Who will roll away the stone for us?

The worst that could happen had happened.

Jesus had died. Naturally all the disciples were beside themselves with grief, and not just the twelve that always seemed to be centre of attention, but all who had found hope and identity, and love and welcome and acceptance of who they were. Some were obviously more broken than others: Judas of course, and rightly so, and had hung himself in anguish and remorse. Mary, his mother had always known that her love for her son would pierce her soul, and now it had. Peter, also, who had found himself lacking in courage when Jesus needed him most.

It wasn’t just that Jesus had been killed, as awful as that was, but the shameful way in which it had happened, being hung naked from the tree of shame for all to see; and at Passover too, so we couldn’t tend to him as any loved one deserved to be lovingly laid out. Thankfully Joseph of Arimathea, long time a follower, at a distance, had finally found his courage and his strength and spoken up for Jesus, requesting his body before dusk and offering his brand new tomb to house him. That was all there was time for though; quickly wrapped in grave cloths and sealed in with death. Pilate, constantly fearful of uprisings and trouble, placed guards on the tomb, so that no-one could enter, and no-one leave.

Whilst each mourned their own way through Passover rather than celebrating the feast, I fretted about Jesus’ beloved but broken body. It was not right that he of all people should not have received the proper burial rights. It was not right that we, the women closest to him, had not been able to anoint him with sweet smelling spices, washing his body clean with our weeping, wailing so that everyone would know that a good and great person had gone.

So early Sunday morning, as soon as Passover had passed, I went, taking the spices with me, my tears bottled up inside ready to be poured out. The spices were easy to gather together, the tears almost to the point of overflowing, but who would roll away the stone? Other women came with me, the men were too afraid, too ashamed to join us and after all this was the traditional role of women, to love the deceased with tenderness of touch. The stone sealing the tomb was taller than any of us, and wider too, and the roman soldiers were under strict order not to move it. Perhaps it was pointless even attempting to come near to the body of the one we loved, but something compelled us, something more than a sense of duty or ritual.

When we arrived though, the stone had already been rolled away. How could this be? The biggest barrier to coming to our Lord was no longer there. The soldiers had fainted. The grave was empty. The spices redundant. Over tears broke free.

The one barrier we had understood to be in the way of us and Jesus wasn’t a barrier at all. We had followed that compulsion and found the barrier had already been removed.

Tearfully, overwhelmed by grief and tiredness, we did not know who could have moved the stone, and who would have taken Jesus’ unloved body. Only a gardener could be seen, perhaps he would know?

And he did. The gardener of Eden was present in this place, more spirit than body, yet when he spoke my name I knew that it was him. I had come, tentatively, tearfully, unsure how to remove the barrier that had sealed Jesus away from me, and discovered that there was no barrier after all.

Will you follow that compulsion? Will you venture out to that garden regardless of the barriers seemingly in your way? Will you hear your voice spoken and know that there aren’t any barriers to knowing Jesus’ love after all?

Read the resurrection story from Mark here.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to You.

Palm Sunday was always a day of great excitement growing up.

We would meet at the church hall instead of the church and be greeted by a real life donkey. We were given crosses woven from palm leaves and we would all walk together from the hall on one side of the valley to the church on the other, down and back up again, pausing at the footbridge to check for trolls, where the donkey would resolutely refuse to go any further. The sun would always be shining, of course, because it was spring and because childhood memories are full of sunshine, and smiles. It was a joyful occasion.

I was much older before I was able to acknowledge the more sinister side of Palm Sunday: that as Jesus entered Jerusalem from one side of town Pilate and back-up troops were entering in great pomp and style from the other. Their entry was intended to be big and powerful and so that their presence would remind the Passover festival goers not to get any revolutionary ideas….

It takes a while as a child to connect the Halleluiahs and the palm procession, with the cries of anguish and mourning that Good Friday brings.

But we aren’t there yet. We are here at the side of the road, waving our palm branches and cheering Jesus on. We are entering the gates with thanksgiving in our hearts, we are proclaiming our gladness at the day, this day, which the Lord has made.

We are giving thanks to God, and claiming him (her?) as our own.

Just like those who first waved branches, we are choosing to align ourselves with Jesus rather than power of the Roman Army (whatever that may signify in our culture). We are choosing to look beyond all that troubles us and instead praise God and give thanks for what is good.

