14th February 2021
Readings: 2 Kings 2.1-12; 2 Corinthans 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9
In many ways this is a well-known event associated with Jesus, and yet the least understood. What was this all about, for whom was it particularly important? What is the significance of it, beyond a spectacular event which the three disciples witnessed?
To begin to get to the heart of it we have to understand something of the thinking, the customs and understanding of the time. The two most important historical figures for the Jews were Moses and Elijah, Moses being the supreme law-giver, and Elijah was the first and considered to be the greatest prophet of Israel. Elijah they believed would appear before the coming of the Messiah. To grasp something of the full significance of the transfiguration we need to understand more about the beliefs of the actual time, before we begin to put our own interpretation on what took place.
The lectionary uses the account of Elijah and Elisha to portray some of these most effectively. On some occasions the Old and New Testament readings of the lectionary simply provide just a backdrop to the Gospel reading, on this occasion the Kings reading is very much an integral part of the story. Without it we never really understand the full significance of the event.
Elijah has already chosen Elisha as his successor and despite the exuberance of Elisha’s response in slaughtering the twelve yoke of oxen and using the meat for an elaborate leaving party, it is still very much a human event. In 2 Kings 2 we see Elisha finally being confirmed by God as Elijah passes into the heavens. Elisha has doggedly followed Elijah to this moment of departure, and as Elijah was carried up into heaven his mantle and cloak fell upon Elisha. This is interpreted within the Jewish situation as God’s confirmation of Elisha as supreme prophet.
Interestingly there are some other things going on which could seem as a bit random. Firstly, Elisha took the mantle that had fallen and tore it in two, a bit strange perhaps. In the reading you will notice that there were a good number of prophets accompanying them at the time, and the halving of the mantle is quite significant in relation to them. According to the Jewish law regarding inheritance the oldest son must inherit half of his father’s estate. The person holding that half is deemed to be the inheritor of the estate, so Elisha now holding half of the mantle is the new true prophet. There will remain other prophets of God, but it is Elisha who is important.
This is probably behind the strange final request of Elisha to Elijah, “Let me inherit a double share of your spirit”, relating spirit to miraculous powers. Taking the idea of halving as already discussed, Elisha’s request is that he should, even with half the inheritance, be at least as powerful as Elijah had been. Elijah’s response to that would also prove to be important in the later transfiguration of Jesus, when he replied that Elisha would receive that request if he were able to see Elijah’s departure.
Armed with at least some of the culture and thinking of the time, we are probably able to understand the transfiguration a little more clearly. We see something of a reflection of that understanding, when we see Jesus accompanied by a number of people, taking just three with him on this important occasion. The mantle and cloak of Elijah can be interpreted within this account as the cloud that descended (indeed throughout Jewish culture God only appears from within a cloud). But there is much more than this. Firstly, Elijah is there, but this time in an even more important role. Such is the profile and importance that Elijah has risen to that by this time he was seen as a necessary preliminary to the coming of the Messiah. The presence of Elijah is all important in the proclamation of the true nature of Jesus. The presence of Moses as the person who established the new base of Israel speaks for itself.
The stage is set for something special, and this happened as Jesus was confirmed in his role by God. Again, we see the similarity to Elisha, but now in the most powerful way that Israel could proclaim. Throughout the subsequent years people have had various opinions regarding the nature of Jesus, but here we see him being confirmed by God. For Mark the humanity of Jesus is all important, he is careful to portray a real humanity not a pseudo humanity. It is in this real humanity that Jesus has made his own decision upon his ministry and has taken the most difficult step of all by turning towards the wrath and pain of Jerusalem. For Mark this was the turning point in the ministry of Jesus and in this event of the transfiguration God puts His seal and His blessing upon it. There has been considerable theological debate about who the transfiguration was meant for, Jesus or the disciples (and thus for as all). For this gospel there can be only one answer, it was definitely for Jesus himself. Jesus had made own decision as to how his ministry was to develop, and now having taken the decision to face the religious inadequacy head on, he receives the confirmation and blessing of God. For Mark this is one of the most important moments in the whole gospel.
As a people we often seek guidance, or even action, from God in difficult situations. Yet this is not the God that Mark is portraying. For him God is not there to remove our responsibility but will support and confirm our actions. We are not puppets on strings, our role is being a co-creator with Him. For Mark we have the responsibility of our course of action, and God will bless and confirm, or alternatively retrieve things when we get it wrong.
As in the Elisha account we see others looking on and ultimately accepting their role alongside God’s chosen, so here we see the disciples in a similar position (and of course those who come after them). Theologically there has been debate concerning the actual disciples present (Peter, James and John) and this has often been surrounded by the debate concerning the eventual leaders of the early church following the ascension of Jesus. There does seem to be an easier resolution if we accept that Peter was one of main reference points for Mark’s gospel. The leadership matter however, ought not to be dismissed without proper consideration as it re-appears in the four gospels as to who actually were the first witnesses to the Risen Lord.
The final reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a reminder to all, those of his time and beyond. “It is not ourselves that we proclaim but Jesus Christ”. It is very easy to lose sight of that, even in our time. We have to find the pearl in the ploughed field and commit ourself to bringing it to its fullness.
The Bright Field
by R.S. Thomas
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had the treasure
in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, or hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but it is eternity that awaits you.
O Lord, how we wish all life to be bright fields
rather than ploughed fields.
How we wish to see your glory everywhere,
to know your presence in everything around us.
We want it all to come from you,
so that our life may be easy and full of meaning.
Yet what we need, and what you give us
are bright fields amongst the ploughed patches.
We want them all to become your splendour
and turn our eyes to anywhere that might give it.
O Lord, help us to see that it was there
all the time in that ploughed expanse,
the wonder, the miracle of the bright field,
just waiting for us to venture inside
and see its fullness.
O Lord, help us to search, to see
and to find. Amen
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Isaiah 40.21-31; I Corinthians 9.16-23; Mark 1.29-39
I would like to begin with a little story that I once heard. It takes place on a cold and wet Sunday morning, the sort of morning when you don’t want to get up. The man in the story certainly felt like that on a particular day and despite his wife’s best intentions to get him out of bed he just snuggled down deeper under the duvet. “Just give me two good reasons why I should get up” was his response to yet another “invitation” or nag from his wife, who herself was dressed ready for the day. “Well alright” she said, “Here they are then. First it’s Sunday,” and after a brief pause added, “and secondly you’re the vicar taking the Service!” Surely not true!
There is a particularly interesting suggestion in the Book of Deuteronomy which causes me to think of this little story. It is in Chapter 18 and takes place after God has spoken to the Israelites on Mount Hebron. It is there that the rules of how they should live are spelt out in detail. The rules seem to cover every eventuality. They range from the animals they are allowed to eat and how you may cook them, to lawsuits disputed in the courts. At the end of the exhausting session one of the Israelites is heard to say, “Let us not hear again the voice of the Lord, nor see this great fire again, or we shall die.” No doubt you may have heard or even had similar thoughts in sermons, or even in meetings! Referring to the Deuteronomy reading the essence of the comment is that they just couldn’t cope with the vastness of the demands. However, it had its effect because as a result God promises his prophets to them, prophets who can bring their life and religion into unison.
The prophets are the beginning of proclamation, which is at the heart of all three readings from today’s lectionary. “Do you not know, have you not heard?” is the cry of Isaiah as he highlights all that God has done. He goes on to illuminate the wonder for all those who will stop to hear and to know, “They will soar on eagles wings, run and not feel faint, march and not grow weary”. St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians speaks about the privilege and joy of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. He certainly had many trials and tribulations in doing that, yet they are as nothing compared to the immense sense of inner resilience which he finds from proclaiming Jesus Christ. Paul certainly soared as the eagle, and was never found lacking nor grew weary whatever happened as a consequence.
