Friday, 29 January 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 2.22-40 Jesus is presented in the temple

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

I don’t know whether any of you ever have the opportunity to look at the Lectionary: it’s the set programme of readings the church has chosen for each day of the year and of course, on a Sunday, we, like most churches, tend to look at only two of the four designated readings. We generally tend not to look at the Psalm or the Old Testament reading, concentrating instead on the Gospel and another New Testament reading.

There is, I suppose, some logic in the selection of passages where there is some common theme but I struggle, sometimes, to find those links and I’m often perplexed by why those four passages have been chosen to go together. Perhaps it’s just me being a bit thick. Today, however, I can see that theme quite clearly.

The Old Testament passage for today is taken from the prophet Malachi and includes this phrase, the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

Today’s Psalm, 24, fills in some more of the context: Lift up your heads, O gates and be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in.

It is into this theological context that today’s Gospel passage sits. As we’ve seen, Luke talks about the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and that event is regarded by many as the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy, When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord [in the temple]. To underline this we have the two revered elders, Simeon and Anna who, much to Mary and Joseph’s amazement - and possible disquiet - seize on this child, one among many brought to the temple that day for this ceremony, and identify him as God’s chosen one.

As we read the passage we may have been guilty of assuming this was a quiet, personal family event with just Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, the priest and these two holy elders as random worshippers. Not so.

Picture the scene: the solemnity of this awesome and imposing building, the centre of Jewish religion, with its history of centuries of worship; its peace and quiet shattered by countless families, their new-borns and their doves for the required sacrifice. Perhaps the best comparison might be Westminster Abbey with a rolling multiple baptism. Chaos, noise and bustle - but without the doves.  Far from being a personalised family occasion, it must have been a conveyor-belt of ritual and, like any regular ritual, you might imagine the danger implicit in a well-worn routine with the priests sleepwalking through something they’ve done so many times they could do it with their eyes closed!

Personal as it may have been to them, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to this commonplace ceremony only for the commonplace to be turned on its head and made into something unique and profound. Simeon and Anna descend on Jesus and Simeon, a total stranger, takes him from Mary’s arms and begins to proclaim loudly about him. My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. “Now I can die in peace.” And as if that wasn’t enough, Anna begins praising God, and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. They don’t do this for any other family and if you were one of those other families you might feel a bit put out. Why them? Why that little boy? What’s special about them?

At the end of the Gospel passage we read, The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. Luke, very deliberately here, sets out Jesus’ credentials as God’s chosen one, the Messiah and the passages all begin to make sense together as they look forward to what Jesus would do in his ministry.

Then we have St. Paul, writing in his letter to the Hebrews, looking back and explaining how Jesus mission was completed and its implications for each of us …. through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death ….. and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. The descendants of Abraham? Well that’s us: not genetically but through our faith.

So what can we take from this passage that will help us to develop as disciples? What comfort and reassurance does this passage offer to us today? Well, there’s a lot of deep theology there and we don’t have the time to unpick it in detail or this sermon will be in danger of turning into a hostage situation!

I think the first thing that stuck me was the idea that Jesus, despite all the talk of Kingship in the Old Testament passages, and his role as being God’s servant, was like you and I. ….. he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, Paul tells his readers – his readers then and now. Paul talks about Jesus’ suffering, not just the ultimate suffering of his death but his suffering in the daily experience of life which means that in our daily experience of life we have someone we can identify with and who can identify with us as a fellow sufferer: one who knows what we go through because he shared our humanity and has been there too. Sadness? He’s been there. Bereavement? He’s been there too. Disappointment, unjust treatment, temptation, rejection, fear and so on: the full range of our human experience? He lived that too. When I struggle, when you struggle we know that Jesus went through it all and so understands our pain and unhappiness. That surely must be a huge encouragement because we never face uncertainty, fear and loss alone. As Paul concludes, Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.  Us, in our various times of need.

And that leads into the second thing that always strikes me about my – our – relationship with Jesus, For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters …

How often do we consider that? Again, despite all the talk of Kingship and Messiahship, Jesus is not some distant figure: he counts us as brothers and sisters of the same Father. Jesus is my brother, your brother. He is close and walks with us on a daily basis. Perhaps that is our challenge: do we act as if he walks with us as a sibling? Do we recognise and act on the resource of loving support from him or do we somehow think of him more in his divinity as unapproachable? Jesus our brother or Jesus the incarnation of God? Well there is no “or”. They are one and the same. We are sons and daughters, as he is a son, of the same Father, God and that is what sets our faith apart from all the others: we can have a relationship with God through Jesus our brother. That, of course, demands a response: do we want that? Have we got that? Do we live as if we’ve got that because that, flagged up in the Old Testament and misunderstood by the culture and religious expectation of the Messiah in his own time, is Jesus’ mission to us, in the service of God as Paul reminds us. Jesus' presentation in the temple and his recognition by Simeon and Anna set those credentials.

