Luke 2.22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’  When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him

Presentation in the Temple

They brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…

Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord….

They offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord., a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons

The Lord wants to see us, and so he commands us to come. We go to his temple, the meeting place at which has agreed to make himself available to his people. As often as we turn up, he grants us an audience, listens to us and looks us over. He wants to see how we are getting on, so he invites us to come and make our report. We take to the Lord some sign of what we have achieved since we were last before him. We take a representative sample of our livestock, because this is evidence that we are good stockmen and managers. We bring some representative part of what the Lord has given us so he can see how it has grown since last time. If it has flourished, he can see that we are good stewards, capable of handling what is entrusted to us well, and now perhaps worthy of more responsibility. The health of this single animal represents the health of our entire holding.

The animals brought into the temple represent sons and all the other members of our household. Our own sons and servants may accompany us, and perhaps the Lord can see that we treat our servants as though they are our own sons. Animals dispatched back to heaven are messengers from the present generation of this household to ask for another generation for this household, so that it has a future. 

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany John 2 Wedding at Cana

John 2.1-11

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. ……When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’11Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

On the third day there was a wedding. The third day is resurrection day. After the slog and pain of this day we arrive, we can stop, put down our work, and are released. A wedding is a gathering and a feast and gladness. We stop work, come together and celebrate being together.

Wine

When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew…

The steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now…

Water is changed into wine. But this happens before us in order that we realise that this water is simply being changed back into wine. Water really is wine, but wine toned down for our benefit. Water is a liquid of earth; wine the liquid of heaven. It is heaven that makes earth what it is for us. Whatever is earthly comes from heaven, but is reduced so that that it does not overwhelm us. Everything that is good, comes to us from the holy life of God and is a portion and manifestation of it. Wine is a strong manifestation, and water a weaker manifestation, of that holy life.

There is fullness in heaven, or rather, heaven is simply fullness. It is the self-renewing, replenishing store cupboard, from which supplies come to us as we need them. We learn what they are and what they can do, as we receive them in thanks and as we, in giving thanks for them, pass some token of them back in acknowledgement. Just as if you receive a large package, you tear a strip off it and send this back as your receipt and acknowledgement of what you have received. In all our thanksgiving we are offering acknowledgement of what we have received.

All food and supply and provision arrive on earth from heaven.  The completed whole supplies each present instalment to us. The whole supplies the part. Everything does not arrive all at once, for then it would simply be unassimilable by us. We live in a just-in-time system.

Heaven supplies all things to us. There is the fullness and reality of all that is. We send back our thanks for the supplies we receive. And we send back whatever is broken or spoiled or we cannot deal with. All that presently exists in creation is a fragment of a greater reality, the unity of which lies ahead of it. Nevertheless, each thing may be seen as a first instalment, a first fruit, a glimpse or a view of what is coming.

The wedding at Cana prepares us for more metonyms or equivalents:

Wine is blood

Blood is holy life

Fire is holy life

Blood is dilute fire

We learn these signs and symbols from the prophets. John says that this was the first of the signs – that is,wonders or miracles – that the Lord gave us in order to tell us. He tells us what is going on and shows us through these illustrations. We not only hear what he says, but through these signs we see it for ourselves.

Second Sunday of Epiphany John 1 The Lamb of God

John 1.29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ 39He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother.41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).

I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove and it remained on him…

The Lamb of God  

Jesus tells us that he is the Lamb of God. He is Agnus Dei, qui tollit peccata mundi – the lamb who bears away the sins of the world.

The Lamb is the token of God and of Israel. He stands for both them together. He is able to go freely between heaven and earth. His coming and going is seen in the sacrifice of lambs made at Passover. The Passover sacrifice is the sign of the founding event in which Israel is taken out of Israel. The lamb is the Lord entering the people of Israel, and through the lamb, as though he were the passage and escape route that opens up before them. He provides the food supply by which sustains them as they do so, for he himself is that food supply.

God takes away the sin of the world. The lamb turns himself into fire in order to take our sins back with him to heaven, returning these broken parts to the whole, so that they may become part of the whole again and so be redeemed.

In Israel’s Law, sins were formally loaded on two oxen and dragged out of the city. Also once a year they were notionally packed onto two goats, one of which was driven far away into the desert from it would not return.

A lamb is an emblem of innocence and sinlessness; the idea is that the creature without any sin or other encumbrance of its own, has no limits on its strength and so is able to pull weights that no creature encumbered by sin can pull. The lamb is not constrained by any sins of his own, so his energy is limitless.

