Epiphany IV (Year C)

In today’s Gospel we continue where we left off last week with Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus has just read from Isaiah 61 and proclaimed the Kingdom of God to the assembled worshippers. By stating, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Lk 4:21), Jesus is claiming to be the fulfilment of Scripture, and the Messianic prophecies contained in Isaiah. This is what we believe as Christians. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, Israel’s True King and Liberator, the Fulfilment of all Scripture. 

At first, Jesus’ words are well received:

‘And all spoke well of him and marvelled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.’ (Lk 4:22)

But sadly, this positive atmosphere does not last for long. The congregation asks:

‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ (Lk 4:22)

The people there have known Jesus for most of His earthly life, and their recognition may even be a source of local pride: here’s one of our own. They know Him as the son of a carpenter, who is now claiming to be the Messiah. It would, naturally, come as something of a shock to them. So they attempt to put Jesus claims into context. At one level they know Him, they know who He is, but at a deeper, more fundamental level they do not. The people in the synagogue misunderstand who and what Jesus is, and their familiarity breeds contempt.

Jesus does not react well to the lack of belief demonstrated by the Nazarenes, and says to them:

“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your home town as well.” (Lk 4:23)

Jesus recognises that the people of His hometown want to see miracles, but He is not willing to perform any. They are expecting or even demanding God’s action, taking the divine for granted. So Jesus says to them:

“Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his home town” (Lk 4:24)

Jesus is explaining why He is being rejected by the people who, one might assume, would know Him best. The prophetic vocation is a difficult and a lonely one, and it involves a lot of rejection, as we see in the Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.

In this passage Jeremiah is addressed by God, a God who knows Jeremiah intimately, and has appointed himas  ‘a prophet to the nations’ (Jer 1:5). His prophetic calling will cause Jeremiah to meet with rejection:

“And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” (Jer 1:19)

Prophets are opposed because they tell people uncomfortable truths. Doing what God wants, rather than what people want, will often make you unpopular. This is a truth of the human condition, as true in Jeremiah’s day as in our own. We should not be surprised that people are upset when God makes demands of them. 

Jesus then gives the worshippers in the synagogue two examples from the ministry of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These are feeding the widow of Zarephath, and the curing of Naaman the Syrian from leprosy. In both instances we see prophets going outside the boundaries of Israel, and healing and restoring non-Jews, known as gentiles. The examples Jesus cites do not get a good reaction:

‘When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.’ (Lk 4:28-29)

At one level, this looks like a huge overreaction. The people have gone very quickly from being extremely happy that the Messiah is amongst them, and one of their own, to trying to kill Him. They have been faced with the uncomfortable truth that the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom is for all people, and not just the Jews, and they do not like it. The fact that we are Christians and reading this here today is testament to the fact that the Good News has spread from Galilee to the whole world. This process began with the Apostle to the Gentiles, St Paul, the author of the First Letter to the Corinthians, today’s second reading. 

St Paul shows the Corinthian Christians a ‘more excellent way’ (1Cor 12:31), the way of Love. Love is the heart of the Gospel and our Faith: God loves us, and we are called to love God and each other. This is not the love of romantic movies, but the gentle, generous, sacrificial love shown to us by Jesus, who dies on the Cross for love of us, to heal us, and restore us. We celebrate the Cross, and I preach it, because it is the demonstration of God’s love for humanity. In the Gospel, Jesus passes through the crowd (Lk 4:30) because it is not His time to die. That will come later, in Jerusalem, at Passover, something we will commemorate in a few months, in April.

