Saturday, March 22, 2008
For those of us brought up in the Church, the word Resurrection has an easy familiarity. But I think it may be helpful for us to understand how the story of the Resurrection would have been heard by the people of the time. For them, the separation between the world of the dead, and the world of the living, was absolute.
If they believed in any kind of resurrection, (and many, including the Sadducees, did not) it was only the resurrection of the dead who were to be judged at the end of time (as in the vision of Daniel). For Greeks and Romans, the dead, if they survived at all, lived in their own world, a shadowy place, where they were condemned to a sort of half-life of yearning and sadness.
So the news that someone had been raised from the dead, and had been walking around among the living, would have been profoundly disturbing. The idea created a rupture in all that the ancient world believed about life and death. This was an earthquake in the established order of things - and grasping that helps us to understand the element of the gospel stories that speak of terror and amazement - not least when St Matthew relates how at the moment of crucifixion the bodies of many holy people were raised to life, and of how they went into the city and appeared to many people.
But why might resurrection be such a problem? Well, to begin to grasp that we need to understand the value of life to the ancient world. Life was amazingly cheap. Ancient empires grew and survived by assuming that enormous quantities of human lives were expendable and unimportant; those who fell victim to the system just disappeared.
That was especially true for those who were crucified. Crucifixion victims were usually thrown out onto the city’s rubbish dump, to be consumed by wild animals. There was no sense of dignity in death - especially for those who had opposed the empire. This is very different to how we, today, dispose of the bodies of even the most horrific murderers. We still allow them the dignity of a proper burial.
We forget so readily what Christianity brought into the world; we are so used to it that we take it for granted. In the ancient world there was absolutely no assumption that every life is precious. Fathers had the right to kill their children in certain circumstances. Masters could kill their slaves at a whim. Crowds flocked to arenas to see prisoners of war, or criminals, slaughter each other in the name of entertainment. And when someone was dead, they were dead - few people, even philosophers, spent much time worrying about what happened next.
But the message of the resurrection overturned that world view - it challenged it to the core. Suddenly, God had demonstrated that death was not the end. This was no longer a theory, at the margins of philosophical debate - God, through Jesus, had demonstrated a reality. Jesus announced, by his resurrection, that every life is precious to God. There are no disposable people in the Kingdom of God. Physical death was not the end of our relationship with God, or with each other.
Thankfully, we here in England don’t live under the kind of Empire which treats life so cheaply. But we need to be on our guard. A quick survey of the last hundred years should tell us to watch out. The cheapness of life of the two world wars - on all sides. The mass killings of the Soviet Union, or the revolutionary years in China. We think of Rwanda, of Cambodia, and of the Irish 'troubles', the Balkans and Darfur. We see just how cheap life is to the suicide bomber, or, for that matter, the world powers who shrug their shoulders at what they so clinically call 'collateral damage'.
So the resurrection, as well as being a sign of hope, also stands in judgement over us. We must ask ourselves whether we too treat life with the same callous cheapness. We might think of those who die alone and unloved in our own society - the old person with no family (or forgotten by their family), the homeless addict, the mentally disturbed who are isolated from normal human contact. But the good news of Easter tells us to rejoice for such people too - for even if we forget them, God does not. His offer of New Life comes to all - as Peter discovered, to Gentile as well as Jew, to clean and unclean. Every life is valued by God.
In that gladness, the Easter message should stir us to turn our eyes and look for those likeliest to be forgotten - and to ask where our duty and service lies.
But there is another dimension of the Easter story I'd like us to consider. Each time we celebrate Holy Communion - as we shall this morning - we pray “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”. In doing so, we affirm our membership of the body of Christ throughout the ages - those now alive on earth, and those now in heaven - like the thief crucified with Jesus - awaiting the final resurrection and judgement - and the promise of life everlasting in a new heaven and a new earth.
In the days of the death squads in El Salvador, the churches there developed a very dramatic way of celebrating their faith, their hope in the resurrection, and their belief in the communion of saints. At the liturgy, someone would read out the names of those who had been killed, or ‘disappeared’, and for each name, someone would call out from the congregation - “Presente” - “Here”.