Jesus is the innocent and thus limitlessly powerful draught animal who can take our sins so far away that we will be finally free of them. In daily life all human refuse and waste is dumped just outside. It takes a very well-organised society to dedicate the resources – draught animals – to take that waste far enough away that it will not pollute the water supply on which that settlement depends

The Lamb takes away the sin of the world by returning to heaven, taking with it whatever we load onto it. By fire the lamb returns to heaven. The lamb turns himself into fire in order to take our burdens back with it to heaven, returning these broken parts to the whole. In daily life all human refuse and waste is dumped just outside the settlement. It takes a well-organised society to dedicate the draught animals of taking that waste far enough away that it will not pollute the water supply on which that settlement depends. In Israel’s Law, sins were formally loaded on two oxen and dragged out of the city, and also once a year they were notionally packed onto goats, one of which was driven far away into the desert from it would not return. A lamb is an emblem of innocence and sinlessness; the idea is that the creature without any sin or other encumbrance of its own, has no limits on its strength and so is able to pull weights that no creature encumbered by sin can pull. Jesus is the innocent, and thus limitlessly powerful, draught animal who can drag our sins far enough away that we will be free of them.

First Sunday of Epiphany Matthew 2 Wise Men

Matthew 2.1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:  6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” 

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Israel is a kingly and royal people. All the nations of the earth will see this and come to Israel for leadership and judgment. Israel will provide this government when Israel follows the Lord his God. 

They were overwhelmed with joy….   They knelt down and paid him homage… They offered him gifts…

We worship Christ. The response that recognises him truthfully is this worship of him. These kings worship this king and so make him their overlord. Their homage declares him king of kings. In our worship we offer the Lord gifts. The gifts we offer are the gifts we have received from him. We show him how we have used the blessings and resources he has given us. 

We worship the king, here at this altar. We stand behind the wise men, doing as they do. This worship makes us wise. Understanding and wisdom follow from these actions we make in homage. When we acknowledge that we are standing here before the Lord, creation begins to open itself to us. With this holiness come both life and truth. As result of this our people were able to develop a greater understanding of the world around them. When theology, the Christian confession of God, was made the fundamental starting point, that is when theology became queen of the sciences, all sorts of other sciences became possible, and our knowledge and understanding of creation and our place and vocation in it. We understood that we have been appointed kings and stewards, responsible to the Lord for the good management of creation so that it should achieve the great flourishing of which it is capable.

Opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh

These are gifts that communicate eternity. God, frankincense, and myrrh do not corrupt and so prevent whatever they are mixed into from rotting. These gifts show us that these kings recognised that this child is not king for a while, as they are, but king for all time, the king whom time will never impact upon, so his kingdom will not be replaced by another. These gifts communicate eternity. Knowledge has to do with what is unchangingly true, and therefore with eternity. For time leaches away everything that is not eternal, and make everything we were able to say about it, for as the forces of time wear away at it, whatever it was, it is no longer. Real knowledge is knowledge of what is changelessly true and so it is knowledge of eternity. This is what these kings communicate to us with their gifts.   God makes man immune to change and decay. He who had his beginning in time remains mortal, but immortality pervades him. Eternity has soaked into him, so what is mortal is overcome by what is immortal.   

Christmas 3 Matthew 3 Baptism in the Jordan

Matthew 3.13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

The Christian is Baptised. He is drawn down through the waters and then drawn back up out of them again reborn.

You enter Christ and become one of his people, a member of his Body. If you are baptised you have been given a very high office. There is no higher status than Christian. By baptism you became a king, priest and prophet, and you became a son and heir. You did so because at baptism you entered the body of Christ, the communion of his holy people. There is nothing higher than this. It takes a lifetime of discipleship to discover how vast this dignity is.

At the beginning of our Christian life we are babes, vulnerable, who need the protection, supervision and teaching of the church immediately around us. The church – starting with the specific Christians and congregations – has to take care of you and give you the best start, so that you can grow. They have to ensure that your growth doesn’t stall. They have to accompany you so that you learn to recognise and follow the voice of the master and discern his voice among all the other voices huckstering and dinning all around you. All those other voices want something from you; they want you to join their club and so bolster their power. They want to manipulate you and use you. All the Christians around you want you to grow up, become strong, and grow independent, able to defend yourself from all the charlatans. 

Only Christianity says that persons are individuals, and says that they are not individuals because they make themselves such, by cutting themselves off from all others. To cut yourself off is to put yourself at the top of the chute that will send you sliding away down into the isolation of utter aloneness.

