Fourth Sunday before Lent

6th February 2022

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 

Psalm 138

1 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; *
before the gods I will sing your praise.

2 I will bow down toward your holy temple
and praise your Name, *
because of your love and faithfulness;

3 For you have glorified your Name *
and your word above all things.

4 When I called, you answered me; *
you increased my strength within me.

5 All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord, *
when they have heard the words of your mouth.

6 They will sing of the ways of the Lord, *
that great is the glory of the Lord.

7 Though the Lord be high, he cares for the lowly; *
he perceives the haughty from afar.

8 Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you keep me safe; *
you stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies;
your right hand shall save me.

9 The Lord will make good his purpose for me; *
O Lord, your love endures for ever;
do not abandon the works of your hands.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Luke 5:1-11 

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Reflection 

The over arching theme of today’s readings is of being called by God. For Isaiah it seems to be a unique calling, as if Isaiah’s role is going to be unusual, out of the ordinary. When we get to the days of Paul, the number of people being called by God is growing exponentially. Paul doesn’t say so, but one senses that Paul anticipates that his readers will be the next generation of those commissioned by God to continue the spread of the good news. 

Isaiah, Paul and Simon are all clearly aware of their shortcomings, their failures, their sins. In calling them, God both recognises this,  absolves them and at the same time enables their transformation into spreaders of the good news, of salvation.  

In the ‘pericope’ or clip that Luke gives us, Jesus is preaching the good news to the crowds. But then it is as if he demonstrates this by way of a physical parable. He has chosen to borrow Simon’s boat. Simon’s overnight fishing expedition had failed. Normally Simon would have expected to make a worthwhile  catch of fish, but on this occasion the haul had been nil. Things had not been how they should have been. 

Jesus invites Simon try once more, and this time the haul of fish is beyond Simon’s expectation. Jesus has not just restored things the way they should be, he has transformed them spectacularly. The good news that God’s salvation can and does restore and transform life in all its fullness is made visible.

Isaiah was called to warn the people of Judea of the threat posed by the Babylonians to their future as a nation. This threat stemmed from the breakdown in their relationship with God, their arrogance  and their failure to listen to, and act upon, the wisdom of God. They needed to repent and change direction, to transform discern the ways in which they lived and how they should related to God. This transformation was, as recorded in the Book of Isaiah, a work in progress. 

Jesus called Simon to completely change career. He was to forgo his fishing job and instead to draw people into a new way of understanding God, of realising that the promised Messiah was Jesus, and that with him they would find healing and fulfilment of life. This was a calling that was to shared with a growing number of his contemporaries.

Paul’s calling also involved a change in direction, from persecuting anyone who threatened the age-old, traditional and exclusive understanding of the God of Israel, to that of  preaching a message that invited everyone, whatever their status or background, to participate in the salvation that God offered through the living presence of Jesus Christ. Again this was a calling that was shared by others, both then and through each subsequent generation, right down to us today.

I wonder what your calling might be? For me, it is endeavouring to honour God’s desire that we should care for creation, by  sharing the ways of living fairly and sustainably, and endeavouring to win the hearts and minds of others to be  equally enthused and engaged with God’s hopes for creation. Loving sustainably according to God’s wishes, God’s wisdom, will I believe restore and transform the world, over coming all the crises with which we are beset. 

Candlemas

30th January 2022

Ezekiel 43:27 – 44:4

When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God.

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.

Then he brought me by way of the north gate to the front of the temple; and I looked, and lo! the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord; and I fell upon my face.

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother 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.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Reflection

Ezekiel was both a priest and a prophet, one of those who had been exiled to Babylon. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by his captors must have had a profound effect upon him, and this is reflected in his writings. 

He writes that after 25 years of exile he has a vision. In the vision he is taken back to Israel, back to the city of Jerusalem and there he sees the restored – resurrected – Temple. The restoration of the Temple must have been such a hoped for desire for Ezekiel. It would have meant not just the restoration of the building, but of the worship of God, and of the restoration of the nation of Israel as God’s elect. 