“With angels and archangels”... and with the butchered of Rwanda, or Iraq, or the Balkans or those lost in the Tsunami or Kashmiri earthquake; with the young woman dead under Southsea Pier after an overdose, and the childless widow with Alzheimers in the Springfield Nursing Home; and our own loved ones who have gone before us into heaven; all are “Presente” - with the whole company of heaven, those whom God longs to receive, in his mercy, and because of Christ.
“With angels and archangels”...and of course, with Christ our Lord, the firstborn from the dead, who leaves no human soul in anonymity and oblivion, but gives to all the dignity of a name and a presence. He is risen; he is not here; he is present everywhere and available to all. He is risen: “presente”!
So, in closing, what might this good news of Easter, and perhaps this re-awakened sense of the preciousness of life, have to say to us?
Let us rejoice that we belong to a God who holds us in his hands - who offers eternal life to each one of us which, in St Peter’s words will “turn to him and do what is right” (Acts 10).
Let us rejoice in the fellowship of all the saints - remembering that they too are ‘presente’.
Let us learn from their examples, and hear their judgement on the way we lead our lives.
Let us also, though, hear the judgement of Easter that we too should not hold any human life to be cheap.
Let us, in the words of the Peace, ‘pursue all that makes for peace and builds up our common life’.
Let us resist the dehumanising forces which are all around us - those that disregard the weak in our society, or who callously take the life of those who stand in the way of the expansion of empire. This is not the way of the Resurrection. Jesus said, “I have come so that you may have life, and have it to the full”.
Let us live as people who hear, receive, believe and live as Resurrection People!
Alleluiah! Christ is Risen!
Why the Resurrection Matters.
Sunrise Service Sermon
I expect most of have seen the BBC’s version of “The Passion” over this weekend. For those of you who haven’t yet - and who might be planning to use the new BBC iPlayer! - I think I should warn you...it is rather bloody!
There’s been a rash of rather bloody crucifixion films in the last few years. The most notable, of course, was Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”. You’ve got to have a pretty strong stomach to watch that one, I can tell you.
When that film was released, it was touted as “the greatest evangelistic opportunity in 2000 years”. Many no doubt well- meaning Christians thought that if they could just get their friends to come and see it, they would be instantly converted by seeing what Jesus went through for us on the cross. But...actually...there hasn’t been an explosion in church membership. I wonder why that is.
Whether through film, paintings, or statues, the graphic details of crucifixion - , primarily seem to be about making us feel sorry for Jesus. The underlying thought seems to be that we sort of owe it to him to follow him, because of what he did for us.
Of course, the fact that Jesus, the Son of God, died at all dramatically demonstrates the depth and meaning of his sacrifice. It does us no harm to remember who Jesus is. He is the Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. He is the one who has the power to make all things new...and who promises a new heaven and a new earth. C.S. Lewis spent some time in his book, Mere Christianity, thinking about what it meant for Jesus to come and live as a human being. He wrote: “The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug.”
But if it wasn’t for Easter...these remarkable actions on the part of God would quite probably have gone unknown, and un-remarked by the rest of humanity. Jesus wasn’t the first man to die in a horribly painful way...and he wasn’t the last. His disciples knew that, and the historical records of the time - the Gospels - tell us that after his death they thought that the whole thing was over. They hid in an upper room - terrified.
But the fact of the Resurrection...the fact that Jesus shrugged off death, and rose from the tomb, had an incredibly dramatic effect. It transformed the lives of Jesus’ friends, and from there it transformed lives throughout the whole world.
It is sometimes said that it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe in the Resurrection. Some people have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead...it was just that his presence with the disciples seemed to live on with them, after his death. Some people suggest that Jesus was only alive in the sense that any dead person is alive to us...in our memories. But I don’t think that interpretation matches the facts.
