Practical spirituality ~ how to really use the Bible….a sermon for Trinity 11

The following is my husband’s sermon for today the 11th Sunday in the season of Trinity.

 

The Bible is a practical book!

How?

A big old fashioned one could help short people like me reach things on high shelves.

Butthat’s not what I mean.

I have a book somewhere with a title like, “Bible answers for life”.
I couldn’t find it when I looked.  It may have been lost in the last
move.  But what it has is lots of life situations and simple
questions  –  With a Bible ‘answer’ attached.  

It was our reading from Romans that reminded me of the book.  For
example, you could look up “alcohol” and you would get one or two
verses from the Bible like, “let us live honourably as in the day,
not in revelling and drunkenness.”  Then there would be a brief
commentary on the evils of drink, you would be told that the Bible
forbade you to drink and so no real Christian drinks alcohol.

It was a very Calvinist book given to me by a well meaning acquaintance. But, I have seen similar books produced by Roman Catholics.

In some ways the point is not whether or not the advice is true.  There is a fundamental problem with most such books –  the problem is that they take the rich and diverse word of God and make it into a rule book.  

The Bible has poetry, it has history, it has myth, it has good stories
and it has advice but these books try and reduce all of that library
of experience, collected over millennia into cold hard rules. 

They try to make the faith simple but in doing so they squeeze out God.  And the easy faith that they present is so often their
easy faith and I suspect says more about them than it does about God.

But the Bible is practical. 

The Bible has practical advice.  Like the advice given by Jesus about dealing with conflicts in a Church.  But don’t make them a rule. 

Our Gospel reading has harsh words about treating an unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector, an outcast like a tramp or a drug addict.  But if you turn that into a rule you end up missing the fact that Jesus spent much of his ministry with tax collectors and sinners, and even seemed to prefer their company to that of most ‘respectable’ people.

If you made a rule about expelling the unrepentant Church member; you would also be forgetting the very next verse.  You see the next two verses after our Gospel reading say this:

21 ¶  Then Peter
came and said to {Jesus}, “Lord, if another member of the church
sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
22  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you,
seventy-seven times”.

Also, it is strange but those who make the Bible their rule book avoid
mentioning King David’s example of having many wives; they also tend not to recommend bashing your enemies babies against rocks!  At least they don’t put such advice into print!

So love the Bible, make it your friend and companion through life.  But that means letting the Holy Spirit speak through it all.  Let the
Bible come alive and inspire.  Don’t make a rule of even the most
obvious passage, otherwise you close the door to God’s Spirit and may miss what he wants to teach you. 

For years people justified slavery and the inferiority of women as being Biblical.  But thankfully, all people didn’t hold onto these Biblical ‘rules’ and we now appreciate that enslaving another human being is wrong and that women are not weak minded inferior beings that should be spared from important decisions like voting.

But it is so tempting to want to make the Bible into a rule book.  It
really is.  

Life is complicated so we want certainty.  But that is the temptation to make the Bible into the book we want it to be, to try make God in our own image.  

Rather, the only way is to let the Spirit use the Bible to guide us in our decision making.  So that we may see the unique person and situation in front of us.  

So that we may, just may have some hope of our decision being the right decision, of being God’s decision.

If God had wanted to give us a rule book, Jesus would have sat down and writenn one before he returned to heaven.  But Jesus did not write a word for us. 

So we must work with the Bible that God has chosen to give us, with its ambiguity, but also with all of its richness and wonder.

After all he is God, not me, not you.  And, I may be foolish I know, but I believe that God knows what he’s doing.

 

 

In the name of the Father, the Son
and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

(ps. he’s not that short actually.) 

St Margaret’s Day

.A sermon for St Margaret’s Day from my husband:

Revelation
21.9-14:

9 ¶  Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls
full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I
will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10  And in the
spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the
holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11  It has
the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper,
clear as crystal. 12  It has a great, high wall with twelve gates,
and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the
names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13  on the east three
gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the
west three gates. 14  And the wall of the city has twelve
foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles
of the Lamb.

