Candlemas: The Light in the Darkness

January 30, 2022

Malachi 3:1-5

Luke 2:22-40

Presentation in the Temple

Candlemas reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world. This is the message that we and the wider world needs right now. There is light in the darkness of the current age and that light is Jesus. Sometimes the light of Jesus comes in ways that are unexpected. Sometimes it comes quickly like lightning. Other times it comes slowly, like noticing that the sunrise is coming earlier each day and the evenings are growing longer. Either way, God is faithful.

We are shown God’s faithfulness in the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. The messenger in verse 1 is John the Baptist who came to prepare the way for Jesus. ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’, to the surprise and disbelief of many this is the baby Jesus in the loving arms of his parents. Not as expected.

Mary and Joseph, being good Jewish parents, bring Jesus to the temple as was the custom of the day. This was to be expected as part of custom and fulfillment of Jewish law. Any presentation was a three-step process: circumcision, redemption and purification.

Circumcision is first commanded in Genesis by God. It would serve as a sign of the covenant (a promise) between God and Abraham. The rite of circumcision was God’s way of requiring the Jewish people to become physically different, by cutting off because of their relationship to Him. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his young life. This was the first action of devout Jewish parents for a firstborn son. The New Testament also talks about circumcision, but this is of a spiritual nature and not a physical one. Colossians 2:11 ‘In him (that being Jesus) you were also circumcised, in putting off the sinful nature.’ We too, like the Jewish people, are to be different because of our relationship with Him.
We all have bits of ourselves, if we are honest, that could be cut off. Those things in our characters or personalities that are difficult or unpleasant, that make life harder than it needs to be. Maybe we hold our money and possessions a little too tightly? We may have areas of sin that need to be cut out. This is what Jesus came to do for those who believe in Him.

The Rite of Redemption was a reminder to the Jewish people that ‘the Lord brought them out of Egypt with his mighty hand’ (Exodus 13). God had redeemed His people from their slavery in Egypt. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem in obedience and thanksgiving to God for having redeemed His people. Young parents would present their firstborn son to God, symbolizing the act of giving him up to God by saying ‘He is Yours and we give him back to You.’ Then they would immediately redeem him or buy him back effectively with a lamb of a pair of birds. We must all be redeemed. For us non-Jews, we are not bought with birds from God by our natural parents. Rather, we are bought by Christ who used his life to redeem our sinful, natural states and gave us to God. In the New Testament Jesus fulfills this very rite as he came to redeem us. Ephesians ‘in Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.’

Thirdly, the Rite of Purification. This is the last of the baby birth rites. It is an act of cleansing for the mother after giving birth. When this time was over (33 days for a boy and 66 days for a girl), the mother was to bring offerings to the priest. The required sacrifice was a lamb plus a turtle dove. However, if the mother could not afford a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves. This is what Mary and Joseph bring, the offerings of poverty; they brought the least sacrifice permitted by Jewish law. Yet they had in their arms the greatest sacrifice that God could ever make for purification – Jesus. They brought the least and were given the greatest.

Malachi talks of the Lord being like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap. These are both painful ways of being cleaned. A refiner’s fire is incredibly hot to burn off the impurities of gold and silver. If Mom or Nan has ever had a go at you with the soap and a brush – you will know the pain of being cleaned with a hard scrub. Again, these OT images of physical purification are translated into spiritual purification in the NT.

In these rituals, Jesus is presented to the people he came to save and redeem. This is where Simeon and Anna fit. They were at the temple the day that Jesus was presented. They are proof of the faithfulness of God. I am going to tread lightly on one of the major themes of Candlemas which is death. I am not afraid to talk about it; I was a MacMillan Palliative Care Nurse for a few years.

However, we have all had our fair share of death in the last two years from Covid. It is fair to say that Simeon and Anna are at the end of their lives.
Simeon was told that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon held on to this promise by living a devout life and waited – maybe for decades until finally the day came. Simeon got himself ready through devotion, worship, prayer, watching and waiting. Anyone wanting to experience the glory of God, want to deepen your relationship, strengthen your faith – be like Simeon and work at it! Simeon’s faithfulness is rewarded by God’s faithfulness as he responds to seeing the baby, ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’.

