Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Reading: Luke 2:22-40

This week is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It is otherwise known as Candlemas. The tradition is that if you don't take your Christmas decorations down on Twelfth Night, which is the evening of January 5th, they should stay up until Candlemas, which is officially on Tuesday. This period between the end of Christmas and Candlemas is known by some Churches as the season of Epiphany.

We began Epiphany by reading about how the Wise Men came seeking him who was born ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2). The following week, we saw how at the Baptism of Jesus, the Voice from heaven announced that Jesus was the Son of God (Mark 1:11). The phrase ‘Son of God’ in the Old Testament is used both of Israel and the King. The New Testament writers see it as referring to the Messiah, the coming King of Israel, whom they believe is Jesus. As well as describing Jesus’ role, it also describes his relationship with God as his Father.

On the Second Sunday of Epiphany, we turned our attention to John the Baptist and to the calling of Jesus’ first disciples in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. John is questioned by representatives of the ruling authorities in Jerusalem (John 1:19-28). He replies to them that reason he came baptizing was so that Jesus, whom he identifies as the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:20; 1:36), might be ‘revealed to Israel’ (John 1:31). John testifies that Jesus is the Son of God (John 1:34).

John’s endorsement of Jesus as the One for whose coming he has been preparing people through his baptism leads to some of John the Baptist’s disciples becoming disciples of Jesus instead. They become convinced that Jesus is the Messiah ‘of whom Moses and also the prophets wrote’ (John 1:45). He is the Son of God; he is the King of Israel (John 1:49). Jesus tells them that they will see ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ upon him (John 1:51).

Last week, we read about how Jesus revealed his glory through the first ‘sign’ that he performed at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11). His glory is to be seen not simply in the provision of wine at the wedding, but in what Jesus’ provision of the wine represents and points to. Jesus is the Divine Bridegroom spoken of by the prophets who gives the new wine of his Kingdom to those who believe in him.

Our Gospel readings over the past few weeks are full of references and images drawn from Israel’s Scriptures. The Gospel writers use them to show that Jesus is the Messiah whom God promised to his people. The readings describe how, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, the Messiah, the Son of God, ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11).

The emphasis in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels is almost exclusively on the Messiah and his people. It would be easy to conclude from them that the Messiah has only come to his own people. Indeed, in considering Jesus’ earthly ministry, we would be right to think like this. On one occasion, Jesus himself says explicitly:

‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ (Matthew 15:24)

As non-Jews, if we were reading the Gospels for the first time, we might initially assume that that there is nothing in the story of Jesus for us. It is only when we look again more closely that we start to hope that the Messiah might just have something to offer us too.

The problem that I have been seeking to draw our attention to in this series of sermons for Epiphany is just how quickly we who are not Jews assume that what the Messiah offers is not only for us too, but that it is primarily for us. We fail to see – or should that be, refuse to see? – that Jesus came first and foremost to his own. It is for the Jew first (Romans 1:16). The ascendancy of the Gentiles in the Church, however, has led, as St Paul feared it would, to arrogance on our part and tragically to the antisemitism that is very much still with us (Romans 11:17-24).

But it is not only the Jewish people who have suffered as a consequence of the Church abandoning and forgetting its roots. By our failure to see Jesus as one of his own, as the King of Israel, we have a distorted image of Jesus, an unhistorical Jesus. We try to shape his image into an image that we can recognize in a misguided attempt to see him more clearly. All too often what we end up seeing is no more than our own reflection.

There is, however, a reason why the Church at first, after our Lord’s resurrection, found it so hard to work out what to do with Gentiles who were believing in Christ. Jesus had not taught his followers what they should do when Gentiles also wanted to believe in him, so they were completely unprepared for it when it happened. Jesus’ earthly ministry was as the Messiah whose ministry was to his own people, the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to those whom he had been sent.

St Paul describes Gentiles believing in Christ as a ‘mystery’ that had not been made known previously, but which had only now been revealed. No-one had seen this coming. And this mystery had been revealed, not in the teaching of Jesus, but through the Holy Spirit in the teaching of the holy apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5).

The problem for us today, however, is the other way round. It is not the problem of seeing how the Gentiles fit in to God’s plan but seeing how Christ fits in to the life and faith of his own, the Jewish people to whom he came.

Christmas and Epiphany with their focus on the coming of Christ are a time to remind ourselves of who Jesus is and of why he came. It is a time for us to see him again as the Messiah promised in the Scriptures, sent to his own as one of his own. It is only when we see him in this way that we will begin to appreciate the incredible privilege we have been given of being allowed to share in the promises of God and to become part of his people. It is only when we see him this way that we see him for who he really is. Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection, simply make no sense if we separate them from the history and life of his people and his ministry to them.

St Matthew and St Luke in their account of the birth of Jesus go out of their way to establish the worship, history, beliefs, and life of Israel as the context and foundation for the coming of Jesus and for everything he says and does. We cannot hope to understand the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus until we read them from this perspective.

I have previously mentioned Maricon who lived in the second century. He was one of the original antisemites. He hated the Old Testament God and the Jewish influence on the Church, and he sought to rid the Church of all traces of Judaism. He compiled a list of books that he thought should function as the Church’s Scriptures. Of the Gospels, he included only an edited version of St Luke’s Gospel.

Significantly, however, he left out of his edited version of St Luke’s Gospel the first two chapters of the Gospel that describe Jesus’ birth, precisely because in them St Luke makes Jesus’ Jewishness foundational to Jesus’ life and teaching. The Church rejected Marcion as a heretic, but his way of thinking is dominant in the Church today. It can be seen, for example, in the rejection of the Old Testament by some Christians and its neglect by many others.

Once, however, we allow our thinking to be re-oriented so that we see Jesus as part of his people and their story, then the New Testament itself takes on for us a whole new meaning which is, of course, its original and intended meaning.

In our Gospel reading this week, we read of how Mary and Joseph are bringing our Lord up according to the Law. He has already been given the name of a famous figure in Israel’s history: Joshua, in Hebrew; Jesus in Greek. He is circumcised on the ‘eighth day’ as the Law prescribes (Genesis 17:12; 21:4; Leviticus 12:3).

At 40 days, Jesus’ parents take him to the Temple in Jerusalem. This is now known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, but, first of all, it is the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not because she has done anything wrong but because it was something required by the Law for ritual purity (Leviticus 12:1–8). They didn’t have to take Jesus with them for Mary’s purification, but they did so because again the Law also required that the first-born be consecrated to the Lord (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15).

St Luke couldn’t put it any more clearly that Mary and Joseph are Torah observant Jews who do everything strictly by the Book.

While they are in the Temple, Mary and Joseph encounter a man called Simeon. He is someone who is waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’ (Isaiah 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 61:2; 66:13) and who has been told by the Holy Spirit that he won’t die until he has seen the Messiah. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Simeon into the Temple to the child, Jesus, and his parents.

Simeon himself reacts to seeing the Messiah for the first time with the famous words of what we now know as the Nunc Dimittis. This is the hymn which begins, ‘Lord, now let they servant depart in peace.’ Simeon says that his eyes have now seen God’s salvation: he is holding it in his arms! The words he speaks over the child are from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 49:6).

While there, they also meet Anna, a prophetess with a rich Israelite heritage. She has spent most of her life in the Temple. Anna, seeing the child, can’t wait to tell everyone who, like her, are looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’.

Everything that happens takes place in the context of and in obedience to Israel’s Law. St Luke’s account is grounded in Israel’s history and looks forward to her future hope. It is full of allusions and references to the Scriptures. St John says simply Jesus ‘came unto his own’. St Luke paints a picture in words of what this looked like.

So how should we Gentiles respond to all this today?

1. By reading the Scriptures

When the Bible uses the word ‘Scriptures’, the word usually has only one meaning: what we refer to today as the Old Testament. Many people cite the words of St Paul in his second letter to Timothy as a reason why we should take the Bible seriously as the Word of God. St Paul writes:

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …’ (2 Timothy 3:16)

As originally written, however, St Paul is referring to what we now know as the Old Testament writings. The irony today is that we give this special status to the writings of the Church that were added to the Scriptures and largely ignore the original and actual Scriptures that St Paul writes were inspired by God and, which, therefore, are useful to us.

Of course, we should read the New Testament, but those who wrote the books of the New Testament were themselves so steeped in the Scriptures that for us not to know the Scriptures is to miss references, images, and allusions, many of which the New Testament writers simply assume we will see and recognize. Our Lord from the moment he began his earthly ministry quoted the Scriptures. Our Lord took the Scriptures seriously; as his followers, so should we.

Last week, for example, our Gospel reading was St John’s account of the wedding at Cana of Galilee. Most believers when they read this passage focus on the water made wine. The message they take away is that God gives freely and abundantly to us. Now that’s true. But anyone who knew the Scriptures, reading St John’s Gospel for the first time, would immediately be on the alert once they knew that the Messiah was going to a wedding. That’s how God’s relationship with Israel is described in the Scriptures. And the provision of abundant wine would immediately identify him as the Messiah the prophets had written about in them.

