24 January 2021 – Third Sunday of Epiphany
In the past year we have faced many challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to be careful about our own health, taking precautions such as washing hands and wearing facemasks and maintaining social distance. Some have been ill or have lost someone close. Meanwhile the working lives of many have been disrupted and families kept apart, often at huge personal cost. Perhaps it has made us all more anxious about our health and more aware of our vulnerability.
At the same time church buildings, which have always been places of sanctuary, have been closed and worship has been taking place online. Opportunities to worship and pray together have been seriously curtailed. We may well be feeling a sense of isolation from God as well as our neighbour.
Like you I have really missed celebrating Holy Communion particularly at those most special times in the Church year, Easter and Christmas. When we had to cancel our Christmas services that was a particularly low point for me. We had missed being together to share the Eucharist at Easter, and now Christmas was not to happen either, and our spiritual well-being is as important as our physical well-being. But we found a way of being Church and celebrating together albeit without sharing the Communion, the marriage supper of the Lamb as Revelations puts it.
Since March 2020 we have indeed missed many things, especially celebrations with their chance to be together with those we care for, and therefore it is perhaps ironic that our reading today references the wedding at Cana. Weddings have certainly been few and far between! The innovation shown by many who have gone ahead with reduced, or last minute weddings has been lovely, and perhaps it has really focused the participants on why they are getting married rather than all the fuss around the day, that has certainly been one of the things said by many.
The periods of lockdown that we have lived through have caused us to take a step back to think again about our priorities and the things and people that we value, that make our lives whole. The long periods of absence from extended family and friends, and the inability to share a meal together or celebrate a birthday or a wedding, are examples of this.
When it comes to our spiritual life, what is it that is most important for our well-being? As Church life was to a large extent paused for the first time for most people, what does it mean to be part of the one Church, the Body of Christ when all we see of our sisters and brothers are on the screen of a laptop?
The ancient rhythm of prayer found in many religious orders and their traditions teach us that when we pray, we pray not just on our own or with those who share the same physical space, but with the whole Church, the Body of Christ, of Christians in other places and in different times. And one of the joys of zoom has been that we are able to pray together, led each week by a different voice.
This rhythm of prayer, with its traditional forms of structure, hymns and psalms and perhaps most importantly, silence, might well be an important gift from the ancient Church to the Church of today struggling with pandemics and lockdowns and more widely with some of the serious challenges that our world faces, most particularly climate change, racism and poverty.
This tradition of prayer and spirituality invites us into shared prayer and silence together, surely a most precious gift in troubled times. This week is celebrated as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme this year is Abide in Christ, and for many years we have also joined at this time with our friends at New Rd Methodists for their Covenant Service, and again all this is now on hold. Yet we can still take that time to pray to simply “be” and to abide in Christ, who carries us and accompanies us.
Knowing that we don’t face these challenges alone, that God walks with us, abides with us, can be both a comfort and a source of strength. Leave your concerns with me, abide with me, abide in my love Jesus commands his disciples, including each one of us.
Abide, rest in Christ, so that we are nourished and strengthened for the challenges ahead.
Celebrations will return, we will be able to share meals with friends and family, we will share in the Eucharist again, we will meet with our friends at St Andrew’s, St Anne’s and New Rd. We will finally be able to hold the postponed baptisms and weddings!
For now, abide in Christ. Always. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
17 January 2021 – Second Sunday of Epiphany
As you probably know, the readings that we hear on Sundays follow a three-year pattern, with each of the three years being assigned one gospel, first Matthew, then Mark, then Luke. We’re in Year B at the moment so most weeks our Gospel is from Mark at the moment. I suppose the compilers of the lectionary could have made a four year one, but instead they decided to save up the Gospel of John and drop bits of it in throughout the three years, presumably to give us something a bit different. Because John’s gospel is very different to the other three. It’s maybe a bit more of a philosophical attempt to explain what Jesus was all about, rather than a record of the events of his life. In fact, after the famous prologue which we hear at Christmas – you know, the ‘In the beginning was the word…’ bit – this reading we had today is pretty much where John picks up the story of Jesus. He’s a fully grown man and he’s assembling his team, his disciples.
And we pick this up today with Philip, who evidently knew Andrew and Peter, he was from Bethsaida where they had also originated from, although we know that by the time they got to know Jesus, they were fishing out of Capernaum, across the water of the Sea of Galilee. John doesn’t really record what happened to make Philip follow Jesus, but obviously he had a massive effect on Philip, because the next thing we hear is Philip saying to this man Nathaniel, who he knows, “we’ve found the person who Moses wrote about, and its this guy Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth”. Now, I’ve not been to Israel and I understand nowadays Nazareth is a pretty big town, but back in the day it was a tiny, and pretty inconsequential village. Other than connected with Jesus, I’m not sure it ever comes up, I don’t think it’s mentioned once in the Old Testament. It’s a nothingy place.
