Sunday, 28 February 2016

Lent 3: Why?




Why do bad things happen?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why do bad things happen to me and to those I love?

These are questions which are as old as humanity.  Perhaps pondering them is one of the things that makes us human. We are aware of suffering and death even when they’re not happening to us. We know that we are mortal. We know that a whole host of things can easily go wrong in our lives– sickness, conflict, natural disaster. A whale  or an earthworm may feel pain, but they don’t lie awake at night worrying about whether tomorrow they will harpooned or sliced in half by a gardener’s spade. Imagination is both the gift and the curse of humanity.

To cope with our anxiety we look for patterns and signs that might help us to predict and control what happens to us. Sometimes it works. Human beings are very clever. We’ve discovered the causes and the treatments for many diseases. We’ve found ways of predicting earthquakes and volcanoes. Our lives are safer, easier and less painful than our ancestors as a result.    

But we still know that in the end we will all die. We can avoid many threats, but not all of them. We might be walking under a tree at the precise moment a branch falls off; a few seconds earlier, or later, and we would have survived. We might catch a disease that no one has yet found a cure for. We might be on the train that crashes, the bus that is blown up by a terrorist, the beach that is hit by a tsunami. That means that whenever there is a tragedy, those old, dark questions surface. “Why did it happen to those people , in that place, at that time?” If we can find the answer we think that maybe we can avert the same fate befalling us and our loved ones, and push death away at least for a while.

But in asking that question, we can end up seeming to blame the victim, as if they did something to bring what happened upon themselves, something we would have been clever enough, or good enough to avoid.
Take the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, for example. Many people died in that because when the water retreated before the tsunami hit, instead of running away, they went to take a closer look. Isn’t it tempting to think that we would have behaved differently, been more cautious, run like the clappers in the opposite direction?  I doubt it is true, but it makes us feel safer to think the victims could have acted differently and saved themselves.

Victim blaming can easily creep into religious faith. Those who suffer must have offended God, people say, but if we keep the rules, whatever we think they are, we’ll be ok.

That’s what the people who come to Jesus in today’s Gospel are thinking. There’s been a massacre in the Temple in Jerusalem. People were seriously rattled. Surely the Temple should have been the safest place in Israel, the dwelling place of God? If it had happened once, it could happen again. How many of us felt like that at the thought of travelling on the Tube after the 7/7 bombings, just felt a bit on edge, a bit nervous…?

The only way Jesus’ questioners can feel safe in the Temple again is to find some reason why these particular victims were killed. Perhaps they were troublemakers, deliberately provoking the Romans. Perhaps they had broken God’s rules, so he had withdrawn his protection.  Cruel though it seems, they want to feel that these people had it coming to them. They are desperate to avoid the conclusion that they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, because  if that was so, then everyone is at risk. But Jesus won’t support their twisted logic. He reminds them of some people killed in another disaster, the collapse of a tower at Siloam in Jerusalem.  “What about them? Did they have it coming too?”

Victim blaming won’t do, says Jesus. There was nothing about these people that invited these tragedies. But then he goes on to say something that really doesn’t sound reassuring at all.  “No, I tell you;” he says “ but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
At first sight it looks as if Jesus is actually making a bad theological situation even worse here. “No, it’s not that these people were uniquely wicked. You are all wicked and deserve to die too.”
Well, thanks Jesus! That really helps!

I am indebted to a colleague*   on an internet preaching forum this week for saying something which may help us out of the hole we now seem to be in with this story.
He pointed out that we often misread this story with an individualistic and narrowly spiritual focus instead of understanding its historical and political context. We make it about me and my faith and my individual salvation when we should be reading it through the eyes of the community who first heard it, in the particular time in which it was set.

