Saturday, 30 June 2018

Sunday Sermon: Mark 5.21-43 Jairus' daughter and the woman with the haemorrhage

Mark 5:21-43

When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue leaders, named Jairus, came, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” So Jesus went with him. A large crowd followed and pressed around him.  And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ” But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” While Jesus was still speaking, some people came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher anymore?” Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue leader, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” But they laughed at him. After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) Immediately the girl stood up and began to walk around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.

Mark’s Gospel reads like a whirlwind: when I was a student, Mark’s Gospel was one of our set texts and one of the things that sticks in my mind from those lectures is Mark’s sense of urgency. His frequent use of the word “immediately” sets up an almost frantic pace. Immediately such and such happened and then immediately Jesus said or did this or that. And that sense of constant activity is underlined at the start of this morning’s passage which tells us that Jesus “again” crossed the lake: he’s been backwards and forwards across the Sea of Galilee, teaching, preaching and healing and when I looked back at the events that precede this passage I found the story of the man with the unclean spirits who, when they came out possessed a herd of pigs. Before that we have Jesus calming a storm at sea, having had to be woken first from a deep sleep, both events suggesting huge emotional and physical effort. Then we have Jesus teaching through parables and everywhere being mobbed by the crowds. Add to that the relentless heat of Palestine which this week we’ve had a bit of taster of and we have a picture of a man who must have lived on the edge of constant exhaustion. Perhaps that’s why he so frequently took to boats: away from the crowds, gently rocked by the waves he could rest at last and maybe his fishermen disciples kept the boat in open water longer to allow more sleep rather than crossing immediately to the other side.  And what does Jesus find when they get to the other side? “A great crowd gathered around him.” and he’s off again in that frantic round of teaching, healing and preaching with people grabbing at him, shouting and imploring him for help, pressing in on him at every side and we can picture the disciples trying to carve a way through the crowd like bodyguards – and all this, still quite early on in his ministry.

In this public chaos a woman is waiting her chance to approach Jesus by stealth, but before she manages to pluck up her courage, she’s beaten to it by an anxious father – presumably only two of many clamouring for Jesus’ attention. Jairus, a man of faith as made clear by Mark in his description of him as a leader of the synagogue, literally falls in Jesus’ path and apart from the clear hint of supplication and worship in someone throwing themselves down in front of you, Jesus can’t ignore the man: he can’t get past him. He has to respond. “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” Isn’t that an amazingly strong statement of faith in Jesus? There’s no preamble, no sense that the man has doubts. He’s straight in: “You can do this. Please.”

And now, just to show both the nature of Jesus’ appeal and growing reputation and the melee that surrounds him, Mark reintroduces the second supplicant, the woman who’d been quietly waiting: not waiting to speak to Jesus, though, just waiting to get close enough to touch him. She couldn’t possibly have approached him directly because she was a woman alone, and social norms would have prevented her from speaking to Jesus and because of the nature of her illness, a longstanding gynaecological problem, she would have been deemed to have been unclean and shouldn’t even have left her home to go out in public. In spite of the invisible role in which society had placed her, she summonses the courage to approach Jesus. 

This woman’s faith may not be so obvious at first glance, but subtle as it is, given what she’d been prepared to overcome to be there, her faith must rank with that of the desperate father. Refusing to be powerless any longer, she breaks through the social, cultural and religious barriers that have relegated her to isolation.

In the midst of a hundred grasping hands, Jesus feels a powerful connection with one person. The woman believes that if she simply touches his cloak she’ll be healed. With everyone milling about, Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" And in effect, the disciples respond, "Really? Are you serious? Just look around.” The woman, however, instinctively knows that something has changed and, nervous as she is, makes herself known to find no condemnation, only compassion and healing. Reaching through the gender barrier, stretching across the ritual purity boundaries, this woman displays extraordinary faith, and Jesus recognizes it.  Unlike the other miracle stories, Jesus doesn’t pronounce any healing words.  He also doesn’t recoil or regard himself as contaminated.  Jesus does nothing to bring the attention back to Him.  Instead, he overwhelms her with gentleness.  He does nothing but acknowledge her.  He simply calls her "daughter;" and in so doing, he not only gives her the blessing that no one else was willing to give, he acknowledges the power of female faith.  In seeking the source of the healing, he cites it as being her own faith.  Her courage to break through the conditioning of a lifetime, brings her a condition she can barely remember: peace.

This whole incident must have taken mere minutes but in the meantime Jairus’ daughter has died and Jesus is interrupted again, this time by mourners who come to tell Jairus that his daughter has died and that there is now no point in having Jesus come to heal her. When Jesus tells the crowd that she’s not dead but sleeping, they laugh at him. In spite of their seeing his miracles, in spite of the teachings they had heard, when Jesus tells them that their mourning is premature, they laugh in his face.  This is the nature of the crowd: a crowd is easily swayed between extremes, in this case between adoration and ridicule and perhaps this’ll help us to realise that Jesus was not always safe in the crowd and that very often his very being with the crowd was not just motivated by compassion but was a bravery motivated by compassion.  Jesus may be a healer, but the girl is dead. What can he do about death, the mourners scoffed? Well, they soon see because Jesus goes to the house and restores the child to life.

At first glance, we might think that these two stories, lumped together as one, are really unrelated until Mark adds at the end of the story a kind of afterthought: oh, yes, by the way, the little girl was twelve years old. Perhaps we might sense something more is going on here than two stories simply sandwiched together. The woman had been sick for twelve years so maybe there are other connections. Jesus addresses the woman, who would have been considered unclean, as "daughter." By touching Jesus, the woman threatens to spread her ritual uncleanliness to Jesus. When Jesus takes the dead girl by the hand, he dares to make himself unclean because he transgresses another boundary by touching the dead. The healing touch of Jesus makes them well instead of making him unclean and he restores these two women to abundant life. Two needy outsiders become daughters of God.

Both the woman and the father of the little girl take Jesus seriously. Both believe that Jesus can restore their lives. Both kneel before him. This two-part story shows us that Jesus is active in the world with divine power to restore life, abundant life for everyone.

