Candlemas: Stepping Stones in Faith

Stepping stones are rather precarious. Yes, they offer a pathway across a stream, but they are often slippery and dry feet are not guaranteed. High water  can rise above them, and even in good conditions the traveller needs to have a good sense of balance.

Today we are given another ‘stepping stone’ in the journey from creation to re-creation: the Presentation of Christ at the Temple (read it here).

Jesus is ‘presented’ at the Temple. This was a common experience for first born Jewish Sons, at only a few days old they would be brought to be ‘presented’, dedicated to God. It follows the example of tithing, returning to God your first portion of the harvest, of your income. It also reverse echoes the Passover when firstborn of all the Egyptian males were sacrificed for the freedom of the Israelites; but there is something more going on here. This isn’t just a ritual celebration of a first born, this is also a cleansing, a purification following the mess and stress of child birth, and all these together hint at the sacrificial, cleansing nature of Jesus’ mission here amongst us.

Today’s triplet of readings provide us with 3 ‘stepping stones’ to help us on our way tounderstanding what is going on here.

The first ‘stepping stone’ comes from our Old Testament reading taken from the Prophet Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, the last book before the gospels. In it Malachi promises that

the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming….

Perhaps this is the prophecy that Simeon had held on to as he watched and waited for the arrival of the Christchild?  Malachi promises that God will enter his Temple, although it seems a great and exciting thing to look forward to, Malachi warns that when he comes it will be to cleanse, to refine, and just as with precious metals, the refining process can be painful.

And now, here he comes, unexpectedly, and inexplicably as a babe in arms, and in a ritual of purification.

For Simeon this isn’t just another stepping stone, this is it. He is old and faithful and has been promised that his faithfulness will lead him into God’s presence and he sings as he recognises in this days-old baby, the fulfilment of the promise made personally to him:

There has been much consternation around the need for Mary to be ‘purified’ after giving birth to the Son of God – surely this is one of the holiest moments in the entire gospel, in the history of God? The reality is that childbirth is messy, but cleanliness with God isn’t simply about avoiding BO and keeping a tidy house.  In this passage we can be reminded of the need to be clean to stand in God’s presence. Shortly after Malachi promises God’s arrival, he warns of the need to be thoroughly cleansed to meet God: to be physically cleansed, to be ritually cleansed and to be spiritually cleansed.

Here Mary goes through the rituals of cleanliness. Other stepping stones to come will point to the need for a deep clean even for those who seem to be clean, ritually at least, but are covering up ingrained filth.

The next stepping stone to come will be Jesus as a 12 year old finding his home at the Temple and amazing the teachers and elders with the depth of his understanding of God’s love. From that it is a hop skip and a jump to Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the Temple and Jesus turning over the tables and driving out the money changers who had polluted the place of prayer.

From there it is only one short step to crucifixion, in itself one of the most physically, ritually and spiritually unclean ways of ending life, and yet through his death on the cross, Jesus provides the sacrificial lamb, becomes himself the sacrifice for the rituals of cleansing for all time; and as a witness to this covenant, the temple curtain which separates people from God is torn in two.

This barrier between  God and humanity was first removed, however, some 30 years earlier when Jesus was born, when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of an earthly mother. In Mary’s body, heaven and earth were united. In her body she carried all that was ‘clean’ all that had the power to cleanse others.

Our stepping stones have taken us from the promise and warnings of Malachi that God is coming with the power to cleanse, to the birth of Jesus. The presence of Jesus so pure in conception but soiled through birth, provokes the need for Mary to be cleansed, just as Jesus needs to be dedicated to God, despite being himself Emmanuel – God with us. From there we are reminded that Jesus’ purpose in human life was to provide cleansing from all that was rotten in God’s creation, and the only way for that to happen was on the cross.

But this is not the final stepping stone. We are not yet on the other shore, on safe land. We too need to journey into cleanliness, we need to prepare ourselves to be purified, to be refined, because the unexpected arrival of God in his temple isn’t just an event that was foretold and fulfilled, it is still to come.

That final stepping stone will be Jesus’ return. Like his first visitation to the temple it will be unexpected, without notice, and the purpose will be the same: to purify all that has become polluted, in order that God’s world can be recreated and eternity begin in earnest.

