Water for all, for life, and for unity – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: Water for all, for life, and for unity.
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
Date: Third Sunday of Lent, 12 March 2023, 11.00am
Isn’t it great when we all come together? When we gather, and congregate around something we have in common. There are many things that bring us together and unify us, like, I suppose, football: big matches on the big screens with best commentators; remember the olden days when we all huddled round the TV watching Match of the Day on the BBC? Of course, Football isn’t the only thing that unites us. From our Gospel this morning, people are brought together around a well, a watering-hole if you like. Water always brings us together.
Water, brings us together because it is the source of life. Human beings are made up of around sixty per cent water and the earth is almost completely covered with water, we cannot survive without it. Water is able to calm, and heal, to salve, cleanse, to restore and to reconcile. We are creatures made of water and creatures who need water. Wherever there is water, there we gather, bound together as one, we build cities alongside rivers, we irrigate our land to grow our crops, every creature of this earth comes to the water to drink.
Spiritually, the Christian person is born again through the waters of our baptism, and Jesus alludes to himself as the living water, in whom all our thirst will be quenched. The water that I will give, he says, will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It is this water that brings about new life and new possibilities, it is this water that can make miracles happen.
In the book of Exodus, we find the Israelites grumbling; they are in the desert and have had nothing to drink for days. Without water the people are fractious and divided. What brings them together in the end? Water bubbles up from the side of a rock like a crystal fountain- and through that water, the people are reconciled to God and to one another.
God yearns for humanity to be bound together as one, and gives them water, to make it happen. Because of this water, the people of Israel are drawn back together and are carried through their wilderness into the promised land. St Paul later refers to Jesus as the rock from which this living water comes.
Our Gospel reading today, is about water from a deep, life-giving well, which reveals the true identity of the woman who came to fetch it in the heat of the day. This is the water that reconciles Samaritan and Jew, male and female, the excluded and the included. This water washes away any idea of us and them, the well becomes a place of meeting, water brings people together. Jesus is crossing every social boundary by talking to this woman- but through this conversation he speaks of the hope that one day, all will worship together in spirit and in truth….and he of course, is the living water which will make this happen. This is the ultimate reconciliation of all things in Christ, the living water that brings all things together.
St Paul in his letter to the Romans, reflects further on what this reconciliation might mean. Reconciliation is in essence is a very simple thing, it is to be made one, and through Christ the whole of humanity has the potential to be made one with God and with one another. Jacobs’ well at Sychar, is the place, where for a moment in time, all things are drawn together under God, above and beyond all the petty divisions that separate us.
As the water from the rock brought the Israelites together- so Jesus, the living water, seeks to restore and reconcile all things to himself, bringing the whole of humanity through the wilderness of doubt and division into the promised land of joy and gladness and complete unification before God. This kind of unity is something we are thirsty for today, not only in our world but also in our church.
Jesus had a vision of all people reconciled with one another. The tribes and nations of the world re-created as one family, worshipping God together in unity and recognizing one another as children made in the image of God. For us, that hard work of reconciliation begins with our baptism, but also with something as simple as our prayer of confession at the beginning of every eucharist- we have not loved God with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves…there our reconciliation begins, as we gather at the well and drink of the living water.
This is the work we are called to undertake in lent, reflecting on how we give ourselves to this task of being made one when there is so much pulling us apart and when we experience a world which is divided and unjust. We do so need that living water to renew us and bring us together until justice rolls down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
This week we hear again of the most vulnerable and most excluded in our world, our most needy neighbours, brought to our shores across the waters of the English channel, seeking safety and asylum after terrible loss and grief, and yet, as a society how are we proposing to welcome them? Will we even give them something to drink? The direction of some current policies seem to be taking us further towards division, this morning the Archbishop of York has called the government’s new asylum and migration law ‘cruel and without purpose’, it seems as if we are being scattered, rather than drawn together through our common humanity, we are being turned against one another, and encouraged to turn away those we should be loving.
The Gospel is always very clear on these matters: Jesus constantly challenges us to consider, who is ‘included’ and who is ‘excluded’? What does being reconciled in and through Christ mean for us today? We are called to gather around the living water, we are called to generosity in our response to those who are thirsty. True reconciliation, of which St Paul speaks, means seeing Christ in one another and loving as he loves us. It means recognising that we are all equal under God.
If we waited at Jacob’s well for a little longer, who else would be drawn to the water at an unsociable hour, who else would be seeking to quench their thirst? To all those who come, Jesus offers living water, and desires that we his children do the same. Whoever turns up at the well is given the water of life.
The story of the woman at the well, shows us that Christ, the living water, shows no partiality. Though the disciples were clearly uncomfortable about Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman and urged him to turn away, Jesus recognizes her as a child of God and she becomes a prophet, a messenger, an evangelist, for the good news, there at the well, where water is shared. God turns no-one away, and sends no-one away without offering them a drink of that living water.
It is to the woman at the well, that Jesus reveals that one day we will all be together, made one in him.
We are all called to drink of the water, offered to us by a loving and generous God, freely given for renewal, restoration, and reconciliation, given to bring us to life, and given to bring us back together.
Turned towards Christ and turned for Prayer – Ash Wednesday – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: Turned towards Christ and turned for Prayer
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor.
Readings: Isaiah 58. 1–12, Matthew 6. 1–6, 16–21
Date: Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday on the theme of ‘Prayer’, one of the Diocese of York ‘Habits of Christlikeness’ in the Diocesan Rhythm of Life
George Herbert in his first poem on Prayer, describes what prayer is, or rather, he ends up telling us, rather beautifully, that there is no singular definition. Prayer is many things, The Church’s banquet, he begins, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.
It seems that Prayer is a thing which is almost undefinable, it is the other country of our souls, whilst also being as Herbert would say, Heaven in ordinary, or the milky way, the bird of paradise, church bells beyond the stars. In more prosaic language, prayer is a habit of Christlikeness, for it through prayer that we become more and more like Christ.
We are today entering into a season when we are commanded to pray as a means of seeking forgiveness, and of orientating our lives anew in the right direction. But what is the right direction? And how shall we pray? How can our praying help us navigate not only this lent but our whole lives as beloved children of God?
Another take on prayer is and what prayer isn’t, is offered in our readings this evening. God does not desire, God is not interested in, the kind of prayer and fasting that is orientated to the self. The people of Israel complain that they are ‘not seen’ by God when they make ostentatious prayers and offer fasting for their own good- their fasting does not recognise the needy in their midst and their prayers are neither honouring God nor their neighbour, they are primarily honouring themselves. The direction is all wrong.
