Revelation 5: 1-5a, Luke 2: 22-40
Candlemas is an occasion when we have often come together for worship. Frequently we are at Pen for this service and I love to see that church filled with candles. Have never understood why Candlemas falls on the celebration of the presentation of Christ until this year – I always assumed it was a case of the church making use of a date that was already in folk use, probably linked to the gradual returning of the light. There is a degree of truth in this, as the day falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and has long been a celebration of the returning daylight. We probably all know too that Candlemas has a weather association rather like St Swithin’s day that tells us roughly that the finer the weather on Candlemas, the more winter there is to come and conversely bad weather on that day indicates that the winter weather is largely over. Keep a look out on Tuesday!
Preaching is good for me though, as I have learned this year that Candlemas is the 40th day of, and therefore the end of the Christmas season. Apparently, it is also the correct day to take down any Christmas decorations that did not get taken down in time for twelfth night. In telling us this part of the story, Luke is reminding us of the piety of Joseph and Mary, and of their financial standing. As well as a sacrifice of thanks for the child and a safe delivery, it was customary to pay a small sum of money to the priest, to redeem or ‘buy back’ the child from God. It is a good reminder to all of us that our children are entrusted to us by God and are never really ours.
Light is a theme throughout Epiphany, which starts with the star which led the magi to Jesus, and when we celebrate the first sharing of the Saviour with gentiles as well as Jews and ends with Candlemas when traditionally the candles to be used in worship for the year would be brought into church to be blessed. This link with light however is taken from the wonderful words of praise and prophecy spoken by Simeon when he recognised the Christ child – ‘to be a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel’.
Simeon also foretells that Christ’s life and ministry will not be easy, that he will show things that people would rather have kept secret, will meet with opposition and that his chosen path will cause grief to his family – and this last seems to be directed chiefly to Mary. This prophecy makes more sense to us who know what happened during Jesus life on earth and the manner of his death. The opposition to his life and ministry are also told in highly figurative language in our first reading, when John’s vision shows him the struggle between the powers of evil and good, and how the coming of Christ to the nation of Israel was opposed, but that this did not succeed.
We seem to know quite a lot about Simeon, but less about Anna. What we do know, if we disregard the information about her husband and her great age – in itself exceptional for the times, makes her an exceptional person. She is described as a prophet – one of very few women given that honour. She is sometimes described as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament missionaries. Her long life has been spent in prayer and worship and she spends much time in the temple so in a way it is less surprising that she is there on that day than Simeon, although both were guided by the Holy Spirit. As soon as she saw the Christ child, she too was moved to praise as Mary had been at the annunciation, as the infant John the Baptist and his mother had been and as the shepherds were returning to the fields. Like the shepherds, Anna too told the news to the people she met. It would seem that people of prayer are also people of insight and at times of great joy.
I wonder if you, like me are finding this continued lockdown with so little happening a very difficult time to pray? In staying at home, we no longer meet up with people in the street, and exchange news, and the
news brought to us by the media seems to contain issues that are altogether too big for the scope of the prayers of someone like me. This is the weekend of the Big Garden bird watch – I wonder if many of you take part in this? If your experience is anything like mine, the hour you chose to watch will be the one when all the birds in Somerset chose to be somewhere else! I mention the bird watch, as I find comfort for my prayers which seem so inadequate in the words of Ann Lewin and her poem ‘Disclosure’ which can be found in her book ‘Watching for the Kingfisher’.
‘Bird watching has taught me that all is gift. I may go out hoping to see a particular bird – but it may not be in evidence. I can’t control the movement of the birds. And if I am too intent on seeing one particular bird, I may miss a lot of other things that are around. Prayer is like that:’
Prayer is like watching for the Kingfisher.
