It’s not easy being people of faith. Those who have little or none often make assumptions about those of us who do – especially during times of adversity. And today the gospel story of Simeon and Anna is one of those stories held up as a great story of faith.
So what does this story about two old people have to say to us today? And does it have anything to teach younger people?
We live in a society that values youth above all else where to be reminded one is old is not comfortable. Yes of course old age carries its frailties but the young person inside every old body wants to shout ‘I wasn’t always so slow on my feet and behind in my wits!’ So what is the spirituality of old age?
I would like to tell you something of an old woman I got to know when I was much younger and who had quite an influence on me. Her name was Betty. What I found in Betty, when I knew her in her late seventies, was what I would like to describe as ‘weather-beaten’ faith. A faith that had seen much, been through a lot and was all the more interesting and resilient for having weathered so much.
I discovered that Betty understood me better than I understood myself; but she didn’t let that make her a know-all. She had been an actress in her youth, been divorced and, like me, had returned to faith later in life. I don’t remember her telling me much more. But there was a wisdom and a kindness about her which I drank up. I cannot say what it was in particular about her that fed me but at her funeral 20 years later – as so often happens – I learnt things about her I had not known before. Like the fact that she and her second husband had worked hard at putting their faith to practical use. In their case working for better housing for the vulnerable. I learnt that there is a sheltered housing estate, just over the river, named after her.
As we get older perspectives change. As we age, there are two predictable ways we can go –
either resisting the changing world, complaining and being grumpy,
or accepting and marvelling at the new complexities.
The saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is there because it reminds us how difficult it is for us to accept change as we age.
And we have to be honest about how ageing can change faith. We may try and fight change or, with a bit of luck – perhaps I should say grace – we may become less rigid in our views, more tolerant of things that we can’t change, maybe rest easier with doubt, and learn a wisdom of generosity with those who aren’t the same as us. The faith I experienced in Betty, was the latter, what I call ‘weather-beaten’ faith.
And this kind of faith is likely to worry less about doctrine or dogma. It becomes more open to different ways of loving God, whilst being sustained by the knowledge that God has made promises to us even though we realise we don’t necessarily know what they mean.
Old age challenges us with awkward questions especially about suffering. We ask: ‘Why does God allow this?’ ‘How can this God be a God of love?’ We don’t like to be told that suffering, like death, is inevitable and there is no answer to either question – but the person with faith will deal with such questions in a different way. Those with faith believe we are held by God in our pain and distress. Faith means, that when tested by the realities of life we remain faithful. In the oddest way, if our faith is true, we are free from argument with God. When Simeon says those words ‘Now, Lord, let thy servant depart in peace’ he is saying he has found that peace. He has been searching all his life for the Messiah and he has kept faith that God will fulfil his promise to him. But now, in old age, he has reached the point where he is no longer worried about searching and working out what this promise means. And whether he really knows it or not, when he gives up trying – he finds it.
And this is the significance of the baby.
Yes, I know in this particular story the baby is Jesus but I think that here Jesus is being no more, no less, than a baby. But a baby who transforms Simeon’s understanding of faith. All his life Simeon has been looking for the Messiah – and, importantly, failing to find him. He has held hundreds of babies in his arms, he has spent months, years in the temple. He has prayed and prayed but still has not been able to find what he has been looking for.
And then on this day something changes. Because in his arms he suddenly realises he is holding something very, very precious. Not so much a baby as his very own faith. And that faith – like a baby – is precious, it is something to be blessed and, most importantly of all, that faith is to be shared, passed on.
And this is the message I think for Kew at this moment in time when you are seeking a new vicar. You, as congregations of two churches, have been entrusted with a tiny, but incredible bundle of faith. It is infinitely precious. And whereas you may think you are looking for a new vicar to carry the torch. That – I respectfully suggest – is not the direction you should be looking. Because I can promise you, you will never find the Messiah, let alone the next Archbishop of Canterbury, in a new vicar. Rather, what you need to understand is that each of you has a candle flame of faith and it is you, you who are being asked to carry it on.
And at this point in time each one of us is being asked to carry it on in a very particular way.
This week tragically we passed the milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID. And on top of that there are those who died from other causes who could not be visited in care homes or hospital. It has been estimated that for each one who dies there are nine mourners. That’s an awful lot of people. Our age, our society desperately needs the resilience of faith. Not the kind of faith that offers platitudes but the kind where the person of faith walks alongside those who mourn, maybe silently, but is present, there.
