16 January 2011 - Sermon preached by the Revd. Ally Barrett

Epiphany 2 A

Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Isaiah 49.1-7

John 1.29-42

Behind most sermons there is a kind of conversation between the words scripture, the tradition of our faith and church, our own powers of reasoning, and the direct personal experience of God – this conversation is the place where we meet God and try to work out what he has in store for us.

When approaching a bible reading, or in this case, a pair of bible readings, and trying to work out what it is that God might want to say to us at this moment by means of those readings, it can be hard to discern how God’s message through these readings relates to the stuff that’s going round in our heads at the time, and the concerns that may be current in the church, in the local community and in the world. It’s amazing how often the readings seem to speak into the situations in which we find ourselves, if we’ve a will to let them, but at the same time, we are rightly cautious about letting those situations in which we find ourselves completely dictate the ways in which we let God’s word come to us.

Sometimes, as a preacher, the complexity and responsibility of the task almost seems too much – and I’m consoled by the fact (and I’ve heard and seen enough evidence over the years to believe it is a fact) that God is capable of speaking not only through my words, but also in spite of them, and that the conversation I described doesn’t just happen at my desk on a Saturday night, it happens again here, today, in seventy-odd minds and hearts in this church building alone, and that God does indeed reach out to us in many and unexpected ways if we open ourselves to him.

I guess such concerns are particularly ‘on the surface’ during Epiphany season, that time in the church year when the readings focus on the revelation of God in wonderful and unexpected ways. So it’s at those times when I’m most conscious of my responsibilities as a preacher, that I most have to trust to that process, that conversation, in which I play only a small part, and set before you some of those things which the readings have led me to ponder, and trust God to speak into your hearts those things that he would have you hear. So much for the disclaimer.

Picture of kneeler with dove decending on St Mary's church

The first thing that struck me was the image of the Holy Spirit descending. I’m grateful to Irena Milloy for this, because it was this time last week that she was sitting in church and suddenly looked down and saw the kneeler on which the picture you have been given today is embroidered, and felt that this was an image that we, as a church needed to see and explore.

The first part of the image comes from the gospel reading in which John the Baptist testifies that he saw the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus at his baptism, and not only that, but that the Spirit remained on him, rather than departing back into heaven.

The second part of the image, the candles, comes from Isaiah’s vision in which he realises that the chosen people of God were chosen from among the nations not for their own benefit but in order that they might be a light for the rest of the world, bearing witness to the light and love of God – we see the same ideas echoed in Simeon’s words when Christ was presented at the temple, when he declared Jesus to be ‘a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel’

This is obviously an image that picks up on some of the themes of Epiphany – particularly the baptism of Jesus, and the presentation of Christ in the temple. But there’s more to it than that. I’m quite a visual person, and once I started looking at the picture in conjunction with the readings, a few things started to come into focus. < /p>

The first was about chosen-ness. ‘The Lord called me when I was in my mother’s womb; before I was born he named me.’ And, ‘You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called ‘Cephas’, which is translated ‘Peter’. These readings give us a clear sense that we are being noticed by God and called individually, by name. There’s clearly a resonance here with our own experience of baptism, being called by name, and drawn into God’s family. But the picture also points to the fact that it is this particular church – not ‘the church’ generally – on which the Holy Spirit descends. Like a lot of people, I’m probably more comfortable with the idea of the Holy Spirit in general, than I am with the idea of the descent of the Holy Spirit in particular. There is something deeply challenging about the image of the dove descending on this image of what is clearly St Mary’s, Buckden. Just as we are each called and chosen by name, so also is this particular church called and given a purpose by God.

At the wedding in Cana, Jesus took what was plain and ordinary, and transformed it into something glorious and special and wonderful. But never forget that it started as water. And it started as water that some obedient but confused servants probably grumbled about having to pour into those six stone water jars. Jesus worked with what was there – and with the willingness of those who engaged with him, and were willing to trust him – to take what they had and make it better.

The second was about the ongoing nature of God’s work in us. John tells us that the holy spirit descends then remains on the one who is the Messiah; in other words, the anointing of the Holy Spirit is an ongoing anointing rather than a brief moment. For me, that means seeking signs of the work of the Holy Spirit in every aspect of life, as God continues to ‘transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of his grace’, as today’s collect puts it. The idea of both the church and each one of us being in a continual and continuing process of transformation is a deeply consoling one. We are works in progress, and as such God does not expect us to have within ourselves all that it will take to do his work in the world, nor do we need to feel that we must be self-sufficient in our life with God and in our endeavours to live God’s way.