Malachi posed a question:

 who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

When Jesus returns will we be ready, as Simeon was ready when Jesus was first carried into the temple? Will we recognise God in our presence? Will we be clean enough to stand before him, not just physically  or even ritually, but spiritually? Wearing our Sunday best will not be enough, having a perfect church attendance card will not swing it either, but cleansing our hearts from all that is bitter and angry and self pitying, might just be the key to a dry landing.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What activity has made you the muddiest, most dirt encased?
  • How did you need to be made clean again – how long did it take to feel ‘refreshed’?
  • Why do you think Simeon takes such a prominence in this moment of God’s story?
  • Can you think of any other ‘stepping stones’ in the Bible?
  • What ‘stepping stones’ of faith have you experienced?
  • What ‘cleansing’ actions do you think you might need to take in order to take another step forward with God?

Something to do:

Take a time of confession: Say this prayer either alone or in a group and then wash your hands and face (with water if available or using wet wipes), then stand in God’s presence to receive his cleansing absolution:

Forgive us our sins, O Lord; the sins of our present and the sins of our past, the sins of our souls, and the sins of our bodies, the sins which we have done to please ourselves and the sins which we have done to please others. Forgive us our casual sins and our deliberate sins, and those which we have laboured so to hide that we have hidden them even from ourselves. Forgive us, O Lord, forgive us all our sins, for the sake of thy Son our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Thomas Wilson

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Epiphany 3: They Have No Wine!

Mary, the mother of all mothers is at a wedding, with her son and 12 of his laddish best mates. Eastern wedding celebrations are a big thing. They last for days and much pride is at stake for the parents of the happy couple and the bride and groom themselves. To run out of wine is shameful. Mary is the first of the guests to notice, it would be wrong to suggest that Mary is the one who has the most need of drink at this particular wedding, not the Blessed Virgin Mary, surely! But she does notice and she declares to her son

They have no wine!

 

Jesus seems unperturbed, he is simply enjoying himself: he is as yet pretty much unknown, no miracles have drawn attention to him, no awkward teaching or confrontations with pharisees and other religious leaders. Jesus is simply Mary and Joseph’s son, the local carpenter – only his parents know of the angel stories that announced the pregnancy that would lead to his birth.

However,  Mary is his mother, and she knows what he is capable of, and has compassion upon the bride and groom hosting the wedding celebrations, and tells him to sort it out. Who knows, perhaps she does need a drink?

Mary also knows that Jesus cannot hide forever, his life is on the brink of something dramatically new and he needs to take that plunge. The first plunge was his baptism and John’s prophetic words about him being the sacrificial lamb. This plunge will point to his blood that will be poured out as part of that sacrifice.

This miracle, Jesus’ first recorded miracle is full of symbolism.

John writes in such a way as to draw attention to all those symbols which will begin to reveal to us Jesus’ true identity and purpose. We first note that this event takes place on the third day. After 3 days, the wine runs out but will be replaced with the best possible wine, an abundance of wine, the most delicious, velvety smooth wine, which, miraculously leaves no bitter aftertaste or hangover (my interpretation). 3 days is also the length of time that Jesus will spend in the tomb separated from life, but after those 3 days he will burst from the tomb full of life and joy more abundant than any he had before.

And then John tells us about Jesus’ reticence – some suggest that he is not willing to perform this first miracle because it is only his mother who has directed him to do so, not his Father to whom he is always obedient. However, I think there are also links here to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering be taken away from him. Jesus didn’t want to be arrested, falsely tried, tortured and murdered – who would? Jesus knew that if he allowed the events to unfurl that night everything would change, there would be no going back. Just like when he changed water into wine and he could never simply be the carpenter again.

The water itself is full of symbolism. There were 6 jars ready for the Jewish rites of purification: 6 is the number closest to 7, and 7 is the number of perfection. The rituals had brought the Jewish people close to God but not close enough: 6 close, but not 7 close. The water had cleansed feet and hands but not hearts. Jesus replaces the water in the jars with wine, wine that will warm the heart. New wine, wine of change and celebration and wedding banquets – here in Cana, but also in heaven. The wine of celebration also brings to mind the wine drunk at that Last Supper, and the blood that would be spilled as Jesus’ side is pierced to prove that he is dead. The blood of a sacrificial lamb. The sacrifice that brings an end to separation from God.

And who are the first people to see and understand? Not the most important guests, but the outsiders. Not the ones partying and celebrating, but the ones working behind the scenes, the ones ignored by the guests, the nobodies. Likewise with God’s kingdom, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Jesus will drink more wine at more parties in the years to come, to such an extent that he will be referred to as a drunkard and a glutton. Amazing and exciting and scary things will happen as those glasses of wine are drunk, and each time a little bit more of Jesus’ true identity will be revealed.