If we take time to read the New Testament, we will get a lot out of it, but we will get much more out of it if we read both the Old and New Testaments together. In other words, if we read the whole Bible and not just our favourite bits of it.

2. By waiting for our redemption

Simeon and Anna were both waiting for the ‘consolation’ and ‘redemption’ of Israel. They were waiting for the coming of the Messiah and for what God had promised his people. We too are waiting for coming of Christ and for what God has promised us.

Except we’re not really. We think we don't have to wait for anything; we believe we are going to heaven when we die. So, there is no need for us to wait for the coming of Christ for anything to happen that matters to us individually. It will all happen to us automatically when we die. In the meantime, we can just get on with our lives. If we believe in the coming of Christ at all, we see it more like the icing on the cake. We think that nothing in principle that is directly of concern to us will be affected by it.

But our hope as believers is not that we will go to heaven when we die. Our hope is for the glory of God, which we will only experience when Christ comes again. It is then that God’s promises to us will be fulfilled and God’s plan for his creation will be brought to completion. Yes, as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection, there is much that has already happened that we can experience now, but there is still much to happen that we will only experience when Christ returns.

Simeon and Anna, like Jesus’ first disciples, were waiting for the redemption of Israel. We too are waiting for redemption. St Paul writes:

‘… we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Romans 8:23-24)

Sadly, although we too must wait, unlike Simeon, Anna, and Jesus’ first disciples, we do not devote ourselves to waiting.

Such devotion we leave to monks and nuns and people like them. Not only do we not want to become monks and nuns ourselves, worse than that, we don’t really think that what they do is either important or necessary. Often, we even despise the work they do or think they are wasting their time, not to mention their lives. Why spend so much time waiting on God and praying? Why not do something useful instead?

God doesn’t want us all to become like monks and nuns. But he does call some to the work of prayer and rather than despising them, we should respect them and be thankful for the prayers they offer on behalf of us all.

However, just because God doesn’t call most of us to this form of devotion, it doesn’t mean we are not all called to alternative forms of devotion as we await the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20-21; Titus 2:13). All of us, whatever our calling, are to live lives pleasing to God as we wait for our redemption, so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 1:8). We too are to study the Scriptures and to pray.

That we should live ‘lives pleasing to God’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1) we at least understand – even if we fail to live them. But where, we ask, do we get the time to study and to pray? We have careers that need pursuing, families that need raising, bills that need paying. When are we supposed to get the time to study and pray?

It is true that we do have much to do, and it would be a good reason for not studying and praying, except we do have time for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp groups, We Chat, YouTube and all the online activities and apps we devote so much of our time to. So why does it feel like we don’t have time for study and prayer when we do have time for all these other things?

It’s not simply that we don’t think study and prayer is important, we genuinely feel that we don’t have time. One reason, I would suggest is that we think of study and prayer as something that is separate to our lives and not part of them. When St Paul told the Thessalonian believers to ‘pray without ceasing’ and to give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18), he didn’t mean that they should stop doing what they were doing and only pray instead. He was encouraging them to see prayer as an integral part of their daily lives and activities rather than as something distinct from them.

Most of us are not going to give up our phones and going online any time soon, so why not incorporate some of the excellent resources that are available into what we do online? There are so many that there really is no excuse. In fact, there are so many resources that the problem is that we do not know where to start. So, let me suggest three as good places to begin: our Church Facebook Group, the BibleProject, and Word on Fire. There are many others, and more traditional ways still have a lot to offer those willing to make the effort.

Waiting is not passive, something that happens to us, but active, something we do. What is needed is commitment and imagination. We do have the time; what we need is the desire.

3. With a sense of excitement

Simeon, Anna, and the first disciples whose calling we have been reading about in Epiphany were all waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We can still sense their excitement at having found him. Of Simeon who takes the baby in his arms and says to God that now he can die in peace. Of Anna who tells everyone in Jerusalem who is waiting for the redemption of Israel that the moment has arrived. Of the first disciples who tell each other, ‘We have found him!’ and who believe in him and follow him.

The Gospel message is exciting, and people have been caught up in the excitement ever since. Have we the same sense of excitement and expectation? The truth is that often we simply don’t get it. There is a weariness and tiredness in much that passes for Christianity. We have become all too caught up in the affairs of the society in which we live and worn down by the world around us. It is unlikely that anyone would want to join us because they were excited by what we were saying.

I think this must be one of the greatest tragedies about the Church: that we have taken the Gospel of Christ and made it appear boring and irrelevant to people lives. At least, if people hated us, it would suggest that they understood something of what we are saying. As it is, most of the time, they don’t think it is even worth disagreeing with us.

We need as believers to regain the sense of excitement the first followers of Jesus felt. This cannot be manufactured. We can’t fake the excitement. We need to feel it. And we will only feel it and be excited by the message of the Gospel when our eyes are opened and we see just how exciting the message of the Gospel really is. St Paul wrote:

‘But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” ’ (1 Corinthians 2:9)

St Paul tells the believers in Corinth that all things are ours whether the world or life or death or the present or the future. ‘All things are yours’, he writes, ‘all are yours, you are Christ's, and Christ is God's (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). St Peter described the message we have received as something that ‘angels long to see’ (1 Peter 1:12).

Simeon felt his life was complete when he saw the Messiah, and he praised God for it, but he was under no illusion. He told Mary:

‘This child is destined for the falling and the 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.’ (Luke 2:34-35)

As it was then, so it will be until the wait is over. Jesus continues to be a sign that is spoken against.

Our attitude and response to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts: whether we are amongst those who are being saved or those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). No-one likes having their secret thoughts revealed for all to see. No wonder, then, that they will still try to silence Jesus and those who truly seek to be his followers.

But having seen what we have seen and heard what we have heard, things even angels long to see and hear, it is impossible to silence us. We have a message that people need to believe and which people need to hear.

And so, like Simeon, may our eyes be opened to see God’s salvation. And seeing it, may we be like Anna and give thanks to God for it and tell everyone we know about it.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Third Sunday of Epiphany.

The Third Sunday of Epiphany

Reading: John 2:1-11

Throughout his Gospel, St John describes the miracles that Jesus performs as ‘signs’. These are not simply spectacular acts. They are that, but more than that, they all reveal something important about Jesus and who he is. St John is well aware that Jesus did many other signs apart from the seven he records in his Gospel. St John writes at the end of the Gospel:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

He has, then, chosen these particular signs so that we too may believe in Jesus in the way his first disciples believed in him.

St John describes what happens at Cana of Galilee as the first of Jesus’ ‘signs’ (John 2:11). As the first of his signs, it shows us how we are to interpret and understand the signs that are to come. This week’s passage describing the wedding at Cana is meant to be read as part of what came before it, and it needs to be understood as an integral part of St John’s opening of his Gospel.

Having introduced us to the Word made flesh, St John describes the calling of the first disciples by outlining the first week of Jesus’ ministry. Last week, we looked at the first four days. This week’s reading is a part of this sequence of days. St John tells us the wedding took place on the ‘third day’ after the days he has outlined, that is, on the sixth day of the opening week.

So far in the Gospel, we have learnt that believing in Jesus the Word made flesh means believing that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. What is clear from what St John writes is that this is precisely what the first disciples did believe. ‘We have found the Messiah’, Andrew tells his brother Simon (John 1:41). ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote …’, Philip tells Nathanael (John 1:45). Nathanael expresses what they all hope and why they have come to Jesus:

‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ (John 1:49)

We are so used to thinking of Jesus in spiritual terms that we fail to appreciate the significance of these words. For these first disciples, this was a political statement as much as a theological one. The disciples are signing up to what they hope will be a revolution in which God and Israel will emerge triumphant. Jesus’ response does nothing to dampen their expectations. He tells them they will see ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ on him (John 1:51). With the angels on their side, in the struggle that’s to come, how can they lose?

So where does the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel lead these, his new disciples, who have pledged themselves to follow him? He takes them to meet his mother at a wedding! It will turn out to be quite a wedding, and the amount of wine that Jesus provides will help them get over any initial disappointment they may have felt. But it’s not how we would expect the ministry of the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ to begin. St John has written of Jesus, the Word become flesh, that ‘we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). St John tells us at the end of his account of the wedding that, in this sign, Jesus ‘revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (John 2:11).

While turning water into wine is quite a spectacular act, it’s a bit of a surprise that this is how the Son of God begins the work he came to do. So, the obvious question is: why does Jesus choose as his first sign to provide wine for guests who have already had more than enough to drink, so much, in fact, that the wedding has run out of wine? How does getting a wedding party out of an embarrassing situation reveal Jesus’ glory and lead his disciples (and us) to believe in him?

And where for that matter does his mother fit into all this? The way St John begins the account of the wedding is itself a little odd. St John writes:

‘On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.’ (John 2:1-2)

Now as a statement of fact it’s perfectly accurate. But St John has been describing the Word through whom everything came into existence, the Word made flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Son of Man whom angels will ascend and descend on. It’s been quite a build up to the first sign, but now suddenly his mother takes centre stage. It’s a bit embarrassing for some protestant believers. As if Jesus apparently getting people drunk isn’t hard enough to explain away, now there is the central role that his mother plays in all this to deal with.

