Sunday, January 31, 2021

Darkness...You shall not pass!

 Text: Luke 2.22-40

 I love this story.  I love it because it contains the words of the Nunc Dimittis so beloved of all Evensong devotees.  But I also love it for a personal reason.  Mary and Joseph are presenting Jesus in the temple because the Law, the ‘teachings’ of the Scriptures, required that every first-born son should be dedicated to the Lord. 

I too am a first-born son.  And when, about 20 years ago, I went to my parents to tell them that I planned to become a priest, my mother got a little emotional.  She said, “I’ve never told you this, because I didn’t want to put you under pressure.  But when you were born, and were initially very sick, I prayed to God with all my heart.  I prayed that if he would save you, I would dedicate you to him and for his service.”  So, for me, this story of Jesus’ parent’s dedicating him to God has special resonance for me.  As we so often discover, the Bible’s story is our story too.

But that’s not the main focus of this particular story. Today is Candlemas…and it’s all about the light!  In the middle of winter, at a point which is more or less equally between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, Christians of the Northern Hemisphere gather to light candles against the darkness.  In times past, candles from parishioners’ homes would have been brought to church, to be blessed as a sign of Jesus the light to the Gentiles, and then carried back to burn brightly through the year.  The church’s own stock of candles, for its altars and chandeliers would have been similarly blessed at the same time.  Today, with our electric lights, and our year-round banishment of darkness, we don’t perhaps feel the sense of deep winter that our forebears did.  We don’t perhaps get the symbolism of being lights in the darkness as easily as they did.

But the symbolism is there, especially made real to us by the words of Simeon, when Jesus was presented to him in the temple.  “…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”.  Jesus called us to be lights in the darkness, but Simeon recognised that Jesus himself was the Great Light, the one from whom all our small candles of faith are lit.

I’ve spent quite a few words, over the last few weeks, encouraging us to think of ourselves as lights to our community and to our world.  Today, I want to focus on the Great Light himself, and especially on what Simeon’s powerful words convey to us.

First of all, Simeon tells God that he now ready to die…  “Lord, let your servant depart in peace…” he says.  Why?  Because his eyes have seen God’s salvation, in the form of the infant Jesus, cradled in his mother’s arms. 

Now, this is important.  Simeon does not gaze upon Jesus’ death – although he knows that Jesus’ end will indeed pierce his mother’s heart.  But that’s not his focus.  He says that he has already seen God’s salvation in the form of Jesus himself.   This observation should bring us up short.  It tells us that whilst we rightly commemorate the death of Jesus as a vital part of the history of salvation, it is the life of Jesus which also has the power to save.   Jesus did not only die for our salvation:  he also lived.

What does this mean?  It means that we are encouraged to let our focus drift sometimes away from the Cross.  There is a tendency, in some parts a Christian teaching, to place all our hopes, all our stories of how God has saved us onto the Cross.  But the Gospel writers don’t just focus on the death of the Lord.  They also recount his life, his teachings, his sayings, his actions.  They show us the Jesus who ate with sinners, and who welcomed children.  They show us the Jesus who included women, and who counted a Zealot freedom fighter as his friend.  They show us the wisdom of a man who could stop the lips of religious teachers, and debate the philosophy of Truth with a Roman leader.  They show us a wronged man who could forgive his tormentors, a wise teacher who's guidelines for living bring life itself.

The Great Light does not only burst out of the tomb, on Easter morning, it also bursts into the normal, everyday life of everyone it encounters.  He brings wisdom and healing everywhere he walks and talks – and we find salvation and healing in his teaching. 

It is for this very reason that the church’s calendar takes us so carefully, and so systematically, through all the major events in Jesus’ life, and through all his major teaching.  We are not invited only to linger at the Cross, or even the Tomb.  They are important parts of the story, but they are not its complete focus.  The church’s calendar also takes us to the nativity manger, and into the desert of temptation.  It walks us beside the Sea of Galilee, and into the crowd of hungry people fed by two fishes and five loaves.  Through the Gospel stories we sit at Jesus’ table with other sinners, and at the feet of Jesus with Mary and Martha.  Jesus saves us, heals us, through every one of these encounters…and invites us to save others in the same ways.  The Great Light calls us to be lights, too.