At the wedding, Mary not only got her drink refreshed, but she was given another golden moment to add to her treasure chest, to ponder upon. Those new friends of Jesus who will become known as ‘The Twelve’ (such infamy), have seen who Jesus is – they don’t fully understand yet, but they have seen the impossible, and drunk of his wine, and they believe. A wedding party that was threatened has blossomed into the most talked about wedding party ever. The stewards and the servants have all had a glimpse of Jesus Ben Joseph as Jesus Ben Yahweh – the Son of God.

Read the full story here.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What is the best drink (outside of communion!) you have ever been given? What made it so?
  • Do you think Mary’s role was necessary?
  • Would any other of Jesus’ miracles have had the same impact as a first miracle?
  • What do you find is revealed to you in this epiphany moment/
  • Is there anything from today’s passage that speaks to you – is there anything you wish to change in your life as a result of this?
  • Are there ways in which our fellowships and churches need to change in response?

Something to read:

But then at weddings there’s always one Bride

a blessed bouquet of nerves and beauty

arranged for love

and its many flowerings

But then at weddings there’s always one Groom

awkwardly practising selflessness

and crossing out

the world’s silly sentences about manhood

For later when they kiss

it is holy

it is God embracing himself

But then at weddings there’s always one

Cheery Uncle

who only drinks twice a year

and shouldn’t

now offering to try on all the ladies’ hats

at once

But then at weddings there’s always one

Confused Cousin

who sits in the wrong place

too embarrassed to move, too shy to stay

but he wrote the card with all his heart

it’s just that the felt tip leaked

But then at weddings there’s always one

Gran in a nice frock

Auntie who likes to waltz

Younger Brother n a slick suit dying for a ciggie

But then at weddings there’s always one

on his own

over in the corner by the jugs of water

no one even knows how he does it

He even gets it to taste like wine

the best wine

the blest wine

But then at weddings there’s always one.             Stewart Henderson

Read Mark and Inwardly Digest? Where’s Nathanael?

Once again we find ourselves not in the Gospel of Mark! In this season of Epiphany the lectionary wants us to consider how those who met face to face with the adult Jesus responded to him, as well as the visitation of the Magi to the infant Christ. Today we are asked to think about Nathanael and his response – quite an intriguing one – the thing is, Nathanael isn’t mentioned in Mark’s gospel. Mark recalls how the four fishermen instantly responded, dropping their nets and becoming ‘fishers of men’; also Levi who gave up the lucrative tax collecting business, but none of the others’ stories are recorded. Philip who features in this passage from John alongside Nathanael is at least listed amongst the 12, but Nathanael isn’t (unless he is hiding under a pseudonym – there are many suggestions that Nathanael is referred to as Bartholomew in the other gospels.)

So why is Nathanael so important?

Well Nathanael is one of those very special types of people who we might call ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘a rough diamond’, someone who would call a spade a spade, someone without any airs or graces, or as John writes, ‘an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’.

Nathanael doesn’t seem to hold any airs or graces, he is certainly not one to have the wool pulled over his eyes. His first response to Philip’ invitation to ‘come and see’, is rather a rude scepticism, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’.

And yet, when he sees Jesus face to face, it is clear that they have already met. Nathanael seems to like the way that Jesus describes his character, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ he asks, which I can imagine him saying with a bit of a grin and a wink, as if to say ‘my reputation goes before me’, as if to own the description as being true.

Jesus answers him by saying, in a round about way, that they have met before, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’. Fig trees were known as places of prayer. Nathanael may be a rather sceptical rough diamond who doesn’t hold back, but he is also devout and faithful – a strong combination for a disciple, and he now recognises that Jesus is the one to whom he has been praying all this time. He declares,

You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

Long before Peter makes his declaration of Jesus as Messiah, Nathanael has nailed it.

Underneath his fig tree, Nathanael has found a ‘thin space’ between heaven and earth, here, in his devotions he has found a connection with the heavenly realm, but that is nothing compared to what is to come. Jesus promises this descendant of Jacob, that he too will see

heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending

but, for Nathanael, the prayerful, the ‘ladder’ that connects the two will be Jesus himself.

