24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
“I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades”
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. Our news is filled with pictures of exhausted hospital staff, schools coping with rapidly changing rules, businesses and livelihoods closed, many may never reopen.
But as the number of seriously ill people continues to be high, and the daily count of deaths continues to rise, so too does the number of people who have received a vaccine.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
This perhaps gives us a glimpse into the reality of life many have lived before, and many are living now, which so far thankfully we have been spared. Those who have lived through war. Those living in parts of our world whose stories have disappeared from our news – but their struggles continue. Those for whom our readings today were first written.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
Both our readings speak of wedding feasts. Weddings of course are one of the great moments of hope and joy that stand as beacons along the path of our lives. Weddings are currently suspended, many of the couples we are working with have postponed their weddings three or four times. This has been hard and expensive for them, and for those whose livelihood is catering for wedding celebrations.
The wedding at Cana is often read at weddings, but I suspect couples choosing it don’t spot the significance of the story. This is an Epiphany story. The point is revealed in the final verse – this is a sign, it reveals Christ’s glory, and his disciples believed in him.
Weddings reveal glory, they are moments when two people make a commitment to one another, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to stick together through all that life can throw at you. The moments of joy and dancing, and also the moments of grief and mourning.
Life can be hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
I am convinced that everything of this world is about anticipation. We live in a foretaste of what is to come. If it is true that humanity is made in the image of God then somewhere in that there is the revelation of glory.
That God is about love and truth, and loyalty and commitment, and courage and tenacity, and compassion and forgiveness. These hallmarks are of God, and of human relationships – at their best.
In the midst of so much that reflects a fallen world, humanity at its best shines through. Those whose care for others costs them dear. Those who give of their time for others. Those who labour to make life better for others.
In this hard and dangerous time, we see hope.
In his great hymns, Love divine, all loves excelling – Charles Wesley concludes by referring to our new creation. That time when humanity is restored in God.
“Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
The key words there are ‘changed from glory into glory’. The best things of this world are a foretaste of that reality yet to come. Yet note this, they are glory now, pointing to glory to be. They are glory now. So we live in hope. And we must not take for granted those best things, those best moments, that point towards better things to be.
In our reading from Revelation, which is always a difficult book to read, but worth sticking with, the writer tells of falling at the angel’s feet to worship him. But take seriously what comes next, take this very seriously.
The angel’s response is unexpected. “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus.”
I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades.
When you looked in the bathroom mirror this morning who did you see looking back at you? I suspect that when you looked in the mirror you didn’t say to yourself – there is an angel. There is a messenger of God whose place is at the throne of heaven. There is a being who God sends to announce good news. There is a guardian of hope.
So hear the words of the angel – I am a fellow servant with you.
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. That hope is within us. For we are messengers of a world that is coming to be.
It comes closer one small step at a time. One kind act at a time. One work of compassion at a time. These fragments of glory become the glory. They are signs. These are Epiphany moments. In them Christ is revealed, that the world may believe in him.
A prayer of St Benedict
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mFo8EhHyQGg
The Baptism of Christ
Our Gospel reading is Mark 1:4-11
“You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”
Our gospel reading today comes from St Mark, who begins the story of Jesus not with his birth, but in his baptism. That is significant. We believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written, it is likely he wrote for Christians who were facing hostility and persecution. So he sets out to tackle a difficult question.
If Jesus is the Son of God why did he die on a cross? And if Jesus is the Son of God why are those who believe in him suffering also?
You see the dilemma. If Jesus is the Son of God how can his life end on a cross, and how can those who follow him face persecution? Surely if Jesus is who he says he is, then Christians ought to be powerful and successful and the world ought to believe and be better.
So Mark writes his gospel rooting Jesus in the ministry of John the Baptist, who like the prophets before him came to a sticky end. John, you will recall, was beheaded by Herod.
The Jesus story begins for Mark not in a stable but in a river, at his baptism. This is the defining moment when Jesus leaves home to begin his public ministry. It is a turning point. It is the same turning point for those who have chosen to follow Jesus, who like him have entered the river and emerged baptised, members of a new community.
Mark takes care to remind us that at every step, in every encounter, Jesus faced hostility and opposition. Immediately after his baptism he is driven into the wilderness to endure temptation and hardship. The way of Christ is not the way of easy success and worldly power. The world can be changed, but it has to be changed the hard way. From within.
