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A reflection for Candlemas (The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple) Sunday 4th February 2024 by the Rev'd David Warnes

When the novelist Anthony Burgess wrote a short novel about the life of Jesus, he decided to bring together the Circumcision and the Presentation in the Temple and to make of them a single scene. This is a powerful example of artistic licence, for Burgess was writing about events which, in reality, were separated by thirty-two days. Time is telescoped to make a profound point.

Simeon, who in the novel is blind, becomes aware of the presence of the infant Jesus when he hears him crying because of the pain and shock of the circumcision and he moves towards the sound and encounters the holy family. It’s a wonderful image because it captures perfectly the vulnerability of Jesus and the profound spiritual insight of Simeon, who cannot see the fulfilment of God’s promise in a literal sense, and yet is able to recognise that fulfilment and to say “mine eyes have seen thy salvation”. It also reflects the darker side of Simeon’s words, in Luke’s account he telescopes time, prophesying that Jesus will be opposed and rejected, and speaking of the suffering that the Crucifixion will bring to Mary his mother:

“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed; and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

For us, also, this year time is telescoped. Today marks the end of the Christmas season, the celebration of the Incarnation. There will hardly be time to draw breath before, on Wednesday week, we enter Lent and our thoughts will turn to the adult Jesus going out into the wilderness and confronting the thoughts and temptations that could have undermined his ministry and spared him the  suffering of which Simeon speaks. 

Simeon’s words about falling and rising, about the revealing of people’s inner thoughts take us back to our Old Testament reading from Malachi.  Malachi mixes his metaphors in a daring way – the Messiah is likened to a refiner’s fire and to fuller’s soap. The refiner’s fire burns away the dross, leaving only the pure metal behind – a powerful metaphor for the judgement of God but also a pointer to the reflection and the discipline to which we are called in Lent. Fuller’s soap, or fuller’s earth is different – it is an additive – it is beaten into cloth to give it extra body and thickness, to make it more windproof. So that’s a hopeful metaphor which speaks of what theologians call justification, the way in God can and will fill the gaps and the shortcomings in us and bring us to perfection. 

We are so familiar with the words that Simeon spoke, words that are said and sung in Christian churches around the world every evening, that we are in danger of losing sight of the wonder of them.

Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word

for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

to be a light to lighten the gentiles,

and to be the glory of thy people Israel. 

To recognise the fulfilment of God’s promises in a vulnerable, helpless infant, not voiceless but as yet speechless, is a profound and wonderful insight. This baby - Jesus - is God’s promise fulfilled, and Simeon recognises and acknowledges that truth. He understands that the fulfilment of God’s promise is at hand and he trusts in God for the future fulfilment of that promise. The promise is enough for him. He does not need to live on to watch Jesus grow and develop, and to witness his resistance to temptation, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. 

Simeon’s faith speaks to our condition as disciples of Jesus Christ, for we too have seen the salvation that comes at Christmas but we have not yet seen its fulfilment. The world in which we live often looks unchanged and unredeemed. That is why we need the kind of faith that Simeon had, the certainty that God’s promise is in process of fulfilment, even though we may not experience that fulfilment in our earthly lives.

We have all of us found our faith challenged by things that have happened to us and to other people, by griefs and sorrows, by brutality and selfishness, by the undeserved suffering of the innocent. There are times when it is profoundly difficult to say “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation”. At such times we may draw strength from Simeon because he was the first to recognise that the fulfilment of God’s promise would involve God taking upon himself the brutalities, the selfishness and the undeserved suffering of the world and thus establishing an absolute and loving solidarity with the victim of torture, with the refugee, with the grief-stricken, with the convicted criminal on the scaffold, with the helpless invalid in the hospital bed. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it:

“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

And that absolute, loving solidarity confers meaning and value on situations which would otherwise seem bleak, meaningless and utterly negative. Paul Tillich saw that very clearly when he wrote these words about the encounter between the aged Simeon and the infant Jesus:

“Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only the person who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say:  “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”


 

A reflection for Sunday 28th January 2024 Epiphany IV by Judy Wedderspoon

As you have just heard, this morning’s first reading is from the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit about that book.

As Christians, we cannot, must not ignore the Old Testament. It is part of our scriptural heritage.  Large parts of the New Testament cannot really be understood without at least some knowledge of the Old Testament. And we must never forget that Jesus was a Jew. The book of Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Torah, the books which comprise the main book of the Law and instruction for Jews both now and in past centuries, coming after Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Jesus knew the Torah. Luke tells us that when he was twelve years old, his parents took him to Jerusalem. The teachers in the Temple were amazed at his grasp of the Jewish law. So we do need to know something about it.

The first and most obvious thing to be said about the book of Deuteronomy is that it is not what, at its beginning, it says it is. Verse 1:1 states that “these are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan”.

