I preached off-the-cuff today, without a written sermon. But here are some notes written up after the event…
[iii] a myrrh-mur, rising
I don’t know what darkness you are journeying through today. Some of you have let me in enough to give me a glimpse, but I cannot experience your darkness as you experience it; nor you, mine. I do know that some of the darkness, at least, is holy. Bereavement, grief, is holy. I know, also, that there is darkness in your life that is the culmination of the sin of the world, that awareness that the days we are living in are lacking in justice and mercy; and I am reminded, again, that this present darkness is passing away. Until it does, stand still, breathe deep and slowly, and watch the dawn. Allow your heart to thrill and rejoice, for Jesus is the omega and the alpha, the End, and the new Beginning.
I don’t know what darkness you will journey through in the year ahead, but I know that Jesus is the brightness of your dawn. And I sense that he would have me offer to anoint you with myrrh [oil of Chrism], for, with the Magi, traditionally known as kings, all those who kneel before the Christ-child in adoration are anointed kings and queens, crowned with the glory of the Lord. Living promises of the dawn that is breaking.
[ii] if I may be frank(incense) with you
Our reading from Isaiah speaks of thick darkness and of dawning glory, and with it the promise, ‘Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice’ – a promise experienced by the Magi when they reached the goal of their longing, and ‘they were overwhelmed with joy.’ Isaiah cries out ‘Rise! Shine! Become light, participating in the glory of Yahweh. Though, to rise, the magi must first fall on their knees in adoration. And before that, they must journey through darkness, deep and thick, the darkness where God dwells, hidden from sight, requiring of us that we walk by faith. The thick darkness belongs to God as much as the glorious sunrise.
In this Season of Epiphany, a surprising revelation, we are invited once again to journey with the Magi, through the dark. That is, we are already on a journey through the dark, and we are invited to attend to it, to enter it more fully, to name it for what it is. To give a name, also, to the end of our searching. Every person you have ever met or will ever meet is searching in the dark. And, ultimately, whether they know it or not, whether they can name it or not, what they are searching for is God-with-us, in the human face of Jesus. God, come to us, as a baby, vulnerable, dependent on us. The light of his countenance overwhelms grown men, powerful men of means. Herod did not dare gaze upon the child.
What, then, of the darkness we travel through? The darkness within which God is simultaneously hidden from us and revealed to us? The Magi observe the night sky and discern meaning there, story that makes sense of the world. We journey through the darkness of our learning, our experience, of all that has become so familiar to our community that we no longer see it at all. The darkness is to us what water is to fish. But the Magi also appear in Jerusalem, having come so far on the strength of what they already know, knowing that they still haven’t found what they’re looking for, knowing that others might be able to help them, even if they don’t yet know that the very person whom they are asking will betray their trust. We must journey through the darkness of the very limits of our learning, our experience, from independence, through interdependence, to utter dependence on others, just like the infant Christ. Unless we journey through the darkness, until we are willing to do so, we will never find what we were searching for all along.
Looking through the darkness of history, through the centuries, by faith, Isaiah sees a multitude of camels bringing gold and frankincense, and in the clearer light of dawn Matthew is able also to see myrrh. An opening of treasure-chests. An opening of the life we have been given, to reveal before God what lies within: the seam of gold mined from the earth, metaphor for wisdom; the sap of a tree, its lifeblood surrendered in prayer; oil of anointing, kings and queens, and the dead. Wisdom, discovered in the dark, hard won by hard labour. The life of prayer, also learnt in the dark, its treasure surrendered to the one who has experienced the dark night of the soul, the awareness of God’s presence that comes only after awareness of God’s absence. The glory of being part of the people of God, the family of Jesus, dawn-bearers in a world longing for light.
[i] this is gold
Tou de Iēsou gennēthentos en Bēthleem tēs Ioudaias en hēmerais Hērōdou tou basileōs idou magoi apo anatolōn paregennonto eis Hierosolyma
Now Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judea, in [the] days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from [the] east arrived in Jerusalem, (Matthew 2:1)
I don’t often offer you whole sentences in Greek, but there is a striking contrast here that is lost in our English translation: between ‘en hēmerais Hērōdou, in [the] days of Herod,’ and ‘magoi apo anatolōn, Magi from the east.’ Herod’s reign is described as the period from sunrise to sunset. That is, a rising to power, a period of brilliant glory, and a fading to a passing. The Magi are described as arriving from the rising of the sun, from the dawn, the light of a new day. The point is clear, certainly to Herod if not to us: Herod’s days are passing, a new day is dawning, its light already breaking the eastern horizon. Herod will fight it tooth and nail, but you cannot hold back the dawn.
