Monday 24 February 2020

Sunday before Lent: Glory and Reality

Lord, may we see your glory.  May that glory fill this holy place and fill the whole world. May your glory seep from the heavens into our lives to animate us and illumine our hearts, that, as Christ’s glory was seen by human witnesses on the holy mountain, we may see that glory in our worship.


Our readings today tell of human witnesses led up mountains where they see God’s glory.  First Moses goes alone, leaving Aaron and Hur, and then Jesus goes up the mountain, taking Peter, James and John with him.

When glory bursts out heaven touches earth.

This glory breaks out in the Law, the way of hallowing every day in relationship with God, revealed through Moses on the mountain top. This glory is described as a devouring fire, so powerful and searing it was.

God’s glory doesn’t just appear on mountain tops. The prophet Isaiah has a vision within the Temple: heaven touches earth. Isaiah sees the Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour as seraphs call ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6.3). Glory is released and unrestricted, it’s not hemmed in or defined: unbounded glory!

And yet in Israel’s story the glory has dimmed. It was like that before God raised up Samuel. In Eli’s day the light was dimmed, but not quite gone out God (1 Samuel 3.1-3a). The glory itself was not dim, but it appeared dim because frail human eyes could not see it.

(Glory dims in our own day when the gospel is betrayed by those who espouse goodness, truth and beauty and then - from positions of authority, power or trust - abuse the young and the vulnerable physically, emotionally or spiritually. I am thinking here of instances of the diabolical abuse of minors. That violates the vulnerable and defaces the beauty of the vision of Jesus Christ).

That is no vision of Christ, but a vision of obstinate human sin.

Such a contrast is when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain and there they see the most overwhelming sight. It is the radiant glory of God. Nothing brighter or more splendid is seen in all creation. Accompanying this sight are the words of the Father,, that we recall from Christ's Baptism, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him’. (Matthew 17.5b)

This glory is intertwined in the tapestry of the scriptures. And on the Holy Mountain there is the intriguing reference to the presence of Moses and Elijah. Threads from Israel’s story are woven into the Transfigured Glory of Jesus. The witnesses saw not only Jesus Christ but Moses, representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets; Elijah’s presence hinting at the ministry of John the Baptist, our patron saint who prepares the way of the Lord.

On that mountain Jesus is central, flanked by Moses and Elijah, and he is the light through which the Old Covenant of Law and Prophets is to be seen.

It’s little wonder that Peter wants to capture and hold on to this glory.

In words, later attributed to him, Peter describes how he saw this uncreated, divine light, and heard those words, as an eyewitness of Christ’s majesty. And he wants us to glimpse what he saw. He exhorts us, ‘You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your heart’ (2 Peter 1.19b).

St John reflected on this glory in the life of Christ: ‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ’ (John 1.17). It is in Jesus Christ that we see the fullness of God’s glory: ‘And the Word was made flesh and we have seen his glory, glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14)

How do we connect with this glory?

The way is through Jesus Christ. The journey of glory is not just about mountain top revelations, but a way that takes us through the dark valleys and the sunlit peaks of human experience.

We see this when Jesus takes Peter and James and John somewhere else. This time it is to a dark place and not up a mountain. He takes them down, into the Valley in Jerusalem, between the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives: to Gethsemane.

It’s as if to say, if you want to see the glory you have to go into the darkness too. From Gethsemane Jesus begins his walk to the Cross, lifted up on the hill, the mount of Calvary. He had already revealed to the disciples, and to us, that it is when he is lifted up on the cross that his glory will be fully seen. (John 12.20-26). And there he is not flanked by great figures of Israel’s story but by two convicted criminals; his glory is revealed even there.

Lent is a journey into glory, in its darkness and acknowledgement of our sinfulness. As we hear on Ash Wednesday, as the sign of the cross is marked on our heads in ash, ‘Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return; turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.

We begin that journey this Wednesday. The self-denial of Lent, the forty days and forty nights, clears our sight to see the glory of Easter.

In Lent we do not sing the great opening of the Eucharist, ‘Glory be to God on high’, the glorious word, Alleluia’ falls silent, and yet still we sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee O Lord most high’.

May our journey together this Lent, be a journey into life and hope; a journey into glory.

Tuesday 18 February 2020

Living Abundantly: 'Do not worry'

Preached as a sermon on the Second Sunday before Lent. Readings Genesis 1.1-2.3; Matthew 6.25-end

Jesus said: ‘Do not worry, saying “What will we eat?” or “what will we drink?” or “what will we wear?”…your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things’


Last week I went along to the Minster Infant School where the community prayer spaces project was running. There were some lovely things to do and to think about.

One of the spaces was helping children think about worries and anxieties.