The Philosopher Soren Kierkegard reminds us that the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather change the nature of the one who prays. To become more Christ-like, we might say. The change God wants to see through prayer: is the bonds of injustice being loosened, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the oppressed set free, the words of Isaiah, taken up by Christ himself when he defined his own mission in the world.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God calls the people to humility in their praying, which means to be properly brought down to the dust of the earth. For it is stood in the dust with our eyes looking to the stars that we know who we really are- creatures made in the image of God our creator, and creatures seeking transformation and change in our lives, and from there seeking transformation and change, and healing and renewal in the life of a broken world.
When prayer is rightly directed, other joys and blessings will emerge like a spring of water- the praying will direct the living.
Prayer does not need trumpets, prayer does not need to be seen. Prayer is ultimately an activity of the human heart in response to God alone, the turning and tuning of the heart to sing, as Herbert would again say a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear. Prayer is you and me, each one of us, stood before our maker-
In a sense, it is that kind of personal reflection and prayer that we are all called towards this lent, this is an inward journey of the heart and soul, the journey we all must face as we stand before God who sees us even in secret. This is a journey which plumbs the awful depths of our humanity and lifts us up from the dust of the earth to rise in glory.
The Litany of Penitence which follows this sermon sets us off on that journey by naming out loud and helping us each recall our propensity to turn away from God. It’s a list of things we know we all do and this is followed by a symbolic gesture of penitence which marks our foreheads with an ashen cross.
We remember that we are of the dust, and to the dust we will return, we are reminded that in the meantime, we are daily being tuned to sing the song which glorifies no-thing and no-one but God, and through that prayer we are turned away from sin to be faithful to Christ.
And there is perhaps the key, the secret, the only way of praying- For however we pray, whether on our knees, or in silence, or with others, or indeed on street corners or noisily with trumpets, the key to prayer, the secret to prayer, is that it is orientated always and only towards Christ, we are to be humble in the dust with our eyes fixed on Jesus. O God, turn us and tune us to sing your song.
If our prayers and our hearts are so directed, then our lives will be directed in the same way, turned and tuned to be faithful to Christ, open to being changed and transformed in his name, and ready to serve Christ in one another, in the world he loved and came to save. To his name be glory forever.
Up and Down Mountains – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: Up and Down Mountains
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor.
Readings: Exodus 24:12-end, 2 Peter 1:16-end, Matthew 17:1-9
Date: Sunday next before Lent, 19th February 2023
If you were looking for a gift to buy someone you love, you might be tempted to treat them to a gift ‘experience’. A few years ago, we clubbed together to buy my dad an ‘experience’ flying a Spitfire. My sister bought me a ‘Birds of Prey’ Experience, so I spent the day with some pretty spectacular peregrine falcons. There are ‘supercar’ experiences, ‘cooking experiences’, ‘heritage experiences’. In these packages you are given the mountain top experience, the best experience there is, an insight into another world where you become a pilot, a racing driver, a Michelin star chef. If only every day was like this, you think, as you sip champagne and revel in being treated like royalty.
So here’s a thought experiment for you: if you were going to share the Christian ‘experience’, what would you include in the package?
Some people think the Christian life is a ready-made mountain top experience, full of light and glory and exhilaration, some people think that Christians are shiny, happy, perfect people all the time. But, we wouldn’t be presenting the whole picture, the truthful picture of what living the Christian life is like, if we didn’t acknowledge that it’s not all about the mountain top experience, it’s also about daily life and sacrifice, transfiguring the world through our witness, living out the Christian life at work, at home, at school, in times of sadness and challenge as well as times of joy.
For most of the time, and for most of us, the Christian experience is about the climb, the hard, day by day, journey of discipleship, the slips, trips and slides, the one step-forwards and the two steps back, the moments of terror as we lose our grip, the disorientation as we are affected by the altitude, the scratches and bruises as we scramble to the summit: The Christian experience is often about determination and discipline. And then, once we reach the peak, once we experience the glory of being on top of the world, we come to realise we can’t stay there forever.
Peter, James and John try to make a camp there on the mountain, they want to stay, ‘shall we make three dwellings?’ they ask. Rather like Mary Magdalene in the Garden, who tries to cling on to the risen Jesus: we can’t live on the mountain top. Our experience of God is never meant to be an escape from the world where we are.
We have to come back to earth and begin a descent which may be just as challenging as the climb. But, oh, what a joy it has been to experience the light on the top of the mountain, and how we have been changed by it, and through that dazzling experience we can return to our ordinary lives with that vision in our hearts to guide us and to strengthen us for the next ascent.
Our life is a cycle of comings and goings, of ups and downs, of mountain top experiences as well as time spent at the rock bottom, facing what seems like insurmountable challenges. We might think of our lives in terms of extremes, of highs and lows, of places where God is and places where God isn’t, we might think that the Christian life is only about the glory on the mountaintop and not about the struggle on the way.
But today, as we hear again the story of the transfiguration we are invited to see the glory of God as something which permeates the whole created order, we are called to realise that wherever we travel, glory is under our feet. We are shown that there is no longer a heaven and an earth but one kingdom under Christ and the exhilaration we experience on the mountaintop becomes part of our daily lives, so that our lived experience as a Christian, even in the tough times when the challenges ahead of us seem impossible, our lived experience as a Christian in the world is always shot through with glory: whether we are experiencing grief or gladness, whether prosperity or poverty, whether health or sickness, life or death: the God of glory is with us.
Christ takes our humanity with all of its faults and failures up to God on the mountain, and God comes with us in Christ as we descend back down to earth. This is a gospel for the plains as well as the peaks, for the wilderness as well as the mountain top.
On this Sunday before Lent, we are all given a vision which speaks of the transfiguration of our world, the ultimate revelation of Christ in Glory, where heaven and earth are one, when old and new are entwined, when past and future are made real in one glorious present.
The disciples are given a mountain top experience, as their preparation to walk with Christ in his suffering, a turn of events which will quickly gather pace once they descend the mountain. We are about to embark on a journey through Lent which will bring us face to face with the depths of our broken humanity, when we are confronted with ourselves in all of our sin. On Wednesday we will be called to self-examination and asked to consider our mortality, our meanness, hypocrisy, and obsession with the self. It’s salutary spiritual work for all of us, we all sit before God’s judgement in need of mercy and forgiveness. As we are about to start climbing this particular mountain, we do so in the knowledge that we have already been recipients of God’s glory.