But this isn’t just a story about healing as you may well have been picking up as we’ve gone along. In many respects the healing elements are almost incidental: they’re simply the hook to hang a deeper understanding on and what a shame it would have been, I think, if we’d concentrated on the healing and missed the more subtle depths of these stories because if they’re about anything, these stories are about faith and God’s grace challenging and breaking through cultural and religious norms to reveal a new and deeper aspect of that same grace.

The crowds weren’t expecting it; they weren’t really open to it and all but a few probably didn’t even notice it. In that light, I think we have to ask to what extent we’re truly open to God’s grace breaking through in ways we didn’t expect; whether we’d be open to it – or would we stick with what we’re used to and are familiar with? Would we be numbered amongst the few that even recognise it or would we be with those who laugh and ridicule?


Sunday, 17 June 2018

A sermon about seeds Mark 4.26-34

Mark 4:26-34


He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

I posed a question to my friends on Facebeook recently: how often have you used a quadratic equation since you left school? I got a few positive responses from maths teachers and from parents helping with homework but in the main the response was that the quadratic equation was something that most of us were very happy to leave at the school gates and promptly forget.

I wasn’t very good at Maths at school and once got into trouble for writing “who cares?” as an answer to a question that went something like, “If a train leaves York at 9.45, travelling south at an average speed of 57 mph and a car leaves Penzance at 13.27, travelling east at an average speed at 42 miles per hour, how many sweets does Susan have left after she’s given Peter 9 oranges?”

It’s a mindset, I know, but I’m not one for puzzles of any sort: if someone starts that sort of conversation I just glaze over. “I’m not even trying. Just give me the answer and then I’ll tell you how much I care.” Catherine Tate’s wonderful comedy character Lauren Cooper, the gobby schoolgirl, sums it up for me:

“Lauren, you have to try, it’s important.”

“Not to me it’s not!”

I sometimes wonder if any of the disciples had this same feeling when Jesus told parables. I like to imagine a couple of the more recalcitrant ones sat in the back row muttering, “Oh here we go again. Just tell us the answer. Life’s too short!”

The parable, Jesus’ favourite teaching aid: some short and pithy, like today’s examples and others long and complex, like The Good Samaritan or The Sower. Now the parable of the Sower really sums up all of Jesus’ teaching: there are those who hear the word gladly but get side-tracked by other distractions. They’re the ones who have shallow roots. Others are the stony ground where the teaching has no impact whatsoever and still others are the ones where the seed takes root and they bear great fruit. (I over summarise, but you get the idea. You know the parable well.) That this parable is the key to all of Jesus’ teaching is clear when he rebukes the disciples, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?”

The point is that Jesus only occasionally explained the meaning of the parables straight off. He liked to leave the ideas hanging in the air for people to think about and struggle with. Sometimes he would relent and explain the meaning to his immediate group of disciples, generally frustrated that they hadn’t worked the meaning out for themselves – the disciples get a pretty bad press in Mark‘s Gospel for being a bit slow. As Victoria Wood once noted, “There wasn’t dyslexia in my day. You just sat at the back with raffia.”

Unlike the Parable of the Sower which Jesus had just told and explained in detail, the two parables we’re given today are (mercifully) short: perhaps, like any good teacher, Jesus recognised that his listeners had limited concentration spans. There are no long narratives and no deeply hidden meanings here. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “We’ve done the hard stuff. This is by way of consolidation.”

Yes, they are simple stories but they’re not just about how little things turn in to big things.  They’re more about how the Kingdom of God takes over everything around it.  So, yes, more of, “The Kingdom of God is like this” stories.

The seeds take over the field.  They’re small and seem insignificant, but they change everything around them.  That's how the Kingdom of God works. It’s good to be reminded about that because sometimes we simply fail to see that sort of change. Perhaps we aren’t looking for it. Perhaps we don’t recognise it when it happens. Perhaps it takes us by surprise when it does happen.

I’ll give you a simple example: I started to work in a prison three years ago now and it’s busy. It’s don’t-have-time-to-think busy and that means that it’s really easy to miss signs of the Kingdom on a daily basis.

Just before Easter last year, I ran a Lent group on one wing. Twenty-two men opted to attend and they took part with great enthusiasm and showed some real perception and evidence of spiritual depth. A couple of weeks later, the Bishop came in and confirmed eight of them. Now it’s not easy being a man of faith in a prison: but these men, regardless of their crimes, had come to a point in their faith journeys where they wished to make a public declaration of that faith; to show true penitence and to strive to live a changed life for the remainder of their sentences and to seek to live as better role models to those around them - and many have noticed the change in these men’s lives, other men who are not generally easily impressed.

There’s a strong belief amongst the regular chapel-goers in the prison that you can move on from the shame that lead so many into mental health problems and a downward spiral of self-loathing; that you can be released from all of that to start afresh even if you know you’ll never leave prison. For these men, coming to a deeper understanding of God was also, inevitably, to come to a deeper understanding of themselves. At some time in the past – and I take no personal credit for this – something started to work in the lives of these men: something initially as tiny as a mustard seed set in motion something that would grow and flourish and, to borrow from the parable of the sower, to “bear fruit thirty-fold, sixty-fold, a hundred-fold.”

I think the point is that often we don’t see the wood for the trees and because things don’t always work out in church life in the ways we expect, we lose heart and fail to recognise that something is happening but it’s something different, or it’s happening to someone we don’t see any more because of something that we said or did some time ago which set in motion a chain of events which has taken time to come to fruition. We may never know, but because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

There is, though, another meaning in these parables for those of us who have been on our own pilgrimages of faith for some time: there is a theme of growth and maturity to be discerned at the heart of these short stories. To what extent has “the harvest come”, in the words of the first parable in each of our lives? Have we “put forth large branches” in the words of the second parable? The Kingdom of God is like this: we have to make room for the Kingdom in our lives. We must allow it to take over our lives in a big way. When we allow God to be significant in our lives, we create a path for him to be significant in the lives of other people too.