All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there,
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it,
A flash of brightness
Waiting for the Kingfisher, Copyright: Ann Lewin
Publisher: Canterbury Press Norwich. 30/11/2009
Epiphany 3 – Rev Alison Way – Revelation 19:6-10, John 2:1-11
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
Several years ago I paid a visit to Whipsnade tree cathedral. This is a National Trust garden near Dunstable covering over 9 acres. Here is the link so you can get a feel for it: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/whipsnade-tree-cathedral. This was of course in the days when we could travel freely! It is planted mainly with trees in the approximate form of a cathedral, with grass avenues for the nave, chancel, transepts, chapels, towers and cloisters and “walls” of different species of trees. It is an intriguing and very peace-filled place accompanied by some natural sounds that I really like, the wind in the leaves of the trees and the cooing of wood pigeons. (It was summer when I visited!)
As I was wandering around the tree cathedral with some friends, I was left with lots of questions. Lovely as it was, I had lots of questions about why it existed and why it had been constructed? What motivates you to plant a tree cathedral? Especially when working with trees – the individuals concerned are unlikely to see their labours come to full fruition.
It turns out the tree cathedral was a vision of a chap named Ernest Blyth and a vision with a deeply spiritual root to it. It was as an act of “Faith, hope and reconciliation” in response initially to his memories of World War I. As a cadet at Sandhurst in 1916 Blyth had made two close friends called Arthur Bailey and John Bennett who were both dead within eighteen months. In 1930 Ernest paid a visit to Liverpool Cathedral with his wife, which was then under construction. Blyth wrote “As we drove south through the Cotswold hills on our way home… I saw the evening sun light up a coppice of trees on the side of a hill. It occurred to me then that here was something more beautiful still. And the idea formed of building a cathedral with trees. Work began in 1932 and continued in stages. The site became overgrown during the second world war, but development recommenced when it finished. Though this cathedral is not consecrated, the first religious service at the site was held in 1953, and services continue annually to this day usually on an ecumenical basis. In 1960 the Tree Cathedral was accepted as a gift by the National Trust.
Ernest did get to realise his vision of a tree cathedral, but not without setbacks and difficulties. We have to wonder what people would have made of his idea back then and his persistence rescuing his labours after 7 years away in the second world war. But he would never have seen it in its maturing glory that I saw with trees in full stature. Then there was the tangible sense of peace, and signs of hope and new life with new trees being planted to ensure his vision lives on!
Our first bible reading today also tunes into this kind of visionary stuff. Revelation was a vision written down for a people experiencing all kinds of difficulties and in a way deliberately masking things (so the people in the know could understand but if it fell into the hands of the authorities the messages within it would be difficult to understand).
All of this 2000 years or so on doesn’t make it easy for us to understand. Today’s reading is all about the sound and what the voices have to say to us. It starts with a voice from the great multitude, which is accompanied by mighty thunderpeals and very loud noises. These kind of noises are often with the voice of God or are the sounds that the people heard, when someone else is hearing the voice of God.
The voice says: Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory. Frankly this is not a statement to say quietly especially in a large crowd. Let us say that statement loudly together (forgetting for a moment traditional British reserve)
After me Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory.
And louder! Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory.
This is a 1st century understanding of the victory statement. Salvation and glory and power to our God. This would have been seen in the light of common statements made about their leaders at the time, which had a similar ring – victory and glory and power to our Caesar! This version shows that the true victory belongs to God and not in the Roman emperor! And this is the message the voice of a great multitude cries out in defiance and over and above human voices supporting Caesar! It also shows that our natural response to knowing that the Lord our God the almighty reigns is one of worship for fervent and unceasing praise of God, wrapped up in rejoicing, exulting and giving glory for God’s saving love for us.
Then the voice continues with a metaphor – Christ as the bridegroom and the people of God as the bride. This notion was quite widespread in early Christianity. Sometimes we think of the Church as the bride of Christ and use an appropriate understanding of good lasting marriage relationships as a model for the self-sacrificing love Christ had for the Church. Here the important part of this – is that his bride has made herself ready. This is about being the people of God ready and willing to partake in loving relationship with God. Readiness is a concept we more readily associate with Advent than the Sundays of Epiphany, but being alert and ready is important in our response to God.
