Repent! Seek His Face!

Sermon for Epiphany 3

Repentance – Seeking God’s Face

My Heart says ‘Come! Seek His Face’

Your Face Lord do I seek

Ps 27:8

There is perhaps nothing more awe inspiring than a new born baby. It is a profoundly sacred moment -bringing Life into the World.

But new born babies are not as some would have it, blank slates. One of the ways the contemplation of new birth stops me In my tracks is the simple fact that we are born into this world seeking a face, and more, not only are we born looking for a face, within 3 days of birth we are looking for a face which according to our particular culture is thought to be beautiful . . . and we hadn’t even had time to learn how to use tik-tok or other social media to learn the stereotypes . . . We are born looking for a beautiful face . . . but then something happens to our sight.

Rather like the shepherd with his sheep, or the woman with the coin, we are born into the world looking for something we have lost . . . and then we forget . . . We think we learn to see, but increasingly our seeing blinds us.

We find ourselves as a family in the flood season of family birthdays. Our three babies hit the one year mark, Miriam is 3, Ella, Megan, Sam and myself also have birthdays around this time. And birthdays bring presents, and rather like the teddy bears I introduced you to last week there are a multiplicity, which seems to blind.

 To this day I am almost haunted by a memory of Sam being given a small model helicopter – possibly at age 2 – and how his sisters just wanted to ply him with lots of other presents. Yet he was absorbed in turning this one thing over and over in his hand. As we get older we get trained out of the wonder of seeing things as they are and thinking we see and know . . . and seeking a face?

It’s curious, but from the face seeking  of infancy we start to actively hide from faces. Even, tragically those of our own children – Paediatricians note how there is a huge increase in children at 6months who don’t smile – for their parents aren’t seeking their face . . . and again, have you noticed how you might be in a social context, say a café, and there are people whom you don’t know. You are absently mindedly gazing towards someone and then they look in your direction – we seem to know we’re being looked at – and immediately you look away. ‘Don’t stare, it’s rude!’ we’re told in our childhood and we learn not to see.  Bizarrely, the more we are given to look at – Look Here! Look There! The less we see . . . The more faces, the more we look away.

I always remember one of my mentors, a man of much missionary experience saying how odd it was for him to return to England where people asked, ‘how are you?’ without of course being remotely interested in the answer. He compared this with his experience in Africa, where the standard greeting was ‘I see you’. We seem predisposed in our culture to flee from the connection of the gaze . . .

Last week we heard from our own St John’s gospel of how Jesus starts his mission, which is  ‘to draw all men to’ himself, and Seeing is front and centre. How it begins John the Baptist crying out – Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold! – Open the eye of your heart . . .

Sin as I’ve been saying is disconnection. Disconnection brought about by blindness – we are groping for something, but in the wrong place. This is picked up in Jesus first recorded words in the Gospel of John. He turns, sees the disciples following and asks ‘what are you looking for?’ You might well say that ‘sinners’, those whom Jesus comes for, are those looking for something in the wrong place. ‘What ARE you looking for?’ What a question.

But first Jesus sees them – He is also looking . . . we’ll return to this shortly.

They said to him, ‘Where do you abide?’ to translate more literally – interestingly we are looking in the wrong place, and they ask Jesus to show them the place where he is staying -resting, abiding – and he invites them to ‘Come and See’ – and they came and saw where he abided, and abided with him . . .

This week from Matthew, we hear how Jesus, the light spoken of by the prophet, shining by the Sea of Galilee in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali opens his ministry with the words – ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand . . .’ It’s near – it’s so close, just a breath away, if you simply repented, you would see it . . .

John in his gospel never uses the word ‘Repent’ – rather his language is of Seeing and Knowing, seeing and knowing God what is more . . . As Jesus says to the disciples – If you know me, you will know my father also. From now on you know him and have seen him . . .

Repent. A much abused word . . . This is not about ‘saying sorry’. In fact you will have to scour the scriptures to find this. Yes, there is sorrow for our sins, after all if you are missing the mark, looking in the wrong place, then you are also missing out on Life . . .

The word in Greek is metanoia – which we tend to translate as ‘change your mind’ – so influenced are we by the idea that what makes us special is our rational mind. But the Noia which we must meta – the nous which we must change – is the eye of the heart – redirect your sight

Redirect our sight towards the source of our life. The Lord is my light . . .

This is repentance – turning to seek the face of God.

The Psalmist hears his heart speaking to him, saying ‘Seek His face’ – this is the deepest voice within us, the voice of the heart – ‘what are you looking for?’ An answer comes from within our heart, seek His Face . . .

Each morning especially at this time of year, I like to get some early morning Sun. God blesses is in the Sun which is an agent of his life giving purposes as is all else in Creation. The Sun is sustained by God’s goodness, and so as we look towards the Sun in a real sense we see the goodness of God streaming towards us – we See his Goodness.

If we truly see, then we see the image of God walking towards us in every person. We see in  our food, God’s Goodness coming towards us.

Yet, we grow up in a world of fishing nets, where we are told that it is our work that sustains things, and the curse of the secular age, a bitter poison drunk by so many in the church is that all things are held up by our hard work – but they’re not. Everything is sustained – held in being by God.