And Nathaniel, who by the way we don’t hear about in any of the other Gospels, although he’s probably the guy who Matthew Mark and Luke call Bartholomew, because Bartholomew just means the ‘Son of Tholomew’, so this guy whose real name is probably Nathaniel son of Tholomew, pretty much laughs at Philip doesn’t he. He says “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” I guess if the Jewish people of the time were going to pinpoint a likely home of the messiah, Nazareth would not have been top of the list. And all Philip says is, “Come and see!” you know, “come and be the judge for yourself”.
And so Nathaniel goes to meet Jesus, and it seems like Jesus knows him already, even though they’ve never met before. And Nathaniel is puzzled and says “how do you know me?” and Jesus answers, “I saw you sitting under the fig tree, before Philip had even talked to you”. It’s like Jesus had picked this Nathaniel out, and had known all along that he would be one of his followers, that he had known all along that Philip would talk to him, and had known all along that Nathaniel would respond. And of course, Nathaniel is understandably pretty amazed by this, but Jesus basically says: “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. “No Nathaniel, you will get to see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.
Now, why did Jesus use that particular turn of phrase – the angels ascending and descending, it makes them sound like they’re in some kind of lift, going up to the heavenly boardroom, where Jesus is sitting at God the Father’s right hand. But it might also remind you of that Old Testament story of Jacob’s ladder, because of course Jacob had that very same vision – the angels going up and down from earth to heaven. Maybe what Jesus is suggesting to Nathaniel is that he will get to know far more about God than even those Old Testament prophets that Nathaniel would have heard about in the synagogue.
So what’s this got to do with us in 21st Century Britain, then? Are we all meant to dream dreams and have visions of angels in great glass elevators, or climbing ladders, perhaps with their buckets and mops to do the first-floor windows of heaven? I don’t think so somehow. But I think there is something in this of great importance to us as Christians.
I think most clergy end up repeating their sermons at some point in their life, but I’m afraid that point has come pretty early on for me, because I’m sure I have said what I am going to say to you, before. But, in my defence, it is important and worth repeating, and repeating often actually. Being a Christian isn’t about one moment in life when it all suddenly clicks into place. I mean, maybe you have had a moment like that and if indeed you have, I would never want to diminish that. Maybe there has been a moment where like Nathaniel, you have effectively said “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God”. But, what Jesus says back to Nathaniel, is: “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. In other words, a Christian faith isn’t about a kind of philosophical eureka moment where everything afterwards is going to be just rosy because we’ve got all the answers.
No, God knows us before we knew him – he created us, and he sees us under the fig tree if you like, he spots us there before we recognise him. But recognising God is only the starting point of faith, it’s not the end. For Nathaniel, that moment was the start of his journey with Jesus, and just as with our journeys, his was a tough one, and no doubt with many rocks on the road, many times when he probably doubted Jesus, when maybe he hid from Jesus, when he denied Jesus. And, you know, that’s the same for us isn’t it.
The road through life is rocky and for most of us, it’s rockier than normal at the moment. For many people, these last months have caused us misery, loneliness, and of course real loss. And when you’re going through tough times, a faith that is only based around some kind of philosophical understanding might not get you very far. Because our faith is built up and knocked down by our experience through life. It’s built up and – sadly – knocked down at times by the people that we meet, that we interact with. It’s built up and – sadly – knocked down at times by the Church. Yes, this faith of ours isn’t some intellectual exercise – we learn more about what God is by walking with Him as best we can, through our lives.
And sometimes it is difficult when you are going through Hell, to see where God is in your life. Sometimes it feels like there cannot be such a thing as God because you feel abandoned. And if that is or has been you, do not feel ashamed because you’re in good company. On the cross, Jesus cries out to God the Father “why have you forsaken me?”, “God where the Hell are you?” But if that is you, don’t forget that the story had a happy ending. Resurrection happened. And resurrection happens all the time in people’s lives. Things can and do get better. People forgive. People grow. People learn to love again. Things heal. And with perspective, sometimes we can look back and see the action of God.
So, in some senses, no, we ain’t seen nothing yet. We don’t know God in the way that we will face to face. But our journey should be one of discovery and of the growth of a relationship of love, and I pray that we as a congregation, as we travel on that journey ourselves, will also grow in our relationship of love for one another, as He loves us.
10 January 2021 – The Baptism of Christ
Many years ago I was at the Building Research Establishment, and we were in an enormous room which is totally soundproofed and pitch dark – there is nothing, no sound, no sight, it was as close to nothing as we can imagine, and it was completely disorientating. We knew we could get out to the light and the sound, but that nothingness, as you can see, made a lasting impression on me.
We cannot imagine nothing, nature abhors a vacuum, and we try to fill that emptiness, yet in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, there was nothing, and the writer of Genesis is trying to convey that emptiness, that nothingness, and words struggle to convey that unimaginable picture.