Most of us probably never decided to be baptised. I was baptised by the Revd Harold Dawson, Vicar of St Mark, Glodwick, my grandfather, in the font of St Nicholas, Blundellsands, on 26 March 1961. It was the church where my parents were married. I was later confirmed there by Bishop Stuart Blanch, who having laid his hands on my head was instantly elevated to become Archbishop of York. I am sure that was no coincidence.
I have not the slightest memory of my baptism – as I suppose is true for many of us. In Mark’s day things were different. Baptism was a life changing decision. If you chose to be baptised you became a target for arrest, torture and execution. It was not something people undertook lightly.
Mark begins the story of Jesus with the same experience as those who choose to follow him – baptism is a life changing moment.
The odd thing of course is that Jesus didn’t need to be baptised. He was born a Jew, this identity was his from birth, baptism was how foreigners, outsiders, became members of God’s chosen people.
And of course Jesus didn’t need to be baptised by John because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance – that those who had turned away from God were given a second chance. Through the water of baptism the disobedient were brought back, the estranged reconciled. That surely didn’t apply to Jesus.
So when Jesus came to John – John was at first appalled. You have no need of this baptism. But Jesus insisted. This is God’s way – a path of humility, sacrifice, obedience, love. These are the tools by which the world is offered a new beginning.
We take our inheritance too lightly if we take baptism too lightly. We may not have chosen to be baptised, but we must choose whether we live the life that this baptism offers us. And the path of that life runs against the grain of this world.
As Jesus came up out of the water two things happened. Firstly the Holy Spirit came to him as a dove. That doesn’t mean a bird landed on his head. If it did baptism then services would be far more interesting. This is an epiphany moment – things are made clear.
This is a moment of decision. To leave the safety of a family home and begin the public ministry that leads to the cross.
This is a moment of identification. Jesus had no need to repent, but this is a journey that leads people back towards God. Jesus takes the first step on that journey himself, as a shepherd leads the flock.
This is a moment of equipment. All of us will have experienced times in our life when we have faced a challenge when we didn’t know what to do. As we get older we become less confident about tackling the unknown. Younger people have a much greater capacity to tackle the unknown with confidence. God is always in the moments when we take on the impossible. Some of the best churchwardens I have worked with have been people who told me they had no idea what was involved, and felt they were totally inadequate for the job.
God does not call us to the easy. He calls us to the hard. But he does not leave us unequipped. The gift of the Spirit comes in many forms.
This is a moment of approval. You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Henri Nouwen said that this was the moment that identified Jesus and everything he did. The whole of his life is living the identity of being God’s beloved. Everything he did was seeking that same identity in every person he met.
You and I may not remember our own baptism, but we share these moments.
A moment of decision, made daily to take our baptism seriously, to know that we belong to an alternative community.
A moment of identification, to walk the Godward journey in the company of Christ and in the fellowship of others.
A moment of equipment, to face the uncertainties and impossibilities in the faith that God does not call us to anything that is beyond his ability to support us.
A moment of approval – that you are God’s beloved, with you he is well pleased. And to seek that in everyone.
Father eternal, cleanse and renew us each day by the power of your Spirit, that the goodness of the incarnate Lord may be seen in our lives; fill the Church, and the whole world, with the light, joy, and peace of his birth, that his second coming in glory may be hastened, and all creation perfected in his eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube version is https://youtu.be/HI-3IHYB5ts
Although we celebrate it today, officially next Wednesday is Epiphany, sometimes known as twelfth night, the time when most of us take down our decorations, if we have not done it before. So Christmas is over.
Or is it? In the Eastern Orthodox Church what we call Epiphany is when they celebrate Christmas. Epiphany is the revealing of Jesus to the world and as a season continues to Candlemas, the 2nd of February. So there is a case for keeping decorations up until then, if you really want to.
In our readings on Christmas day and since we have heard how many people went to see the new baby, notably first the shepherds, and later the oriental visitors. Late stragglers they may have been, but they were, they are pretty special characters in our story.
“Wise men from the east”, Matthew called them (Matthew 2:1). They had seen a star rising, which proclaimed the one born to be king of the Jews, and came to pay him homage.
So what of the shepherds and wise men.