The next statement of this voice takes us on a level to her (the people of God) it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure. This is a reference to 1st century marriage customs. Fine linen was a luxury item in the ancient world. It was more commonly in these times fine linen in purple and scarlet. There is an intentional contrast here between the “fine linen” bright and pure. Some translations use the word shining rather than bright and this has illusions to the transfiguration where Jesus was shining brilliant white.
The voice goes on to say for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. Here the fine linen is being used to represent the righteous deeds of the people of God. Thinking about righteousness, which is really the essence when our lives shine with God’s love for us, and we follow his plan for us. (rather than substituting it with something rather duller and less shiny of our own). Righteousness itself is attractive and brings out the best in us and is not to be confused with self-righteousness, which is a deeply unattractive side of human nature.
So having got there we move to a second voice, this is the voice of the angel, speaking directly to the writer of Revelation. The angel says “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” What the angel says is echoing the beatitudes (blessed are statements of Jesus) in Revelation. It asks us to think about our invitation to the marriage supper of the lamb. This is rather difficult. Some kind of illusion to the acts of Jesus at the last supper, in the supper bit clearly. Though the last supper was a one-off our remembrance of it week by week when we can share communion is not! There is also importance in that we are all invited through what Jesus did, and it is worth noting it does NOT say blessed are those who came to the marriage supper but those who are invited. Those things are different. There is also an element here about being in a committed relationship with God through marriage too.
The point about readiness and alertness of our faith has already been made and there is also clearly a celebratory element to this. Parties at weddings were well known in Jesus day (and described in our gospel reading today) and a once only element to that (only one marriage supper for any marriage). Another thought I had was this was some kind of illusion of the end times and Jesus coming again in the presence and not yetness of our relationship with God. We only see things partially and this may be a reference to dwelling in the presence of God more fully; either when we die and enter his presence or when the end times come and Jesus returns however that may work.
Whatever this phrase Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the lamb means entirely, the angel finishes his words with a command. We understand it as a faithful and true message from the final statement the angel says These are the true words of God. So in there is something we definitely need to get.
A reflection I read from new daylight on this passage said In the kingdom the rich will not be proud of their lavish attire nor will the poor be ashamed of their garb. All will be wearing robes provided by the king for the wedding of the lamb has come and the bride has made herself ready. And to finish off – the angel makes sure we understand the angel is not to be worshipped but God.
So in our journey through the vision of Ernest Blyth and this vision from Revelation with the voice sounding like a great multitude and the voice of the angel – They are all exalting us to praise God, to declare his victory in and through our lives. To live righteously ready to follow God’s path for us and to live acknowledging our blessedness as those invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. Praise on, think on and pray on with this. Amen
References: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/whipsnade-tree-cathedral/features/edmund-blyth—visions-of-a-cathedral, BRF New Daylight and The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995
Epiphany 2 Year B – Rev Alison Way
Link to the Church of England online service for Epiphany 2 https://youtu.be/jGP9gtLV9V4
Revelation 5:1-10, John 1:43-end
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
In times like this it is interesting that today we have 2 readings recognising Jesus as the son of God and his mission to save us. The easier of the two is the story in John’s gospel. We have Philip encountering Jesus, and following him. He shares this news with Nathanael – who is characteristically pessimistic about it – Can anything good come out of Nazareth? he says.
Philip doesn’t enter into a conversation about it or try to persuade Nathanael. He just gets him to come and see for himself. There is a stark change of mind when Nathanael is presented to Jesus (what we today would call a U turn!). And in a very short exchange of words, Nathanael recognises and exclaims who Jesus is. It was a very big deal for a true Israelite – a devout jew like Nathanael to say ‘You are the son of God’, ‘You are the King of Israel’
We must not doubt that at this point something radical had occurred in Nathanael’s heart. It is a world away from his previous remarks. He has not seen Jesus do anything particularly spectacular. All Jesus has done is recognise him as a devout Jew… We can only ponder on what Nathanael saw in this encounter with Jesus and how he felt, but this is a huge change of perspective. As I was talking about last week, a real epiphany moment and also one where his life was going to change forever as a result of this declaration.