The faithfulness of God also features in Anna’s story. I don’t think you can talk about Simeon and then ignore Anna. She was the next person Jesus is presented to. Her life has been defined by death as Jesus’ would be. Anna was widowed probably when she was 20 or 21, she would not have had children and now she is 84 – so spent 65-ish years in the temple. Anna has lived a life of patient hope as she spent 65-ish years in the temple. She didn’t waver, didn’t give up but daily lived with faithfulness and expectation until the day the Messiah arrived.

On this day of presentation, we too can present ourselves again to God. We don’t need to sacrifice any lambs or birds, we can go directly to the Father. If we can hold the three rites: circumcision, redemption and purification as what Jesus ultimately came to do for us; we will come to a fuller understanding of Jesus and a richer life in him.

We need circumcision to cut away those things in us that do not bear fruit. Jesus will do a much better job of this than we ever will.

We need redemption to be brought into the family of God. Only Jesus can do this for us with his blood.

We need purification as we need clean hands and a pure heart. Again – it is in the death and resurrection of Jesus that we are cleansed.

God is faithful in all of these things and all through our lives if we look to the example of faithfulness of Simeon and Anna.

Epiphany 4: Now is the Time

14th Century fresco from the Visoki Decani Monastery in Kosovo

Epiphany 4

Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

O God, we give you thanks because, in the carnation of the Word, a new light has dawned upon the world, that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness to see the radiance of your glory.

We are still making our way through this season of Epiphany. The readings over these Sundays have shown us the Epiphany experiences of various people: the Wise Men, Eli & Samuel, Mary, Joseph and young Jesus, grown-up Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary and the disciples at the wedding at Cana and now Jesus speaking publicly in the synagogue of Nazareth.

What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ Those moments when something new blows through your mind; you see the world, people, a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life. The Epiphany stories of the people we meet in our Bible readings are the stories of their revelations and realisations of God the Father and Jesus the Son.

In our Gospel reading for today the whole synagogue in Nazareth has something of an epiphany when Jesus stands up to read the scroll from what we know as Isaiah 61. It could have been a normal sabbath day, worship as usual in the Nazareth synagogue. What is the big deal?

For the sake of an example, let’s say that the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a letter to every church in the land saying we had to feast and celebrate right now because today is a day holy to the Lord. If he then insisted that 2022 is the ‘year of the Lord’s favour,’ what would you say?

‘Are you kidding me Justin!? Today? Right now?’ Looking around at the state of the world, we would not be alone in our scepticism. Covid remains, the NHS is exhausted, national and local economies are in difficulty, the price of heating is rising, threats of wars, natural disasters, violence, climate change, rising epidemics in mental health. Not many would call our current moment holy or favoured by God.

Yet this morning we hear a call to now in both 1 Corinthians and Luke. The first letter of Corinthians is Paul responding to the letters that have been sent to him from members of the Corinthian community. Paul responds to things like: a church divided over its leaders, what it is to be an apostle, how to deal with incest, lawsuits among believers, sexual immorality, married life, food sacrificed to idols, how to conduct communion, spiritual gifts, love, worship, resurrection of the dead.

Paul is making an impassioned plea for them to attempt to think in a completely new way. Instead of always thinking about themselves and their individual needs and rights, instead of always battling to be the most important and gifted person in any gathering, the Corinthians have to learn to think of themselves as one entity, one body, whose health and life depends on cooperation and connection.

Paul is reminding us that we are the body of Christ and we have been called to take up our roles. We may have different gifts and calling but all are as important as the other. All are needed just as all parts of the body are needed. We are part of the one Spirit, one baptism and we all have gifts to share; things to strive for.

Luke has Jesus returning to Nazareth after being away; we don’t know how long he was away for, maybe months or even years. Jesus is, however, returning differently to when He left. He comes back after being baptised, tempted in the wilderness and filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus has returned home with power that is about to be displayed in the synagogue as he is handed the scroll that not coincidentally was Isaiah, the book containing more prophecy about him than any other.

If you replace me in verses 18-19 with Jesus, it is difficult to see how anyone else in all of history fills this position. It has finally been filled by the one written about centuries before when he returns home!