Luke’s Gospel was written a decade or so after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. This was a huge calamity. The Jewish people were expelled from their homeland, scattered across the Middle East and the Mediterranean. They didn’t have a nation to call their own again until after the Second World War.  They lost their homes and their Temple, the centre of their faith. It had a profound emotional and spiritual impact on them. It brought to the surface all those anxious questions I started with. “Why has this happened?” “What have we done to deserve it?” “Who is to blame?”  The early Christians were caught up in this turmoil as well – most of them were Jewish and the Church’s main base was in Jerusalem. Their lives were turned upside down along with everyone else’s.  The Gospels were written in the shadow of this calamity, when it was fresh in everyone’s minds, and when the aftershocks were still rippling through the community.

Jesus foretells this destruction in all the Gospels – it’s an important theme in them. The Gospel writers could have been reading backwards, putting words in his mouth, but not necessarily.   Trouble had been brewing with Rome for the whole of Jesus’ life, with recurrent rebellions happening. It didn’t take a genius to see where it would lead. 

When we read this passage in the light of that catastrophe, it starts to sound very different. Jesus isn’t talking about God smiting people here. He isn’t talking about individual salvation. He is talking about the destruction the Roman Army will unleash, the political tensions which will tear the nation apart. There is a real prospect that  Jesus’ hearers will “all perish” like those massacred in the Temple or those killed by the tower collapse, and even if they aren’t physically killed, they are facing the death of their way of life, their collective culture and their faith. There’s no mystery here, no deep spiritual puzzle to be solved.  Jesus is saying “never mind why this person or that person happens to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a calamity coming which will fall on you all”

The good news is that there is something they can do about this – maybe not to prevent it, but at least to ensure that the “death” it brings isn’t permanent and total. They can repent. This doesn’t mean going about beating their breasts and wailing. The Greek word for repent - “metanoia  - literally means to change your mind, to change your perspective, your worldview, your priorities, to learn to see things in a different way. A few chapters later, Jesus will weep as he looks out over Jerusalem, “If only you had known… the things that make for peace” he says.  Whether this would have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem is open to question, but it would certainly help them weather the storms, and find new life after them.

When trouble strikes, when the walls around us come crashing down, it reveals who we really are, what we are really made of. It is bound to feel tough, maybe unbearably so at times, but if we have put down our roots deep into the nourishing soil of God’s love there will be sustenance to draw on, and good fruit in the midst of the chaos. That is what the parable Jesus goes on to tell is saying. Act now. Get the growing conditions right, and the most hopeless fig tree that looks like it is a complete waste of space can show itself to be full of life. In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah had the same advice in an earlier time of trouble – “eat what is good” “Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live.” Don’t waste your resources “for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy.” That’s what we do when we try to kid ourselves that if we are good enough or clever enough we can be immune from trouble. That’s what we do when we spend our energies blaming others rather than looking at the faults that lie within us. 

We don’t have the Roman Army breathing down our necks today, but our challenges are just as frightening. Take climate change, for example. At the moment the poorest nations of the world are bearing the brunt of it, but already we are being affected as people from those areas are forced to migrate to avoid starvation and the inevitable conflicts that result from resources being scarce. We have time, if we act now, to do something to help the world through this. But to do so we have to repent, to change our view of ourselves. We need to address our craving to consume. We need to learn that we are part of one family, with one planet and find better ways of living together on it. Above all we need to learn to trust God for the courage and the love these challenges will demand of us.  

Why do bad things happen? We’ll never be able to answer that question completely. But God, like the gardener in the parable Jesus told, longs for us to put our roots down into him, now, before the storms of life come, so we are firmly anchored, richly fed, and able to bear the good fruit we need to sustain us and the world around us.
Amen

*Many thanks to Greg Crawford.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Lent 1: The Spirit in the wilderness




I was in Seal School earlier this week, leading a school assembly, as I normally do every other Thursday. It was the beginning of Lent, so I told them the Gospel story we’ve heard today, the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. But before I did so, I asked them to imagine a desert of their own. We sat in silence, as we thought about what we could see in our desert, what was in front of us, and around us. We thought about what we could hear – was the wind blowing, was it silent? We thought about whether it was hot or cold? What were we standing on? Rock or sand maybe? We thought about what it felt like to be there; did we feel peaceful or frightened?

