God-given growth allows us to move from the milk of the flesh to the solids of the spiritual. Always, however, this growth throws us into a world not of our own making, but one in which we must find our life’s compass, by which we must reach our ultimate concern. We should never be deflected by immediate problems, but always we grow into God, from a fleshly infancy towards a spiritual maturity. This is the God-given growth we explore through life.

Amen

Candlemass

Collect

Almighty and ever-living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

(or)

Lord Jesus Christ, light of the nations and glory of Israel: make your home among us, and present us pure and holy to your heavenly Father, your God, and our God.

Post Communion

Lord, you fulfilled the hope of Simeon and Anna, who lived to welcome the Messiah: may we, who have received these gifts beyond words, prepare to meet Christ Jesus when he comes to bring us to eternal life; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3:1-5

Psalm

[

1    The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it,
the compass of the world and all who dwell therein.

2    For he has founded it upon the seas
and set it firm upon the rivers of the deep.

3    ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord,
or who can rise up in his holy place?’

4    ‘Those who have clean hands and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to an idol,
nor sworn an oath to a lie;

5    ‘They shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
a just reward from the God of their salvation.’

6    Such is the company of those who seek him,
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

]


7    Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

8    ‘Who is the King of glory?’
‘The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord who is mighty in battle.’

9    Lift up your heads, O gates;
be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

10    ‘Who is this King of glory?’
‘The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory.’

Psalm 24

Epistle

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Gospel

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,

   according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Luke 2:22-40

Sermon on Candlemass

Here at the end of the Christmass and Epiphany season we encounter the Nunc Dimittis as part of our Gospel reading. Here we are coming to the end of celebrations, just as Simeon admits he is coming to the end of his life. This Song of Simeon is a biblical canticle which is so very familiar to us from Evensong, and, for some of us, also familiar from popular culture. For me it is so poignant as the opening of Smiley’s People when that chorister made his impression on a world-wide television audience. At that time our choirmaster talked about the significance to evensong which these words have for the overall architecture of the worship. So let us recall Simeon’s words:

‘Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,

   according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

   which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

   and the glory of your people Israel.’

Just what did Simeon see when he gazed down at the child in his arms? How can he relax into a final departure just because he saw a child in a mother’s arms coming for his presentation at the Temple? How could a baby-child be the “salvation” of a nation? Simeon “was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” He typifies many in Israel, perhaps even many in this country, who long to rid themselves of any tyranny – foreign or domestic – in order to set up the theocracy envisioned by OT prophets and Hebrew–Jewish history.

In so much of the Levant, the notion of God ruling a nation, either in person like the Pharaohs in Egypt or through agents like the Babylonian satraps, is a given. It is a government of order, because divine rule is imprinted on the world, and kept literally. With this background of expectation of a theocracy, when Jesus preached that the Kingdom of God was at hand, we should not find it strange. Last week I spoke about the first words Jesus declared, quoting Matthew “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Here we have confirmation of that expected reality – Jesus is declaring the expectation of a theocracy in Israel. Simeon would have confessed that he held the symbol of that real hope right there in his arms. In the child he has seen the reality of God in the world: in the child, his own and his nation’s salvation is beheld. It is a salvation declared and prepared in the eyes of the world. This is a promise Simeon affirmed in his canticle as Simeon declares that Jesus will be a light to enlighten the whole world, whether Jew or Gentile. For the Jew, however, this child is to be the glory of Israel – the glory of God, which is far beyond mortal ken – but in him the hopes of all people will be fulfilled.

That is my summary of the historical background to this passage. I will now pay homage to the revelation of that choirmaster when he set out the framework of worship in a way that leads ultimately to the words of Simeon. Everything up to that point of evensong introduces the high drama of the glory of God in the world. He said that the singing of the canticle should reflect the drama of the whole of the worship in itself.