This recognition of things that are way beyond ourselves is important, and especially despite our earlier preconceptions. We know from human experience that this kind of moment is not always easy. It involves a level of humility (that not all of us are good at). To climb down from previously clearly stated positions and it is to Nathanael’s credit that he does this. We need help from the Holy Spirit with moments where we need to recognise something new and radical of God among us like this. Especially where it challenges something we have held dear for a long time.
In these days of lockdown 3 there is much to challenge us and shake our foundations, recognising as Nathanael did who Jesus is, what he did and why, is one of the things that will give us the strength to persevere…No matter how dark it gets.
Let’s move on to the more tricky first reading from Revelation. This one tells us more about what we need to recognise about Jesus. This reading is quite pictorial and visionary – so let’s first unpack the action!
The writer of revelation – John – sees and describes a scroll. It is in God’s right hand, written on both sides and sealed with seven seals. John then describes the quest to find someone worthy to open the sealed scroll. A mighty angel proclaims – who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals… No-one is initially found who is worthy. No one in heaven, no one on earth or under the earth
John describes himself as weeping bitterly, because no-one can open the scroll or look at it. One of the gathered elders then asks John to stop weeping. He says there is someone who can open the scroll and its seals. And he gives that someone the title the lion of Judah, the root of David (and I will come to these titles at the end of this sermon).
John then sees the lamb. He describes where the lamb is– in the middle of the scene, and the state the lamb is in – looking as though it has been slaughtered. The lamb takes the scroll from the right hand of God. The elders worship before the lamb singing a new song. The song contains the recognition of who the lamb is.
The words include that the lamb is worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, and the reasons for his worthiness are laid out. First he was slaughtered. Second he has ransomed all people for God by his blood, thus making us a kingdom serving God.
All of this is neither the language or approach to describing what Jesus did for us on the cross we would usually use. But it is recognition none the less of what it cost Jesus to save us. I always think it is difficult to feel the fullness of Easter joy without reflecting on the pain and the cost of Good Friday. Describing Jesus as the slaughtered lamb, and that his blood ransomed us is graphic but is the granite truth of the cost to Jesus and it is important to recognise this. Knowing the jeopardy and the price paid for Jesus to save us does help us with perspective. For me this is the fundamental truth of our faith in God, loving Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit. It doesn’t work without the sacrifice and the death involved. But for us – it is enough, so much more than enough to bring us into God’s kingdom forever.
The scope of Jesus costly love is startling too. It is for everyone – the vision includes every tribe, language, people and nation and that we are all in a kingdom now, serving our God. Again, it takes the big point of recognition and turns it around to us in how we should respond as Nathanael responded by following Jesus. So we need to do likewise serving him how and where we can. Revisiting and recognising Jesus saving love for us through the imagery of this vision is a call to renew our hearts in God’s service. One of the ways to best keep on track is to pause, and pray and lift our hearts in worship. We can do this anytime – anywhere.
In the middle of the vision – The slaughtered lamb is described as the lion of the tribe of Judah. This is reference to the description of Jacob’s son, Judah in Genesis, head of the tribe of Judah. It is also a motif for victory – We will remember how the lion lies down with the lamb in Isaiah’s prophecy. In Jesus we have the lamb willing to lay down his life, and the lion of the victory won for us.
The lamb is also described as the root of David – which we find to be fulfilling the prophecy about Jesus’ heritage and lineage. Again, we remember the prophecy of the new shoot coming from the root of Jesse (David’s father) from Isaiah.