These may be troubling times, but God is still good.

As we travel through this Holy Week, the Hallelujahs will fade into distant echoes. We will still make our preparations for the ‘long bank holiday’ the holy weekend. We will bake Easter cakes, and fill chocolate nests with mini-eggs, we will decorate homes with flowers and hide eggs in our gardens. We will also pause on Maundy Thursday as we remember the anguish of betrayal, of wrongful arrest; we will mourn the torture and death on the cross of an innocent man on Good Friday, shuddering as the sky turns black, the temple curtain is torn in two and the dead walk the earth. We will watch and wait through Holy Saturday, eagerly awaiting the first light that brings dawn and resurrection life.

Today though, we are celebrating, we are filled with hope and expectation. Today we give thanks. Today we cry Hallelujah!

Read the story here.

All Things New

Jeremiah, according to one theologian,

has the heart of a true prophet. His calling makes him lonely in a crowd; yet he loves his people and longs that they will turn to God.

Andrew Knowles

He also has a reputation for being ‘gloomy’: it isn’t easy being the one to break bad news, or to call people to account, to be the holy whistle blower if you like. The news that Jeremiah has to bring is actually full of hope, hope of restoration and a renewed relationship with God, but that can only come once there has been brokenness and repentance.

In the small passage we are focussing on today we look back to the 500s BC, to a time when the Israelites of the Southern kingdom of Judah are behaving unfaithfully, of a time leading up to the fall of Jerusalem. We also hear the promise of a new covenant between God and humanity, one which cannot be broken in the way that the covenant between God and Abraham has been broken so many times. This leads us on to the birth of Jesus, God incarnate, in human form, and of course his death and the blood which was shed not through circumcision but the death of God’s own Son.

Perhaps it brings us into our own times too. Following the pandemic there are many changes to be made in the institutional church. We have seen the word of God flow into the hearts and homes of so many even when churches were closed. Many have grown in faith, discovered faith, who may not have done so if they hadn’t been ‘locked down’ at home, if the churches hadn’t been closed and worship hadn’t found new ways of breaking out.

There are changes in how we worship, and in who is able to worship who hasn’t been able to before. There will also be changes in how the church is structured. In our own position there may be pain and sorrow as the grouping we have been a part of for over a decade is morphed into a new arrangement: is this a new covenant that is being asked of us? Is this a new promise of God in our midst?

The church is known for not welcoming change, and yet over the past 12 months we have become accustomed to changes in the freedoms we usually have to live our lives. Perhaps this will ease us into the new patterns we are being presented with, perhaps we will rebel against it.

Jeremiah was a prophet of ‘disaster and hope’; we have been through the disaster, let us now look forward with hope to what is to come, to what God is building here, to the new covenant that is being formed.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Jeremiah 31: 31-34

Mothering Sunday: Not Just for Mums!

My own Mother has a thing about Mother’s Day which she inherited from her own Mother. This special Sunday half way through lent is not the same as the Mother’s Day which is celebrated in spring in other countries. It isn’t a day for mums, it is a day to remember that we are part of God’s family, a day to give thanks for Mother Church. It is a Sunday break from work, a chance to rest and be restored, and our traditions of posies and simnel cake stem from a time when young people were taken into service in ‘the big house’ or found work in the large urban towns and their factories, when this day was a gift of a holy-day to return ‘home’.

Mothering Sunday has been influenced by other cultures’ Mothers’ Day, which in America began in the Civil War amongst mothers who had lost children, as a means of bringing peace to a broken country. It has now become a day to spoil mums, if you are lucky enough to have had a good mum; or if you are blessed to have children, a day to be spoiled. Which means that there are many women out there for whom this is a painful day.

Our Mothering Sunday Bible passage is a story which features a birth mum, an adoptive mum, a big sister, and a nanny (who it turns out is also the birth mum). This is not so much a story about parenting though, as a story about strong women whose actions change the world.

The story is set in the time of the Pharaohs. In the backlash to the story of Joseph (he of the technicoloured dream coat), and the flourishing of his family and tribe in Egypt, the Israelites have become feared by the Egyptians and forced into slavery. Pyramids are being built and there is much call for hard labour. The working conditions for the Israelites become more and more unbearable, but instead of this diminishing them, their community continues to grow. Pharaoh becomes fearful that there will be an uprising against him, so he orders a cull of all male Hebrew children.