It is hard to work out quite where Jesus’ mother fits into all this. That she is involved so prominently in Jesus’ first miracle seems to suggest her importance, but then when the mother of Jesus, (St John doesn’t use her name), tells Jesus that they have run out of wine, in our translations into English at least, Jesus seems to be, well, a bit dismissive. Jesus says to her:

‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ (John 2:4)

We can soften this a bit. The word translated ‘Woman’ was, at the time, a respectful way to address women. It was not, however, used to address one’s mother. And then, Jesus says to her, basically, either what’s that got to do with us or, more pointedly, what’s that got to do with me? Now it’s a fair point, and Jesus can be seen as simply stating the obvious. The shortage of wine is not their responsibility. Except that this isn’t how the mother of Jesus understands Jesus’ reply. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. To us it sounds as if Jesus has refused his mother’s request for him to help. His mother, however, seems to have understood it to mean that he is about to do something to remedy the situation.

As well, then, as the issue of how this sign reveals Jesus’ glory, we now have the problem that apparently Jesus didn’t want to reveal his glory this way in the first place, and only did so because of his mother’s intervention. Hopefully, we can explore the significance of this another time. For now, it’s worth noting that the next time we will hear of the mother of Jesus in St John’s Gospel will be at the Cross when his ‘hour’ has come and when Jesus, as he is dying on the Cross, entrusts the Beloved Disciple to his mother, and his mother to the Beloved Disciple. This means that when the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Gospel, is writing his Gospel, the Mother of Jesus is living with him.

So how do we explain what’s going on? It is often said that there are no parables in St John’s Gospel in the way there are in the other three Gospels. We don’t, for example, get parables like the Parable of the Sower, the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan. In St John’s Gospel, however, Jesus’ signs often function like parables. Yes, they happened. Unlike the parables in the other Gospels, they are actual historical events, but what happened has meaning that goes beyond the event itself. They have a symbolism and deeper spiritual meaning. So, for example, when Jesus heals the blind man in John chapter 9, he uses it as a way of teaching about spiritual blindness.

Now we can see this symbolism and deeper spiritual meaning clearly with the blind man or when Jesus uses his feeding of the 5,000 to teach about the need to feed on him. But what is the deeper meaning here at Cana? With the other signs, Jesus himself often brings out the meaning of the sign. Here he doesn’t; we have to look for it ourselves.

We don’t, however, have to look too far. St John does provide some clues. Firstly, there is the strange case of the missing bride and bridegroom. Philip has described Jesus as the one ‘about whom Moses and also the prophets wrote’. In the Old Testament, Israel is described as being married to God. She is his bride. The prophet Isaiah writes:

‘For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.’ (Isaiah 54:5)

The marriage between God and Israel took place at Sinai, after Israel had been freed from slavery in Egypt. It is described in the book of Exodus. In Exodus chapter 19, for example, God tells the people of Israel in words that can be described as a marriage proposal:

‘Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.’ (Exodus 19:5)

The people all respond ‘as one’:

‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’ (Exodus 19:8)

God then tells them when the wedding will take place:

‘… prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.’ 
(Exodus 19:11)

The covenant, that is, the ‘marriage’, then takes place as God gives his people the Law. The Law, including the Ten Commandments, is given, like the Wedding at Cana, on the third day, the day the Lord appears on the mountain. The Law is Israel’s marriage vows. This is what she promises to do (Exodus 24:3; 24:7).

Tragically, however, that didn’t happen, and Israel proved an unfaithful bride. The prophets describe it in graphic detail as spiritual adultery (see, for example, Ezekiel 16). But the prophets look forward to the day when God will again take Israel as his bride (see, for example, Isaiah 54:4-8; 62:1-5). Through the prophet Hosea, for example, God says:

‘And I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.’ (Hosea 2:19-20)

What is more, the prophets talk about the age to come when this will happen as being a time when there will be an abundance of wine. The prophet Amos says:

‘… the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.’ (Amos 9:13)

In the prophets, wine symbolizes the age of the Messiah (Isaiah 25:6).

At the wedding at Cana, it is not just the third day, it is also the sixth day, and it was on the sixth day that the first ever wedding took place as the woman is created from the side of man (Genesis 2:21). The Messiah is also the second Adam. This time the woman in the person of the mother of Jesus, the new Eve, invites obedience and not rebellion.

At a wedding, it was the duty of the bridegroom to provide the wine. At this wedding, the bridegroom only appears at the end when the chief steward, who assumes the new wine has been provided by him, compliments him on its quality.

By providing the wine, Jesus has himself taken on the role of the bridegroom and his mother represents the people of God. She tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them just as Israel promised she would do. His mother represents Israel; she is the daughter of Zion and the bride of God. As I have said, when his hour finally comes, Jesus will entrust the Disciple whom he loves to her as her son; and to him, the Disciple he loves, he will give her to be his mother. The Beloved Disciple will ‘take her to his own’ (John 19:27). And as the Beloved Disciple and his new mother stand there together at the Cross, from Jesus’ side will flow water and blood as the Church comes into being (John 19:34).

That this is how St John means us to understand what is going on is confirmed by what he writes later in his Gospel. In chapter 3, he writes about a discussion between the disciples of John the Baptist and an unnamed Jew about ‘purification’. You will remember that St John tells us that the stone jars that Jesus orders to be filled with water are for the Jewish rites of purification (John 2:6). John the Baptist’s disciples are worried that Jesus is baptizing more people than John. In his response, John describes Jesus as the bridegroom and himself as the bridegroom’s friend (John 3:25-30).

As we have seen, St John concludes his account of the wedding at Cana with the words:

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)

There are many lessons we can take away from the account of the wedding at Cana of Galilee: that God always provides generously; that we should always obey Jesus commands; even that we should not be afraid to drink wine and enjoy the gifts of creation. And they are all good points, but they hardly qualify as Jesus revealing his glory in a way that would lead his disciples to believe in him as the Son of God, the King of Israel. Glory speaks of God, and the setting and way in which Jesus reveals his glory can only mean one thing.

In the same way God revealed himself as the Divine Bridegroom to his people at Sinai, so Jesus has revealed himself to his disciples as the Bridegroom the prophets promised. This is why the disciples who know what ‘Moses and the prophets wrote’ believe in him.

But first, Jesus’ hour must come. Once it has, God will again take his people to be his bride. It will be a time for rejoicing; a time when the wine will truly flow.

Which is all very interesting, but what’s it got to do with us?

We are used to talking about the Church using a variety of New Testament images. One image that is not used a lot is that of the Church as the bride of Christ. It is, however, an important image, and one, I would dare to suggest, that speaks directly to the Church today.

In our second reading this week, St John combines this image of the Church with what we have learnt about Jesus in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. He describes how, in his vision, he hears a voice cry out:

‘… for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready …’ (Revelation 19:7)

Nor is it only St John who thinks like this. In Ephesians chapter 5, St Paul writes about marriage and the relationship that should exist between a husband and wife by comparing it to the relationship of Christ to his Church. He writes that this is a ‘mystery’ that is ‘mega’ (Ephesians 5:32), that’s the actual Greek word he uses! As we may say, it’s totally awesome.

There is, however, a real disconnect between the Biblical images we use to describe the Church and the way we actually do church. Not that there is anything wrong with the images themselves. After all, they are drawn from the New Testament itself: the family of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Spirit. These images of the Church are personal and relational. Even the image of the Church as the temple of the Holy Spirit, which at first sight might seem not to be, on closer inspection is completely personal and relational. It describes not the building believers meet in, but believers themselves, both individually and corporately, you and me. We are the dwelling place of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:19).

No image, however, is more personal and relational than that of the bride of Christ. And here in lies its liberating power. For in the Church, we have allowed other images of the Church drawn from the world around us to take over how we think and act. We don't give them names, but their anonymity makes them all the more controlling. The images that dominate us are those of the business and the organization. We may pay lip service to the Biblical images when we meet on Sundays, but it is these other images that govern our imagination and behaviour.

It is these images that are at work, for example, when we hold synods, conferences, and church council and committee meetings. It is these images that dominate our thinking when we talk of finance and fund raising. It is these images that influence our attitude to clergy and church leaders.

If we were to remove talk about God (and, in most cases, it would require little effort to do so), then not much would change. If you don't think that's fair, read the minutes of any church meeting. Apart from a brief prayer to start with and, perhaps, the Grace at the end, the meeting is exactly like that of any other business or organization. It isn't that as a church we don't need to organize and raise money. It’s just that we move quickly from the need to organize to becoming an organization and from raising funds to focusing on finance.

If today we came across Andrew, Peter, Phillip, and Nathaniel, we would send them on a business management course. We certainly wouldn't take them to a wedding.

The image of the Church as the bride of Christ is an image that challenges our conception of the Church. It is an image that gets to the heart of our identity as the Church and as believers. The Church exists solely for Christ. Its existence has no meaning apart from his love for us. We are God’s gift to him the heavenly bridegroom. One day, we will be married to him, and, until then, we look forward expectantly to our wedding day.