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (Jesus),
Because he has anointed me (Jesus)
To bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me (Jesus) to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour

This is Jesus’ chosen description of his mission. It isn’t about teaching us a better spirituality but about doing God’s justice and creating God’s community. When Jesus said, ‘today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’ the meaning of ‘fulfilled’ here is ‘to fill a vessel or hollow place’. How many of us know what it is to have that hollow place? He wants to fill it now – not tomorrow or next year or when we feel better or life is back to normal. Jesus means now.

What else has He come to do?

Preach the good news to the poor: Jesus didn’t mean the financially poor. The poor being referred to here those in ‘utter helplessness, complete destitution, afflicted, distressed.’ This has wider implications than finances alone. God created us to need something or someone else and sooner or later any healthy individual will realise that autonomy doesn’t cut it. However, if we subsist only on what others can give us, we won’t be fulfilled. Jesus does not want us to subsist – we were meant to thrive. Until we let Him fill our cups daily, we will only subsist.

To heal the broken-hearted: Broken-hearted here means ‘to break, strike against something, to break the strength or power of someone’. The Hebrew translation of heal ‘to mend by stitching, repair thoroughly, make whole’. Total breakage needs total healing. One stitch follows another, it takes time and can be painful! Healing can be painful.

To proclaim freedom for the captives: Notice that Jesus proclaims freedom, he didn’t impose it. It remains an offer.

Recovery of sight for the blind: We know that Jesus physically healed the sight of many blind people, but this is a different kind of blindness, a more serious kind of blindness. The word here means ‘to envelop with smoke, be unable to see clearly.’ This is about clouded vision, not being able to see the light of gospel or the glory of God. Jesus came to clear our vision so we can see him clearly.

To release the oppressed: to be oppressed is to be treated harshly or unfairly by someone in authority. This release is about breaking the chains of unhealthy attachment.

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour: That year, those gathering in that Nazareth synagogue were staring in the face of the Lord’s favour – His blessed gift of grace, Jesus. Year here means ‘any definite time’ – not a calendar year.

There is an urgency in both of these passages, not so much pressure, but the invitation that what God is offering is available now. We can wait until things get better, struggle on under our own steam or we can go to him now.

Maybe this is our epiphany moment this morning: We don’t have to wait until things get better, Covid goes away, the sun shines. Jesus laid out that day in the Nazareth synagogue of his childhood what He came to do in fulfilling scripture. He came with the Spirit of the Lord upon him to bring the good news to the poor in spirit, proclaim release to the prisoners who want it, recovery of sight to those who had lost vision of God, freedom for the oppressed and to usher in the time of the Lord’s favour – available to all until He comes again. This day is holy to the Lord. Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. May it be so.

Epiphany 2: They Have No Wine!

Epiphany 2


Romans 12:6-16a
John 2:1-11 – Wedding at Cana

The Wedding at Cana is one of the great ‘epiphany’ stories that is included in this church season. An Epiphany is to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ I am not sure if you have ever had an epiphany moment – but they are quite extraordinary! Those moments when something new blows through your mind – you see the world, people, a situation in a totally new way.

Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life. They are not always dramatic affairs; rather simply a moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart. The circumstances might be dramatic but it is not a requirement. Epiphany moments are what we, as Christians, should be seeking for ourselves. Religion and even faith can become very dull if we are not watching and waiting for epiphany moments ourselves

Sometimes in life, we may need a bit of wine to liven things up! We share wine in all sorts of ways, it can add to dinner parties, we bring a bottle when invited to another’s home. Pre-Covid we would have shared the wine at communion. The Bible has many references to wine; both for celebration and for warning about the excesses:

In Genesis, Noah gets into trouble for his over consumption. There is also an early reference to bread and wine being used by Melchizdek, a king who set up a priestly line.

In Leviticus there is a prohibition against drinking wine but equally it was required in many offerings to God

Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and olive oil will never be rich.
Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.

Isaiah gives us the beautiful invitation: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

In Psalm 104 we are told that: He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people cultivate- bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts.

The New Testament has many references to wine as well. It is an important element of the Gospel reading this morning. The Wedding at Cana is ultimately not about scarcity, but that is where it starts. Mary takes Jesus to one side and utters four words that would strike fear into the heart of any host, ‘they have no wine.’ Jesus has not noticed the wine shortage, but his Mother had and she intends, nay expects Jesus to do something about it.