Into this time of fear and oppression a child is born. He is nothing special and neither are his parents; none of them are named, we only know that they are of the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. Enter the first of our strong women, the birth mother: at first she tries to hide him, but after three months she realises how impossible this is. Instead she creates the first ‘Moses Basket’, coating the papyrus with bitumen and pitch to make it waterproof, she nestles her beloved son in the basket and hides it in the reeds on the bank of the river. Unable to watch what is to become of her son, she stations her daughter on guard, the second of our strong women.

Standing at a distance, the big sister watches and waits and witnesses the Pharaoh’s own daughter come to bathe in the river, with all her attendants: our third strong woman. This woman spies the basket and sends her maid to fetch it, as she opens the basket she discovers a crying baby. Immediately she knows that this abandoned child must be a Hebrew infant. She knows that her father’s decree means that she should drown the child, but instead she takes pity on the child and adopts it, defying her father. The big sister appears at that point and offers to find a Hebrew woman, an Israelite, to nurse the child. The Pharaoh’s daughter must know what is going on here, but she plays along, appoints the child’s own mother as his nanny, paying her wages.

Pharaoh’s daughter’s maid looks on, she too sees all that has happened, and understands, but never lets on, never tells the secret of the foundling. The other attendants also close ranks. More strong women.

As an infant the child would have had Hebrew lullabies sung over him, his Israelite identity imprinted upon him. As he grew, he was taken into the palace where he was given the finest Egyptian education, and an Egyptian name: Moses.

Moses is remembered and revered. His name is honoured, yet none of the women in his story are named. Without these strong women, without these ‘mothers’, there would have been no Moses, only another Israelite infanticide. If we remove all the strong women (and not just the mothers) from our Bible stories, there would be no Bible. Without women like Lydia and Priscilla in the New Testament there would be no Mother church for us to return to on this Refreshment Sunday in Lent.

So today we give thanks for all the mums and all the mothers, we gave thanks for all the strong women in our lives, as we take our place within Mother Church.

Read Moses’ story here.

Going up to Jerusalem

For the Jews of Jesus’ time, and indeed before and since, ‘going up to Jerusalem’ wasn’t just a colloquialism such as ‘I’m just going up the shop’; nor was it an accurate geographical statement despite Jerusalem being 2,700 feet above sea level, with Nazareth being over a 1,000 feet lower. Despite literally getting closer to heaven by climbing so high, going up to Jerusalem for the high days and holy days wasn’t ‘just’ a religious experience: going up to Jerusalem meant going home.

Jesus is ‘going home’ for the Passover. This is the place where he belongs, it was here at only a few days old that Simeon and Anna held him in their arms and sang and prophesied over him. Jerusalem is where it began and where it will end.

When he gets there though he discovers that his home has been ransacked. No longer is it a place of peace and worship for all, but a marketplace of disrepute. Passover was the biggest festival of the year, and for those in the hospitality trade a time to make money. For those in the religious trade also a time of wealth – think Christmas shopping and all the additional market stalls that pop up. It was so busy, that even the outer court of the Temple had been transformed into a shopping mall for all the essentials of worship: sacrificial animals and temple coinage.

Jesus is angry: the temple courts are no place for farmyard animals. He forms a whip and drives them out.

The temple coinage was complicated. Jewish law forbade the making of graven images and roman coins bore not just the image of Caesar, but various titles including ‘High Priest’ which would have been practically blasphemous for the religious leaders. Obviously this heretical coin couldn’t be used within the temple treasury, so a holy currency was put in place, the ‘Tyrian Coinage’: and of course business could be found by exchanging the currencies at exorbitant rates.

Jesus is incensed: he turns the tables over, scattering coins everywhere. The courtyard is busy with pilgrims, there is dung from the animals that have just been driven out. Even the temple currency is now scattered and polluted.

Why is Jesus so stirred up by these entrepreneurs?

The outer temple could be thought of as the doorstep to the temple, to home. With the traders in place there is zero curb appeal for sure, it is as though his front door as been vandalised. The sense of peace and sanctuary in the approach to worship is null and void, but there is more here than meets the eye.