Proclamation, telling the world our secret, is the one thing we are called to. It is easy to miss it, but today’s section of St Mark’s Gospel is all about that too. These new disciples of Jesus must have been bursting with hope, they had witnessed his healing in the synagogue and then Peter’s own mother-in-law. They must have felt that they had just started a journey that would never end, as they anticipated the crowds that would flock to Jesus. And the next morning they were proved right as crowds flocked around the door to seek healing. Unfortunately Jesus was not there, he was nowhere to be found. When they did eventually locate him he burst their bubble immediately, for it was not back to Capernaum that he was going, not to the numerous people seeking his healing, but to the people, villages and towns beyond Capernaum. And healing was not the purpose of his mission, he was going to proclaim the message and good news through his preaching. Mark’s gospel very briefly describes all this in four verses, but if you stop to think of how long this would take it would probably have run into weeks or even months to achieve. Proclamation was the heart of what Jesus was about, although there were many attempts to change his course. Yet wherever he went his prowess as a healer had gone before him. But such was Jesus’ compassion that he could never ignore human need. Mark’s gospel is often described as the “secret gospel” in that so often we hear Jesus saying to the benefactor of his healing, “not to tell anyone”. The reason begins to emerge, he simply knew that it would get in the way. It would be the reason for people coming to him, not because they sought his message but for seeking the solutions to their own needs. Jesus saw proclamation of God’s love for the world as his priority. Later on in Mark’s gospel we shall see Jesus harnessing his healing power into his message of proclamation.
So proclamation is at the heart of our Christian heritage, and before that it had a long Jewish heritage. That was the role of the church. It was the very reason why churches had spires and towers, so that they would stand out. It was only much later that humans put bells in them to ensure everyone knew their duty and time to attend! Do we as Christians, does our Christian church still proclaim that message of hope? We might want it to, we might want to think that it does, but where are our priorities? Are they really about people finding a new hope where they will soar like eagles, or are we counting how many attend, how well we balance the budget and how good that makes us feel? There is a book by D. Parry- Jones, “A Welsh Country Parson” where he discusses the “new phenomenon”, of counting attendance at church, which he immediately dismisses by suggesting that the real question we should be asking is “How many people did not come”. We shall learn far more from that question he suggests than from a thousand responses to the previous one.
We still think, certainly in less multicultural areas, of being a Christian country. But do our actions sustain this view? As I write this there is an ‘unholy’ debate going on about the supply of vaccines to various parts of the world, including the very poorest countries. The predominant view is that we should certainly keep all our vaccines until we see what is leftover. A very practical view, but is it commensurate with being a Christian country? In general, in life do our individual actions speak the language of proclamation, or are they too centred on our own needs with only the left-overs for those outside?
Desert Father quotes from Abba Anthony
Our life and our death are with our brothers and sisters. If we gain one, we have gained God. If we scandalise one, we have sinned against Christ.
The things that you strive for in your daily life will tell you much about your prayers.
Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester
Thanks be to you, my Lord Jesus Christ
For all the benefits you have given me,
For all the pains and insults you hast borne for me.
O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know you more clearly,
Love you more dearly,
And follow you more nearly, day by day.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Deuteronomy 18.15-20; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28
The public ministry of Jesus begins in the synagogue. It seems easy to draw parallels between our own church and the synagogues at the time of Jesus, yet they are quite different. Synagogues were really places of instruction, teaching, prayer and reading of the Law. They were not something that would be associated with worship, that taking place in the Temple. Synagogues were quite numerous and there was a law in place that a synagogue had to be provided where there were ten or more Jewish families. It is the interpretation of the Law that synagogues were primarily concerned with communal life, as adherence to the law had to take precedence over all else. Everything existed for the Jews of that time in the Law, the Torah (the first five books of our Bible), and all that was needed could be found in them. The scribes were responsible for the interpretation of the Law, in particular when instances were brought before them when answers were not directly found in the Torah. A term that is mentioned in the Bible, and often in relation to Jesus himself, is Rabbi, which is the chief scribe. Often the synagogues were seen primarily as community buildings more so than religious ones, and perhaps bear some comparison to our town halls and village halls in relation to local legislation and community activities. They also had a special role in relation to providing for the poor (similarities can be seen with the 19th and 20th century churches which did much in this latter respect).
Whilst the scribes were responsible for all legal aspects it was the synagogue ruler who had full responsibility for the activities. The synagogue was open to all who wanted to make a contribution, people simply had to approach the synagogue ruler and a space would be found. This is exactly what happened with Jesus, he chose to begin his public ministry in the synagogue in Capernaum. Whilst other gospels tell us something of how and what Jesus did, Mark is only concerned with the impact that it had on the people there. The people were struck, overawed even, with the authority of Jesus. In the past prophets had tended to limit their warnings to specific issues or to couch their own thoughts in the traditional and accepted authority of the time. That was not so for Jesus. Whatever Jesus did that day its emphasis was completely different from all that had been witnessed before. His emphasis was powerfully about eschatological matters, the breaking in of God’s Kingdom. There was nothing in what he said which looked for individual power, he saw it simply as a way where God’s love would burst in through Jesus’ service to humanity, rather than by any interpretation of law.
Immediately Mark shows this happening in the actual synagogue where there is “a man possessed by an unclean spirit”. The challenge to the Law is immediately obvious, since no work (including healing) could be done on the Sabbath. What perhaps is more illuminating for us is to look more closely at what Jesus did. With a far better scientific understanding it can be difficult for our generation to comprehend those first century attitudes to many things including the causes of illness. Many of their illnesses, particularly of a mental nature, were understood to be caused by these unclean spirits or perhaps sometimes the sins of the people themselves. But it was a very real understanding of their time, as evidenced by the procedure of trepanning which is the surgical removal of a small piece of the skull to enable the evil spirit to escape. Archaeological evidence from that time emphasises how prevalent trepanning was (one such piece of research showing that in a cemetery of 120 graves of that time contained 10 skulls which had been so treated).
Further research shows the belief that these demons entwined themselves with the personality. This shows itself in Mark’s account with the response not just of the demon, but of the plural, “What do you want with us?” This sense of the way illness entwined with the personality was the key issue of the time, and one way in which Jesus was able to break that chain was often the key to the healing of so many . Illness can still seen as a defining aspect of a person right up to our recent history. Yet perhaps now things are beginning to change. Some of you may have seen the moving TV programme recently of Katie Price and her son Harvey which shows how the world is at last moving on. Harvey matters, the person matters despite his problems. Everything is being done to dissociate the problems that Harvey has from the gifts that he has, to find a way and place where he can flourish. Equally all of us will have visited a person who is seriously ill, or with a potentially long illness, and thus be aware that such people do not wish to be constrained by their illness and are keen for us to speak of anything but that illness. They seek to engage in a fullness of life not the limitation of their own circumstances. It is important that we see the person not the illness, nor even the person with the illness. Disengaging the illness is central to going forward, and as you read through the gospels you see Jesus doing this so often in his healing miracles.