Spiritual growth and maturity: in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about the mother’s milk of spirituality and notes that his listeners were not yet ready for solid food. How many years have you been on your pilgrimage of faith? Where are you in relation to the solid food of spirituality? One way to assess this is to take an honest look back to your early years of Christian faith. In which ways have you moved on? What ideas and attitudes have you left behind and which have replaced them? What have been the shifts in your spiritual awareness and understanding and what – or who – have been the influences for those changes? How has your faith matured? What’s the evidence?  – and it’s a personal inventory: you’ve no need to tell anyone your conclusions. For some, it’s the difference between accepting and questioning, for others it’s the espousal of the justice issues we find in the Gospels, for others a growing awareness, perhaps, of God’s transcendence and the realisation that the God you first met is much bigger than you ever dared to think. Could it, perhaps, have something to do with the way you now express your faith to others? Is about a greater sense of confidence or assuredness? Is it about a growing recognition that the Kingdom of God is something for the wider world and not just the individual convert? Does it lie in your recognition that the way you live your life needs to reflect kingdom values? Is it linked to being willing to engage with the big theological questions in ways you’d never have imagined yourself engaging in the past?

I can’t answer those questions for you, but they – and a hundred and one similar questions – are part of the inventory of spiritual maturity. Are we asking those questions? Has the harvest come? Are we putting forth large branches? Or are we still at the stage of refusing to engage with the depth of the puzzle that is the Kingdom?


Saturday, 31 March 2018

Easter Day sermon: Mark 16.1-8

Mark 16:1-8 New International Version (NIV)
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

If you’ve been with me at our services over the past few days you’ll know that we’ve been exploring Mark’s version of the Easter events. Mark’s was the earliest Gospel to be written and the way he outlines events is very short and to the point. It’s also a very fast moving Gospel. Everything happens with almost breathless speed: the text is littered with the repeated phrase, “and immediately”. There is a real sense of urgency in this Gospel and the Easter section is no different.
It may seem an obvious statement but the Easter accounts are the most important texts in the Bible for the Christian: without Easter, we wouldn't know about Jesus because if his story had ended at the crucifixion he’d probably have been forgotten other that for passing references in contemporary sources and there would have been no community memory to pass on.
Those of us who grew up as Christians or in an overt Christian environment probably have a strong awareness of the Easter message, possibly as a total mixture of the four gospels, and our understanding of the events is also shaped by the theology of the Epistles, particularly those of St. Paul.
What kind of stories are the Easter stories then? What language do they use? Are they intended as historical reports to be understood as history remembered or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or is it a combination?
There are those Christians who see the Easter events as literally and factually true. So central is the historical accuracy of the stories for many people that if they didn't happen in this way, the foundation and truth of Christianity disappear for them. And then there are those who have difficulty in believing that the stories are factual and if believing that these stories are factually accurate is essential to being a Christian, then they don’t believe they can be Christians.
Many other Christians take a less literal view: aware of differences in the accounts, they don’t insist on the factual accuracy of every detail and recognise that witnesses to any event can have quite different recollections. They might see the stories as part parable and use the model of parable Jesus himself used - the truth of the story is not dependent on whether it is historically accurate: there was no Good Samaritan for instance. Does that render the story meaningless? Parables can be true - truth filled and truthful - regardless of their factual accuracy and to worry about factual accuracy misses the point. The point lies in its meaning and in you and I getting that meaning.
Are we concerned about whether there was one angel at the tomb as Mark and Matthew record or two as Luke has it? Do we even agree amongst ourselves about the meaning of the word “angel” and therefore the nature of angels? Do we worry about where the disciples hid out after the crucifixion: Jerusalem according to Luke or Galilee according to Matthew? What we do agree on is the basics: the tomb was really empty and this was because God transformed the body of Jesus and Jesus did appear to his disciples after his death in a form that could be seen, heard and touched.
Sadly, though, we often don’t get beyond the "Did it happen?" reply to the "What does it mean?" question, and that’s the wrong answer to the question. What we should be saying, perhaps, is: “believe, if you want, that the events strictly happened in that way. Now let’s talk about what they mean. Equally, if you're quite sure they didn't happen quite like that, fine. Now let's talk about what they mean.”
Mark's Easter story is very brief but he provides us with the first narrative of Easter. He doesn’t report any appearance of the risen Jesus and the story ends very abruptly. His story starts with the women who saw Jesus' death and burial going to the tomb to anoint his body, concerned as to who will roll away the stone covering the entrance to the tomb. As they arrive, their question becomes irrelevant. They saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back. They enter the tomb, somewhat tentatively we might guess, to discover a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side. We generally interpret that young man as an angel, but even that word is loaded with countless unhelpful images of wings and harps and halos thanks to medieval artists. Let's be clear: an angel is God's messenger so let's strip away the fanciful appearance. He says to them "Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him."
Mark then tells us that the women were given a commission: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you." So although Mark doesn’t himself recount any stories of the risen Jesus the stage is nevertheless set for such events. So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid. This is a good moment, though, to consider the fact that, in all four Gospels, Jesus entrusted such marvellous news and responsibility to women, of all people. This charge is both remarkable and ironic, given the lamentable status of women in communities of faith then and ever since and tells us something that the church to its ongoing shame has largely failed to acknowledge.  At this crucial moment in the Gospel story, in salvation history, women represents that thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the ones whom God lifts up. How wonderful and how typical, that Jesus entrusts the primary proclamation of our faith to some of the "least," some of the "small ones"...and yet, how very biblical!
So, let's look at the meaning. It’s powerfully evocative.
* Jesus was sealed in a tomb, but the tomb could not hold him and the stone has been rolled away. Jesus is not to be found in the land of the dead. "He is not here. Look this is the place where they laid him." This is why in Protestantism we’re more likely to see the symbol of the empty cross rather than the symbol of crucifixion. It emphasises the belief that death could not hold him.
* Jesus has been raised. God's messenger tells the women this. Jesus who was crucified by the authorities has been raised by God. Our joyful proclamation, along with that of the women, that "Jesus lives" is also a claim about Jesus today, in our own life and time.
* His followers are promised “You will see him.” We may feel very close to Jesus when we imagine ourselves in the garden, walking and talking with him as we do daily in prayer, but following Jesus after that encounter means caring about Jesus' great passion, the kingdom of God.
* Like the earliest Christians, we follow "The Way," a way that leads to our transformation. The women’s garden encounter with the risen Christ is familiar to us in different forms today, when we experience resurrection and new life, when we encounter the risen Christ in our own lives.
* The command "Go back to Galilee" means go back to where the story began, to the start of the Gospel and what do we hear at the start of the gospel? We hear about the way of the kingdom, when all of God's children will live in peace, with enough for all, where healing, peace, justice, and mercy will reign.
Without the emphasis on Easter as God's decisive reversal of the authorities’ verdict on Jesus, the cross is simply pain, agony and horror. It leads to a skewed view of the current world where we conclude that the powers are in control and Christianity is about the next world, not this one. God has said Yes to Jesus and No to the powers who killed him. God has vindicated Jesus because the resurrection is God's way of defeating and denying the powers that be that were responsible for his death, including empires both ancient and contemporary. We are reminded that Jesus is really in charge, not the petty powers that seem to rule the world in every age.
Easter as the reversal of Good Friday, on the other hand, means God's vindication of Jesus' passion for the Kingdom of God. Easter is about God as much as it is about Jesus. Easter discloses the character of God. Easter means God's great mission has begun, but it won’t happen without us in terms of personal transformation and political transformation: dying to the old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being: in short, being born again. This beautiful hope calls us to be grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God, whose heart is justice, which is the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter. That sounds as if there’s more for us to do than merely take good news back to the others: it's a call for our whole lives, individually and in community. The world should be able to see in our lives our own passion for the truth that Jesus is risen and that God has indeed begun a work that requires our participation. If we go back to our lives tomorrow as if nothing has changed, what then have we really experienced?

