Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Ponder these things

Speaking about Mary was very difficult for me in the early days. I started in a low  evangelical church which simply ignored Mary.
I trained at an Anglo catholic Monastery that lauded Mary to the high heavens and virtually worshipped her which frankly made me physically sick.
I reasoned there must be an authentically Christian way of seeing Mary that trod a path somewhere between those two extremes and eventually I did find it, in the iconography and theology of the Eastern Orthodox church and Rowan Williams.
Amongst other things I used to be Archbishop Rowan Williams personal representative to the Patriarchs of the Orthodox churches of Romania and Bulgaria, called rather grandly his Apokrisarios and Rowan too had an intense interest in Orthodoxy and wrote a wonderful little book called “Ponder these things” where he wrote about praying with icons – well worth having if you could ever get your hands on one.
First of all, it is rarely if ever that Mary is depicted on her own in Orthodoxy. She is to be understood solely in relation to her Son Jesus. She is thus guarded from the sin of becoming an object of worship in her own right.
Icons are not “painted” they are “written”. They are words in paint and they are written for us to read and speak to us. They are termed “Windows into heaven”.
Now if you would turn to the reverse of your pew sheet you will find one particular style called Eleousia (meaning the virgin of heavenly kindness). The other two main styles are “The one who points the way” – Hodegetria and “The virgin of the sign – Orans. And I will incorporate insights from those two other styles along the way.
Look at the icon. See how intimate it is. The Christ child embraces Mary cheek to cheek. His arm encircles her neck and fondles her face, one foot is thrust towards us, and his other hand grabs Mary’s veil.  Many versions have the text from the Song of songs (2:6) behind it which reads “His left hand is under my head and his right hand embraces me”
Christ’s eyes are fixed on Mary and Mary imploringly looks out at us. and Mary’s hand is beckoning and pointing us to Jesus as if to say “Not me, but Him”.
Here we are being told about the intensity and immediacy of their love.
Despite what we know about God through Christ most of us still have as our starting point a notion that God stands at quite a distance from us, waiting for us to make a move towards Him so this image can be quite shocking when you consider that the child is God and Mary represents humanity.
His love is like an eager and boisterous child scambling up his mother’s lap, seizing handfuls of her clothing and nuzzling his face against hers, hungry for sheer physical closeness.
Instead of a distance between humanity and God we have depicted a movement so direct and intimate it can be quite embarrassing. Mary’s expression does seem half embarrassed by the attention.   
We see here that God is not ashamed to be our God. Not only does not mind our company, he is hungry for it, passionate for it. We have here a picture of God’s hungry love for us. Think now of Jesus’ parable of the Father in the prodigal son running down the road to meet his lost son
He loves the reflection of his love in creation, cannot bear to be separate from it and goes eagerly in search of it. Think now of all the parables about things lost – the lost coin, lost sheep, prodigal son again, eager to be reunited which his own which rebelled against him.
How we respond to such intense love I think is shown in Mary’s gaze which is looking directly at you. I ventured earlier, an embarrassment, but she almost looks a bit tragic, burdened. How do I, how do we possibly respond to such love and devotion? How do we begin to receive it?
Mary looks at us with eyes full of love, grief and care as she is the first one to feel the weight of receiving of this almost desperate love.
Look at this icon and what does it tell you about yourself – your own self perception. You are the object of divine love just as Mary is.
But accepting this love turns things upside down just as any child turns the life of a parent upside down. So it is risky and things will change.
As in any icon of Jesus and Mary, Mary is the sign of our humanity engaged by God. In fact, Mary is creation itself embraced by God, and left in disarray and shock and disorientation when we realise the true nature of God.
God is here not a distant parent, or a perhaps threatening adult love but as a hungry child.
God cannot bear to be separated from us because he cannot bear to be separated from his own divine action. The creator has a burning desire to be reunited with his creation.   


Monday, 12 December 2016

John the Baptist

Isaiah 35: 1-10 (page 595 in our pew Bibles) The dominant theme of the entire Bible is "exile and return" which can be applied to both Israel and the human race as a whole. Here Isaiah talks about the return of the redeemed and the signs that will accompany the event and fulfilled by Jesus.
James 5: 7-10 (page 1013 in our pew Bibles) A call to patience when waiting for the day of the Lord from Jesus' brother James. He implores us not to grumble against each other while we wait.
Matthew 11: 2-11 (page 816 in our pew Bibles) John the Baptist wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah and Jesus replies that he should look at Jesus' works in fulfilling the prophesies of Isaiah.

If it is true that as it says in Proverbs 29:18 that “without a vision the people perish or are discouraged” then it is essential that the prophets make God and his certain action the centre of their message.
And here we have a wonderful vision of the salvation of humanity and the everlasting joy that is promised to God’s people.

The imagery is that of a return from exile. The two greatest influences on the Jewish psyche was the captivity in Egypt and the return with God’s help under the guidance of Moses, imprinted into the Jewish mind by the celebration of the Passover every year and the exile in Babylon and the return engineered by God through King Cyrus.

These two exiles mirror the primal exile of the entire human race from the Garden of Eden and our return engineered through The Son of God himself, Jesus Christ.
We are exiled from God in a wilderness of suffering, death and futility, by our own volition until we were rescued by the action of God through Jesus on the cross. What he asks for in return, to access this salvation, this eternal joy, is our faith. The way we exercise our faith is through the amendment of our life – by turning against evil and consciously returning to God’s fold. This involves the surrendering of our will to God’s will.