Then I asked the children to describe “their” desert for me. As always there were all sorts of answers. There were cacti and “that sort of bush that blows around “ – tumbleweed, I think they meant. One child told me how the sand was tickly under her feet. One had a pyramid in his desert. Another told me that his desert was completely black, no light, no stars. Some admitted to being a bit frightened, but then one girl said “I felt a bit lonely in my desert at first but then I remembered that I wasn’t alone after all.” “ So, who was with you?” I asked. “God was with me,” she said….
Out of the mouths of babes…

I thought of her comment when I read the beginning of today’s Gospel. There’s an odd little detail in Luke’s version of this story which  is different from the way it is written in the other Gospels. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. But Luke says that he was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” 

“In” or “into”. It seems like such a small thing but it makes a big difference to the meaning.  “Into” implies that the Spirit just took Jesus into the wilderness; after that he was on his own. But if he was led by the Spirit in the wilderness then the Spirit was with him the whole time, guiding him, strengthening him. That’s what Luke wants to emphasize. As that child at Seal School said, he wasn’t alone at all.

The Spirit is immensely important in Luke – he mentions it far more often than the other Gospel writers. Gabriel tells Mary that  ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you” (21.39) when he announces that she will be the mother of the Messiah. The Spirit brings Simeon to the Temple to see the new-born Christ (2.27). The Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism. (3.22). As he begins his ministry he quotes the prophet Isaiah - ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor. (4. 18) I could go on, but you get the picture. And in the second volume of Luke’s writings – the Acts of the Apostles – the Spirit has a starring role again, this time coming on the Disciples and driving them out across the world to spread the good news.

The Spirit is often the overlooked member of the Trinity, the one we are vaguest about, but in the Bible the Spirit is everywhere; at Creation, hovering over the waters of chaos to bring order out of them, inspiring the prophets, bringing them the word of God. The Spirit was the way the people of Israel talked about the real, immediate presence of God. The Spirit wasn’t a distant figure, enthroned in the heavens, but around them and within them, whether they were aware of it or not. “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?” says Psalm 139. The answer is, nowhere. The Spirit is with him always and everywhere.

So perhaps Luke is just stating something that he thought should be obvious. The Spirit doesn’t just lead Jesus  into the wilderness, but in the wilderness too, day by day through that 40 day long ordeal. Jesus is not alone, and he will never be alone in Luke’s Gospel, even as he hangs on the cross. His last word’s in Luke’s Gospel are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”, word of trust and faith. In Mark’s Gospel he cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, but there’s none of that sense of forsakenness in Luke. He knows God is there even at that most terrible moment, that second wilderness of pain and death, because he’d found him to be present long before in this first wilderness.

When Satan comes to him with all sorts of seductive suggestions, he’s ready to answer him because he knows God is with him.  He hears Satan’s words, slippery words which twist the Scriptures, taking them out of their context so they sound as if they mean things they don’t mean. But the Spirit’s voice within him is louder and clearer.

“Turn these stones into bread”, says Satan. After all, God had given people miraculous manna in the wilderness before. But Jesus knows that he needs to hunger and thirst for righteousness and wisdom, not a slap up meal.
“Exercise the power you’ve been given in my service”, says Satan. But Jesus knows that he has been given authority so that he can do his Father’s work, loving and serving others, not grabbing glory for himself.
“Do something spectacular to prove God loves you”, says Satan, but Jesus already knows that – he doesn’t need to put it to the test. He trusts that God will take him where he needs to go, and will be with him whatever happens.   

The Spirit leads Jesus  in the wilderness because the Spirit leads him everywhere.

We might say at this point, bully for Jesus – that’s great for him! He is filled with the Spirit, never alone. But what about us? How are we supposed to manage in our wildernesses? After all, Jesus is the Son of God, which gives him a bit of an unfair advantage over the rest of us. What are we supposed to do when we are in the desert, and feeling deserted?  