Yet it moves far beyond sickness and is true for each one of us in some measure, whatever our circumstance. For all of us our personality can become so entwined and changed by many external factors, ranging from our background to the knocks that life throws at us. Real healing begins when we can rid ourselves of all those external matters. It is then that we can return fully to our deepest being, seeing ourselves as God sees us. That is exactly what Jesus’ ministry was all about, seeing our worth in terms of what we were created, not what life has changed us into. In his lifetime it was Jesus’ authority which enabled many to grasp this. It is now through the faith and the Holy Spirit he has left with us that we can gain this life-giving dimension. So as we read these gospel accounts let us be sure that they are not just about sick people, they are about all of us to some degree. We need to disentangle those things that have changed us, or reduced us, if we are to return fully to a relationship with God who knows and understands who we really are. Recognising who we are is perhaps just as difficult for us as it was for the man in our gospel reading today. Just as difficult is the courage to comprehend, and then to relinquish, what life and circumstances have changed us into. Yet it is where we must begin if we are ever to become what we truly can be in God’s eyes.
This week I use a poem as the basis of our prayer. Some of you may know it as “The Crabbit Old Woman”, or as “Look Closer Nurse”. I first learned of it through Helen, our daughter, who heard of it whilst training as a nurse from an inspired tutor.
Poem often attributed to have been written by an old lady and found under her pillow, but usually attributed to Phyllis McCormack in 1966.
Look closer nurse
What do you see nurse, what do you see?
What are you thinking when you are looking at me?
A crabbit old woman, not very wise
Uncertain of habit, with far away eyes
Who dribbles her food and makes no reply
When you say in a loud voice, “I do wish you’d try”
Who seems not to notice the things that you do
And forever is losing a stocking or shoe
Who, resisting or not lets you do as you will
With bathing and feeding, the long day to fill.
Is that what you’re thinking, is that what you see?
Then open your eyes nurse, start looking at me.
I’ll tell you who I am as I sit here so still
As I rise at your bidding, as I eat at your will.
I am a child of ten with a father and mother
Brothers and sister who love one another.
A young girl of sixteen, with wings on her feet
Dreaming soon of the lover she’ll meet.
A bride soon at twenty, my heart gives a leap
Remembering the vows that I promised to keep.
At twenty five now I have young of my own
A woman of thirty, my young growing fast
Bound to each other with ties that will last.
At forty my young sons have grown andsoon be gone
At fifty, once more babies play round my knee
Again we know children my loved one and me.
Dark days are upon me, my husband is dead.
I look to the future, I shudder with dread
For my young are all busy, rearing young of their own
And I think of the years, and the love I have known.
I am an old woman and nature is cruel
Tis her jest to make old age look a fool.
The body it crumbles, grace and vigour depart
There is now a stone where I once had a heart
But inside the old carcass a young girl still dwells
And now and again my battered heart swells
I remember the joys, I remember the pain
And I’m living and loving life all over again
I think of the years all too few and gone, so fast
And accept the stark fact that nothing can last.
So, open your eyes nurse, open and see
Not a crabbit old woman, look closer, see ME.
So let’s pray
O Lord, when I look at others, help me to see what you see
Let me not see the ravages of life, but the glory of your love in them
Help me to cast away the struggles of their life,
And to see the glory of all that there is to be loved.
O Lord when I look at myself, help me to see what you see
Help me to put aside what life has made of me
Help me to grasp again Your wonder that is in me
And to see the glory of all that is to be loved in me.
O Lord when others look at me, help them to see what you see
Not what I have made of life, or what it has made of me.
Help them to put aside the things I have become
And to see instead the wonder of your love, part of the wonder of your creation in me.
A thought to ponder from one of the Desert Fathers
A pilgrim came to Abba Marcarius and asked, “ Why are so many happy and yet I am not?” Abba Macarius replied that they had probably learned to see goodness and beauty everywhere. “Then why do I not see it” asked the pilgrim?
Abba Macarius replied, “Because you cannot see outside of you what you fail to see inside”
Third & fourth sundays after Epiphany
Readings: 1 Samuel 3.1-10; 1 Corinthians 6.12-20; John 1.43-51; Jonah 3.1-5; 1 Corinthians 7.29-31; Mark 1.14-20
The calling of the disciples
The readings for the next two weeks centre on Jesus calling his disciples. The readings actually ought to be in reverse order to the Lectionary to fully understand how it took place. The first disciples to be called were Andrew, Peter, James and John whereas the lectionary begins with the calling of Philip and Nathaniel. So let us begin with Mark’s account of the calling of the four fishermen by the Sea of Galilee.
We can be certain that this was the first event because of the Greek word used to describe one of those fishermen in all of the early Christian writings outside of the Bible. That was Andrew, referred to in the Orthodox Church, and many others , by the Greek word Protokletos, meaning the first called.
However, reading Mark’s account could lead us to a misinterpretation of the actual calling of the isciples. Mark uses his brisk ‘event’ style to lead us straight from the Baptism of Jesus to the Sea of Galilee where he seems randomly to call these first disciples. The Gospel of John, however develops this more fully. In John’s Gospel a wider range of information of events begins to emerge, including the fact that Andrew was previously associated with John the Baptist. In fact Andrew was a disciple of John. It is worth noting that the Baptist’s disciples were different from what we would normally associate with Jesus’ disciples. Certainly the Baptist had disciples who did accompany him but he also had a second group of disciples who did not. These could probably be better described as dedicated followers, yet they were as devout as the first group. This group generally remained in their own life situation and acted as disciples within that context.
Significantly we find Andrew was a disciple of the Baptist and probably one of the latter group. This one small fact changes the way we look at Jesus’ calling of his disciples. This call of Jesus to the fishermen was certainly not impulsive or random. Neither was their response to that call. Andrew would have witnessed the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus, and would have enthusiastically told the others about it. So when Jesus came and said “Come and follow me,” they had no hesitation in doing just that. From all that Andrew had told them about seeing the signs of the Messianic age as Jesus emerged out of the water, would have provided enough proof to remove any doubt from their minds. This rather different understanding of events should lead us to see these four men in a different light.
They were not just four people randomly picked out of obscurity to become part of this ministry of Jesus. They were deeply thinking people, informed people, people who wanted to make sense of what life was all about. This is what Jesus saw in them. Unfortunately the pace of Mark’s Gospel can leave us with a limited understanding of the full dynamic of this event, instead a sense of the miraculous emerges rather than an understanding of what actually happened. This is sad because this human aspect of Jesus is exactly the part that Mark wished to portray in his Gospel.
This further knowledge may also explain what later happened to Andrew in the unfolding ministry of Jesus. Andrew was certainly the one who started it all and presumably held an important place in that group. Yet he did not become one of the significant disciples in the future ministry of Jesus as Peter, James and John did. Andrew possibly held on to the style of discipleship that he had learned from John the Baptist which meant, that he was not one of the disciples who were constantly with Jesus during this three-year period. For Andrew life had to go on, and it could well be that he divided his time between being with Jesus and returning home when necessary, and thereby missing some of the events which brought the other three to the foreground.
Philip performed a similar role in the calling of Nathaniel. After choosing to follow Jesus himself, Philip then sought out Nathaniel and urged him to come and see. It is in the discussion that Jesus then had with Nathaniel where a deeper understanding emerges. Nathaniel challenges Jesus as to why he has been approached at all. “You don’t know me” he says. But Jesus soon put him wise to the fact that he did. “I saw you under the fig tree,” was the reply. At this point there was no further hesitation, Nathaniel was in! Now it may seem a bit strange to change everything on such a simple observation, but there was probably more to it. The fig tree being leafy was one where people would sit for shade. It was probably the place where people would discuss matters or just ponder them, away from the blazing heat. It became synonymous with thinking, searching for truth. In all probability it was this colloquialism which is at heart of this comment of Jesus. What it does show of course is that the choosing of disciples was far from a random act on the part of Jesus. He wanted to know something about them, just as much as they wanted to know something about him.