This is Nathanael’s epiphany moment: Nathanael meets the man of his prayers, finds himself loved and accepted and called into a purpose. What is our epiphany moment? Nathanael’s began with prayer, devout and regular prayer in a place of peace, set aside from daily life: not a monastery or a temple, but an easily found place that he could make his own. Nathanael, first got to know God in the ethereal realms of spirituality before coming face to face with the Son of God. If we want to discover God’s love and purpose for our lives then we too need to begin with prayer. Not just the prayers in church on a Sunday, but regular, personal prayer in your own set-aside space. There Jesus will come and find us, and call us, and there we will find his love and acceptance, and if we are willing to accept it, his calling too.

Read the gospel passage here.

Something to watch:

 

Something to think about:

  • What to you would be ‘Nazareth’ – a place from which no good could come?
  • Why do you think it was important for Jesus to have Nathanael in his ‘pack’? What attributes do you think his ‘lack of deceit’ could bring to Jesus’ ministry?
  • Why do you think Nathanael is given so little column space in the other gospels?
  • What unusual ‘attributes’ do you think you have that could be of use to God? If you are meeting in a group, spend some time thinking about each other’s attributes and perhaps, kindly, sharing them.
  • How can you safeguard time for personal prayer? Where is your ‘fig tree’?
  • Spend some time now, quietly waiting upon God – have something to hand to prayerfully fiddle with as you do so (a ribbon, some prayer beads, play dough..)

Something to pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you know us better than we know ourselves, seeing us as we really are, with all our faults and limitations, our quirks and weaknesses, yet giving your all for us in love.

Help us simply to know you better – glimpsing a little more clearly who you are in all your glory, greatness, love and compassion – so that, in love, we might give back to you in love, offering our worship now, our time today and our discipleship always, in grateful response. Amen.                                                               Nick Fawcett

Epiphany: Leaving by Another Road

 

The night that Jesus was born a star hung from the sky. A star so bright that it shone light and hope into some of the darkest of places. A star so bright that it gained the attention of astrologers in other parts of the world. A star so bright that it demanded attention.

The attention the Magi, the Wise Men gave the star took time and deliberation. They didn’t just set off on camels, they did their research to try and understand what this brightest of stars could mean, and although they were not Hebrews they found their way to Jewish prophecies, and understood the significance of the ‘supernova’; understood enough to know that the gifts they should take with them needed to be fit for royalty, for deity, needed to reveal their understanding of that star.

The research, the gifts, the journey, took 2 years – Jesus was no longer a babe in arms, now a toddling child. The return journey would present a challenge, the return journey demanded a change from the Magi. They left by a different road.

Herod, it seems hadn’t noticed the star, even though it shone so brightly above him. Herod needed to have both the star and its significance explained to him, and when it was, he was not happy. His own researchers came to the same conclusion that the magi had: the star equated royalty, deity, competition, change. Change scared Herod: change could mean a loss of power and respect, it could mean the loss of his lifestyle, even his life under Roman rule.

Just as the Magi had been compelled to come close and to respond with love and gifts, Herod had been threatened by the prospect of a new, usurping, king and responded with fear and hate and violence.

The magi observed a star, so bright that it demanded their attention and made them question everything they knew. What did you observe this Christmas? What has demanded your attention, what has raised questions for you?

We think we know the Christmas story so well that we almost ignore it, disengage from the questions at the heart of it; however the birth of a king, of God himself, is something to be celebrated, pondered upon, worshipped… each year we are invited to be present just as the Magi were, and we are invited to be changed by the experience of meeting with God himself.

Once Christmas is over and the decorations are packed away, we can return to our everyday lives as if nothing has changed, but if we do, then our celebrations have been meaningless. Experiencing ‘God with Us’ is life-changing, but change is challenging, threatening, exhilarating, adventurous… Do we have the courage to make the Christmas story a reality in our everyday lives? Do we have the courage to commit ourselves to Jesus everyday and not just Christmas day? What will we need to change in order to do so?

Or are we too scared of change to do anything? Will we allow fear to eat away at us as Herod did, or will we look to travel a different way into the new year as we continue our encounter with Jesus?

Something to watch:

 

Something to think about:

  • What has surprised you this Christmas?
  • What part of the Christmas story has moved you this year?
  • Why do you think that the Magi responded with such positive energy towards the star?
  • How were the Magi open to the warning of the dream to travel by another road?
  • What challenges wait for us as Christians in the year ahead  (individually or as a church)?
  • How can we respond as the Magi did?
  • What do we need to set aside in order not to respond as Herod did?

Something to pray:

Lord God, the bright splendour whom the nations seek: may we who with the wise men have been drawn by your light discern the glory of our presence in your Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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