So, on this Candlemas, we mark the end of the season of revelation, of Epiphany.  We pause at the midpoint of winter, and we declare to the darkness, like Gandalf on the bridge, ‘you shall not pass’.  Even in the depths of winter, even in the depths of a pandemic, Christ’s light shines.  Hope is present, life is present:  Jesus is present.  

And we, the bearers of the light, the followers of the Way, we will carry the presence of Jesus into the world.  Christ’s light has been borne to the Gentiles, glorifying the people of Israel from which it came.  But this light is now ours.  We choose to let it shine.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

Lights in the Darkness

Text:  Mark 4.21-25

Proverbs are strange things.  They are an arrangement of words which say much more than the words themselves.  They spark our imaginations, and cause us to seek out deeper meanings.  For example, there’s an old French proverb, which goes ‘il y a des gants sans les mains dedans’ – which translates as ‘some gloves have no hands in them’.  One can’t help but wonder who such a phrase is aimed at.  Leaders, who are all words and no action?  Or self-proclaimed saviours whose clever turns of phrase turn out to be empty and useless?

Jesus liked proverbs, and according the Gospels, he coined many which have been handed on to us.  Today’s reading contains a number of such wise sayings, all thrown together in a few verses sandwiched between the parable of the sower, and the parable of the seeds.  As such, Mark clearly intended us to apply them to the notion of ‘spreading’ the good seed of the Kingdom.  So when he says that no-one would stick a lamp under a bushel basket, we can see immediately that Jesus wants us to know that the task of the spreading good news about God’s love for humanity belongs to us all.  We are each called to be lights in the darkness…which is a radical thought, indeed.

We human beings have a tendency to let others do the heavy lifting, don’t we?  It has often been said that one of the greatest weaknesses of the Anglican Church system is that it essentially sub-contracts the work of all Christians to one person – the Vicar.  Thankfully, for me, that is anything but the case in this parish.  I count myself among the most blessed of Vicars, in that I have such a great team of staff and volunteers working with me to bring light into the darkness.  But I have enormous concern for some of my colleagues, who find themselves entirely responsible for running their buildings, giving pastoral support, preaching and teaching, as well as printing and photocopying and cleaning the loos. 

This is an issue which the church across our land is going to have to confront with real urgency in the coming months.  The Pandemic has led to a significant drop in giving to churches – with the result that our Portsmouth Diocese is currently having to seriously downsize, and is considering losing something like 20% of our paid clergy, to cover a £2million black hole in the Diocesan budget.  Frankly, this is just accelerating a trend which has been going on for a number of years.

Our first reaction, when hearing such a statistic, might be horror.  How can we possibly cope with 20% less paid clergy?!  But actually, I think this is a change which needed to come.  For too long, Christians who should be shining their own light into their communities have been content to let the clergy do it for them.  They have sub-contracted, for the sum of a few pounds per week or less, the sacred task of being lights in the darkness to a handful of clergy. 

And believe me – we are only a handful.  The Havant Deanery, of which we are a part, has a population of around 170,000 people.  And just 15 clergy.  That’s one full-time minister to 11,333 people, on average.  If only 1% of that population wanted the personal attention, support, advice or individual prayers of their Vicar, each week, that would mean every priest having to cope with 113 individual requests for assistance each week.  Think about that for a moment.  Could you cope with 113 individual requests for support every week, on top of managing a parish, preparing and leading services, writing sermons, and attending to essential legal paperwork?  No.  Neither could I.  Which is why the work of spreading the seed of the Gospel, or sharing the light of Christ, is a task that Jesus gives to every Christian, in every place that such Christians find themselves.

It sounds like a stern command, doesn’t it?  And in many ways, it is.  Jesus expects us to take him seriously when he calls us to action.  But Jesus offers a carrot with his stick.  Alongside his clear teaching on the responsibility of every Christian to be a light in the world, he offers this:  “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you”.  Another proverb.  Another profound proverb, containing the promise that as we give out of our energy, our love, our resources, our prayers to the work of the Kingdom, we will be rewarded in return.

