Epiphany 2: What are you looking for?

3rd Sunday of Epiphany

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

In this Epiphany season, we are being encouraged to look, see and find afresh. The wise men saw a star, followed it and found Jesus, King Herod saw a threat and tried to eliminate it. In John’s Gospel this morning, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming towards him – two days in a row! John called those around to ‘look and see’ the Lamb of God. The Christian life is a continual cycle of looking, seeing and finding; it is part of what we are called to do.

It is rather fitting then that the first recorded question Jesus asks his disciples is ‘what are you looking for?’ I think it is still a relevant question for us today too. In terms of your faith, what are you looking for? In those deep places within, what are the desires and drives of your faith?

As we move into a new year what are you hoping for, expecting, asking for, looking for in your Christian life? Anything? Nothing? Something? Do you know? It is worth giving some time this week to ponder the question as though Jesus was sitting in front of you and asking ‘what are you looking for out of your faith?’

It is not an easy question. Fear not if it has thrown you already! The disciples gave a rather lame answer to Jesus. The best they could come up with was ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ As though Jesus was asking them if they had lost their keys or a jumper! No, his question is much deeper than that. The disciples had just heard John the Baptist’s exclamation of ‘here is the Lamb of God!’ and had started to follow Jesus; at least physically follow Jesus if not yet spiritually.

‘Who are you really?’ is more likely the question they were trying to ask. The disciples, as good followers of Judaism, would have been waiting for the Messiah. The reading from Isaiah this morning is among the oldest and best known parts of the Old Testament. There are 4 passages in Isaiah known as the Servant Songs. These Songs introduce and share the profound idea of salvation through suffering. This was not how people thought about suffering or salvation at that time. If you suffered you had done something wrong; think the Book of Job.

The identity of the servant is revealed gradually from song to song but it is still concealed. In Isaiah 49, the servant speaks for the first time in his own voice and in a very individual way. He has been chosen by God to carry on the mission of Israel where Israel had failed. The mission was to restore the people of God (the Jews). God is going to give the servant as a light to the nations, that salvation may reach to the end of the earth. This means to everyone – not only the Jews.

If the disciples recalled any of these passages, it would have been an overwhelming experience and would most certainly require something of them. Jesus’ answer also required something of the disciples as it was an invitation to ‘come and see’. So they went and saw where Jesus was staying and spent the whole day with him. What a day that would have been! The disciples obviously saw something that day that changed them forever. If the answer to ‘what are you looking for?’ ends up being ‘come and see’, will you be willing to go and see?

What about this year?

As a church you will be looking for a new Rector. I need to tell you that it is unlikely to be me. What will you be looking for in that person? Avoid disappointment by looking for perfection or a clone of a past Priest you happened to like the most. What will you be looking for in that person?

How about you as a person? Are you looking for more life? Time? Money? Health? Belonging? Certainty? Affirmation? Consolation?

Jesus’ invitation to come and see is an invitation to leave our comfortable places, an invitation to challenge what we think we know and change our perspectives. Come and see is an approach to life that is expansive, dynamic and exposes us to new experiences and ideas. When Jesus offers this invitation it is to be fully seen and fully loved by the one who created us.

Like all invitations that come to us, we have the option to turn it down. To stay where we are and not see anything new. We have a choice of what we look for, what we prioritise. When Jesus looks at us, He sees our deepest desires, hungers, curiosities, needs and wants. He saw it in those first disciples and called out to them. Jesus is still calling us now. As followers of Jesus we are to take the braver path, the follow where He is leading us.

Epiphany: What are we following this year?

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

This Sunday always sits a little bit funny. It feels as though we are back into the Christmas story when we have moved well past it on the calendars. Last Sunday’s gospel was the passage after the one for today. We seem to be doubling back around on ourselves! The Christmas story may seem to be neatly compacted, like a nativity scene, brought out, set up, admired and then taken down and put away again. Epiphany is the day that the Christmas decorations should be packed away and the last of the baking eaten up. Right?!

