Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Malachi 3, 1-5, Psalm 24, 7-end & Luke 2, 22-40
Today we celebrate The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. For the Church of England this is a relatively new festival, for the Presentation or Candlemass, doesn’t feature in the Book of Common Prayer. I for one am glad that the Church of England have re-appropriated this essentially catholic celebration.
In the Church of England, just like our catholic and orthodox friends, we do an awful lot of presenting, if not in the temple, then in the church. We present individuals for baptism, confirmation and ordination, for instance. We present them because we think and hope that something may happen. That something is the affirmation of the love of God, the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and a sense of being commissioned to go out and live as disciples of Christ for the benefit of others – all others.
We do not of course present ourselves as individuals each and every week, but we do present ourselves as a people, as a body, as a communion and we do so through participating in the only sacrament that is an ongoing sacrament; the Eucharist. The other ‘sacraments’ are designed to be one-offs. You can’t be re-baptised, re-ordained and marriage, it is hoped, is also to be a ‘one-off.’ Sadly, marriages don’t always last the course, and the Church of England does allow its priests to marry divorcees, should they be happy to do so. I am happy to do so.
But, what do we present ourselves in church for? Why bother sharing in the Eucharist? Well, just as Jesus was presented as part of a distinctively Jewish ritual in which his mother underwent a rite of purification, we too present ourselves each and every time we come to church to be, if not purified, then at least sanctified. In the words of the prophet Malachi we present ourselves in church, and at the altar rail, so that we can become as ‘gold and silver;’ so that we might grow in ‘righteousness.’ Of course we need to be open to, or present to, that possibility.
Jesus was presented in the temple within a highly closed ritualistic system. This renders the words of Simeon remarkable: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation of the Gentiles, and for the glory of your people Israel.’ There is a danger that we receive those words with a sense of nostalgia, such is their beauty. We are all accustomed to the words of the Nunc Dimitus, as they are integral to the liturgy used at Evensong and, in the Funeral Service.
So can I ask you to pause for a second or two and consider the scandal of these words, as spoken for the first time, in the Jewish Temple; a place where you were not supposed to utter the word Gentile?
Our gospel is a scandalous gospel. Jesus’ parents took him to the temple so that an ancient Jewish ritual could be performed. What they discovered was that Jesus was to be the light of the world, for the world: Jew and Gentile alike. When we make ourselves truly present in church, and at the altar rail, where we receive the blessed sacrament, what we discover is that we too are being refined, washed and cleansed; that our innate prejudices, biases, and propensity to desire to live within a closed religious system are lovingly, but sometimes painfully, dismantled. We are made as ‘gold and silver,’ so that we too are equipped to transcend and break all boundaries that separate people, for that is what it means to live with ‘righteousness,’ in the light of Christ.
Our challenge is simply this: to present ourselves, and open ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit within us, so that we can be refined and sanctified.
Let us pray:
Loving God, as we present ourselves before you today disturb us, challenge us, cleanse us, refine us, sanctify us, so that we may live in righteousness as Children of Light. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
Evensong 14th January: Reconciliation 2 Corinthians 5, 16-end & Luke 15, 11-24
Sometimes we struggle as humans to do the necessary things; those things which may open us up to the pain of rejection. It is in some ways easier to come up with reasons as to why we shouldn’t pursue a particular course of action. When we do this we frequently project, or make assumptions, about others: ‘there is no way that they will accept the hand of friendship, or the offer of an apology.’ Of course when we do this we let ourselves off the hook, but we also make a theological error. We fail to take St Paul’s words that ‘from now on we regard no one from a human point of view, sufficiently seriously.
Reconciliation is one of those necessary but difficult challenges. It is in many ways far easier to keep those we disagree with, or those we perceive to have caused us pain at a distance, reflecting on their weakness of character. But, for a faith based on the notion of incarnation – God becoming flesh in order to share our lives with us – distance is an anathema. This is St. Paul’s point: ‘God reconciled us to himself through Christ.’ St. Paul then goes onto explain that if this is true the consequence for Christians must be that we who are asked to live Christ like lives have been given the ‘ministry of reconciliation.’
Reconciliation is a very necessary ministry and yet it is the hardest of all ministries. The older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son can’t, for instance, meet its challenge. He remains stuck and paralysed at the level of duty. He is imprisoned by a view of the world that suggests that intimacy and fellowship is a reward and not a grace. He can’t quite get his head fully round the virtue of forgiveness. Because he can’t do these things he is the one to suffer; resentment is to be his lot. Its interesting, isn’t it, when we first think of the notion of reconciliation we begin by thinking of others but actually one of the main points is that reconciliation is good for us and our sense of well-being.