What might those rewards look like?  Well, of course one longs for the reward of heaven.  But there are tangible rewards to be had on earth too.  Bear in mind, that, according to recent studies, there are an estimated 2.6 billion people in the world who call themselves Christians.

If every Christian used their voice, or their pen, to speak out against injustice…how much more just would society be?  And how many poor Christians – as well as others – would benefit. 

If every Christian gave one tenth of their income to the work of God, as the Scriptures require, how much more good could the church do in the world? 

If just a tiny portion of Christians stood for political office, and put God’s principles to work in our economies and policies, what a difference we could make!

If every Christian donated food to the hungry, medicine to the sick, water to the thirsty – at home and abroad, how much less tension would there be in the world:  how much less competition for resources?  How many Christians in war-torn lands would benefit?

If every Christian took the time to know their neighbour, and to telephone the lonely, and shop for the housebound, how much more love would be spread around every community?

If every Christian gave just one day a year to the task of planting trees, or clearing litter, 2.6 billion days a year could be added to the sacred task of caring for our planet.

I could go on…but I hope the point is made.  As a body of people sub-contracting to a few paid clergy the tasks of the Kingdom, we are a weak and, frankly, ineffectual expression of the love of God.  But as a 2.6 billion-strong army of lights in the darkness?  What a difference we could make!

To quote, again, the words often read from our service after the creed: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your father which is in heaven”.  Amen


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Turning water in wine

Text:  John 2.1-11

Water is great.  There’s nothing wrong with water at all.  It gives life.  It’s refreshing.  It’s the best drink for any human body to ingest.  But Jesus turns it into wine.  Why?

To read the Gospel according to John is to enter the world of meaning and mystery.  John’s Gospel is dense, difficult theology indeed.  Not least his opening section about Jesus being the Word of God, and the Light of the world.  (“In the beginning was the Word”…and so on.)  But John tells stories too.  And when John tells us a story, we know that he wants us to wrestle with the symbolism and the meaning behind the story.  Each story is carefully chosen, and carefully placed.  It is important.

John places today’s story right at the very start of Jesus’ ministry.  Not for John the myths about Wise Men and Shepherds.  He doesn’t address Jesus’ earthly origins, only his eternal origins as the divine Word.  In earthly terms, Jesus’ divine nature is revealed through, first, the testimony of John the baptiser; secondly, the recognition of his disciples (especially Philip and Nathaniel); and thirdly through a demonstration of divine power, by changing water into wine.  According to John, this is Jesus’ epiphany – his revelation – to the world.  It’s his first public miracle, and his first public demonstration of divine authority.

And it happens at a party!  John presents Jesus to us as something quite different from the stuffy, judgemental, religious leaders of the time.  Instead, he places Jesus right in the centre of a family gathering, and in the middle of a celebrating community – no doubt laughing and joking and enjoying the company of all those around him.

But then the moment of epiphany arrives.  The party runs out of wine.  A disaster – especially for the host of the party!  But Mary knows her son, and she knows of what he is capable. She has been his mother for 30-something years.  She has no doubt witnessed private acts of Jesus’ divine power.  So she knows of what Jesus is capable.  So she has a quiet word in Jesus’ ear.  “They have no wine”, she says – nudging him towards doing something about it.  Jesus is initially resistant (like many sons when nudged by their Mothers.  Just ask my Mother!).  “Woman”, he says, perhaps a little dismissively, “what’s that to me?  My time has not yet come”. 

Jesus is referring of course to the time for people to see and know that he is the Christ, the Messiah of God.  For Jesus, timing is everything – as I explained in my sermon on Thursday.  But Mary isn’t listening.  She knows Jesus can solve this problem, and so she somewhat forces his hand.  Calling one of the servants over she says “Do whatever he tells you”.  (I like to imagine her saying that rather ‘sotto voce’ – with a hand to the side of her mouth.  A moment of glorious, holy subterfuge!).

And the rest, you already know.  At Jesus’ instruction, huge jars of water are miraculously transformed into not just wine…but the best wine.  So what does the writer of John’s Gospel want us to understand from this story?

