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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.

Happy New Year

May God bless and keep you and your loved ones throughout this coming year.

A reflection for Christmas I Sunday 31st December 2023 by the Rev'd Russell Duncan

The Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen as it had been told them (Luke 2:20)

One of the books which I recently bought is entitled “The Art of Christmas” by the theologian, Jane Williams. It is a series of meditations on the birth of Jesus as depicted in some of the world’s greatest paintings.  One of the paintings is by El Greco (1541-1614) -  “Adoration of the Shepherds” -  which is now held in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. It is considered to be his last painting and was meant to hang over his own tomb in a convent in Toledo. Some of his other paintings can be seen here in The National Gallery of Scotland.

El Greco paints the shepherds barefoot and ragged; their faces full of wonder and reverence. There is a swirling feeling to the painting; the whole world is in motion around the holy family. The child at the heart of the painting is tiny but shining; the source of the light illuminating his parents and the shepherds. 

We are reminded that the first announcement of God’s message came to the shepherds. Shepherds were despised by the orthodox good people of the day. They were unable to keep the demanding details of the ceremonial law; they could not observe the meticulous hand-washings and rules and regulations. Their flocks made constant demands on them; and so the orthodox looked down on them. 

Who knows, they may have been very special shepherds. Perhaps the clue comes in the angel’s explanation: the Messiah, the Saviour, has been born in David’s own town; David started life as a shepherd and ended up as Israel’s greatest king; reference to shepherds goes a long way back.

God seems to like shepherds. They get the most royal of invitations to the nativity. Mary has a personal visit from the angel Gabriel. Joseph has an angelic visitation in a dream, but the shepherds not only get their own personal angel, telling them the good news, but then they are joined by the “heavenly host”. 

The shepherds are perhaps even the first evangelists. They tell the good news that the angels gave them and that they were then able to see for themselves. We are told that they went about “glorifying and praising God”. 

No doubt shepherds were a commonplace of the districts in which Jesus conducted his ministry in later life. He seems to have observed them closely. The good shepherd who searches for the lost sheep is a picture of his own ministry of seeking out the lost, rather than concentrating on the safe and comfortable. He even describes himself as “the good shepherd” who has taken the time and trouble to know and be known by the sheep, who will protect them at any cost.

Over Christmastide we will have sung and heard familiar carols referencing shepherds. They will have ranged from “While shepherds watched their flocks” and “Shepherds left their flocks a-straying” through to “the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” and “The Shepherd’s Farewell”. We just cannot get away from them.

As we come to the end of another year with the hopes, challenges and uncertainties that will face each of us may we know the presence of the good shepherd. May we be sure that he knows us and that we can know him too. And may we like those first shepherds who heard God’s message, continue to “go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us”. 


 

A reflection for Christmas Day 2023 by the Rev'd David Warnes

One of the things that priests are trained to do is theological reflection. It becomes second nature and, in my case, it’s sometimes prompted by adverts. It happened a few weeks ago when there was a stushie about a Marks & Spencer Christmas commercial. It showed a group of rather alarming people trashing elements of a traditional Christmas – blowtorching a pile of Christmas cards, upsetting a game of Trivial Pursuit by dumping the cards and pieces into a tank of tropical fish and burning three party hats in a grate. The strapline at the end of the commercial was:

“Love Thismas (not Thatmas)”

and the overall message encouraged viewers not to be bound by Christmas traditions.

The ad received very mixed reviews, and was sternly criticised on social media by Katherine Birbalsingh, the woman to whom journalists routinely refer as “Britain’s strictest headteacher.” Several people spotted that the party hats which were being incinerated were in the colours of the Palestinian flag and the row became political. My own reaction was that it expressed a sadly selfish, individualistic and consumerist approach to Christmas.

I am a strong believer in tradition. I hope that you will, for the rest of today, enjoy whatever your Christmas traditions are. In my case, the fascination with Christmas traditions goes back to when I was a very young child. I would pester Annie Jane, my paternal grandmother, to tell me what Christmas was like when she was a little girl. Since these conversations took place in the 1950s, Annie Jane was remembering the Christmas traditions of a working-class household in the 1880s – her father was a boilermaker in a shipyard.

She described how she and her sisters would hang knitted woollen stockings at the end of their beds. In the morning, each of the stockings would contain an apple, an orange, a bar of chocolate, a bag of nuts and just one toy.

To my child’s mind that sounded rather meagre, not least because I knew that Annie Jane’s Christmas present to me would be one of those brown ten-shilling notes that some of you will remember and that had vastly more purchasing power than their modern equivalent, the fifty-pence piece. Yet I found the story fascinating and delighted to hear it repeated. It became a tradition about a tradition.

Years later it struck me that there’s a theological dimension to the story. Annie Jane’s Christmas gifts were a mixture of the expected – the fruit, the chocolate and the nuts - and the unexpected surprise – that single toy.

For Christians, Christmas is just such a mixture, for we too have traditions, musical and liturgical, which we value, and which evoke treasured memories. All of this is important and helps us to celebrate. Yet it may distract us from the surprise, from the astounding truth of the Christmas Day Gospel.

That truth is simply stated, but its implications invite a lifetime of responses in love, prayer and service. The God who creates and sustains the universe, sustains it and sustains us in risky freedoms, the freedom to live in a natural world which is evolving and which isn’t always safe, the moral freedom to choose between love and hate, between kindness and cruelty.

The surprise is that God came among us to share those risks and those possibilities; came among us not as a finger-wagging authoritarian commanding obedience but, at least initially, as a baby, as us at our most helpless and dependent. The Creator experienced what it is to be a creature, the joys and sorrows, the pleasures and the pains, even unto death.

Which brings me to the music which formed the soundtrack of that Marks & Spencer advert. It was a cover version of Meat Loaf’s 1993 hit single I’d do anything for love (but I won’t do that). An apt choice for a commercial promoting assertive individualism.

The Christmas Gospel, the surprise good news of Christmas, is that the God who is love itself will do anything for love of us – no buts, no qualifications, no limits. This is a God who came among us to express that love in a human life. The divine intention was and is both to break down the barriers of selfishness that separate us from God and to show us what it means to be fully human and how we may move towards that fullness.

I hope that truth hasn’t lost the power to surprise you and that your Christmas will be peaceful and blessed.