Faith is precious, hold it tenderly and look after it. It is the light of Christ. I pray that you are able to pass it on.
INTERCESSIONS: CANDLEMAS 2021
The Dean of Southwark has sent us a prayer to help us to remember those who have so far died in the Pandemic.
God of love
Who holds us in life as in death,
As we commend each one of those who have died
To your eternal and tender care
Comfort all who grieve,
Hold us in our sorrow
And give us that sense of hope
Which brings us all
To resurrection life
In Jesus Christ our Lord.
Let us pray for the sick, and for your comfort for them and their families. We remember before you:
Canon Robin Morrison,
the Rev. Neil Summers from the church of St. John the Divine,
Margaret and Hugh.
And for others, known to us.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Lord, give renewed strength and health to all those at the front line of the NHS. Bring them our prayers and thanks for the great number of lives that they are saving.
Send our grateful prayers to those scientists, businesses, and doctors round the world who are working to create vaccines and to make and distribute them.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Lord, at this time of change and uncertainty, send your guidance to all members of our Government and Parliament. Let them be helped towards wise decisions. Let them, and all of us, remember and follow that great light of our faith, to help the poor.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We give you thanks for the community of Kew, and for these two churches. Let us pray for those choosing our new vicar. Keep us together with one another in our thoughts and actions, help us to pray, and help us to find ways of inspiring the next generation in our faith.
Readings: Genesis 14.17-20 Revelation 19, 6-10 John 2.1-11
Today’s readings cover weddings, eating and drinking and most importantly the revelation of the Glory of Our Lord.
Well, I am sure that we all enjoy a good party and I expect there have been quite a number of us who would have liked to have been able to hold a celebration or two over the last few months. It would seem to go without question that anyone hosting one of these parties would have been more than delighted to have had Jesus in attendance – I certainly would have been. Someone who can turn 120 plus gallons of water into first class wine would I am sure have been very welcome at parties anytime! Even if Jewish weddings could go on for many days, that is still an awful lot of wine.
Of course, back in those days there was not the great choice of beverages that we have now. Often the wine was a safer option than the water, even if it was not quite as refined as most of the wine one can buy today. We also heard in our first reading from Genesis that “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine” for Abram on returning from his battle; both of these items being a staple diet of the times, as they have remained. Now also the very corner stones of our Eucharist Services.
Yet, it is this well-known story from John’s Gospel that holds our attention. It was the first miracle, or sign, recorded by John in the public ministry of Jesus. As we heard, Jesus and his disciples had been included in the wedding invitation given to Jesus’ mother Mary, who was presumably known to the host.
Then the unthinkable happened – they ran out of wine. Within Jewish society, then and even today, this would have been a very humiliating situation for the host, the very height of bad manners, and a very big dampener on the celebrations.
So Mary turns to her son to rectify the situation.
‘“They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”’
For Jesus is not there at our ‘beck and call’ to smooth over social embarrassments, or to perform party tricks on request. He was well aware of his destiny and the path that he was about to take.
Yet Mary, his mother, was confident that Jesus would know how to remedy the situation.
‘“Do whatever he tells you.”’ She says to the servants.
Within the Jewish purification rites, as would happen at a wedding, water is available for ceremonial cleansing, but without Messianic intervention, this water is not life giving. New wine speaks of new creation, coming at last through ‘the Word made flesh’. Jesus himself would be ‘that new wine’, a ‘new wine’ for us all to share in. As was written in Matthew 26:28, at the Passover meal before Jesus’ crucifixion, he said “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”
Wine is widely viewed in the Bible as a symbol of happiness, and a wedding is the happiest of occasions. Perhaps Jesus, at this wedding in Cana was illustrating the wonderful time of joy in his future Kingdom, when all sorrow and sadness will be banished. As was the case in the reading from Revelation, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready;” John’s image of God’s own intimate relationship with his people, you and I, through the Glory of His son Jesus Christ.
Yet within our own celebrations and enjoyment we need to remember, like those servants at the wedding in Cana, to obey our Lord even when it is inconvenient or seems bizarre, or our lives are too busy and full of our own selves, or even our own celebrations. For although Jesus came to demonstrate God’s love and purpose to bring joy and peace to our world it is down to us to accept his invitation into his kingdom, his celebration.