Then we think that all we have we have because we worked hard. We are not seeing right. Everything comes from you O Lord, and of your own do we give you . . .  the words of the Eucharist.

All good things come from God – Look! Open your eyes 

Let me give you a simple personal illustration. Did I acquire Sarah? Funnily enough when we got married this was part of the story. Because I worked two summers for her father, putting up marquees, and at the wedding I joked that I’d got off lightly as Jacob had had to work seven years for Rachel, and fortunately I went on, Derek only had one daughter!

But of course that was nonsense. I didn’t work for Sarah, I didn’t earn her.

So, what was the story. Back in 1982 a travelling preacher came to town. Luis Palau from Argentina. Well one night I came far more alive in Christ -woke up to what all this church business had been about, and straight afterwards I saw an apparition – a young woman in a blue dufflecoat and yellow wellies ran up and gave me a hug . . . God’s gift coming to me . . .

And the more I meditated on this, and all the goodness that has flowed from that, none of which I had much of a hand in – and then you see the Sun, and feel the warmth, and you realise that the world is alive with the goodness of God . . . always coming towards you . . . sheer Gift

It’s all Gift.  The Life is continually coming from above – we look to The Sun, the source of Life – listening to the voice of the heart which says, seek his face – and THEN we start to grow up from the earth, to be lifted up. Not making a life for ourself, but receiving Life and Goodness from God. For the disciples, fishing had been their life, it was how they ‘made their living’, but leaving their nets revealed that Life didn’t come from their efforts . . .

When Jesus tells the disciples I will make you fish for men, he is invoking something made clear in John’s gospel. There, Jesus says – ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all people to myself’ – it’s exactly the same verb used for the hauling of the nets full of fish out of the water when Jesus meets the disciples after his resurrection on the shore of Galilee. The more we grow up towards the source of Life, the more our lives become Life giving, and draw those around us in the same direction.

I started out speaking of two of Jesus’ three parables of the lost. The coin, the sheep, but then there’s the prodigal. The parable of repentance. And the prodigal starts home – looking for where his father lives, because he remembers it as a place of blessing, of life, where food came from – and he thinks it is all about him ‘Saying Sorry’ . . . that’s what he thinks repentance is, and perhaps you do too? It’s a toxic thought. I think we project our own sinful desire for those who have wronged us to come grovelling back onto God . . .

But The Father isn’t interested in our ‘how sorry we are speeches’ – he just wants us home. That is repentance – turning to see Him as the source of all goodness – for everything that is wrong in the world today can be traced to our not trusting God to be Good, not seeing, tryig to take it all into our own hands . . .

You see, Repentance is not about God looking for your apology – he is not looking for your apologies – he’s looking for your face . . . And deep within us, where he abides, in our heart a voice is saying ‘Seek my face’.

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Sermon for the second Sunday after The Epiphany, 2023

Year A

John 1:29-42

‘The Glory of God is a human being fully alive . . . the Glory of a Man is the Vision of God’

St Irenaeus of Lyon

            From around the middle of the fourth century to this present day, visiting the Holy Land has been a thriving trade . . . come and see where Jesus walked . . . pretty much all of the traditions about where and what happened were established in that time. Perhaps it was because now Christianity was established as ‘a respectable and legitimate part of Empire’ it became possible to earn a little money from folk who ‘wanted to see’.

In a sense this trade speaks to a deeper desire or thought. ‘Seeing’ we think, ‘is believing’. How many of us might have pondered ‘Oh if only I had seen Jesus . . .’, or indeed ‘if only I’d seen a miracle’. Yet the gospels are careful to dissuade us from such thoughts. For the gospels, ‘Seeing is not believing’. After all if we can in our imaginations place ourselves on those ‘dusty roads of Palestine’ we might imagine the huge crowds who followed Jesus, who saw him, and who saw his miracles, and yet at the end cried Crucify.

            Matthew’s gospel ends with the disciples on the Mountain of Ascension and we are told ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted’ and Jesus says that it is a wicked and adulterous generation that asks for a sign, and says those who believe and have not seen, are those who are blessed.

Because we don’t see what is in front of our nose end. Imagine you are driving – most of the time you are actually not actively watching, you may well have your mind on other things and are not paying attention. Or, again and on a slightly different tack, you are in a conversation but you are not paying attention to what the other person is saying, you are itching for the opportunity to have your say. Despite the fact we can see the person or the road in front of us, our attention is elsewhere. So we say for example we know people, and yet rarely do we pay the deep attention to begin to justify our judgements of them.

Ironically, the more things we give our attention to, the less we see of any one thing. Our attention becomes thinner, and so do we . . . we become scattered – our thoughts in a million different places unable to rest . . . rather like ghosts

Think of a small child, who if you leave them to it, will play happily for hours with nothing more than a few scraps of paper, or a wooden spoon. I was pondering this the other day, how now we ruin our children’s attention – I still have my teddy – I have my Mother’s teddy – Sarah has the very worn rabbit that had belonged to her father and then to her . . . but my children’s children have a multiplicity of such things, and none are worn through by affection now, or indeed are likely ever to be so. We ruin children’s most precious capacity, that of attention by heaping things on them.

