Weekly Online Sermon
Today’s gospel has two people encounter each other in the heat of the day, who would never normally speak. They were divided by culture, religion, taboos of purity, gender and morality. The misunderstandings and confusions are many, as they initially speak at complete cross-purposes; and yet, over time understanding, even some sense of communion is reached, boundaries are crossed, distance narrowed, barriers are breached.
Normally a Jewish Rabbi and a Samaritan woman would never speak, and particularly so when her own community considered her disreputable, to be shunned, a virtual outcast. To John’s listeners at the time a surprising, even shocking tale, as their own misunderstandings play into the unfolding encounter.
Are there parallels and lessons to be drawn in our own time – do we set limits to our own understanding and compassion?
One of the greatest contributions of Judaism to the world, among many others; the realisation that the divine is not fragmented, as the ancients supposed, either into spirits that inhabit the world, or into giant superhuman champions such as the Gods of Olympus. Instead, the divine, that which lies beneath, yet also beyond all reality, that which is greater than, more than, both above all and yet within all, is essentially one eternal unity, one unifying reality.
In the same way that the Old Testament story of Abraham serves as the example of unconditional acceptance and commitment, in today’s gospel Nicodemus provides an example of those who, however well-meaning, hold something back, who partially understand and only partially commit.
Nevertheless, John reports that Jesus attempts to build on Nicodemus’ partial understanding by asking him to look with fresh eyes, with a mind open and receptive, he is asking him to allow himself to be surprised. By the same token, can we trust, commit and take the leap of faith, can we allow ourselves and our lives to be changed, to be blown where the wind will take us?
The story of Adam and Eve runs right through all the readings for today. It is partially a story about temptation, knowing what we are supposed to do, how we often know what the right thing to do would be and how all too often we can fail to carry it through.
It is supremely difficult to reach back into the minds of generations long past; impossible to know how those who first wrote down the story understood it, all those thousands of years ago, and little easier to grasp how successive generations have interpreted the story until quite recently.
But like many stories that we heard as a child, when we become adults it is well to see if the stories, wise and insightful in many ways, need to be re-interpreted, and understood in a different light.
Those who care for patients who are dying often notice a great similarity in the regrets that people express. Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative caregiver, was so moved by the clarity of vision that people can gain at the end of their lives, and how we might learn from their wisdom, that she started a blog that was read by millions, which became a book called ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’.
As she said, “common themes surfaced again and again.” So what lessons can we learn for our own lives, before it is too late – and might this this relate to the life and witness of Jesus?
For a brief moment we had some insight. During the height of the Covid lockdowns people widely spoke of reorienting their lives, sorting out their true priorities.And where are we now? Some people clearly have decided that enough is enough and have changed jobs, restructured their lives.
But all too often we are simply to get back to what we previously saw as normal as fast as we can.
Modern living, far from heeding Jesus’s words, is increasingly concerned with such questions as ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ But will this search for possessions and wealth ever make us truly happy?
In today’s section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks of those who follow him as salt and light. Salt preserves, protects and purifies, light conquers darkness and shows us the way.
For faith to be faith, to be worthy of the name, it must be salt and light, it must be active, it must shine out, it must seek to transform not only our own hearts but also reach out to transform our world – otherwise it is merely a private piety, an internal, a selfish thing, a hidden thing.
The feast we celebrate today has many names; the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, the Meeting of the Lord, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, …. Candlemas – based on the tradition of the priest blessing beeswax candles on February 2nd for use throughout the year, some of which were distributed to the faithful for use in the home. Candles light our processions and stand on our altars, candles are with us at the time of our departing, at our funerals as a symbol of hope and light, but above all candles are with us at our baptisms, all our baptisms.
For if Christ is the light of the world, to the darkness in the world he brings hope and love and light. We too as Christians are meant to be a light to others – to carry the love and light of Christ to all whom we meet.
As the new year starts, advertisers often ask us to look ahead. January may be grey and dull we are told; it is dark and cold when you get up, and the same before you finish for the day. But just think, in the summer you could be on a beach, bathed in sunshine, far away from the realities of today. And, of course, it plays to our weaknesses. Our dissatisfaction with January needs little help or encouragement. But in all this looking forward we are blinding ourselves to the possibilities of life now.