Today, because of the restrictions placed on us by the Pandemic we are unable to physically take part in the Eucharist, but we will I know before too long be able once more to hear the words, “we drink this wine in remembrance that Jesus died for us” and we should and must always be truly thankful, especially in these present times.
As John Betjeman so aptly wrote,
“God was man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine”, and should, and I am sure does, live in all of our hearts and our very being, each and every day.
Sermon for 2nd Sunday off Epiphany. – 17 January 2021
This time last year, when we were allowed to travel, I was on holiday in South Africa, and went on an organised game drive hoping to spot some animals in their native territory. A group of us set off at dusk in an open top Land Rover, with a game park ranger, equipped with a 2-way radio and a pair of binoculars. On either side of our vehicle were powerful hand-held searchlights which could spot animals in the darkness.
At about 6pm, we left our hill-top camp and drove off into the bush on a fascinating 3 hour adventure in search of Africa’s ‘ Big 5’ – lion, leopard , elephant, rhino and buffalo. We’d only been driving for about 5 minutes when we saw a small group of Cape buffalo and a solitary male at some distance from the rest. The Land Rover pulled over, and we admired the great beast at close quarters – majestic with its dark grey horns making a centre parting across its forehead, giving it a primitive warrior-like appearance.
It grew dark quickly, as it does in Africa – and I began to wonder how we were going to see anything at all once the light had gone. And, it happens quickly, as I say – there’s not much twilight; and there in the bush, miles from anywhere, there weren’t any stars visible that evening. Once or twice during our night safari, the driver stopped the Land Rover, turned off the engine and the headlights – and there was total blackness – nothingness. Without moonlight, you won’t even see your hand in front of your face, but you will hear things. The bush is alive with sounds at night – insects, cicada ( amazing how such tiny creatures can make such much din!), birds – and movement which is more heard than seen.
I initially thought this was going to be a rather unpromising evening, at least to my untrained eye,then I realised that there is an art to seeing – and I saw far more than I expected. From the moment we open our eyes first thing in the morning until we fall asleep at night, our eyes are functioning. But how do we sharpen our power of observation? On safari, you rely on the eyes and ears and specialist knowledge of a guide. And what you think you see, may not be quite what it appears: that half submerged log in a swamp you’re about to step on may turn out to be a crocodile. Or the tall, slender branches of a plane tree you opened your car window to look at could be the legs of a giraffe! On safari, you learn to keep still and wait… you must also be quiet and listen, especially at night when it’s likely that some animal in the darkness has heard you first. And you will see more when you are in the company of someone who knows where to look – a guide who knows from instinct and experience where game are likely to be.
You can’t predict with any certainty what you’re going to see, and you might be so fixated with seeing Africa’s ‘Big 5’ that you miss a scaly aardvark, or catching the reflecting green eyes of a genet up in a tree watching you, or the silly, mincing walk of a gnu, making him the subject of comical songs, or that hyena laughing behind your back.
If you’re wondering how what I discovered on safari last year has to do with this morning’s service, the point is that all three of the Bible readings are about seeing. The Old Testament is the story of the calling of the boy Samuel during the time of the prophet Eli whose eyesight we are told ‘ had grown dim so that he could not see’, at a time when the people needed their vision of God re-kindled – by prophets and ‘seers’ like Samuel. The New Testament reading opens with St John’s apocalyptic vision of the kingdom of God, revealed when he was imprisoned on the island of Patmos. The gospel reading has the telling phrase: ‘Come and see’. Jesus invites Philip to follow him, and Philip goes to find his friend Nathaniel and tells him excitedly: ‘ We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth’.
Philip’s response is simple and direct; ‘ Come and see!’ Relying on someone else’s report is no substitute for going to see for yourself. Notice, Philip didn’t say: ‘ Go and find out for yourself’. He said: ‘ Come and see’ -he offered to show him. How often our spiritual perception is sharpened; seeing – in the sense of understanding – is deepened through others showing us, just as my safari guide pointed out what I couldn’t see for myself.
Returning to the gospel story, as Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, his remark implied he recognised him. Nathaniel was curious to know how: ‘ When did you come. to know me’? ‘ Jesus told him: ‘ I saw you sitting under the fig tree before Philip called you’ And with those words, Nathaniel’s eyes were opened there and then: ‘ Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel’.