The Gospel of Transfiguration is then, a source of Christian confidence: it means we can dare greatly and live hopefully in the present as we are called to see a future shaped by God.
Such a gospel, writes Michael Ramsey, transcends the world and yet speaks directly to the here-and-now. As Christ reveals another world on the holy mountain, he also reveals that no part of created things, and no moment of created time lies outside the power of the Spirit, who will change it from glory to glory.
Jesus prepared his disciples to bear the scandal of the cross by showing them the means of grace and the hope of glory. This week, we are given an assurance that the light and glory of God will be with us in every human experience we are party to. Whether going up or coming down, we move always and only from glory to glory, and that is the experience we are all called to share as a gift, with the world Christ came to save.
To him, be glory forever. Amen.
Dressed in Love – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: “Dressed in Love”
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Date: Third Sunday before Lent 05.02.23 4.00pm
Readings: Isaiah 58:1-a, 1Corinthians 2:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
God is not satisfied with appearance.
God wants the garment of justice.
God wants his Christians dressed in love.
That beautiful sentence by Oscar Romero compliments perfectly the words of the prophet Isaiah that we have heard this morning, who was called by God to address a community distracted by the appearance and trappings of religion, rather than the real heart of it found in justice and love.
Isaiah is straightforward in his condemnation of those who may pay lip-service to God through ostentatious acts of devotion and high-handed morality and posturing, whilst ignoring the needs of the world on their doorstep. It’s clear that the community he is speaking to, serve their own interests rather than considering the welfare of their neighbour, they oppress their workers, they quarrel and fight, they are not following the commandments of God and their ‘fasting’ is self-serving and self-agrandising- something to be seen to be doing. In essence, their religion is all about them.
Is not this the fast that I choose? Provokes God: To loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry, bring the homeless into your house, to cover the naked?
If these acts of justice and love are part of the faith response, then your light will break forth like the dawn, and the Lord will be with you. It is only by clothing ourselves in justice and love that we will become children of light.
It’s surprising how simple all this sounds, and yet even today we find it hard to embody and live out. God calls us to turn away from self and instead, to turn towards Christ, and through that turning, we love God and our neighbour with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
Jesus, teaching his disciples on the mountain, extends this theme, and he reminds them and us of our purpose as his people: You are to be salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. He chooses two simple images to help his disciples understand how they are to live out their faith. These images offer an illustration of the world-shaping, community-influencing task of the church. Both salt and light effect their work by working beyond themselves. Salt is used to make something else taste better- it is not the main object of our perception. We put salt on the chicken to make the chicken taste better, it is not the central ingredient. Equally, we use light to see something else, we use a torch to find a missing coin, we use a lamp to see the path in the darkness, we look at the world by means of light. Salt and light are not the focus of our perception but the enablers of it. So if Jesus calls us to be salt and light, what does this mean as we live out our lives as Christians in the world?
The suggestion is, that by being salt and light, one task of the church in the world is to effect for good the culture we are part of and enable Christ to be seen within it: We are salt to flavour and light to illuminate the world we inhabit. The Christian is to help the world taste and see that the Lord is gracious, the Christian is to enable others, through their own words and actions to see God’s kingdom of mercy, peace and love. We are influencers and shapers to the glory of God. But we are also called to perceive the injustices in our world, and align the world we live in with the values of the kingdom.
Again the community of faith is called to be a bearer of justice and love, as indiscriminately as the salt which flavours our food and as the light of a city set upon a hill. No-one is excluded from God’s message of love which was given for the world in all of its fullness. Our witness to justice and love is not to be hidden away, our worship of God today, shaped through our baptism and through the eucharist, should always turn us outwards in service and proclamation.
Our witness to justice and love can influence and shape the world we live in and also shape the life of church when it has tendencies to self-service. How our own church needs justice and love this week, lest we become a scandal to the world and an offence to God’s love. If we are not a church for everyone, perhaps we are not a church at all.
The church that Jesus calls us to be is one of outrageous generosity, radical inclusion, fulsome diversity, self-less hospitality, through loving our enemies, through simple truth-telling, and through justice and love for all people. That message of justice and love does have something to say to a world beset with inequality, division and selfishness and it has something to say to a church which is often guilty of the same.
Our task, in all truth, is always a deceptively simple one: in a world of change and doubt, we are called seek the Kingdom first above all other allegiances. To this end, each morning as we dress for work, for school, for our daily activities, we are to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and clothe ourselves with justice and love, living with courage and determination to inhabit our calling to be salt of the earth and a light in the world: to the glory of the one and only living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Simeon took him in his arms: A Sermon for Candlemas – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: “Simeon took him in his arms”
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Date: On the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple 02.02.23 4.00pm
Readings: Hebrews 2:14-end, Luke 2:22-40
‘Simeon took him in his arms and praised God’.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The old man carried the child, yet the child ruled the old man.
The old man carried the child, yet the child ruled the old man.
This beautiful sentence was traditionally used as an antiphon at the first evening service for the Feast of the Presentation, and it articulates the relationship between the child Jesus and the old man Simeon, creator and created.
It might look like Simeon is holding the child, that Simeon the elder has all the power and strength- and the child is weak and new in nature: but in an example of the divine dis-ordering of our human assumptions- the child is in fact upholding the ancient one and upholding the whole created order, the universe and all that is made.
When Simeon took the child in his arms, he was fully aware of this dynamic, for he was righteous and devout, and the Holy Spirit rested upon him. As he held this child, as he was praising this little being, he could see the fulfilment of God’s promises: salvation for all people, a light for the nations, he could see the glory of God there in his hands.
He had spent a lifetime preparing for this, and when the child was brought into the temple, he had eyes ready to see that God was indeed with him and with everyone. He saw that this little child was the one who would lead everyone into a Kingdom of peace, where the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid.
As Simeon sees the dawn of this new kingdom breaking in, he can now be released into eternal life. “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace,” he sings, “your word has been fulfilled.” He breathes a sigh of relief. Winter is over. Spring has come.
In the orthodox tradition, this elderly man, who had spent years and years in the temple waiting for the consolation of Israel, is called ‘Simeon the God receiver’.
Simeon and Anna the prophet had been anticipating this day for what seemed like an eternity, they were ready to meet God and receive God.
As Christians, we know who this child is and we too are called to hold this child of light in our hands, and in our hearts and on our lips- we are called to be God-receivers like Simeon was. But in this child, Simeon also sees suffering, betrayal, pain, and he sees that this child will cause division, no one will be able to hide from the purity that this child will bring, and the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.