From the modest and quiet tones of the opening, as the humble servant of the Lord awaits his death peacefully, volume and expression becomes greater and greater until “glory” is sung. At that point we should be singing fortissimo, to be declaring all the meaning and significance of that vision of light and salvation for the world. Nothing should be held back in our expression of the depth of our faith. We should be like Paul pondering the height, the depth and the breadth of the love of God, and our conviction that nothing can keep us away from that reality. What else but fortissimo could possibly do when we proclaim the rule of God in the world?

This coincides with my understanding of those first words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew which we heard last week. Jesus is asking for the whole of our lives. After all, the two commandments he enjoined on all demand nothing less. How can we love one another except with the whole of our being? How can we love God in any other way?

Simeon has declared this reality of faith as he holds this child in his arms and we proclaim our understanding of it as we sing of the light to the world which enlightens even the Gentiles because it truly is the glory of Israel. Finally, salvation is acknowledged in the temple for all people to grasp for themselves, just as Simeon held that child and declared that his life was complete as he gazed into the eyes of that baby. Now Simeon’s life is fulfilled because God’s promise of salvation is a reality in his arms. He fears nothing and can let go of everything as he holds that child. Don’t we all feel this when we are given a new-born to hold? Isn’t all of life spreading before us in the form of the child in our arms?

At that moment, however, we are caught short. We have to turn to our God, we have to acknowledge that the very kingdom of God is just there, just beyond our grasp in the baby as that child now begins its own quest for salvation, just as we did so long ago.

Here again the historical background and our present reality drive us into a brave new world of theocracy, a government by God of his people. Once we grasp that, once we realise that God is the source and final resting-place of our very being, then we can sing with Simeon about the final glory of God here in the world.– Or can we? The words of Malachai echo at the back of my mind from our first reading –

The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Can we stand with equanimity like Simeon, or even with his joy at the sight of this child? When we see this messenger of the kingdom, the dawning of the glory of God, can we be be hopeful? When I look over the whole of my life to this point, am I proud of it all? That is the question the prophet poses? Can I endure the heat of the light of the sun of righteousness? When those temperatures soar, can I cloak myself in the camouflage of the crowd around me and disappear? Can I endure the light cast on the world when HE appears? That prophet suggests not.

We are at the last moment of existence, when all is summed up for our lives – all the good and all the bad we have done is weighed and considered there in front of us in the child. We hope that we can, like Simeon, depart in peace because we have dedicated ourselves to the kingdom which is declared in the innocence of the child in our arms.

Let the nunc dimittis be the song for our lives. Let our lives declare the enlightenment of the world as the glory of God here on earth in word and deed. I pray that this Candlemass will be our presentation to God, as we celebrate Jesus’ own presentation in the Temple.

Amen

Sunday, Epiphany 3

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness

   have seen a great light;

those who lived in a land of deep darkness –

   on them light has shined.

You have multiplied the nation,

   you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

   as with joy at the harvest,

   as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden,

   and the bar across their shoulders,

   the rod of their oppressor,

   you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah 9:1-4

Psalm

1    The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear?

2    The Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?

4    One thing have I asked of the Lord
and that alone I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,

5    To behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek his will in his temple.

6    For in the day of trouble
he shall hide me in his shelter;
in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me
and set me high upon a rock.

7    And now shall he lift up my head
above my enemies round about me;

8    Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation
with great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

9    Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy upon me and answer me.

Psalm 27

Epistle

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For 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’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Gospel

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

    ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles –

    the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,

    and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Matthew 4:12-23

Sermon on Sunday, Epiphany 3

Years ago, there was a common cartoon showing a dishevelled man with scraggly beard and long hair holding a sign which read, “The end is nigh”. Occasionally we would even see such a person on our own walks through town, wouldn’t we? What did we think when we heard the call to repentance from this street-corner prophet? This is not too far-fetched an image because I was listening to the news the other day, and there was a report from the economic gathering in Davos. One of the participants said that now was a time of hope, not one for listening to prophets of doom, that we should not listen to those nay-sayers in this time for country and planet. I wondered what had he heard? Who was that prophet that called to him? I, for one, don’t think he was listening to our reading for today, do you?

Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

Was this fellow listening to these words with which Jesus began his ministry? It might be nice to think so. Just how did he and how do we hear what Jesus proclaims in these words to us today? Is Jesus just a prophet of doom? Is he negating all that there is in the world, everything we know and love? I imagine he can be heard as if he were a Jeremiah or a Job, only speaking about the worst of all possibilities. Why is this? Why is Jesus the villain for the worldly who enjoy luxury, those who indulge themselves while forgetting the network of care they should develop and maintain? Jesus prophesied in his own generation and offended the rich and powerful then. His words echo around the corridors of power and the hills where we walk. If anyone is listening, we should hear his Word of warning today.

Jesus proclaims loudly, “Repent!” That is the very first word out of his mouth in the gospel. So what do we think when we hear that word? Is it a word of hope, or is it a word of condemnation? Are we afraid of this word and its meaning? So let’s start with the dictionary meaning for the Greek word – metanoia – it is  “repentance, a change of mind or heart, regret”. In the Greek rhetorical tradition it is a technical term – it means “after-thought [or] correction”.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasive speaking. I think most people have encountered rhetoric when they listen to their leaders and friends. They listen to new meanings of words as they are proposed in order that they might be convinced, or more often as they are failing to be convinced, by preachers and politicians – you know, those people who use words in very crafted ways in order to garner your good opinion, to convert you to their camp.

So when the rhetorician says, “Repent!” he or she is trying to correct your opinion – to have an after-thought which concurs with his or her own. The preacher and the politician are eager for you to change your mind – to give up old habits for the sake of a new way of life, which is the way of life the preacher or politician advocates. In the case of the politician, the change of mind is a mark on a ballot paper, but the preacher makes a much more serious demand on your conscience – the preacher wants you to change the whole of your life, to regret the evil of the past, the mistakes of the present and to act well in the future. The preacher promotes a life of righteousness – a life worthy of God and one’s fellows – a life of charitable love.

That is a more demanding meaning of repentance, isn’t it? – Repentance transforms the whole of life, rather than being just a change of mind or a mere regret. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? – Because I am here, draped in these peculiar robes, speaking from this lofty position. I hope I might be one of those preachers who create a rhetorically smooth narrative to convince you that righteousness is the only course to steer through the Scylla and Charybdis of worldly temptation.

This preacher has no personal agenda – I cannot benefit from your doing what is right and I gain nothing if you regret with loathing all the evil you may have done in the past. This preacher’s exhortation to repentance does not immediately help the economy or the government in any way – and I certainly don’t get anything out of it.

The only benefit of repentance in this full-blown definition is to the hearer of the prophetic word, when he or she has converted life to the narrow path of righteousness, the way of life in which the hearer will always have a clear conscience. Obviously, the marketeers and politicians don’t have any investment in that bank. Rather, they are happy with the “crowd” mentality, where no one regrets, when everyone “goes along” with everyone else as the easiest course of action, when “they” have made up my mind for me. As Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The preacher calls all into question. What if everyone had that momentary “after-thought” of repentance? What if everyone examined their conscience daily and repented of the mistakes they had made during that day? What would life be like then? Would the blatant misbehaviour we deplore continue day by day?

If everyone acted in line with their conscience, awaiting the Day of the Lord as Paul did so long ago, awaiting the Last Judgement, or whatever you want to call it – if everyone repented in that whole- hearted way the preacher advocates, wouldn’t the world be different? Would anyone act with selfishness? Wouldn’t we all act out of altruism – where the other mattered more than my personal wishes? In fact, would my own personal wishes ever matter at all again?