In our worship, we not only look back to our Lord’s Last Supper, we look forward in anticipation to the Lamb’s Supper, to the marriage feast at which we, the bride of Christ, will be presented by God to the Divine Bridegroom, his Son. Meanwhile, every Eucharist we join in celebrating is a spiritual communion with him. We are his – and his exclusively.

Seeing our services on a Sunday as a preview in the present of what will take place in the future should, I would suggest, have some effect on how we conduct them. It certainly should make us want to turn up to them and, perhaps, be a little bit more hesitant than we are about cancelling them.

But it is not just our services that are affected when we think of ourselves as the bride of Christ. Listen to this amazing passage from St Paul. He writes to the Church at Corinth:

‘I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-3)

Being a believer is about being in a relationship with Christ. It is about knowing him. Our longing should be to get to know him better and to please him more. Doctrine can seem dry and academic, and often it is. At its best, however, it is a description of the One we love. Ethics, rather that being a series of instructions about what we should or should not do, should be about how we return the love he has shown to us.

How well do we know him? How much do we want to please him? How important is he to us? The question Jesus asked Peter, he asks us, ‘Do you love me more than these?’ (John 21:15). How much do we love him?

In the Old Testament, Israel, despite her original good intentions, is consistently unfaithful to God. She persistently engages in idolatry by worshipping other gods beside the LORD. The people of Israel didn’t stop worshipping the LORD; they just wanted to worship other gods as well. This is why prophets describe it as spiritual adultery. It is not simply sin; it is betrayal.

So too with us. Our unfaithfulness begins with how we think of him and what we think about him. As we think of him less, we think of ourselves more. Our betrayal is seen in our values and attitudes, in our priorities and goals, and in what is important to us. The image of the bride of Christ challenges each of us to put Christ at the centre of our lives, to make him the focus of all we think and do.

A bride at her wedding wants to be beautiful for the person she is about to marry. She doesn’t see her vows as something she has to make, but something she wants to make. We believe that Jesus is Lord, and that’s right for that is who he is. But our Lord is also our Lover. If we see him purely as our Lord, then our obedience to him becomes a duty. Seeing him as our Lover makes it a pleasure. Our service is something we give willingly out of our love for him.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta was described in a biography of her as ‘something beautiful for God’. Our desire both as a Church and as believers should be to be beautiful for God. Our eyes should be for him and for him alone.

The Blessed Virgin Mary tells us, as she told the servants at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it’. May we respond, not reluctantly out of a necessary obedience, but joyfully out of a passionate desire to please him who has given himself completely for us and to us: ‘we love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19).

One day, Christ will come for his bride, and it will be the time to celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb. It will be a time when we will need all the wine he can provide. Maranatha!

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Second Sunday of Epiphany.

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

Reading: John 1:43-51

On Christmas Night, for the Gospel reading, we read, as we do each year, the opening verses from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. They begin with the well-known words: ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1:1). In opening his Gospel this way, St John doesn’t leave anything to chance. He tells his readers at the very beginning of his Gospel who Jesus really is so there can be no doubt it.

And to make sure we today are in no doubt about it, the Lectionary will give us the same Gospel reading again in February on the Second Sunday before Lent! Jesus is the ‘Word’ who was with God at the beginning, and more than that who was God. Everything that exists came into being through him and nothing has come into being without him (John 1:3).

The amazing event we celebrated at Christmas was that the Word who is responsible for our very existence ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14). In my sermons during Epiphany, I am looking at what it actually meant for ‘the Word to become flesh’. One of the things that I have been seeking to explain is that the Word becoming flesh didn’t simply mean the Word becoming human in a general sense. Jesus wasn’t everyman, he was this man. And being this man isn’t incidental, but essential, both to who he was and to who he is.

In his Gospel, St John will show us what the Word made flesh looks like. We will see his signs and hear his words. We believe in him who existed in the beginning with God and who is now reigning with God, but we can’t by-pass the life he lived with us. The One whom he became is still part of his identity, that is, of who he is. His life as the Word made flesh matters.

When the Word became flesh, St John tells us, ‘he came unto his own’ (John 1:11). We saw at Epiphany how the Wise Men came seeking him who was born ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2).

Last week, for the Baptism of Christ, we saw how the Voice at Jesus’ baptism announced that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 1:11). The title, Son of God, describes both Jesus’ role as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and his relationship with God, his Father.

The opening of St John’s Gospel is so incredible that we sort of pass over the rest of the chapter, describing as it does the calling of the first disciples. We move quickly on to chapter two where the action begins at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee. By doing so, however, we miss a great deal.

The focus in the opening of the Gospel is on the Eternal Word who becomes flesh. It is, however, not until verse 17 of the first chapter that we are told who the Word made flesh actually is. St John writes:

‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.’ (John 1:17-18)

Jesus Christ is both the Word made flesh and the One who makes the Father known. So, we need to know about this historical figure from Nazareth. In the opening of his Gospel, St John tells who the Word is in eternity; he continues by telling us about who the Word has become in history.

The phrase, ‘in the beginning’, with which the Gospel begins, reminds us of the first chapter of Genesis and its description of the first week of creation. After the opening of the Gospel, St John gives us his version of the first week of the new creation. He marks each day with the words ‘the next day’ (1:29, 35, 43). Significantly, as we will see next week, Jesus’ first miracle occurs ‘on the third day’ after the days St John has previously described.

So, let us go through the days and see what we learn about Jesus of Nazareth, the Word become flesh.

On the first day, Day One (verses 24-28), John the Baptist explains to some priests and Levites sent by the Pharisees that he is not himself the Messiah who people are expecting and hoping for. Ironically, the One they are looking for is standing among them, even as John speaks, and they don’t realize it or know who it is.

The next day, Day Two (verses 29-34), John sees Jesus and in the first words anyone says about Jesus in the Gospel, he announces: ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The reason John came baptizing, he explains, was so the One who is the Lamb of God might be revealed to Israel. Not in the first place to the world, but to Israel, ‘to his own’. Not only did those who came from the Pharisees not recognize him, John himself had not recognized him. It was only when he baptized Jesus, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus ‘like a dove’ and ‘remained’ on him, that John realized that this was the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). The day closes with John testifying that Jesus is the Son of God.

The next day, Day Three (verses 35-42), John is standing with two of his disciples and points Jesus out to them. He again describes Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’. This title gets to the heart of Jesus’ identity and of what he has come to do. The two disciples need no further encouragement; they go after Jesus. When they first speak to him, they call him, ‘Rabbi’, which St John helpfully tells us means, ‘Teacher’. One of the two, whose name is Andrew, immediately finds his brother and tells him, ‘We have found the Messiah’. St John again helpfully tells us what the translation of this is into Greek; it is, ‘Christ’. St John expects us to remember every time he uses the word ‘Christ’ in the Gospel that it is the word for the Messiah.

These disciples of John had become disciples of John because they were looking for the Messiah, the One who would redeem Israel. Now they have found him. Andrew’s brother, Simon, has found more than he expected. Jesus renames him, Cephas, and St John, once again, helpfully translates it for us into Greek as, ‘Peter’, that is, the ‘Rock’.

The next day, we are now up to Day Four (verses 43-51), Jesus decides to go to Galilee. Interestingly, Jesus first seeks out Philip, who is from Bethsaida in Galilee where Andrew and his brother, Peter, also come from. Jesus already knows Philip. But how? The most likely explanation is that Jesus has himself been with John and John’s disciples a lot longer than sometimes we think. Jesus had, perhaps, been himself one of John’s disciples.

Philip, however, before they go back to Galilee, wants to tell one of his friends about Jesus. He finds his friend, Nathanael, and informs him:

‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ (John 1:45)

Nathanael is at first sceptical. He cannot believe that anything good can come out of somewhere like Nazareth. Nazareth was, after all, an unimportant little place in Galilee of just a few hundred people. It doesn’t, however, take too much for Jesus to overcome Nathanael’s doubts. Jesus convinces Nathanael that something good can indeed come from Nazareth as he demonstrates his supernatural knowledge of Nathanael. He had seen Nathanael even before Philip had called him to ‘come and see’ Jesus. Nathanael responds:

‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ (John 1:49)

Over the course of just four days, then, we have learnt that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. We have discovered that this Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth, is the Messiah that Moses and the prophets wrote about. He is the King of Israel and the Son of God.

It’s quite a lot for them – and for us - to take in. And yet in response to Nathanael’s recognition of him, Jesus tells them all that they will see even greater things than this. St John writes:

‘And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you [the ‘you’ is in the plural], you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”’ (John 1:51)

These first disciples, as people who knew the Scriptures, would have immediately understood what it is that Jesus is promising them.

In the Old Testament, the patriarch Jacob is given the name ‘Israel’ by God (Genesis 32:28; 35:10). He is given this name despite the fact that Jacob is known to be ‘deceitful’ (Genesis 27:35). Nathanael, however, is described by Jesus as truly an ‘Israelite in whom there is no deceit’ (John 1:47). Jacob, the original Israelite, had a dream of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:12). When Jacob wakes up, we are told:

‘… he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”’ (Genesis 28:17)

In his dream, Jacob had seen angels ‘ascending and descending’ on a ladder, but Jesus’ disciples will see angels ascending and descending on him who is not only the Son of God, but the ‘Son of Man’. He, the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph, is the ‘gate of heaven’.