How could they have worries without those worries taking hold of them?

One way was to hand them on somewhere else: so they had the ‘Worry Monster’.

The Worry Monster was a cuddly toy, albeit looking like a monster, which had a disproportionally large mouth which could be zipped shut.  The idea was that you wrote down your worries on a slip of paper and posted them in the Worry Monster’s mouth and he would eat them up, and they were gone.

If only it were that straightforward we might say!

We are all becoming very much more aware of issues of mental health and anxiety. A superficial hearing of Jesus’ words - ‘do not worry’ - seems to dismiss the very acute reality of the crippling, chronic anxiety that some people have. That is of a different order.

Jesus’ ‘Do not worry’ is about everyday living and discipleship, and not chronic mental health, although it does help us ponder how we function day by day and how we see the world.

The Worry Monster in the school reminds that we will all worry and that’s not wicked in itself– we’re human after all – and illustrates that we shouldn’t hold on to our worries or wallow in them, but that they are best let go of, and handed over.

The little worries and anxieties need to be put in perspective, and also not be allowed to grow into the deeper worries that lead to paralysing anxiety. Classically, of course, as Christians we hand our worries and anxieties over to God, in prayer.

Worry and anxiety seems to be a feature of being human. I am no anthropologist, but perhaps human worry stems from the days when our ancestors were living in caves and would worry about where the next meal was coming from. That sort of worry would spur us on to hunt and gather, so that there was food for the next day.

Jesus suggests that it’s not that way with the birds and the flowers. Take a look at them. The blue tit in your garden is not sitting in her bird box worrying about where the next peanut to peck is coming from; she flies out into an abundant creation expectant that she will be fed. The lily growing in a garden isn’t angsting about what it looks like, trying to earn approval; it simply grows and is beautiful.

So what is it with us? We worry about ‘what we will eat, what we will drink, what we will wear’. Jesus puts that to us not to make us guilty but to prompt us to consider the deep questions about where we put our trust and confidence, where we root our hopes and aspirations, for our heavenly Father knows our needs.

Of course we want to live in a world without fear and worry, a secure, tranquil world without turbulence and threat, but then we create for ourselves a world of fear with the assumption that there is never enough as its hallmark: that is scarcity.

And then we assume we need more. It’s not just about survival; we’re not even in a world where things are scarce. Globally the real inequity and iniquity is the woeful distribution of food in our world, not the amount of food. People go hungry in the same world where people eat lavishly and on demand, chucking out food, not even storing it up, and then worry about being overfed.

That’s why Jesus says ‘just look at the world around you and see its abundance’. The Old Testament reading set for today is the creation account of Genesis 1, and the underlying message there is of an abundant creation. Of course it is a creation we seem hell-bent on damaging, rather than stewarding.

If we see the world as a place of scarcity - bereft of beauty, love and hope - then our worries will grow: we would have much to be worried about.

If we see the world as a place of abundance, overflowing with beauty, love and hope, then our worries will diminish.

The Christian life is about practising habits – good habits – that shape who we become.

Those individuals, societies, churches, who assume a scarce world will live scarcely and will only find scarcity: they will be grudging, penny pinching, suspicious, unimaginative, and cautious, not delighting in others, but mistreating and demeaning them. They operate out of their worries.

By contrast, the Holy Spirit breathes abundance into our world and our lives, opening us up to abundance. Those who assume a Spirit filled, abundant, world will be loving, joyful, generous, peaceful, patient, kind, faithful, gentle and self-aware (cf Galatians 5.22-23). They will revel in beauty, in art, music and inspiration.

There are people I know, I guess you do too, who carry many cares about health, finance or relationships and yet live free and abundant lives. They operate out of abundance not fear.

Yes, we will worry. Jesus knows that. The first step in seeking the Kingdom of God is to acknowledge an abundant creation, then to trust that we will be fed, watered and clothed. That will begin to shape us into the people we seek to become, so that we depend more on God and less on ourselves.

God has given us the gift of life; God has given more than we can possibly need. So our prayer ‘give us this day our daily bread’ is not a plea from scarcity, but an acknowledgement that God provides out of God’s deep abundance, and will give us more than we can deserve or desire.

Jesus said: ‘Do not worry, saying “What will we eat?” or “what will we drink?” or “what will we wear?”…your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things’

Monday 3 February 2020

A sermon for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple

First preached as sermon at Croydon Minster on the feast of The Presentation of Christ in the Temple


A community - spanning the generations - with the eyes of all fixed upon Jesus Christ.

That is a pretty reasonable working definition of what a church is called to be: a community, those who break bread together - spanning the generations - with the eyes of all fixed upon Jesus Christ, God Incarnate.