We turn them into hapless Martha’s with her ADHD and ‘many things’ because we cannot allow them to pay attention to just one thing. For Jesus is in the house, and she sees him, but she is blind . . . and our sight, our Seeing is central to our problem, for as Jesus says to the Pharisees, ‘if you were blind you would have no sin, but now you say you see, your sin remains’.

This takes us back to what the old prayer book calls, ‘the days of man’s infancy’, that is those opening chapters of Genesis, and John of course in his gospel, would draw our attention there too . . . Once we have heard the prologue ‘In the beginning was the word . . .’ John carries on ‘on the next day, on the next day and so on . . .’ And the emphasis is on Seeing, and healing of our sight . . . For the Baptist commands his disciples, ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World’

In that Genesis story there is a little detail which is often missed, not least because we think we see, so it doesn’t make sense, so we pay it no attention. But when the snake talks to the woman in the garden about the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil he tempts her saying God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ 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. Then the eyes of both were opened . . .

Right at the beginning our ‘Seeing’ is named as our problem. By the way, did you notice, although the woman’s eyes were not yet opened, she saw? We don’t notice that it is only here that the eyes of the man and the woman are opened . . . and yet they had given names ot all the animals, and the man knew his wife as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones – and they perceived God, they heard him. But when they see they hide from his presence. God becomes ‘Other’, Alien, Not them . . . I wonder also had it ever occurred to them that they were not like God?

It is the visual sense which gives us a sense of separation form things around us – of being divided – of not being one with, other people and the creation . . . and Separation is the essence of Sin. Sin is that which separates. And as we have pondered these past few weeks, through Christmas and Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ – the Gospel is that All things are one in Christ. Heaven is woven into Earth – The Word, The Spirit, becomes Flesh, matter if you will. Woven together, in Mary, In the Baptism of Jesus – John Sees Jesus as the one on whom the Spirit rests – the Word becoming flesh – the one in whom is life – the Life of God, with which we are told he also will baptise – weaving us together into The Life of Heaven – enabling us to See the Kingdom of God . . .

Behold the Lamb of God – Behold. Don’t merely judge by what your eye sees, this Galilean on Palestine’s disty roads. No! Open once more the centre of your attention, the eye of your heart, to Behold the One who makes all things New, the One in whom all things are joined together – for he takes away the sin of the world . . .

John twice makes this announcement and two of his disciples follow Jesus. He turns and Sees them . . . oh to be seen by Jesus . . .and asks them, ‘what do you seek?’. Teacher, where do you abide . . . Jesus of course rests in God, and God in Him . . . and Jesus replies to them ‘Come and See’

We rush through our days oblivious to the transcendent Beauty, the Glory . . . but the witness of the Evangelist is that we have seen his glory . . .

One of the very first witnesses to the gospel was St Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon – a disciple of St Poly carp who was himself a disciple of St John the Evangelist – and he said this of Seeing

The Glory of God is a Fully Alive Human being, and the Glory of the Human Being, is the Vision of God.

Through word and Sacrament and the ongoing ministrations of the Church, may our vision be fully healed, that we might See heaven opened, Behold the Glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the Sin of the World.

Amen

The Baptism of Christ – Heaven opened!