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sunday Sermon: John 1.1-14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

John 1.1-14


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

We’re still in the season of Epiphany, that season which celebrates the making known of Jesus to the wider world, the world beyond Judaism as represented by the non-Jewish Wise Men of Matthew’s Gospel recognising the infant Jesus as King of the Jews, the Messiah. But here we are with one of the two Gospels that don’t seem to do Christmas and I’m sometimes asked why the church doesn’t use John’s Gospel more during the Nativity Season and, now that we’ve read it, it’s easy to see why: there’s no baby lying in a manger; there are no parents traveling to Bethlehem; there are no angels or shepherds; there’s no star and no Wise Men.

John doesn't set out to give us a historical account of Christmas. Whereas the other Gospel writer, Mark, doesn’t bother with the nativity at all, the opening of John’s Gospel as it deals with Jesus’ origins, does and does so in a completely different way if we look a little deeper and understand his message.

This passage also gives us something very like a confession of faith, a statement of belief about the incarnation of God: God made man. John isn't concerned about exactly what happened in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus and King Herod. He’s much more concerned about what people believe about Jesus, and from the start John balances and compares two themes: the eternal cosmic sphere from where John makes a point of stressing Jesus came, and the day to day world of John the Baptist into which Jesus came.

There’s also a sort of witness testimony towards the end of today’s passage which talks about those who experienced the God incarnate in Jesus living amongst them, We have seen his glory….

It’s as if in this short passage John is anticipating - or possibly responding to – confusion about who Jesus was: not merely a teacher; not merely a prophet or a role model; not merely a miracle worker or a man of great compassion but God himself in human form. It’s as if John is saying, “Let’s get something clear from the outset. Everything that follows is to be seen in the light of Jesus, The One God, The Almighty, The Yahweh of Judaism - Jehovah - coming among us in human form.”

The Christmas confession of John's community extends beyond a baby being born and wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger. It is the belief that he existed before creation and he comes and lives among us now as he came and lived among them then.

So, this word “word”, Logos in Greek, can sometimes feel very theological and deep to those of us who prefer our mangers and shepherds and wise men but we really do need to see the two together which is why this is a standard Christmas reading, albeit one that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the general themes.

John takes us back to the beginning.  He echoes words from the book of Genesis: In the beginning God created; God moved over the chaos and darkness and said, Let there be light.  The God who moved over the face of the deep, over the darkness, this same God who was from the beginning and spoke that Word, is the God who became flesh and blood and dwelt among us.  The word of God is seen as powerful and active throughout scripture: as we’ve seen, God creates the cosmos with speech. Jeremiah compares God's word to fire and to a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces, In Isaiah, God's word is rain that waters the earth, making it sprout and bring forth and it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

When Jesus is described as the Logos, The Word, it’s John’s way of describing Jesus as the revelation of God. Throughout the Old Testament God chooses to allow himself to be known in quite limited and restricted ways as he reveals aspects of himself to key people such as Abraham, Moses and the Prophets who interpret that understanding of God to the people. Their visions and experiences of God showed many of the characteristics of God as we understand him today – King, Judge, Almighty, All-powerfull, All-knowing, all-present etc. but rather distant and unknowable, certainly not personal in the way that we understand him today. But through the incarnation the God who wanted to be in relationship with his people becomes known and knowable in human form, to be spoken to face-to-face, walked with, eaten with, laughed with and wept with, and with those experiences came a knowledge of his love, his justice and his compassion. It doesn’t get more personal than that and later in this chapter John re-emphasises this idea when he writes, No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known. Not God’s son but God the Son, God in human form. In him we have a permanent glimpse of God, and in him we’ve come to know more about God than was ever known before. In this man Jesus, they saw, and we see, the face of God.

This is what many of our friends who come from other faith backgrounds struggle with because their understanding of God remains at the level of the distant, the impersonal and the unknowable. The Quran itself says, “God forbid that He Himself should beget a son” and Jews still await the coming of The Messiah. It’s inconceivable to these faith groups and to others that God can be so knowable, so personal. And yet today’s passage from John talks about this revelation having been received by humanity and you can’t receive something that’s not been freely given. This incarnation is God’s gift to us – to us all.

To me, this brings us back to the deeper meaning of the word “word”. Do you remember when your children were infants, before they could speak? How we wished they could tell us what was going on inside of them. They would cry. We would ask, "Are you hungry? Do you hurt? What's wrong?" They didn't answer our questions with words. We had to guess the answers. Some form of communication was needed for us as parents to know what was going on inside that small child, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, what they wanted. That’s still true even now they’re adults. Without the sharing of words in some way: face-to-face, phoning, e-mailing, texting, we don't know what they’re doing, thinking, or feeling. We need words to understand what’s happening in each other’s’ lives. Words have power. Everything we say or write, however trivial is designed to evoke a response in someone else.