Well, there’s something to ponder in the coming week.

Let’s pray:

Help us, Jesus, to recognise you as one of us: as fully human and one who knows our trials and sufferings. Help us to recognise that you walk with us daily as our brother and as we get to know you better, help us to enter into a fuller relationship with God, your Father and ours.



Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sunday Sermon: Luke 4.14-21 A sermon delivered in prison.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

If there’s one thing I have learnt from teaching it’s that the teenager’s mind is unpredictable.

“Sir, Is Jesus Santa Clause!”

“Sir, Sir. Right. Jesus right. Was he real?”

Anyway Sir, Jesus didn't die. He moved to France and started a family”

 Where'd you get that idea from?

 "That book in the Bible. You know. The Da Vinci Code. Honestly Sir, you're supposed to know these things.”

Will the real Jesus please stand up!

I’d like us to reflect for a moment on this Jesus. Here is a man who has left his mark on history, which is fairly surprising given that he lived a long time ago in a remote corner of the middle of nowhere; came from a poor family with no political or social clout; didn’t travel extensively; never wrote down his thoughts and ideas and died a dreadful death. In the normal course of events he ought really to have been lost to history. Yet this man became one of the most revered and talked about people who ever walked the human stage and I’m entirely confident that those three or four years of his public ministry have had a profound impact on the lives of each of us here. The problem is that there is not much material from Jesus’ own time and mountains of conflicting material from every generation since - as some of my pupils noticed. So which Jesus are we talking about? Gentle Jesus meek and mild, as the hymn would have us believe? (Small children and fluffy bunnies?) Remote, mystical Jesus championed by an army of conspiracy writers in books like The Da Vinci Code? Radical-revolutionary Jesus so beloved by the downtrodden and exploited?  Nerdy-precocious Jesus sitting at the feet of the rabbis in the temple in his youth, soaking up their wisdom? The Jesus of the American televangelists (“put your hands up to the screen and Jesus will bless you”)?

 There is a saying doing the rounds on the INTERNET that notes, “You can be sure you have created Jesus in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.” which is a real challenge because we are all susceptible to championing the version of Jesus that most suits us – regardless of the truth. Jesus: Remote? Or close? Jesus: someone who challenges our assumptions? Or affirms them? Matey Jesus or authoritarian Jesus? Loving Jesus or judgemental Jesus?

Are we are still seeing Jesus as a “good man”? A prophet perhaps? Or a preacher? A miracle worker? A religious hothead cut down before his time? A political activist with a bad sense of timing?

Or something more?

Will the real Jesus please stand up!

Well, in today’s Gospel passage we have a very clear answer in Jesus’ own words:

When he returned to Galilee, his home region there was much excitement. We read that word about him had spread and there was a real buzz of expectation and I guess that those conversations were based very much on the same sorts of ideas we’ve just been looking at. Who is this man?

So, we find him in the synagogue and he is asked to read from the scripture, which was something of an honour and already says something about how he was viewed – a rabbi, a religious teacher; someone with authority and wisdom – they didn’t just ask anyone to preach. The passage for that day was a section from the Prophet Isaiah and it talked about God’s chosen one, the Messiah, long awaited by the Jewish people, and this passage includes a list of the things the Messiah, when he came, would do: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Now, how do we today make sense of these words? Because it strikes me that unless we recognise that they have meaning and relevance for us, we are in danger of seeing these words as just an interesting piece of religious writing – or perhaps, for some people, not that interesting. We can listen and nod, receive our communion, sing a hymn and return to our Sunday routine completely untouched and unchanged.

We need to remember that whoever Jesus’ audience was at the time, we are also his audience today. Every time we hear the words of Jesus spoken in the Gospels, we should see ourselves as being in that audience too: Jesus is speaking directly to us today as he did to the people in that synagogue all those years ago.

And what did he say? Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

If we had been there then, in that synagogue, listening to Jesus, all those years ago, one thing is certain - there would have been a stunned silence: the atmosphere would have been electric. Jesus had just said that the writing of Isaiah that he had just read was about him. He was telling them, as he is telling us today, that he is God’s Chosen One, the promised Messiah.

There is another event in the life of Jesus, later on in this Gospel, which is similar in its importance: Jesus asks Peter a direct question, But you, who do you say that I am? And Peter’s response? You are the Messiah. The Messiah, The Christ, God’s Chosen One.

So twice we have the words of Jesus announcing to those who hear, to those who listen, that he is not just a preacher, a miracle worker, a religious hothead or political revolutionary. No. He is, indeed, God’s Chosen one. And that requires a response from all who hear those words - whether they were there in that synagogue then or are here in this chapel today. Will the real Jesus please stand up? He just did!

So, nodding and taking our communion, singing a hymn but returning to our Sunday routine unchanged is no longer enough. In John’s Gospel Peter says to Jesus, But to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

That’s our challenge for today gentlemen – and not just for today, but for our entire lives. To whom else shall we go indeed?