Both of these titles tie us back to what Nathanael saw and experienced in Jesus. Let us pray for faith and deeper recognition of the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel – the lion of the tribe of Judah and the root of David. And find our strength and resolve in service of him and hearts open to worship Him anytime anywhere. Amen
Prayer of adoration
Creator God, how awesome you are! Our lives were known to you before we came into being.
Marvellous Lord, Everything we do, think and say – you know about. Such infinite wonder!
Eternal, loving Lord, ever helping us to see and be more like you. How awesome you are, glorious Lord. Everywhere we go your hand is with us, always guiding and revealing your blessings – as we praise, listen and act. Amen.
This Prayer is taken from rootsontheweb.com and is copyright © ROOTS for Churches Ltd. Reproduced with permission.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989
Link to the Church of England Service for this Sunday which should be available after 9am on Sunday 10th January
Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11
In the name of the living God, Loving Father, Risen Son and ever present Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Epiphany journey we have shifted today on from the visit of the magi, through to the very first days of Jesus ministry. But even before Jesus comes into focus in Mark’s gospel account, we are introduced to John the baptizer, whose primary purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus. This year, in our readings, we concentrate on Mark’s gospel and much of it is very like the passage we heard read by Alison this morning. A lot of action distilled into a very small amount of words. We have the whole story of John and the baptism of Jesus done and dusted in just 8 verses. All the other gospel accounts give us much more information, particularly Luke which fills in the whole back story of John with his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah.
For example, in Luke, John was the baby that leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth when she encountered Mary. And Elizabeth was the one at that point who exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”. If you haven’t read it recently, it is worth reading the whole of the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. It tells how the story of the birth of John the Baptist fits around the story of Mary’s response to God’s call on her life.
Anyway, we find John this morning baptising and proclaiming a baptism of repentance in the wilderness. There must have been something spectacularly charismatic about John. People were not drawn to him for his sartorial elegance, his smart attire or his unusual diet. Let alone for his message. Generally, I do not find that stressing the need to repent of our sins (important and helpful as that can be to us) is something that usually attracts a crowd. Let alone a crowd that has to have made quite a big effort including significant inconvenience and discomfort to travel to a wilderness to hear it. My view here is that John’s integrity and authenticity was the draw. When we know something or someone is the real deal it can help as to make the necessary effort to travel to see them. We need to put out of our minds our world beset with fake news, and at times people being flagrantly economical with the truth! The impact of this has been particularly graphic this week – with scenes I hope we never see again in my life time. Please pray for the people of the United States of America.
It is also not a small number of people who go to John to be baptised and repent – our gospel says – all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him. Add to this – that people are travelling to be baptised and repent not because John is the main draw. John clearly says to them that he is only the warm up act as he proclaims: ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals’.
It is also worth noting here that the use of repentance is using a Greek word that carries the sense of ‘a change of mind’ or ‘a change of heart’. It relates far more to the promise of a new future than to mulling over the sins of the past. John is clear that what he is offering is only stage one of the new life into which God invites us. And we can hear that too in what Johns says next ‘8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Finally, Jesus appears over the horizon and in 3 short verses – he is baptised by John, this is a new stage in his life too, as he moves away from the hidden years in Nazareth, begins his active ministry and the stuff he had come to earth for. And then something amazing happens as he comes up out of the water or more correctly I should say God does something amazing. People of Jesus’ time tended to imagine a rigid, unbreakable barrier dividing earth and heaven, one that made it impossible for humanity to reach God. Now this barrier is torn apart and God’s Spirit comes powering through, like a descending dove on him. And a voice is heard from heaven that says ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’.
The world is indeed changed by this moment as it heralds the time of Jesus active ministry, and the start of his teaching. Teaching we still rely on and take to heart to govern our days two thousand years on. It is rightly described as a new beginning and seasonally a significant epiphany moment.
