Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Luke 2:22-40

Today we observe the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Like the signs in other readings we’ve had over these past weeks of Epiphany, this event points to who Jesus is. Here in the Temple courts, Simeon and Anna are the signposts pointing to the truth of what God was doing in Jesus, for all of humanity. But this event also points to the costs involved when God’s revealing light shines into people’s hearts, and when we walk the path he sets before us.

Joseph and Mary have gone to Jerusalem to fulfil their obligations as observant Jews. They bring Jesus to the Temple, to ‘present him to the Lord’. This was required by the Mosaic Law for all firstborn sons, as it is written in Exodus, chapter 13. They have also come to make the required offering for purification after childbirth, to be made 40 days after the birth of a child. This sets the scene in the context of sacrifice, again foreshadowing things to come.

There is a ‘Temple’ thread that weaves throughout Luke’s gospel. At this point the Temple is still the centre of hope for Israel. This story is followed by another Temple story: that of the 12-year-old Jesus, again in Jerusalem, this time for the Passover - when Jesus becomes separated from his family. After three days of searching, Mary and Joseph find Jesus ‘in his Father’s house’, engaging with the teachers of the Law. For Luke, this is the high-water mark of the Temple - but from here on, the tide recedes, for on Palm Sunday, in Luke 19, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple. The Temple itself was not rejected by God, but the corruption of Temple religion was. Eventually the High Priests (who stand for the Temple religion) reject Jesus, and when Jesus died on the cross, the Temple curtain was torn in two. In the book of Revelation, in chapter 21, the vision of the New Jerusalem is of a city without a temple, because ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’.

And so the Temple itself did not provide the ‘consolation of Israel’. Simeon, and Anna, and all those who were ‘looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ were still waiting. But because Simeon and Anna were open to God, when they see the Christ child, they understand that Jesus is the true light that puts all other paths in the shade.

So what does salvation look like to Simeon and Anna? Salvation has taken on the face and body of a human being: Jesus himself is salvation. And Jesus helps us understand in a new way what it means to be fully human. From the first reading we had from the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear that Jesus was made like us in every way. And so because he was made like us, we know that we can be like him. The Gospel, with its message of hope, gives us clarity about who we are. And anyone who takes this in can be an instrument in God’s plan to bring all of creation into the fullness of being. We are meant to participate in building the kingdom of God, and the New Creation. Each of us is gifted for it, and each of us is called to live it.

We can only live it by loving and serving other people. That already happens here in the dedication of many of you to your roles in church: those who run the carers and toddlers groups, those in the choir, the Sunday school leaders, those on the coffee rota or on the PCC. I’m sure we can all think of ways we love and serve people in our daily lives, but we know we must extend this beyond our family, our friends, our co-workers and our church; we need to make time for the people out there that society has no time for.

Right now we’re in the process of creating new opportunities to love and serve the community together as a church, through some of our Growth Action Plans, and I hope many of you will get involved. For example, we’re developing a friendship with one of the local care homes, which you can read about in the February parish magazine. Please pray about this, and let me know if you’re interested in serving the community in this way.

Another way we take part in God’s plans for our wholeness is by turning away from activities we know to be harmful, and attitudes that corrupt or destroy the good that God has created. It means speaking up for what is right, and speaking out against injustice. It can often mean going against the flow of the tide, and the cost may be high.

Simeon said to Mary, ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Jesus was rejected by many of his own people, and Mary felt his pain as she watched her son suffer and die for our sake. And when we contemplate the price Jesus paid to bring us close to God, that sword might pierce our souls, too. For if we risk proclaiming the gospel today, we might also suffer rejection at times, as many today continue to reject what Jesus has to offer.

Here in Britain, as in much of the Western world, the rejection of Jesus shows itself mainly as indifference - - it’s a case of not being bothered one way or the other. (The nice thing about apathy is that you don’t have to exert yourself to show you’re sincere about it!) But if you are here this morning, you are being called to follow Jesus, whose way is to love and to serve.