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Matthew 3:13-17 ‘and behold! The heavens were opened to him and he saw . . .’ On Friday, we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the church’s most important feasts. For on that day we remember the coming of the Magi to worship the infant Jesus, and we see that He is born to be the Saviour of all people, not just God’s ancient people, the Jews. Nations will come to worship him. In that we see that God is joining together two peoples, the Jews and we Gentiles, the two are becoming One in Christ – and that theme of two becoming one is at the heart of the message of Christmas, The Epiphany and indeed the entirety of our faith. I shall return to this shortly.  The Magi we remember were ‘guided by a star’. They lived in a world in which they understood that The Creation spoke spiritual truths, unlike these days when we, conveniently for us anyway, if not for the creation, separate out spiritual and material truths and indeed worlds. Heaven is ‘somewhere else’. One cannot like the Psalmist ask spiritual questions by considering the stars . . . I wonder if they’d have made it in these days, days in which we have to try and protect even the night sky from the predation of human beings. In most large cities, and in these days the vast majority of human beings live in cities, people live lives all but unaware of stars. And their eyes look down, usually to their phones.So it is no surprise that people speak so readily of ‘the secular world’, a world from which heavenly light has been eradicated. We do not see the heavens, and we certainly do not see Heaven! Heaven is for when we die. We don’t quite know where it is. But we believe that Jesus died so that we can go there when we die . . . but for now we have to get on with ‘our lives’ . . . Bad so called ‘Christian’ theology is actually what creates the secular world. We have no expectation of seeing heaven, except one we build, or one we go to when we die,  Except, that is not what the scriptures say. As St Paul puts it, ‘So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’ Except, for everyone here, I guess, that has already happened . . . at least according to Scripture . . . for the message of Scripture is clear and unambiguous. The Death of Jesus is our Death, His Resurrection is our Resurrection, and this is revealed over and again, and today most clearly as we remember his Baptism. St Paul often uses the phrase to describe the Christian life as ‘In Christ’ – you are ‘In Christ’ – you are included in him. His death is your death, his Resurrection is your resurrection, you are included in him at Baptism where your baptism is your inclusion in his baptism, the one baptism which fulfils all righteousness. As St John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, Jesus says to him ‘Let it be so, now!’ Don’t get in my way! ‘For it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’. All Righteousness is fulfilled – the entire purposes of God – in Baptism. He goes down into the waters, the realm of chaos and death – this is why in Revelation we are told ‘there is no more sea’, no more death – Jesus goes down into the realm of Death, Hades, and is Raised to newness of Life. And the Spirit of God descends upon him – and a voice from heaven said ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. He dies and is raised to newness of Life, you cannot separate his Baptism from the Cross. Listen to St Paul at the opening to the epistle to the Romans . . . Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord . . . In his Baptism he unites himself to humanity – it is the same story as his birth – God joining himself to humanity – Heaven and Earth joined in Him. And goes into the deep waters of death, to be raised and declared God’s Son. And thus joined to humanity when he goes to the cross, he takes us there . . . Jesus does not die ‘in our place’ . . . and destroys death. Then the Holy Spirit descends upon his body, the Church at Pentecost. These two stories are one story. Baptism is death and Resurrection – And it is the opening of Heaven . . . And behold! The heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon him . . . Jesus opens the door of heaven – the Kingdom of God – and for those with eyes to see, the whole earth is full of his glory . . . for those with eyes to see.  For those with eyes to see, the journey of our faith is from death towards Life. It is not so much horizontal in time, but vertical – growing up into the fulness of Christ, who is our life. We are by baptism children of our father in heaven, Fully Alive in Him. Let our eyes therefore be fixed upwards towards our life in him, and so be full of the Light of Life. Not those whose eyes are downcast and so only full of darkness . . . but those who to use St Paul’s words again ‘All of us, with unveiled faces, contemplating the Glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image . . .’ Heaven is open – lift up your eyes and See! For as St Irenaeus tells us – The Glory of a human being is The Vision of God . . .Amen

Sermon for New Year’s Day

The Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

Galatians 4:4-7

[Phil 2:5-13]

Luke 2:15-21

Sharing

Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

So by a quirk of the church calendar – the eighth day of Christmas is New Year’s Day, the day when Jesus is circumcised and named. A day for giving thanks for New Life, New Beginnings. Those of us fortunate to have children of course might hear in these words from St Luke, an echo of the baptism of our own children. Certainly in days gone by, when life was in many regards more precarious than it has been for us, you didn’t hang around for a baptism. I was baptized within two months of my birth.

Years later, the first baptism I performed in my own parish was of a four year old boy . . . that is one I most certainly will not forget . . . I saw that child grow up and wondered often, ‘I’m not sure that that one took . . .’

Well there are parallels between baptism and circumcision, both traditionally have the element of naming – but this week we are concerned with the naming and circumcision of Jesus, and circumcision was a sign of ‘belonging’, belonging to a people. And in the time of Jesus it was associated with The Law of Moses. Circumcision had another older, much deeper meaning to which we shall return, but in the time of Jesus you were as St Paul puts it to the Galatians, born to a woman, born under the Law. Keeping the Law of God was seen as essential to being Jewish, and as we are aware, there were those, the Scribes and Pharisees who particularly saw it as their role to remind people . . .

But there’s a problem . . .

Many years ago when I would go out to visit a girlfriend, my mother would often call after me ‘be good and if you can’t be good, be careful!’. I must admit, I was a pretty naïve young man – I had No idea what she was talking about. I think I may have finally got it figured out . . .

But here’s the problem – try as we might, Being Good does not come naturally to us. And all the law, the rules do is act as a kind of fence in the mind, meant to keep us in the paddock of the Good, and out of trouble. Keeping the Law does not make you good . . . the Law as St Paul reminds us was like a school teacher, put there to restrain us . . . and this problem persists to this day. You can’t legislate for goodness, and the essence of Goodness is  . . .?

I want to suggest that it is Sharing. Everything that is wrong in the world seems to spring from this. Imagine if you will for a minute a society in which everyone shared whatever they had with those in need. So there would be no homeless for people would share their homes, and no hungry for people would share their food . . . and so on.

Now imagine for a moment that someone came into that society who didn’t share what they had . . . imagine the horror! Imagine again a society in which people looked after No 1. In which the rule was accumulation etc etc. And someone came to live in that society who became known for sharing what they had – that person would be held up as a Saint . . .

I won’t insult your intelligence by asking you to figure out which is the society we live in . . . and this is the reason also for wars – nation states are like people, accumulating more not living for others . . . and so on and so forth, on goes the weary story. Few people share what they have . . . and that I suggest is the essence of Sin.

For when we do not share we cut ourselves off from one another, and God – and that is the meaning of Sin – that which misses the mark – that which fails to connect. Cut off from one another and God we are cut off from Life, the flow of Goodness which is the heartbeat of creation. Just look at creation – how it is all in motion, like a great river. From the tiniest particles, to great galaxies, everything is in a state of flow. Leaves fall from the trees and into the ground where their life is taken up to help feed the birds and  . . . and on and on and on it goes, and then we humans try a stop it!