Instead we might give thought to what energises us, what gives us meaning, what is our passion – now. For life is to be lived, not tomorrow – but today.
Jesus said ‘Come and see’.
What if he hadn’t? What if Jesus had not called Andrew and Simon. He would have found other disciples of course. But for Andrew and Simon, what would life have been like for them if he had neither spoken to them or called upon them to follow?
By extension we might ask the same question of ourselves. How would your life be different if you were not a Christian? If you had never been a Christian, what would your life be like? Where would you be, who would you know and love? What would you be doing, what would you be thinking and saying – what difference would it make – who would you be?
Apart from their names, over the centuries, the three Magi also developed distinct characteristics in Christian tradition, as new generations added new symbolisms and discovered new meanings in the story, so that between them they came to represent the three ages of (adult) man, three geographical and cultural areas, and sometimes other aspects as well.
We accompany them on their journey for we are pilgrims too, on our own holy journey. The journey through life, the journey in faith, the journey into the mystery of eternity.
And what Epiphany, what discoveries might we encounter in our own time?
As we look to the future in our lives and for our churches we might reflect what is the core business of our church and our faith. For a church that merely looks inward can never truly be called a church. In much the same way as the dead partner of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley reflects on the business of his life in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.
Jesus did not come to us as a powerful warrior, or as a ruler; he was neither rich or powerful or even particularly accepted in his day. Indeed, Jesus was rejected by so many in his lifetime precisely because he did not meet the expectations of a glorious deliverer – who they believed should be mighty, and military; who should sweep all before him, commanding armies and nations and people.
It is often said that in our present day we have lost the true meaning of Christmas. If that is true, then we clearly stand in a very, very long tradition of misunderstanding not only the purpose of Christmas, but also of the coming of Christ himself. So what is – the true meaning of Christmas?
By tradition, on the fourth Sunday of Advent we say prayers for Mary; we light the fourth Advent candle in her honour, we recall that she is to bear a child, under frightening circumstances, being little more than a child herself.
Patriarchal societies can sometimes be cruel and unjust, especially to women. But such has been the culture and practice of countless numbers of men throughout history – who have bullied, abused, intimidated and dominated their way through life, when in fact it was a woman who bore them and gave them life and so often extended to them acts of kindness that they little deserved and most certainly did not repay. But this, as it turns out, was not Joseph’s way. What can we learn from the examples of both Mary and Joseph?
For some time John the Baptist had been preaching, echoing Isaiah’s words of ‘the one who is to come’. Knowing that his time was drawing to an undoubtedly violent end, but at this stage still able to receive visitors in prison, John sent some friends to enquire of Jesus ‘Are you the one, of whom I have been speaking? Is it you that I have been pointing to, praying for?’
Years after these events, the small Jewish Christian community of which Matthew was the leader was trying to work out why this question was still being asked by some, and why Jesus and the beauty of his message of the Kingdom were still so widely rejected, both by his people generally and by the most powerful in the land especially, including the religious authorities to whom they looked for acceptance. Perhaps in our own age we can draw a kind of comfort from the fact that faith has never been easy, its future never secure.
‘…the voice crying out in the wilderness’. What a powerful phrase that is, it speaks of a yearning, of a need so deeply felt that it erupts from inside, a cry for justice, for deliverance, for humanity in the face of cruelty, for peace in the face of violence, for freedom in the face of oppression. In the desert of human suffering, in the wilderness of pain, a voice cries out. At this time in Advent, why do we hear of John the Baptist? Is his call for repentance all that Advent is about – or is there more?
It has become a cliche to say that Advent is a time of preparation, especially as we so often seem to prepare for the expected rather than the unexpected. But what does it even mean to prepare? Are we being invited to make temporary and external arrangements, are the changes to be practical, visible but extrinsic? Is this to be but a brief hiatus before we return, once more, to ’normal’? Or are we being invited on a journey of transformation that is essentially intrinsic, perhaps even private and invisible to others, but which for us helps to uncover and discover our true selves, the true ‘us’ inside. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he called us to life ‘in all its fullness’?