To hold this child in our arms is a risk- it is to be seen in all of our murkiness as well as all of our magnificence. Courageous is the person and humble is the heart, which carries this child, and lets him be their king.
Like a beam of pure light, this child will expose sin, and hatred and injustice, human hearts will be opened, all desires will be known and no secrets hidden. Before this child we will be transformed, we will be changed, we will be made new.
Are we ready to receive him? Are we ready to let this child rule over us? Are we ready to let this little child lead us, and expose our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, are we willing to carry this child in our arms when he becomes the man nailed to the hard wood of the cross, wearing a crown of thorns?
The old man carried the child, yet the child ruled the old man.
Beset by human pride and earthly glory, we often think we are the ones in control. We think we rule God. We think God conforms to our expectations and our wishes. How often do we fail to see God before us, because we doubt the ways in which God is revealed?
God in a child? God in the little, the lowly, the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the excluded? Are we ready to be God-receivers when God is presented to us? What do we need to put down in order to pick up this child and receive God’s light? Power, money, status, pride, hatred, guilt? We have Lent to work some of this out.
The child seems to be saying: put all that down, hold me in your arms and let me uphold you for all eternity. All those other things that hold us and hold us back, disintegrate under the light of this baby.
This child of light sets us free from those heavy burdens that we carry in our arms, the things that we are held and enslaved by, even the fear of death itself.
We hold out our hands this evening to receive the light of Christ found in bread and wine and we receive consolation for all of our waiting:
To hold Christ in our arms, as Simeon did, is to be upheld by Christ and subject to his just and gentle rule.
To hold Christ in our arms, is to put our lives into his tiny hands.
To him be glory for ever, Amen.
Betwixt and Between – Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Title: “Betwixt and Between”
Preacher: Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Date: Fourth Sunday of Epiphany 27.01.23 4.00pm
May I speak in the name of the Holy and Blessed Trinity. One God in three persons. Amen
It might be helpful, thinking about our first reading tonight, to provide a bit of context.
Immediately before the start of this passage, Jacob has tricked his father Isaac into blessing him – and not his older twin, Esau.
When Esau learns this, Jacob is in mortal danger. So their mother gets Jacob sent away. It is while making this journey of escape that our reading from Genesis takes place.
We might say that Jacob was betwixt and between. He’d left the life he had, because of what his deception had caused, but he hadn’t yet arrived at the next chapter of his story. We can only guess of what his state of mind must have been. Behind was hatred and danger; ahead was an unknown life and, perhaps, a fresh start.
In some ways it doesn’t feel at all surprising that Jacob, in this situation, has an unusual experience while sleeping under the stars.
I don’t know about you, but for me it’s often been when things seem least certain that our awareness of God becomes most vivid.
One of my favourite places in the world and a place a return to often if the Island of Iona which is off the coast of Mull. Many will know it at first hand, a place of retreat for many, and a Holy place which is home to the Iona Community. George Macleod, who led the work to rebuild the abbey on Iona and was responsible for the creation of this
religious community, described Iona as a ‘thin place’ where our sense of God, and of the spiritual realm, breaks through.
It seems that Jacob finds himself in a ‘thin place’. Between the turmoil of his leaving, and the uncertainty of his arriving, the veil between earth and heaven is parted for a moment. In this most unpromising place, with only a stone for a pillow, Jacob dreams of a ladder – a bridge – connecting heaven and earth. It is a connection busy with angels and, remarkably, Jacob finds God standing beside him. In this place of uncertainty – this thin place – God assures Jacob of a prosperous future. When he awakes Jacob knows he needs to honour the place and mark it as holy.
I think many of us know, from experience, that thin places aren’t always remote Scottish islands or abandoned places in the wilderness. Sometimes that sense of the veil parting, a momentary glimpse of God, happens towns and cities. We know it happens for many people who visit the Minster.
Maybe what matters most when it comes to this experience is our spirituality, not our physical location. It’s the ‘betwixt and between’, what some call the liminal, which opens our hearts and minds to the presence of God.
In our second reading today St Paul couldn’t have been in a more different place than Jacob. He’s in jail, ‘a prisoner of Christ Jesus’, in the middle of a city, surrounded by people – probably even sharing a cell. An old man, not knowing what his immediate future would be. This is also a ‘thin place’, where Paul feels close to God and writes of love and freedom.
Jacob describes his experience as a gateway. Wherever we find our thin places, they become a door to a richer experience. It’s hard not to think of Philip Pullman’s ‘subtle knife’ that cuts a way between one world and another. Yet in a spiritual sense we rarely (if ever) control the moments when we encounter this opening of a door. Like Jacob, they come to us unbidden and may be startling and surprising.
Sometimes though – as with the Minster – there are places where that glimpse of God may be more frequent, and we may all have a particular place to go where that sense of connection between worlds is more common.
Connection is an interesting concept in this experience. Because, generally, I’ve been speaking about parting and opening – a pulling aside of the here and now to see something else. In his liminal state Jacob has this unexpected vision, but what he sees and hears also connects his past to the future. The God who stands beside him is the God of his ancestors – and also a God who vows to be there for his future, and for the future of his children’s children.
Writing about Celtic spirituality Esther de Waal talks about ‘a union of the sacred and the secular, material and spiritual, ‘the ability to hold things together’. It’s something we see in the intricacy of Celtic art and symbols – the fabulous designs in things such as the Book of Kells.
The season we are in now, Epiphany, fits well with this idea of thin places. Moments when any of us can sense God’s presence with an unexpected clarity, and feel that the veil between this world and the divine parts. But these fleeting glimpses can also be times of connection when, perhaps, we see a link between the past and the future in a way we never imagined.
It is good to put ourselves in the way of these experiences but also, like Jacob, to be open to the unexpected and the unlikely. To be alert for God wherever we find ourselves, and to know that God comes to us in the people and places we least expect.
Steer into the distress – Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Title: “Steer into the distress”
Preacher: Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Date: Third Sunday of Epiphany 23.01.23 4.00pm
The movement in our Gospel today is extraordinary, and not really explained. At the start there is fear; withdrawal, and darkness. By the end, just a few verses later, there is teaching; proclamation and healing.
It seems that the first reaction of Jesus on hearing about the arrest of John the Baptist is to hide away from the authorities. He leaves Nazareth and withdraws to ‘Capernaum by the sea’ – (which sounds a bit like Whitby) but was, according to the prophet, a place where ‘people sat in darkness’. Perhaps, if word came that they were out to get him, a quick dash to a boat would secure his escape?
It sounds a very unpromising moment in the career of Jesus the Rabbi.