 

 

 

Hebrews
12.18-24: 

18 ¶  You have not come to something that can be touched, a
blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19  and the
sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that
not another word be spoken to them. 20  (For they could not endure
the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the
mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21  Indeed, so
terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with
fear.”) 22  But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of
the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in
festal gathering, 23  and to the assembly of the firstborn who are
enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits
of the righteous made perfect, 24  and to Jesus, the mediator of a
new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word
than the blood of Abel.

 

 

 

Matthew
21.12-16:

12 ¶  Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were
selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the
money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13  He said to
them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of
prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” 14  The
blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15
But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things
that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple,
“Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16  and
said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus
said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of
infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”
17  He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the
night there.

 

Today is the dedication
festival for this church.  We thank God for this building and St.
Margaret for her prayers.

 

 

 

For
our dedication festival we have three readings from the Bible,
readings that sound strange.  Readings about heaven and angels,
temples and cities.  Stories of strange places.  Unreal places that
glow, like sunlight through precious jewels.  Stories of blazing
fire, places of deep darkness power and fear.  Of places so powerful,
that to touch them is death.  

 

 

 

Strange
and puzzling readings.  But reading with at least one common theme.
And the common theme that comes to me is
holiness.
Holy means set apart.  Set apart as God’s, as perfect even.  Set
apart from the greed, the cheating, the violence and the hatred that
infects so much of this world. 

 

 

 

That
is what this building is.  It is a place set apart.  A place to meet
God.  A place to let God heal us from the infection, to heal us with
love, to fill us with love, and to send us out to share love and its
healing with the world.

 

 

 

A
holiness that our readings make clear is more powerful than any evil
in this world.

 

 

 

This
place is holy.  This is a place where the walls are thin.  Not the
thick physical walls but the walls between earth and heaven.  This is
where we come to get a taste of heaven, a little holiness to take
heaven back out into the earth.

 

 

 

You
see, outside of here; even though God is intimately involved with all
his creation and all his creatures; outside of here, the walls seem
very thick. 

 

 

 

The
love of God, the holiness and the power of the heavenly kingdom seem
so far away.  The world, and the people in it need places like this,
holy places, places where they can come close to God.  They also need
us to take that holiness into ourselves, then into our world.  To
break down some of those walls and bring God into people’s lives.

 

 

 

Holiness
is so desperately needed in this world.

 

 

 

 

 

A world where there is
famine in Africa;  wars and bloodshed.  This is a world where a lone
bomber can blow up innocent people in Norway.  Then drive over to an
island full of teenagers;  take out guns and walk around shooting
everyone he can find.   I read estimates of about 10 people dead from
the bombs, and around 80 young people shot dead.   There will be
many, many more injured physically or mentally.

 

 

 

And
its not just places far away.  Yesterday, I read this, “A teenage
schoolgirl died after throwing herself under a train received a
“gratuitously abusive” message on a social networking site
just before her death.  The body of 15-year-old Natasha MacBryde was
discovered on Valentine’s Day, on a railway line just 150 yards away
from her home”.  There is local evil.  There is also petty evil,
that nevertheless can ruin peoples lives; petty evil, like bullying,
and malicious gossip.

 

 

 

And
all of this evil, should not be.

 

 

 

This
world is a beautiful place.  Crammed full of God’s presence
everywhere.  But there is an infection, a sickness that affects the
people.  Us too.  A sickness that left untreated will turn our
generosity into greed, our love into hatred, our freedom to live as
God’s children, into a slavery to things we don’t need, but somehow
cannot live our lives without.

 

 

 

That
is why this building and each of you are so important.  This is God’s
holy place here in Hopton and you are God’s holy people in this
place. 

 

 

 

Now,
if you are anything like me, you will hear words like that, shake
your head and think, “No”.  No, …….., No, I know myself, and
I am not holy.  I am not special.  I am as sick as all the rest. 

 

 

 

And
I look at you and say, “No”.  

 

 

 

No,
you are wrong.  You are holy:  At least a little bit! 