However, it is unclear as to when the wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem. We do know it was in the time of King Herod and after Jesus was born. They followed the star, and came to where it stopped and offered the gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they leave and go home by another way so crazy Herod doesn’t catch them. The end. Christmas is over!

Yet, the significance of the wise men, the magi pushes out the Christmas story. It is not only about the outward, Christmas card picture, small kids in bathrobes and foil crowns, etc. It is the inward story that carries on.

This feast of Epiphany celebrates the visit of the magi to Jesus and so the the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel story; and as Malcolm Guite explains, ‘not simply the Gentiles in a generic way, but all the distinct races, cultures and religions of ‘the nations’; this is one reason why the tradition of depicting the three wise men as representing three different races is so helpful.’

Not only in the Gospel, but in the Isaiah reading speaks of a multitude of camels (so more than three) from distinctly different lands who will bring gold and frankincense and they shall proclaim the praise of God. This is to be a time of rejoicing. The Wise Men were to be bearers of Good News.

I recently asked the Church Wardens at the start of a meeting before Christmas to share their favourite character(s) in the nativity story. For a variety of reasons, the shepherds were the overwhelming favourite. Some liked the thought that they were older; they were outsiders who lived on the edge of society. There was something about their humility. The urgency they went with to Bethlehem after the angels left them.

My favourite has always been the Wise Men. I loved the thought of them travelling on camels (no mention in the Gospel though!) from far away places. Exotic in their robes and jewels, well educated and wealthy. They had to travel much further than the shepherds and had to contend with King Herod. Sue Morton gave a very interesting expose on his hardness of heart and cruelty last week. The Wise Men received a secret call from Herod; doubtful that a rag-tag group of shepherds would have been extended an invitation. As the Wise Men were already looking for this child born to be the king of the Jews they did not really need Herod’s approval; their journey preceded any fears and paranoia that he held.

Looking at the arrival and departure of the Wise Men, there are three threads to pull on today. It is quite common at the start of a new year to look backwards at the year just past and forwards at the year to come. We may look back with mixed feelings at the things that went well and the things that went less than well. I hope that we can leave behind the things or feelings of falling short, guilt and shame. Learn from them and move on. Equally I hope we can carry forward the successes, the positive experiences; these need to be learned from too.

In light of this and the Wise Men: what are we going to follow this year? They followed the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. Maybe it is a diet or exercise plan. Maybe reading different books or listening to different podcasts. Maybe reinvesting in relationships or faith or prayer or Bible.

How do we know if we are following the right thing? It is often said that if you are not the lead elephant, the view is all the same. Not everyone is made or meant for leadership. Even leaders follow something or someone. Maybe the view needs to change. Sometimes we can follow something for so long that it loses its impact or meaning and becomes irrelevant to where we are in life and our thinking.

Second thread: Finding Joy. Verse 10 was something of a revelation to me; ‘When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.’ The Wise Men had not met the king they had travelled so long to find; yet they were overwhelmed with joy. So often our joy comes after the big reveal. We can make joy similar to happiness and reduce it down to a reaction to our circumstances.

The Wise Men had joy before they crossed the threshold of that house. How can we become joyful people before circumstance and chance threaten to take it from us?

The Wise Men were not expecting to find a baby at the end of their journey. They brought gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense and myrrh. They continued to believe that they had found the right thing though. How are we going to react if things are not as we expect them this year? Throw our hands up? Quit? Give up? Give in? Will we be willing to work it through and see what happens?

Final thread: the Wise Men had to go a different way home. They had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod and had to leave for their own country by another road. Whatever happened in that house was a transformative experience for the Wise Men; all the education and wealth could never have prepared them for meeting the king in the form of a baby.

Things changed drastically for the Wise Men and they left differently to when they arrived. In the face of any changes that come this year – will we be able to go a different way? Will we let ourselves become more open to the possibility of change and transformation – even if we can fathom the outcome?

Go well into this new year. Follow the right star, when the unexpected happens be ready to meet it and go a different way if you need to. I will end with a poem by one of my favourite theologians Walter Brueggemann.