Most English churches lie East-West. I live in a vicarage that lies East-West alongside such a church. In these days at the beginning of a new year, I stand on the half-landing and watch the sun rise over our neighbours’ homes. The sky passing from night into day, from darkest blues through electric blue, purple, vivid pink, gold, silver, palest baby blue. I stand, very still, breathe slowly and deeply, welcome the day.
Gospel reading set for Holy Communion today: John 1:43-51
When Jesus invites Philip to follow him, the first thing Philip does is go and find his friend Nathanael. If he is going to follow Jesus, he wants his friend to follow Jesus too. Philip tells him that he, along with a few others, think that they have found the One whom both Moses (the Law) and the Prophets spoke of, the One whom God would send, to deliver his people and establish a new and peaceable kingdom. They think that Jesus might be the One. Jesus, from Nazareth.
Nathanael is surprised by this, and asks, can anything good come from Nazareth?
When Philip introduces Nathanael to Jesus, Jesus declares, here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false. Now, I choose to believe that Jesus is a good judge of character, and that if Jesus says that there is nothing false in Nathanael, then there is nothing false in Nathanael. And that means that when Nathanael asked, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ it was not a cynical question, it was not a sarcastic question, it was not a dismissive statement masquerading as a question: it was a genuine and open question.
And this genuine and open question leads me to discover that God chooses the most unlikely places to turn up, the most unlikely people to turn up amongst. Not where you or I would begin, were we God.
And this gives me hope, because, truth be told, the chances of God turning up in my neighbourhood are highly unlikely. Which, it turns out, is reassuring.
That is the first thing that strikes me from the Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today. The second relates to the strange exchange between Jesus and Nathanael. When Jesus declares that Nathanael is a true Israelite in whom there is nothing false, Nathanael wants to know how Jesus knows [of] him. Jesus replies, before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree. On hearing these words, Nathanael responds, Teacher, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!
That all sounds somewhat far-fetched, but in fact it makes perfect sense. You see, the prophet Micah spoke of a day when God would establish a new kingdom with a new king in Jerusalem, a kingdom fashioned from the remnant who have endured the fall of Jerusalem, a time of peace between the surrounding nations, former enemies now friends, the formerly hostile now seeking out the instruction that comes from the mouth of the new king, and in those days everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall be afraid. And, centuries later, when the land is occupied by Roman armies that put down revolt by lining the major arteries with crucifixion gallows, Nathanael is sitting under a fig tree.
In other words, Nathanael is living the future in the present. Is living prophetically. Is acting, including towards others, as if it were already a time of security and friendship. Nathanael is in the habit of rehearsing this Day, and so, on the day when the coming king comes along, well, of course Nathanael recognises the One he has been waiting for.
And this begs the question, in what ways am I living the future in the present? In what ways am I habitually rehearsing a world in which former enemies sit down as friends, without fear?
You shall love, part 2
I have already noted that the human = land + sea + sky. But there is another, parallel, way of speaking of this being, as a soul composed of heart and mind and strength (Soul = heart + mind + strength).
This is a true parallel, in that the heart is of the land, the mind is of the sea, the strength is of the sky.
The heart is the seat of the will, our capacity to make choices, for good or evil but always being redeemed. The will has a certain dependable—habitual—solidity to it, but also experiences the churning passion of subterranean magma, renewing us; also experiences the tectonic friction of rubbing against the will of others, especially those closest to; also experiences erosion, worn down or away over time.
The mind is our capacity for emotion and reflection, for feeling and thought, for discovering the world around and within us, for pooling knowledge, wisdom. The Scriptures speak of a coming time of peace, when ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). Warm shallows, clear as green glass; hidden depths searched out by sub(conscious)mariners; powerful waves, that threaten to submerge us.
Our strength is our capacity to move, being moved. Power. Freedom. Jesus said, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ (John 3:8). Today, we can track the wind, can even farm it. But the wisdom holds. We are animated, given strength, by the breath, the wind, at times a gentle breeze, at times wild and free, destructive even. Our strength is not of ourselves; yet we can learn to track it, to recognise the doldrums and the storms, to farm our energy and put it to good purpose.
You shall love. You shall love, with every element of yourself aligned, in harmony. You shall love your God, your neighbour, yourself. All this, upheld by God. Supported by the law and the prophets, by instruction and reflection on practice. But, ultimately, upheld by God, who holds all things.
You shall love, part 1
Our Lord Jesus Christ said:
The first commandment is this:
‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul, with all your mind,
and with all your strength.’