Luke presents the message of the Gospel being met with initial celebration followed by angry rejection. The question is, how do we want to respond to it? What difference does it make to our lives? Are we willing to risk having God transform our lives? If we accept that Jesus is Lord, that He is the Messiah, the Son of God. That He took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, to offer humanity new life and eternal life in Him. Are we willing to give Him our lives, all that we are, and to grow in love, together as a community of faith, a church of believers

May we not be like the inhabitants of Nazareth, rejecting Jesus, deaf to His message. May we listen to Him, and be nourished by Him, in Word and Sacrament.May He prepare us for Heaven where we will see Him face to face, and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Brooklyn Museum)

Epiphany III (Year C)

In today’s Gospel we see Jesus going into synagogues, reading from the Scriptures, teaching and preaching. These actions are familiar to us in our worship. We recognise what is going on, because there is a fundamental continuity between what took place in a synagogue two thousand years ago, and what takes place in a church today. We read the same holy book, sing the same psalms, and pray to the same God. Jesus took part in these activities and it is good to be reminded that our religious practice is grounded in an unbroken tradition stretching back thousands of years: both ancient and ever new. 

Luke writes that Jesus returns ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Lk 4:14). Following His Baptism and Temptation in the Desert, we now see the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, and teaches that the Kingdom of God is a reality. His message is that people need to repent, to turn away from their wrongdoing, and to trust God to be at work in their lives. Jesus bases His teaching on the prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and those who hear respond positively: 

‘And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.’ (Lk 4:15)

When Jesus comes to the town where He grew up, He goes to the synagogue to read on the Sabbath. There Jesus is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and He reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4:18-19)

This prophecy is taken from the 61st Chapter of Isaiah. It expresses Israel’s hope for a Messianic future: a hope of healing, freedom, and restoration. This is similar to the idea of the Jubilee, when every fifty years all debts were cancelled, all slaves freed, and all land returned to its original owners. Some of you may remember the Campaign Jubilee 2000, which sought to write off Third-world debt, as a modern reworking of this ancient biblical idea. Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God as a reality, here and now. This is what fullness of life and salvation look like when we live them. It is an attractive vision, and can be a reality, if we co-operate with God to live it out in our own lives. Jesus then turns to the people in the synagogue and says:

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

This is quite a claim to make. If the Scripture has been fulfilled then this means that Jesus is the Messiah, plain and simple. What the prophets point to in the future has now become a reality in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word made flesh is the fulfilment of the Word of God: Jesus fulfils the Scriptures. This is what we believe as Christians, and is why we read the Old Testament. The New is prefigured in the Old. The Scriptures point to Christ, and they find their fulfilment and true meaning in Him. What Israel has hoped and longed for has arrived in the figure of Jesus. Thus, we can say that the Kingdom of God is not something abstract, but rather someone concrete. It is a person, Jesus of Nazareth. The reconciliation of God and humanity happens in and through Jesus. This is a relationship which can grow and develop in each and every one of us. Every day we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom: ‘deled dy deyrnas, Thy Kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer. To make this happen, we have a part to play. We are called to co-operate with God in making the Kingdom more of a reality in the world. This is what the Church is, not a building, but a group of people in a relationship with each other, and primarily with the Living God. As Christians, we proclaim the same truth, and offer the same relationship, healing, and forgiveness. For two thousand years we have announced the same message, and will continue until the Lord comes again. 

This a cause for celebration, one envisaged in Nehemiah, our first reading:

‘Go on your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ (Nehemiah 8:10) 

The Kingdom of God is a cause for celebration. It is what we look forward to in Heaven and it is what we do in Church. We meet to celebrate who Christ is and what Christ does, and to encourage people to know Him, love Him, and believe in Him. Our celebration this morning is both the Feast of the Kingdom, and also a foretaste of heavenly glory.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the announcement of the Kingdom of God, a new way of living, which can transform us, and our world, for the better. The Kingdom of God is to be a place where all are cared for, and where our needs are met. The good news is also for those who are spiritually poor. As Jesus will say in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’ (Lk 6:20). The good news of the Gospel is for those who know their need of God, who are aware of their spiritual poverty. That means all of us. We all need God’s love in our hearts, and our lives, so that we can be transformed.