The implications of the preacher’s call to repentance are far-reaching. They don’t just end when the revival meeting tent is taken down and folded up, or when we leave this building. The preacher’s call promises so much more, doesn’t it? Whether it be Jeremiah or Jesus or me, the preacher declares “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” That, I would say, is the consequence, and the reason for, all repentance. This promise of the kingdom provokes fear and loathing in some, but ardent expectation in others. Which are we here and now?

Perhaps those former feelings of terror were provoked in that speaker I heard on the news. I think his conscience was pricked by the words the prophets utter then and now, and yet, sadly, he yields to his own negative reaction in the manner of the crowd of every age, ignoring what is happening. – Perhaps the last of days is here right now – fires raging, earthquakes, plagues of locusts, plagues of diseases, fear for the planet’s ecological integrity, human society in tatters, and individuals all around us breaking down. Everything the prophets have feared at one time or another seem to be happening today. Why was that commentator so vitriolic against the prophets of our own time – just as so many took against Jesus? We must examine our own consciences; we need to change our minds as those persuasive speakers propose; we need to repent of our sinfulness and yet still hope. I think we need to act for the kingdom of heaven to come now and right quickly because the end is so very near.

Amen

Christmass 2 – The Baptism of Christ

Collect

Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit: grant to us, who are born again by water and the Spirit, that we may be faithful to our calling as your adopted children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Heavenly Father, at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son: may we recognize him as our Lord and know ourselves to be your beloved children; through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Post Communion

Lord of all time and eternity, you opened the heavens and revealed yourself as Father in the baptism of Jesus your beloved Son: by the power of your Spirit complete the heavenly work of our rebirth through the waters of the new creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

1    Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.

2    He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;

3    a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.

4    He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5    Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:

6    I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,

7    to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8    I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.

9    See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm

1    Ascribe to the Lord, you powers of heaven,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

2    Ascribe to the Lord the honour due to his name;
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

3    The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders;
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.

4    The voice of the Lord is mighty in operation;
the voice of the Lord is a glorious voice.

5    The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;

6    He makes Lebanon skip like a calf
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

7    The voice of the Lord splits the flash of lightning;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

8    The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe
and strips the forests bare;
in his temple all cry, ‘Glory!’

9    The Lord sits enthroned above the water flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for evermore.

10    The Lord shall give strength to his people;
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Psalm 29

Epistle

Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

Acts 10:34-43

Gospel

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

Matthew 3:13-17



Sermon on The Baptism of Christ

“New things I now declare” we heard from Isaiah. What do you think of when you hear the phrase “Brave New World”?

We use this phrase to describe a very different world – not our everyday. We have all used it, haven’t we? Sometimes we use the phrase appreciatively to extol the virtues of a new situation, or a new vision. When we envisage a place where people treat each other well. Or when nation will speak peace to nation. These are brave new worlds – they are so very different to what we normally experience. Our normal world is one of mistrust and ill-will.

However, we very often use the phrase negatively as well, don’t we? The world where people are treated even more badly than normal, as if they were cogs in a machine, like the character in Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times. We all have felt this oppression either at school or at work, when everything is regimented and controlled, not for our sake but for the convenience of the others. This is the brave new world we often have in mind when we use the phrase.

But today I would like to use the phrase with that positive meaning – to denote a world where there is infinite possibility, when we can go out and never fear but always be fulfilled. This is a world which does not have much to do with what we know – this is a world of hope. That brave new world is just beyond our reach, but we always strain to grasp it, don’t we?

It is a world we feel we should be able to lay hold of because we believe in its reality. That is our very nature as human. It is a world promised us with baptism. “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” This voice echoes in our ears from the moment we believe just as it echoed around the Jordan valley long ago. When I rise from the waters of baptism, the promise of the Kingdom is mine, that I have become a child of God, a person who should ever act out of the love upon which my heavenly father has acted towards me. My life has been transformed because I hear that voice and I begin my entry into a brave new world – a world of love and hope.