The outer court was the only court that gentiles could enter. The Temple was built in similar style to a set of concentric circles: right at the heart was the holy of holies and this could only be entered once a year by a priest whose name was drawn by lot. A rope was tied around the priest’s waist so that should he fall ill whilst performing his duties he could be pulled out, rather than anyone else going in to collect him and polluting the sanctity of God’s dwelling. A thick purple curtain, a wall of wool divided the holy of holies from the next court. The closer the court to the holy of holies, the more limited the people who were able to enter. The women’s court was one of the further out, but the one right on the very edge was the only one that gentiles could enter. This is the closest that people who weren’t Jewish could get to God, and this outer court, this crumb of temple worship has been eaten up by the traders. Jesus isn’t just angry, he is incandescent.

When the infant Jesus was held in the arms of the prophet, the song sung over him told how he would be a light to lighten the gentiles, and here at the holiest time of the year, they are kept out. This man made temple, designed to glorify Herod more than Yahweh, is designed to keep people at a distance from God.

At the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, as he dies on the cross, that wall of wool will be split in two, from top to bottom, from heaven to earth. No longer will there be a holy of holies kept distant and aloof from God’s people, from here on in everyone is welcome into God’s presence.

Read the story here.

Taking up our Crosses

‘We all have our crosses to bear’ is a phrase heard often in common language; it tends to mean that there is some difficulty or sorrow in our lives that cannot be healed, that will not go away. Something we just need to grin and bear.

This is not what is going on here. The challenge to ‘take up your cross’ was something new even to the disciples and has come at a turning point in their discipleship. Up to this point following Jesus has been an adventure, there have been challenges and some dangers along the way, but that has just added to the camaraderie. This raggle taggle bunch of men have found their place, and a spiritual place at that, following Jesus. They want to be more like him, they want to be awarded with positions of prestige in his ‘school’ and in his kingdom too, for just prior to today’s passage Peter has made the pronouncement that Jesus is the Messiah.

You are the Messiah

Mark 8:29

Even making such a statement was dangerous. In the political turmoil that Jesus and his followers inhabited messiahs had come and gone, generally leaving via crucifixion. The Roman officials took no risk when it came to political uprisings and a leader who gathered a following and spoke out against the occupation would soon be put to death. Despite this, when Jesus tells his disciples that he is to die they cannot stomach it. Peter in particular speaks out against the rash intentions of Jesus, and is ‘rebuked’, a telling off that would not just put him in his place but humiliate him too.

It isn’t the danger that Peter is afraid of; to go to battle is something that he is prepared for. Peter is a man of strength, loyalty, and action; it is he who will actually use the sword when Jesus is arrested. Jesus isn’t talking about battle though, this new teaching isn’t a pep talk before donning armour and taking up weapons and beginning a military (or even rebel) manoeuvre, Jesus is talking about walking to his death without putting up a fight. This Messiah will be subjected to torture; this teacher of the faith will be rejected by the religious authorities; this source of life and healing will be put to death, and it is all part of the plan.

The disciples are shocked. This is not how following Jesus was supposed to pan out. Jesus was to make things right again in heaven and on earth, that was why they were following him, had given their lives to him. Not this failure.

Jesus continues, not only will he willingly die, but he is calling his followers to be willing to die for the cause also. Perhaps if he had told them to raise arms and done so himself, they would have willingly responded to the rousing battle cry, but not this. Not this weak and feeble, pathetic end to the glorious years of being at the heart of Jesus’ teaching of hope and healing. Jesus isn’t asking them to be willing to die for him, he is calling them to carry with them their instrument of death: death is to become part of their life from here on in, and could take place at any point.

There is some comfort, perhaps, maybe… those who lose their life for Jesus will gain eternal glory. A more sinister form of asking a child if they want one sweet now or two later.

The disciples are shocked by this new teaching. Stopped in their tracks. Peter at least, has a wife, a family, what would this mean for them? They are shocked, and yet we know that they will make the decision to follow Jesus. They will indeed pick up their crosses, perhaps carrying them lightly at first. This is what makes them saints and heroes, well 11 of them anyway.

In Peter’s denial, in the others’ shock, amidst the inner turmoil each has to face in order to make that decision to follow or not, something is lost. Yes Jesus has said that he will knowingly walk into a trap that will result in him being tortured, disgraced, executed, but he has also openly declared his resurrection,

after three days rise again.