If we are starting to feel disgruntled we need to look again at Luke’s Gospel, and especially at the words which come immediately before this story. Between the story of Jesus’ baptism and this story, Luke puts in a fascinating interlude. It is his account of the genealogy of Jesus. That might not sound very fascinating at first sight, but, trust me, it is. It starts from Jesus and works backwards. “[Jesus] was the son (as was thought) of Joseph, son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi,” and so on and so on it goes, back through the generations, until we get to “Canain, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam - son of God.” That’s what Luke writes. Jesus the Son of God is the descendant of Adam, who is also described as son of God.

Christians believe that Jesus is Son of God in some sense uniquely, of course – we’ve just been exploring that in the first session of our Lent course – but we also believe that every one of us is his son or daughter too.
God made Adam out of the dust, according to the book of Genesis, but it was only when he breathed his own breath into him that Adam became a living being.  The word for that life-giving breath was “ruach” in Hebrew, which can also be translated “spirit” – the words are interchangeable. We don’t have to take the Genesis story literally to understand what it is trying to tell us. God’s own breath, God’s own Spirit, is what filled Adam. Without it, he was just mud. According to the Bible, being fully alive, fully human, means being filled with God’s Spirit, having his presence deep within you, as close as the breath you take. That’s not just something that is true for Jesus, but for all of us, because we are all descended from Adam in the Bible’s view, like Jesus, children of Adam and therefore children of God.  

Our life is given to us by God, says the Bible. All of us have his God-breathed Spirit within us, whether we acknowledge it or not. God's presence might be more obvious at some times, than at others. We might have  smothered the Spirit with our cares and worries, with the distractions of wealth, with all the other inner rubbish we accumulate. But the Spirit of God is stronger than our junk, calling us to breathe with God's breath, and allow God's life to be our heartbeat.

That’s why we keep this season of Lent. It is a chance to face our wildernesses, so that we can find  the Spirit of God leading us within them. In Lent, we give up some of the things we thought we couldn’t live without, so that we can discover God’s riches within us. We look for ways to love and serve others, to stretch our love and  compassion, and in the process discover that God’s love and compassion are inexhaustible. We carve out time for prayer, for discussion, for reflection, so that we can tune our ears to the voice of the Spirit and learn to tell the right pathways from the wrong in the trackless desert that life can often seem to be.

I began by talking about the wildernesses the children of Seal School imagined for themselves. They were all very different, but very real. I wonder what yours would be like if I asked you to describe it? I wonder how you feel as you imagine yourself standing in it?  It may be that your wilderness isn’t just a place you go to for Lent, but a place you have to live in long-term.  It may be a wilderness of chronic illness, or family problems or financial worries. But whatever our wilderness is like, and however it feels to be there, as I was reminded by that child this week, we aren’t alone. God is with us. The Spirit leads us in it, and if we know that we will know that we can never be truly lost, and our desert will never be a place in which we are deserted.
Amen

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Sunday before Lent: The transfiguring journey




If you could have a conversation with someone from the past, I wonder who it would be, and what you would say?

Perhaps it would be someone you knew, someone special to you, someone who you’d love to talk to again, or someone you wish you had a chance to sort something out with. Perhaps it would be someone famous from history – Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Elvis Presley…  Perhaps you’d like to know what it was like to be them, to have made history. I’d love to talk to some of the ancestors I have discovered in my family tree, people who lived hundreds of years ago, navvies and trawlermen and agricultural labourers. I’d love to know what they would have thought of me and my life, so very different from their own. Whether we want to satisfy a deep personal need or just our own curiosity, I expect we can all think of conversations we’d love to have with people who are now gone.

That’s exactly what happens in today’s Gospel. Through the eyes of his disciples, we get a ringside view of a conversation Jesus has with Moses and Elijah, great figures from Israel’s past.  Jesus had been talking to his disciples about his death and resurrection just before this, talking about things that baffled and probably upset them. Maybe it was just as hard for him to accept where his ministry was leading him as it was for them. Who would want to contemplate a future like this? If you knew you were heading for crucifixion, how would you feel? Maybe that was why, at this point, he felt he needed to take time out to pray.  So he headed up a mountain, taking with him his closest disciples, Peter, James and John.

