Candlemas: Cleaning up

Candlemas – Year B

Malachi 3:1-5
Luke 2:22-40

Christmas is now really and truly over. Although it has felt like that for a while! As we celebrate Candlemas today we have the final Christmas reminder that Jesus came as the light of the world. This is the message that everyone needs right now.

Sometimes the light of Jesus comes in ways that are unexpected. It comes in epiphany moments like we have seen in our readings over the last 2 weeks. Other times light dawns slowly, like noticing that the sunrise is coming earlier each day and the evenings are growing longer. The light comes as it comes; showing us God’s faithfulness.

We are shown God’s faithfulness in the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy. The messenger and the Lord spoken of in verse 1 are John the Baptist and Jesus. John came to prepare the way for Jesus. To the surprise and disbelief of many, Jesus comes to the temple as a baby in the loving arms of his parents.

Mary and Joseph, being good Jewish parents, bring Jesus to the temple in order to fulfil Jewish law. Any presentation was a three-step process: the rite of circumcision, rite of redemption and rite of purification.

The Rite of 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.

The New Testament also talks about circumcision; 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 Jesus.

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. We may or may not be aware of them. Maybe we do not always understand why people react to us the way they do. Maybe we hold our opinions, money or 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, symbolising 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 all must 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. Paul in Ephesians explains, ‘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.

Malachi speaks 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 Mum 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. We will tread lightly on one of the major themes of Candlemas which is death. 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 who is ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’.

The faithfulness of God also features in Anna’s story. 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. Anna has lived a life of patient hope as she spent 65-ish years in the temple. She did not waver, did not give up but daily lived in faithfulness and expectation until the day the Messiah arrived.

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

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. Not so that we can behave better or follow the rules; rather that we can live fully and abundantly not weighed down by sin and guilt.

When we look at the world around us and into our own lives, we need God’s light. We need to see things and ourselves the way they are. We also need God’s light and faithfulness to lead and guide us into abundant life. To be light to others. Let your light shine.

Epiphany 3: Hard Work of Water into Wine

Veronese’ Wedding at Cana

Epiphany 3

Revelation 19:6-10
John 2:1-11

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.

Since being ordained I have had the great pleasure, privilege and legal responsibility to officiate many weddings. A few weddings have been small affairs; others have been huge with many in the medium range. Some couples had to save their money for a long time, others had the means (or the parents) to foot rather large bills. All couples wanted to ensure that they had the wedding they dreamed of. It can be an epiphany to discover how much these dreams can cost!

When I meet with engaged couples to discuss their weddings, I make it clear that I am more concerned about their marriage. This is not to downplay the significance of the day or treat it as ‘just a party’. Absolutely not. As without the wedding ceremony there is no reception afterwards. The wedding itself is the continuation of their story, the beginning of a new chapter.

I said last week that the meaning of Epiphany is ‘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. They are not always dramatic affairs; they are simply a moment when you know that something has changed in your mind or in your heart.

The Wedding at Cana is an epiphany story for everyone involved. It was here that Jesus performed his first public miracle urged on by his own mother to the delight and astonishment of his disciples and wedding guests. This is also a story of scarcity and abundance, honour and shame, obedience and belief.

Scarcity & Abundance
Scarcity frightens many people. The beginning of lockdown saw a run on loo roll and pasta which proved this point. We do not like to be without. Those of us who were born after the war have not experienced (until lockdown) what scarcity is. Even though it did not last for a particularly long time or run as deep; it was still unsettling for many people.

Mary was the first one invited to this wedding; it is amusing that Jesus and the disciples had also been invited to the wedding. Was Jesus on the B list – surely not? Mary is the one who happens to notice that the wine had given out. She then utters the words that would freeze any hosts’ heart, ‘they have no wine.’ Scarcity.

The essayist Debie Thomas writes about this story, ‘They have no money.” “She has no cure.” “He has no friends.” “I have no strength.” Mary’s line is a line I repeat daily, in endless iterations, for myself and for others. It’s the line I cling to when I feel helpless, when I have nothing concrete to offer, when Christianity seems futile, when God feels like he’s a million miles away. It’s the line that insists against all odds on the mysterious power of telling God the truth in prayer.’