We might want to hedge our bets, but there really is no neutral ground. We are either moving with God, or moving away from God. Sometimes it is a moment-by-moment decision we need to make. But each of us has been given life for a reason outside of ourselves. As Paul urges in his letter to the Ephesians, we are to ‘be imitators of God... as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’. Each day we have the opportunity to re-offer our life to God; to present our self as a sacrifice to the Lord.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Sign of a Revolution

Mark 3:7-19
As we’re still in the season of Epiphany, I thought I might try to uncover an epiphany from today’s reading. It’s not as obvious in this reading as it was in the story of the wise men following the bright star that led to Jesus. It isn’t as clear as it was at the Baptism of Christ, when the Father’s voice from heaven declared Jesus to be his beloved Son, with the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove. Today’s passage is more subtle than that - but the result of what happens in this passage certainly wasn’t meant to be ‘subtle’. The ‘epiphany’ sign that I found in this passage is the Church: the Church is to reveal Christ to the world; the Church is to be a sign of the glory of God.

From the first half of the reading, in verses 7-12, we can tell that word has spread far and wide about Jesus, because now the crowds have become very big, to the point where it was probably getting dangerous. People had heard that this Jesus could heal the sick. They came from all over the place. They were jostling and pushing to reach him. But this was not just a healing mission. The people in the crowd had a hunch that this Jesus movement was something very big and powerful; something extraordinary and new.

This half of the reading shows us the kind of world Jesus came to save: it’s a world in which people are searching for wholeness and well-being; but it’s also a world in which evil exists. And we see in this passage that even the ‘evil’, unclean spirits knew that Jesus was powerful on a magnitude way beyond their power. They recognised his authority over them. As Jesus could only move forward according to God’s will and timing for what he planned to do at the cross, he orders the evil spirits to keep quiet – it was not yet the time to draw that kind of attention to himself.

In the second half of the reading, verses 13-19, Jesus calls together his disciples ‘up on a mountainside’, which is reminiscent of Exodus 19 when the Lord calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai, where he revealed the nation of Israel to be his holy nation and his treasured possession. Could this be a sign, then, of what Jesus intended to do up on the mountain in our passage?

Jesus appoints 12 disciples to ‘be with him’, to learn from him, and to be sent out, with his authority. The number 12 isn’t simply a random number or a conveniently sized small group. The number of disciples who are called is a statement about the Christian Church, because the disciples are the continuation of Israel, which from the very beginning had 12 tribes. This was a sign of what Jesus intended the Church to be.

Jesus has a concern in the Gospels to grow the community of disciples into the new Israel, which is the Church. And Jesus calls his disciples to share in his mission. This community has a high purpose in the building of the kingdom of God: to be salt and light, to witness to God’s grace, to make more disciples who will live out and pass on his message from one generation to another, and to seek to be a blessing to the wider world.

And so the Church is brought into being by Jesus who calls people into this new community to be with Jesus and to be sent out, with the purpose of building the kingdom. This rhythm of drawing together and being sent out can be seen throughout the Gospels as the disciples gather around Jesus and are sent out again. And on several occasions in the Gospels Jesus reminds his disciples that to follow him is costly: ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (from Matthew 16). This is the way to find life in all its fullness: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’

It’s important for us as Christians to come together in worship and fellowship. It’s also essential for our own life and health that we go out and join up with God’s mission in the world. To be church is to live in a rhythm of worship, fellowship and mission: coming together and being sent out; gathering together as an expression of our love for Jesus, to learn more about him, followed by going out into the world to share his love with others. If we don’t live in this rhythm of worship, fellowship and mission then we are not actually being church!

I can remember a long time ago in my previous job at the University, I was telling one of my co-workers about my faith, and her response really struck me: she said, ‘well that’s ok if you enjoy it, but don’t let it take over your whole life’. But I wondered, what is the point of Christianity if it doesn’t affect my whole life? None of us are perfect at this, and we all have to work out where we ‘fit in’ within the overall mission of God, but this calling is not only addressed to us as individuals - it’s to the Church as a whole: to build itself up, and to go out to where God is already active and present in the world, as his witnesses.

In our Growth Action Plans, which you’ll be hearing more about very soon, we’re trying to take into account this double vocation - to be with Jesus and to be sent out into the world on his behalf - because it would be wrong to focus on one at the expense of the other. And so we’ll focus on both the inward and the outward expressions of our faith. And different people will connect in different ways. God knows we’re all different, with different gifts and abilities, and in that regard the 12 disciples Jesus chose were the same. Often temperamental, they must have been pretty hardy, but their faith sometimes wavered, and they didn’t always understand what was going on. Yet they persevered through it all, and were willing to follow Jesus in spite of the risks involved.