Jesus, as the Revealer of God, is like that. He communicates to us the thoughts, feelings, and desires of God. Yet, he doesn't just talk about what goes on inside God, he is God. His life reveals God to us. In order to know God, we need to look to Jesus, to listen to Jesus, to try and understand Jesus. So, if words are designed to evoke a response, what is the response that Jesus as The Word is supposed to evoke in us? The answer, surely, is belief. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

The intended outcomes of God speaking to the world in this way are eternal life and salvation as John outlines later in chapter 3.16-17, For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Our task as disciples is to speak and live a language that has the same intended effect among our hearers. John talks of Jesus as the life and light of all people. Our response is surely to bring that same life and light to those we encounter in our own pilgrimage of f

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Sunday Sermon: John 2.1-11 - The wedding at Cana in Galilee

John 2.1-11


On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.   Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “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.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it.  When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom  and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The story of Jesus turning the water into wine has always been a little bit strange to me and it’s one that in the prison the men often banter with me about. “Father, can you turn water into wine?”

“No. I’m sorry. I was away that week but I can do it the other way round!”

Ha ha ha!

The dialogue between Jesus and Mary is strange and it seems odd that Jesus would turn water into wine, which really isn’t that impressive in comparison to his later miracles. Why would this be his first one recorded in John? Why does John even bother to tell us about it at all, and why are there so many details?

Jesus had already enlisted five disciples: Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael, and John. Together, Jesus and these disciples had accepted an invitation to a wedding in Cana where members of Jesus family were also on the guest list. John makes a point of telling us that Jesus’ first miracle was done here in response to Mary’s request and she doesn’t take no for an answer: first she taps Jesus on the shoulder and says, “They have no wine” and, after a seeming rebuke, goes with perfect trust to the servants and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.” and stands back in expectation.

But was it a rebuke?

Why would Jesus rebuke her? For her “faithlessness?” That makes no sense at all. She obviously expected Jesus to be able to do something about the wine and that’s clearly an act of faith in him as Messiah: after all there’s no reason, to think a poor carpenter would be able to do anything so spectacular, so she’s obviously expecting something supernatural here. Why would he rebuke her and then immediately give in and do it anyway?

Some preachers explain this event in the early ministry of Jesus as a picture of Mary as pushy stage mother and of Jesus as a sort of sullen young actor shoved—whining about his unreadiness—on to the stage of history. That interpretation plays to the stereotype of the domineering Jewish mother but is paired with the absurdity of an omnipotent divine Son too wimpy to stand up to her.

We’re not helped here by the inadequacies of language and translation either: the address “Woman” is perfectly polite and doesn’t have the cold ring in Jesus’ native language that it has in English, and “What have I to do with you” was a common conversational phrase. Again, it meant no disrespect. It becomes harder and harder to see this as some sort of telling off. Instead what we begin to see is a degree of affectionate banter between mother and son and it’s not at all clear from the text that Mary doesn’t quite understand what is going on, nor that that’s what Jesus thinks. Quite the opposite, Jesus’ response shows he thinks Mary knows perfectly well what is going on: he’s the Messiah and she wants him to show himself clearly to Israel.

What we’re seeing here is not Jesus the Teenage Messiah badgered by his bossy mother and her neurotic need to impress the ladies from her book group with “My son, the Miracle Worker”. What we’re seeing a piece of conversation between two people who are both acutely aware of who Jesus is and what he is called to do.

Mary is no fool. She knows her scripture. She knows the meaning of the mission of Israel. And most of all, she knows her Son. A quick read of the Magnificat in Luke’s Gospel shows that she’s spent a long time pondering how, in the coming of Jesus, God “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Every word both Jesus and Mary speak is spoken in light of their shared awareness of that messianic mission and of the words of the prophets who taught Israel to await his coming. With all that as the backdrop of their conversation, Mary is revealed to be lovingly calling Jesus to get on with his mission, not to impress the neighbours with a special effect or a publicity stunt. Her point is not simply that the wedding guests have no wine. It’s that the whole nation has no wine. All Israel is waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

The whole conversation makes it clear that Mary believed it was time for Jesus to announce his identity as Messiah and usher in the Kingdom of God; it makes it clear that Jesus knew perfectly well this is what she meant and that she knew he knew it. Rather than some inane request for drinks all round followed by a meaningless “rebuke,” what we’re really looking at here is a profound conversation in which Jesus and Mary know and understand each other perfectly.

This is the first recorded miracle in John. It was the first mark of Jesus’ divinity, and it demonstrated his glory. The men who followed Jesus already had a sense that this man was marked out by God, even if, as the Gospels repeatedly tell us, it took some time for them to fully catch on, but now they begin to see his glory for themselves and the result is that they believed in Him. This action confirmed to them that although they didn’t yet have all the answers or a full understanding of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah, they had been right to heed John the Baptist when he said, “There is one who is more powerful than I coming after me.” We don’t have their excuse of unfolding events slowly making things clear: we have the benefit of hindsight and should know exactly what this and the other signs of Jesus meant about who he was.

The thing that impresses me most about this story is that the events took place in rather ordinary circumstances. Many of the great truths Jesus taught and the miracles he worked took place in response to the circumstances Jesus found himself in. This event wasn’t planned by the wedding party to be a stage for his activity. Jesus was simply engaged in the life of those around him and met a need.

Today, we believe that the Son of God is ever present. He meets with us on an impromptu basis all the time but perhaps - sadly - is most recognised when we’re in need. He’s with us at work or study, at home in family life, in the supermarket, during our hobbies, in the car or on the bus. When needs arise, he’s present – but not just when need arises. We don’t have to set up an appointment to see him. He makes his presence known if we’re open to seeing it.

This should be a source of great encouragement. To know that Jesus, by his Holy Spirit, walks with us in all aspects of our life should perhaps make us a bit bolder as disciples because in our own ways we are all ministers of the gospel and, as such, we too need to be ready to meet the needs of others which we may be confronted with at any time.

I think, too, there is often an impatience about us as disciples: why is there still hunger in the world? Why do despots seem to prosper while the innocent suffer? Confronted with a need, Mary went to Jesus and we should follow her example. When we have a need, we should come to Jesus, of course, but we must come knowing that all things are ultimately in his hands and he will determine the when, why, and how of its resolution. Certainly, we can express our desires and call on Jesus in faith, but we must in the end put all things in his hands. With Mary, we must be willing to accept his decisions and actions - but don’t misunderstand me: that’s not a call to passivity or inaction.