Mark 8:31

When we are faced with difficulties and challenges, when our own crosses become too heavy to bear, do we lost sight of the bigger picture, the resurrection that is to come? As we make our way through lent in a lockdown do we need to be reminded of the resurrection that is to come? Do we need to maybe put down our crosses for a moment so that we can straighten up and look to the horizon, see the sun’s rays, and recall Resurrection Sunday?

Read the full passage here.

Beloved

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is upon us.

It would be easy to think that Valentine was the founder of Hallmark (or vice versa) and that love is something which can only be expressed through excessive gifts and dates at luxurious restaurants and hotels. These may certainly be expressions of love (and if your love language is ‘gifts’ then well appreciated ones), but love is so much more.

The marriage service begins with a line about love: God is love and those who live in love live in God.

God is love.

Love ‘lifts us up’ according to the ballads and love songs. Love is where we find ourselves, our ‘other halves’ (a cliché that particularly riles me), home, heaven… Love is kind, love is gentle, love bears no record of wrongs, according to St Paul’s Hymn to Love.

But today I want to think about how love transforms us. It has been said that every woman is beautiful on her wedding day. It is more than just the expensive dress and hours spent in the beautician’s chair. The joy that emanates from a blushing bride as she basks in the love of her brand new husband, would outshine the most lavishly dressed beauty queen.

Love isn’t just for newly weds and love birds, or even for fortunate Valentines; the love that transforms, transcends the every day is a gift from God for each and every one of us.

In this week’s gospel passage Jesus himself is transformed by the Father’s love. In a prophecy-fulfilling moment Jesus takes his closest disciples up a mountain, a high mountain Mark tells us, and as they reach the top something unbelievable happens: so unbelievable that Peter, James and John are told not to mention the incident to any of the others when they re-join them.

At the top of this mountain something quite literally awesome happens to Jesus: his clothes become dazzlingly white as he is ‘transfigured’. The disciples’ spiritual heroes stand alongside Jesus, despite being long gone. Peter is flustered and says too much, the others are silenced. The man before them is no longer their friend, their teacher, their rabbi… the humanity seems to fall from Jesus as his deity quite literally shines through.

As wonder-ful as this moment is, there is more to come: the cloud of God’s presence comes over them all and God the Father speaks the most treasured words any of us can ever hope to hear:

This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!

Mark 9:7

Within each of us is a need to be loved. We can pretend that we are independent, that we don’t care, that we are happy being single, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t also need to be loved. At this time of year we can often confuse passion and lust with love, but as stirring as they can be they cannot replace the un-conditional love that God bestowed upon Jesus, and if we were only aware, has for us too.

The love that Father God bathed Jesus in on that mountainside quite clearly had a very physical impact upon him, but love goes deeper than the skin. When we come to God the Father and open our hearts to him, we too can bathe in that transformational love: Love that doesn’t seek anything in return, love that doesn’t have to be bought or earned, love that will not remove itself upon a whim. The love of God is love at its purest, its truest: love that sees us for who we are and who we can become with a little TLC.

If Valentines day is making you feel less than lovely, then these words are for you:

This is my child, the Beloved.

Our clothes may not become dazzling white, and we have no deity to shine through. It is highly unlikely that any prophets will appear alongside us. That doesn’t mean that God can’t transform us though. Throughout the Bible we hear the stories of people who were thought of as not just unlovable, but untouchable. As Jesus came near them, their outer shells fell away as the love transformed them into children of God.

As children of God it is our inheritance to live in love, and to spread that love to others who are feeling unlovable. Jesus called his first disciples to love their neighbour, to love their enemies. This Valentines I hope and pray that you feel as beloved of God as did Jesus that moment on the mountainside, but also that you can share the love with those round you. Times are tough, many are feeling low and as if they are running on empty. Isolation and loneliness are the silent side effects of the pandemic, people need our love.

This Valentines we have a new challenge: to reclaim the gift of love from the market place and do whatever we can to bathe our neighbourhoods and communities with God’s abundant love.

Read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration here.

To read the Soul Food Cook’s suggestion for sharing the love, click here.