By their example, we’re given a pattern for our discipleship: of spending time with Jesus and learning from him as a community, and going out into the world to bring his hope and his healing to others. What Jesus accomplished through those first 12 disciples was revolutionary. And what he can accomplish through us can be equally revolutionary, when we share in God’s mission as whole-life disciples, through which the glory of God can be revealed.

When we think of the word Epiphany as meaning ‘to show’ or ‘to reveal’ we can find Epiphany signs all through the bible. Perhaps the events we mark at particular points on the Christian calendar should really be celebrated all year long. At all times we are called to watch for the coming of our Lord, such as we do in Advent. At all times we are called to be Christ to others as his incarnate body, which we celebrate at Christmas. And of course at all times we’re called to be resurrection people, not just at Easter. But now, as we are still in Epiphany, it is good to remember that as the Church, we are called all year round to look for signs of God’s glory wherever it is revealed, and to be a sign of God’s love for the world.

A prayer: Draw your Church together, O God, into one great company of disciples, together following our Lord Jesus Christ into every walk of life, together serving him in his mission to the world, as a revolutionary sign witnessing to his love. Lord, make your Church into the people you want us to be, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, 18 January 2010

On Haiti

In preparing yesterday's sermon, I had wanted to say something about Haiti - wanting somehow to find a way of speaking about God's abundant grace (signified by the water turned to wine) even amidst the terrible and devastating crisis of Haiti's earthquake. I ran out of prep time in the end and couldn't find a way. I am so glad to have found that someone else did find a way to express what I could not. Please read this sermon from Nadia Bolz-Weber at Sarcastic Lutheran.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Water into Wine

John 2:1-11
I don’t know about you, but I find it reassuring whenever we’re told of Jesus doing normal things like eating and drinking, as it reveals something to us about the human side of Jesus. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus affirms the joy of human celebration. And at the wedding in Cana, the situation has become critical for the bridegroom when the wine runs out.

In contrast to many weddings today, where we can probably expect to get a complimentary drink for the toast, but after that it’s buy your own at the bar – at the time John’s gospel was written, at a Jewish wedding the wine was expected to flow freely. And in that context, it wasn’t just family and friends – these weddings usually involved the whole village and lasted for a week with guests coming and going all the time. Can you imagine the cost of providing hospitality like this? And it was the bridegroom’s responsibility to ensure there was enough wine for the whole period. To run out of wine was not just a social embarrassment, it meant a serious loss of family honour.

So they had run out of wine at this wedding in Cana, and Mary takes it upon herself to let Jesus know, with a hint of expectancy in her voice. “They have no more wine”, she says to him. OK, as a mother myself, I admit we can be a little pushy at times with our children, but think of Mary - in her heart she has always known who Jesus was. His identity had been revealed to her even before his conception. She has watched him grow into maturity, now ready take up the role for which he had been born, the role for which, as we heard last Sunday, he had been commissioned into by his baptism.

“Woman, why do you involve me”, Jesus answers. "My time has not yet come". You might think Jesus’ words would’ve discouraged her, but Mary’s response comes as somewhat of a surprise as she says to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’. And for whatever reason, Jesus decides to act. Perhaps he realises the opportunity this situation provides to reveal to his disciples, in a way that would resonate deeply with them, who he is, and what he is about. This is the first miraculous sign Jesus performs in John’s gospel, and the whole event is positively soaked in symbolism.

With its great feast, a Jewish wedding is like a picture of the feast that awaits the people of God in heaven, and we can see a similar illustration in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22. The symbolism continues with the figure of the bridegroom: the bridegroom in the wedding at Cana has been rescued from dishonour by Jesus who is the symbolic Bridegroom of his people.

And we can find this reference to Jesus as the bridegroom all over the New Testament. For example, earlier in John 3, John the Baptist refers to Christ as the bridegroom when he says, ‘The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.’

And in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, when Jesus is questioned by the Pharisees about the fact that his disciples weren’t fasting on the Sabbath, his reply is to tell them that the guests of the bridegroom cannot fast while they are with him, though the time will come when he will be taken from them, and then they will fast.