They don’t have to wait long before they start to see these ‘greater things’ of which Jesus speaks. In chapter two, we will see that the reason that Jesus had decided on the fourth day to travel to Galilee is that Jesus has a wedding to go to. Three days later, Jesus and his disciples will turn up at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. At the very end of his Gospel, St John tells us that Nathanael is himself from Cana (John 21:2). The ‘greater things’ are about to begin and in the very place that Nathanael comes from. Both St John and Jesus have a sense of humour!

The excitement for these first disciples must have been great. They had been with John because they hoped that the Messiah, the King of Israel, would come. Now they have not only found him, they have become his disciples. While, however, this must have been very exciting for the first disciples, for us: not so much. We have heard it all before.

But St John is writing not simply to inform us of what happened. His purpose in writing his Gospel is to share the excitement and to persuade us to become a part of it. It is worth remembering what St John says is his purpose in writing:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

We have seen how the first disciples came to know Jesus. St John is writing this because he wants to show us how we too can come to know him. St John would encourage us to hear the words that Jesus speaks to these disciples as words he also speaks to us.

1. What are you looking for?

The very first words Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel are to the two disciples who respond to John’s identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God by following Jesus. Jesus says to them:

‘What are you looking for?’ (John 1:38)

What they were looking for is clear. After all, they had become John the Baptist’s disciples because they were looking for the Messiah, the one who would redeem Israel. On Day Two of St John’s week, John the Baptist explicitly says that the reason he has been baptizing people is so that Jesus might be revealed to Israel. Now that John has identified Jesus as the Messiah they are looking for, they want to know more about Jesus.

Andrew and the Unnamed disciple, then, are clear: they are looking for the Messiah. In St John’s Gospel, however, people will come to Jesus looking for many different things: answers to difficult questions, spiritual fulfilment, physical healing, forgiveness, eternal life, and more besides. Jesus will engage with people where they are: with Nicodemus at night, with the woman at the well, with the rulers of the people in the Temple and the synagogue, with the crowds on the mountain, and even with those who mourn at the graveside. The fundamental question he will ask people, he also asks us: ‘What are you looking for?’

Sometimes we know; at other times, it is hard to put it into words. It can simply be a sense that there must be more to life than this. Surely life must be about more than what we are experiencing. Jesus response to our longing and need will be to offer us the same invitation he gave to his first disciples: ‘Come and see’. Come and see what I can do for you.

2. ‘Come and see.’

Andrew and the Unnamed disciple responded to Jesus’ invitation to come and see. They not only came and saw; having seen, they stayed. They were serious. A major theme in St John’s Gospel will be the need to remain, to ‘abide’ in Jesus. For while Jesus will meet us where we are, he will also invite us to come and stay where he is. He doesn’t just answer our questions, he questions our questions.

After the feeding of the five thousand, the crowds pursue Jesus. Jesus says to them:

‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ (John 6:25-27)

What the crowds wanted was very much geared to life in this world and to finding material satisfaction. God does care about our well-being. Jesus tells his disciples that not a hair of their head will perish (Luke 21:18), but he also tells us our life does not consist in the ‘abundance of our possessions’ (Luke 12:15). We are created for a different purpose, and until we find that purpose, we are going to be unsatisfied, no matter how much we have. This is why many who become very rich end up taking their own lives.

Jesus is the One who gives not simply what we need for this life, but the food that endues for eternal life. Jesus is not for the mildly interested. He is not there to provide answers for the casually curious or those who want a quick fix. He is for the serious, and those who take him seriously will find what they are looking for.

And here’s the thing: Jesus already knows what we are looking for.

Jesus knows us before we know him. Nathanael is shocked that Jesus knew him. But not only had Jesus seen him, Jesus has seen into him. Jesus has seen him in more than a physical sense; he has seen who Nathanael truly is. He has seen into Nathanael’s heart and knows everything about him. No wonder that Nathanael responds so quickly and dramatically.

If, then, we are serious about finding the ‘food that endures for eternal life’, Jesus says to us what he said to the first disciples: ‘Come and see’. In coming to Jesus, we too will find what we are looking for.

The disciples are all overwhelmed with the excitement of finding what they were looking for. ‘We have found the Messiah,’ Andrew tells his brother Simon. ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote …’ Philip tells Nathanael. They have found what they were looking for.

3. ‘Follow me.’

We need to be aware, however, that when we come to Jesus, not only will we find what we are looking for, we will also find more than we are looking for. Our coming to Jesus may begin by us asking our own different questions of Jesus, but he will respond by asking the same thing of us: ‘Follow me,’ he says to us. This is not because Jesus refuses to meet our needs or to answer our questions, but because our needs can only be met and our questions only be answered by our doing what he commands: that is, by becoming his disciples and by following him.

Jesus says to Philip: ‘Follow me’. It sounds so straightforward, but following Jesus isn’t going to be easy as they will discover. For Peter, the ‘Rock’, Jesus is absolutely clear about what it will mean. The last thing Jesus says to Peter in the Gospel is:

‘“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”’ (John 21:18-19)

You shall be called Peter, the ‘Rock’. It sounds an honour, and to be called by name as Jesus calls his followers is the greatest honour there is. But Jesus’ honours are different to those of the world. For Peter, the honour will be to be able to glorify God by his death.

Most of us won’t be called upon to honour God by our death, but we are called to honour him by our life, and to make honouring him our goal in life. It can be easier to honour God by our death than by our life. Easier, that is, to die for him than to get out of bed for him; to go to Church for him; to give of our time and money for him; to go where we don’t want to go for him.

4. ‘You will see greater things.’

Nathanael is impressed by Jesus and by Jesus’ knowledge of him. It is always impressive when someone knows things about us that we thought no-one else knew. It is, perhaps, even more impressive when they know things about us that we didn’t even know about ourselves. People pay a lot of money to therapists and psychologists to discover the hidden truths about themselves. The money is often wasted. Those who would enlighten us about ourselves are often blind themselves.

The promise that we can find out the truth about ourselves, however, is sufficient to keep our interest. From taking quizzes online that are supposed to tell us what we are like to psychometric tests that tell us what career is the right one for us, we long for insight into ourselves.

The instinct is right. We do need to see the truth about ourselves. But too often, the truth we seek is not the truth that will set us free, but the truth that will give us what we want. The truth we seek is how we can be happy, meet the ideal partner, find the best job, make the most money, be successful, and fulfil our dreams.

The truth that Jesus tells us about ourselves is that we will never find what we are looking for until we find God. When we come to Jesus, we see the truth about ourselves and about our need, but the greater thing we see is how we may find God, who alone can meet our need. When we come to Jesus, we see ‘angels ascending and descending’ on him who is the only way to God and whom in meeting, we also meet God himself.

5. Come and See Too

And at this point, I was originally going to end the sermon. This opening chapter of St John’s Gospel has told us so much about Jesus the Word made flesh. No other chapter in the New Testament tells us quite so much. Not only that, it has also told us how we, like those first disciples, can come to know God through him.

By coming to Jesus, we see the answer to what we have been looking for. By following him, we will see even greater things.

But there is still unfinished business. We haven’t finished when we come to Jesus; we have only just begun. I have spoken about the excitement that, even today, we can still sense amongst those first disciples as they find Jesus. It is an excitement that they want to share, and Jesus wants us to share it with people today.

Many are nervous and not a little scared of sharing their faith with others. They are either embarrassed or worried that they don’t know enough. It need not, however, be all that complicated. Andrew told his brother Simon; Philip his friend Nathanael. ‘We’ve found him, come and see him too.’ The message was simple and, in their excitement, they couldn’t help but share it.

May we experience for ourselves the excitement of finding Jesus, and in our excitement, may we want to share it with others too.


Saturday, January 09, 2021

The Baptism of Christ

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Baptism of Christ.

The Baptism of Christ

Reading: Mark 1:4-11

Today in the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the Baptism of Christ. In Advent, as we prepared for the coming of Christmas, we thought about the role of John the Baptist as one of those who prepared the way for the coming of the Lord. As we saw then, and as we see again in our Gospel reading, John spoke of the One who would come after him who would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). Now, this week, we think of John performing the role, which is the climax of his ministry, baptizing with water the very One whose way he came to prepare.

The Gospel writers all see Jesus’ baptism by John as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The first three Gospels all describe Jesus’ baptism by John, while the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of St John, describes John the Baptist’s reflection on Jesus’ baptism after it has taken place.

There are a number of points that are worth noting and thinking about. The first is the relationship between John and Jesus. At the first reading of the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels, we might think that this is the first time that John and Jesus have met, but the Gospels suggest that there is more to their relationship than just this encounter, important though it is.