The third thing that struck me was about the nature of God mission – if the candles imply that we are to be lights sent out into the world, then that really does mean the world. This sounds like an obvious thing to say, but it’s hard to overstate how radical an idea this was at the time that Isaiah was speaking and writing his prophecies. The whole idea of God being the God of the whole universe, not just of Israel, was still being developed, and the notion that the chosen people were chosen not for their own sake, but for the sake of the world, was an uncomfortable one. It’s as if Isaiah has pointed out that the chosen people had formed a circle where everyone faced inwards, and he’s just told them to turn round so that they face outwards. We find the same idea in William Temple’s famous statement that the church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.

As it happens, this follows on directly from the idea of being called and chosen, for the ones who are chosen and called by name are so called precisely for the sake of all the others. Talking about God amongst ourselves is not, and never has been, enough – the light must be taken and shone outside the usual boundaries. It’s both consoling and shaming to read this instruction in Isaiah, and to know that God has been telling us this same message for two and a half millennia, and we have yet to really make it happen.

Yet, at the same time, we know that because the process of transformation and renewal is not yet complete in us, our task is one of co-operation and co-working with God in the world, joining in with what he is already doing. You could even look at John the Baptist’s enigmatic statement about Christ in this way – Jesus comes after us, yet ranks ahead of us because he was before us – in other words, we go out into the world hoping to point people towards God, yet knowing that precisely because it is God we are pointing people to, he is already there, ahead of us, preparing our way, and at work doing things that we can then point out to those around us.

Finally, the three parts of the image (the dove, the church and the candles) are intimately connected: the ongoing anointing of the Holy Spirit on the church is what makes possible our being sent out as lights for the world. As we begin the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity, let’s not also forget that the image of the dove represents not only the Holy Spirit, but also particularly the spirit of peace. In this image there is a strong sense of the ongoing and sometimes costly process of peacemaking and peacekeeping.

Part of what we are taking out into the world is our witness to the fact that God’s spirit of peace is at work in us. Our life as a church (and by that I mean locally, nationally, internationally, ecumenically) is far from perfect, but in those imperfections and more importantly in the way that we work towards healing them, it is possible to bear witness to the fact that, contrary to expectation, there can indeed be peace between earth and heaven.

That’s how we witness to God’s love and God’s glory. Not by a one-off quick-fix dramatic cure of our sinful nature, or by the pretence that all is well when it isn’t, but by an ongoing process of transformation and renewal that others will begin to see and want for themselves. There may be little we ourselves can do about the Anglican Communion, nor about the relationship between the Church of England and the Catholic Church (for instance), but we can still ask ourselves: can people look at St Mary’s and see the Holy Spirit of love, and joy and peace descending on this place, on us, and transforming us, or can’t they? Or, to be kinder to ourselves: when are the moments when people will be able to see the Holy Spirit of peace at work here, and when have we missed opportunities to let that happen?

I said at the beginning that behind every sermon is a conversation between context, scripture, reason, tradition and personal experience. What I’ve set out today is the fruits of that conversation as it took place for me, but what I would like you to take away is that there are many such possible conversations, and many more insights potentially to be received and shared. So I guess what I’m asking of you is that you dare to continue the conversation and ask God what else he might be saying to you and to this church, this community and the world, through the words of scripture and liturgy, through the situations in which we find ourselves, and through the name ways in which we can already see God at work in us and around us.

The one thing that’s certain about this season of Epiphany is that God chose to reveal himself in ways that went way beyond the usual – this is a time of year when we remember that the gospel was always destined to spread beyond Israel, when miracles of transformation took place at parties, when skies split open and doves descended, when quiet old men and women in temples were recognised as prophets. The exciting and awe-inspiring thing is that we are called to be part of God’s revelation to the world.

When we pray at the end of this service, ‘send us out in the power of the spirit to live and work to your praise and glory,’ let us do so knowing what it means; that without the continuing transforming and peacemaking work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in the life of this church, we cannot hope to take the light and love of God out into his world.


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