The bridegroom also features in the parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25, along with Ephesians 5 and Revelation 19 where Christ again is represented as a bridegroom awaiting his bride. So the setting of a wedding and the role of the bridegroom both include a good deal of symbolism on which we can reflect; but there is more. ‘They have no wine’ – Mary says to Jesus. The end of the wine is symbolic for the end of the old way of trying to please God, as he begins to reveal a new way of drawing us close to him through Christ. The old covenant under the Law of Moses has become obsolete, and the new covenant is being established by Jesus – a covenant of grace and forgiveness.

Wine symbolises life and joy – Psalm 104 speaks of the Lord providing plants for us to cultivate for food and wine, which 'gladdens human hearts'. The prophets foretold of an abundance of wine in the messianic days – as it says in Amos 9: ‘New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.’ This paints a thriving picture of abundance, and at the wedding the jars are filled ‘to the brim’, continuing the theme of abundance, and signifying the abundant grace we receive from God through Jesus.

The water jars that Jesus uses to perform this sign are described as ‘the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing’. Few of us here today have a Jewish background, so we might not immediately attach significance to this, but by using these particular jars, Jesus was making a statement that God is doing a new thing from within the old Jewish system, bringing purification to Israel and to the world in a whole new way. And this would have been recognised by those who were watching what Jesus did. The jars also held a really large quantity – around 100 litres of water each. With six of them, that’s 600 litres! God’s desire is that we would recognise who Jesus is, so that we might receive the fullness of his abundant grace.

As a whole, the sign of water turned into wine points to Jesus as the one who has come to do a new thing; to provide the new blessing; to transform the old vision of what God wanted with his people from a system of laws that became corrupt and absurd, to where the whole point was being missed – to transform that into a new and simpler and freer rule of love, grace, faith and trust in what he has done, and what he is able to do for us when we let him.

It’s interesting that in John’s gospel none of the miracles are called miracles they are called ‘signs’. They’re called signs because they point people to Jesus and who he is. John’s hope is that in reading about the signs Jesus performed as part of his Gospel’s overall testimony, we would come to belief that Jesus is the Saviour, and the Way to the Father, who awaits us with love in abundance. We weren’t at the wedding in Cana. We didn’t actually see the miraculous sign of water transformed into wine. We didn’t see first-hand any of the signs in John’s gospel. But as Jesus says in John chapter 20, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.

And yet, the thing is, when we come to trust in him, we should ourselves become signs– we should display signs of growth and a transformed life. Let’s not be like the road sign I’ve seen that says, ‘this sign is not in use’. Let’s be clear and bright signs that point to Jesus our Saviour, the one who meets our needs both at times of crisis and at times of joy; the one who offers to all the new wine of the kingdom. Amen.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Baptism of Christ - Luke 3:15-22

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, your voice proclaimed the sonship of Jesus, as he humbly submitted to the baptism of John; help us now, as your children, to be humble and open to your Spirit and to your Word. Amen.

The Christian year moves quickly, doesn’t it? Beginning with the start of Advent at the end of November, we’ve travelled the journey to the Incarnation and the Epiphany, and suddenly in a flash, Jesus is 30 years old! Here we are, spectators at his Baptism which kick-starts Jesus into the ministry of his mission.

It’s appropriate that his Baptism is placed within the season of Epiphany because it falls into category of ‘manifestation’, which is of course what the word Epiphany means. All three members of the Trinity are manifest at this baptism. Jesus, the Son, is present in human flesh. The Father is present by his voice, declaring his approval of the Son. The Spirit is present, appearing as a dove which descends upon Jesus, empowering him at the beginning of his public ministry.

This baptism was a decisive point in Christ's mission: it was his inauguration as the Messiah, ready to bring God's salvation in fulfilment of the prophecies. God is for us; redemption is his work, and we are blessed as witnesses through these Holy Scriptures to his divine action, at its very inception.

The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is described in fair detail in Matthew 3, more briefly in Mark 1, and only just mentioned in our reading from Luke 3; in John’s gospel it is not mentioned at all, but presumed in ch. 1. A fundamental element of all the narratives, though, is that at his baptism Jesus was anointed with the Spirit; and this event propels him into his ministry.

