Thursday, 30 January 2014

One of us

Sunday GospelLuke 2:22-40 

When the day came for them to be purified as laid down by the Law of Moses, the parents of Jesus took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, – observing what stands written in the Law of the Lord: Every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord – and also to offer in sacrifice, in accordance with what is said in the Law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
  Now in Jerusalem there was a man named Simeon. He was an upright and devout man; he looked forward to Israel’s comforting and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord. Prompted by the Spirit he came to the Temple and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the Law required, he took him into his arms and blessed God; and he said:
‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace,
just as you promised;
because my eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared for all the nations to see,
a light to enlighten the pagans
and the glory of your people Israel.’
As the child’s father and mother stood there wondering at the things that were being said about him, Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected – and a sword will pierce your own soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.’
  There was a prophetess also, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well on in years. Her days of girlhood over, she had been married for seven years before becoming a widow. She was now eighty-four years old and never left the Temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayer. She came by just at that moment and began to praise God; and she spoke of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.
  When they had done everything the Law of the Lord required, they went back to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. Meanwhile the child grew to maturity, and he was filled with wisdom; and God’s favour was with him.

In this year of Matthew's Gospel, the most Jewish of gospels, how strange to hear Luke telling us of the Presentation at the Temple. 

Why didn't Matthew tell the story himself? Because there would be no need. Every Jew knew what happens with the birth of a boy. This ritual that Luke describes in elaborate and seemingly perculiar detail, happened every single day at the Temple. 

What seems to us like a clear recognition of Jesus' importance is revealed as   a confirmation of how very traditional and ordinary Jesus and his family really are.

Mary and Joseph offer their son to be consecrated, not sacrificed. They wanted the protection of the Lord that every other mother and father asked for their child. 

Even the witness of Simeon and Anna, now preserved throughout history, would not have been all that important. Their prayers are answered by the  love of a baby who is seen through the Spirit's gift - a personal acknowledgment. After all, if the scriptures were taken seriously it wouldn't have been just Simeon waiting in the Temple. 

But what value are the prophetic yearnings of an old man and woman? How often do you hear the elders wishing gifts and talents on the futures of the young, and raise a smile? Does a woman really need to hear that her new born child will, one day, break her heart?

The Presentation that seems so unique and wonderful is a confirmation that Jesus is one of us. A child presented to his community, as we all are,  to receive God's blessing; the hopes and dreams of those who have waited for the next generation to rise in faith, and the tentative, ever care-ful love of a mother and father for a child who is truly God's gift. 


Thursday, 9 January 2014

A life more ordinary

GospelMatthew 3:13-17 

Jesus appeared: he came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. John tried to dissuade him. ‘It is I who need baptism from you’ he said ‘and yet you come to me!’ But Jesus replied, ‘Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that righteousness demands.’ At this, John gave in to him.

  As soon as Jesus was baptised he came up from the water, and suddenly the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on him. And a voice spoke from heaven, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.’

We had the first part of this chapter in Advent as John tells us of the Messiah  who is to come after him. In this the description of John and the work that the Holy Spirit had given him is richly described, embellished from the core account given by Mark in his Gospel.  Yet in this pivotal moment he is almost as sparse with the details as Mark; just a small conversation to set the scene. 

We know that the New Testament is not about the life of Jesus; it is an account of his ministry and his continuing presence after the Resurrection - it is three years-ish of anecdotes; of memories; of teachings. But what about the life of Jesus? When you come to love somebody you want to know where they came from; how they became that person.  

Luke gives us the story of the child staying behind in the Temple; the precocious 'almost teenager' telling us that Jesus is a little more than he seems. He also tells us of John, a witness and prophet even before his birth; driven into the desert to be filled with the Holy Spirit; driven again to call people out of Jerusalem itself with the promise of redemption.  Acknowledged, by Jesus himself, as the greatest prophet there had ever been. 

In Matthew, Jesus appears from nowhere. Certainly, coming from the Galilee, nowhere special. We have no idea what has come before; how he prepared for this moment; if he prepared for this moment.

Maybe he 'prepared' by living the life 'more' ordinary?

Living and remembering the experiences of the outcast child; knowing that there were always those who were considered 'other' through no fault of their own;  who were being turned away by the teachers who would not 'suffer little children'. 

The experiences of a loving son seeing his mother  living through her 'reputation' with humility;  seeing her as the widow, scorned for the paltry gift she offered to the Temple.

The experiences of a man needing to provide for his family; taking the work he could find; working the docks; spending nights on the hills watching the sheep at shearing time; standing in the market square waiting for the overseers to come in from the country estates to find labourers for the harvest of grain and grape; seeing men argue and bow their heads over their worth; seeing other men exploit them as so much property; caring for friends crippled through exploitation and need.

We imagine that we don't know the ordinary life of Jesus. Perhaps we do; we just need to listen to what is already there - in what Jesus gives to us in the three years of his ministry; an ordinary life made extraordinary through Love.


Saturday, 4 January 2014

Journey of Faith

Matthew 2:1-12

After Jesus had been born at Bethlehem in Judaea during the reign of King Herod, some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east. ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ they asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. ‘At Bethlehem in Judaea,’ they told him ‘for this is what the prophet wrote:

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah,for out of you will come a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared, and sent them on to Bethlehem. ‘Go and find out all about the child,’ he said ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And there in front of them was the star they had seen rising; it went forward, and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.

The story of the Three Kings is one that we are comfortable with; one that we all know. Not least because the Feast Day means we can take down the decorations and start to get back to normal. Except, that, according to the Church’s calendar we should leave our decorations up until the Baptism of the Lord which is next week (those Victorians and their 12 days of Christmas! – Bah, humbug!).

And, of course, there is no evidence that there were three of them or that they were even Kings; except that somewhere along the line someone with too much interest in royal protocol decided that if Jesus was a King then only a King was good enough to visit. 

It’s a wonder the shepherds managed to stay in the story, given their reputation as thieves and vagabonds.

But isn’t that the way with stories, we love to add that little bit more; the Chinese whisper effect, the elaboration to suit the culture, the audience, the attitude of the times. 

And that is often a criticism of scripture – that it is only stories that often don't add up. It's easier to find the discrepancies, to spend time trying to scientifically prove or disprove this or that. Without appreciating that the truth of a tale is not whether it is factual but what it teaches us.

The account of the Kings/Wise men/Silk Traders is much simpler than it seems. It is an epiphany; a revelation; a showing and sharing of faith.

For Matthew, a Jew writing for Jews, it was an opening up of God’s message to the world. The Messiah was meant for the people of Israel, yet it is the stranger and the pagan who is called, who seeks him out and who acknowledges him. They believe and make real what Herod's scribes had overlooked. They didn't care that they were not 'chosen'; in making the journey, they chose themselves. 

And whether they were kings, stargazers or traders it doesn’t matter; they were wealthy; they had knowledge; they understood power; understood what a king was. 

Yet something not logical, not explainable, not visible allowed them to hear angels and brought them to kneel in straw and animal dung in homage to two homeless peasants and their dishevelled child. The star, that is the revealing of God’s presence in a human baby, shone in their eyes and their hearts and they believed. They believed with the faith that looked into the mundane and saw God.