So what does it mean to be an agent of reconciliation? I suspect it starts with the notion of truth; straightforward acknowledgement of the pain that has been caused. It then moves onto the possibility of forgiveness, restoration and inclusion. This is, of course, dramatically presented by the way that the Father embraces the Prodigal Son. Reconciliation demands a real generosity of spirit and a willingness to rise above past harms whether real or perceived. In rising above past harms, through the acts of forgiving, restoring and including we arrive at the teleos or end-point of reconciliation: reconciliation is finally a supreme act of creativity. Reconciliation opens up new possibilities; new ways of being and relating.
Think for a moment about the amazing work of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa. They always told the truth about the horrors of apartheid South Africa but they refused to be held captive by a toxic past.
We must allow ourselves, through the injunctions of Scripture and the lived examples of people such as Mandela and Tutu, to be inspired by our mandate to be ‘ambassadors for Christ’ in the ‘ministry of reconciliation,’ because when we do so what we broker is the very real possibility of a ‘new creation,’ and a better future.
Let us this year rise up to the hard but necessary challenge of not ‘counting their trespasses against them’ but instead becoming enthusiasts for the ‘ministry of reconciliation,’ Amen.
Epiphany 2: 1 Samuel 3, 1-10, Revelation 5,1-10, John 1, 43-end
Last week I spoke about wisdom. At the risk of boring you through repetition I would like to speak about wisdom one more time. I am going to do so because I believe it is such an important spiritual quality and, one seriously lacking in the world. Wisdom, alongside hope and innocence are the three spiritual qualities I aim to work at developing this year.
I would want to say that Christian wisdom starts from a slightly different place than worldly, or secular, wisdom. Our Christian wisdom starts with the simple – or innocent – acknowledgement that God is the foundation for our lives, and that God is revealed to us in and through the person of Jesus Christ. Christian wisdom starts with a simple commitment, like Philip, to simply ‘follow’ Jesus. Christian wisdom is first and foremost a counter cultural commitment to be not a leader but a follower. Christian wisdom can only ever start with the words spoken by Nathaniel ‘you are the Son of God.’ Without first faith and then a commitment to follow there can be no Christian wisdom.
So having decided to first accept that Jesus is the Messiah and then to fashion our lives according to his, as followers, what do we then need to do to grow in wisdom?
Well, like Samuel, we need to learn the art of true listening; listening to what God might be saying to us and where God might be leading us. Like Samuel we too need to learn the art of saying ‘speak Lord for your servant listens.’ Like Samuel we also need to allow others, spiritual friends, to point us in the right direction, to the place where we can truly listen. And, if we are to listen we need to make the space and time to let God whisper his words of love, encouragement, invitation and challenge. We need to make time for God. Can I encourage you to carve out some time for God and simply use Samuel’s mantra: ‘speak Lord for your servant listens.’ One of my hopes for this church is that each and every member will find a way to pray and carefully read the bible for it is through these two spiritual activities that God speaks. Prayer should be the very oxygen we breathe.
We also need to learn to expect the unexpected and to rise above the level of cynicism. In the Gospel reading we heard the famously cynical phrase ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Well, the answer is that the ultimate, consummate, good came out of Nazareth. So looking to see where God is acting and allowing ourselves to be surprised by what we discover is to grow in spiritual wisdom. Recognising that God will act where God will act and that this is often in the most surprising of places is also to exercise the virtue of humility. Don’t we all, to an extent, want God to act where and how we would like him to act?
The problem is that if we place conditions on God, if we fail to accept that God will act how and where he wants, even out of wherever our modern day equivalent of Nazareth is, then we limit God.
God, often, frequently chooses to act from the periphery and not the centre, from places such as Nazareth. The growth in Christianity in this country has frequently come from the periphery. Think of the Celts for example. The implication for us, if we truly desire to grow in wisdom, is that we need to develop an acute sense of spiritual peripheral vision.
If we desire to grow as a church, both in holiness and in numbers, then we must learn the spiritual arts of listening, seeing and following; listening to what God is saying, standing in solidarity alongside Samuel and saying ‘speak Lord for your servant listens,’ and watching for where God is already at work on the periphery and at the margins, for then and only then will we catch a glimpse of the ‘new heaven and the new earth’ that John refers to in the Book of Revelation. We learn these skills, and acquire this growth in wisdom, through the practice of regular prayer and reading the bible. Wisdom is rooted in and routed from prayer. Let us this year as a community commit ourselves to growing in spiritual and distinctively Christian wisdom. Amen.
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