On Epiphany day,
we are still the people walking.
We are still people in the dark,
and the darkness looms large around us,
beset as we are by fear,
loss —
a dozen alienations that we cannot manage.
We are — we could be — people of your light.
So we pray for the light of your glorious presence
as we wait for your appearing;
we pray for the light of your wondrous grace
as we exhaust our coping capacity;
we pray for your gift of newness that
will override our weariness;
we pray that we may see and know and hear and trust
in your good rule.
That we may have energy, courage, and freedom to enact
your rule through the demands of this day.
We submit our day to you and to your rule, with deep joy and high hope.

Midnight Communion: Love is the Word

Saturday December 24, 2022
Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-4
John 1:1-14

This, tonight is the meeting place.

Christmas Prologue from Cloth For The Cradle (Wild Goose Worship)

This, tonight,
is the meeting place
of heaven and earth.

For this, tonight,
is the stable
in which God keeps his appointment
to meet his people.

Not many high are here,
no many holy;
not many innocent children,
not many worldly wise;
not all familiar faces,
not all frequent visitors.

But, if tonights
only strangers met,
that would be enough.

For Bethlehem was not the hub of the universe,
nor was the stable a platform for famous folk.

In an out-of-the-way place
which folk never thought to visit –
there God kept and keeps his promise;
there God sends his son.

This is what we are here to remember and celebrate tonight: God’s keeping of his promise through the sending of his Son.

The Son that has been talked about, anticipated, longed for over centuries arrived as a Baby. We don’t hear this part of the story in the readings tonight. We miss out on Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in the manger, the animals in the stable, angels, shepherds and the wise men. This is the familiar, the comforting part of the Christmas story. I hope you took a moment to appreciate our large crib at the back of the church. Baby Jesus has yet to make his appearance but he will!

However, this is only part of the story. Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus move on from the stable and so must we. The Baby grows up and this is where the story picks up in John’s Gospel. John expands the story for us as he forces us to lift up our gaze to see the wider picture.

John’s use of the ‘In the beginning’ is referencing the opening lines of Genesis ‘In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…’ This is to highlight that from the beginning of time Jesus was there.

When my nephew Riley was 5 years old, he and my sister had a bedtime conversation that went like this:

Riley: ‘Mom, how old are Great Grandma and Great Grandpa?’

Sister: ‘they are both 90’

Riley: ‘Mom, when will they go to heaven?’

Sister: ‘I am not sure but Jesus will be waiting to greet them when they go.’

Riley: ‘Mom – how old is Jesus?’

Sister: ‘Well he was born 2000 years ago but Jesus doesn’t age and has always been around.’

Riley: (with all the exasperation of a 5 year old) ‘Mom – Jesus is a baby!’

It is quite easy to take this view whether we are 5 years old or not. Jesus was never meant to be contained to the manger. Nor did Jesus just appear one night in Bethlehem as if out of nowhere. Jesus has always been around ; part of God and the Trinity. He is more than a Baby!

John describes Jesus as The Word. That may feel like a big jump for us to make. The Word is God’s way of communicating himself and making himself known to us. The Word became flesh and lived among us.
I wonder if you remember what your first word was this morning?
Or last Tuesday?
If you are married – what were your first words to your now-spouse the first time you met them?

Do you remember the kindest words that you have ever spoken to another person?

What has been the kindest word or words you have ever received?

What about any unkind or untrue words spoken to another person? Or spoken to you?

Our words matter. Yet we tend not to remember the majority of the words we speak.

Words have power. We know that by how they make us feel, think and act. We can watch our words influence other people’s thinking, feelings, and behaviour.

We are responsible for our words – “but you said…” “remember when you said…” holds us to that!

We get very excited at the first words of a toddler as they learn to speak. The first coherent utterance of a life is a big deal. Our first word or words often reflect that which is around us; ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’.

What about the words of Jesus?

We are told in the reading from Isaiah about the words the promised one would bring: He announces peace, good news, salvation and comfort. He sustains all things by his powerful words. The most powerful of Jesus’ words is love.

If you go away from here tonight with one word let it be love.