Ezekiel is met by a guide who takes him on a tour of the temple complex, showing him all its walls and gate ways, its courtyards and rooms, corridors and pavements. His guide is equipped with measuring instruments such that he can know the height and depth and width of every part of the building. Having completed the tour of the outer precincts, Ezekiel is then taken on an even more in depth tour of the Temple itself. He is shown the various rooms and vestibules, their decorations, furnishings and equipment is all notes. The guide explains the use of the different rooms  – which ones are to be used for different offering, which ones for robing and unrobing, and which areas will only  be entered by appropriately robed priests. The Ezekiel comes to the eastward facing gateway and afar off he sees and hears the approaching arrival of the glory of God. As the glory fills the Temple, so he is lifted by the spirit into the safety of an inner court. 

Now it is not his guide, but the voice of God who addresses Ezekiel. He is instructed how he will offer sacrifices for seven days to consecrate the altar – and only them will the other priests be able to take up the routine of daily worship in the Temple. This is where our reading today comes in. Ezekiel is told by God that the east ward facing gate (the one  by which God entered the Temple) has been shut and will remain so. There will be one exception: the prince may enter and leave by that gate. Earlier Ezekiel records God speaking of his servant David as being one who is a prince among the people. The Hebrew word translated as prince can also mean ruler or leader. 

Ezekiel’s vision of the future that he is hoping for, is of a future where things are restored to how they should be. Where the temple is once more rebuilt in all its splendour. Where the role of the priests is clearly defined and irreversibly entwined with the return of God’s presence to the temple. Where the rule of David will be restored such that the prince shall enter by the east gate and dine within its vestibule before the presence of God. This view of salvation is one that envisages a return to the ‘good old days’. 

The second Temple complex, built by Herod,  comprised a series of  courtyards each with differing functions. At the centre was the courtyard of the priests where sacrifices were made and within which was the building that contained the Holy of Holies. The outer courtyards where men and women could both go, were places where people could meet, talk, catch up on news, arrange business deals, debate theology, make offerings, and pray. Here people, like Simeon and Anna , could spend  whole days amidst a bustle of activity that ultimately revolved around the worship of God. And it is here that both Anna and Simeon are given the insight that the child Mary and Joseph bring into the Temple, is the Messiah, that in this child is the bringer of salvation.  What an amazing experience! One which few others – in Luke’s telling of the story had had.  Only  the shepherds who came to the stable, and Elizabeth and Zechariah, and of course Mary, had received the message that this child was special. 

The outermost court of the temple was open to all, Jew and Gentile alike, but beyond that point only Jews could proceed further. Yet Simeon is prompted by the Spirit to see in Jesus one who will bring light and salvation to all people – gentiles included. This messiah in not just for those who have traditionally seen themselves as the exclusive people of God. This is a messiah for everyone. This, as Simeon goes onto prophesy, is someone who will open up new ways of thinking, new ways that will be so radical as to cause the world to be turned upside down. And so radical that people will be hurt in the process. What Simeon perceives as salvation is not a restoration of Israel as of old, but a complete transformation into something completely new. 

Sometimes it can be very easy to think that restoring things back to how they used to be is the answer.  It seems a safer, more reliable proposition than seeking something new – and possibly a quicker solution too needing less planning and preparation.  A year ago as we dealt with the worst of the covid pandemic, we dreamed of a better future. A future in which we would build back better. A future in which the inequalities revealed by the virus would be eradicated. A future in which we would be better neighbours. A future where we would all have a better work-life balance. A future where everyone  would have access to computers and a fast internet connection. A future where everyone could access green spaces to relax and recuperate. A future where key workers would be valued. A future where educational catch up support would be there for every child. A future where the air would always be clean and the song of birds would always be heard.