This is good news! We do not have to negotiate or beg or plead with Jesus to act on our behalf. We may have to persist, there are often many other factors at play that we do not know about or see.

At the heart of what Jesus is doing at the wedding of Cana is protecting the bride & groom and their families from shame. Hospitality is at the heart of Middle Eastern culture and always has been. To run out of wine at a wedding would be beyond humiliation, it would bring disgrace on a family. There were few things worse than failing to provide for one’s guests. Jesus, by providing wine for them, he fulfils the need they have in that very moment. Jesus protected them from shame and disgrace in front of their community. He does the very same for us, Jesus covers our shame, our sins. He covers us in his love. Jesus also covers us in the very moment we need him too. He can change your life, He can change your day and He can also change that very moment you find yourself in.

Back to the wine, Jesus uses six stone water-jars which each hold 20-30 gallons each – let’s say 150 gallons. That is a lot of wine and it was good wine; not the plonk served when the wits of the guests had been numbed. Jesus provided an abundance of wine; probably more than was needed and this is where this story goes from scarcity to abundance.

In Psalm 104, God is praised for providing grass, cattle, plants, wine, oil and bread in excessive amounts. The suggestion here is that it was more than a few blades, a few crusts and a few sips. The question has been asked, how much wine does it take to gladden the heart?

The answer is not very much! It only took the chief steward a mouthful to know that he was drinking something magnificent. The symbolism here being of course that God takes what is ordinary and makes it extraordinary. We are told that a faith the size of a mustard seed is all that is required.

Many people try to fill their lives with excessive amounts of things (including wine) that will not ultimately satisfy them. It takes a little bit of love, a little bit of care and attention, a little bit of faith, forgiveness and grace to make a spectacular difference. God will give us more than we can ever ask or imagine; his generosity knows no bounds. Sometimes we have to come to Him and say ‘I have no wine’. He will provide an abundance of whatever it is we need.

Epiphany: Life Changing Moments

Pieter Bruegel’s Adoration of the Magi

Psalm 72 (1-9) 10-15
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

O God, we give you thanks because,
in the carnation of the Word,
a new light has dawned upon the world,
that all the nations and peoples may be brought out of darkness
to see the radiance of your glory. Amen.

We are shortly coming to the end of the Christmas season as we come to enter the season of Epiphany. Even though our Gospel reading this morning makes it still feel as though we are in the Christmas Season – at least in the church. I have heard rumours that Cadbury’s Easter Creme Egg displays are popping up in the shops already!

However, a new season begins with the arrival of the Wise Men. Over the next couple of weeks, if you pay attention to the Bible readings, we will see epiphany stories in the lives of Eli and Samuel and at the wedding in Cana.

For today, I thought it was fitting to go through a slow-read through the Epiphany story. It is only Matthew who includes the story of the Wise Men or Magi from the East in the Christmas story. Their epiphany was the sudden and great revelation of Jesus and their response is the story being told here.

What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realisation.’ I am not sure if you have had an epiphany moment but they are quite extraordinary! Those moments when some new idea, knowledge or thought blows through your mind and you suddenly and sometimes drastically see the world, people, and a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life.

Epiphany moments aren’t always dramatic affairs. They can happen in a quiet moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart.

I grew up in the church: Sunday School every week, my parents were very involved in the church, I sang (badly) in the choir, and was in various youth groups. I knew about Jesus but I don’t think I knew Jesus.

My first epiphany moment came while I was eating lunch in a dry field on a very hot July day at Ephesus, in Turkey. A few hours before this I was struck by the understanding that St Paul had been at Ephesus – not just the Greeks and the Romans – and had written the letter to the Ephesians.

I was where the Bible was. I had always seen it as a book, a story; but to be where the Bible took place – blew me away! I began to think that if the Bible happened in a real place – then maybe God and Jesus were more real than I thought they were.

By lunchtime, with all these thoughts rolling around my head, I had this sudden wave of peace and a sense of relief from all the grief and anger that I had been carrying around from the previous year and a half. I walked out of Ephesus that day totally different from how I walked in. I have never been the same since.
Matthew begins the Epiphany story ‘in the time of King Herod.’ If you are a fan of the soaps like Corrie or East Enders – then you will love The Herod’s. This family played an important part in the political setting of Jesus’ ministry. Several of them are mentioned in the Gospels along with a group known as the Herodians.