The essence of all of this is that these, and later people, weren’t just chosen at random, they were chosen carefully and for a reason, for a task they could and would perform.
This understanding is tied together by the two Old Testament readings in the Lectionary. The first is the lovely reading of Samuel hearing the Lord calling him as a child in the Temple and we are left in no doubt that it is God who is in charge. Similarly the Jonah reading re-iterates this as He sends Jonah to warn Ninevah of the coming destruction, only to find that God in His compassion changes His mind. In fact Jonah is so fed up about it that he goes and sits sulking in the heat of the day. It is only the tree that God provides that saves him. A fig tree that he could ponder under, perhaps!
Going back to the gospel passages two phrases stand out for me, “Come follow me,” spoken by Jesus and “Come and see,” spoken by Philip. As I reflect upon these it just occurs to me that we have tried too hard to own the first one, the one that belongs to God. What we have forgotten is the one used by Philip, “Come and see”, and then let Jesus take care of the rest. The task to which we have been called is not to make the decisions of God, but simply to encourage each one to bring their own concerns to a God who will deal with them well. Ours is the invitation to extend to all to simply “come and see”. It is not to legislate what they will find or how it may change things. That was, is, and ever will be for God.
Prayer of the disciple – The Methodist Covenant prayer
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
You are mine and I am yours.
May the covenant now made on earth be ratified in heaven. Amen
Epiphany – the baptism of jesus
Readings: Genesis 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mark 1 4-11
So we begin Mark’s story of Jesus, his good news of Jesus. It begins here, not with speculation of events which he could not verify but with verifiable facts that were circulating in his time. As mentioned in an earlier reflection of Mark’s Gospel there is a reasonable assumption that this was closely aligned to Peter, but not completely going unchallenged in regard to the source of Mark’s information. The important element for Mark is that the information was verifiable and well known within a community of faith. He does not, therefore, tend to give much supporting information. He just puts the story together as it occurred, or as best he could put it together from his sources. The way in which Mark does this just confirms that he assumes that they know something of these accounts, and he is trying to formalise varying parts of collective oral history and knowledge. The most obvious place for him to begin is at the start of the ministry of Jesus.
Often we see Mark’s thoughts simply as an account of the event rather than looking too deeply into the underlying meaning behind it. This short passage (in the Greek it was just 53 words) contradicts this and contains much reference to Old Testament prophesy albeit much more subtly than the other gospels. Mark often presents his gospel on two levels, the surface story and the deep underlying issues. The very fact that Mark chooses to begin with Jesus’s baptism is indicative of this.
Little had been heard of Jesus up until this point, certainly on a wider scale. This is brought home by the fact that initially he was unnoticed by the crowd. They were there to see John, to be baptized by John, to hear his radical message. Wherever John went they flocked out to see him, perhaps because of this message he was giving, but more likely that in John they saw the return of the prophesy which had been absent from Israel for three hundred years or more. More specifically in him they came to believe that they had found the Messiah that they craved.
For John’s part he did not collude with their desire. In fact he simply spelt it out as it was, that he was the messenger. John’s message was simply that the important step for all of them was to look at themselves. Look at what their life had become. Could they honestly expect God to come to them if they remained as they were? The first step was to realise what that life had become and change it. John’s baptism was the message of repentance, or in Greek metonia which simply means a change of mind. Repentance he was reminding them was not simply about saying sorry, it was really about changing the person they were. The baptism of water only confirmed what they had already done.
This was the heart of John’s message, look into yourself and see honestly what God will see. Don’t compare it to what others might be, and certainly do not try to justify yourself by finding or pointing out the failures of others. Simply question who you are, and how far you have slipped from the perfection in which God created you. Until that moment repentance is nothing more than a word or a concept. They had to find out who and what they were, what they had become, and change it.
We see this same thing going on with Paul in Corinth. He isn’t looking for a quick answer, an instant convert. So as Paul spoke in the temple he was certainly telling them his story but more importantly listening to their story. As the graffiti response to someone who had glibly written on a wall, “ Jesus is the answer”, someone had written, “But what is the question?” Repentance can only come when we have discovered those questions and searched for the answers for ourselves. Something perhaps that is easily neglected in mission, that listening is more important than telling.
However in this account there is a bigger problem that has confronted serious students of the theology surrounding this text. It is simply questioning why Jesus was baptized at all. If the background to Jesus is as the gospels say and Jesus is the Son of God, surely this implies that he is sinless. Yet in three of the gospels this account of the baptism of Jesus figures largely, and in Mark’s it is the launch point.
Two major reasons have been presented to try to account for this. The first focuses on the humanity, and thus the human choice, of Jesus. In this train of thought the conclusion is that this action represents the moment Jesus chose to begin his ministry. The moment of decision, a significant moment, and as you read through Mark you can see that this is the way that he intended the account to portray all that was to come. The second response to this action by Jesus is to suggest that it was all about identification. By this action Jesus is fully identifying himself with humanity, with his people, and committing himself to them. He is prepared to save his people by being one of them.
However the main point of the baptism of Jesus overtakes all of these other thoughts. As Jesus emerges from the water the heavens are opened and the voice of God says, “You are my son, and with you I am well pleased.” Now this is not just a powerful piece of prose, it actually answers the whole question of who Jesus really is and to understand that we must go right back to the thinking of the day. The messianic age had (still has) a prominent place in Jewish thought (much of the Book of Daniel is devoted to this) and is recognised by three aspects. The first is that the heavens open, the second is the Spirit descending and the third is God speaking through all this. For that Jewish context these three things needed to happen together, and in just a few words in Mark’s Gospel they all happen as Jesus emerges from the water. There could be no other starting place for Mark’s Gospel which goes onto explain what that actually meant to human life. He wastes no time using events to illustrate who Jesus really is. Mark’s Gospel will just tell us what this new order will look like, and perhaps take us back to a glimpse of the peace that existed when the world first came into being.
As the church moves into its new year this is indeed an important starting place for us.
Last week I left you with a little conundrum. Today I leave you with a similar story, but one which perhaps may suggest an answer to the first.
This event is again actually true and happened in Birmingham. A 14 year old girl of another faith became interested in Christianity and eventually made her way to an inner city church where she got very familiar with the faith and the teachings of Jesus. Unfortunately, other members of her family began to become aware of her moving to another faith and after warnings were ignored by her, her legs were broken to prevent her attending the church. The members of the little evangelical church were deeply upset and concerned. What shall we do? It quickly became apparent that if the girl had any further contact her life would be in danger. How will she be saved? This was of course their concern in the wider context of things as well as the present threat to her. A wise elderly nun amongst them cut straight to the chase. “My dears”, she said to them “She is all-ready saved, perhaps even more so than we are. Let her be, Jesus will look after her”.
second sunday of christmas
readings: jeremiah 31.7-14; ephesians 1.3-14; john 1.10-18
Some of you will have heard me preach on Jean Francois Gravelot, or as he was better known, “The Great Blondin”. He became one of the greatest tight-rope performers of his day and made his name by walking a tight-rope across Niagara Falls on many occasions. But he was far more than a daring tight-rope walker, he introduced great theatre and sensation into those crossings. He crossed Niagara Falls on stilts. He crossed the falls with a man on his back. On one occasion he took a chair and some refreshments with him, set the chair up above the middle of the falls and sat down to have a meal! All this on a 3 inch swaying wire, some 180 ft above the falls and over a distance of 1100 ft.