The  salvation which Simeon saw was the same that inspired Paul to takes the good news of Jesus Christ to both Jews and gentiles. The gospel he preached was radical, turning social norms upside down, rewriting religious expectations and demanding a new approach to daily life. It is in preaching this message of what is new about the salvation that comes through Jesus, that Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth  about love. This is a love that can break through ‘me first’ attitudes; that can break down the barriers of  inequality, prejudice and mistrust; that is the catalyst that ends lying and deceitfulness; that embraces the protection of the environment; that puts life and well being before profit. It is a love we need to nurture everyday so that we are proof of the transforming process of salvation.

“Love that  is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. A Love that never ends.”

Sunday Reflection

5th September 2021, Proper 18

Isaiah 35:4-7, Psalm 14, James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17, Mark 7:24-37

Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

Words we have desperately wanted to hear this week, whether that was as protestors trying to draw the attention of the Government and the financial world to the dire emergency of the climate crisis and of the need to ‘act now!’ Or whether it has been as those watching helplessly as families and individuals tried to to flee from Afghanistan. 

Yes – we want them to be saved, we want ourselves to be saved, from harm and hurt and fear. And we want to be saved from ourselves – I think we know that the cause of war and extremism, of failed diplomacy, rising global temperatures and the increased frequency of extreme weather events, is all of human making. 

Was that the feeling of the people in Isaiah’s community? Did they feel trapped in the space between feeling helpless and knowing that their predicament was the result of their own failures? They were a people surrounded by war; a people being swayed to go with this side or that side, as superpowers fought over their land. A people who feared defeat and heard the words of the diverging words of the false prophets and of God’s prophets. A people who did know that they had sinned against God and against their neighbours. Would God be able to – indeed would God save them? What would the future look like? Isaiah is giving them words of hope, reminding them of God’s greatness and creating for them a vision of the world God desired for them: heaven on earth. The psalmist echoes this with words encouraging and exhorting us to hope and trust in God. 

Yet I sense that God is not just going to intervene and wave, as it were a magic wand, and everything will be tip top fine. That certainly was not the experience of Isaiah’s audience: they suffered the humiliation of defeat and exile, and it was only during that time of exile that they learned to live once again in a renewed relationship with God and neighbour. It is at this point we turn to the epistle of James. 

Do we really believe in Jesus Christ? What a question! Not do we believe, but do we really believe? For if we truly believed then we would live as Jesus lived, act as Jesus acted. We would see the flaws in human systems that Jesus saw – and sees today – and would work to transform them. We would like Jesus, be able to say ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. 

But, says the writer of James, we seem to have been hoodwinked by the rich and powerful. We have been drawn into their mindset that says wealth, riches and fine clothes are the indicators that show who is most important, who should be in power, whose words should be believed. 

Instead we should be turning to the scripture and the royal law: love your neighbour as yourself. Here there is no hierarchy, no space of prejudice nor favouritism. Further more to love is not just to mouth the words; it is to enact them.  The epistle writer is quite clear: if we do not act, we cannot save ourselves. Our faith is only of use if it is enacted. A life jacket only saves you if you inflate it and put it on! Just having faith that a life jacket can save lives is not enough.

It seems to me that what Jesus so clearly demonstrated for us is that with faith in God, we can do all that is required to love our neighbours, to create heaven on earth, to save the world.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we see that there is not a time when Jesus cannot find himself called upon to do the work of God. Even when he goes outside the the Jewish territories of Judea and Galilee, there are people who need help. There are foreigners who are still neighbours. There are people who don’t expect much but still ask. There are people trapped by poverty and people trapped by disabilities. When the onlookers saw what Jesus was doing, they were astounded beyond measure.

Can we be as astounding? Can our belief in Jesus be such that we let ourselves be empowered by the strength and hope that comes from God? Can we put that faith into action so that by loving our neighbour, by creating heaven in earth, the world will be saved?