The charity The Samaritans have a phrase they use in their training, which is to ‘steer into distress’. Most of us in general conversation try to avoid difficult topics. When things get too raw, or too real, we change the subject. The phrase used by The Samaritans is the right one for their work – to give people the opportunity to say how they really feel. To see difficulty as something to be explored, not brushed under the carpet.
In going into Galilee Jesus steers into darkness. At least, from the perspective of King Herod and the Roman Emperor he served, Capernaum was one of the dark places – somewhere the civilising light of Rome hadn’t fully reached. Somewhere very different from Jerusalem.
On the edge of Empire Jesus begins to proclaim the Gospel. If John went to preach in the desert of the wilderness, Jesus chooses the bustle of the town to preach God’s Kingdom. For some people towns and cities are also deserts – and here Jesus will encounter those who are alone in a crowd; abandoned in the midst of community; despised because of illness; or treated with contempt for their poverty.
Into this darkness Jesus comes as a beacon of hope. As people encounter him lives are transformed. The oppressed are brought comfort, and their oppressors are met with harsh words and reminders of God’s love for the least. People are healed, and the message of God’s love and longing for the lost sheep is made clear.
It seems to me that one of the most important things the Church does, in being faithful to Jesus Christ, is to affirm the humanity of all God’s children. In God’s eyes there are no ‘lesser people’, or those for whom the love of God is qualified.
At its best the Church reflects the open affirmation Jesus embodied for so many people. People who feel of less value in human society. In him, in the Church, people are children of God and have a dignity beyond human reproach.
I know that in recent days, following the statement from the House of Bishops, there will be those who feel the Church has not gone far enough in affirming the dignity of people who are LGBTQIA+. I suspect that there will be many people who, despite the Bishops’ intentions, continue to feel that they are not fully valued in the life of the church.
I can’t help but draw parallels with the debates regarding the ordination of women in the 1980’s, debates that ate into the heart of my identity and soul too. Debates that because they were about me and people like me, could never be heard in the abstract. The small steps the institutional church made towards ‘inclusion’ always felt inadequate until full equality could be achieved.
Making people feel ‘less than’ is something that the institutional church should rightly apologise for and that’s why this debate and action by the Church cannot stop – we must continue to ensure that no one who is part of Christ’s body every feels that they are a child of a lesser God.
Valuing people who feel on the edge of the community – or pushed out of it – is the central message contained in the life and ministry of Jesus – a ministry that begins here in Galilee. But in order for that ministry to develop, to grow and to prosper, Jesus needs disciples to support his mission.
This isn’t done by a class or a qualification. Jesus calls people to be with him. Day and night, day in and day out. It is by sharing his life with the disciples that they begin to understand the scale and significance of what he has come to do. Discipleship was never a Sunday task – or a Sabbath obligation – it was 24/7. Across three years these close followers come to see how Jesus sees, serves and loves the world.
That’s why prayer, service and Bible reading are so important for Christians today. Like those first disciples, we are called to keep company with Christ. Sometimes we’ll say stupid things to God, or be angry or be disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with that. The Bible is full of people who aren’t happy with God but who, like the disciples, somehow manage to keep their faithfulness and continue to follow. The important thing is that we remain in relationship with God.
As we continue to journey through the season of Epiphany we are reminded that Jesus is a light for the whole world to see. The Messiah who steers into our darkness and seeks those who are shunned or excluded. And this is the work of the Church, our work, if we want to continue our discipleship with Christ. A discipleship fed by keeping company with Jesus, whether in joy or sorrow – a relationship that is living and, we hope and pray, bringing light into the dark places of our world.
Fourth Sunday of Advent – The Alternative Annunciation – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: “The Alternative Annunciation.”
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Date: Fourth Sunday of Advent 18.12.22 4pm
Readings: Isaiah 7. 10–16, Romans 1. 1–7, Matthew 1. 18–end
And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Almost three thousand years ago, a prophet called Isaiah came before King Ahaz. King Ahaz of Judah was in trouble, in the midst of a foreign policy crisis he had nowhere to turn. Isaiah told the king that God would give him a sign.
‘Look’ said Isaiah, gazing into the future, ‘a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and his name will be Emmanuel – which means God is with us.’
King Ahaz looked for the sign, and so did generations after him: kings, princes, ordinary men and women, they all looked for the sign that God was with us. The whole earth was waiting, spent and restless looking for the one who was to come. Waiting for Emmanuel.
About eight hundred years later, we meet Joseph. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph was a descendent of Ahaz the King, of the house of David, a branch of Jesse’s line. But Joseph’s life seemed a long way from royalty. He was a quiet man, we never hear his voice in scripture- he worked with wood and was respected in the village for his devotion to the law of Moses.
Imagine him nearing home at the end of the day, seeing Mary sitting outside. They were soon to be married. But then imagine how his face must have dropped when she told him her news. We don’t know what was said but we can assume that Joseph found himself in the midst of his own personal crisis. Like his forbear Ahaz, he had nowhere to turn. He too, needed a sign.
He eventually decided to walk away from the shame and bury his grief for all that he had lost, and as Matthew records, he planned to dismiss Mary quietly. Little did Joseph know that he was in the midst of the very sign that everyone was hoping for.
In a dream, a voice spoke clearly to him: ‘Joseph, Do not be afraid! This baby is from God, this is the baby of whom Isaiah spoke, and you are to name him Jesus, which means ‘the one who will save’. The world needs this child more than you can ever know. This child is the sign the world has been waiting for.’
From the moment of this alternative annunciation, God would be with everyone in their joys and in their sorrows too. God would hear the secrets of the human heart, the prayers uttered from doubtful lips, God would walk with his children on their life’s journey from first breath to last. God would be with the raging, the abandoned, the lost. God would whisper to the grieving and comfort the distressed. God would be the morning light and evening star. God would send a bright beam of light on the dark places of this world and anyone who felt imprisoned by fear, or loneliness, shame or sadness would be set free all because of this baby, the one who will save.
The incarnation of God, was not neat and tidy, God didn’t enter into a perfect world, and though it was prophesied it was not predictable. God did not work through the usual channels of power and privilege but embraced the very ordinary struggles of what it is to be human. The cosmic miracle, of God coming to us, was to be made real through the faith and courage of a young woman called Mary, and through her, God became part of Joseph’s life when he was least expecting it, just when his own world being turned upside down- I suppose that’s the same for all of us.