In Victorian times another new beginning was also marked at this moment of our epiphany season. If we get in touch with our Victorian forebears this Sunday was traditionally known as Plough Sunday and celebrated on the next Sunday after Epiphany. It speaks of a time before farmers had their own ploughs, the communal plough decked with ribbons would be brought into the village or town church where God’s blessing would be asked for the work that it was to do. It is quite likely this happened here in Victorian days. After the service, the plough would be paraded around the village or the town, usually with dancing and stopping at every pub for refreshment! The farmers who were going to use it would give contributions towards the cost of its upkeep, and often to the upkeep of the church where it had been blessed. The work officially began on the following Monday – though if the revelling was excessive sometimes Tuesday or even Wednesday. In medieval times – some ploughs were kept in the parish church, and some churches kept a ‘plough-light’. In days when work was scarce in winter, the observance of Plough Sunday looked forward to the time of sowing with the promise of a harvest to come. We are so much more detached with our supermarkets and accessible food supplies from the impacts of poor harvests than our forebears were.
Times have changed, ploughing tends to follow harvesting and therefore much more an autumnal activity. Nor do we, in England at least, still use shared village owned ploughs. Remembering Plough Sunday, once again is a tradition to help us connect with the agricultural year, to reconnect us to times and seasons, and with a focus on praying for all aspects of the world of work. This last year, 2020, has been very difficult for almost everybody in different occupations, walks of life and times of life. It is important to pray for our rural economy and all who work to farm and steward the land around us. We have come to cherish and be more thankful for our farmers and their endeavours, and what can be sourced locally has been much more obvious to us.
At the start of this new year, it is pretty clear that we are still in the grips of this pandemic with this very unwelcome new and more virulent strain of the virus More restrictions are now in place to help prevent the spread. At this time of new beginnings it is important to pray for our world of work. This has been impacted in so many ways by our pandemic, with people furloughed alongside others losing their livelihoods completely (and levels of unemployment rising). It has been even more difficult for those for whom their usual line of work has been pretty much impossible, which encompasses much of the arts and those involved in exhibitions, county and country fairs, and the like. Maybe we know people amongst our family and friends where this is the case, and times are hard, it is especially important to pray and to be of practical help if we are able.
It also a time of new beginnings for the roll out of vaccines and we must particularly pray for this too. Logistically, this is going to be very difficult so let’s pray for wisdom, tenacity and safety in those organising and involved.
Returning to Jesus baptism, as I was saying this was what we would call a real epiphany moment for him. We understand that the word epiphany means a manifestation of God or the divine or a superhuman being (like an angel from God). This is the most true definition to the origin of this phrase, which comes from the Greek epiphaneia, which is used in the New Testament letters. It describes Jesus’s appearing (either when he came originally – and the divine broke through into our world as it did at his baptism). All the events we remember through this epiphany season point to this kind of wonder.
Interestingly we have come to use the word epiphany to mean something other but related in recent times. In common speech today as well as it meaning an encounter with the divine, we also tend to use it to describe real light bulb moments we have had. Moments when we suddenly see order where there was chaos or understand something fully for the first time! This meaning is much more commonly used as a sudden or striking revelation, when we don’t see things in the same way again. In the main epiphany moments in this sense are positive and enlightening, but they can be life changing.
I cannot speak for you, but I am conscious of a string of ‘epiphany’ moments of this sort in this last year. Particularly what is important and what really matters. I am expecting more epiphany moments as the days lengthen, the snow drops herald the spring once more and the impact of vaccinations begins to make the difference we need. Let’s take stock today as we mark the baptism of Christ and Plough Sunday. Maybe take time to think back and write a list of our 2020 epiphany moments. Then pause and give thanks, reconnecting them with what they say of our encounter with the divine – the God that loves us so much he sent us Jesus. God is saying to us just us much as he did to his son Jesus – You are my beloved. Let’s rest in his presence and love in our epiphany moments and the ones to come, and our new beginnings, whilst focusing our prayers for those who work the land and the world of work as a whole, and all those involved in healthcare and the vaccine roll out programme. Amen
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – some material from rootsontheweb.com