He places Jesus in a community, gathered together for a single purpose – the celebration of a marriage.  It is in the middle of a group of people, gathered together with a single purpose, that Jesus chooses to act.  He takes a party which was grinding towards its conclusion, with the wine running out, and with people probably making their excuses to depart.  Jesus breathes new life and vitality into the proceedings.  He kicks the party up a gear, and enables everyone to have the very best time, with the very best wine! 

This, I believe, is at least some of what John’s Gospel is saying:  Jesus can transform the most mundane, the most ordinary, the most lack-lustre event in any community’s life.  He is the new wine, whose teachings and whose presence can make any community, any town, any country into a place of joy and celebration.  But like the servant in the story – nothing happens unless that community ‘does what Jesus tells them to’ (to paraphrase Mary’s instruction to the servant).  For any community of people to taste the new wine of Jesus’ Kingdom, it has to follow the teachings of the Lord of the Kingdom.

My friends, our world is at a cross-roads.  So much of the way we have decided to live as a community is failing.  Communism has failed – and no serious economist could argue for it today, because it too easily gives power to corrupt men.  Dictatorships have failed and are failing – they are always ultimately over-thrown by the hubris of their leaders, or the power of the mob.  Monarchy has failed, and modern-day monarchs reduced to little more than cutters of ribbons.  Consumerism has failed, as evidenced by the staggering changes to our climate caused by rampant over-consumption.  The great European Project is failing, with the Brexit from its bureaucratic halls of one of its founding members. And now, we are witnessing, I believe, the early death-throws of both free-market capitalism, and even of parliamentary democracy which is being gradually eroded before our very eyes.    

In short, every system that humankind has ever tried to construct to manage its affairs has either failed, or is on its knees.  It’s time, I say, for the world to seriously listen to the teachings of Jesus, the Word, the one with divine authority to speak for our Creator.  Jesus is the only one who can save us.  His Way is the only Way worth following.

Imagine a world in which each person keeps only what they need for life and basic comfort, and gives the rest away.  Imagine a world in which no person is ever hungry, and in which there are no poor – because the people of the world learn how to share.  Imagine a world in which healing, reconciliation and forgiveness have higher value than warfare, hatred and wealth.  Imagine a world with no borders, in which Jew and Gentile, Roman and Samaritan, can sit together to enjoy the new wine of the Kingdom of God. 

Now I know, of course, that I’m speaking in lofty and poetic phrases!  It would take a miracle for such a world to ever come into being – a miracle at least as great as turning water in wine.   But as a Christian, a follower of The Christ, I can do no less than yearn for the Kingdom of God to become a reality – on earth as it is in heaven. 

So I commit myself today, anew, to straining every sinew, and to doing my part wherever I can, to bring such a world into being.  Starting here, in this place, and with the people God gives me to serve around this building. 

And, I invite you, too, to ‘do what he tells you to do’ – wherever you are, and wherever you too are called, like the steward at the wedding feast, to serve the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.



Thursday, January 21, 2021

Timing is everything

Text Mark 3.11-12:  Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.

Any comedian will tell you, that timing is everything!  Who can forget, for example, the incredible Eric Morecombe, when he was accused of playing the wrong notes by Andre Previn?  His answer, perfectly timed, is indelibly printed into our memories: “I’m playing all the right notes…but not necessarily….in the right order”.

Timing is everything in the world of human affairs, too.  Politicians have to decide when the moment is right to release their latest policy, or lockdown instruction.  And, as we’ve seen during the Pandemic, if their timing is off by even a few days, it can have very serious consequences.  I have nothing but sympathy for our national leaders at this time, balancing the economy with the needs of the health service.  But timing is everything.

Jesus faced a similar conundrum.  Throughout his ministry, we hear him telling people ‘my time has not yet come’ (as he does to his Mother, when changing water into wine).  He often tells those he has healed not to go around calling him the Messiah.  And in today’s Gospel, despite preaching to large crowds of both Jew and Gentile, he commands evil spirits to keep silence about his status as the Son of God.