And there on the mountain they saw a sight that astonished them; Jesus shining with light, and Moses and Elijah talking with him. There was a tradition at the time that Moses and Elijah would appear again to herald the coming of the Messiah, but I don’t think they are just symbols in this story. There is a real conversation going on here. It seems as if Jesus needs their company.

But what are they talking about? All we are told is that they talking “of [Jesus] departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.“ It’s frustrating that we aren’t given more detail – wouldn’t it be fascinating to have a recording? – but all is not lost, because  what we are told is very revealing if we read it carefully. In particular, it helps to read it in the original Greek.  

The word for “departure” in Greek is exodos . It is just the ordinary Greek word for “way out”. It’s what you would see in an airport or train station if you were looking for the exit. But of course that word “exodos” takes on a whole new significance in the context of a story in which Moses features.  All departures were exoduses, but for the Jewish people – then and now - only one departure was The Exodus, that journey out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and it was Moses who led the people on it.

So when we hear that Jesus is talking to Moses about his “exodos”, his own departure - his death - I am quite sure we are supposed to make the link. We are being told that his death wasn’t just going to be a death, an ending, it would also be the start of a journey to a new place for him and for those who followed him.  Like Moses exodus, Jesus would have to confront oppressive powers – the might of Rome and of the Jewish authorities, but in doing so he too would lead his people on a journey out of slavery, that sense of being trapped in hopeless cycles of vengeance and retribution and sin, into a new kingdom, the kingdom of God.
That kingdom, a new Promised Land wouldn’t be a geographical place, nor would  it be somewhere you only got to when you died. It would be a place you found yourself in as you worked for justice, as you learned to love others, as you built a new community in which all were welcomed and honoured.

But it would be a painful, terrifying experience, just like the Exodus of Moses had been. It must have been terrifying to stand before Pharaoh, who had the power of life and death in his hands. It must have been a huge burden to feel responsible for thousands of men, women and children in the midst of the desert. It must have been painful to leave behind all that was familiar and comforting to go out into the unknown. So who better for Jesus to speak to than Moses as he faced having to stand before the powers of his age, knowing he would be deserted by his friends, who felt he’d let them down?

Jesus needed Moses’ wisdom and experience. What might he have said to Jesus about all this? “Yes, it was tough, and painful, and uncertain, but I discovered God was with me every step of the way, giving me the strength I needed as I needed it.”

The presence of Elijah underlines this message. He was the prophet who had  confronted King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, manipulative, heartless, cruel monarchs who were only interested in preserving their own power. Often Elijah had stood alone, or felt that he did. Twice he had had to run away into the desert to save his life. There were times when he felt that his struggle was all for nothing, futile and hopeless, when he wondered what on earth God was up to. Jesus felt that way too, in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed desperately for some other way to achieve his goals, and as he hung on the cross, crying out “why have you forsaken me” to his Father. 

So, as he stood on the mountainside, he had Moses, the great leader, and Elijah, the great prophet, by his side, with all their wisdom and experience. Neither of them could have given him a simple solution, a sure-fire way of coping with the days ahead , but they could tell  him that, however it looked, God would be with him. However forsaken he felt, and however forsaken he seemed to others, God would not let him go. 

That’s why Peter’s words seem so crass and inappropriate when he blurts out “Master it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings...” This conversation isn’t about dwelling; it is about departure. It isn’t about how good it is to be where we are, to stay put, to have arrived; it is about setting off on a journey into the unknown, which we may not want to take at all.