 

 

 

A
little bit holy.  But that is all that is needed.  It little bit of
holiness can go a long way.  A little bit of holiness can lead to
small acts of love.  That little bit of holiness can grow and grow in
us, slowly but steadily.  But to help that holiness to grow we need
holy places.

 

 

 

We
are often weak.  So we need places where God is close.  Places where
we get a sense of the immense power of God; places filled with the
Spirit.

 

Places
to sit quietly with God.  Places to be sad with God, places to be
happy.  Places at times to shout at God.  Places to sing to God.
Places where God’s love and power can seep up from the floor, out of
the walls:  Places where we can breathe in God’s love and power with
every breath.  In short:  Places like this. 

 

 

 

Look
around you at this newly repaired building.  Look around you and see
a holy place, dedicated to God.  All here is holy, you are sitting on
holy ground, breathing the air of a holy place. 

 

 

 

Have
a good look around.  People of Hopton look at your church, let its
holiness seep into you.  People of Hopton, look at this holy place
and realise this is your home.

 

 

 

People
of Corton, realise that this is your home too.  All holy places are
your home, they are the places where you are closest to your Heavenly
father, closest to all your Christian family.  And, when you go back
to St. Bartholomew’s, take a moment to realise the holiness of that
place too.

 

 

 

But
for now we celebrate the holiness of this place, dedicated to the
holy martyr, St. Margaret.  This is a place to bring the problems of
the world to God and God to the problems of the world.

 

 

 

So
finally,

 

 

 

This
place is a spiritual well. 

 

 

 

So
fill up you buckets.  Fill yourself with holiness;  And water the
world outside, bring God’s love to a world that needs it so badly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the name of the
Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

 

Amen.

 

A Short Sermon for Low Sunday

 Another guest post from my husband…

Acts 2:14a,36-41: 14 ¶ But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd,…………….. 22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; 26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. 27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. 28 You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ 29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ 32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

John 20.19-end: 19 ¶ When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 ¶ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

Sermon

 

While I was seeking inspiration for this sermon the news was full of only one thing; the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. The wedding was on every channel and dominated every newspaper.

 

It was like the world cup in reverse. All the women were glued to the tv. Admiring the dress, the finery and soaking up the romance. And the men were wondering around looking lost and aimless.

 

There were men fishing on the beach, with a few cans, that didn’t look as though they had gone fishing for quite some time. It can’t have been the weather – the sea breeze was cold despite the sun.

 

But the humour aside. I may not get excited about a wedding dress but I do wish the royal couple a long and happy marriage. What is important, isn’t so much the beautiful day but the days and months and years that follow.

 

I have prepared so many couples for marriage and sadly, for some it is all about the big day. And I mean ALL about the BIG DAY!

 

I have had one couple that split up at the reception and another on their honeymoon! Thankfully, those are extremes.

 

And I know of plenty of others that are strong to this day. It is wonderful when you marry a couple then baptise their children. Then, later, see those children at the local school. I have not had the privilege of preparing any of these children for marriage but I hope and pray that these couples will remain a stable foundation for their families to the end of their lives – just as they promised on their wedding day.

 

This is what I prayed for on Friday. That the joy of the day will be distilled into a lifelong commitment, through good and bad. Then I went to see if I could find my fishing rod! Well, in my case my bike keys!

 

A lifelong commitment through good and bad is what we are called to in Christ. Those first disciples had gone through so much and they would have to endure more in the years to come. They were faithful to Jesus, their friend and king.

 

But that doesn’t mean that it was easy for them. Thomas doubted from the beginning. Peter had already denied Jesus and the others had run away.

 

So when I doubt, when you doubt, that doesn’t mean that all is lost. It just means that we are human. It also means that the faith we have may be real and not a fantasy. Real faith is questioned and tested.

 

 

Now for us the dust of Easter has settled and we now learn again to live the Easter life. We continue our life as part of Christ’s bride the Church. Amid all the finery and pageant of Easter we made or reaffirmed our baptism promises. Our marriage vows to Christ.