Firstly, St Luke tells us in his Gospel that John the Baptist’s mother, Elizabeth, and Jesus’ mother, Mary, are related (Luke 1:36). We are not told in the Gospels anything in detail about John and Jesus’ childhood, so we have no idea if there was any further contact between them, but St Luke suggests that there is at least a family connection.

Secondly, however, St John tells us that Jesus’ first disciples were originally disciples of John the Baptist. Jesus has already been baptized when John the Baptist points him out to his disciples (John 1:35-37). St John also tells us that for some time Jesus and John ran the equivalent of ‘joint missions’ both baptizing people, although Jesus delegated the task of actually doing the baptizing to his disciples (John 3:22-24; 4:1-2). It is only when John is arrested that Jesus’ ministry takes a more independent direction (Mark 1:14). It is also at this point that the first three Gospels take up the story.

So, whatever the precise link between John and Jesus, clearly there was one. This, however, doesn’t explain why Jesus himself gets baptized. It is at first sight a bit of a mystery that Jesus wants to be baptized by John. The reason, after all, why John was baptizing people was precisely to get them ready for Jesus. What is more, John’s baptism was a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4), whereas the New Testament insists that Jesus himself was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). St Matthew records that John was himself reluctant to baptize Jesus. St Matthew writes:

‘John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” ’ (Matthew 3:14)

Jesus, however, insists. By being baptized by John, Jesus affirms and identifies himself with John’s ministry. He also identifies with those being baptized as ‘his own’ to whom he has come (John 1:11) and with those for whom he will die as the ‘Lamb of God’ to take away their sin (John 1:29).

When Jesus is baptized two things happen: the Holy Spirit descends on him ‘like a dove’ and a Voice from heaven, which is the voice of God, says:

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:11)

The Voice announces that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’. This phrase is central to all the Gospel writers’ understanding of who Jesus is.

Tracing your ancestry has become very popular, and there are many family history websites to help people search for their ancestors. A popular British TV programme is, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ This programme traces the family tree and looks at the ancestors of various celebrities. A person’s predecessors are believed to tell us something about the person themselves.

It is significant that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, St Luke, in his Gospel, gives the genealogy of Jesus. In St Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy, St Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestors back to Abraham, but St Luke continues further back ending his version of Jesus’ genealogy:

‘… son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.’ (Luke 3:38)

St Mark makes the belief that Jesus is the Son of God central to his Gospel. St Mark begins his Gospel:

‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (Mark 1:1)

Then, in the middle of his Gospel, immediately after St Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, St Mark describes how Jesus is transfigured before three of his closest disciples on the top of a mountain (Mark 9:2-8). A Voice from heaven again announces that Jesus is his Son in the same way that the heavenly Voice announced it at his baptism. And to make sure we get the message, at the end of his Gospel, having described how Jesus dies, St Mark writes:

‘Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” ’ (Mark 15:39)

St John could be writing for all the Gospel writers when he states his purpose in writing his Gospel:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

This phrase, Son of God, is, then, clearly central to understanding who Jesus is. But what does it mean? We need to try to put out of our mind what we have come to understand by this phrase and ask what, in the first place, it would have meant originally to John and to the first disciples.

When John the Baptist and those three disciples heard the heavenly Voice announce that Jesus is the Son of God, what would it have meant to them? And, more importantly, what did it mean to Jesus himself to be God’s Son.

1. What did the phrase, ‘Son of God’ mean to the Gospel writers and to the first disciples?

I understand that for many believers this may seem a very straightforward question to answer. After all, we say every week in the Creed:

‘We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father …’

Jesus, we believe, is the second person of the Trinity, who became incarnate of the ‘theotokos’, the Blessed Virgin Mary. And that’s absolutely true. It is, however, not how John and Jesus’ disciples would have understood the words, ‘Son of God’. Our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God, in the sense that the Creed expresses it, is based on how the Gospel writers use this phrase, but it is not the same as it. So, again, what did it mean to them and what did it mean to Jesus himself?

Firstly, in the Old Testament, the phrase is used to describe the King of Israel. God promises King David through the prophet Nathan that God will raise up David’s offspring after him to succeed him on his throne. God says:

‘I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.’ (1 Samuel 7:14)

In the Psalms, God promises to make the King his Son and to be a father to him (see Psalm 89; Psalm 2:7). The hope at the time of Christ was for a Messiah to come who would be the ‘son of David’ and who would once again rule over his people as the King of Israel, setting her free from her enemies, and fulfilling God’s promises to Israel through the prophets.

Not only this, in the Old Testament, Israel herself is referred to as God’s Son. In Exodus, for example, God tells Moses:

‘Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son.’ (Exodus 4:22)

The prophets describe God as a father to his people. The King, as God’s Son, both represents and embodies God’s people. In declaring that Jesus is God’s Son, the Voice from heaven is announcing that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King, who, like the King in the Old Testament, is also God’s Son, and who too will represent and embodied his people. The baptism of Jesus and his anointing with the Holy Spirt is in effect his coronation and the Voice from heaven the official announcement that he is King.

The very first words of the New Testament are:

‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ (Matthew 1:1)

When the heavenly Voice announces that Jesus is the Son of God, it is also announcing he is the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the One in whom all God’s promises to his people reach their fulfilment. After describing how the Wise Men find the Messiah, the King of the Jews and how the Holy Family have to flee to Egypt to escape Herod, St Matthew writes:

‘This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” ’ (Matthew 2:15)

The Wise Men sought the King of the Jews, the Messiah who is the Son of God, and who will, as the Angel tells Joseph, save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). This is what John’s ministry is all about. As he says:

‘I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ (John 1:31)

2. What did the phrase mean to Jesus himself?

Jesus clearly saw himself as the Messiah. When St Peter answers Jesus’ question about who the disciples think he is by saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus tells him that it is Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ who has revealed this to him (Matthew 16:17). Where Jesus differed from St Peter and his disciples, however, is in how he understood what it meant to be the Messiah. After Jesus has said this to St Peter, St Matthew writes:

‘Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’ (Matthew 16:20)

That Jesus is the Messiah all are agreed. Nevertheless, Jesus silences his disciples because they aren’t agreed on what it means for him to be the Messiah. What it means to be the Messiah is something that Jesus will only be able to explain by his suffering and death.

After his resurrection, Jesus appears to two confused disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They can’t understand how the One they thought to be the Messiah could have suffered and died. Jesus says to them:

‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”’ (Luke 24:25-26)

Now that Jesus has shown by his death what it means to be the Messiah, there is no restriction on the disciples from telling people that this is who Jesus is. So central to their preaching is their conviction that Jesus is the Messiah that they use the title so much that it becomes part of his name. Now, not only Jesus the Messiah, but Jesus Messiah, that is, Jesus Christ.

Jesus is, then, very clear about what his role is as the Son of God, but he is also clear about his relationship with God as the Son of God. The title defines both his role and his relationship. Jesus is uniquely the Son of God who has an intense and intimate relationship with God his Father. So intense and intimate is it that Jesus can say to his disciples:

‘Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me …” (John 14:11)

In St John’s Gospel, Jesus calls God ‘Father’ over 100 times. Some argue that this says more about how St John thought of Jesus, than about how Jesus thought of himself. It is certainly true that St John highlights Jesus’ relationship with God as his Father, but it is a relationship that is clear in the other Gospels as well.

For example, in the Garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion, Jesus uses the Aramaic word, ‘Abba’, in his prayer to God (Mark 14:36). This isn’t the equivalent of ‘daddy’, as has sometimes been argued, but it is the word that children would use in a family context.

Highly significant is that St Paul records that this word was used by Greek-speaking believers in Galatia and Rome when praying to God (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). The only credible reason for Greek-speaking believers using an Aramaic word in their prayers is that the Church remembered that this was the word that Jesus himself used and had taught them to use. It is probably this word that lies behind the word for ‘Father’ in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4; Matthew 6:9-13).

Jesus came to fulfil a role as the Messiah of his people and the phrase, ‘Son of God’ expresses that role, but it also expresses the relationship that Jesus had with God that enabled him to fulfil that role.

So, what does all this have to say to us today?

1. We will only understand who Jesus is when we begin by seeing him as the King of the Jews.

We saw last week at Epiphany that the Wise Men came seeking him ‘who was born King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2). Jesus is crucified by Pilate as the King of the Jews. The One we now worship, follow, and serve is the King of the Jews, who has become the King and Lord of all, but who has not stopped being the King of the Jews.

Most of us are Gentiles. Now that the Church, sadly, is predominantly Gentile, we focus on the universality of Christ and what he means for all people. While understandable, it does mean, as a result, that we often find Jesus himself hard to understand.

Scholars for the past 300 years or so have been searching for what is known as the ‘historical Jesus’. By this is meant, not the 'Risen Christ' of the Church’s worship and creeds, but the Jesus who came from Nazareth and who died in Jerusalem. Jesus, in other words, as a historical figure. This Jesus, however, has proved to be very elusive, and it can feel that there are as many different accounts of him as there are scholars. This has led some to despair of ever finding the historical Jesus and to argue that we have to settle instead simply for the Gospel presentations of Jesus’ life whether we can make historical sense of them or not.