Mary goes to Jesus who is the one who can do something about the situation. Where do we go when we run out of time, patience, love, energy? When we have nothing left to offer and the wine has run out, do we go to the one who can give us an abundance of life? Do we take up the invitation?

The Revelation reading speaks of the blessing for those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb. That is one invitation we do not want to miss; we are part of that great multitude.

Jesus was invited to the wedding, He accepted the invitation and something amazing happened. When we invite Jesus into our lives, He does amazing things, beyond what we could ever ask or imagine.

Honour & Shame
The wedding of Cana is incredibly rich in meaning and symbolism and we could be here all day digging around. Yes, Jesus starts his ministry here on the third day (reference to the resurrection). He takes what is common, weddings and water, and makes them extraordinary.

We see Mary’s high expectations and belief in her son become public. The disciples go from unbelief to belief and then circle back repeatedly as they follow Jesus.

At the heart of what Jesus is doing at this wedding is protecting the groom, the bride 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; bringing disgrace on the family. There were few things worse than failing to provide for one’s guests. Jesus, by providing wine for them, 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 and our sins. He covers us in his love at the very moment we need him to. Jesus can change your life, He can change your day and He can also change that very moment you find yourself in.

Many people are struggling right now and some for a very long time. Too long. People are losing jobs and relationships; some are unable to feed their children and themselves. Many medical staff feel they cannot provide the care that they desperately want to for the sick and the dying in front of them. My suspicions are that high levels of shame and embarrassment abound for many people.
Jesus covers that shame and embarrassment when we let Him. Whatever situation you are facing that you find shameful or embarrassing, please know that you are covered in the love of God. Please seek help if you need it.

Obedience & Belief
Mary is expecting Jesus to do something about the lack of wine at the wedding in Cana. The exchange between Mary and Jesus is somewhat amusing. Mary is concerned about the lack of wine and Jesus is saying ‘Oh Mother, mind your business!’

Mary is having none of this; she is the one who notices the problem and persists in doing something about it. She is absolutely confident in Jesus’ ability and his generosity; so much so that she does not wait for Jesus to even decide what or how he will solve the problem. Mary immediately involves the servants to do ‘whatever he tells you to’.

We can surmise that the servants would have been terrified at the prospect of running out of wine. They might have been desperate for a solution to prevent the shame that was coming. Mary and Jesus seem to be the first miracle those servants needed.

Filling up those jars would have been a lot of work for the servants. There was no running water, the jars were large so many trips to the well were likely required. This was a new thought to me! Obedience and belief are hard work; and yet 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.

It is hard work to hold to the promise of God’s abundance in the face of scarcity, pain and loss. They have no wine. I/we/they have no… At the end of it, I am so glad that His ways are not my ways. I know that Jesus will do something, even if I need to be reminded repeatedly. We can be the ones to notice, name, persist and trust when we find scarcity and are unable to do anything about it. We can pray, seek and ask the wine-maker to fill the jugs once again. We can invite others to obey the wine-maker that we have come to know and trust. God is good and loving and generous.

Epiphany 2: Listen up!

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout,
The Infant Samuel brought by Hanna to Eli
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Epiphany 2

1 Samuel 3:1-20
John 1:43-end

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 now firmly in the season of Epiphany; and over the next couple of weeks we will see the epiphany stories in the lives of people in both the Old & New Testaments. Eli and Samuel and the calling of Philip and Nathanael today; next week at the wedding in Cana.

Last week we celebrated the Wise Men’s arrival and presentation of their gifts to Jesus. This is a significant event as we celebrate their realisation of Jesus. We also remember that Jesus’ arrival was for the whole world and not only for the Jewish people. We are all included.

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 did not know 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 and that he 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 completely 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.

Let us look at the epiphany stories in our readings today. Who are these people? Eli was a priest who lived at Shiloh with his two scoundrel sons. Ministry was not going particularly well for him. His boys were doing all sorts of things they should not and Eli was not doing much about it.