We try and accumulate. We try and build lives on our own terms – we don’t see how everything we do affects everything and everyone around us. We are blind to our connectedness, to Life itself . . . This is why the scriptures say ‘the wages of sin is death’ – disconnection from what is around us . . . out of tune with creation and one another, for as St Paul reminds us, the Law was powerless to bring life. Only The Living one brings Life

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. He was named Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins . . .

Much at Christmas time we think of those words of our own St John the Evangelist – and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. The Word – the Life Principle of Existence and Reality – in Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of all people. And as St Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, he emptied himself, poured himself out. Life flows.

The Word became flesh, and we think ‘he came to share in our life’, but more, much much more – he Shared his Life with Us. This is the remedy for Sin. It is not that God reconnected to humanity, God in his Covenant promise never disconnected, that was the deeper meaning of circumcision, a sign of God’s faithfulness to the children of Abraham. But our disconnection left us  . . . well dead. Jesus saves us from our sins by connecting us to Life – by pouring out his Life into us. And that Life is flow – it is dynamic – it is participating in all that is, it is not turning our back on those in need, for we realize that there is only one life – the Life of God which sustains all things, when we disconnect from one another we disconnect from Life.

This is the Good News the angels proclaimed – it came as Light in the darkness of the World, it comes as Light and Life to us.

So as we step into a New Year, let us also continue to live more deeply into the Life of God. Let the same mind be amongst us as was in Jesus Christ – the Living one, pouring himself out as the Revelation of The Life of God, the Light in the Darkness in this Sin weary world

Amen

Sermon for Christmas

‘In Him was Life, and that Life was the Light of all people’

In the beginning when God began his creation of the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

When God creates the heavens and the Earth he is creating a place in which he will dwell – a Temple – and his first act is to separate Light and Dark, Day and Night. It is fundamental to the dwelling place of God, the one who dwells not only in unapproachable light, but also deep darkness – as the Psalmist reminds us –

If I say,

‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,

   and the light around me become night’,

even the darkness is not dark to you;

   the night is as bright as the day,

   for darkness is as light to you.. . .

and the prophet Isaiah asks –

Who among you fears the Lord

   and obeys the voice of his servant,

who walks in darkness

   and has no light,

yet trusts in the name of the Lord

   and relies upon his God?

Indeed there is much in the Christian tradition to suggest to us that God is more present to us in these darker hours of night, or rather that daylight can obscure more than it reveals . . . after all, as St John tells us ‘The Light shines . . .  in the darkness’. This light is Life . . .

In the same way that it is only in deep silence that we hear the gentle voice of the Dove like Spirit of God, the Light of Life requires the darkness for our perception . . . and yet we fill the Universe with noise, and flood the night with our own lights . . . [Is:50-11]

When as a family we first visited New Zealand in 2004, we spent a night in Reefton – and one image from there has remained fixed in my memory – the mural of a huge electric light bulb – commemorating the fact that in August 1888 Reefton became the first place in New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere to have a public supply of electricity . . .

But with the advent of electric light – human agency, held back by the Darkness of Creation, exceeded its bounds, flooding every shadowed nook and cranny. Nothing was safe from its glare, or indeed the human acquisitive desire – Life became utterly explicit, nothing hid from the electric wonder – and the sense of the mystery of human existence seemed to vanish with the night at the flick of a switch . . . For the pitiless blaze of human light smears out lines and shade, everything is of equal brightness, so we too easily say ‘nothing to see here’ we see at best categories, but the mystery of each human person disappears in the merciless glare of the human light  . . .

And with it the awe inspiring luminosity of the human person . . . that Wonder which the star canopied psalmist struggles to utter

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

   the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,

   mortals that you care for them?

What is a human being? What are you? Only the Silence, only the darkness allows a response . . . The blind light of the World says you are a mere biological machine, an accidental accretion of matter, and passes on . . . only the shade and the shadow brings a human life more fully into our apprehension

As God creates the Temple, he does so with a blueprint, he creates in accordance with a pattern. The underlying pattern of Reality. The Greeks had a word for this pattern – they called it ‘The Logos’ and this is made clear in the words from St John’s Gospel – in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God, The Logos was with God in the beginning . . . The Logos becomes flesh and set up his tabernacle amongst us . . . The pattern of God’s dwelling place is man . . . The light which enlightens every human being was coming to find its place the world . . . but in the glare of our own perpetual lights, can we see it? Do we Know it and welcome it?

Jesus is born as we know into a world much like our own – the whole Roman Empire is in uproar – everything is moving, there is no stillness, and in the busyness of human agency, of the business of the world, there is no place found . . . the ancient icons, following the Proto-gospel of Jesus’ brother James, finds Christ born in a Cave, in utter darkness – the Cave of the human heart – the place prepared from before the beginning of time. Light in the darkness – and to all those who in humility accept they do not see, they do not know, but who in the darkness relies upon God, light begins to stream forth.

This is The Gift of this Holy Night – God With Us, God born among us, God born within us – that we might be children of Light, and ourselves illuminate the World as Christ dwells in our hearts by faith.