But they are individuals because God calls each of them by their name, and hold them before him, so that it is his relationship with them that makes them utterly distinct from every other person. Their uniqueness flows into them from him. By loving us and calling us, and waiting for our response, God makes us who we are, and refuses to let us lock ourselves into to any smaller or vicious identity. We may attempt to close ourselves down and lock ourselves in, but by continuing to call us God keeps us open.

Scripture is the waters of baptism in which we should stay immersed. Our fathers taught each other the bible, and they knew that all truth and their own identities were revealed to them by the bible. They learned parts of the bible off by heart, so that they were always ready to quote some part of it to help them weigh up how to respond to each situation and decide on the best course of action. They became a more self-controlled and not so easily upset and not stopped by any setback.  They got further on the way towards personal maturity and adulthood. They were disciples, and we should become disciples too. All the virtues of discipleship will help us to deal with all the shocks and adjust to all the changes that life will bring.

The waters are cold deep and the current is powerful. The unruly forces that push their past us and over us will not hear anything we say. They want us to lose our footing, so that we are swept off our feet and carried along. These forces make us helpless babies. Our rulers present us with screens through which pour all forces of the world, the whole current pushing against us and attempting to take it with us. In putting screens into the hands of our children we are recklessly pushing them out into a flood of unhappy human experience without the means of dealing with it. We are pushing them out into rough waters and letting them become immersed in the fear and violence of the unhappy world, in which all is flux and flow, in which the current bears everything away. 

This flow comes at us through our electronic devices. The screens we hold in our hand are the altars towards which we direct our gaze, our desires, prayers and adoration. Each delivers a torrent of images, messages and action, which tumbles together every motive and desire and identity, jumbling everything up with everything else so that no settled individuality emerges and we remain entirely fluid, our identity undeterminable. They set us in an entirely non-reciprocal, asymmetrical and so unjust relationship, in which technology and media owners are everything and we are nothing. We must let go of them and allow the one true flow of holiness that comes from God bears away all that does not belong to us, so that our baptism results in our standing solely on the solid ground of Christ. 

When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

Now we hear this voice. Now we may put down our phone, look up to the altar and see the Beloved Son of God and know that his gaze holds ours, and we are out of the river and on solid ground at last. Out of the torrent and the flood steps the unchanging truth of man with God.

Second Sunday after Christmas Naming and Circumcision of Jesus

Luke 2.15-21

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

The Angels come to earth, bringing to us the gospel and the worship of heaven. Angels are bearers and personifications of the message. Through them, heaven reaches down to earth.

The shepherds are the people of Israel. They are the least regarded and lowest status, since their lives are semi-nomadic, almost never bringing them into the city or political life. Nonetheless, shepherds are representative of Israel. The prophets liked Israel’s rulers to shepherds, either good rulers or bad ones, good guardians or predatory ones.  

The shepherds said Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place…

Bethlehem is the city of David. The shepherds come to worship the Lord. Shepherds are both outsiders, and they represent Israel’s rulers who are often referred as shepherds of their people.

This is the search for man. This is the revelation – which is what ‘epiphany’ means – of the truth of man. Here is the true man, the real and complete man. Now we can say, Show us this man! Show us what a real man is! Where can we see the truth of man? We want to see Jesus. 

Jesus Christ is called the Son of Man. He is the truth of man, and the personification of man. He is the best product of mankind, the prototype and the finished work. He is man who is made holy, brought into the presence of God. As we go through the world we hope to discover more of this true man. We look for intimations of him. A real man can stand through life without becoming a victim – to envy, resentment, to rage or to all the forces that stoke up his resentment and use it to manipulate him. As soon as a man lashes out – at those nearest to him, who he can hurt without consequences – he has failed to be a man. A real man is a disciplined man, which means that he must be a disciple. 

At the centre of our Christmas celebration is the scene of the nativity of Jesus, the crib. Here set out in this cabinet we see Mary and Joseph, the ox and the ass, the shepherds and the kings. This scene is static, but it allows us to direct our worship in the right direction in the same way that the cross and the altar do. It directs our gaze to our true Lord, and so away from false lords, towards the truth and away from fakes and falsehood.

But we leave church and this nativity scene, where does our gaze settle? There are all the many other cabinets of figures, each presented by some institution broadcasting its identity through spectacle. In all these other cabinets the figures move, and the spectacle is live action, loud, repetitive, formulaic. We may watch these spectacles in the isolation that our screen gives us, so we are simultaneously on our own, and part of the vast crowd of spectators. We cannot hear or see this crowd, yet as long as spectacle is streamed to us, we are a member of it. We are held here, rendered supine and voiceless by this show. The point of the show is the power of those who mount it. Their power is the power to make you their audience. As long as you have this show on, you belong to their demographic. Their power comes from your reception, receptivity and susceptibility.