Eli then meets Hannah, a woman who has travelled with her husband and his 2nd wife and children to Shiloh for a time of sacrifice and worship. Hannah came to the shrine as she was deeply distressed and weeping, to pray to God. Hannah was childless while her husband’s second wife was fertile and kept rubbing Hannah’s face in it. Eli assumes Hannah is drunk; such are his expectations of the shrine he has charge over. Eli is obviously not used to people coming into the shrine to pray and fall on their knees before the Lord or seek the word of God.

Eli realises Hannah’s real need and fortunately his priestly training comes through and he blesses her. Hannah goes back to her husband, becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel. Hannah had promised God that if he would give her a son, she would offer him back to God. A few years later Hannah returns to Eli with Samuel and leaves her baby/now toddler with him. Brave thing to do as his parenting seems much to be desired.

Despite this, Samuel was ministering before the Lord and seemed to grow and prosper under Eli’s care. Then the time comes when God calls Samuel. This was a rare event. It was certainly not something that Eli, now a very old man, had ever experienced. It takes him time to work out what is going on.

It is Eli who tells Samuel what to say. He knew. It just took him a while. Good news for us! The story of Samuel and Eli is often used to help those to work out their vocation, or their calling in any form of ministry, not just the ordained. So there are no excuses.

The central feature here is the willingness of Samuel to seek Eli’s help and then respond to God’s calling of him. Samuel responds by offering himself as a servant to God, ‘Speak Lord for your servant is listening.’ From this moment, God begins to speak to Samuel. This is not an easy task. One of the first things that Samuel has to do is give Eli some very bad news.

God is going to punish his house forever for not restraining the bad behaviour of his family. There is no way out. Priests in the Old Testament were called a higher standard; this was common knowledge. The consequences of blasphemy and desecration of the temple and its objects was taken very seriously by God. Eli seemingly could not or would not live up to God’s standards nor did he insist his sons did. Eli does not put up defence or fight. Maybe this was a quiet epiphany for him.

We are all called by God; to be loved by him and to be with Him forever (salvation). In response to His love and salvation, we are to do our part for his kingdom on earth. Samuel and Eli were called; one did what was asked and the other did not. There are consequences.

In the New Testament reading, we see the epiphany stories and consequences for the new disciples. Jesus found Philip and said to him ‘Follow me’. So he did! Just like that. Then Philip found Nathanael and with little prompting (at least that we know about) came to Jesus.

When Nathanael first meets Jesus, he is looking for a thrill, for some excitement. He wants to see everything that Jesus does as magical and entertaining. But Nathanael has no idea about what is to come! No clue on how God will choose to bring heaven and earth back into unity through the Son of Man, Jesus.

Nathanael’s name in Hebrew means ‘God gives’. Yes he does! God gives us his love, his grace, his joy and his peace; to name a few. God gives us heaven. When we follow Jesus, we will see heaven opened. That will be one epiphany!

Samuel’s response to God’s call is one of willingness and work; he worked and served under Eli at the shrine. Samuel’s obedience is rewarded by God as he becomes a trusted prophet. Philip and Nathanael willingly follow Jesus, not having really any idea of what was to come.

How will we react to God’s calling on us? We/you all have one. We have the assurance and often need the reassurance that God is with us. As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him. He is with you! He is with me.

It is true that it is what we don’t do that we regret more than the things we do. The start of a New Year is a good time to blow off the dust! The Lent Groups are starting soon – join one of those. You might just be amazed at what God has to say to you or might be calling you to. We can work it out together.

Whatever you are called by God to do might not seem amazing. You might be thinking ‘sure Sue. I’m old, I’ve done my time.’ Here’s the thing, if God was done with you, you’d already be dead. He would have taken you home.

So by the mere fact you are still walking around and breathing means He has things for you to do.

Who needs you to be praying for them?
Who in your family has not yet put their faith in Jesus?
What don’t you know about the Bible?

I’m going to leave some space now for some quiet reflection/prayer to think about what it is that God is calling you to do at the start of this new year.

If you know what your calling is – thank him for that.

If you don’t know – but want to know – ask him for clarity.

If you don’t know and don’t want to know – then pray to want to!

Loving Lord, as we remember the at this time the story of the wise men and the gifts they brought to the infant King, we pray that we in our turn may offer him the gold of obedience, the incense of lowliness and the myrrh of devotion; and all for his honour and praise. AMEN.