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray, cast out our Sin, the sin that blinds and deafens, cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today . . . Fill us with your Life – with your Light

Amen

Blessed are the Left Behind

Sermon for ADVENT 2022

“Then two will be in the field: one will be taken and another left. Two women will be grinding meal together: One will be taken another left”

Whilst I was back home in England – despite stories you may have heard of chaos on the rail network – apart from on one day I had had little trouble travelling around. On that Sunday towards the end of my stay  was actually just a few miles from my destination when – late in the afternoon as the light was dimming, the train stopped. After a while we slowly made our way into the nearby station and then stopped again. After a wait of a few minutes we were informed that the train was going no further as there was a tree across the railway line.

What then? Well I made my way into the nearby village and found a bus was due to take me to Sheffield, my destination. Gradually a small crowd from the train gathered, but only a few of the couple of hundred possibly on the train. So the bus set off towards Sheffield, but in the direction of the train station . . . at each stop more and more folk got on . . . until we reached the stop outside the station . . . where there were about one hundred people waiting – all of whom bar a couple we had no choice but to leave behind . . . Being left behind is of course a source of some anxiety for us as human beings, and a careless reading of our gospel this morning might suggest that such anxiety is well placed . . .

This phrase ‘Left Behind’ is one which, as it has largely been used in Christian circles for many years is entirely back to front. There was a series of popular Christian books 20 or so years ago ‘The Left Behind series’, which played on fears of ‘being left behind’. Odd that they were so popular.

To paraphrase the idea, prevalent amongst Christians, a day will come when All the good Christian people will be taken and all the others will ‘Left Behind’. I wonder if you’ve come across this idea?

But it’s entirely wrong and is the product of the sort of false Christian consciousness which, as we’ve been exploring St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we’ve had cause to call into question. A consciousness so false that may leave many Christians puzzled to say the least when Jesus fails to recognize them. ‘ Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord! . . . and I will say to them, I never knew you. Away from me . . .’ Who then is ‘left behind’?

You see those ‘left behind’ have a very significant role in the culture into which Jesus is born – as in a deep sense he has in any culture, not least our own. Who are the Left behind?

Firstly think of our culture – the way in which the sudden acceleration in technology is leaving people behind, especially the poor and elderly . . . Who of us are not getting just a little exhausted by constantly having to update passwords, or losing them and everything that means. If ‘Everything is going digital’ is really what is happening, who is paying attention to those ‘Left Behind’?

But also, what is the character of those left behind? What is the character of those left behind say by the rapid rise in house prices? Or, again by rapidly rising food prices? What do they have in common?

To the culture of Jesus these words ‘One will be taken, another left’ would have had a very different resonance, to that of popular Christian literature. They would of course have no idea about airplanes from which without warning the pious Christin pilot would be taken, leaving behind the hapless pagan co-pilot, one of the early ‘incidents’ in the Left behind series, but more than that – they would have heard the words ‘One taken and another left’ very very differently with regard to the story of God . . .

Whilst I was in England I went to church a couple of times in a place where they weren’t using the lectionary but rather were having a preaching series on . . . Daniel . . . I could have groaned – I possibly did. I’m not sure how many times in church services and conferences and Christian gatherings I’ve heard all about Daniel and his friends, but possibly enough for ‘three score and ten, or fourscore if one is fortunate’.

For those who in the time of Jesus knew the Daniel story and there would be quite a few, it would be a go to for those in power, the Judeans, for it was their story.

But for the people of Samaria and Galilee, it was not their story. For in the so called exile of the South –  it was the powerful like Daniel and his friends who had been taken into captivity, upon their return they were for the first time – The Judeans . . . – it was the peasantry, the humble poor, the useless to modern society who had been left behind . . .

When Jesus arrives on the scene, this story of captivity and the long awaited restoration of the Judean Monarchy was The Context, not least with several other occupations having occurred since their return. But Judea and the culture of the Temple had proved oppressive to the poor . . . the left behind. After all the widow had put in all she had . . .

North of Judea – Samaria, and the hated Samaritans were the higgledy piggeldy hodge podge of a people who had been left behind . . . this perhaps throws more light on Jesus use of one of the Left Behind as the paragon of moral righteousness in the parable. One of those whom the Assyrians (Samaria was the Northern Kingdom) couldn’t be bothered to take – after all they weren’t the sort you needed to run a modern economy, or whose labour would produce much in the way of taxes. They were disposable . . . The Samaritan recognizes a fellow ‘nobody’ in the world’s eyes, abandoned and ‘left behind’ at the side of the road.

This is the context into which Jesus speaks the Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. (Just to remind you, because this is Advent Sunday we have moved from Luke as our Gospel food, to Matthew) When Jesus says ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’, the word he uses is the description of those who are the people of the land. The people who were left behind . . . or, more precisely, those whose only hope is in God, the people of Jesus who dies commending himself entirely to God’s judgement and justice, for he cannot help himself . . .