We must also follow the example of the servants in the story: Jesus told the servants, "Fill the jars with water." and they quickly obeyed. When Jesus meets our needs, when he answers our prayers, he often gives us something to do: in our services we’ve often used the words of St Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” If that’s not a call to action I don’t know what is! In a text-book I used to use I came upon this wonderful, but sadly anonymous quote, “Sometimes, I want to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when he could be doing something about it, but I'm afraid he might ask me the same question.”

Together those two quotes seem to sum up our awareness of God’s constant presence and our consequent responsibility as obedient disciples: discipleship is an active not a passive calling. It’s as if God is saying to us, “You see the needs of the world too. I’ve called you to bring the Kingdom closer. Off you go.”

In today’s Gospel passage John calls Jesus’ miracle a "sign" and this is the first of eight miracles that John records. John wrote His Gospel, he tells us, that people might believe in Christ as the Son of God. Clearly, miracles provide a witness for this.

Through this sign, Jesus did what Mary wanted him to do. When Jesus performed a miracle, his glory was there for all to see and this miracle strengthened the faith of the five disciples who were with Jesus, as it should strengthen ours.

Let’s look around us and see what Jesus is doing in our world. The church talks a lot about mission but we need to remember that mission is always God’s mission. Let’s follow the advice of St. Teresa and see where God is already at work and join in with him there to bring his Kingdom closer recognising that by his Spirit Jesus is always with us to sustain us and meet our needs, in the everyday as in the spectacular.





Saturday, 13 January 2018

Sunday Sermon: John 1.43-51. Jesus meets Nathaniel

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathaniel coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathaniel asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathaniel replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

As you know we’re in the season of the church year called Epiphany. This is the season when the spotlight is on Jesus, to show him more fully: to reveal, perhaps, aspects of who he is which we have not seen before, or which perhaps we have forgotten or not given due consideration.

In today’s Gospel this incident in the life of Jesus reveals one man's spiritual journey – Nathaniel’s: a man who went from a throw-away comment about Jesus being a nobody from nowhere to an encounter with that same Jesus that changed his life. The name Nathaniel, incidentally, means "given of God," yet Nathaniel didn't fully understand the implications of his name. His life had of course been given of God, but he had no idea how true that was until he met Jesus. And when he did meet Jesus, he also met the Nathaniel he could be. It is as though Nathaniel never saw himself and his potential to be a different person until he confronted Jesus and I’ve heard other people say similar things about how they have become truly themselves since their own meeting with Jesus.

There are people we know who somehow draw out the best in us. Just being present with them creates a desire within us to be the best we can be. Most of us can remember a teacher who inspired us. We would give our best because this teacher was someone we wanted to do our best for. I remember such teachers in my own youth and I hope that in years to come some of today’s young people might remember me in that same way.

As we take a walk through this story of Nathaniel's call we learn more about what being a disciple is all about.

On the surface, it would seem as though the life journey of a Jewish man who lived 2000 or so years ago in a world radically different from our own, would have very little relevance for our lives today. We are from different times, a different culture, different lifestyles, different problems and different ideas about religion, life and living.

Yet, the story of Nathaniel contains some powerful spiritual concepts that can bring new meaning and renewal to our own spiritual lives but we have to make that practical application or the story remains just that, a story. It must have the power to touch us and to inspire the desire to change within us – a change that the Holy Spirit accomplishes.

We live in a world that has little time for religion. That’s not to say that people aren’t religious but modern expressions of spirituality no longer encompass what many of us would recognise as a Christian faith. My former pupils were terribly cynical about religion. They argued that it’s not rational, that it can’t be proved; they dismissed what is certain, for instance the historicity of Jesus, as some age-old conspiracy. “They could have made it up.” they asserted although they were less sure who “they” are or why “they” would have done that. Science and technology, they would tell me, have all the answers. And yet some had a vibrant faith - of sorts, but it’s very much a-la-carte. “Yes I quite like Jesus but I also believe in reincarnation and karma.”

They don’t really work together. I’d tell them.

“I don’t care. It’s what I believe.

Life today is very individualistic and that’s true of religion too. I can reject it completely – usually, I have to say without really understanding or after having got completely the wrong end of the stick. Alternatively, if I don’t like any bits of Christianity – judgement, for instance - I can edit them out and replace them with something more palatable. “We’re all entitled to our own opinion” my students would tell me repeatedly.

I digress: there are three dimensions in the Nathaniel story that reach across the centuries and speak to us today of the true nature of discipleship rather than the mishmash of ideas that is so common today:

• We are Invited
• We are Known
• We are Promised.

We are Invited
Nathaniel wonders if any good can come from Nazareth because it is a place of no importance, perhaps a little like the portrayal of Bradford as a city that exists purely to make other cities feel good about themselves according to the American writer Bill Bryson in his book "Notes from a Small Island". In fact, historians tell us that the place is never ever mentioned outside of the New Testament until the third century. It was clearly a place of absolute obscurity. If Jesus was supposed to be the promised one, the one foretold in Scripture, it seemed to Nathaniel that the place of origin of the Messiah would be a more significant town, with more to commend itself, than a place like Nazareth.

But Philip didn't defend Jesus or his claims; he didn't throw up a lot of arguments. He didn't try to argue Nathaniel into his own confession that the Coming One had finally appeared and was walking among them. He simply said, "Come and see." He disarmed Nathaniel's defences and got his attention and Nathaniel's curiosity got the better of him and he let Philip lead him to this Jesus.

There is some wisdom here for our own attempts to bring people into the circle of Christian fellowship or to a faith in Jesus. We can’t compel, argue or shame people into a Christian faith. Remember these compelling words of Christ? "Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matt. 11:28)

In Jesus the entire world is invited to share in the fatherhood of the God of Israel. Thus he says to Philip at the last supper, "He who has seen me has seen the Father." This is what Jesus means when he refers to himself as the "Son of Man." Jesus identifies himself with all of mankind and those whom the Spirit leads to faith he unites to God. So Jesus says, "Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die." (11:26)
In other words, we are all invited.