Immediately after the experience of the Spirit, the voice comes from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love." The significance of the ‘sonship’ of Jesus is one of service to the Father rather than a reference to Jesus' divine nature. It is to do with his mission rather than his nature of being.

So Jesus submits to the baptism of John, which was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Why did he do that? John’s mission was to call a sinful and self-righteous people to turn quickly before the coming judgment: "The axe is already at the root of the trees", John says in Luke 3:9. But Jesus was not a sinner. He did not need to repent! In Matthew's gospel, John the Baptist protests at the inappropriateness of Jesus coming to be baptized by him. But the reason Jesus insists is because one of the functions of his baptism is to mark his solidarity with his people. By this act, he takes upon himself their condition and their predicament, because the Incarnation was not just about his coming to earth but also about his assuming the burdens that we have of life in the flesh. Because of this, Jesus is able to intercede for us. The Father's Son speaks to his people through Jesus, and he also speaks for his people to the Father. He is our mediator. By his baptism, Jesus is identified with the Father, with the Spirit, and with us.

Let’s think now about the water of baptism. Traditionally, even before Jesus, baptism in water was practiced by the people of the Old Testament, as well as people who belonged to pagan religions. The universal symbolism of immersion in water is that of being cleansed, to start anew; of dying to the old and rising to a new fresh way of life. Water cleanses, refreshes and sustains.

When Jesus immersed himself in the waters of the Jordan River, it was an immersion into the Father’s will for a new start. In his baptism, Jesus identified himself with the Father’s will to secure our redemption. Jesus was obedient to the plan and the will of God. When he went under the water at his baptism, it symbolized his death on the cross and his burial, the ultimate expression of non-power. And when he came up out of the water, it symbolized his resurrection. For that reason, the baptism of Chris symbolises his mission to die on the cross for the sins of the whole world and be raised from the dead in victory over sin and death. No one else will ever undergo the same kind of baptism that Christ went through – his baptism was unique.

How about our baptism? Our baptism symbolises our identification with Christ: with his death, his burial and his resurrection. In Romans 6:3-4 it says: 'All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.'

When a believer is baptised in water this symbolises being placed into Christ. When the believer comes up out of the water, it signifies being born again into new life, which is most powerfully acted out in full-immersion baptisms. Christian water baptism identifies us with Jesus Christ in his death, his burial and his resurrection, standing for what has already been accomplished through Christ. It’s an acknowledgment of our faith and trust in Christ; when we rejoice in what he has done for us, and we make some serious promises to God. We die to our old way of life and rise to a new way of living. We accept our commission into his service.

This is why the practice of infant baptism is controversial in some areas of the Church. To me it underlines why it is so important for parents and godparents to understand well the deep significance of baptism. And it underlines the importance of Confirmation, and pre-confirmation teaching, as those who were baptised as infants become able to take on their baptismal vows for themselves, with a firm commitment to follow Christ’s calling for a new life.

That new life begins whenever we say ‘yes’ in faith – to the hand Jesus holds out to us, and to the invitation he gives us to participate in the mission of God. What did Jesus do after his baptism? Jesus wasn’t a party-pooper, but I doubt if he had the kind of party that follows many baptisms today. It says in Luke chapter 4 that he was ‘led by the Spirit’ into the desert – where he went through temptation, again out of solidarity with us, but he resisted, and moved forward - forward in his mission and ministry.

Just a bit further on in Luke 4, we find Jesus in the synagogue, reading out from the scroll of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. And to those gathered around him, he says: ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’. From here on, what Jesus does is to invite participation, as he proclaims something new, revealing the freedom created by the Spirit, and speaking judgment upon the old system, whose only fruit was oppression. And that must be our solidarity with him.

Our baptism is the acceptance and acknowledgment of our solidarity with the ministry of Jesus and the mission of God in Christ, charged by his baptism. Thankfully, the Lord of our new life is also our brother on the road. He has walked the way before us; he is alongside us and within us, when we move forward in trust and in the knowledge that we are loved by God, anointed and empowered by the Spirit, to live by faith with hope.

Let us pray: Beloved Son of God, baptised by John, we praise you and marvel at your humility. You are one with us in baptism: take us with you into the kingdom. You are one with us in humanity: lead us into the love of the Father, to whom be thanksgiving now and always. Amen.