Of course, Jesus knew that words like ‘messiah’, or phrases like ‘Son of God’ carried real weight and meaning.  He never denies that these words apply to him – but he tries to slow down the transmission of that knowledge.  This is quite simply because he knows what the consequences will be.  Accusations of blasphemy would quickly follow, and he would lose the chance to teach the things he came to teach.  He also knows that the culmination of his life on earth must take place at Jerusalem, and quite specifically at the time of the Passover – so that his new status as the Lamb of God, sacrificed for us and by us, can be established both symbolically and clearly.

So timing was everything for Jesus.  And it remains so for God.  We human beings always think that we know best.  We bang our fists on the gates of heaven, imploring God to act in the way we think he should.  “Lord, take away this virus!”.  “Lord, heal my friend now”. “Lord, feed the hungry, today”.  But so often, if we are honest with ourselves, the gates of heaven feel firmly shut.  God appears to turn a deaf ear to our pleas.

But God’s timing is perfect.  On this we can rely: that God will always act when it is absolutely the optimum moment for such action.  We can only speculate as to why he waits, for our minds are but shadows of his.  Our wisdom is foolishness to God.   

Perhaps by allowing the Corona Virus to run rampant around the world, God is calling humanity to radically change the way we live…for there is no doubt that our ways of living released and propagated the virus.  Perhaps if we emerge too quickly, and without sufficient pain, we will just shrug our collective shoulders, pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness, and then carry on living, flying, and consuming the world’s resources in precisely the same ways that we did before.

On a more personal level, perhaps God withholds the healing that we pray for our friend or loved one, because he wants to give them or us time to grow through the experience of our pain. 

Perhaps God doesn’t feed the hungry, because he is creating the space for us as a society, to do what we should do, and obey the command he has already given, that “there shall be no poor among you” (Deut.15.4).

Of this, we can be certain:  God’s timing is perfect.  And, as Jesus himself taught, our heavenly father knows what we need before we even ask him.  (Matt 6.8).  Our task is to trust in God, to follow his teachings, and wait for his perfect timing.

It’s like when my grandson climbs up onto my knee and says ‘Trains, Bampy!’ (which is what he calls me).  That’s his way of praying that I will turn on the TV and show him the movies of steam trains that he loves.  But, I know that the time is not yet right.  He’s about to have his dinner.  Or his bath.  Or its time for bed.  So I pat him on the head, and tell him that the time is not yet right for ‘Trains’!

So what does this mean for our prayers?  Are we wasting our breath (and our time) when we storm the gates of heaven with our petitions and pleas for action?  Well, honestly, perhaps we are (if our intent is to somehow provoke God into action that he would not otherwise take).  So what is prayer for?  And why does Jesus and the church encourage us to do it?

Because prayer does not change God.  Prayer changes me!  As I deliberately, and with focus, bring the needs of the world to my mind before God, I am changed by the experience.  As I lay before God the desires of my heart, he speaks to my heart.  He tells me to trust, and to ‘be not afraid’.  And by his Holy Spirit, he prompts me to take the action that I can take.  To be the change that I can be in the world. 

And he assures me that his timing is perfect, and that he will act, if and when the time is right.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Listen to him!

 Text:  Mark 1.4-11 – The Baptism of Jesus

Deaths are rising, along with hospital admissions.  Parents and teachers are frantic. Care-home residents and self-shielding people are desperately lonely.  And that’s not all.  The self-proclaimed leader of the free world – America - is in political chaos.  Lorry-loads of fresh food are being dumped in landfill because of the wrong paperwork at our borders.  13 year-old teenagers are stabbing each other on our streets.  Our world is in chaos as never before in most of our lifetimes.

And what am I doing about it?  I’m carrying on…celebrating the Eucharist, singing the Mass, praying, and serving as best I can. 

Some of you may wonder why I don’t speak out more often on political matters.  After-all, Jesus spoke out into the politics of his era, and the Bible is full of instructions about how a fair and just society should be structured.  Indeed, as I’ve said myself on occasion, ‘anyone who thinks that politics and religion don’t mix has clearly not read their Bible’.  But that’s a tricky road.  I certainly don’t claim the wisdom of Jesus, nor of the writers of the societal codes of the Bible.  And stepping into politics in more than a general way is (I have found) a recipe for discord and disharmony among parishioners.