Among all the stories of Blondin’s incredible crossings of the Niagara Falls there is one however, which sticks out in my mind. It is the story of the wheelbarrow. With typical pre-event publicity the organisers ensured a great crowd attended including many from the press. After a number of stuttering attempts to get the wheelbarrow onto the tightrope and a few wobbles Blondin set out on his journey over the falls. On the way he had a few ‘moments’ but these were probably included to increase the drama rather than serious difficulties. Having reached the middle, the difficult part really began as the wire would, through its own weight and his, have quite an incline to reach the end. There was a hushed silence in the crowd as he came to the last few steps, and just as he reached the platform thunderous applause broke out. Amongst this applause was a plea for him to do it again, but this time going back the other way. Everybody cheered and cheered as he turned his wheelbarrow around and made out as if he was going back, indeed he made a couple of attempted starts. Then, the crowd was hushed to complete and dumbfounded silence, as Blondin pointed out to them that the angles of incline in this other direction were different, and to do it he would need a volunteer to sit in the wheelbarrow! The silence was now palpable, and there were no volunteers!
Blondin never did that reverse journey. Whilst there were hundreds of people who wanted to see him do it, hundreds who knew he could do it but there wasn’t one who was prepared to sit in the wheel barrow as ballast. This true story can be used in various contexts of the Christian faith and people, but today I use in the context of God, God who didn’t hesitate to get into the wheel-barrow of humanity.
The word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The original written version of this and all the New Testament is Greek, and for any Greek person reading this seemingly simple statement would have been a major problem. Although translations may offer various alternatives such as, a person, or mortal, or human, the Greek version uses the word flesh. The problem is that this word does not just simply imply human, it implies human beings with all their faults. The same word is used quite often by St Paul in his letters to illustrate not humans but human weakness. God has not just come to us, he has come to be one of us, to share our human weaknesses. For the Greek reader that was not just impossible, indeed it was blasphemous. The spirit for them was far superior to the body, and it would never have been deigned to even contemplate the spirit associating with the body let alone becoming part of it. (see footnote)
What we have in this gospel reading is a powerful assertion of Jesus as an integral part of God from the beginning, and that same God taking on our humanity with all its weaknesses and failures. This is Emmanuel, God with us, in its fullness, as indeed had been portrayed by the prophetic ministry prior to Jesus, in particular Isaiah and Jeremiah. Today we hear the joy of that prophecy that God will turn their grieving into gladness; and give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. It was this God who was prepared to be with them in their sufferings and struggles which gave them heart to look beyond and perceive something far greater than themselves, things that they shared in God and with God. The continuing account of Jesus in John’s Gospel is a powerful reminder how he was in the world, but not of the world.
Prior to the writing of John’s Gospel (indeed all of them), St Paul had repeatedly referred to these spiritual blessings in Jesus. Indeed in our reading of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see this pre-dating Paul himself, as he includes an existing prayer in his opening statement (vv.1.3- 1.6). In this passage we find Paul reminding the reader that they have been blest with a bounty they could never have known, it is the bounty of heaven come down to earth. He also reminds them that they have not chosen God, but that God has chosen them and chosen them for a special reason. The reason is simply to be holy and blameless in the world. The word holy will, no doubt have several connotations, but recalling that since this was first used by Paul who was a Greek, and it was printed first in the Greek language, perhaps some thought as to what this Greek origin of the word hagios or holy is necessary. It simply means separated or different. Paul is saying to those early Christians that God has chosen them to be separated from the world, and through the way they live that separated life others will come to value it. Perhaps this is the challenge that we as Christians, as indeed the Christians of every age before us, have been slow to face. It is here to present an alternative version and vision to life. The more we try to become worldly the less we live up to that calling of holiness.
This point perhaps brings us back to Blondin and to think of his challenge to get into the wheelbarrow as one for ourselves. St. Paul spells out clearly that we are called to be holy, separated, and whilst we applaud those who have done it before, or even do it now, it still begs the question. Are we prepared to get in the wheelbarrow and let God lead us along the tight-rope of life? We are in the world, but do we fulfil our calling by being too much part of it?
For those of you who may be interested in the development of the church, this would explain the body of people who are known as Doceists. The base word for this in Greek would be Dokein with a translation of seeming to be. For them Jesus was simply God appearing as a human being rather than really being one, and was a substantial theology in these early stages. I suspect that is why John in his Gospel was so uncompromising in his description. So those of you, myself included, who love that old language need to realise that it was often used as a way to confront conflicting thoughts and ideologies which were prevalent at the time. The study of the Bible cannot be limited to its speaking at our present time, but must refer in some way to why it would have been written. Doceism was condemned by the First Christian Council at Nicaea in 325AD but interestingly it has
When I was at Theological College, our studies were punctuated by some deep discussion on issues. This following scenario provided one very heated discussion with our group containing a wide range of Christian stances from the liberal to the fundamental. The discussion was based around a very good friend of ours, a devout Muslim and about one of the talks he and I had had on many occasions.
On this particular occasion we were talking about our faiths and he came out with the following:
“You Christians are very lucky, we as Muslims have the Book but you have the Man”. Indeed my friend whist still being devout in his own faith was also very informed on Christianity. The discussion which arose in the College situation was simply whether his statement met the criteria for everlasting life as reportedly given by Jesus, that it was for all who believed in Him. So where from a Christian perspective would you place Mamdooh, our friend? Perhaps it is something you might wish to exercise your mind with!
Not an easy option
from ‘Whispers of Love’ by Pam Marsh.
Stirring the easy slumbers of my consciousness,
or the easy answers of my own wants.
O God, you jolt me
From the cosy rut or righteous one
I’d channelled for myself.
Breaking the mould of others’ expectations, and my own,
You question once more the status quo in me.
You prompt me to steer my route
across uncharted ground, unfamiliar ground,
You challenge me to set my feet on pathways new
To places that I’d rather not go.
It’s not an easy option following You, God.
For You call me in directions
where I had not thought to go.
You require of me a courage that I did not think I had.
You turn on their head
my preconceived ideas and plans.
It’s not an easy option following You, God.
But there again it was not an easy option for You
when You chose to share my humanity and even my flesh.
Inspire my courage by what You have already done for me.
first sunday of christmas
readings: isaiah 61.10-62.3; galatians 4.4-7; luke 2.15-21
Who on earth are Simeon and Anna?
Our son, Gareth, didn’t study art to any real depth at school, yet he is wonderful at drawing. He didn’t study music or instrumental music much, yet he is a wonderful practical music maker, playing quite a few instruments and more importantly just being able to play a piece of music he has only heard perhaps once or twice. He didn’t spend much time learning to cook, yet he is a magnificent cook also.
But it is in his drawing where it all comes together. With a little persuasion (although sometimes it takes a bit more!) he will just sit and draw in a very short time a picture to illustrate something, usually a character, for the children. The remarkable thing about this is that you have no idea of what it is, or what it will look like until the last moment. The drawing is made with seemingly random strokes which give no indication of what the picture is about until suddenly with the last few of these strokes the picture emerges before your eye. A wonderful gift I wish I had.
Luke has a similar gift also in his writing, none more so than in his version of the birth of Christ. With few material facts to work with, probably limited to Old Testament prophecies in the main and some local folklore, his story of the birth the whole picture of Jesus emerges. In fact he goes on doing it through the whole of his gospel. Using Mark’s account, along with at least one other source, he weaves a real sense of Jesus from the basics that have been presented to him.
Today’s reading is fascinating in this respect. In a few words, a few strokes of his pen, Luke explains everything about Jesus, who he is, what he will do, and the cost of what it will cost him. All this he does through two characters, Simeon and Anna. So who were Simeon and Anna?