However, my limited nature binds my hands and I cannot grasp the great prize through my own efforts. I am burdened by my own limitations and I could so easily dip into the slough of despair, but for my faith, that hope for the best of all possible worlds, my own brave new world. This phrase has been in the front of my mind because I picked Aldous Huxley’s book up the other day and I have been reading it during the past week. He takes everything he knows to task: the political system, the economic system, state religion, personal belief, the way people escape from reality, even love in all its aspects is examined through the novelist’s eye. One paragraph struck me the other day as a fruitful place to begin some theological reflection, one which centres itself on our sentence from the gospel. It describes the brave new world which we hope will be ours, that world in which we can say “Abba, Father” because we have heard that voice which calls us by name as children. Huxley writes about family in these words.

Our Freud had been the first to reveal the appalling dangers of family life. The world was full of fathers – was therefore full of misery; full of mothers – therefore of every kind of perversion from sadism to chastity; full of brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts – full of madness and suicide.

Is this the picture we have of “family” – of our own siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, mothers and fathers? Are we part of a “Manson Family” ready to take part in unspeakable events? Is our familial inheritance something which hinders our lives in the future? More frighteningly, could the “family” of the local Church be one which could be described by these words of Huxley? (After all, it has happened in the Church universal and particular.) I would say Huxley’s sketch of the family is an accurate description of a dysfunctional family, much like so many local communities struggling to carry on despite their unacknowledged failings. We should probably leave it at that and be thankful of all the safeguarding measures now in place in public life.

This leads me to another train of thought. There has been a criticism of “traditional” language which has been levelled at the patriarchy of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which castigates it for describing God as “father”. – With these words of Huxley, however, echoing in our ears, we must accept such censure on our traditional language, especially when we have not transformed the words into symbolic deeds. How can we accept such words uttered at baptism, when they do not transform the world into the vision we have? The feminist, linguistic critique is accurate, but as you know, I am not a literalist. I see language as symbolic, as pointing to a meaning well beyond what we have here in our hands.

Such a use of language should impose a great moral burden on each and every one of us when we speak.

And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

If I am the son in this passage, if I am a child of God, then I am bound to act in a way which is pleasing to my brothers and sisters, my siblings, and to God. When I was married, I stood before the great congregation and the altar to declare my love and dedication. When clerics are ordained they enter their orders because it seems right to the Holy Spirit and to us, the people whom they will serve.

If we are the children of God, then something is expected of us. We must transform the world into something new and brave, don’t you think?

So… – What is our vision of the world? Are things becoming very tangential to what life ought to mean? Does the child-like pleasure in a summer’s day become jaded as we grow because we cannot enjoy it in an unalloyed manner? You are no longer children – we are told that time and again, so we should not stand and stare with those bovines of the poem. Rather must we be blinkered and shake within the jangling harness of expectation as those horses do in Houseman’s Shropshire, or more diabolically as the people do in Plato’s cave?

What is the Brave New World we wish to bequeath those who will inherit the wind which has blown us to this point? As children of God, we must walk along the road and tell of the good news we have heard, we must continue our journey to that promised land and invite others to join us in the heavenly banquet. As God’s children, we have a great responsibility to surpass the rather dull expectations of the world of the past, to transform the dull grey of this transitory world into the colourful joy of an eternal, future kingdom worthy of the name, “brave new world”.

Amen

First Sunday of Christmass

Collect

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share in our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity;who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God in Trinity, eternal unity of perfect love: gather the nations to be one family, and draw us into your holy life through the birth of Emmanuel, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Post Communion

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son shared at Nazareth the life of an earthly home: help your Church to live as one family, united in love and obedience, and bring us all at last to our home in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,

   the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,

because of all that the Lord has done for us,

   and the great favour to the house of Israel

that he has shown them according to his mercy,

   according to the abundance of his steadfast love.

For he said, ‘Surely they are my people,

   children who will not deal falsely’;

and he became their saviour

   in all their distress.