I read an article this week from a Conservative Christian, the political journalist Harry Phibbs.  Phibbs is a former Conservative councillor who argued (in this essay) that our Archbishop’s frequent forays into Government policy were serving to drag the church to the left, and alienating committed Christians of the right.  Examples he gave included Justin Welby’s proclamations on the amount of overseas aid that we give, his explicit endorsement of the Black Lives Matter movement, and his siding with the EU (and the Opposition) over the Internal Markets Bill. 

The nub of Phibbs’ argument was that when Bishops (and other senior clergy) align themselves with either side of a political debate, they drive their political opponents away from church, and from faith.  He argued that the ongoing decline in churchgoing in England (which stands in contrast to much of the rest of the world) was essentially the result of clergy proclamations on contentious political issues.  And, he may be right.  A majority of the English people voted for both Brexit and for a Conservative Government. Any institution which vocally condemns those two majority opinions is just asking for an exodus of members!

Jesus faced a similar conundrum.  He came to a society in which the religious leaders and the political leaders had reached somewhat of an accord.  The Pharisees and Sadducees had reached an accommodation with the Roman occupiers of Judea – so that they could maintain their religious authority, their wealth and their status.  Rome looked after the management of the rest of society.  It was an iniquitous accommodation – and one which Jesus frequently challenged.  He called people back to the source-materials of their faith, and as we saw last Thursday, he quoted passages of Scripture which proclaimed good news for the poor, healing for the blind, and release to captives.  And eventually, they hung him for it.

Today, as part of a sequence of epiphanies (or ‘revealings’) we mark his baptism in the River Jordan.  That sequence includes his first epiphany to the Wise Men from the East.  It includes the revealing of his divine authority through his first miracles – casting out demons, according to Mark, or changing water into wine, according to John.  Today, Jesus is revealed to as God’s proudly-declared Son, with whom God is well pleased.  Later, in another epiphany moment on the Mount of Transfiguration, God tells Jesus’ followers to ‘Listen to him!’.

The challenge then, for all Christians who care about the world we live in, is to ask how far we should go in listening to Jesus, the revealed Son of God.  And, crucially, how shall we proclaim his radical, alternative view of the world?

It is actually quite dangerous to criticise the individual policies of one’s political opposites.  Such criticism inevitably carries with it a level of judgement.  If I criticise your policy, you are naturally bound to assume that I think you are stupid, or at the very least that you’ve been lazy in your thinking.  Such criticism is not likely to win you to my side.  Indeed, our political debates are far too often characterised by shouts of ‘idiot’, ‘fool’ and ‘charlatan’.

But what I must do, as every Christian must, is to hold up my finger, and to ask the ‘what if’ question.  What if our society was structured around the principles that Jesus taught?  What if we really ‘listen to him’?

·         What if our society was structured around the fundamental notion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’, as the Bible teaches (Deut.15.4)?  How different might our benefit system be?

·         What if our society was structured on the assumption that God’s Kingdom breaks down barriers between people, rather than erecting new walls?  (Is.66.18). How different might our concepts of nationhood be?

·         What if our teachers prioritised the teaching of ethics and spirituality, as Jesus did?  How different might our education system be?  And how different would life on the streets be for our teenagers?

·         What if our approach to foreign aggression was to turn the other cheek, rather than to respond with greater violence?  How different might our foreign policy be?

·         What if our approach to healing was as generous and overflowing as Jesus was to those he healed?  How differently might our health system be structured and funded?

·         What if our approach to taxation was based on the Biblical principle of tithing?  No more get-outs, no more write-offs, no more allowances.  Just basic 10% tithing.  How different would the finances of our economy be?  How different might the perilous finances of the church be?  How many off-shore tax havens would still exist for the uber-wealthy to secrete their ill-gotten gains?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  They are only questions…they are ‘what if’ questions.  But whether we sit on the right, the left or the centre of earthly politics, Jesus has wisdom to offer, ideas to ponder, and guidance to give.  With his own body and blood, he has earned the right to be heard.  He is God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.  Let’s listen to him.


Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Year of the Lord's Favour

Texts: 1 John 4.19–5.4 & Luke 4.14–22

What a terrifying and momentous time this is.  Yesterday’s news of the last gasps of Trumpism, and the highest infection rates ever in the UK, can’t fail to leave many of us reeling.  It truly is the worst of times.

Or is it?

I imagine it would have felt pretty bad to be a Jew at the time of Jesus.  The mighty empire of Rome had its iron boot on the neck of Judea.  They conquered through violence, and maintained control through more violence.  It was a time when a King could order the murder of all children in the town of Bethlehem, and a time when a man who spoke only of peace could be nailed up outside the city walls by the policemen of the day.  It is no wonder that many who lived at that time thought that the end of the world must be upon them.

So how did Jesus respond to such a time?  Did he incite his followers to storm Government buildings?  No, Jesus stood up to read in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth (see Luke 4:16-30).  Here are the words he both quoted, and then made his own:

 “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”

Having read those words, according to Luke’s account, Jesus put down the scroll and said to the congregation ‘Today, these words have been fulfilled in your midst’.  Jesus deliberately, and purposefully, declared his mission to be one of bringing good news, binding up, proclaiming liberty and release.  He proclaimed that this was the year of the Lord’s favour.

But, as I said in a sermon a few weeks ago (and its worth saying it again!) my eye has been drawn to what Jesus didn’t say.  I find it fascinating that Jesus stopped quoting Isaiah at just that point.  He didn’t read the next line, which says ‘…and the day of vengeance of the Lord’.    

Jesus’ focus is always on doing the greatest good.  He teaches us to forgive, and to turn the other cheek.  When violence breaks out around him, he retreats from it.  When violence is meted out to him, he takes it, absorbs it, allows it to break over him – and then he transforms it through resurrection.  The God whom Jesus unfolds for us not the angry, vengeful God of former understanding.  This is the God of love, of healing, of binding up, and of setting free.  This is God the parent….God the loving Father, who teaches us the ways of love.  

Ultimately, it is this God of Love who is revealed to us first at the Epiphany.  Jesus’ entry into the human world transforms and radically re-shapes our picture of God.  Jesus, reveals to us the God who pour out his life, for us.  And who offers us his life in return – abundant life, filled with wisdom, healing, sharing, and liberty.  It’s Life which goes on for ever.  

There is no greater symbol of the outpouring of God’s life for the world than the symbol of the Eucharist.  It summarises, encapsulates and demonstrates the reality of what a life lived for others looks life.  A sacrificial life.  A life lived and given freely, in the service of others.  

Which is why, for me, it is vitally important that we keep on celebrating, and demonstrating, the Eucharist – even when so many of you cannot participate in the conclusion of taking that life spiritually into your own, through the physical tokens of bread and wine.  

For now, the symbolism is all that we have – and will have to suffice.  Because even in the act of choosing NOT to gather for worship, we are living out the call to love our neighbours.  By remaining at home, to keep the virus in check, we make a stand for Love.

But I will continue to celebrate the Eucharist, each time I stand at this Altar, and each time I read the words of institution, I am proclaiming the New Testament of Love, poured out for you.  Each time I re-enact the last supper of the Lord, I’m also declaring the this is the year of the Lord’s favour.  Because every year – even the worst of times – is a year of God’s favour.  God never stops pouring out his love, teaching us how to love, calling us to lives and acts of love.

So let continue to bathe in this powerful symbol, even through the screen of our mobile phones and computers.  Let us join our efforts to the ongoing mission of the God of love, to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”


Sunday, January 3, 2021

A Year of Surprises...

When we gathered in church for the first Sunday of 2020, none of us could even have guessed at the strange year ahead of us.  The changes we have experienced, to so much that we took for granted, have been immense.  Who would have thought that a pandemic would sweep across the globe?  Who would have imagined that phrases like ‘COVID’, ‘lock-down’, ‘live-stream’, ‘track & trace’, and ‘social-distancing’ would have become daily additions to our lexicon?  Who could have imagined the immense changes to our shopping habits, entertainment, family gatherings, school openings, work-patterns and worship? 