It is something of the scene described in this morning’s gospel reading. A woman and a man - Anna and Simeon - both advanced in years; both expectant and full of hope praying in the Temple: a woman and man, Mary and Joseph, two young parents expectant and full of hope bringing their child to the Temple as required by the Law of Moses.

Anna and Simeon are in the Temple, the place of encounter with God, looking for the coming Lord.

They could have said, as the psalm puts it, ‘we wait for thy loving-kindness, O Lord: in the midst of thy Temple’ (Psalm 48.8).

In the arms of his Mother, Jesus Christ is brought into their midst: the Hope of the Nations, the Light to Enlighten All People, God’s Own Salvation.

The words of the prophet Malachi are fulfilled for Anna and Simeon, ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’ (Malachi 3.1).

So we have the elders, Anna and Simeon, and the young parents, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Joseph, her husband and Jesus’ guardian.

This is the image from the icon of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple that you have on the prayer cards distributed this morning.

From left to right:

Joseph stands holding the two young pigeons for the sacrificial offering in the Temple and gazing over at Jesus.

Next to him is Anna, pointing at Mary, whose role was always to be the Mother of God, in Greek Theotokos, also translated, Godbearer. And Anna looks at Mary’s Son and holds in her hand an unfurled scroll with words of prophecy and expectation about Christ.

Then there is Mary herself, who has handed over her child - from the vestibule to the sanctuary - and like Anna, she has a gesture of pointing towards Jesus.

Then the heart of the icon: all eyes are directed at Jesus, who gives the appearance of tugging Simeon’s beard (just like when I have baptised babies and had my nose pinched, lapel microphone torn off and eye poked: yes, all that has happened).

And Simeon bears in his hands his Saviour and ours. It is almost as if he is receiving Holy Communion, and indeed he is, and look at the warmth of his loving gaze, and the reverence of his receiving of Jesus.

This is an inter-generational scene if ever there was one. The church is one of the few places that young and old come together, not graded by precedence but on an equal footing, because we are all here as children of the Most High, children of God.

Receiving Jesus is at the heart of Candlemas and the Christian life. And it has a practical outworking that we’ve been pondering in this church over since the Feast of the Epiphany.

How we receive children in church is a measure of our delight, valuing and welcome of the youngest into our midst, even if they figuratively pinch our noses, poke our eyes, or, more likely, bellow and wail.

Modern re-working of the traditional icon
of the Presentation, seen in a church in Ghent
Last Sunday leaders and helpers from our groups for children and young people at this church met to consider how best our children and young people might be served here, and how they remind us all of the call to be welcoming and hospitable to everyone.

That is what our Candlemas prayer card is for, that we might pray for the whole church family so that we may all, young and old, grow in wisdom.

So Candlemas tells us to welcome the young, appreciate those nurturing the young, and also value the precious wisdom that can come with years.

On one level that just gives us a sociological insight into the church; that is, if we fail to see that what is being presented in Christ is the mystery of his incarnation and the fullness of the Gospel. That’s what Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph see in the Temple when Christ is presented there.

The presentation of Christ in the Temple moves us on from any sociological observations and takes us deep into the realities of life and mortality, love and loss, hopes and pain.

Avoidance of the cost and pain of life and Christian discipleship does no one, least of all our children, any favours. The gospel is cheapened when we airbrush out the radicalism of its power, and try and blunt its dramatic message and full implications. That would be to proclaim Easter with the Cross. It’s what the twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’:

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Grace is free, but should never be cheapened; that’s Bonhoeffer’s point. Cheap grace does not equip us to handle the predicament of being human, loving and losing, cherishing and weeping:

Anna knows God’s free gift of grace, having lived a life in loneliness as a widow for many years, worshipping and fasting, yet until this moment never having her hopes truly fulfilled. 

Simeon, a righteous man, knows God’s liberating grace as he sees his mortality in a new and liberating way: he can now die, knowing he has seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Mary learns of the costly grace that will come with the redeeming death of her son on the cross, as a sword pierces her own soul.

This is profoundly realistic about life. Christians do not live in cocoons. If we walk the way of the cross we can’t.

That is what the Candlemas Procession tells us: knowing Christ as Emmanuel, God with us, through his incarnation - and bearing candles signifying that light - we turn – young and old - from the Crib to the Cross, from the birth to the death of Jesus. Mortality is never far from our doors. Yet marked with the sign of the cross, recipients of the blood of Christ, our hope is well placed in the Light to enlighten the nations, Jesus Christ, our hope and our salvation.

Simeon glimpsed this truth and will have recognised its coming in every fibre of his being, for, as he knew from the psalms:

‘… this God is our God for ever and ever: he shall be our guide unto death’ (Psalm 48.13)