The Names of Jesus

In our household we celebrate Candlemas on the 2nd February as the final feast of Christmas, and as such we leave the Christmas lights, tree (stripped bare of baubles and tinsel, admittedly) and the nativity set on display. It reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world shining all through the wintery darkness. I like to hold on to the Christmas blessings as long as possible. The down side is that we can get Jesus fixed in our minds as a helpless infant, ‘away in a manger’. When we read our Bibles we discover that Jesus was rarely ‘meek and mild’ and far from ‘no crying he makes’ was prone to passionate teaching and even angry outbursts.

Today’s passage from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians helps us to make the transition from the Christmas Baby to the Man on the Cross. The passage has been described as a song of praise. Paul begins the letter by giving thanks for the Christians at Colossae and then bursts into this song.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

Not once do we find the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ or even ‘Lord’; instead we have ‘The Image of the Invisible God’, ‘Firstborn of all Creation’, ‘Head of the Body’, ‘The Beginning’, ‘The Firstborn from the Dead’. These names, or titles, take us from Creation to Resurrection, and help us to understand a little more of just who Jesus is, to flesh out the Christmas Infant from the childhood tales.

Jesus is the Firstborn

It is tempting to think about the child in swaddling cloths when we hear this title. For us the firstborn is quite literally that, the first child born to parents. The term has a much deeper and more complex understanding in the Greek in which Paul originally wrote, and the Hebrew in which he studied the Scriptures. The ‘firstborn’ is unique, supreme, in first place. Jesus here is distinguished as the firstborn of all creation, he existed prior to creation and is supreme over all creation. The firstborn has a special place in the father’s heart.

Jesus didn’t come into being within creation as we all have, but was before creation existed, indeed creation couldn’t exist without Jesus. Jesus has power over creation, autonomy over creation, and yet becomes part of creation.

Jesus is the Image of the Invisible God

As the culmination of creation, God brought humanity to life, made in God’s image to be in relationship with God. If we look hard enough we can see glimpses of God in each other, however we are all fallen and broken people. The image of God within us has become tarnished and distorted. Jesus is the only one to bear the very nature and character of God perfectly. What has been invisible, too dangerous for mere mortals to see, has now become visible in Jesus, God in human flesh.

When humans judged the woman caught in adultery, Jesus showed grace and mercy; when humans traded from the temple for their own private wealth, Jesus showed righteous anger; when humans shunned and abused each other, Jesus showed love; and when humans diminished God, Jesus praised and honoured God.

Through Jesus we discover the intimacy and love and integrity of God Almighty, through Jesus we experience the splendour and the glory of God, through Jesus we see the future as it should be, and pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

Jesus is the Head of the Body

As a rabbi this could quite clearly be seen. Jesus was the teacher and his disciples followed him every where, sitting at his feet to lap up his teachings, eating with him, celebrating with him, mourning with him, even, occasionally praying with him. When there were mission to be undertook, Jesus sent his disciples out, and they went. They were obedient to him, mostly.

Jesus was the head of the body of disciples. And he still is, when the church works well together.

When the church is healthy, Jesus is still the head, exerting influence over the rest of the body, just as with our own human bodies. Sadly there are, and have always been, times when there seems to be nerve damage and the flow from head to limb doesn’t work as it should. Messages get mixed, or the limb acts quite contrarily.

This description of Jesus was a favourite of Paul’s used in several of his letters. It is a good reminder for us all how to live and love together as God’s people. This is the Jesus we need as we continue as people of faith looking towards the future but living in the here and now.

Jesus is the Firstborn from the Dead

We have almost come full circle. Those same connotations apply here. We are brought to Easter and Jesus’ resurrection and we are pushed forward to the resurrection of all God’s people. Jesus brought light and life into creation way back in the beginning; that first Easter he brought life to death; in eternity he will bring life to us all. Jesus is supreme over death. Jesus has a unique relationship with death, having command over it. Jesus existed before death had any power and it is Jesus’ presence that will endure beyond death’s.

This is our future: we have been brought into creation by the creator of all things, we have come to know God through Jesus’ presence, we have begun to learn how to live in harmony with each other as we follow Jesus’ lead, and we have found hope in the resurrection life that only Jesus can offer. Jesus may have first come to our awareness through the Christmas carols and nativity plays, but he is so much more than that.

Baby Jesus has grown up, and it’s time that we allow our faith to do so also.