The Herodians were from a region that was forcibly converted to Judaism about 127 BCE. The male Herod’s were a talented bunch; they were political power-players who won favour with the Romans. They were also gifted at military strategy; Herod’s father held the post equivalent to Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This Herod became the military governor of Galilee when he was 25, his skills and talents made him friends with the likes of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Caesar Augustus.

These relationships brought him more land and his kingdom grew. Herod’s reign (for part of it) was a time of stability, prosperity and splendour – he founded cities, buildings and most notably rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem.

When we meet Herod in Matthew chapter two, he is about 70 years old and roughly two years away from his death. Herod is in a state of emotional and psychological deterioration as he became increasingly paranoid and mistrusting; so much so that he had 3 of his 15 children executed.
These 15 children came from the 10 wives he had! Herod is said to have died a painful death from kidney disease and gangrene.

This is the Herod that the wise men from the East met when they arrived in Jerusalem. Where did they come from? Persia, Babylon or maybe Arabia. Not sure. They are presumed to be Gentiles (so not Jewish) and come to represent the best wisdom of the Gentile world – they are the spiritual elites.

Why is this important? Tom Wright explains ‘Matthew wants us to be clear about something from the start. If Jesus is in some sense king of the Jews, that doesn’t mean that his rule is limited to the Jewish people. At the heart of many prophecies about the coming king, the Messiah, there were predictions that his rule would bring God’s justice and peace to the whole world.’

Right from his birth, Jesus is meant to rule the world. All people. Every nation. Matthew wants us to know this. It makes sense then that people outside of the Jewish faith see and experience who he is too.

Herod is frightened by the arrival of the Wise Men. The news of a new ‘King of the Jews’ has rocked his world. Herod had had this inscribed on his coins and to claim this title was treason. The title ‘King of the Jews’ was also on the cross of Jesus at the crucifixion. Herod had the title on his money; Jesus on the cross.

Who do you think the real king is here? This is Herod’s epiphany moment – he is not the real King of the Jews! Herod sends the Wise Men to Bethlehem with his made-up story he wants to pay homage as well. Herod is making an attempt to destroy Israel’s true king by employing foreign magi (oh foreign workers forever causing problems!) – but they only bring honour to the king’s rival – Jesus.

The Wise Men were obedient – this was a new thought to me. They followed the star even though they didn’t know where it would take them or what it meant but they followed it anyway. It made me think about what and who I follow.

Am I fully obedient to what God is calling me to do – even if I am not sure where it will lead? How far out of my way do I go to meet Jesus? Would I follow a star?

We know that the star that went before the Wise Men and came to rest over the place where Jesus was born was not an ordinary star. Sometimes you need some imagination to help picture these things. This star does not stay still – but moves as a guide.

Finally, the epiphany moment comes, notice it starts to happen before they even lay eyes on Jesus – simply the promise of him seems to be enough. It is when the star stops moving, Matthew tells us the Wise Men ‘were overwhelmed with joy.’ When was the last time you were overwhelmed with joy?

Does the thought of Jesus bring you joy? If not – then why not? What is missing? Maybe at the start of this new year it is time to ask for your own epiphany?

The Wise Men entered the house, overwhelmed by joy and knelt down before Jesus. They opened their treasure-chests and offered him gifts.

Gold – to show He was a king.
Frankincense – to show He deserved to be worshipped.
Myrrh – this is a strange gift to give a baby. Myrrh was used at the time when someone died. Jesus was the baby who would grow up and rescue us by dying in our place.

These were gifts of substantial financial value and the Wise Men expected to find what they were looking for at a royal court, and perhaps win favour there, but they were not disappointed with what they received.

What do we bring to God this morning? The Wise Men brought the best of what they had. Do we present our best? The best of our time, the first of our money, the greatest of our love, the first of our thanks? This is not to point out any deficiencies – I often get the order wrong myself.

The whole of the Christmas story from Mary & Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the message of the angels to the shepherds and their arrival at the stable to King Herod and the Wise Men – is a story of Epiphany. Great moments of realisation that do not leave us the same.

When we present ourselves to God – this is the most valuable thing we have – this is the only thing that He wants. You are more precious to Him to gold, frankincense and myrrh. When we encounter God we are never the same again. Thank God for that!