There has been much that has been truly awful about last year.  My heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones either directly to the Corona Virus, or because of the knock-on effect of the Virus on our normal medical services.  My heart goes out to those who have been trapped in care-homes, confused and lonely, and for their families who have been desperate, but unable to provide relief.  My heart goes out to the over-worked, stressed-out staff of our hospitals and clinics, and to teachers and other front-line workers who have found this year to be intolerable.  It has truly been an ‘annus horribilis’ for many.

But there has been much about last year for which we can also give thanks.  For some, the change of pace has been welcome, as has the cessation of the daily commute into work.  Others have found time to write that book, or take up that hobby they always dreamed of.  For some, there has been time to read, to walk, to spend quality-time with less people, but in greater depth.  Some have discovered new things – including (for many of our congregation) the ability to be able to worship from home.  For some there has been an opportunity to re-connect to the church of their youth.

2020, therefore, has been a mixed bag.  There have been some truly terrible happenings, but also many things for which to give thanks.  And this should not surprise people of faith.  God has a way of leading us into new experiences – often unexpected experiences which may test us, perplex us, or delight us.  But each of them has the potential to enable us to grow.

This was certainly the case for the Wise Men from the East, whose arrival in Bethlehem sometime after the birth of Christ is remembered today.   As they set off on their journey from the East, they could not have known what would befall them.  They had ancient texts and a fascination with astrology to guide them – but they really had no idea where their journey would lead them.  There was delight in their journey, not least when they eventually found the Christ in his mother’s arms.  But there was terror and trouble too – not least when they had to flee from the danger of King Herod, and no doubt later to hear about the terrible slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem.

Trouble and delight.  Pain and pleasure.  Two sides of the coin of life – a life which Jesus came to share with us.  Jesus was revealed to the whole world through those eastern Wise Men (which is what the word ‘epiphany’ means (‘the revealing’).  But he then went on to experience all the joy and pain of human life.  He knew the love of family and friends, the thrill of sharing love, both with massive crowds and with individual seekers.  But he also knew the pain of betrayal and denial, and the agony of humiliation, execution and death.  But in each of these experiences, there were things to learn, and ways to grow.

For the Wise Men, their surprising and revealing journey was transformative.  We know nothing else about them from the pages of the Bible, but church history and tradition suggest that their encounter with the infant Christ led to them becoming the first evangelists to the world beyond Judea.  They are said to have taken news of the arrival of the Christ back to the land of the East, and according to some traditions, they were all martyred for their faith.  Certainly, none of them would have known that lifetime of evangelism, followed by a martyr’s death was to be the outcome of their original journey, when they set off in search of the ‘newborn King’.

We too, cannot know what the outcome of our collective journey in 2020 will be.  Our long ‘COVID journey’ has not yet finished, although we can perhaps begin to see the finish line on the horizon.  But what will we have learned at the end of the journey?  In what ways will God have been at work among us, through these long pandemic days?

As a nation, I hope that we will have learned some important things – such as the vital necessity of investing in our frontline services, so that they have the capacity to respond to sudden challenges.  I hope we’ll have learned that homelessness is not inevitable, and that it is ultimately a society’s choice to let people sleep in shop doorways.  I hope that the army of people who have been mobilised to support the lonely, and bring food to the hungry, will continue to find ways to love their neighbour.  I hope that the reductions in climate changing emissions we’ve achieved by learning to work from home will continue.  And there is much more, besides that we can learn.

But what about us, as a congregation and as a family of God here in the centre of Havant?  And what about each of us, as individuals?  What have we learned?  How have we grown? 

The answer to that question will be different for each of us…but I encourage you, at the turn of the year, to take some time today to ponder the question.  What is that God has said to you about how to live differently in the coming year?  In what parts of your life have you been challenged, or re-shaped, by God during this pandemic?  What changes have you already made to the pattern of your life, which you feel called to sustain into the future? 

For just as God led the Wise Men across mountains and deserts to experience profound change in their lives, you can be sure he’s doing the same to you.  Be open to the journey, and open to the change.  Listen to God’s voice, and God’s prompting for your life.  And rejoice with me, that new days are coming, and that God continues to lead us on!  Amen.