Well we know very little directly from the Bible about them, this being the only time they are mentioned. Yet there is a great tradition surrounding them. The most powerful aspect of these traditions stems from the group they were associated with in Israel. At this time of high expectation and hope in Israel for a Messiah to rid them of the Roman occupation, there was a separate group with similar high expectations but expectations for a very different saviour. This group was known as the quiet in the land. They were a very devout and prayerful group who just simply prayed for God to be among his people. They had no expectations of what that would be, other than He would be among them. This was their only expectation yet it was the real hope for the world.
It reminded me of a deep memory from when I was quite young, watching a stonemason repairing a dry stone wall. The vast array of stones of every shape and size lay on the ground, the smallest being not much bigger than a pebble. Yet with his skill all were found a place in the wall and each contributing to its strength and ultimate glory and longevity. There were the obvious ones that we see, the facing stones and the coping stones, and some that we may be aware of, or even see if we try hard enough, such as the foundation, coping and through stones. Yet at heart of this wall are stones we never see, the heartings and the pinnings, the very stones which give the complete strength and longevityto the wall. Without them the wall would soon be gone, pushed over by animals or just succumbing to the still, silent movement of the living earth. Then over the days that followed when I spent my time watching the wall being completed, and amazingly not a stone of that great original sprawl remained, and even more amazing no additional stones were needed to complete the wall. It was all there, and complete only when every stone was used. Equally amazing, and perhaps life forming for me, was the fact that he never used a hammer in his work. He just spent a long time looking at those stones as they lay on the ground and memorized them, seeing their strengths, their places no doubt, and for every space to be filled in the emerging wall, there was a stone already there.
Its strength arose from the fact that it was a dry wall without any form of mortar being used. The strength of all stone walls is the ability of its constituent parts to move and react to the changing pressures exerted on it. It is flexibility which gives the wall its strength not its rigidity. The more cement which is added will simply make it too rigid for long term stability, it is the dray stone wall with its mixof components being the one which stands the test of time.
The building of that wall remains an over-riding memory for me, and one which I can still see still some 70 years on as I travel past my grandfather’s farm. That stone wall is still there among the modern sectional buildings built, rebuilt and replaced a number of times . That wall has been for me a picture of so many things in life from friendships and relationships to the nurture of children and so much more. It was the struggle of the “human” aspect of the church in this respect that has led to its decline and even failure in some situations. A genuine desire to keep it perfect has in the end only created something which could not adapt and adjust. Like the wall made with mortar it does not take long to fail to the changing pressures of real life.
That is to me exactly what Luke was portraying in relation to Jesus Christ, the rebuilding of the covenant. He brings in countless folk to represent the whole spectrum of humanity without which the covenant will never be complete or strong. He never forces rigidity or conformity, he simply enables them to realise their part in the kingdom. So who were these people that Luke used in his story, and in particular Simeon and Anna? Were they just an author’s stroke of the pen, or did they exist? And if they existed how did they get into Luke’s Gospel which was written some 100 years later? Well we have no answer to those questions, except to see that with the shepherds and the kings together they represent the multitude of God’s children. These few people represent the full humanity which was at the heart of God’s love and gift. What is more they have existed through all of eternity and still exist. That covenant, that Holy Family, will never be complete until all are part of that great wall which adorns paradise.
from ‘Prayers of Life’ by Michel Quoist
The wires are holding hands around the holes;
To avoid breaking the ring, they hold tight the neighbouring wrist,
And it is thus that with holes they make a fence.
Lord, there are lots of holes in my life.
There are some in the lives of my neighbours.
But it is your wish that we shall hold hands
We shall hold tight
And together we shall make a fine roll of fence to adorn paradise.
Nunc Dimittis – The Song of Simeon
Now, Lord, you let your servant go in in peace
your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.
fourth sunday of advent
readings: 2 Samuel 7.1-11 & 16; Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38
Our daughter and family have two lovely cats. However they are very anxious to please and regularly bringing tasty morsels into the house for the family. These are usually a mangled mouse, but have varied from frogs to a pigeon, which when let go was soon flying around the room! It is lovely to see this trait of wanting to please, but the results of this pleasing instinct are not always so pleasing to the one who is to be pleased, so to speak!
The whole of our economy it seems now rests on Christmas, or at least on the money that we spend at Christmas. It is spent on lavish and even obscene amounts of food in part, and a considerable amount on presents. How often though do those presents reflect the needs or wants of the recipient? Sometimes perhaps they reflect the givers own situation and character, and in so doing highlighting how little we know about, or perhaps want to know, about the recipient. I love the summing up of it all in Thomas Betjeman’s poem, “Christmas” as he recalls
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent,
And hideous tie so kindly meant.
Today our Old Testament reading is just like that. It has King David now living safe and secure in his palace, remembering perhaps the uncertainties of his former life and the risks and perils of his nomadic life as a shepherd. He begins to compare this new found security with the precarious nature of God’s existence. He must do something about this state of affairs, he must build a new home for the ark of the Covenant which still residing in a tent. David’s great desire is to please God but by suggesting that he might build a house for God, David is expressing far more about himself than he is about God, about David’s own uncertainties or needs perhaps. Through Nathan, God points out that His desire couldn’t be further from this. His desire is to build a house, a home, for His people not for himself. A place where He could be with them, not separated from them. God’s way is indeed far from our way and His understanding far from our own. If we are to really fulfil our desire to be closer to God we have to begin to put aside what we want and open ourselves up to what God wants.
And this is exactly what Mary did. She must have been just as fearful as David had been. Here was this strange companion expressing the most outrageous idea that would turn her whole world completely upside down, that would threaten her very existence and everything that she hoped for. If she accepted this her whole life would be changed, her reputation thrown away and her future becoming most unpredictable, if indeed there would be one at all.
‘O God no!’ must have been her first reaction. I will do anything, build you a house even, but please not this. Please not these things that will destroy everything that I have been, everything that I want to be. Gabriel quietly explained that his was not about what she wanted to be, but what God wanted her to be. She would indeed build a house for God, but not as David had imagined. The house she would build for God would be for His people and He would share it with them. Indeed it would be a temple beginning in the temple of her own body, the temple of her very being.
Then let it be so was Mary’s response. “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said”. But what, oh what, must have been her feelings as the angel left her? How on earth can this possibly work out? What will become of me? Questions and doubts must have thrashed through her mind. But for all this Mary remained resolute, everything is possible with God. Indeed nothing is impossible with God, and through Mary God did establish His home where it had to be, in the centre of his people.
But returning to echoes of John’s gospel, unlike Mary, God’s people did not know him, or perhaps want to know him when they realised what that knowing entailed. They would much prefer to pay lip-service much like Betjeman’s ’tissued fripperies’. It would be much easier, and the price would certainly be less. Fortunately in a world which knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing, at least Mary was focussed to put value before cost, to put God before self.
It is Mary who should be our example, Mary who did not choose God for where she wanted to go, but allowed God to take her where He knew she could go. Through each one of us God is able to widen and deepen His home among people, but have we the courage and the imagination of Mary to let it happen? Are we prepared to play our part in ushering in God’s kingdom?
Prayer adapted from ‘Whispers of Love’
by Pat Marsh
O God, you stir the easy slumbers
of my consciousness.
You jolt me from the cosy rut
I’d channelled out for myself.
Breaking the moulds of other’s expectations,
breaking the mould of my own expectations
You question once more
the status quo in me.
Prompting me to steer my route
across uncharted ground,
You challenge me
To set my feet on pathways new.
It’s not an easy option following You, God!
For you call me in directions
where I had not thought to go,
requires of me
a courage which I did not think I had,
turns on their head
my preconceived ideas and plans.