Then the Spirit of God moved over the earth and said ‘let there be light,’ and at once God begins to make sense out of the world, this we can begin, only begin mind you, to follow. God talks to the world, even before it can understand what is said, and thus God brings the world , us included, into community with God.
Our Christmas readings have all, in various ways, reminded us of the new beginning of life – literally with the birth of a child in Matthew and Luke’s gospels, John takes us back to the Creation with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ And now with Mark, the earliest of the gospels, we have no child, but still a new beginning, a baptism.
In the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Mark tells us, Jesus comes to be baptised by John the Baptist. He did not need to be baptised, in the sense that John was baptising, for repentance, to turn around and start again. Jesus came to fulfil the new beginning of the promise of community with God for all.
Just as at creation the Spirit moves and signals God’s presence, we are invited to turn from nothing, from existing, to a life fully lived with God. We are called out, made special by our relationship with God, and our baptism is the beginning of that lifelong journey.
The Ephesians, that Paul meets, have been baptised, but don’t yet fully understand what this means, what they exist for. Paul knows they are waiting to understand God‘s purpose for them, to love and be loved, to be part of God’s community.
Throughout the baptism service there are many signs and symbols of that new life with God. The font is traditionally at the back of the church symbolising the start of our journey into knowing God. We are marked with the sign of the cross, the badge of faith, in oil to anoint us as marked out, and in water. We are cleansed in the waters of new birth, dying to our old life, and rising to new life with God. And finally we are given a candle as a sign of new life, and of Jesus conquering the darkness. With this candle we are encouraged to shine as light in the world. Just as Jesus was shown, manifested to the visitors at the Epiphany, so we are called to reveal Christ to the world, in our lives and our actions.
When God created the world, God saw that it was good. When Jesus was baptised God saw that it was good, when we turn to God, even when we have been absent for whatever reason, God sees that it is good, and welcomes us with open arms.
These are dark and difficult times, and at times the light is hard to find, so let us recall that through our baptism, we have received the light of Christ. We are not trapped in the darkness, we can walk in God’s light all the days of our life, and importantly as well shine for others to see that light. Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
3 January 2021 – The Epiphany
Arise shine your light has come.
Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid.
Well we have passed the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and gradually the days will lengthen and be brighter, and the start of a new year also brings new hopes and probably new challenges. This year, more than many a year past, we are certainly looking for that hope and light in the darkness, and that darkness is not just a physical one. We are more than ever looking for direction and guidance.
And today, the Epiphany, we look for that dawning, that new beginning with a realisation that the world can be different. Difficulties can, and will, pass, we will be able to live our lives again, we will be with people we love and care for again, yet life will be different. We will have been changed by the events of the past year, just as we always are, as life brings new experiences, some good, some not so good. And as we look to the future what will guide us?
Well, I have 3 possible guides – a star, a Sat Nav and a globe.
The Wise men followed a star – they had consulted their charts and maps, and knew this star meant something special. It foretold of a new king, not just an earthly king, but a king who would bring heaven and earth together. So they packed, including some precious gifts worthy of a king and followed the star. They had faith in the guidance of the star and what it promised.
A sat nav is the modern equivalent to following the stars and the charts and it doesn’t matter if the night sky is clear or cloudy, generally this technology is failsafe, so we trust it. Mind you having followed mine recently down some very narrow lanes, which did reach the destination, but gave me some pretty hairy moments, trust is still needed.
But why the globe? Well, it can show us where the Wise Men came from, and the journey they took, modern day Iraq and Iran to Palestine, a difficult journey then and still now as it passes through war zones. It also shows us that Palestine is very strategically placed to take the news of this new king, north, south, east and west, to spread the good news.
So, the globe is all of those things, but it also shows that God, through Jesus’ birth and the visit of the Wise Men, was revealing himself to all nations. The Wise Men were not Jewish, they were not looking for the Promised Messiah, yet they travelled to find this new and different king. They had to travel a long distance to worship the baby, and they brought presents that recognised this child was very different. Gold for a king; frankincense for a deity and myrrh because Jesus was anointed, marked out as special. And they too were special, called by God, as God calls all peoples to know God. You don’t have to pass exams, or have the right answers, or the right family background to know God.
The Wise Men brought precious gifts, gifts fit for a king, and we too can bring precious gifts – our skills, the things we are gifted with, ourselves, our lives, and we can offer them to God to use as God will, to be guided as God will.
God reveals himself/herself to us all, and God does show us the way – the way, the truth and the life. Not with stars or sat navs, although following God may well turn our world upside down. Our lives may not be the same again.
When God came into the world to live amongst us, life afterwards was not the same for Mary or Joseph, the shepherds or the Wise Men.
As God again reveals God’s love for us, will our lives be turned upside down, will we find a new way of living and being, and will we trust ourselves to God to find that new way? Amen.
Lesley Goldsmith (Vicar)
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