As Nehemiah says, the joy of the Lord is our strength. May we be strengthened by our faith and share the Good News of the Kingdom with others, so that they may come to know and give praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Brooklyn Museum)

Epiphany II (Yr C)

In today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah is looking forward to a Messianic future. He is giving Israel something to hope for: a vision of how things will be when the Messiah comes. At the feast of the Epiphany kings saw God’s glory in Bethlehem. In the Baptism of Christ we saw God’s glory manifest in the Holy and Life-giving Trinity, in the obedience of the Son of God, and the way to salvation through baptism. Now through the first of Jesus’ signs we will see further fulfilment of prophecy. In Isaiah the joy of God’s kingdom is understood in terms of a marriage, such as we see in this morning’s Gospel. A wedding is a sign of love, and joy, and commitment, something made holy and fruitful by God. 

At one level marriage symbolises God’s relationship with humanity brought about by the Incarnation: where God becomes human, so that humanity might come to share the divine life. The sheer joy of salvation, of hope in Christ, in reuniting what sin had destroyed. What Isaiah looks forward to, is made real in Jesus Christ. And so the first of Jesus’ signs, His demonstrations of the Kingdom of God, takes place at a wedding, in Cana, in Galilee. 

The miracle recorded in the Gospel of John takes place on the third day, foreshadowing Jesus’ Resurrection on the third day. Jesus and His mother are guests at the wedding, and so are His Disciples. Marriages in the Bible are community celebrations, with lots of people invited. To run out of food or wine would be very embarrassing for the hosts, so Mary lets Jesus know that they have no wine. While Jesus’ reply may look like he’s upset, He doesn’t ignore His mother, or fail to comply with her request. However, Jesus explains, that His Hour has not yet come, and it will not, until Jesus dies upon the Cross. 

Mary simply says to the servants, ‘Do whatever He (that is Jesus) tells you’. She stands as a model of Christian obedience. The key to the Christian life is to follow Mary’s example, and do whatever Christ tells us, nothing more, nothing less, just that. The Christian life is rooted in obedience: we listen to God and we act on His words. We do this for our own good, and for the good of the Kingdom, so that we are not conformed to the world and its ways, but rather to the will of God. Doing so enables us to enter into the joy of the Lord.

At the wedding there were six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons, about the size of a modern wheelie bin. Together they held one hundred and eighty gallons, or about six hundred and eighty litres, or the equivalent of one thousand four hundred and forty pints of beer, given that ancient wine was drunk diluted with two parts water. It is a lot of wine to drink, and that’s the point: this is a sign of the super-abundance of the Kingdom of God. It shows us that Christ is a type of Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem. He is the priest of the most High God, who, in Genesis 14:18-20, offers bread and wine to Abram. 

The wedding steward is amazed, this is the best wine he has ever tasted. It is understandable that the steward is surprised, the best wine is usually served first, when it can be appreciated. However, the Kingdom of God turns human values on their head. The joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine. It is lavished upon humanity, so that it might transform us, so that we might come to share in the glory of God, and His very nature. 

Our Christian lives are to be one of celebration: that we are saved, and that God loves us. This is the reason why we are here today at the Eucharist, which is a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb, and the joy of Heaven. This is where we drink the wine of the Kingdom the Blood of Christ so that we may be transformed by the power and the grace of God, so that we may share his Divine life, and encourage others to enter into the joy of the Lord.

The Wedding at Cana points to the Cross, as this is when Jesus’ hour comes, when He sheds his blood for us. The Cross removes all our embarrassment over our wrongdoings, so that we can enjoy forever the nourishment of God’s love prepared for us in Heaven. The heavenly banquet is shown and foreshadowed here under the outward forms of Bread and Wine. So let us feast on the Body and Blood of Christ so that we may be transformed more and more into His likeness. Let us live out our Joy, and share it with others so that they too may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

The Wedding at Cana

The Baptism of Christ (Year C)

January is traditionally a time for making resolutions, and a new start for a new year. Despite our good intentions, most resolutions do not make it past the end of the month. It takes time for habits to form. If we want to make a change then we need to put effort in, and this applies to our spiritual lives as well. It is not too late to set some spiritual resolutions for 2022. Such as reading a daily bible passage, setting some time aside for prayer, or attending church more frequently.

In Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist has been proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk 2:3). John has been calling people to turn away from their sins, and to turn back to God, and live holy lives. This has something of an effect on the people of Judea. There is an increase in religious observance, and something like a religious revival. This, in turn, leads to speculation:

‘As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ,’ (Lk 3:15)

The people of Israel were longing for the Messiah. In Greek this translates as the Christ, the Anointed One. The Messiah is a charismatic King figure, descended from David, who will make Israel flourish. John is not the Messiah, but he is paving the way for the promised one:

‘John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ (Lk 3:16)

John the Baptist knows that he is not the Anointed One. He sees himself as not even worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah, something a slave would do for their master. John demonstrates great humility, and his actions point forward to the baptism of the Church, instituted by Jesus. Whereas John baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This looks forward to both Pentecost, when the Apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit, and to Jesus’ death on the Cross.

Today we are celebrating Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan. It is a moment where we see God the Son, and also God the Holy Spirit, and we hear God the Father. The Holy Trinity, the fulness of God, is made manifest:

‘Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”’ (Lk 3:21-22)

We then have to ask ourselves the question, why is Jesus being baptized? Jesus is not a sinner, He has no sins from which to repent, and yet He is there, being baptized by John. An explanation is that in His Baptism Jesus is in solidarity with sinful humanity: He does not wish us to undergo anything that He would not undergo Himself. Christ is an example of how to come to God and have new life. As a sign of divine approval after the Baptism, as Jesus is praying, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove, and God says: ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ (Lk 3:22)

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus shows humanity the way to the Father, through Himself. The world sees the generous love of God, which heals and restores us to the light and life of the Kingdom of God. As our baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so His Baptism points to the Cross, where streams of blood and water flow to cleanse and heal the world. We see the love of the Father, the power of the Spirit, and the obedience of Son, all for us, who need God’s love and healing, and forgiveness.

At the moment of Jesus’ Baptism, we see the fullness of the Godhead, a manifestation of glory and divine presence. Just as in Noah’s Ark God makes his love manifest in the form of a dove, so now He brings us peace and love. At the end of the Flood a dove brings a branch of olive back to the Ark, a sign of peace and new life. So now, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove to show us the fullness of God, a relationship of love, which is opened up to us in our baptism. We are invited into the embrace of God’s love. 

The Divine Trinity makes itself manifest in recognition of the Son’s obedience to the Father, and looks forward to the Cross, where God’s love is poured out upon the world, and through which we are saved. In our own baptism, we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection. In His Baptism as in His Death, Christ shows us the way to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are baptised in the name of the Holy and Life-giving Trinity. Our worship this morning began by invoking the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân). And so all of our life as Christians is Trinitarian. 

The first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, is a messianic prophecy. It begins with idea of God’s people being comforted, and their wrongdoings being pardoned. This prophecy is fulfilled in our baptism. We are baptized because Jesus was baptized. Christ gives an example, because He loves us and cares for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd spoken of by Isaiah:

‘He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.’
(Isa 40:11)

Our Saviour comes among us demonstrating humility, showing us the way to a relationship with God. Jesus is the shepherd of our souls, who leads us, His people, and shows us God’s love. We can trust Him to be always with us, accompanying us through whatever life throws our way. Christ carries us in His bosom, we are close to Him, loved by Him. We are never alone, because we are  always surrounded by God’s love.