 

You will be different from the time when you first made your baptism vows. You and I change and grow every day of our lives. Life’s experiences change us and we grow.

 

Christ continues to love us as we change, no matter what that change is.

 

Our task is to trust that love and try and learn to love Christ back whatever the world does to us. Whatever our doubts and failings. Christ does not turn away, even if you or I abandon him.

 

I may fail to keep my promises to Christ, so might you. We may be unfaithful but Christ is not. Christ, through the Spirit living in us, faithfully seeks to work in us – to make us good, and holy, and content: To make us whole and complete in Him.

 

Jesus says to you, “Peace be with you”. Jesus breathes on you saying “Receive the Holy spirit”.

 

Like the royal wedding, the pageant of Easter is over and now the hard work and the real joy begins.

 

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

 

A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent ~ asking the whys and finding a way

Another of my husband’s sermons. If you wish, skip the Bible readings and go straight to the sermon itself. 

 

Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7: 15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 ¶ And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

1 ¶ Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 ¶ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Romans 5:.12-19: 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— 13 sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. 14 Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. 16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. 18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Matthew 4.1-11: 1 ¶ Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Sermon

I looked at this morning’s readings and everything seems so simple and straightforward.

I read that Eve gave in to the tempter, the serpent, Adam sinned and ever since all people have suffered and all people die.

Then I read that Jesus the second Adam came, took our punishment, died and everything is now OK.

This is how the Gospel is sometimes explained. Nice, simple and neat.

Choose Jesus and live – stick with Adam and die.

But I have chosen Jesus. I have stuck with Jesus and everything is not OK! I am not OK. You see this sort of simple explanation can be useful, but the reality is always far more complicated. St. Paul knew this, the Old Testament writers knew this, as did the Gospel writers.

This week I have seen pictures and heard stories of the horror, of the fighting in Libya. I have seen the pictures of the devastation in Japan. You must have seen the same.

If I take this simple idea of salvation; if I take it literally; I should say that all those people killed in Libya, in Japan have gone straight to hell, at least all those that weren’t Christians.

If I stick to this simple idea; I should say that it was just and right that they should all die, they had clung to Satan’s lies and they had paid the price for their choice. A simple, straightforward and brutal truth.

But I can’t.

I can’t do that. I see those people and I weep for their suffering – I can’t help myself. I pray to loving God I know to be with the survivors, and helpers – that God may give them some comfort and the strength that they need.

I cannot accept that the God who cared so much about the world to send his Son into it and to die here, would abandon those people.

I cannot accept that the God who loves all of us, would just kill over a thousand people, on a whim, grab their frightened and confused souls, … and just throw them away, like rubbish, into hell.

It must be nice to be a fundamentalist, or at least life must be pretty simple. But I refuse to be taken in by neat, simple answers that don’t fit the facts.

So let’s wipe the slate clean. Lets start again.

I start by admitting my ignorance.

I admit that I don’t know why that earthquake happened. I know a little about the earth shifting, a little about the physics behind earthquakes and tsunami but I can’t give you, or anyone else, a reason why it happened now, to those people.

I suspect that there isn’t an answer to that question, even that that is the entirely the wrong question to ask.

Then admitting my ignorance, I move on to what I do know. I read the our Old Testament reading and I know that God created me, everyone and everything. I know that what might have been idyllic is so no longer. That this world is no longer perfect. I also know that some of our problems are of our own making.

So I know that God cared enough to create us and our world and he still cares enough to keep it running, even though it seems far from perfect. God still cares enough to stick with us, even though we fail to do what is right, again and again.

Then I look to our New Testament reading, and I see that God is not only putting up with us. I realise that God loves me, you and everyone. That he loves us so much that he sent Jesus to pull us out of the pit we have fallen in to. Jesus came to save us from ourselves and all that is wrong with this world, and at great cost.

So now I can look up from the individual trees, the narrow arguments and see something of the forest, the overall picture of God’s saving action in history.

The Bible tells us that God loves those people in Japan. God wants the best for them and for their families and for their land. God’s love is universal. We are called to see everyone as our neighbour, and to love them as ourselves. Why, because that is what God is like.