We may experience many unexpected annunciations, signs and moments of clarity and vision but these moments do not always align to the times when everything is going well. God didn’t come to confirm us in our comfortableness or reward us for our achievements, God didn’t choose the usual or the expected conventions, God comes to us all and shows us through love that we all belong to Jesus Christ, whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey.
Where is God this week? Presumably God is at all those carol services and Christmas celebrations and in all those glitterball moments, but I know God is there with the refugees, in the queues for the foodbanks, in the communities mourning children fallen through ice, in asylum processing centres, in the war zones, on the picket lines and with those waiting for a diagnosis, with those who put their last pence into an electricity meter, with those in the midst of impossible decisions who feel like their world is crumbling around them. This is where God is.
In a poem by Malcolm Guite, chosen by His Majesty, the King for a carol service in Westminster Abbey this week, we are reminded of where God is:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
(From The Refugee, Malcolm Guite)
When we least expect it, God comes to us, not always in an obvious way, but kind of like a surprise, a piece of unexpected news, a sign, that we have unknowingly been waiting for. God is there in the doubts, in the rollercoaster moments of life, in the shocks and the sadness. When all seems lost, there is hope sitting beside us. What would Joseph say if he knew his story, told on the lips of millions of children, had become the ‘sign’, – the sign of God’s love for the world and the hope of all people? A sign still being revealed to generation after generation in a multitude of ordinary ways.
It seems that God’s strength is to be found in our weakness; God’s glory can be found in the scars of hands which have been nailed to a cross, the power of God’s love is to be found in the risks that are taken with it, and the gift of God’s truth can sometimes be found in the shadows and the unspoken stories of our lives and what happens between the lines. The annunciation was not only Mary’s story. As we have heard recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, it was Joseph’s story too. And, surely it is ours. God is waiting to be born in us today, can we say ‘yes’ as they did, and make him welcome?
We still wait for the day when the sign given two thousand years ago will come to fulfilment, when the Lord will come again to draw all things to himself, and complete what has already been begun through the birth of a baby, the one who will save, the one they called Emmanuel, God is with us.
Sermon preached at Choral Evensong with the Chorister Bishop Ceremony – Second Sunday of Advent – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Sermon preached at Choral Evensong with the Chorister Bishop Ceremony
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Date: Second Sunday of Advent 2022 04.12.22 4.00pm
Readings: Psalm 8, Isaiah 61:1-3, Mark 10:13-16
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have actually warned the Archbishop of York, that there is going to be a brief disturbance of Episcopal forces here at York Minster this afternoon! And I have to tell you, he was very, very encouraging! And we are also very grateful to the Bishop of Selby, for being here with us, and for his willingness to be temporarily deposed from his seat!
Today, we are doing something which hasn’t happened in this cathedral for many hundreds of years. This is not a new thing, but an old thing we are making new. In Medieval times, the Chorister Bishop Ceremony took place on or around the 6th December, the Feast of St Nicholas. St Nicholas was a 4th Century Bishop in Turkey, who was known for his care and concern for children and from whom the tradition of gift giving at christmas was extended. The Feast of St Nicholas was very much a day for children and you don’t need me to tell you how St Nicholas is depicted in popular culture today and how his legacy continues accompanied by sleighs and reindeers and with the ability to deliver gifts down the narrowest of chimneys!
Across Europe, from around the 12th Century, children in churches and cathedrals were elevated to the office of Bishop on the Feast of St Nicholas and were often drawn from the choristers of the choir. The Chorister Bishops of York Minster would hold office from the Feast of St Nicholas until Holy Innocents day on the 28th December. They would preach sermons, lead services, distribute gifts to the needy, and ride around the diocese on horseback, extricating money and taxes from parishioners with pugnacious determination. I hasten to add, we are not expecting our Chorister Bishop and her Canons to do this today!
In our historical archives, the names of these young bishops have been recorded from 1416 until 1537 -when the custom was banned by Henry the Eighth. It was said that the Chorister Bishops had a propensity to become unruly and disruptive at times, and perhaps the King, (sat comfortably on his throne), felt a little threatened.
So, today is not a first. We are simply renewing a tradition of the church in this place and seek new meaning in it for today. And we are not alone, a number of other cathedrals around the land have resurrected this tradition too.
The first Chorister Bishop in York, since 1537, will be vested in the robes of a Bishops office: a cope and a mitre, made by our needlework volunteers, and will be given a Crozier (based on a shepherd’s staff), made by Becky, one of our stonemasons, who has also made a pectoral cross to match, both of these things so beautiful as to rival any bishop’s: and when fully vested, the Bishop will deliver a Charge, on behalf of children everywhere. When we talked about this ceremony with the choristers, we asked them to consider what the world might need to hear, what the church might need to hear, on behalf of children everywhere.
What we are doing, we cannot deny, is pretty subversive. We are turning the usual order of things upside down, but in this season of Advent, I want to suggest that is exactly what we are called to do.
It should be clear to all of us, that sometimes the world really does need turning upside down. It feels a little bit like we’re living through such times at the moment. Those who have, have more -and those who have not, have less. The proud and powerful are very proud and powerful, and the lowly are well, lowly, ignored and silenced.
At times like this, throughout history, some people have been called by God to speak out to remind us that things don’t have to be this way. In the church we call them ‘Prophets’- these are the people who tell it like it is and call for a change, these are the voices crying out in the wilderness and saying it doesn’t have to be like this, they remind us of the best of our humanity: and remind us that sometimes the world really does need turning upside down. These are the ones who climb to a high mountain, and lift up their voices, and cry out- be not afraid, behold your God!
Today on the second Sunday of Advent, we particularly remember the prophetic voices of those who speak truth to power and say ‘hey- hang on! This isn’t showing humanity at its best- we can do things differently, we need to change’. Why do the rich always have to be rich, why do the powerful and proud always have to be first in the queue and get special treatment?
About two thousand years ago, a baby was born, born without power and authority, born in a stable because there was no room at the inn. We hurtle towards the celebration of his birth on 25th December, and we note that of all the ways God could have chosen to illustrate God’s power and authority, God did this- becoming little and poor. How strange, how subversive that God would give up everything to become tiny in what would be the greatest upheaval and distortion of power in human history.
At the moment of his beginning his mother also proclaimed this truth: ‘He will scatter the proud’, she sang, ‘and put down the mighty from their seat, and will exalt the humble and meek’.
And then this baby grew up, and said ‘I am turning the world upside down, the last will be first and the first will be last. Let’s build a new kind of world, a new kind of kingdom, and the only way to enter this kingdom of faith, hope and love, is to become children’. Jesus really was turning everything upside down.