After 40 years wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites at last arrive at the river Jordan and are about to cross over into the Promised Land. But Moses has long ago been told by YHWH that he will not come into that land. He will die first. So this book purports to be Moses’ final words to his people. But this is simply not possible. Leaving aside common-sense factors that Moses was then 120 years old, and that he was certainly more or less illiterate, there is a great deal of internal evidence within the book itself that it could not possibly have been composed at that early date.

So what is it and why is it included among the books of the Torah and the Old Testament?

Fast forward several centuries after Moses’ death. The Israelites have entered into and almost entirely lost the Promised Land. They have been overrun and conquered by outside powers. They have forgotten the covenant with YHWH which they have disobeyed. The only remaining Israelite state is that of Judah, which has suffered from a series of weak kings. But now in the fifth century a new king, Josiah, comes to the throne. He is determined to bring his people back to their allegiance to their God. He begins by cleansing and restoring the Temple, throwing out the Assyrian idols and clearing out the rubble. What surfaces from the rubble is a great scroll which in large measure is a restatement of the Jewish law contained in the first four books of the Torah. Although it contains significant variations, it is accepted as the fifth Holy Book of the Torah and in Greek is given the name Deuteronomy; “Deutero” in Greek means “second” and “nomos” means “Law”. During his reign, Josiah will do all he can to bring his people back to living according to that law, which has miraculously been brought back to light among them.

In that light, let us look again at this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy. This is a reflection, almost an exact repeat, of a passage in Exodus [20: 18-19]. The Israelites are afraid that if their God, YHWH, speaks direct to them, they will be destroyed by the fire of his greatness. So YHWH agrees that from henceforth he will speak to Israel only through his appointed prophets. The Israelites must heed what those prophets say as if it were YHWH himself speaking, or suffer the consequences. What Deuteronomy is saying here is that Israel’s weakness now is the result of their disobedience in the past. They must reform and obey the Law as set out in this scroll, which reinforces King Josiah’s wishes.

But by the agreement to communicate only through appointed prophets, the direct line of communication between YHWH and his people as individuals was severed. Jesus came to restore it. He set us free to pray “our Father”. I believe that God now can and will speak direct to us, though perhaps not sometimes as often and as clearly as we might wish. Perhaps we are not always as good at hearing as we should be? 

In closing I would like to leave you with a great passage from Deuteronomy. Maybe Moses did not himself close with these words to the Israelites, but they have an eternal message for them and for us: “I call heaven and earth to witness today that I have set before you life and death… Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him, for that means life to you” [Deut 30:19-20] Therefore choose life.


 

The Conversion of St.Paul - a reflection for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity always falls within the week of the Feast of the Conversion of St.Paul. 

The Conversion of St.Paul

Saul’s sudden conversion and transformation into St.Paul may seem rather alien to many of us. I don’t deny that for some people they do have an immediate and sudden conversion or revelation of faith. For others, like myself, that conversion to faith was and is more gradual. As a child I took myself to church because I enjoyed the services. As a teenager I only went to chapel at school but is was as a young adult that my faith deepened and my life changed. My gradual conversion led me into a deeper understanding and acceptance of God and the man Jesus, this inspired me to try and live a life like his. I had no sudden 'lightbulb' moment but was converted none-the-less by Christ. Your journey of faith maybe similar.

Saul was a persecutor of Christians, a zealous Jew who could not accept Jesus as Messiah. On that road to Damascus things changed and Paul became an ardent promoter of the Christian faith. I suspect many could not quite believe his conversion and probably suspected that he had ulterior motives.He was at first kept at arms length by the Early Church members, wondering if in fact it was a way of infiltrating the Church in order to destroy it. We now know it wasn’t but 2000+ years ago Paul had to work hard to gain acceptance and trust. Today we remember his conversion and give thanks for his rôle in the spread of the Church across the globe. No matter how you came to faith, I suspect that some his words have fed you along the way, and probably like me some of his writing might have annoyed you as well! But the one thing you can always say of Paul is that he makes you think about your faith and that is always a good thing. 

A reflection for Sunday 14th January 2024 Epiphany II by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

Speak, Lord for your servant is listening (1 Samuel 3:9)

When did you last hear someone calling you? How did you respond? Think for a moment. Was it something that you imagined or was it real? Was it a voice you recognised or not?  What were the circumstances leading up to it? Did you do anything about it? Often it may be totally unexpected coming at times which are inconvenient or when we are busy doing something else or just disinterested.  

When I was across staying with my mother over Christmas, I noticed that one of her elderly neighbours had come out into her garden. Having not seen her for some time I shouted out “Hello Fiona”. It was rather strange waiting to see if she could hear me and how she would respond.  For a moment I could see her turning her head first in one direction and then the other. Eventually she looked straight ahead; we waived; exchanged some pleasantries and then went on our way. She could quite easily have ignored me or just not made the effort to see who was calling to her.  