The second is this: ‘Love
your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
When God birthed the world and all that is in it, ‘she’ did so simply by speaking everything into being. God’s words are substantial, have substance, form substance, matter. But when the Lord God created human beings, ‘he’ fashioned them, alone, with his hands.
God had created Sky and Earth and Seas, each a place for life to flourish, delighting in a bird that, having once taken flight, would not set foot on land again for years; in earthworms that would pull fallen leaves into the soil and break them down to feed future leaves, as-yet unfurled; in the majestic blue whale circling the oceans as the sun wheels the heavens. But when God created humans, he took clay and added breath, water vapour: air and water, Sky and Sea, combined, and combining with Earth, all three. This creature, this new creation, is not bound to any one place but elected from every sphere.
This three-in-one creature has a purpose, and that purpose is to love. So shall they be the crown of, and over, all creation. When God expands on this later, God says, ‘You shall love…’ You shall love with your whole being. Remember, God’s words are substantial, give substance. We tend to hear these words as an injunction we fail to adhere to, an impossible command that sets us up for failure, but they are not. When God says, ‘You shall love,’ these are the substantial words of the One who creates, redeems, and sustains all life. It is as impossible for us not to love as it is for the sun to give light: the very thing God created it to do, bringing it back after it is eclipsed by every night, by every winter, guaranteeing that it shines on. The question is not can or will we love—it is impossible for us not to—but where will our love be directed?
Today, 28 December 2022, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on which we remember the massacre of the innocents recorded in Matthew chapter 2.
In his Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the Son (descendant, heir) of David. Matthew groups Jesus’ teachings into five blocks, and it has often been noted that this is a nod to the Five Books of Moses, Jesus the New Law Giver; but it is surely also a nod to the five books that make up the library of the Psalms.
David is loved by God, but that doesn’t stop him from doing terrible things. Among them, David rapes Bathsheba, then, when she is found to be with child, has her husband, who is away fighting one of David’s wars, murdered to cover his tracks. The child dies, but Bathsheba refuses to be discarded: first, David will take her as his queen, relegating his other wives; then, later, David will name their son Solomon his heir, even though Solomon is nowhere near the head of the line of succession.
When Jesus, Son of David, is born, another king is on the throne in Jerusalem, the pretender, Herod the Great. Herod, also, has issues with his issue. Not long before his own death, Herod had his firstborn son and heir, Antipater II, executed, having already had two sons by his second wife executed some years earlier. On his death, his territory was mostly divided between two sons by his fourth wife and a son by his fifth wife (Herod’s sister also being given a few cities).
Matthew records that Herod, on hearing news of a son born in Bethlehem and being proclaimed David’s rightful heir, ordered that every boy who fell, give-or-take, within the spatial parameters of Bethlehem and the temporal parameters of two-years-old, be killed. Thus, we are told, the wailing lament of Rachel for her lost children (Jeremiah 31:15) is fulfilled. But the lament the Lord speaks of through Jeremiah is the lament of exiled youth, met with the promise of a return from exile. The fulfilment is not Herod’s paranoia but in the exile of the holy family to Egypt and the promise that they will return. Not even Herod and his heirs can prevent this work of God’s grace.
Nothing in God’s selfless goodness makes human selfish wickedness okay. There is a field of darkness that encompasses the hero as much as the villain, a part of all our stories, if not the whole story. But there is a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot grasp it with evil intent, cannot extinguish it. Seal it in a tomb, and it will burst out, ablaze.
Some have questioned the historicity of the massacre of the innocents, but history knows better than to doubt. There have been, and remain, countless children killed before their rightful time to die, through our negligence, our weakness, our own deliberate fault, in the wrong we have done and the good we have failed to do. This is a tragedy. And if death was the final word, an utter waste. But despite the tragedy of life, death is not the final word. Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a bitter-sweet day no doubt, and yet a day in which all that was intended for harm is caught up in goodness, where every tear of pain is washed away with tears of joy. Where mothers and sons are reunited, and all wrongs redeemed.
God has loved us with an everlasting love. So come to the table of the future, set for us in the present. This night is the fifth night of Christmas. Let us raise a glass to the children.
I will not wish you all a Merry Christmas. For some of you, this Christmas is already full of joy, of diamonds and champagne and promise, of Christmasses to come, of new traditions waiting to be birthed. For others here, this Christmas is as bitter and unpalatable as the baked camembert Jo served up tonight. Though even such full-bodied notes as these, having recoiled, may come to be appreciated by the mature palate. An after-taste, a counterpoint to sweetness.
Instead, my wish is this. That, with the babe, this Jesus, wrapped tight in strips of cloth, and hidden in the manger, you may find whatever grace you need this night. Whatever you need.