This Gospel message is the one we are gently embodying today as we bring back to life an ancient ceremony that happened here in this Cathedral over 500 years ago, when children were given power and authority. For a little time, the usual authorities laid down their staff and their mitre and their platform, and different voices were given a chance to be heard.
If you’ve ever been part of any kind of community, or if you’ve ever chaired a meeting, you will know how often the same people to take the floor, or the same people have their say, the loudest voices, the usual voices. We might suggest that a good chair, a good leader, is one who can open up the conversation and ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute; a good shepherd is one that goes after the one lost sheep.
As we go about our business this coming week, as we listen and watch and take note of the world around us, might we be more observant about who gets to speak and who doesn’t? Who has power and who doesn’t? Who is seen and who isn’t seen- in our own communities, and churches, and across society itself?
I am looking forward to hearing what the Chorister Bishop and her Canons think we need to hear. I hope we will be challenged. I hope we will listen. I hope that this gesture reminds us of the Kingdom we claim in Jesus Christ: a kingdom of justice and mercy, where the last will be first and the first will be last, a kingdom where the proud are scattered in their own conceit and the humble lifted high; a kingdom we can only be part of if we become a like children to the glory of the one and only living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
A prayer from the fourth Century:
Blessed be he who in his love, stooped down to redeem us!
Blessed be the King, who made himself poor to enrich the needy!
Blessed be he who came to fulfil the types and emblems of the prophets!
Blessed be he, whose glory the silenced sang with loud hosannas!
Blessed be he, to whom little children sang new glory in hymns of praise!
Blessed be the new King who came that new-born babes might glorify him!
Blessed be he, unto whom children brought faltering songs, to praise him among his disciples!
Blessed be God forever.
Ephraem the Syrian (c306-73)
Advent Sunday: Don’t Miss Christmas – Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Judging by the crowds in York, lots of people still have things to do before Christmas. Adverts show us images of perfect celebrations, with fabulous clothes and the finest food.
We can all be tempted into this conspiracy of the ideal.
On Advent Sunday it might feel that we must see the approach of Christmas in a particular way. That there’s a template we must follow to ‘get it right’. It feels like we are being told, one way or another, that we have to conform to this illusion.
But today the Advent liturgy should lead us to pause if we think we’ve got our celebrations all wrapped up.
Because Advent is here to shake up what we think we know. Advent is here to stir us out of the sleep of certainty and to discover, or rediscover, that God outmanoeuvres our determination to see the world in a particular way.
Picture those early Christians in the city of Rome. New converts, new communities of faith, close in time to the events of the Gospel. Yet even for these fresh-followers of the Way, St Paul needs to remind them: ‘you know what time it is… it is the moment for you to wake out of sleep… the night is far gone, the day is near’. We don’t have time to sleep, because what God wants the world to become is already breaking through – like the first glimmer of light in the East – God is calling us.
Our Great East Window behind me tells the story of the themes bound up with Advent.
It’s not a season for the faint-hearted. All of us pass through life, to different degrees, on auto-pilot. We decide that we know how our local streets look; the way people behave; the conversations we expect. Our world only becomes distinct when things change suddenly or new people enter our circle of friends. Compare, for example, when you visit a place for the first time, you drink it in. We look up and down and all around. Strangeness can stimulate our interest, our awareness.
By contrast the familiar can enter our blood and become the everyday; the routine and the expected. Scientists say that how we see the world is generated from memory far more than it is from sight. If you’ve been watching the recent BBC adaptation of the book telling the story of the birth of the SAS, you can see how easy it is to distract and confuse people when they think what they’re seeing turns out to be very different. It’s why spies are so successful. More often than not, we see what we expect.
Today all our readings challenge that familiarity.
It’s no surprise that Advent has a lot do with shaking and stirring. The Church is reminding us that our God is a God of surprises. The biggest of which comes at the end of Advent with a birth and a family far from home.
So what’s the most important characteristic for a Christian in the season of Advent? I think the answer is captured neatly, and with complete conviction, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come”.
Advent is a season when we are called to wake up to a world that can and will be changed. In these days up to Christmas we don’t settle for a world as if it’s all that could be. In the face of injustice and suffering we believe that it can be different – can be redeemed – and we ask God to guide us, to play our part in helping this Kingdom come. The words in Isaiah describe this emerging transformation as an end to violence: ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’. It is a time when the world is changing, and we must dispel our own illusions to follow God more faithfully.
If we’re asleep it’s hard to hear that call, and work for that Kingdom.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be stretching the idea too far to say that Advent is like waking up through a cold shower. An experience that alerts all our senses and shocks us out of complacency. As dramatic as a flood, and as sudden as the arrival of an unexpected guest.
Advent demands that we are alert and attentive – prepared for a God who ‘scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts’. Because we need to see past the reality we think is there, and begin to see our own lives, and the world around us, as God calls it to be.
The poet Stewart Henderson captures this with insight and economy in a poem entitled ‘Don’t Miss Christmas’. Because there’s a real risk, every year, that we seem hell-bent on missing what it’s all about – as Isaiah asks elsewhere: why ‘spend money on what is not bread, and … labour on what does not satisfy?’ In his own way Henderson sets this as a challenge for us all:
Don’t miss Christmas –
the magic of it all
our brittle, gift wrapped anthem
sleeps in a cattle stall
as the poor and lost and starving
weakly start to sing
it seems only desperate subjects
recognise their King.
We are given Advent to use. But we can only use it if we are prepared to see ourselves, and the world around us, with fresh eyes. To ask to be shaken out of complacency and made alive to the world as God calls it to be. Perhaps, as both Bonhoeffer and Henderson suggest, in this work, our need is far more important than our ability; our questions much more hopeful than our answers.
Evening Prayer: Lament and Hope – Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Preacher: Canon Missioner Maggie McLean
Date: 30/10/22 4pm Evening Prayer
Title: Lament and Hope
In our readings today two ideas are held together. Against a background of suffering and loss we hear promises of hope – of resurrection.
The passage from the Book of Lamentations is the bit most people go to as a beacon of hope in the midst of suffering. The rest of this short book of the Jewish Scriptures seems pretty depressing:
‘The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter’
‘My eyes are spent with weeping;
my stomach churns’.
In striking the balance between grief and hope, Christians are sometimes accused of skating over the need for lamentation. To rush, as it were, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day. It seems to me that in our Old Testament we find plenty of examples where the full force of despair and tragedy is given voice. The Psalms are one example where we find emotional honesty about the suffering of God’s people, while at the same time never wholly abandoning hope.