In our reading from 1 Samuel we hear about God’s calling of the boy, Samuel.  It is a story that is told in the third person. It is a story of delayed recognition of God’s voice and of Samuel’s submission.  At the time of his calling, Samuel does not receive directions to deliver a message to wayward people or to proclaim the word of the Lord.  Instead the focus of his prophetic calling is to prepare for the transition from Eli’s household to a new priestly family. 

To be called by God is something special.  To be called by God means that God knows our name and everything about us. To be called by God may mean a change of direction or course of action.

What is important in our story is that in the summons to Samuel, God instructs Samuel first to listen.  It is only after being called three times that Samuel is able to respond with those heartfelt words “Speak, for your servant is listening”. It required an old priest suffering from encroaching blindness to interpret the repeated summons as being from God. 

What is also important is that Eli asks Samuel to tell him what he has been told. Despite Samuel being afraid he withholds nothing. Eli acknowledges this by saying “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him”. 

But we also have another calling in our gospel reading too. Philip goes and finds his friend Nathanael and tells him that he believes that he has discovered the long-promised Messiah in Jesus, the man from Nazareth. Nathanael is contemptuous. Nathanael’s reaction is to declare that Nazareth was not the  kind of place that anything good was likely to come out of. But Philip was wise. He did not argue. He simply said “Come and see”.  So Nathanael came and saw that Jesus could see into his heart.  What surprises Nathanael is not so much that he had been seen under the fig tree. It was the fact that Jesus had read the thoughts of his inmost heart and satisfied them. Only in John’s gospel is Nathanael mentioned.  In the other three gospels he never appears at all. 

As we have heard about the calling of Samuel and also Nathanael may we too be willing to listen afresh to the call of God on our lives; to hear and to respond  “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening”.

An Epiphany Reflection by Canon Dean Fostekew

‘Wise men from the East’

Do you realise that’s virtually all we actually know about the visitors who came baring gifts for the Christ Child, that they were wise men from the East; and no one is quite sure what that means. We can assume that they were wealthy from the gifts they brought and that they had some experience (or staff who did) in understanding the stars in the sky. Much of what we think we know about these men is legend and embroidery that has attached itself to them over the past two millennia. If you read the passage again you’ll also discover that we are not told the number of wise men who came from the East. It is just assumed that there were three because of the three gifts offered. Also Matthew is the only Gospel writer to include anything about them. So what’s going on?

In Eastern Christianity, especially the Syriac churches, the Magi often number twelve.Their identification as ‘kings' in later Christian writings is probably linked to Isaiah 60:1-6

which refers to "kings (coming) to the brightness of your dawn" bearing "gold and frankincense". Further identification of the magi with kings may also be due to Psalm 72:11 which says; "May all kings fall down before him”.

So we have an idea why we think there may have been three wise men and that they might have been kings as well. The magi title relates to their study of the stars and the mysticism surrounding astrology and astronomy. You can see how the legends grow. We also have names for them; Balthazar, Casper and Melchior quite how they came about is obscured in the mists of history but interestingly the three are seen to represent different races of humanity. Balthazar as a King of Arabia; Melchior a King of Persia and Casper a King of India - representing men from different places in the known world of two thousand years ago.

In art they also represent three different ages of humanity of youth, middle age and maturity - hence being portrayed as fresh faced, white bearded and middle aged. Their skin tones also

reflect their cultural origins. The picture of them grows and much of what we think we know about them probably comes from paintings or more often Christmas cards!

This might set one thinking that this all sounds very fanciful and wondering if they did in fact visit the Christ Child and when they were supposed to have done so. Again it is assumed that the child was a young boy and not a baby when they called.

Personally, I love the feast of the Epiphany or ‘The revelation of Christ to the world’, and all the legends and mystery that goes with it. I love it for one reason that the visit of the men from the East quite obviously and dramatically tell us that Jesus was born not for the Hebrew people alone but for all people of the world regardless of where they come from, how old they are, what skin colour they have or whatever difference they represent.

Jesus is for EVERYONE!!!!!!!!!!!

This is the message of today’s feast and it is a message we should proclaim from the roof tops. Jesus was not born for just a few random people he was born for the whole of the human race throughout all time. His birth heralded the salvation he would win us by his death on a Cross and resurrection to new life. His birth gives the whole world HOPE that by his love, the love of God incarnate (made real and fleshy) tells us all that we are wanted by God in his Kingdom.

All the legends and the symbolism of the Kings, Magi, wise men and the gifts are a great story that adds to the drama and ultimate truth that Jesus was born to save us all and to show us all how much we are loved by our Creator.

Thank you Casper, Melchior and Balthazar for showing us what we needed to know and understand about our Saviour.