We become Godlike when we love. So our love and concern should reach out to those people in Japan.

Through the God who is everywhere, in everyone, we are linked to those people. Over all those miles between us we can join our tears with there tears; we can know God’s power to give us strength and hope in times of trouble, and we can pray for the same for those people in Japan.

Prayer is a mysterious thing, but it is powerful. In prayer we enter the presence of God, we share our fears and distress, as well as our joys and happiness. In God, through prayer we are in some way linked to the object of our prayer, the people we see in Japan. We can join with God in sharing their pain. We can join with God in bringing hope.

So we should pray, and pray hard.

We should also act, if that is possible. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do more than pray. Sometimes, we can step in and help those that suffer. Sometimes we can sent money.

Sometimes , when the trouble is nearer to home, we can join with God in practical caring for the sick and the distressed. We can sit with the bereaved. We can hold the hand of the sick or the dying.

We can cry with those that cry and laugh with those that laugh – any one who has spent time with the bereaved will know that the pain can make people cry and even scream out, but the next minute they can be laughing at some silly thing their loved one used to do; then the laughing may turn without warning to tears once again.

In being a part of this world; in not hiding ourselves from its joys and its sorrows, we are like our God who sees and feels all.

In our prayers for the people in Japan we come closer to the God who already cares for them. We stand with our Jesus who weeps over the loss of life, as he wept over Jerusalem.

So, finally, I want to turn to our Gospel reading: The temptation or testing of Jesus.

First, Jesus was tempted and so we will be tempted too.

Second, Jesus overcame his temptation and so we can overcome too.

Third, to save himself Jesus turned to his Bible and his Jewish tradition, as well as to his personal knowledge of God, his Father.

So just as I have tried to do this morning, we can overcome our temptations by looking to Scripture, to our Christian tradition and to our own experience of the God of love.

Weeping with the people of Japan is a reminder of our weakness and need of God, and of the power of God to save. So perhaps weeping for Japan, for Libya, the pain around us and our own failure, is a good way to begin our lent.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

A Candlemas Sermon- the great hidden in ordinary, hidden in plain sight

Another “guest post” from my husband. If you wish, skip through the readings (in brackets)  to the sermon itself. 

 

{Malachi 3.1-5: 1 ¶ See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and 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. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. 6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.

 

Hebrews 2.14-end: 14 ¶ Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

 

Luke 2:22-40 – the presentation of Christ 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 23. (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24. and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25. 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. 26. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27. 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, 28. Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30. for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31. which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32. a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33. And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34. 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 35. so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36. 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, 37. 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. 38. 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. 39. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.}

 

Today we look forward to Wednesday – to the presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas as it is usually known. We are about at the end of Epiphany but we have a little more to learn about the sharing of God’s love with the whole world. A little more before we start the Sundays before Lent.

So what to we know. Well we know that Mary and Joseph were not rich. You see, the Old Testament law says that Mary should have brought a yearling lamb and a pigeon or a turtledove. It was only if she could not afford a lamb that she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, instead. Mary brought two pigeons and I don’t believe she is someone who would short-change God, so she and Joseph must not have been able to afford a lamb. 

So, this poor couple enter the great temple carrying their little baby. There was nothing obvious to mark them or Jesus out as special. And yet Simeon instantly recognises this little baby as the promised Messiah, the Christ. He picks Jesus up and we have him recorded as saying the wonderful words we know best as the Nunc Demitis, “Lord now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word………..”. A prayer that I have recited so often at the graveside. It is a prayer of praise and thanksgiving to a God who is faithful and keeps his promises. It is also an acceptance of death as part of God’s plan for humanity – a theme for another sermon perhaps. Simeon embraces his death and praises God.

Now we have a poor couple, with a little baby. Who at the same time are the ones carrying the hope of the world in their arms. Hope that makes an old man to praise God for his coming death. The wonderful power and majesty of God hidden in the ordinary, the normal. This great moment when Jesus is brought to the Temple, and no one notices. No one sees anything special until Simeon steps out from the crowd. Then there is Anna the daughter of Phanuel, an old woman who has been a poor widow for most of her adult life. Again she sees what the priests and holy men cannot. She takes Jesus and praises God.  