It was no messenger or angel

   but his presence that saved them;

in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

   he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

Isaiah 63:7-9

Psalm

1    Alleluia.

      Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights.

2  Praise him, all you his angels; ??

   praise him, all his host.

3  Praise him, sun and moon; ??

   praise him, all you stars of light.

4  Praise him, heaven of heavens, ??

   and you waters above the heavens.

5  Let them praise the name of the Lord, ??

   for he commanded and they were created.

6  He made them fast for ever and ever; ??

   he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7  Praise the Lord from the earth, ??

   you sea monsters and all deeps;

8  Fire and hail, snow and mist, ??

   tempestuous wind, fulfilling his word;

9  Mountains and all hills, ??

   fruit trees and all cedars;

10  Wild beasts and all cattle, ??

   creeping things and birds on the wing;

11  Kings of the earth and all peoples, ??

   princes and all rulers of the world;

12  Young men and women,

      old and young together; ??

   let them praise the name of the Lord.

13  For his name only is exalted, ??

  his splendour above earth and heaven.

14  He has raised up the horn of his people

      and praise for all his faithful servants, ??

   the children of Israel, a people who are near him.

      Alleluia.

Psalm 148

Epistle

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

    ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,

       in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.’

And again,

    ‘I will put my trust in him.’

And again,

    ‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me.’

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:10-18

Gospel

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

    ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,

    Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Matthew 2:13-23

Sermon on First Sunday of Christmass

How many actually believe this story of the “Massacre of the Innocents” is literally true? I ask this because yesterday was the commemoration of the Innocents and today we have read the account from Matthew. I also ask this because as I was flitting about for some help, I came across a blog which asked “Is the slaughter of the innocents true?” So now you know why I am asking this question today.

Who believes in the literal truth of this story? Well, I for one, do not believe it literally, but I do believe it should speak to us today – and that, I am sure, is a completely different proposition.

Let’s begin with this statement:

“When Herod saw that he had been tricked [by the wise men], he was infuriated.”

This places the story right in our own time, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t we all a bit like Herod at times? Don’t we all get so upset when things don’t go to our own precise plan? I wonder, were there arguments in your house on Christmass Day when someone crossed someone else – when someone did not get their own way? Isn’t this the same thing (but on a very much smaller, and more innocent, scale)? Isn’t the same thing happening today that happened in Jerusalem and Bethlehem all those years ago, when those sages from the East visited Herod, when he wanted them to return to him to tell him the whole story? But they did not return to Herod and Herod had a royal tantrum. He got so mad that he condemned babies to death. It would seem that his fury knew no bounds.

Why? – Why did Herod go on the rampage?

That internet piece I read pointed me in the direction for an answer to this historical question. The writer described Herod in all his parts, good and bad – that is, those parts he could touch through written records. After all, written evidence is so much more easily accepted than guesswork, when it comes to history and biography. And that is the proof upon which my blogger depended.

As a matter of fact this blogger suggested that Herod should really be called “The Great” because of the public work projects he completed. One such project was the port of Caesarea which features in later history. This port was constructed by Herod along that straight coast of the Levant, that area in which there is no natural harbour. So we can all agree that he did some good in his time. But ……

On the negative side, we need to remember that the house of Herod was one of great, internal conflict, for in the manner of eastern potentates, Herod had many wives and there were many children, and quite a few sons. All of them had a claim to the throne. Such were the times, that there were plots and counter-plots – I suppose the gossip of the court read much like the news reports from parliament today, or the English court gossip of the medieval period. (Just imagine the rumours in Henry VIII’s court!) Everyone wanted the prize of the throne, but Herod, like so many political figures, was not one to give it up to anyone – and I don’t think anyone was disposed to wait until it was handed down. Herod believed everyone wanted to usurp him. What to do? My blogger said that Herod had those pretenders to the throne killed – that he killed his own children. Imagine that!