This is Advent Sunday – the first Sunday of the Church’s year and we come to it in the season of preparing ourselves to receive Christ. That our hearts are a fit dwelling place for the presence of God, and our readings place this front and centre. As St Paul puts it, we are to live as in the day, that the secrets of our hearts when revealed do not bring upon us shame. That we are not caught up in foolish disputations, the sort which we spoke of last week, as St Paul says, ‘Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?’ Of course he is saying this to people who think they can help themselves and his words are shocking to those who seek to ‘live their own lives’, who have no intention of ‘being left behind’

For as the prophet says God will judge the nations with righteousness and the peoples with his truth. When God is our context, When God is the light of our life, both waking and sleeping His presence our might, when our inner attentiveness is towards his love, mercy grace and truth, that we are filled continually with his Life, then what people might do to us is of no consequence except as an occasion for us to love them, and be merciful towards them, perhaps because there is nothing else in truth we can do . . . seeing we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves . . .

Humanly speaking in Advent we look to the humility of Mary who as poor and humble looks with a clear eye to the Salvation of the God, to whom the eye of the mighty, the powerful, the wealthy and those who can help themselves is blind.

As Jesus says “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.

Blessed are all those who are left behind

Sermon at a Service of Thanksgiving for Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II

‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King’

One of the more remarkable aspects of the events of the last ten days has been how many people who said that they were surprised to be caught out by and moved, at the announcement of the death of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.

I’d like to suggest that there is nothing remotely surprising about this, and that the reason for this encompasses, yet lies far deeper than the simple surface assertion that her death connected us to the death of others we have known and loved, not least our own mothers and grandmothers.

For why we ought to ask, why this death? Why not the same deep response when we hear of any death? What is it that binds together so very many, even those who think the monarchy an anachronism, ‘out of place in the Modern World’? In this respect I’d like to draw our attention to the Queen’s Coronation, something which some of us gathered here might recall.

As I told a well educated young Christian man just the other day, to his surprise – what sets this ceremony apart, the creation of a new Sovereign, is that it is a religious ceremony.

It takes place in what is first of Christian worship, in a Church surrounded by Clergy. Politicians and other heads of State are reduced to the role of mere observers. This is first of all a Sacred Act, and the heart of the Coronation is that moment when the Archbishop of Canterbury anoints the Sovereign.

This Ceremony that goes back over a thousand years in the history of the British Isles to the Coronation of Athelstan, but in the deep memory of God’s people to the anointing of the Kings of Israel, David, and of Solomon about which we have heard this evening.

This deep root was foregrounded in Handel’s Coronation Anthem, ‘Zadok the priest’, written for the Coronation of George II, and which has been sung prior to that most sacred moment, not of crowning, but of the anointing of the Monarch at the Coronation ever since. The Crowning merely is the outward sign of the inward Grace conferred by the Sacramental anointing.

A sacred, a profoundly religious act.

The Church is that body which surrounds the Monarch – even to the grave. (The Bishop of Carlisle my home Diocese, is Clerk of the Closet to the Royal Household. Amongst his many duties which include oversight of all clergy for the royal chapels, he accompanied Her late Majesty’s coffin to its lying in state, will be in attendance at her funeral and will then accompany her to her final resting place in the Royal Vault at St George’s Chapel for the service of committal.)

Monarchy and Religion. Two ‘things’ which the received wisdom tells us are ‘anachronisms’ in this ‘Modern’ age, yet I suggest that this is a misunderstanding, not untypical of these days for they are in fact timeless. And that in itself is against the spirit of the age.

As one writer put it, during the seventy years of Her reign, “The Queen lasted. Nothing else did”.

This timelessness would direct our attention, were we are able to sustain it long enough, to that which Simply Is. For ‘Religion’ is that which binds together – it is about the very fabric of reality, the stuff of existence – that which Is.

Christianity is after all the very Structure of Reality – and from that structure, that fabric, ‘Monarchy’ speaks of the intersection of the Divine, and the Human – binding them together. The death of a Sovereign affects us all in ways we have perhaps lost the ability to speak, albeit ‘as through a glass darkly’. For The Sovereign is The Representative Human in so many ways.

My young Christian friend seemed rather troubled by the whole idea anyway – as if in some sense Monarchy was the conferring of absolute power, yet in that binding, the Divine right of Kings was not, the divine right to do as they pleased. That is to think purely humanly.

My young friend was confused by this very point. For to be truly human is to be Under God, not to carry our individual authority as in any sense separate. As Jesus, The God Man – reveals. ‘I only do what I see my Father Doing’

For the Primacy of the Worship of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ at the Coronation, and indeed in all that has followed the Queen’s Death including her funeral tomorrow,  locates us all and binds us all, including the Monarch Under God.

As The Queen implicitly defined and gave coherence to this Nation, so the dominant theme of that is of Servant of The Living God. An explicit Sovereignty which spoke of The Implicit Servant . . . the God who washes our feet.

I wish briefly to consider three words which in various ways were spoken powerfully to us in the Life and reign of Her Late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. All three themselves sound anachronistic to our ears, but again I suggest that is because they direct our gaze to timeless truths which were central to the Reign of Queen Elizabeth.