But if you watch the nativity scene you are watching the antidote to the shows now appearing on all other screens. The scene of these figures gathered around this manger in this stable is not too fast moving to take in or to question. It is slow enough for you to deliberate and make your judgment. In the same way, the Easter scene, in which the Lord was similarly flanked by the other figures who make up the scene (they crucified him, one on the left the other on the right), directs us gaze to the one true object and subject of our love.

Any child who watches is gazing at an altar on which a particular religious event is taking place. It looks as though he is merely watching and therefore detached from it, not taking part in it. But this show is the performance by which the powerful lure the gullible, and by catching and holding them, making them powerless. It is an event in which power flows from the watcher – the watcher is drained of the ability to act and the performer and provider of that spectacle draws to himself the power of all those he has rendered powerless. So simply by watching the viewer is inadvertently taking part. It is an event of child-maiming and stunting. It is a religious event in which they surrender their child to the forces which will prevent him from growing up. They surrender not only his childhood but his adulthood to. He enters a form of captivity which is permanent. He cannot live now without the torrent of images, which flash past him too fast to be queried, digested, challenged. He cannot live without this level of over-stimulation. It cannot be produced within any small community, but only by the whole vast financial and technical resources of the global media, the purpose of which is to dissolve all locality and create this single global economy, this single cultic form of obedience. They are stunting their own children, and ensuring that they will never be able to grow up because they received and don’t know what love is, or that human relationships are entirely about face-to-face, reciprocal relationships, in which we listen and speak to one another, in which we hear and are heard by one another. They are giving their children away to the gods, and the gods are not kind. This child-abuse is becoming child-sacrifice, worship of Moloch.

The Son of Man

Jesus calls himself the Son of Man, meaning that he is the offspring and true product of Mankind. He is the true figure and representative of Man, the best of Man, all mankind in one. He tells us that he is the first-fruits, brought to the temple, and there found good by God. There is a test, and he passes it. Summarising the Book of Hebrews, there is a trial, and though many start the course, only one has ever arrived and withstood all that has been hurled at him, which is all the aggression and accusation men have ever hurled at one another. He is the real outcome and achievement of all human striving.

The gospel we have inherited has brought us a very high account of mankind. It is good and true, and reliable and trustworthy. It is ambitious for us in a way not rivalled by another other tradition. It pins us to the hope of love and truth and freedom. It insists that we are men for one another, people in a community, bound by love, and it insists that we learn what is true, and adjust ourselves to the truth, that we develop good judgement in order to explore and its saying that we should abandon our fantasies and let reality be our judge. We should discover that creation is good, that there is a very significant role for us, and that nature is to not simply to be defied.

We are men, we already are human, but we also have to learn how to be men or how to be women. Man and woman are roles that we have to grow into. We grow into them in the same way we grow into any other set of skills; we learn and practice a set of disciplines until we have learned a certain facility, a certain capability and freedom within them. So, we are not up against nature, and not bound to struggle against everything it represents for us. Nature gives us the opportunity. Nature gives us a starting place, and without taking this starting place from nature, we cannot very well make a start on becoming either a man or a woman and so cannot become truly and fully human. In the same way, the formation and education and enculturation we received from our families and neighbours give us opportunity and a starting place.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus…

By this circumcision Jesus becomes a member of Israel. The people of Israel have been chosen to be the example of what mankind is intended to be. Israel is the model of mankind, and therefore it is also our coach and trainer. Israel is the sketch and prototype, so there are many – many false ways explored and finally abandoned. All the errors and mistakes are remembered and still visible as much as the successes. It is the people with the experience and they are therefore the teacher for whoever wants to learn and follow. Israel’s experience and history are written down in order that there be a public record of Israel’s long apprenticeship. Israel is elect to be the eldest son, the eldest of many brothers. He is to make life easier for them by showing them the way and leading them. He is their pioneer and trail-blazer.

Each of us is given an identity. It is a Christian identity. We are who we are, because our parents and families name us and call us and affirm us. for these many centuries they have done so in confidence, understanding your unique identity, because they received their identity from the gospel. We have understood that God knows us, and calls and names us, and waits for us and hears us and answers us. He has given us this name – Jesus – just so we can call him.