My friend Eddie this posted on Facebook and it has always stuck:

Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely.
Though we are imperfect, God loves us perfectly.
Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely.
He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken.

Jesus is the Word and the love.
Jesus is also the light.

Light shows the shape of things as they really are.

It is here that John the Baptist appears in verse 6 as the witness to the light, ‘so that all might believe through him.’ John the Baptist points to Jesus.

We live in a dark world, in a dark society. You don’t need to spend much time looking at the telly or the papers to work that one out. I will spare us all by not expanding on that tonight.

The world needs Jesus and his true light. We need Jesus and his true light to enlighten us. We need a light that shines in the darkness – that cannot be overcome by the world or by our own fallibilities and weaknesses. We need the Word to guide and direct out of the darkness and into the Light.

Finally, John’s Gospel makes some huge claims about Jesus and if we establish that Jesus is the Word and the Light there are consequences to follow. Does my life reflect the light and love of Jesus? Do my words reflect the Word?

I want to be able to answer those questions with a resounding yes! But I know I don’t always get it right. But that’s okay. I suspect it is the same for you. As long as we stay in the Word and the Light – we have forgiveness, hope and a chance to do better.

Our words matter. Those spoken in love, in hate, in jest, in seriousness, in passion, in anger, in fear, in sadness. What words would you like to be remembered for? Any word or the Word – that is Jesus?

Tonight of all nights, the word is love. Know that you are loved by God. Beyond our limited vision, despite walking in darkness much of the time, regardless of what we think or believe or think we know. Love is the word.

Advent 4: Joseph

Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849-50 Sir John Everett Millais

Advent 4 – Year A
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

I can’t believe that it is the Fourth Sunday of Advent! It has gone by way too quickly! I am reassured that there is still another week to go.

The Gospel readings for Fourth Sunday always revolve around Mary as she completes the picture of our Advent journey. It seems that at this time of the year, we Protestants are okay to talk about Mary and even have a statue of her in church without great resistance!

I was looking back over the lectionary to see which stories of Mary are used on this particular Sunday. Year B has set Luke 1 which is the Annunciation; when Mary was visited by Gabriel who brings her the good news that she will bear a son. Year C has also set Luke 1; the Magnificat in which Mary proclaims the greatness of the Lord who has looked with favour on her lowly self.

But every third year, the Gospel reading switches primary focus from Mary to Joseph with Matthew’s account and tells of the birth of Jesus. Matthew seems to focus his attention on Joseph much more than on Mary. You might not have noticed but Joseph never speaks.

We never hear his voice in any of the accounts. Mary speaks and there is great focus and attention on her. In comparison, we know very little about Joseph and there can be a temptation to push him to the side-lines. I want to take the opportunity to look a little closer at Joseph. Without him the whole Christmas story would have faltered.

Recently in the Tuesday afternoon Bible Study, we watched a version of the nativity story over 3 weeks. While it took some liberties with the dialogue as having been written by a writer from EastEnders, it was thoroughly enjoyed. Joseph was portrayed as a responsible but passionate younger man who was deeply in love with Mary. When Mary returns from visiting her cousin Elizabeth with a very obvious baby bump, Joseph is devastated, angry, grief-stricken, embarrassed. As viewers, we were confronted with a range of emotions and conversations between Mary and Joseph that were likely experienced but are not mentioned in the biblical story.

In Matthew’s account, Joseph is told about Mary’s baby and in a breath decides to quietly divorce her and save her from public disgrace. Here we see the loyalty and dignity, faithfulness of Joseph.

It is not until the angel appears to Joseph in a dream to explain the whole situation that he believes Mary’s story when he wakes up.

We would make a mistake to sanitise Joseph’s consent as being an easy decision to come to. We diminish his humanity by overlooking his humiliation and doubt. In a culture and religion that was bound by rules, Joseph would have been in a lot of pain. We so often want to separate ourselves from the pain of other people, we can feel so helpless in the face of it. In Joseph, we see that God’s favour is not always a shiny, happy thing.