It’s not an easy option
following You, O God
Give me the trust, give me the faith
to go where You know I can go, to go where you need me to go.
A short prayer from Mark 9.24
I believe, help my unbelief
Perhaps one to think and meditate on for some time.
Third sunday of Advent
readings: isaiah 61. 1-4; 1 thessalonians 5.16-24; john 1 6-8, 19-28
In last week’s readings we saw John the Baptist appearing in Mark’s Gospel and representing the line of prophets who had been so influential in Israel’s past. Today we meet him again, but this time in his own right. The author of John’s Gospel is concerned only with the message the Baptist brings and the role that he performs, pointing to something beyond himself.
On the surface of it the message was a scandalous one. Israel, the chosen race, were to submit to baptism alongside the Gentiles proselytes. They were no better than the Gentiles who had been the scorn of Israel! To the vast number of Israel this was indeed scandalous, even blasphemous, yet there were great numbers who came to John, recognising some fundamental truth in what he said. Recognising their own inadequacies they sought him out to try to get to the heart of their own concerns. And people came in great numbers. We even see Jesus himself being part of it.
Repent was the powerful message they heard from John, but it was something deeper they really sought. Through that repentance a great peace could be found, leaving a joy at the centre of their inadequate existence. It came from a recognition that God could be approached, that he was near. Grasp the God who is close by, was John’s message, and know the joy that it gives.
But this was no ordinary joy. It was a joy that went to their very centre, a joy encapsulating all joys they had previously known, a sustaining joy. Perhaps in our human situation it could be compared to meeting someone whom you knew would be your soul mate for life, or holding your newly-born child. In moments like these nothing else matters, or could ever matter again. This is what they found in John’s message. It was no arbitrary action, it was knowing a joy that would never leave them.
So that is the message which we celebrate in the middle of Advent. The inner joy of knowing that God can be with you, that God is indeed with you. Whatever you face in life, whatever the problem, whatever the struggle you are never alone. It was summed up in the poem ‘Footprints in the Sand’ where the single set of footprints highlights the times when God carries us.
So here is the real message of Advent, and we celebrate it on this “Gaudete Sunday”. Gaudete, a Latin word simply meaning rejoice, letting joy rush out. The liturgical colour of the day changes to rose, as does the colour of the Advent candle. The Advent carol, O come, O come Emmanuel , spells out our longing, while the chorus is about the joy of knowing God’s saving response to that longing.
Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel
Has come to thee, O Israel.
But this is more than a message for a particular Sunday in Advent, it is more even than a particular season of penitence. This message is the very centre of our faith. It is far more than the things we get wrong, and will get wrong. It is about the love of God which always puts them right! This is the ‘Christmas’ of John’s Gospel, and of Mark’s. To them there is nothing which can overtake the knowledge of this unearned and undeserved love which God continually pours out to his world. There is no other reason why they wrote their gospels.
It was the message that Paul spoke of in our Thessalonians reading today, and is the heart of a prayer he uses in the letter to the Philippians (4,4). It is a reminder to us all that every moment is a revelation of God’s love and every moment is a Gaudete opportunity.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice.
Do not be anxious about anything,
but in everything with thanksgiving present your requests to God.
And the God of peace which transcends all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
This is why so many sought out the Baptist, may it be our reassurance and joy also.
second sunday of advent
readings: Isaiah 40.1-11; 2 Peter 3, 8-15; Mark 1.1-8
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God”, so begins the gospel according to Mark. Certainly no pulling any punches there, or indeed searching through the Old Testament scriptures about how it might have happened. Here, in this man Jesus Christ are the wonders that prophets had proclaimed and the people had longed for, God’s presence was among them and the gospel goes on to proclaim how Mark and others have become so convinced of it.
It was not however in the way that people had hoped for. They knew their scriptures, but it was a selective remembrance. They would probably have known the Isaiah prophecy of “Comfort ye my people” but did they recall that it was devastation that would proceed that comfort? Isaiah’s God was not a God who would pat them on the head and just put everything right, for Isaiah we had to journey through the bleak desert, through the struggles and the failures first. Isaiah’s God wasn’t showing them a way around the desert, it was a God who was giving courage and help to go through the centre of it.
This was the message that John the Baptist came to preach with his straightforward message of repentance which came to fullness in baptism. We may be wary of this man from his appearance and life style, but it is that baptism which defines the severity of his message. Jews would have been very familiar with ritual washing as recorded in the Book of Leviticus, but for Jews baptism was not required, symbolic or otherwise. Baptism was part of the process that was reserved for Gentile proselytes of Judaism, which signified cleansing from sins of past life. Yet here was John demanding that Jews themselves, the chosen race, submit to the humiliating experience alongside the proselytes. The chosen race had failed miserably in their response to God’s love. John’s appeal came through his own humility and despite the recognition of their desert of faith, or perhaps because of it crowds flocked to him. There were no seductive promises of an easy passage, just the reality of what those who turned to him knew in their own hearts, the failings they recognised in themselves.
Every railway station is either the beginning or the end of a journey. The message of John is simply that this is the place where the journey begins. Like the train journey the route of faith is set out, all we have to do is to have the courage to step aboard. God’s grace has already prepared the way, but is it the way we would choose to go? Would we not prefer a simpler way, an easier way? Will the pain of making every road straight and every hill and valley smooth be more than we want to bear? John certainly didn’t leave them with an easy choice, but people turned to it because of what they saw, or probably failed to see in themselves. This was John’s wake up call, the advent, to Israel.
From 600AD this has been the heart of the period of Advent in the Christian Church, probably beginning with the fasting time associated with St.Martin originally. Certainly the earliest records of Advent come from Tours in the 6th Century. Its heart is self-reflection, the very principle laid down by John the Baptist. This reflection of Advent centres upon the vibrancy of the faith of many who have brought us to this point in the journey, from the patriarchs to the prophets, and notably include John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. Traditionally Advent would have included some very powerful visual images emphasising this vibrancy and its gradual slipping away. Some of these very meaningful traditions have to all intent been lost, whilst others have been modified to such an extent to a point where they barely reflect any meaning.
Of the former probably the most visually significant was the bringing in of the greens. Starting with Advent Sunday the vibrant branches of yew and laurel would be brought into church signifying the great hope of our faith, but as Advent progressed the greens gradually began to lose their vibrancy. It was a visual reminder of what was imperceptibly happening to our faith, in the un-remitting demands of life. On Christmas Day it sprang back into life when the vibrant green of the holly leaf and its attendant red berries were laid on the decaying greens. Interestingly it was the Victorian church where this custom seemed to go into abeyance, probably because the dead and dying greenery which was an important part of the message, just simply made the church look untidy. The very tidy Christmas wreath took their place. A similar visual reminder can be seen in our still active practice of the Advent wreath, where week by week the appropriate (and usually purple) candle is lit and gradually loses its significance as it becomes smaller and smaller. The bright and vivid white light, the light of Christ, blossoms forth among these diminishing purple lights and dark green background. Again I can recall churches where the candles were only lit at the end of the services for a very few minutes so that they wouldn’t lose their sparkle, and thereby obliterating the message that is at the heart of the wreath.