When we read that “all the children” had been slaughtered, we imagine hundreds of children – perhaps even thousands of children – were killed in Herod’s pogrom. Someone had done some statistical studies on the area over which Herod ruled, and specifically they looked at the region of Bethlehem. They estimated the population, and with actuarial tables came to the conclusion that there were probably only about a dozen boys of under two years of age in the whole region – who might have been killed at that time. So the later, medieval picture which we inherited of hundreds, perhaps thousands of murdered children is an extreme exaggeration. However, this memory is one of the utter desolation of the bereaved, the story of one man’s inhumanity. How could a father condemn his own, or anyone else’s, babes in arms to death? Why would a king kill so many innocents?

However, I think it is very easy to believe this story of massacre against the name of Herod – that tyrant who wanted to keep the throne at all costs, in spite of those great public works, but because of the byzantine machinations in the  privacy of the palace. I think that is the real background to the story. I think that is how the history of the slaughter of the innocents came about. Herod was a paranoid tyrant who wanted to keep everything for himself.

When they took that different counsel and fled homeward far from Herod, wouldn’t those dark machinations of the palace lead to the story of his purported killing of any young boy-child. So was the story we have in Matthew a conflation of what happened in the palace and the fear of the populace?

The truth is – Herod does kill children. That is a fact. But did he go after the King of Kings globally? Did Herod pursue the child whom we adore as the saviour of the world? In that madness, did Herod eliminate so many tens or thousands of children? I don’t think it matters whether that number is historically accurate. However, I do think it matters to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that such a human delusion is chronicled in the mythos of the Church. This story of the fury of Herod must be comprehended in the light of our Christmass Day’s reading of the Gospel of John. We heard, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The darkness of Herod’s madness did not destroy the light of the world, and we remember its victory through the story of the massacre of the innocents.

It just struck me that perhaps we might want to remember the innocents in another spelling – instead of “cents” we need to replace it with “cence”. I think we need to remember that the child in our own hearts is ever at risk from persecution by the world around us. Perhaps we should flee with that child to the desert in order to preserve it. Certainly we should defend the child in us just as Joseph and Mary obeyed that voice for Jesus’ sake as did the Magi.

Amen

The First Sunday of Advent

Collect

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; that on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, as your kingdom dawns, turn us from the darkness of sin to the light of holiness, that we may be ready to meet you in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Post Communion

O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful as we await the coming of your Son our Lord; that, when he shall appear, he may not find us sleeping in sin but active in his service and joyful in his praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house

shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;

all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;

that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah 2:1–5

Psalm 

1    I was glad when they said to me,
‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’

2    And now our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem;

3    Jerusalem, built as a city
that is at unity in itself.

4    Thither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord,
as is decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.

5    For there are set the thrones of judgement,
the thrones of the house of David.

6    O pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
‘May they prosper who love you.

7    ‘Peace be within your walls
and tranquillity within your palaces.’

8    For my kindred and companions’ sake,
I will pray that peace be with you.

9    For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek to do you good.

Psalm 122

Epistle

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Romans 13:11-14

Gospel

‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Matthew 24:36-44



Sermon on The First Sunday of Advent

“It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.” Don’t we hear this all around us? Haven’t our leaders been saying this to us for many years now? Our political leaders have talked of nothing else than everyone accepting their own positions in order to see what is in our best interests. Our religious leaders have always asked us to awake from the same sleep from which Paul asked the Romans to shake themselves.We have been accused of  slumbering under the torpor of the everyday. So how can we wake ourselves up to the light of day, the light of goodness and mercy, the torch of righteousness?

Unfortunately, Paul does not tell us how to wake up – he only describes the life of a person who no longer dreams in the darkness of despair. Paul only gives an exhortation to the the characteristics of someone who lives in the light. “Let us live honourably as in the day,” Paul writes to the Romans. Paul is using language which we don’t use nowadays. What friend has asked us about honour lately? What political leader has demanded honour in the bear pit of the House of Commons? What bishop has castigated the population by using honour as his cudgel? I am not sure that any have – what about you?