For many believers, this whole ‘quest for the historical Jesus’ seems a complete and unnecessary waste of time. What they want is not the Jesus who the first disciples knew, but the Jesus whom we can know today by the Holy Spirit. This can sound a very reasonable position to take. And it is true that we don’t, as believers, worship a dead teacher, but a living Lord. However, the living Lord is not a different person to the Lord who lived. Our creeds insist that the Christ we worship is the man who was born of the Virgin Mary and who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

St John said:

‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.’ (1 John 4:2-3)

St John wrote this to refute those who wanted a ‘spiritual Christ’ rather than the Jesus who could be heard, seen, looked at, and touched (1 John 1:1). Jesus did not come to us as everyman, he came as this man. More than that, he came as this particular man to this particular people as one of them. He came to ‘his own’ to fulfil a mission to his own as one of their own.

In my sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, I said:

'The birth of Jesus was no chance happening; it was not an accident of history, something that happened at this time, but which could have happened at any other time. It had to be this time because this was the right time, God’s chosen time, ‘the fulness of time’. (Galatians 4:4)

And it had to be not only at this time, but as this person, this Jewish person. Jesus’ Jewishness is not incidental to his identity as the Son of God, but essential to it and defining of it. The only way we Gentiles will understand who it is we have been given the privilege of believing in is when we see him as the Messiah, the King of the Jews, the son of David, the son of Abraham who fulfils this role as the Son of God. Seeing and believing in him as the Messiah, the Son of God, is the key to understanding who Jesus is.

2. Jesus, the Son of God, enables us to become sons and daughters of God.

Jesus’ relationship with the Father is special and unique. He is the ‘one and only Son’ (John 1:18). The incredible message of the Gospel, however, is that through him we can become God’s adopted sons and daughters. Although Jesus came unto his own, tragically, his own received him not, however St John tells us:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:12-13)

St Paul explains, in his letter to the believers in Rome, that it is because his own people did not receive him that we Gentiles have now been given the amazing opportunity to be included in the promises of God that were originally intended, not for us, but for his own people. For to them, as St Paul writes, ‘belong the promises (Romans 9:4). His own people don’t stop being his own people, ‘for the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (Romans 11:29), rather we have been given the opportunity to become part of God’s own people as ‘children of the promise’ (Galatians 4:28).

St Paul tells us that the Spirit we have received is the ‘spirit of adoption’ (Romans 8:15). When we cry, 'Abba', using the word that Jesus himself used, it is God’s own Spirit confirming to us that we are children of God.

There is so much that could be said about this wonderful truth, but one thing is important to say. Contrary to what many believe, all of us are not naturally the children of God. We are not born children of God. We can only become the children of God by adoption, on the basis of what Jesus the Messiah has done for us in his suffering and death.

They are only the children of God who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, but all those who do believe in him have life in his name and so much more besides.

St John writes:

‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’ (1 John 3:1)

Naturally, we are ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3) and, worse still, there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. That we can become what naturally we are not is down solely to love of God in Christ. God’s love changes everything, and it can change us if we but let it.

Many refuse to accept that they need changing. They want to believe the best about themselves, not the worst. They are happy as they are. John’s baptism, however, attracted those who knew they needed changing. Some of us are not happy as we are; we long for change, for our life to be different to how it is. The Gospel is for those who long, not in the first place for the world to be changed, but for their own life to change.

And here’s the thing: because Jesus is the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the change we need can happen. For it is as Jesus baptizes us in the Holy Spirit that we are born again and receive new life; that we are empowered to live as God wants us to live; and that we come to know God as our Father. The Holy Spirit, who Jesus gives to those who believe in him, makes it possible for us to enter the very relationship with God the Father that he and the Father share (John 17:22).

As, then, we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, the same Spirit who descended on Jesus the Son of God like a dove at his baptism can descend on us so that we can become sons and daughters of God as we follow Jesus the Messiah, the King of Israel and the Lord of all.


Saturday, January 02, 2021


Here is the transcript of my sermon for Epiphany. 


Reading: Matthew 2:1-12

This Sunday, we celebrate Epiphany, although the Feast of the Epiphany itself actually falls on January 6. Traditionally, Twelfth Night, the evening of Epiphany, is the time to take down the Christmas decorations for another year. If you don’t take them down on January 6, you are supposed to leave them up until Candlemas on February 2.

There is, though, some confusion as to exactly when Twelfth Night is. Some take it to be the evening of January 6, others the evening of January 5. The reason there is some confusion is because, liturgically, the day begins the night before! For us, a new day begins at midnight; liturgically, however, the day begins at sunset. The evening of Twelfth Night, then, is January 5 and the twelfth day, January 6.

Whenever it is, for many, Epiphany is simply the official ending of Christmas with Epiphany being completely overshadowed by the Christmas season. Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Wise Men and the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, but we have already read and thought about this during our Christmas celebrations. In some ways, it all feels like a bit of an anti-climax to do so again.

Liturgically, this time can all feel a bit flat and dull, something of a let down, as we wait for Lent and the season of preparation for Easter. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, calls the Sundays after Epiphany ‘Ordinary Time’, like the Sundays after Trinity and Pentecost, and it can feel a very ordinary time indeed.

And yet, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Epiphany has always been an important celebration. Historically, it has in the past overshadowed Christmas, although in the Eastern tradition, there is also at Epiphany an emphasis on our Lord’s baptism as well as on the revelation of his birth.

Some churches, however, including more recently the Church of England, see Epiphany not as the end of a season or as an alternative to Christmas, but as the beginning of a new season: Epiphany-tide. Epiphany-tide brings together the celebration of Epiphany itself and the two feasts of the Baptism of our Lord and that of his Presentation in the Temple, otherwise known as Candlemas.

By now, I imagine I am beginning to lose people, if I have not lost you already. There is, however, a point to all this, which I will come back to. But before I lose all of you altogether, let us think about Epiphany itself. As I have said, Epiphany marks the manifestation of Christ to the world and to us Gentiles, in particular. This is why we have as our Gospel reading the account of the visit of the Wise Men. The Wise Men represent the Gentiles being led by the star to Christ, the light of the world.

In the sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, I pointed out that we don’t know exactly how many Wise Men there were. Traditionally, of course, there were believed to be three. They were even given names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. In the Gospel of St Matthew, however, we are only told they gave the baby Jesus three types of gifts. The precise number of Wise Men themselves must remain a mystery.

But regardless of how many there were, who were these anonymous men of wisdom? The word for them in Greek is ‘magi’, the word from which we get the word ‘magician’. They would have been part of an eastern royal court; again, precisely where, we are not told. They would have acted as counsellors or advisers to a king or queen. Part of ancient wisdom was being able to read the signs and portents of the times, including astrological signs believed to be seen in the sky and stars at night.

But why are they sometimes referred to as kings? Well, as we have heard in our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 60:3; cf. Psalm 72), Isaiah speaks of kings coming to worship and bringing the wealth of the nations. Furthermore, in the ancient near east, there was the idea of the ‘wise ruler’, King Solomon being an example of such a monarch. But again, that they were kings is just speculation. Best, then, just to stick with the name, ‘Wise Men’. They were influential and important pagans, who were clever, connected, and wealthy.

These pagans had seen a sign in the night sky that they interpreted as meaning that something portentous and significant had happened in the land of the Judah: a child had been born King of the Jews. Quite why this was of any significance to them, however, is not immediately obvious. Judea, after all, was not that important a place. Surely men of their position didn’t embark on a long journey to greet every royal birth?

The answer to this particular mystery may be provided by something that doesn’t always get commented on. Several ancient pagan writers such as Suetonius and Tacitus point out that, amongst the pagans, there was a rumor that a king would come out of Judea, that a great ruler would arise from within the land of Judah. It may be that this belief was one the Wise Men had heard of and explains why they were prepared to go to all this trouble and expense. The child to be born was more significant than simply one who might become king of a small and insignificant nation.

Believing, then, the birth of this king to be momentous, they decide to go and find him. Knowing him to be born a king in the land of the Jews, not unnaturally, they go to where you would expect to find such a child: the palace in Jerusalem. If you know anything at all about King Herod, you will see the funny side of this. King Herod was paranoid about people wanting to get rid of him so that they could seize power for themselves. Herod killed several members of his own family because he believed they were plotting against him.

The Roman Emperor Augustus is quoted as saying: ‘I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son’ (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11). The joke here being that as Jews didn’t eat pork, his pig would be safe. No-one else, however, was. Herod’s subsequent slaughter of all the boys in Bethlehem under two is entirely in character (Matthew 2:16-18).

St Matthew describes the reaction to the arrival in Jerusalem of the Wise Men from the east as one of alarm. St Matthew writes:

‘When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him …’ (Matthew 2:3)

At first, this might seem like an exaggeration on St Matthew’s part. It isn’t at all. In fact, we know from St John’s Gospel that Herod’s fear of losing power was shared by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Their reaction to the news of Jesus’ birth is similar to their feelings towards him in the time leading up to his death. St John writes towards the end of Jesus’ life:

‘So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ (John 11:47-48)

Quite clearly, both Herod and the Jerusalem authorities take the Wise Men entirely seriously. They don’t, for example, understand the Wise Men to be talking about a boy for whom his parents have great but unrealistic ambitions! When Herod calls the Chief Priests together, he asks them where ‘the Messiah is to be born’ (Matthew 2:4). The Wise Men are not just seeking a king; they are seeking the King, and it is this that heightens the sense of panic amongst those in power in Jerusalem.