What was it about the way in which Jesus looked at Nathaniel under the fig tree? Did he see him as God saw him – his value, his potential? It was the same with someone else, you remember- Zaccheus, not under a tree but up a tree – hiding, and watching like that timid genet. Jesus must have looked at him with more than a passing glance – he saw him with the inner eye of compassion and knowledge , recognising his beauty and potential. And so Zaccheus, set free from fear, climbed out of the tree and came over to Jesus.
My safari experience taught me to notice what a trained eye can see. but it did more. It helped me to see in the sense of understand, seeing without seeking to possess, or exploit, or frighten or dominate. There are some lessons here about how we regard not only the animal kingdom but our own human species too.
Thomas Aquinas, the great mediaeval theologian, famous for his sharp philosophical mind and an unrivalled output of systematic theological discourse, once remarked; ‘ I have seen things which makes all my writing seem like straw’ Even for the greatest religious thinkers, religion begins with delight and ends in doctrine. It is about the art of seeing and the capacity for wonder. But you don’t need to go to a game reserve in Africa to discover that. We have Kew Gardens on our doorstep. We are being encouraged once again during this current period of lockdown to exercise ; to walk if possible. So go for a walk – in an unhurried way, look intentionally at what is around – you may see things you hadn’t noticed before.
And, by the way, I did see all the creatures I’ve mentioned!
Intercessions for the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2021
With confidence in Jesus, who calls us to walk beside him. We bring our heartfelt needs before God. Let us pray. We pray for all in this community of faith, that we may always remain open and receptive to the call to trust in God’s will for us. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. We pray that the knowledge of God’s love will grow strong in our hearts, leading us to use our lives, body and soul, for the glory of God. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. We pray for those who struggle to see God’s presence in the world and their own lives. May our faith and generosity help them to recognise his loving touch. We pray the companionship and compassion for others will help us through lockdown, reassuring us with the strength to help those in need. We pray for the lonely and fearful. Lord, may your steadfast presence guide us all through the coming weeks. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Lord, we give thanks for all who are deploying the vaccines and for the medical research behind them. At this extreme time, we pray for the NHS and front-line care workers as they work against the odds and give thanks for their expertise and extraordinary dedication. Lord, watch over them and give them the courage to keep going in such difficult times. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. During this time of lockdown, we pray for government and our local council and its staff and for the businesses at the heart of our community that they have the resilience to weather this crisis. We pray for our school staff, school children and their families as they once more face the challenges of home-schooling. Yet we pause to give thanks for our open spaces and the benefits they bring with the chance to stop, observe and reflect as the sermon reminded us today. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. At this time, we remember to look out across the world at communities in great need with priorities beyond Covid and to the charities who support them. In particular, we pray for peace and tolerance in the United States and for a smooth transition of power this coming week. Knowing Lord, watch over them at this challenging time. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Dear Lord, we remember the sadness for all who have recently died from Covid and pray for the extremely sick who struggle against the virus. We pray for members of our congregation who are sick with Covid that they may recover quickly. We pray for all who are in need that they may find comfort and peace. May we reach out to them in gentle solidarity as Jesus reached out to us. We pray especially for Peter Low, John Lynch, Canon Robin Morrison, Annie Woolmer, Gemma Fryer and Revd Neil Summers (from St John the Divine, Richmond). We remember and give thanks for the lives of those who have recently died and pray for all who mourn. We pray for those known to us, their friends and families. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Lord, as you have called us, make us worthy of our calling. Unite us with you, that we may be one with you so your glory may be seen in us. Merciful Father, accept these prayers, for the sake of your Son, our saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
Mark 1 v 4-11, Genesis 1 v 1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19 v 1-7
So here we are still relatively at the beginning of 2021, having said goodbye with our fingers crossed to all the problems of 2020. A new year is usually a time for resolutions, for good intentions and a time when we hope for new beginnings, new opportunities and new challenges. Well, we certainly have the challenges at the moment. We have the hope of the vaccine, but until that becomes more widely available, we are still locked down and once again having to hold our worship by Zoom. Now Zoom has its advantages, but also means that not everyone in the congregation can participate. It is all a bit frustrating to say the least.