This story of the Transfiguration is very deliberately followed in the Gospel by another story, a story which might seem very different, but is actually meant to go with it, to help us see what it means. Jesus went down the mountain again, we are told, and straightaway he is greeted by a desperate father whose only son is suffering from what we would recognise very clearly today as epilepsy. At the time of Jesus - and indeed until quite recently – those who had fits like these were assumed to be possessed. That’s quite wrong, of course, and very damaging, but I can see how that idea might have arisen. A number of people in my close family have epilepsy, so I am very used to dealing with it, but even when you know what causes it – just some neurons in the brain misfiring – seizures can be alarming to watch. The person you know and love can seem to become someone else, someone strange, distorted by the fit into someone you hardly recognise. This father describes how his child is mauled by what he thinks is an evil spirit, as a lion mauls its prey. Jesus’ disciples seem to have been helpless in the face of all this, no use at all. Reading between the lines, I suspect they had recoiled. But Jesus didn’t. As he was speaking, right there and then, the child had a fit, but Jesus healed him, and gave him back to his father. That doesn’t just mean that he handed him over physically. It says to us that he gave him back the son he loved, restoring his true identity.

These two stories – the Transfiguration and the healing of this boy with epilepsy – go together, as I said. Both of them challenge us to look beneath the surface if we really want to find the truth about Jesus, about other people, about ourselves.

This boy, his father’s only son, is not a demon-possessed write-off. He is the beloved child of a father who will go to any lengths to see him healed, and who won’t take no for an answer. No matter how distorted his appearance becomes when he has a seizure, this father knows his son’s true identity and never stops loving him. In the same way, on the cross, at his exodus, Jesus will look mauled, disfigured, hopeless, but he is the only son of a loving father too – both these stories are about fathers and sons. Jesus’ Father God, the one who calls him Beloved and Chosen,  knows that beneath the mangled appearance, there is the dazzling glory of love. That glory is revealed briefly here on the mountain, but it will be seen fully when Jesus is raised from that terrible death.

This Sunday is the Sunday before Lent begins. On Ash Wednesday we begin our journey towards the cross. That journey has to start by accepting that we are marred and disfigured, not the shiny, perfect people we’d like to be. That’s why we receive the sign of the cross, made in ash, at our Ash Wednesday service. It might seem like a rather negative thing to do, but actually it is profoundly hopeful. We can acknowledge our failings and limitations, we can admit that we are broken, disappointed and  mauled by life, because we know that God will not only see that, but will also see the light of Christ within us, his own image shining out of the shadows. To him, we are infinitely worth loving, saving, mending, restoring, and just like that loving father who brings his child to Jesus, he won’t take no for an answer. He will stick with us until our journey, our exodus, is finished, until we become the people he wants us to be, in the land which is our true home.
Amen