The great hidden in the ordinary. Hidden in plain sight. 

I recently heard a story about the growth of two monasteries that I know and treasure. One is Mount St. Bernard in Leicestershire, whose monks helped to me to keep my sanity while training for the priesthood. And the other is on Caldey Island off the Welsh coast; that one I have visited but do not know so well. Both were in serious decline and both now have new novices and a new vibrancy about them. This made me think about another story about a failing monastery.  

Story of the failing monastery (thanks to Anthony DeMello!): This monastery had once been full of song and praise. A centre of learning and teaching and encouragement. But like so many things the monastery’s glory began to fade, novices were first rare and then gone altogether. Leaving the abbot and just a few ageing monks.

Now obviously the abbot knew that something had to be done. So, they prayed for growth. They tried modernising, they tried new services, they tried everything that they could think of to become more relevant, and successful once again. But after slight, brief successes, all their efforts failed again and again.

 And the monks kept getting older. Finally, the abbot knew that this task was beyond him. Something was wrong, and the monks prayers were not being answered. Worst still, the sense of community, the one thing the abbot thought the monastery had left, even that was starting to go. Under the pressure of failure, of rising bills and few people, tempers were starting to fray. Arguments were starting. The brothers were finding faults with each other. They started to grumble at brother cook about the quality of the food. Brother cook lost heart and the food did become worse. Discontent was growing and growing fast. 

In desperation the abbot called another meeting for them all to pray about the mess they were in. At that meeting one of the monks mentioned a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert who was becoming widely regarded as a holy man. A modern day Christian prophet. So they prayed some more and decided to use some of the little money they had left and send the abbot to see the hermit.  

The abbot finally reached the hermit, who was sitting in silent prayer by a remote cave. The abbot shared the peace and solitude and prayer of the hermit for several days before the hermit asked why he had come. The abbot explains about the mess in the monastery and asks what he can do. The hermit prays silently for another few days and then declares that all will be well with the monastery. — One of the brothers will one day be recognised as a great saint who will guide them all back to their vocations. But the hermit could not say which of the bothers was the saint. God has disguised the saint. He is hidden from them but he is there.  

So the abbot returns to the monastery excited and tells all the brothers. Who become excited themselves. A great saint, a saint who will be famous …… and in their monastery. Eating food with them. Working with them. And they begin to look around could it be brother cook, of course not he was prone to depression and couldn’t even cook any more. Could it be the abbot: how could it be, under him the monastery had declined to almost nothing. And so they went through each of the remaining brothers. None of them seemed like great saints. But was that just God’s disguise? It could be any of them.

 So, without noticing it, they started to treat each of there brothers as the hidden saint, just in case. And they began to realise that the hermit was right. They began to feel better about their monastery. Brother cook was praised and the food improved. An atmosphere of quiet holiness started to cover everything they did.

 Visitors began to notice, or rather feel, that there was something special and holy about that monastery. Something saintly. Visitor numbers grew. Novices began to arrive. People started coming for spiritual support and advice. Until the monastery became a famous centre of learning, and teaching and encouragement.

 You see, that simple apocryphal story is about God, majestic and mighty, hidden in plain view. But present all the same. And no less powerful for being hidden. That is how God works.

 That is how God the creator is hidden in his own creation. How God the mighty and powerful became a little baby, born to poor parents. That is how he could come to the temple and almost no one recognised him. 

That is how God is here now in this church. How God is here in each of you. And me, I hope. God is here and it is the holiness of our lives that will attract people here. It is the way we love and care, for one another and for those we meet. It is in all of these little things that God hides himself: God hidden but still felt. 

God is hidden but God is felt in the way we treat one another. In the way we care and respect one another. God is more often in the places that normal wisdom would never consider. Like a king in a manger. A holy and successful church in a little place like this. And holy saints in ordinary bodies like yours.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Amen