A Light to Lighten the Darkness

Hannah was a wealthy woman, for her husband it would have been no problem to pay the ‘ransom’ to have their first-born son redeemed from God, 5 Shekels was easily affordable; but Hannah had dedicated her son to God before he was even conceived and she faithfully kept that vow.

Mary was not a wealthy woman, her husband was a carpenter, or perhaps more accurately an odd job man. For them the price was steep. At Mary’s purification, two doves were offered in stead of the lamb that those with greater means would give. Mary and Joseph didn’t have the means to redeem their child, Jesus still ‘belonged’ to God. Of course, he did, he was God’s Son, Joseph was his stepfather.

We easily skip over this part of the story of Christ’s Presentation at the Temple with Luke running Mary’s Purification and Jesus’ Redemption into one: there are more interesting things going on, prophets both male and female, bursting into song and prophecy. The part of the story with the doves doesn’t belong to Jesus, it belongs to Mary. It is one of the rituals of motherhood which marks the end of her seclusion from domestic chores, her period of healing after the stresses and strains of pregnancy and labour, the honeymoon month of bonding between mother and child during which she has no other cares than to heal her own body and nurture her child’s.

That period of their symbiotic life has now come to an end, and Mary is made to face the shadow side of giving birth to a child of light. The prophets remind her that he will die before her, that what she will experience as a parent will mirror the anguish of her child: just as his side will be pierced, so will her soul.

There is light and darkness in this encounter in the temple courts. Simeon’s heart bursts with the reality of the Messiah in his presence, the Christchild in his arms, bathing in the light that will bring light even to the Gentiles, and Anna too speaks with joy, praising God; but they are old. They have lived long faithful lives of prayer and devotion and now have been rewarded with the very presence of God. They are at peace and will soon be making their way to eternity. Mary and Joseph are at the very beginnings of their faithfilled encounter with the son of God, which will see them become refugees running for their lives, will see them mocked and ridiculed as parents of an itinerant preacher, humiliated at their son’s public execution and broken by inconsolable grief.

Simeon and Anna are the Old Jerusalem, Jesus is the new. Simeon and Anna remain within the Temple courts, Jesus’ light will spill out to every nation. In this meeting of old and new, in the very rituals and traditions of the faith, there is also a parting of the ways. As Jesus is presented at the Temple, a new era is ushered in. Jesus isn’t redeemed from God, isn’t exempt from Temple duties, because he is the new Temple. Jesus isn’t redeemed from God, because he is God.

Anna and Simeon recognise this to be true and have given their lives for this moment in time. Mary and Joseph also recognise this truth and dedicate the rest of their lives to enabling Jesus to shine for us all. Do we recognise the truth? Jesus is more than the endearing cherub in the manger, he is the light of the world. Jesus is the light, and the hope, and the purpose in all our worlds, and will see us through this present darkness. Do we recognise the truth?

Read the full story here.

Here is Wine.

Lot is in trouble!

You may remember Lot, the nephew who travelled with Abram and Sarai until the two households became so large that fights broke out around grazing rights. Abram and Lot climbed a hill and Abram, the elder and most senior of the two, allowed Lot to choose the best land for his household, leaving Abram what was leftover. Lot and his family found themselves in Sodom, which did not end up well for them, eventually needing to escape from God’s judgement, from brimstone and hellfire. Before that, the king of Sodom found himself on the losing side of battle, and his country being plundered and it’s population taken into slavery, including Lot.

Once more Uncle Abram looks out for his nephew, and we learn something new about him: Abram has an army! Since the two have parted company God has blessed Abram with so much wealth that he is able to keep a private army of 318 men! Abram is also a man of cunning and tactics and leads these men on the successful rescue mission to bring his nephew home.

As the defeated kings return home they ‘parlez’ with Abram at a place called ‘the Valley of Shavez’ which means the King’s Valley. The king of Sodom has been defeated and rescued and his pride is dented; he wants to bargain with Abram to have his own wealth restored, but Abram isn’t interested in any of that. His mission was to rescue his nephew and anything else is just a by-product, after all he isn’t in need of anything, God has already blessed him abundantly.