We are Known
At Nathaniel’s first meeting with Jesus he discovered that Jesus already knew him. "Where did you get to know me?" Nathaniel asked.
I’m quite bad at names. I always remember faces but names are more of a problem. When I was at theological college my particular friend Richard was from Sheffield Diocese and at some function or other I was introduced to the then Bishop of Doncaster, Bishop Cyril. Months later, at Richard’s ordination, in a crowded cathedral, Bishop Cyril tracked my wife and I down and greeted us both warmly by name. I felt really special and my wife was charmed. Somehow it is always more impressive when some well known person remembers your name.

As soon as they found Jesus, Jesus exclaimed, "Look, an Israelite without guile!" Here is a man who is without deceit, one who is straight forward, honest and sincere. Jesus saw him and looked directly at the core of his character. Jesus knew him before meeting him; he saw through him, if you like. And how did Jesus know him? He had already seen him "under the fig tree." It seems such a throw-away detail but it is really significant because under the trees was where great teachers in Israel gathered students to study scripture and the law to grow wise in the way of God and to learn how to walk in his ways. Such a man knew the scripture, knew the way of the Lord, sought diligently to be his man and to be bound by his word. Indeed it is often suggested that Nathaniel had been a follower of John the Baptist.  Nathaniel was without guile because he had come to Jesus. Jesus also called him an "Israelite." That is the name of the people of the covenant, those who sought to be God's faithful people. Nathaniel was without guile because he had left off the study of the Scriptures to come and see if their fulfilment had actually arrived.

Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit had led Nathaniel to come to him and that he would now recognize Jesus for whom he really is - is, not was - and make a bold confession of his faith. When Jesus explained that he knew Nathaniel from afar, Nathaniel was so amazed, he had an instant revelation. "You are the Son of God!" Nathaniel was overwhelmed by the power of Jesus' knowledge about him. He confessed that Jesus is – is, not was - the unique teacher of Israel the "Rabbi," that he is – is, not was - God's own Son, and Israel's promised king.

What a marvellous thing that we should be known by God! The Psalmist expressed it this way in Psalm 139, "…it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

This is the deeper meaning to Jesus' knowledge of Nathaniel and that Nathaniel now grasped: Jesus knows his own and those who will hear him, trust him and confess him. Jesus says later on in the Gospel,
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
Suddenly Nathaniel, sees the whole world, his life, his own self and all of the scripture he had studied so diligently in a new and different light. Suddenly he perceived that his life, his present and future, were bound up together in the life of Jesus - as are ours.

We are Promised
When Nathaniel expressed his amazement at Jesus’ knowledge of him, Jesus said in effect, "Nathaniel… you’ve seen nothing yet!" He would see much more as he joined the band of disciples who would follow Jesus for the next few years: Jesus turning water into wine (2:1-11), healing a man from afar (4:46-54), healing a lame man, (5:2-9) feeding five thousand people in the wilderness (6:1-14), walking on the stormy sea (6:16-21), healing a blind man (9:1-7), and raising Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44). There is an interesting word picture in Jesus' words to Nathaniel. " will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This picture would be absolutely clear to a Jew like Nathaniel who knew the ancient story of Jacob and how he had a dream one night. Genesis 28:12 describes the dream this way, "And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it." The ladder in the Old Testament is the symbol of the means by which heaven is reached and the angels are the welcoming, celebrating company of God.
Now Jesus reveals to Nathaniel that he, Jesus, is the way by which heaven is reached. The welcoming, celebrating angelic band now welcomes the one who responds to Christ in faith. Nathaniel will experience more in his life as a follower of Jesus Christ than he would ever have dared to imagine.

The next time we hear of Nathaniel, he is with a few other disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee once again. He is a party to the most incredible experience any human being had ever experienced. It is the Easter breakfast encounter with the Christ who had been crucified, but now appeared once again to his followers.

Like Nathaniel, you and I are invited to be a part of the company that follows Christ. We are known by the Lord more fully than we even know ourselves. And the greatest joy of all is that we are promised the eternal presence of God.

Let’s be like Philip and share it with those we know and love and let’s be like Nathaniel in the way we recognise and respond to Jesus ourselves.



Saturday, 6 January 2018

Sunday Sermon, Matthew 2.1-12: The Epiphany.

The Lectionary readings for today include a passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 3.1-12, and because I refer to it throughout this Epiphany homily, I’d like to read it to you:

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

It may, or may not come as a surprise to you that we’re in the Season of the Epiphany, and you may be a bit vague about what that represents. 

In many British churches the feast of the Epiphany itself is hardly celebrated at all.   In fact, Epiphany is perhaps the only part of the church calendar that is observed more in neglect than in celebration.   While the Feast of The Epiphany is an important holiday in many other countries, particularly those who follow the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but it has simply not really caught on in mainstream British culture because it’s been eclipsed by Christmas itself. It’s on Epiphany Sunday that many continental Christians open their gifts in memory of the gifts offered by the Magi. Personally, for that reason, I think that is the right time to open our presents but I have failed to convince my family of that. My late mother, for instance, would tear into her presents one second into Christmas day if we hadn’t already sedated her with sufficient gin and sent her to bed.

In this season of Epiphany we enter the realm of light which is symbolised by the star of Bethlehem which most here have put well behind us with the Christmas decorations we’ve already taken down. Our minds are now firmly on the New Year ahead and we’ve moved on from stars and cribs and shepherds - and indeed wise men because many of us tend to lump them all in together as part of Christmas.

In fact the Greek Orthodox Church has called this season “the season of lights.” It’s no coincidence that our Old Testament lesson begins: Arise, shine, for your light has come. In the Eastern Church, this season of light is celebrated as fully as the season of Christmas. We’re entering into another world where reality is more than what is seen, where light reveals more than the eye can take in. Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ.

Only Matthew among the four gospel writers tells the wondrous story of the magi. Tradition has three Wise Men or Kings but Matthew doesn’t specify the number. It doesn’t matter that literalists try to discover exactly what happened in the astronomical realm while others try to explain the story with talk of the importance of religious myth and symbol; the wonder of the story remains undiminished. How can we hear it without becoming children again, feeling ourselves drawn in again in the way we were when the story first entered our consciousness? Exotic locations, mysterious visitors, camels, a wicked king and a hint of the other-worldly. What’s not to like? You can imagine Matthew telling his first listeners: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…" and then going on to tell them about the Eastern kings, dressed in many-coloured robes, the camels moving ponderously over long stretches of sand, the star so bright, with its long glowing tail leading them toward a humble hamlet called Bethlehem and the odd and seemingly inappropriate gifts - these remain in our consciousness.