Today’s readings talk about new beginnings. The beginning of the World and the beginning of the Church. And the important place that baptism has in our faith. The transition from the old to the new life in Christ
This follows on from the Baptism of Jesus himself in the River Jordan by John, which we can read about in all four Gospels.
Baptism signifies a new beginning and a transition. This is what Jesus’ baptism by John marked. Up until then Jesus’ life and purpose had been largely unknown. We have accounts of his birth and a few mentions of his early life, but it is only when he comes to John for baptism, for the transition from his earlier life on earth up until then into the life that God had prepared for him, that we really get to know about Jesus. After his baptism, Jesus’s life changed and he went about God’s business.
And as he submits to John’s baptism, a baptism of repentance from sin, Jesus identifies Himself with us. The sinless one identifies Himself as a sinner, as a human being as well as God. He loves us and accepts his earthly life and his role in leading our lives, forming our lives, saving our lives. He becomes one with us.
So when we look at Jesus’s baptism and the transition that baptism brings, we can reflect on the change that our own baptisms, whether as children or as an adult, brought into our lives. Jesus’ baptism was an affirmation of who he is. Our baptism is an affirmation of who we are, that we are God’s beloved children called to participate in God’s work. We have been claimed by Christ.
And having been claimed by Christ, we must remember what special people we are and how blessed to have the assurance of Christ’s love in every part of our lives. The whole World is going through a terrible time right now. Many people are afraid, feeling helpless, uncertain or even just plain lonely. And as children of God, having the assurance of being loved and cared about, we have responsibilities – responsibilities to be Ambassadors of his kingdom, which is all about caring, loving, being just and compassionate. It is our duty to care about others, to pray for the World, for the unloved, the lonely, the afraid and also our essential workers, who put their wellbeing on the line for others – from our NHS staff, to the other emergency services, to everyone who makes society work – right through, for example, to the staff at the supermarket, who we would be lost without.
We must be people of prayer. I don’t mean prayer in the sense of constantly asking things from God, but prayer in the sense of being open and receptive and aligned with God’s love and purpose, praying for the World, even more so than normal at this difficult time. The baptised life, the Christian life is one that is open to and trusts in the love and grace and spiritual power of God.
Life is different and not much fun at present, but things will get better and, while they remain miserable, we could do nothing better than devote ourselves to a bit more prayer. Hallelujah!
This year, the wise men have arrived a few days earlier than expected! The coming of the wise men to find the infant Jesus and worship him is an event which triggers the Epiphany season – a series of epiphanies during the next few weeks of the church year which the gospels focus on in different ways – from the journey of the Magi to Jesus’ baptism and the Father’s declaration of him as his beloved Son; from John the Baptist seeing Jesus coming towards him and saying ‘ Behold the Lamb of God’, to old man Simeon in the Temple recognising Christ as ‘a light to enlighten the Gentiles at Candlemas which brings down the curtain on the Epiphany season. But these events are all little epiphanies – revealings of who this infant, this child, this man really is. Today, we focus on the first of this series of Epiphaniesthe arrival of wise ones from a far country to offer the Christ child precious gifts. During the 12 days of Christmas we celebrate that God did an astonishing thing by the incarnation – coming as light into the world, as St John put it. And today when we are keeping the Feast of the Epiphany, (which actually falls on Wednesday) , we celebrate the light coming to each of us – our own moment of enlightenment when we come to know, each of us, that Christmas, that God’s light is for each of us. The principle story for the Epiphany involves the image of the Christmas star. It is almost as strange and incredible a story as the nativity itself. A new star appears in the sky, and wise ones from eastern lands, astrologers – diviners, that is interpreters of prophecies most probably, understand the star as a call to journey to a distant country to see the long prophesied king of the Jews. We sense the story goes beyond the realm of reality when Matthew tells us the star stopped over the place where Jesus was. Stars after all just don’t do that – and you don’t have to be wise to know it! The story though is filled with symbolism – so much so we might be inclined to take the whole account to be symbolic rather than factual. And there would be good reason for Matthew to hide his meaning in symbols because the story he has to tell would have been political dynamite in his day. So what are the symbols? The wise ones significantly come from ‘the east’. We traditionally number them three, because three gifts are mentioned, and