The Jesse Tree was the fore-runner of both the advent calendar and the Christmas tree. It was a dead branch which was brought into church, or into home, on Advent Sunday and day by day grew into life as pictures or representations of the origins of our faith were hung upon it. Finally on Christmas day a bright, white candle was placed at its very top, the light of Christ. The Victorian inspired Christmas tree, with its twinkling lights and candy is indeed a poor imitation. The Advent calendar was traditionally very similar, but seems to be moving further and further from its meaning as chocolates and other treats replace the symbols of faith. Indeed I have seen one such adult Advent calendar advertised which replaces the chocolates by tasters of various spirits that can be sampled on these days, mind you it did cost over £100! The four last things and the great O’s (you can view this service on YouTube at our Cathedral) are also traditions which you may wish to find out about, but all these traditions were at the heart of the season of Advent, a time to reflect on whether our own faith is as vital or as life-giving as it could be, or indeed once was.
So Advent is not just a time to prepare for Christmas, though indeed it may be a busy time as we do this, it is a time to prepare for the greater things of life. What is our faith all about, how do we live it out. Is it a faith which can sustain us through all difficulties and disasters, or is it just a barrier which we hope will keep out all such unpleasantness and struggle? Have we reduced God to someone whose purpose is to enable our own version of the journey of life happen and make it easier, or is He a God who will sustain us through the real journey of life whatever that may be?
For those of you who are gardeners it will not escape your notice that there are two main periods of pruning if we wish our trees to remain fruitful, they are in autumn and spring, or Advent and Lent. May this Advent be a pruning time for us so that we remain fruitful in God’s kingdom. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, He is saying that we must do that because it bears Caesar’s image, how much more important then to render to God the things that bear God’s image, ourselves. As we do that may we strive to return it in a form nearer to the perfection it was made and given in.
St Peter in writing to the Jews in Rome is in fact commending them to be grateful for this waiting time of life. To regard its gifts, but not to lose sight of the responsibilities we have to it, and the responsibilities we have to one another. At this time when Covid-19 still rages within our world perhaps our time of Advent is more important than ever as we try to focus on the place and responsibility of human existence, and live it out as God intended rather than how we would like it. Let us ““stand in our wilderness and start to build a place where righteousness is at home” (Jane Williams ‘Lectionary Reflections’)
Advent prayers From ‘The Promise of His Glory’
Lord God, we come to you
with sorrow for our sins,
and we ask for your help and strength.
Help us to know ourselves
and to accept our weakness.
Strengthen us with your forgiving love,
so that we may more courageously
follow and obey your Son,
Awhose birth we are soon to celebrate.
As watchmen look for the morning
so do we look for you , O Christ.
Come with the dawning of the day
and make yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread;
For you are our God for ever and ever.
readings: Isaiah 64.1-9; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37
There are always a few problems moving from the Before Advent season to Advent itself. Advent is about preparing for the coming of Christ and the Before Advent season being the time we prepare to prepare! Often there is overlap between the readings in these two seasons. When the Gospel of Mark is the ‘incoming gospel’ this makes it even more difficult since Matthew (and for that matter Luke) used Mark as a significant resource for his own writing. We may well come across readings which we think we have had before, and in reality probably have in another gospel during the just completed Before Advent season. This week’s Gospel reading is one such example.
To try and get into the meaning of this passage, since it is the first in Mark’s Gospel for us, we really need to go back to the beginning of the chapter. Immediately we see that Jesus is actually referring to the destruction of the Temple in this passage, not the end of the world. The Temple of Jerusalem, although still unfinished, was regarded by many as the most beautiful building in the world and the disciples are overcome at seeing it for the first time. Yet Jesus informs them that it will soon be destroyed, not one stone will remain resting on another. He goes on to say that this will happen in the lifetime of many of the hearers. From Matthew in particular this has been interpreted as being the coming of Christ, the end of the world, and that Jesus must have got it wrong. But when we return to Mark, the original Gospel, we see that it was used in the context of the Temple and this did indeed happen in the lifetime of some of them, less than forty years later.
As we begin to read today’s Gospel account we could be forgiven in thinking about the prediction in terms of the apocalypse. The words attributed to Jesus, or used by Mark to signify the desolation to come, are from a far earlier period, certainly Isaiah but possibly earlier. This was the language and the idea that the Jews were familiar with in relation to the Day of the Lord, and certainly the destruction of the Temple could be considered as the end of their world. The problem has been that we have continued to use this gospel reading in the same vein. Later writings have completely separated it from the Temple destruction. In the Christian context it is now associated with the second coming of Christ, a reminder perhaps that we ought to reference similar gospel readings and even see them in the wider context than the Sunday reading sometimes gives.
The prediction is further enhanced by the idea of “the son of man coming on clouds with great power and glory”, and is itself a reference to these earlier prophecies. This time the text for the prophecy is from the Book of Daniel (Daniel 7.13), and Mark prior to writing this account would have witnessed countless false prophets offering vain hopes of salvation. This may well have contributed to Mark writing his Gospel, to journal the ministry of Christ the Messiah, and simply to record the facts of this stage of the life of Jesus.
We must not lose sight, however, that that day will come for all and we live in its shadow. One thing that life teaches us is that we can never control what happens along its journey, or indeed when it will end. Covid-19 in particular has been a warning that no matter how much we try to take control, we cannot. Whilst we must always try to overcome the situations that will threaten us individually or collectively, there is always the knowledge that we do not have absolute control. Each of us must be ready for the moment when things change. So alongside the many actions of life we do so in the hope that life holds much before us, we must also live it in the knowledge that it may not, and will not, forever. The wise person is the one who never forgets that he/she needs to be ready when the moment comes. It is that person who can live in hope rather than terror.
As a child I used to be fascinated by fairground mirrors, the mirrors which changed your reflection into all sorts of different shapes and sizes. I cannot understand why I always returned the mirror that made me look tall! I am told, though since I rarely go to clothes shops,that stores use similar mirrors to “encourage” people to buy. Advertising is based upon that same principle, of deluding you into thinking that their product will make you into the image you seek to be, the control you seek. If we are not careful life can easily become all smoke and mirrors! What we must hold onto is that the mirrors change nothing, and despite that brief moment when I was tall and slim, I have had to come to terms with what I am. It was easy with the fairground mirrors, they were only there for a short time each year, the reality of present day life is around us all the time. The difficulty is that by losing sight both of our true self and what it is in the end, the important parts of what you are. The journey of life will teach you that, if you let it. It will also lead you to a glory you would never have envisaged if you had stayed looking into the mirrors of delusion. Keep watch, seek to know more of what you are and more of what you will be.
The reading from Isaiah 64 is all about the delusion we limit ourselves to, and to the hope that God offers to us, “Do not let your anger pass all bounds , O Lord, look on us, your people”. The more we search for God the nearer we will come to seeing that happening.
Today’s portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians pours out that hope in abundance. “There is indeed no single gift that you lack, while you wait expectantly for our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself. He will keep you firm to the end without reproach on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
They, and we, can safely smash our mirrors of fear and delusion! Perhaps Advent is the time to begin to look into the mirror of our true to see ourselves as we really are, the way that we are fully seen by Him
Collect for Advent 1 from ‘The Promise of His Glory’
O Lord, you have set before us the great hope that Your kingdom will come on earth,
and have taught us to pray for its coming:
give us grace to discern the signs of its dawning,
and to work for that perfect day
when Your will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
From ‘Praise God in Song’
Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe:
Eternal creator of light and darkness.
In this season of Advent when the sun’s light is swallowed up
by the growing darkness of the night,
You renew Your promise to reveal among us the splendour of Your glory,
made fresh and visible to us in Jesus Christ Your Son.
Through the prophets you teach us to hope for His reign of peace.
Through the outpouring of his Spirit, You open our blindness to the glory of his presence.
Strengthen us in our weakness;
Strengthen us in our stumbling efforts to do Your will and free our tongues to sing Your praise.
For to You all honour and blessing are due, now and forever.