Think how different the shepherds and the wise men were from each other. The shepherds probably wore rough clothing, for working outside in all weathers. The wise men, however many of there were, no doubt rich and important, and so could afford good cloth, even for travelling.
The shepherds would not have been well-educated, though if they were Jewish, they might well have learned to read. The wise men were proficient in analysing the movement of the stars and calculating the patterns of astronomy. They would have read books on wisdom and prophecy.
The shepherds came from fields nearby – ‘in that region’… The wise men came from the east – possibly from Persia or Arabia. They would not have been Jewish but most likely Zoroastrian.
They were utterly different in background, in culture, in religion, in appearance. But they all came to the crib.
And their paths to the crib were very different too.
The wise men had spent about 2 years getting to the crib.
They must have been looking in the sky and maybe elsewhere in nature for signs. They made calculations, and reflected, and thought.
But they did not get to the crib straight away. They may have made some detours, even some wrong turnings. (No satellite navigation .)
Matthew says that when they got to Jerusalem they had to ask Herod the way to the king of the Jews, and he had to get the chief priests and the scribes to do more research, which finally pointed the way to Bethlehem. It was a thoughtful, pondering, slow and difficult path.
Now think about the shepherds. They were not even looking for a sign. They were just getting on with life – “watching over their flocks by night” – when suddenly there was a blinding light, a loud voice, giving an absolutely clear pronouncement: “to you is born in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah; the sign is this: a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”.
There was no deliberation amongst the shepherds: they just decided: “Let's go, now, to Bethlehem to see whatever it is that has taken place”.
They did not say: “well, I wonder what that was all about? I’m not sure whether we have heard right. Perhaps we should check in the angelic directory about the credentials of these messengers”.
They just went to see!
And they didn’t take 2 years about it. They ‘went with haste’ and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. It was a bright, obvious, fast and simple path.
Do you find your faith journey takes you on one or other of these paths? It might be that someone comes to God by a slow and rather winding path.
They might find hints and whispers of God in nature, and keep their eyes and ears open to the insights of others.
They may ponder and wonder, maybe having no clear idea of exactly what they are looking for, but still keep on the path, hoping that they will one day see the star come to rest, above the One they have sought with so much faithfulness and trust.
Probably for many of us our faith journeys are this way as we come week by week and year by year seeking the Lord of all in our readings, the sacraments and in our prayers.
Or you might sense that you are more like one of the shepherds: caught up in a spiritual experience, spontaneously responding with faith and acceptance. A sort of ‘St Paul on the road to Damascus’ thing. We see this emphasised in some kinds of worship and spirituality: especially in the more charismatic churches – ‘heart-stuff’ comes before ‘head-stuff’, and things seem clear, revealed, certain and demanding an immediate response.
We are each on our own journey and it is probably wrong of me to make such a clear distinction. It encourages division. We might then tempted to say, ‘feeling matters more than thinking’ or ‘thinking matters more than feeling’.
The fact is, of course, that there is something of the shepherd and something of the wise men in each of us. And this is as it should be:
God calls us through the willing response of our hearts and also by our thoughtful pondering about what the world is like, our own lives, and the mysteries of existence.
Think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, watching by the crib. Mary had let her heart be captured by the Holy Spirit: she said to the angel: “Let it be unto me according to God’s will – that is, she saw a sudden revelation, and she responded with a heart-felt ‘yes’.
But then in the stable, welcoming all these strange visitors who were seeking her child, the babe in the manger: Luke says: ‘Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Mary, is a good model for us as disciples of Christ, responded in a flash, and yet pondered for years.
One major thing which Epiphany shows us, that it was not just the Jews who would come to the stable, to their homeland, but all nations, bringing the wealth of their experience, and their insights and their traditions.
God calls us to be open and to welcome everyone who comes: whether they are tentative seekers or those who ‘know’; whether they are pondering in their search or feeling overwhelmed with the love of God.
Our journeys will all be different and individual, some harder than others.
However well we think we know our scripture and our faith, God still has much more he wants us to know, and so we need to continue on our way with all the enthusiasm we had when we first started out.
We will all find a space at the manger; we can all offer the gift of ourselves, head, heart and all; and we can all know that we are called and loved by the one who shines light into our darkness, and whose glory rises upon us, not just today but in the dawning of every new day.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/EtbOWkJgBTo