It would seem that we have no shortage of things to lament today. We had hardly emerged from COVID, when war erupted in Ukraine. Now there is the cost of living crisis and the far reaching experiences of climate change, with the inevitable consequences for rising temperatures; rising sea levels; and the prospect of the world’s poorest communities being hit hardest.
If we aren’t lamenting it means that we are avoiding this reality. In a way parodied by the Monty Python team many years ago, the non-lamenting person is like the Black Knight who fights King Arthur. The Knight begins to lose, and when a limb is cut off he replies: ‘Tis but a scratch’ and carries on. Eventually all his limbs are lost. To any viewer, what we see is the Black Knights constant denial of reality.
We could ask, in our second reading, why on earth Jesus is weeping. Surely he knows what he’s going to do – and that Lazarus will be alive again with his sisters? Why is there any need for this demonstration of feeling?
It seems to me that the response of Jesus is very much about the moment. He sees in his encounter with Mary, and with all those who are grieving the loss of Lazarus, the acute pain of human parting. Emotionally Jesus is ‘with the people’. He inhabits their feeling and knows, whatever may happen to Lazarus, that bereavement is part of the cost of what it means to be human.
As the Gospel tells us, Jesus was ‘disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’. He isn’t only lamenting to death of his friend but the sorrow which this has brought to so many people.
Recognising the pain of the world isn’t a luxury or indulgence. Unless we see, name and experience what is happening, we risk becoming the Black Knight – always in denial and, because of that, neither learning nor changing.
But in order to understand what we must lament, we need to know what’s happening in God’s world – the world entrusted to our care. That’s partly why I think it’s so important that Anglican churches around the world are linked and connected. When it comes to anything, whether the climate or the economy, we are all in it together. Actions in one place have consequences in another. Perhaps the starkest evidence of that, and one of the most disturbing, is the recent discovery of micro-plastics in breast milk. How we live never was, and certainly isn’t now, a matter for us alone.
We are accountable to one another; we are called to lament together, to pray together, to act together and, hopefully, to rejoice together.
The word is very near you – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Sermon for Bible Sunday
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: The word is very near you
Readings: Isaiah 45:22-end, Romans 15:1-6, Luke 4:16-24
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this Bible Sunday it might be worth noting that the Bible is right there at the centre of what is left of our parliamentary democracy! ‘Except the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it. ‘ Words from Psalm 127 are inscribed in the stone floor of the Central Lobby, at the very heart of Britain’s Parliament. In addition, rather than actually swearing at each other, Members of Parliament generally swear on the bible after a general election, I’ll just leave that there.
The words of the bible can be found running like gold threads through our language, our culture and our traditions. Quotes from the bible are peppered through the work of William Shakespeare and a scriptwriter for EastEnders has said that many of the storylines are inspired by the drama of biblical narratives.
The Bible was written over a period of around fifteen hundred years and started around 4000 years ago. It is in fact a library of 66 individual books of history, poetry, parable, myth and of course eye witness narrative accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the Christian, the scriptures are inspired by God and through them the Holy Spirit brings us closer to Jesus so that we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life. It’s much more than just a book for us.
For us, it’s a source of prayer, it’s the book that we gather around as we prepare to share in bread and wine- word and sacrament forever bound. The bible is shown reverence in our worship: The Gospel book is carried in by the Deacon, “This is the word of the Lord”, we say, and we mark the words of the gospel in our liturgies with light and incense and in procession, they are read in the midst of the people to remind us that the word is very near to us. The community of faith is drawn together through the story of salvation by a God who longs to communicate to the world through the lives of his chosen people.
What do we learn about God’s word in our readings today?
In the Book of the prophet Isaiah we hear of the word of God that shall not return –it is simply given. Isaiah later describes the word of God like the rain that waters the earth making it bud and sprout, providing seed to sow and food to eat.
So is my word that proceeds from my mouth, God says, it will not return to Me empty, but it will accomplish what I purpose, and prosper where I send it. Here is an image of the word bringing life.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is clear that what has been written is there for building up, and for encouragement, so that through the word we might have hope and live in harmony with one another. In the Gospel we hear of Jesus standing up in the temple to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah of the vision which he is now going to embody in word and in deed.
His mission from God is to bring the words of the prophet Isaiah to life; to inhabit them- to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. In Jesus, the scripture is fulfilled and the word is made flesh. God is with us. And that is perhaps the focus of our reflections. The word of God has a purpose, to liberate, to set free, to raise up, to comfort, to challenge, to encourage, to bring new life, like the rain that waters the earth, it is seed for sowing, food to eat.
500 years ago, things were rather different. The bible could only be heard in church, and then only in Latin. Those in power in church and state, denied the people access to the Bible because it would diminish their authority. But there was a certain William Tyndale, a priest, who, in an argument with a clerical colleague said “If God spares my life, in years to come, I promise that a boy that drives the plough shall know more of the Scripture than you do!”
Tyndale made it his life’s mission to translate the scriptures into English and let the word of God dwell in the hearts of each and everyone so it could do its’ work, so they could meet Jesus for themselves. Tyndale was burnt at the stake for this ambition.
Tyndale’s earliest translations of the bible were shipped over from Germany, where he was in hiding, and smuggled into England in beer barrels and bags of flour. Small groups of Christians would get hold of copies and read them in secret. The bible was contraband. Illegal.
But the floodgates had been opened. God’s word had got out, it was accomplishing that which was purposed, falling like rain upon the earth. Ordinary people were hearing the word and living out the word and sharing the word with others, all of sudden they had a Gospel to proclaim and for the poor, and the powerless and the weak and the oppressed, the words of Jesus Christ spoken in the bible were very good news indeed. The first time the English bible was read in public, people queued to get into the churches to hear it. The word of God was like food for the hungry who had longed to taste its sweetness.
When the bible is read with eyes to see, and ears to hear it can be life giving and liberating, it can change the world. It contains words of hope and comfort and yes- challenge too. But the trajectory of the scripture always move towards one conclusion: the love of God, made real in Jesus Christ bringing love for the whole of creation, like the rain that waters the earth it is liberating, it builds-up, it encourages. Rather than trying to impose our world view on the scriptures or use them to proof-text our own prejudices, if we let the scriptures speak to us in community and learn from them, they can be completely transformative and we can find within them the God of Love.
The word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it, says St Paul. Listen to God in Christ speaking to us through each and every one of the holy and hard won words of scripture, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, and may these words live within us and among us – and may we continue to proclaim them to a world which is longing for love and still hungry for good news.