The first word is ‘Duty’. In a culture which emphasises above all autonomy, and individual liberty and choice, the word Duty is heard as oppressive – and yet its roots suggest simply ‘an accordance with the real nature of things’. To Live dutifully is to enjoy the Freedom to do what is Right, in accordance with The Way Things Are. Here again, That Which simply Is.

We might say, to illustrate this, that it is the ‘Duty’ of rain to fall, and of the Sun to shine, and of humans to live and die, Duty, however we might hear the world in these days is simply ‘doing what in truth you are’, the True Liberty.

And how much more clearly do we see this in Monarchy, in a lineage that is by birth. Duty is not Choice, it is the Path that lies in front of you, a Way Given.

Although as we know the Queen was not born to ‘the man who would be king’, the abdication crisis precipitated by her uncle, King Edward VIII, meant that in that moment her Father became King and she as the eldest of two daughters discovered herself to be born to carry the weight of Monarchy. Unlike the rather cruel lie held out before say the people of America, regarding their President – not everyone can be King or Queen, should they so choose.

There is no University course for prospective candidates for the Crown. However well you are acquainted with matters of state and proper protocols is utterly irrelevant. However ‘good or not’ you might be at ‘it’ is utterly irrelevant, you just Are . . . and so you must Do, as Rain must fall, the Sun Shine, and human beings live and die. (The Ancient couplet, Act AND Being, inseparable in any True Life – the most profound ‘Coming to your Self’)

The Queen understood this as she said “In a way, I didn’t have an apprenticeship. My father died much to young. It was all a very sudden kind of taking on and making the best job you can. It’s a question of maturing into something that one has got used to doing and accepting here you are and that is your fate, because I think continuity is very important. It’s a job for life”

The abdication crisis which precipitated the rise of Elizabeth to the throne was not simply shock at some abstract sense of setting aside duty as something one ought to do, as the abdication of the nature of reality itself. It was at the deepest level ‘a taking leave of the senses’ As I said, it is a facet of ‘The Modern World’ that even then that point was largely missed . . . Duty is simply Doing that which you truly are . . . A Way Given . . . and then , to come to our second Word,

 Way to be Discerned. Someone last week expressed to me their frustration with a commenter who had said ‘the Queen did nothing’. At one level of course that is entirely the case – regarding duty, The Queen did  . . . well Queen. At another it is of course a nonsense in that she embodied her Duty with manifest seriousness. Even when no doubt already aware that her days were coming to an end, she met with first her outgoing Prime Minister, and then her final British Prime Minister, both for 40 minute conversations. She did Queen to the End. Whether it were opening hospitals, or welcoming foreign dignitaries at Buckingham Palace, or her daily three hours over state papers she did what was Given to her to do. And that is the deeper meaning of discretion.

Discretion is very closely related to Discernment – One does one Duty ‘Discretely’ Discerning the nature of things. As Wind and Rain, as Air and Water do not shout themselves, being of the fabric which binds, Her actions were those befitting, well a human being.

Amongst the many many tributes we have heard – the one that to me particularly stood out was that from President Macron of France who spoke of her being ‘kind hearted’. To be known as kind hearted requires a large degree of Discretion, of having been moulded by a greater reality . . . holding one’s own vessel . . . For again Her Sovereignty was a Sovereignty under.

Her Reality was formed by daily prayer and praise, as her regular references to the Way of Jesus in Christmas and other addresses made clear, but without shouting. A Confession of Christ in Being that like Jesus’ service is without words in the first place arising from the web of existence which does not shout, it is simply there. (It does not speak, for it does not need to, being itself Spoken)

And finally to return to our beginning, the third word, Dominion . . . Gen 1

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 
27 So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them. 

The Role of The Sovereign – lived out by her gracious Majesty is to exercise Dominion, and here finally is the full significance of that Religious aspect, for unlike any other Ruler – The  Religious Context of Birth, Marriage, Coronation and Last Rites, not simply as our Modern World would have it an accidental ‘choice’ – the Monarch Exercises here dominion ‘Under God’, and ‘in the name of God’ . . . that is ‘in tune with God’.  It discerns the Deep Reality of the Sovereignty of God, as perfectly expressed in the Divine Human Image of God, Christ Jesus, The Way, the Truth and the Life.

In this regard Her Duty, well Discerned was to express the Dominion under God of each and every human being.

As someone with whom I spoke, trying to understand why she, having no reason known to her to, had been so moved by the Queen’s death, “Her Sovereignty taught me about my own”

The Image of God – The Human is also Sovereign – not as autonomous, as lost and harassed, but in place, Under God to be the vessel of Life to All Creation, the source of living waters. Dutifully and Discretely – expressing therefore that which is above and Beyond us all.

The God- Man Jesus perfectly expresses this life – as we are all made to, Under God. As The Queen was anointed at her Coronation, so we too at Baptism are made Kings and Queens, Priest’s and Prophets, to Serve God with Joy for ever.

And so let us now commend Her late Majesty to the mercy and protection of God – our Maker and our Redeemer

Almighty God our creator and redeemer,
by thy power Christ hath conquered death
and returned to thee in glory.
Confident of his victory
and claiming his promises,
we entrust thy servant Elizabeth into thy keeping
in the name of Jesus our Lord,
who, through death is now lives
and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever.  Amen.