tradition calls them kings because their gifts were royal; but Matthew says no such thing – there could have been two, or twenty. For Matthew what matters is that they are wise ones – star gazers and scholars of prophecy, religious scholars who can read the signs of the times, and that they come from lands far away to the east. Their journey didn’t take 2 weeks – more likely 2 years. In other words they came from lands that the Roman Empire had never been able to conquer. Their message is that Jesus’ empire – his kingdom – will be truly global showing the Roman Empire’s claims of world domination as empty, and that the emperor, rather than being regarded as divine, will merely just be another king. These wise emissaries from unconquered nations with strange gods willingly bow down before the infant Jesus; they who’ve never bowed to Caesar. This is political dynamite – just as it was for the early Christians to say: ‘Jesus is Lord’. This infant is king above all kings, his God above all gods – seditious indeed! Those were the titles that belonged to Caesar alone. And what about the gifts the wise ones offer? Useless to an infant, except possibly the gold ( echoes of those gold or silver spoons that are traditionally given as gifts to a new born baby). In the Biblical account, these gifts are clearly meant to be symbols as well. Gold for a king; frankincense for a priest ( as we heard in the reading from Isaiah) and myrrh for death and burial. Jesus is, Matthew is claiming, by these offerings King, High Priest of the living and Conqueror of death. This is a lordship that not even Caesar ever dared to claim for himself. The absurdity that saves all this symbolism from irrelevance is that Matthew claims this universal Kingship and priestly authority not for the oppressed Jewish people alone but for a baby with a family tree; fallen from ultimate status to obscurity. He claims it for someone that even the most worthless slave, even the most downtrodden beggar can relate to. So the great epiphany, the amazing manifestation of God we celebrate at this point is the appearance of God among us, whose authority is ultimate but whose power is entirely given away; who submits completely to the joys and fears of a human life like ours so that the light that comes into the world will not be dim and distant but bright and accessible. So where and when was your epiphany? When did you realise God was in your world? What star led you to this place? Perhaps it hasn’t come to you yet. God’s light, God’s love might be something you’ve heard about but never really felt for yourself. Perhaps it came to you so long ago that’s you don’t really remember it. Maybe God has always been present in your life. Or perhaps you have had one of those experiences that become the source of story ands even symbol, where you have been suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by God and turned your life in a new direction. Or maybe your piphanies are less dramatic but more frequent. Perhaps the light keeps shining through in surprising places and at surprising times to remind you God continually breaks in. Whether your epiphany is momentous or continuous, or yet to come, know that the light that has come into the world is constantly trying to come into your life as well. There are bright stars all around, shining with love and faith and hope, that will lead you to God, if your are wise enough to follow. And when God is manifested to you, like the wise ones, you have your own gifts to bring – your influence, your worship, your treasure, your life – to both acknowledge that subversive authority of God in Jesus, and to lead others to the manger. To be radiant- as Isaiah says- to become in your own way a guiding light – a Christmas star. In one of his finest poems, W H Auden has each of the three wise men give a reason why he follows the star. ‘ To discover how to be truthful now, is the reason I follow the star,’ says the first. ‘To discover how to be living now, is the reason I follow the star’, says the second. ‘ To discover how to be loving now, is the reason `I follow the star’ says the third. And in Auden’s poem, the wise men then speak in unison and say:’ ‘ To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow the star’. *.
May those words encourage us on this first Sunday of a New Year, and bring fresh hope for 2021.
We worship a very adaptable God. For two days ago on Christmas Day, the holiest of days, we celebrated the great mystery of God in Christ taking on human flesh. The great and awesome God of the universe adapted to a frail creation, humanity, and out of immense love for us became one of us in the form of a baby born in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. The Christmas story is full of strangeness and wonder. There are angels and shepherds and oriental kings and a bright star. It’s all the language of fairy-tale. And yet the message behind the story is quite the opposite of fairy-tale. It’s about how God, the all transcendent God, gets totally involved and immersed and engaged in creation. It’s a story about an incarnational God who gets involved in the mess. Thanks to a very adaptable and hard-pressed inn-keeper, when there is no room at the inn, Mary is enabled to give birth to her child in an ordinary stable, among hot-breathed animals and straw.