We also heard from James, Jesus’ brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

He has advice for us. As we are waiting for this glorious future, be patient. And in our patient waiting, confirm our faith. Don’t grumble against each other, and show complete honesty and integrity. We don’t need to swear oaths as Christians because our word is our bond. Our words and actions should be as one. Our yes is yes and our no is no, because we don’t deceive each other.
And it is always a comfort to know that others have gone through what you have gone through so James reminds us that the prophets needed great patience and endurance to achieve their goals.

One of these, the last of the prophets was John the Baptist and in Matthew’s gospel today we see John in prison at a moment of weakness, who is wondering if Jesus really is the long awaited Messiah. Jesus doesn’t answer with a direct yes or know but says, “Look at the prophesies written about the Messiah.” The deaf are given their hearing, the blind their sight, the lepers walk, the dead raised”. What more do you want?
This day we are celebrating John the Baptist’s role in our salvation history and great pains are taken to present him as a traditional Old Testament prophet, wild and woolly, living a frugal existence in the wilderness (which itself is a part of prophesies).
He acts as a kind of Bridge between the Old and New. Jesus is a new thing in their lives but John the Baptist is that link between themselves and the Old Testament Prophets, and is a kind of guarantor that while Jesus is new and challenging, he is the one foretold by the Prophets.

But we end with one startling statement made by Jesus. No-one is greater than John, yet even the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than John. Now whatever can Jesus be saying here? Any of us that confesses Jesus as our Lord and saviour is much greater than John the Baptist.

Well John was certainly a great prophet who pointed people to Jesus and he knew a lot about God’s Justice and preached as such BUT he had not and could not see the cross. He would not be able to appreciate the depth of God’s Love, his forgiveness and Grace. He had not seen the full revelation of God’s love. We have and we are blessed indeed. That is why we are, through no merit of our own greater than John the Baptist.

We are witnesses to the full revelation of God’s love for each one of us. Christianity is a corporate faith but it is also intensely personal.

Essentially it is personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We have seen God’s glory and experienced his limitless love and forgiveness. That is our greatest possession, and one we should be proud the share and give away as a precious gift this Christmas.

Monday, 5 December 2016

I have seen the light!

Isaiah 11: 1-10 (page 575 in our pew Bibles) Tempting to just luxuriate in some well known and beautiful words of Isaiah. The Spirit endowed Messiah has God like qualities so natural to him that they are worn as "Clothing" (v. 5). He is also endowed with the power to enforce his justice leading to universal peace not just in the realm of human affairs but also in nature as well
Romans 15: 4-13 (page 949 in our pew Bibles) Paul affirms the words of scripture affirming the psalms, the law, the historical books and the prophets as all being written for our instruction (v. 4). On this 2nd Sunday in Advent we celebrate the role of the prophets. 
Matthew 3: 1-12 (page 808 in our pew Bibles) Luke also quotes Isaiah when referring to John the Baptist. John baptised with water but Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and will judge the nations with God's justice. 

On this day we celebrate the role of the prophets in our salvation history. But what is a prophet? There are two closely related aspects to being a prophet.
One is taken from the Greek profetes which means “foretelling”, but the original Hebrew word Nabi’ means “one who proclaims” powerfully into the political and social circumstances of his time.
The greatest prophet is generally judged to be Isaiah and in today’s offering we have a beautifully written foretelling of the coming of a future Messiah.
This future Messiah will be from “the root of Jesse”  Jesse was the Father of King David so the future king would come from the Davidic line. But this future King would be endowed with the “Spirit of God” and not like all the disappointing kings of Israel they would endure.
Just as true Prophets were endowed with the Spirit of God to deliver the words of God the ideal future king will Govern as God would govern.
Actually his God-like qualities would be so natural that they would be worn like clothing. And he will judge the world as God would judge it and bring in the peace that passes all human understanding.
And not only to the human world but to all creation, symbolised by the calf and the Lion laying down together. The whole cosmos will recognise the sovereignty of God.
And as if to underline the authority of scripture as a binding agent for warring parties to unite behind Paul quotes from various parts of the Bible, including Isaiah, and says that these words were written for our instruction and will if followed bring different parties of Christians together under the authority of Christ as vested in the scriptures.
This is a powerful appeal to the authority of the Bible to unite behind.
And just in case we needed more encouragement our last reading is from Matthew’s gospel where he too quotes from the prophet Isaiah, referring to his prophesy about John the Baptist. And of course, but not included today is the episode when Jesus, sitting in the Synagogue unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and reads from it and declares, “Today this prophesy has been fulfilled in your presence”
But in this text today from Matthew there Is a hint of the extent that Jesus surpasses John. John baptises with water but Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit.
Remember that baptise means “to immerse” so at baptism the person is immersed not just in water but in God’s Spirit. Immersed in God; drenched with God. 
That is God’s promise, that when the little child is baptised here today she will be drenched in the reality and truth of God. A light will be lit in her heart that God willing, when she is old enough to understand will respond to in her life.
The prophesies in the Bible are true. They were fulfilled in Jesus and their prophesies about the far future will also be proved true. Our role is to co-operate with the truth and work in tandem with God to bring his light to bear where we find ourselves.
Not in an overbearing way. We need to be canny. We introduce people with gentleness and respect. After all, Jesus told us that we had to as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

Nothing impresses people more than a positive change in ourselves and today we bestow the means to enact that positive change on another child. Whether she uses the God given gift given to her this day will be up to her but all baptised people are given the means, God’s Spirit at their baptism.