And so, Herod decides without hesitation to do what the Herods of this world always do when there is a threat to their power, he plans to have the potential threat removed before it can become an actual threat. The plot is simple. Herod will help the Wise Men find whom they are seeking, and they will tell him exactly where the child is when they find him. Herod makes this promise on the pretence that he too will go and worship the child. So, after consulting the Chief Priests, the Wise Men are directed to Bethlehem, where the prophet Micah said the Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2).

The Wise Men find the child, and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There have been attempts to see symbolism in these gifts. Myrrh, for example, was a valuable spice that was used for embalming dead bodies. Along with aloes, it was one of the spices that Nicodemus took to anoint the body of Jesus (John 19:39). The gift of myrrh, then, is taken as a symbol representing his death. St Matthew himself, however, doesn’t point to any symbolic meaning for the gifts. They are simply expensive gifts fit for a king, offered from the Wise Men’s ‘treasure chests’.

This is where our Gospel reading breaks off. In St Matthew’s Gospel, however, we learn that both the Wise Men and Joseph are warned by God in dreams to change their plans so as to keep the baby safe. The Wise Men go back to their country a different way by-passing Herod and Jerusalem; while Joseph takes Mary and Jesus, and flees to Egypt.

Not unsurprisingly, Herod is furious when he discovers the Wise Men have outwitted him and, in a final throw of the dice, tries to kill Jesus by ordering the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two. It’s a terrible atrocity as the Holy Innocents are murdered, but it is too late. The Holy Family have escaped.

So, what does all this say to us? I intend in future sermons to discuss the significance of the revelation to the Gentiles of Christ as the King of the Jews. For now, I want to focus on what I think is an important message that this passage has for us both as a Church and as individuals.  It is:

The rulers of this world will always expect us to think like them. We, however, are to have the mind of Christ.

Herod and the Chief Priests are terrified. Herod because he is totally paranoid; the Chief Priests because they realize that if there is any attempt to unseat the ruler appointed by Rome, then they will not only lose what freedom and independence they have, they will also lose their own power and position.

They simply assume that Jesus will be a threat to them. They cannot imagine anyone who believes himself to be the Messiah not wanting political power. To the bitter end, they believe that this is what Jesus is seeking. And so, in about thirty-three years’ time, Jesus will be crucified as the King of the Jews that the Wise Men came seeking, even though, as Pilate himself realizes, Jesus resolutely refuses to be the sort of King those in authority think he must want to be and that people hope he will be.

The baby Jesus was a threat to those in power simply by his existence, and their instinctive reaction is to kill him. The default position of this world is still to kill, or at least to silence, those who follow Jesus.

Historically, there have been times when the rulers of this world have found themselves in a position where crucifying us is not an option for either political reasons or simply because there are too many of us. Tertullian, at the end of the 2nd century wrote of those who, in their hatred of Christians, blamed every misfortune on them:

‘If the Tiber reaches the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the sky doesn’t move or the earth does, if there is famine, if there is plague, the cry is at once: ‘The Christians to the lion!’ What, all of them to one lion?’ (Apologeticus ch. 40)

He continues with the scathing observation:

‘As often as we are mown down by you, the more we grow in numbers; the blood of Christians is the seed.’ (Apologeticus ch. 50, sect. 13)

When our numbers become too great for us all to be murdered, because they assume that like them political power is what we want, instead of crucifying us, they offer power to us in the hope that by giving it to us they can control us. Often, they have been right. The offer of political power and influence is infinitely more dangerous to us than killing us.

At a crucial point in his ministry, our Lord asks his disciples who people think he is. The disciples reply that people have various opinions about his identity. ‘But who do you say that I am?’ he asks them. St Peter answers for them all:

‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ (Matthew 16:16)

Jesus tells Peter that it is God who has revealed this to him, but even though this knowledge is given by God himself, our Lord won’t let them share it:

‘Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.’ (Matthew 16:20)

The reason soon becomes clear. When our Lord goes on to talk about the sort of suffering and death that he must face, Peter is horrified. How can this possibly happen to the Messiah? Our Lord responds unambiguously and says to Peter:

‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Matthew 16:23)

The insight that Jesus is the Messiah that Herod tried to kill at his birth is an insight granted by God. The belief that being the Messiah is about power and not suffering is thinking inspired by Satan. It was exactly this way of thinking that Jesus had to face head on in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry, but rather than seeking political power, Jesus instead submits to it and is crucified by it.

Both the Chief Priests and Jesus’ followers were clear in their own minds that for Jesus to be the Messiah, it must mean him gaining political power. Jesus rejects the expectations of both friend and foe seeing them as temptations of the devil.

When we are tempted by the offer of political power, we sometimes tell ourselves that the reason we should accept it is because of the good we can do if we have it. The poor can both be fed and have the Gospel preached to them. Other times, we accept the offer because we like having a seat at the VIP table where the important people sit and where the decisions that matter are taken. It makes us feel powerful and important. Most times, our reasons for accepting the offer is a combination of the two: a desire both to feed the poor and to satisfy our own hunger for power. Every time, the Church is the loser.

Historically, the Church of England is an example of a church which has been guilty of accepting the offer. The Anglican Church originally came into existence because of its willingness to acquiesce to political power, and it received substantial power as its reward. The expansion of the Anglican Church throughout the world went hand in glove with the march of colonial power. It suited the Anglican Church’s purposes in the past when colonialism was triumphant and popular; it may now pay the price in the present when colonialism has come to be seen as one of the deadly sins.

The terrible irony is that many in the Anglican Church are now apologizing and repenting of the church’s support of colonial powers in the past, but church leaders are making their apology and repentance, not to God, but to the new political elites who have taken the colonialists’ place. The reason, however, church leaders are abasing themselves in this way is in the hope of being able to make new alliances with the powers of this world, and so maintain their position and privilege. There is further irony in the fact that the present desire for power and popularity that is leading church leaders to apologize for the church’s past behaviour is exactly what, historically, led the church to be such an enthusiastic supporter of colonial expansion and oppression.

Geographically, certain sections of the church in the United States provide us with another example in the present. Some churches in the States put their complete faith in Donald Trump, ostensibly because of the influence they believed supporting him would give them. Again, for some it has been because they genuinely hoped that supporting him would enable them to influence government policy for the good. For others, however, it has been because of the thrill that attending prayer breakfasts and being allowed access to the White House has given them. They have had their reward, and they too will now pay the price.

Tragically, even when we want power for pure motives: not for its own sake, but because we genuinely want to use it for what we believe to be good ends, more often than not, we find that when it comes to power, rather than the Church exercising it, it ends up controlling us.

St Paul points us to a different way:

‘For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not human weapons, but are made powerful by God for tearing down strongholds. We tear down arguments and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 10:4)

When the Wise Men arrive at the house where the Holy Family are staying, they see the child with Mary, his mother. If those who sought to kill the child had been able to ask her, Mary would have told them what Jesus years later tells Pilate: his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). God is the One who brings down the powerful from their thrones (Luke 1:52). Earthly seats of power (whether in palaces, parliaments, or places of worship) are dangerous places to sit, no matter how tempting the offer of them may seem. The rulers of this world demand that we worship them; Wise Men worship Jesus and offer him alone their gifts.

What does all this mean for us individually? We may tell ourselves that we have no personal political ambitions, but the desire for power, position, and prestige is not confined to the political arena. We still seek it for ourselves in other areas of life, not least in our places of work, at home, and in the church itself. And, as well as seeking it personally for ourselves, we look up to those who have it and despise those who do not. We value the powerful and look down on the weak.

Jesus told his disciples specifically that they were not to be like this. He said:

‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. But it is not (to be) this way among you. Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-45)

Our Lord, not only teaches us to reject worldly power and ambition, by his life and death he gives us an example of what we are to be like instead.

The Wise Men came seeking him who was born the King of the Jews. The Chief Priests and Jesus’ disciples were in fundamental agreement as to what this meant. Jesus saw it very differently. He provided his own definition as he hung on the Cross with the words, ‘King of the Jews’ above his head. His crucified body gives the meaning of the words and the words their meaning.

As, however, I hope we will see during the season of Epiphany, while Jesus defines what it means to be the Messiah of his people, he, nevertheless, is born and dies as the King of the Jews. We will only find him for ourselves when we like the Wise Men seek him as the King of the Jews. Not as a generic king, but as a specifically Jewish king, who saw his coming and ministry as being in fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures on which he based his own understanding of what he had come to do.

And so, as we enter the season of Epiphany, may the God who led the Wise Men to Jesus, the King of the Jews, lead us to him. And may we too worship him, not by seeking power and glory, but by taking up the Cross and following him who died for us, and who promises to be with us always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).