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
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
de Iēsou gennēthentos en Bēthleem tēs Ioudaias en hēmerais Hērōdou tou basileōs
idou magoi apo anatolōn paregennonto eis Hierosolyma
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)
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.
reading set for Holy Communion today: John 1:43-51
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
is surprised by this, and asks, can anything good come from Nazareth?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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?
shall love, part 2
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).
is a true parallel, in that the heart is of the land, the mind is of the sea,
the strength is of the sky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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