Monday, 1 February 2016

Candlemas

Luke 2.22-40, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, Ezekiel 43.27-44.4 The Presentation of Christ in the Temple The official feast day for Candlemas is 2nd February, obviously this is the Sunday nearest. The Church of England rules for the Christian year state that it is a principal feast day like Ash Wednesday or Ascension day for example, yet it is one with which we are often less familiar. We may also know it as ‘The Presentation of Christ in the Temple’. Some of you probably know that Jewish law considered a woman unclean for 40 days after she had given birth to a boy and for even longer after the birth of a girl. During this time the mother would have been excluded from the temple. At the end of this they were brought to the temple to be purified, and also brought the child to present him to God and give thanks, after which the woman would be permitted to join in worship once again. As we strive to make this church a place that is welcoming to everyone it’s hard to hear how the temple at the time of Jesus excluded so many through its various rules. Traditions grew based around light, perhaps the light of Christ revealed in the temple mixed with pagan recognition that we are moving away from the season of darkness towards spring equinox, and this date was adopted as the day when a church would bless all its candles for the year, obviously important when there was no electricity, hence the name Candlemas. Candles can only share their light by burning themselves away, chiming with self-sacrifice, service and love. Our reading from Ezekiel resonates with our gospel reading. God comes to the temple and fills it with his glory and we hear that Ezekiel ‘falls upon his face’. What else could he do? How would we react when all we hoped to be true, built our very existence around, longed, worked and prayed for was made real before our very eyes? In Luke’s gospel as Christ is presented in the temple there is a strange mix of the ordinary and extraordinary. It’s quite likely that this routine ritual was being observed by several couples with their babies at the same time, as we sometimes do with christenings. Every parent feels that their child is special but one is clearly more special than the others who are somewhat upstaged by what happens next! The extraordinary is made real by Simeon and Anna. Luke gives them credibility and respect, a sort of character reference describing Simeon as ‘righteous’ and ‘devout’ and stating that ‘the Holy Spirit rested upon him’. We hear how Anna worshipped in the temple ‘with fasting and prayer night and day’. They are each of a good age and there is a sense that they are the people who could be relied upon to recognise the ‘Lord’s Messiah’ if anyone could. They had been waiting, watching, longing and preparing patiently over the years. Simeon, a total stranger, takes Jesus from Mary’s arms and begins to proclaim loudly about him. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’. Like Ezekiel Simeon and Anna realise that God has filled the temple, Simeon’s reaction is to praise God, light and hope have been born into the darkness, he’s effectively saying that nothing greater could happen in his life, to the extent that he was now ready to accept death peacefully as a fulfilled and joyful man. Anna starts sharing the good news with those seeking the Messiah. As well as being amazed Jesus parents must have been disturbed and frightened to hear that many will oppose their son and that struggle and pain were in the future. Of course the words of Simeon have been incorporated into our ritual worship, heard regularly here at Evensong as the Nunc Dimittis, from the Latin, ‘now you dismiss’. There’s encouragement here for us to keep a patient faith alive, even when it feels that we can’t see the light, to maintain eyes open to seeing God’s love in human bodies often passed by and sometimes apparently invisible to many. Ezekiel, Anna and Simeon have not stumbled across God by chance it’s clear that their faithful longing to see God glorified is all that matters to them.Paul’s letter challenges the Corinthians to consider whether that’s the case for them. Did I hear a voice protesting ‘what he didn’t write this for couples to have read at their wedding ceremony?’ I am sure we have all heard the reading time and again at weddings, it’s even suggested as an appropriate wedding reading by the Church of England on the website so it must be OK. Certainly if the couple in a marriage can share love which is patient and kind, which rejoices in the truth, which is not irritable or resentful, then they are off to a great start. It might also help to consider that eventually many accept that you can also find love in your partner when they are irritable and worth reminding the other that ‘love does not insist on its own way’ sparingly. Few wedding days will allow time to reflect on the fuller meaning of Paul’s words.Because of love Mary’s soul was pierced by a sword, because of love Jesus died on a cross and because of love it’s inevitable that each of our hearts will be broken. Yet still we find there is nothing greater. Paul is telling the church in Corinth that it is God who doesn’t insist on his own way, that it is Jesus who bears all things on our behalf and it’s time for the church to remember this, come together and reflect this love amongst themselves. Last week we heard St Paul speak about the diverse members that make up the body of Christ and it follows that God’s love is for all even to the extent that it connects us to those we have loved that have died. Romantic, sentimental love may have it’s place but Paul points us towards love that is so profound that it becomes the very foundation for all that we are. I found some words from the theologian Leslie Weatherhead which might help, he says that…‘Love in the New Testament is stern and strong and severe and virile. It is not sloppy and sentimental and weak…Love is all the things St Paul described…. , but it has steel in it as well as tears and a smashing power greater far than dynamite. Love suffers, entreats and endures, and fools think this is weakness. But those who oppose love take up arms against the whole universe. They will be broken, not love. For love is invincible. Love is the only power in the world that can change our motives as they have got to be changed if our dreams are to come true.’ You may not agree with me but it feels that St Paul’s words on love are in fact better suited to a funeral than a wedding. Paul points us to a time when we will see what perfect love looks like, not the blemished version we know in our earthly relationships. The love in which God knows us will be known to us when we see face to face. The challenge of Candlemas, then, is a challenge to find the presence of God in our midst, to look for his love at work among us at home, at work, at school maybe even in church. As we reflect on the brutal words uttered to Mary ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ we start to think of lent and Easter, it’s time for the crib to be put away for another year. As we move closer to Lent now is also a great opportunity to decide how we might use the season to break habits that stop us seeing God at work in each other, might we even learn to be a little more ‘Simeon like’ in our faith, patience and expectation? Amen Kevin Bright 31 January 2016