Into this parlez arrives a different king. We don’t know who he is or where he comes from, and he won’t be seen again. Some suggest that he is Shem’s son, that is, Noah’s grandson, which is interesting because the king of Sodom was also descended from Noah; or perhaps Job one of the earliest characters written about in the Bible. Or perhaps he is Jesus, pre incarnation, pre being born of Mary. What we do know is that this man is both priest and king, just as Jesus was, is; and his name is Melchizedek.

As Abram and Chederlaomer the king of Sodom, meet, King Melchizedek, king of (Jeru)Salem joins them. He has nothing to do with the wars and battles and rescue missions, he isn’t here to barter for his share of the spoils, he is here to bring blessing.

By his very presence Melchizedek blesses all who are there that day, but specifically he speaks God’s blessing over Abram, and gives thanks to God for a righteous battle won.

There is something else going on here though, because Melchizedek brings with him bread and wine. Bread and wine was a colloquialism for a meal, simple and regular nourishment: Melchizedek could just be acting as the sandwich delivery guy at a conference, but if that was the case it would be so insignificant that it wouldn’t be mentioned. We know from history and our own faith that bread and wine take on a deeper significance in our relationship with God. Within the bread and wine of Passover the Israelites found an eternal connection with God, within the bread and wine of Holy Communion Christians find themselves in the presence of Christ, but Melchizedek predates both those events. So what is happening here? What is the significance of the bread and the wine?

Kristen and I were in Italy for a friend’s wedding. The night before the ceremony we were having dinner in a vineyard, and the host gave us a tour of the grounds. At one point he led us into a basement storage room filled with these massive wooden barrels of wine.

After explaining the various steps in the wine-making process, he launched into an impassioned speech about the earth and food and abundance and grace and gratitude and friends and how we all need each other and how generous the earth is and how holy and sacred all of life is.

Everything is Spiritual, Rob Bell.

This Sunday in Epiphany we usually think about about Jesus’ first miracle, the one where he revealed himself as the Son of God, the one where he turned water into wine. We know the story well, even if we don’t know the details of the story we know that Jesus had the power to do something so many of us long to do: turn the ordinary into the wonderful, water into wine.

Jesus was at a wedding; he wasn’t the priest or the rabbi or even the groom or best man. He was just a guest, stepping in when there was a need: Jesus, the bread of life, turned water into life. An ordinary wedding (if any wedding can be ordinary) was blessed by the presence of God.

Melchizedek turns up in the middle of a political situation and brings God’s blessing. A peace descends upon those agitated kings and tribal leaders licking their wounds. The covenant between God and Abram is strengthened again. Abram receives the blessing of God Most High, and that is more than enough. He rejects the spoils of war, or any sense of reward from a sinful king, the blessing is more than enough, and the bread and the wine symbols of God’s presence.

This passage may be difficult reading for us. We see the blessing, we delve into the significance of the bread and the wine present in the valley, but we have been separated from receiving the blessing. We have been separated from each other, from worshipping together, from sharing the cup of wine for so long now. Have we also been separated from God, from Jesus? Have we been in Exile, just as Lot found himself far from home?

Abram wasn’t expecting to meet God in this valley at this time. Abram had not arranged for a priest to be part of the negotiations. Abram was not expecting this blessing at this time. Nobody at that wedding in Canna was expecting to be on the receiving end of a miracle. Perhaps, worshipping from home our expectations of the holy and sacred are also diminished? It is in these unexpected times and places that Jesus’ presence takes us by surprise.

There is an unexpected twist at the end here: Abram receives the blessing, the most wonderful blessing of God’s unexpected presence and then he does something quite amazing: he gives to the priest one-tenth of everything. Abram is a wealthy man, one-tenth of everything is a lot. It isn’t requested of him, there is no invoice or expected tip, or collection plate passing the rounds. Abram eats some bread, drinks a little wine, receives a blessing, and makes a connection with God which causes him to generously give of himself and his wealth.

Perhaps it is no more than we would expect of the Father of Nations, God’s chosen one, but just like the presence of Melchizedek in the Valley bring bread and wine, it is unexpected enough to be noted in the holy scriptures.

We are living in unexpected times. There will be unexpected blessings to receive and unexpected blessings to give. Whatever Valley we find ourselves in, no matter how battered and bruised we are feeling, God Most High is present with us. In the ordinariness of the bread and the wine, of the meals we eat at home, Jesus is present. The ordinary has become sacred.

Read Abram’s story here and the wedding story here.

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