There is, of course, a feminist commentary on the Epiphany story. It does the rounds on Facebook around this time of year. You may be familiar with it:

Do you know what would have happened if there had been three wise WOMEN instead of three wise MEN? The three wise women would have:

·      asked for directions,

·      therefore arrived on time,

·      helped deliver the baby,

·      cleaned the stable,

·      made a casserole,

·      and given practical gifts

Anyway, this unlikely group of foreign dignitaries with their retinue arrive, seemingly out of nowhere, looking for the one who is born King of the Jews, appearing only once, in the story of Jesus’ birth. For a few minutes, there is a strong hint of the kingdom of God which the grown Jesus would proclaim - peace on earth, mercy to the poor and good will to all people. (All people, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians.)

Then the Magi disappear from Scripture as suddenly as they first appeared.   But the point of their journey remains forever important.   They are the first to understand what others could not yet see: that Jesus “has been born king of the Jews.”   For the ancient Church, this “epiphany” or acknowledgement of the Christ was worth celebrating.   It still is, but sadly we don’t really celebrate it here. It is, as St. Paul reminds the Ephesians, the eternal purpose which God, has realised in Christ Jesus, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. But Paul takes it a stage further by reminding us that Jesus is not just King of the Jews, but of the Gentiles also – you and I, non-Jews. The Magi are, of course, Gentiles - they are described as coming from the East, but the symbolism and significance of this is often overlooked. Just picture in your mind for a moment your own image of the Magi; then look at our Magi. Some combination of Black, White, Asian or Oriental in the way they are represented? Certainly not Jewish, which is the point, and which ties in to our Epistle for today: the Magi reveal what St. Paul is stressing – the universality of Jesus, a baby born to die for Jew and Gentile alike. A BBC adaptation of the Nativity from a couple of years ago looked back at the Magi, seekers after truth and astronomers, and how they interpreted the signs, set off from their homes, met up at some point on their journey and were confirmed in their belief that there is a significant birth simply by meeting each other on the same pilgrimage.

But even as the Magi move on leaving Jesus to his mission on earth, we know that there is work to be done. There is a Gospel to be proclaimed.   Epiphany experienced becomes Gospel lived. St. Paul reminds the Ephesians of this when he tells them that they, and we, are to make all men see what is the plan of God’s mystery. We are called to seek and serve Christ in those we meet, loving our neighbours as ourselves in order to make the Lord clear and real and known in our world today.  

Christ dwells with us today, is still there to be seen and discovered by those who, like the Magi, are willing to journey far from the commonplace in their quest for understanding and knowledge.   What does that mean in practice? Every time I preach I know I say much the same thing at some point during the sermon: to stop this being just a lovely story we have to make it real for us today and look for the applications. Like the Wise Ones from the East, we must be willing to leave the comfort of the familiar, of our preconceptions and prejudices.   We must be willing to look for the Christ in places others refuse to enter, whether it be the asylum-seekers shelter, the soup-kitchen for the homeless, the drug and alcohol rehabilitation unit, the psychiatric ward, the prison wing …….or the stable. 

 The Magi brought gifts - gold for Kingship, frankincense for Jesus’ priestly divinity, and myrrh for suffering humanity: gifts in a juxtaposition of the Gift of God to humanity in the Christ-child and as with any gift this is not a gift that we have to accept. I can receive it, but I don’t have to accept it. I’m sure many of you here can picture the less than enthusiastic face of someone who didn’t welcome your Christmas gift to them and we know that there are people out there who are unenthusiastic about this gift from God. The Incarnation remains for many an unopened present or maybe a present put away for a future occasion which never comes. “Yes, I can see it needs further thought, but I’m too busy now.”

What are we to make of this Epiphany for ourselves today?   For one thing, it’s a sobering reminder that Jesus is more than simply our brother, more than a friend we can turn to when we are seeking a listening ear, more even than a prophet, helpful as those ways of relating to him are.   Christ is God made present in our day and age.  His divinity spills over into our earthly realm.   As we subsequently read on of Jesus’ journeys throughout Galilee and beyond, as we listen attentively to his stories and parables, we are from time to time reminded emphatically of where all this is coming from and where it leads.  

So what is our response to that precious gift? What do we bring in return? What is our gold, frankincense or myrrh? Well, perhaps we must principally bring the gift of ourselves as we encounter Christ alive and present in the elderly, children, the disabled, the homeless, the alcoholic, the drug abuser, the prisoner and all the vulnerable, defenceless or damaged people of our world – and the ones who have received the gift in their heads but have not received it in their hearts: them too. I’ll give you an example: I’m sure I’ve told you who my particular problem people are. I get on with most people but I struggle with aggressive beggars, and I challenge you to think who your problem people are. It’s the same message again here, isn’t it? As St. Paul tells the Ephesians I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of God’s power. The message of Paul is clear: we are servants of this gospel – we serve those we encounter whoever they are, not just the nice ones.

Christ is also manifest today in the bread and wine of Communion, which we struggle in faith to recognize as his body and blood.   Christ is there when we turn to him in confident prayer and in those times when we find ourselves without words and on the point of despair.   He is with us in the quiet of our hearts and in the noise of our daily lives.  But Christ is not ours to hold or keep.  Paradoxically, he allows us from time to time to experience his absence precisely so that we, as his disciples, might learn the importance of bringing his presence to others.   That’s the Epiphany challenge and the challenge St. Paul gave to the Ephesians as he reminded them of their mission to the Gentiles. We now become in our lives the epiphany to others of Christ’s presence in our world. 

We’ve been incorporated into the story: the Bible's story is our story too. Each of us is the Father's beloved daughter or son; he loves us and he has sent us out to love our enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, the hungry, and the homeless. And at the end of our quests we will have such stories to tell. A bit like Matthew and Paul: "You're not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time when…"

Epiphany: the light breaking through, the light shining upon, the revelation unfolding, what St. Paul describes to the Ephesians as an insight into the mystery of Christ. The divine has become clear and real in our midst.  Arise, shine for your light has come.