Whatever thoughts Joseph had about his family’s future were upended. His ideas of fairness, justice, goodness and purity are shattered. Being chosen by God is not always so attractive.

Joseph’s story is one that can give us hope. Many of us will know what it is to struggle to do what has been asked of us, sometimes the decisions are difficult and the choices are limited. Joseph struggled. He was prepared to do the honourable, arguably easier thing but that was not what was asked.

So he struggled more and came to the decision that was far harder but the right one. He woke up and did what the angel commanded him.

Little wonder that the angel’s opening line was do not be afraid. Joseph was needed as it is through him that Jesus’ connection to the House of David is made. If you read through the opening verses of Matthew chapter one, it is a cabaret of characters who did some interesting things.

Debie Thomas wrote, ‘Interestingly, in the verses that immediately precede our Gospel reading, Matthew gives us a genealogy of Jesus’s ancestors. He mentions Abraham — the patriarch who abandoned his son, Ishmael, and twice endangered his wife’s safety in order to save his own skin. He mentions Jacob, the trickster usurper who humiliated his older brother. He mentions David, who slept with another man’s wife and then ordered that man’s murder to protect his own reputation. He mentions Tamar, who pretended to be a sex worker, and Rahab, who was one. These are just a few representative samples.

Notice anything? Anything like messiness? Complication? Scandal? Sin? How interesting that God, who could have chosen any genealogy for his Son, chose a long line of brokenness, imperfection, dishonour, and scandal. The perfect backdrop, I suppose, for his beautiful works of restoration, healing, hope, and second chances.’

Not only was Jesus born into a messy world, but a messy family.

Joseph helps to remind us that what God asks of us is often messy and unexpected. We should however expect to have our own ideas upended and challenged. Yet do not be afraid. I hope as we come fully into this Christmas season and new year that we are not afraid to love more deeply, pay more attention to what God is doing or asking of us. It might be messy.

Do not be afraid of the mess. It is in the mess that Jesus our Saviour was born.

Advent 3: Gaudete (even if it is hard)

December 11, 2022 

Isaiah 35:1-10

Matthew 11:2-11

Scenes from the life of John the Baptist (1175-1200) British Library

It is my favourite Sunday! Rose day! Gaudete! Gaudete in Latin means ‘rejoice’. The name comes from the opening of the Mass for that day: Gaudete in Domine Semper, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. Gaudete Sunday is also a reminder that Advent is quickly passing; the Lord’s coming is near. The focus is turning more to the second coming than the first and there is a heightened sense of intense joy, gladness and expectation in our readings.

The Gospel readings for Gaudete Sunday always revolve around John the Baptist as the thrust of John’s ministry is the announcement that the Lord’s coming is near and is in fact nearer than you think.

I was looking back over the lectionary to see which stories of John the Baptist are used on this particular Sunday. Year B has set John 1 (the Gospel) where John the Baptist gives his testimony to the priests and Levites sent by the Jews to check him out. Year C has set Luke 3 where John chastises the Pharisees and Sdducees, brands them a ‘brood of vipers’ and calls for them to repent. Year A sets John in prison awaiting his fate.

On the face of it, none of these events provide obvious reasons to rejoice!

As a refresher, John was sent to jail by Herod. John had been attacking Herod over marrying his brother’s ex-wife which was less than appropriate. John had also been announcing that the Kingdom of God, the true kingdom was coming. Herod wasn’t the real king; God would replace him. John was likely not experiencing intense joy or gladness and his expectations of getting out alive may have been low.

The four prison walls closing in must surely have limited his vision. So much so that John sent his disciples to Jesus with the question ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

I offer some thoughts about why John asked that question…

One suggestion is that John was disappointed. Maybe he was expecting Jesus to be a man of fire who would sweep through Israel as Elijah did and right all the wrongs. Maybe Jesus was supposed to confront Herod, topple him from his throne, become king in his palace, get John out of prison and give him a place of honour. Or at least let him live.