Here we are at the beginning of Advent, when we should be looking forward – toward the future of the King, who has a pedigree like no other, who speaks with authority and who has performed what no man has done – miracles. All of this is the past, the past which should teach us about our future.

Paul decries everything which we do in our sleepwalking – he condemns  “revelling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarrelling and jealousy.” I don’t blame him for condemning the everyday world where  these seem to be standard behaviour.

We only need to pay attention to the news and its coverage of the election campaign in order to see “quarrelling and jealousy”. If we look further, where private lives are exposed, we can see “debauchery and licentiousness”, can’t we? And then to find “revelling and drunkenness” – I think we need only look at advertisements for supplying everything for Christmass Day, all the food and drink we need for that big party, whether it is for the family or all those friends we have. We are cajoled into getting all the best food and drink, in other words to indulge ourselves.

Do we really think we are innocent of the sinfulness with which Paul accuses the world? Haven’t we all fallen into that abyss of heinous behaviour at some point in our lives? I know that I have – I remember having had too much to drink on occasion, I confess my love of the table and my snacking is well known by my wife who tries to curb my gluttony. However, I hope I have been innocent of jealousy and quarrelling, though I am guilty of a sharp tongue all too often.

However, Paul is right, isn’t he? We do spiral down into sinfulness from time to time. That is why Jesus bids us to be ever-watchful, to await the arrival of the Son of Man. We are asked in the Gospel reading to be vigilant, ready for the last day, that day when one is taken and the other is left, whether in the field or at work. What will the sum of our deeds be on that day when the judge weighs them up? Will we be found wanting? Will we have failed to do the good we ought to have done?

So, who will be left behind on that day Jesus warns about? – Who will take their place in the train following the Son of Man as he sweeps through on his world tour of judgement into the final resting place on the last day? Who will be left behind in the field alone, or indeed at the work-bench, on that terrible day, when only the grace of God will bear us up and away?

So, let us take Paul’s admonition seriously and keep our vigil by living honourably. Let us do what is right in the eyes of the Lord, keeping those instructions and commandments for which all the nations move to Jerusalem so as to understand as the psalmist says, “There are set the thrones of judgement,” and so we should “be glad when they say to us, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” Let us stand in the halls of our God “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” When we aspire to stand there, we will be able to keep vigil. That is when we find ourselves awake in this world. We will have learned about our duty to the ultimate source of life in the face of those ’round about us, those to whom we have shown our integrity.

Again we return to the reality of Paul’s words here, don’t we? – that we can live honourably amidst the evil that happens all around us. That is what marks our lives, in our acts the instruction of the Lord has been revealed, so that we are characterised as honourable. We have natures so very different from the everyday which shatters all around us. We have seen the promised land – we are now awake to what is real because it is so very different to the shadows we too often revere in what may be our less than honourable lives.

Paul speaks to us in a way that compels to a radically different life. This honourable life is sharply differentiated from that sinful life, isn’t it. The excessive behaviour of our everyday existence, those things we reckon as acceptable – for instance, the jealousies and quarrelling which are played out in the traditional media or in social media where the depths of quarrelling and jealousy are regularly plumbed. That has been forsaken for the good life of quiet peacefulness.

Paul is convinced that we can rise above such awful behaviour. He tells us we can act honourably, in spite of the fact that the crowd says the opposite. Sometimes, however, and in spite of itself, the crowd may say the right thing. For instance, when the they have said, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” There the lessons of the Lord can be learned, lessons so different from what the crowd wants us to learn, the lessons of honour. It is possible to accept the invitation of Isaiah, in spite of our base nature.

This advent, let us ponder the invitation of the psalmist and Isaiah, when he cries out, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” Let us walk into that honourable future in the company of the saints. Let us process into the presence of the Lord, in the train of the Son of Man.

Amen