Humankind is a strange mixture of the heroic and the terrible. In a fit of melancholy Shakespeare’s Hamlet perceives this strange dichotomy in human nature:
“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!….In action, how like an angel!….And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
Here indeed is a strange paradox. For humankind is capable both of great acts of heroism and also murderous acts of terrorism. In the incarnation of Christ that we celebrate in this Christmas season God out of love for us all takes on full responsibility for the waywardness of creation. God adapts to humanity totally by taking on our flesh and in Jesus becoming one of us. Like God and the inn-keeper, we too are called to be adaptable. And how supremely true that has been in this year of global pandemic. We have all had to change and adapt to so much in 2020. We have had to adapt to observe social-distancing, to wearing face masks, to the idea of working more from home, to severe restrictions being imposed on our lives, including our normal freedom of movement. This Christmas many have been observing the festival apart from their loved-ones, and many have had to keep the festival alone. Tragically for so, so many this Christmas has been laden with grief due to the death of loved ones, particularly from Covid 19.
We live in a changed world. But there has been much that has been good. There have been so many countless acts of kindness and generosity, especially to the most vulnerable in our society. And the NHS and health-care professionals working in hospitals, care-homes, hospices and in the community have shown selfless dedication of heroic proportions. We are so grateful for all key-workers of any kind in these supremely difficult and challenging times. We may live in changing circumstances… we may be far on in life’s journey and feel the burden of failing powers and increasing infirmity. God – the incarnational God – is our model. God adapted supremely to our condition by becoming one of us. We too are called to be open to our circumstances, our surroundings, the people we encounter….to be open, flexible, adaptable…..
In our gospel reading today from Luke, (chapter 2, 15-21) we are given a picture of the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus – being visited by some local shepherds. The shepherds have witnessed the wonderful angelic announcement of Christ’s birth, and they share their joy with Mary and Joseph and worship the new-born child. After the shepherds have left Luke tells us of how, when the child was just eight days old, it was the customary time for him to be circumcised according to the Jewish law, and for him to be given a name. He was given the name announced by the angel at his conception: Jesus, meaning “Yahweh saves” : God saves. It is at the very heart of God’s nature to save, to deliver, to rescue, to bring good from evil. We can as Christians be confident that even throughout this time of global pandemic, God’s loving redeeming power is at work among us.
Today is not only the First Sunday of Christmas. It is also, on this 27th December, the feast day of St John, Apostle and Evangelist. So today the Church celebrates and gives thanks to God for the life, witness and works of St John. Modern scholars have often debated John’s identity and authorship as regards references to him in the New Testament writings – raising questions as to who was the true author of texts attributed to him. Whatever the answers to these scholarly debates may be, we can be confident that there really was a close follower of Jesus called John and that he witnessed to the truth of Jesus as God in the flesh – “the Word became flesh” – as the Prologue to the gospel of John so famously and eloquently puts it.
John was a Galilean fisherman and he and his brother James, the sons of Zebedee, were called from mending their nets to follow Jesus. The two brothers seemed to have had a quick-tempered side to their character and Jesus named them “sons of thunder”. Of the twelve closest male followers of Jesus, John was clearly part of the inner core, along with Peter and James. The three of them were present both at the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, and also at Jesus’ agony in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. Traditionally John has been associated with the “beloved disciple” who leaned on Jesus’ breast at the last supper. John clearly had a very intimate relationship with Jesus. John’s gospel tells us that when Jesus was dying on the cross, it was to John that he entrusted the care of his mother. John ran with Peter to the tomb on the morning of Easter Day, and he recognised Jesus standing on the beach, in one of a number of resurrection appearances recorded in the gospels.
According to tradition John was exiled to the island of Patmos, and to have spent his last years at Ephesus, where he is thought to have died at a great age. St Jerome wrote that when St John was too old to preach he would simply say to the assembled people:
“Love one another. That is the Lord’s command: and if you keep it, that by itself is enough”.
There are also some apocryphal stories attributed to John – such as that he went to Rome and emerged unharmed when thrown into a cauldron of boiling oil. Another such apocryphal story about John was that on one occasion he was handed a poisoned chalice by his own brethren. He drank from it, and again he was unharmed.
So today the Church gives thanks to God for St John, one of the foremost of the early followers of and witnesses to Christ. As we live through these days of the festive Christmas season, we do so in difficult times. But we are called by God to persevere and have hope in our hearts. As this Christmastide continues to unfold, let us journey on with deepening faith in Jesus “the Word…made flesh”. Let us do all we can to help our fellow pilgrims in this life, and spread that message of love and hope and joy that came to the world in the form of a tiny child, born for us at Bethlehem.