But Jesus is not doing this. He is healing the blind and deaf, cleansing the lepers, befriending the sinners, the tax collectors, ordinary men and women and teaching them about the things of God. Maybe not doing what John wanted him to do. So maybe John is thinking ‘was I wrong?!’

The other suggestion for John’s question is that he wants to know if it is safe for him to give up, to hand the mission on. John was the one to herald the coming of God’s Messiah. How could he do that from a prison cell? Maybe he couldn’t relax until he knew whether or not he had done his job.

John’s ministry only lasted about a year. Maybe John thought he would have more time, that his purpose would take longer to be fulfilled. John is waiting to see if what he has done in the past was right; waiting in the present to see if Jesus is the one; and waiting to see if there is another yet to come.

In his waiting and hoping John gets an answer back; and it probably was not what he was expecting! What Jesus sent back could not be more different from the message that John preached. John shouted for repentance in the face of the wrath of God: he spoke of axes cutting down dead trees and unquenchable fires. Jesus speaks of mercy, healing and rejoicing. Jesus lists the great signs of the coming of the Messiah which had all been prophesied in the past.

Jesus answers John by quoting Isaiah 35 which John would have known. It is a message all about John. The wilderness, which was John’s home, will rejoice and bloom, the fearful of heart are to be comforted. John is in prison, awaiting certain death. How can he not be afraid?

I think that John knew that Jesus was the Messiah. After all John was the baby that leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when her cousin Mary and her baby (Jesus) came to visit. John the Baptizer knew Jesus the Messiah the moment he saw him at the Jordan River. John knew in his head who Jesus really was.

But time and circumstance can dull the image of our faith perception and leave us feeling not sure what we believe.

John’s question had more to do with his heart than his head. John had heard about the miracles and healings Jesus was doing for others and perhaps his faith was shaken. He certainly could have used a miracle for himself and he didn’t appear to be getting one. And sitting in that prison cell John might have been having a little trouble knowing it with his heart. Sometimes our faith gets shaken by what we do not get or what God has not done for us personally.

I spoke to an older lady a while ago. She was very honest about where she was at with faith. She told me that after her husband had died after a long period of illness; she came to the conclusion that ‘if there was a God – why did her husband suffer the way he did?’ She couldn’t believe in a God like that. Neither can I.
I don’t have a good answer for that question. There are theological or doctrinal answers that are pastorally unhelpful in these situations. Equally there are pastoral answers that deny the theological problems these situations raise.

Ann Garrido – (Dec 11th): Today the Church is garbed in pink – that colour of hope in the midst of darkness. We are reminded that even though daylight is difficult to come by and waiting is hard, we are not to cave in to despair but to be open to and sustained by those signs already present in the world around us that let us know that God is at work. While we have not seen the kingdom of God yet in its fullness, there are ways in which that future is breaking into our own time even now – bursts of illumination and freedom, connection and healing. Our faith does not hinge on promises still unfulfilled but on promises in the process of being fulfilled this very day.’

Either way, many of us have endured long stretches of suffering, waiting, longing and hoping for God to come through for us. Maybe in those times we have seen or heard of wondrous works He was doing elsewhere. And it hurts! It is painful! The doubts that these types of situations create are probably not coming from our heads but our hearts, our feelings, our hurts.

John was not like ‘a reed swayed by the wind’ – he was a man of conviction. He was a man of little personal vanity and had a huge commitment to God’s kingdom. If he can have a doubt or two then it is safe to have some of our own doubts.

Gaudete in the face of suffering and uncertainty. It won’t last forever. The Lord is near. I will end this sermon with a poem.

Gaudete by Brad Reynolds

Because Christmas is almost here
Because dancing fits so well with music
Because inside baby clothes are miracles.
Because some people love you
Because of chocolate
Because pain does not last forever
Because Santa Claus is coming.
Because of laughter
Because there really are angels
Because your fingers fit your hands
Because forgiveness is yours for the asking
Because of children
Because of parents.
Because the blind see.
And the lame walk.
Because lepers are clean
And the deaf hear.
Because the dead will live again
And there is good news for the poor.
Because of Christmas
Because of Jesus
You rejoice.