So let us draw strength from our Baptism and grow in faith, hope, and love, nourished by Christ, and with Christ. Let us share that love with others throughout the year ahead, so that all may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Baptism of Christ – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Second Sunday after Christmas

After the excitement and bustle of Christmas and New Year, there is a certain slowness about January. The days are short, the weather isn’t great, and, despite our resolutions, no one feels all that lively or full of energy. It is understandable, and thankfully the Lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit some Christmas texts, to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation. While the world around us has taken their decorations down, in the Church we are still celebrating Christmas, and will continue so to do for some time yet. The awesome mystery of God taking human flesh and being born among us needs more than a day’s celebration. Indeed we could spend a whole lifetime pondering the wonderful fact that God has come earth to share our human life, and to bring about our redemption and restoration.

Today’s Old Testament Reading is from The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. This is a later writing in the Jewish Wisdom Tradition, dated to somewhere between 135-115 years before the birth of Jesus. It was written in Hebrew and soon after translated into Greek. Our reading this morning comes from the beginning of a hymn to Wisdom. Wisdom is likened to the Word of God, and so becomes important as a means of reflecting upon Jesus. This is especially true of the following verse:

Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent.’ (Sir 24:8)

In John’s Gospel we are familiar with the verse:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (Jn 1:14)

The word we translate as ‘lived’ actually means ‘pitched his tent’. John’s Gospel is looking back to the Jewish Wisdom tradition to understand the Incarnation, and to place Christ’s birth in a wider scriptural context. The author of Ecclesiasticus was looking forward to a Messiah, and now He has been born. The longed-for salvation has become a reality. 

This assurance lies behind St Paul’s joyful greeting to the Christians in Ephesus. As Christians we have entered into a new relationship with God the Father: 

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved’ (Eph 1:5-6)

Our primary identity is as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is through an outpouring of God’s grace — unmerited kindness and generosity because He loves us. This is the heart of the Christian Faith, and the message of Christmas: God loves us. How we respond to that love is our choice. Paul prays that Christ:

may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.’ (Eph 1:17-18)

Our hope is in Heaven, to spend eternity in God’s nearer presence, to join the Church Triumphant. And this is why Christ is born in Bethlehem: to give us this hope, to bestow this grace upon us. Through our celebration of Christmas we know that ours is a God who comes among us, who comes alongside us, who is not remote, but involved: a God of love.

Saint John take us back to the beginning so that we can see how things fit into the bigger picture. What we are celebrating at Christmas is something which extends through time, both in its nature and its effects. It is why we as Christians make such a big deal of Christmas – it isn’t just something nice to do in the middle of winter. Along with Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the Birth of Jesus is the most wonderful and important moment of history, and it affects us here and now. What was made known to the shepherds, we now proclaim to the world. This is shown symbolically in the Feast of the Epiphany, where the Wise Men point to the manifestation of Christ’s Divinity made visible to the whole world — the recognition of God’s saving love:

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14)

The reality of the Incarnation, of God with us, Emmanuel, is that God lives with us, sharing our human life, and showing us the glory of God. That which Moses hid his face from in the Book of Exodus is now made plain, and displayed for all to see. It is a proclamation of the glory, the love, and the goodness of God. This is shown by our adoption as children of God, when we are given an inheritance. This inheritance is eternal life and a close relationship with God who restores and heals us. 

The last two years have shown us that humanity desperately needs healing and restoration. This is possible through Christ who can heal our wounds, and restore in us the image of the God who created us. We long for this, we pray for it, and, if we are willing to let God be at work in us, it can become a reality here and now. 

So as we begin 2022, we are grateful that we are able to meet together in worship, and we look forward in hope to a future much brighter than the dark days we have endured. Let us walk in the light of Christ, and know the fullness of His joy. Let us be glad that as a pledge of His Love Christ gives Himself, to feed us with His Body and His Blood. Through the bread and wine of Communion we have a foretaste of Heaven. This is food for our journey of faith here on earth, so that we may know Christ’s love, and touch it and taste it. By participation in the Eucharist, physically or spiritually, we are strengthened to live that faith and to proclaim it by word and deed. So at the start of this new year, we pray that all the world may enter into His joy, live His life, and know His healing. We join with the angels to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Sandro Botticelli Mystic Nativity (National Gallery, London)