First of all, people don’t give up their own lives for a memory. We know that many - if not all - of the disciples were persecuted, hated, tried and martyred for their assertion...their absolute certainty...that Jesus had got up from the grave. They could not deny what they had seen with their own eyes...no matter how much they were threatened and beaten. Now in these days we know that people will give their lives for religious dogma - for what they’ve been brainwashed with by the mad mullahs of Al Quaida. But the sacrifice of the Disciples was something quite different. For them to have denied that they had seen Jesus rise from the dead, would have been like us having to deny that grass is green.
Secondly, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities simply produce his body to disprove it? That would have quickly stopped the resurrection rumour in its tracks. But there was no body to produce.
Jesus calls us to follow him, not only because he died for our sins...not because we feel grateful to him (although of course we should). The message of Easter is that Jesus calls us to follow him because he lives!
As one of us, Jesus not only died, but was raised from the dead and now lives with the Father. And he says that he wants to share his joy and his life with us. Jesus isn’t looking for our sympathy; he’s inviting us to get involved. He’s looking for us to join his followers in proclaiming that there is another way than the way of war and violence and hate, of greed and consumerism and poverty. And he’s inviting us, ultimately, to come home to the love of our heavenly Father. That’s why he died...to give us life, and to call us home. Not to illicit our pity.
So it does matter what we believe. If we believe that Jesus only lived in his disciples’ memories...then he died there too - when they died. And our faith is based on nothing more than a vague wishfulness - a totally unproveable hypothesis that maybe God exists, and maybe we have somewhere to go after we die.
If, on the other hand - as all the evidence suggests - he really rose from the dead, still lives today, and calls us to life and to heaven...then that is worth something. That is a truth worth hanging on to. That is a fact worth telling our neighbours about. That is something worth celebrating.
Alleluiah...Christ is Risen!
Monday, March 17, 2008
Matthew 21: “The Stones Cry Out”
Palm Sunday. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" We hear these words, we sing these songs but I wonder if we understand the impact of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on the people of his time? This day marked the end of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the beginning of his end. He was moving into the final week of his earthly ministry - a climactic moment. It did not just happen - Jesus planned eveything very carefully. He had even arranged for a donkey to ride on, and had agreed a coded message with the owner - so that when the Disciples turned up and took the donkey, the owner wouldn't complain.
It was very important for Jesus that he should arrive in the city on a donkey. He knew the prophecy from the ancient book of Zechariah,
‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
Triumphant and victorious is he,
Humble and riding on a donkey
On a colt, the foal of a donkey’
Jesus’ actions were an unmistakeable claim to be the Messiah, God’s messenger to the world. Jesus normally walked everywhere. This is the only time we see Jesus travelling other than on foot. That is why the people pulled branches from the trees and shouted ‘hosanna’. This is why they threw their garments on the ground to welcome the King of Kings into the holy city. This is why they began to sing the psalm of praise, Psalm 118 that pilgrims always sang on the way to Jerusalem: a song of victory, a hymn of praise to the God who defeats all his foes and establishes his kingdom:
'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
...With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar!'
But what did his disciples understand by all of this? Throughout the Gospel records we see Jesus struggling to help his disciples understand the sort of kingdom that he had come to usher in. But some of his disciples, even on Palm Sunday, still harboured ideas of Jesus coming to overthrow the Romans and to restore the power of the Jewish State. Whatever Jesus said, whatever Jesus did – it seemed that his disciples couldn't free themselves from some very human notions of power and victory.
Palm Sunday is all about power – the power of God – about the power of God which is of a different order to the powers of this world. You see, God’s power is not like the power of Caesar or of Napoleon or of the USA just multiplied. God’s power is not like that.
That is the point made in one of the crucial moments of Jesus Christ Superstar - the Rock Opera. Jesus and his followers are seen arriving in Jerusalem. Simon the Zealot is urging Jesus to go ahead and get the crowd to follow him to get rid of the Romans. Simon declares. ‘You’ll get the power and the glory for ever and ever and ever.’ And do you know what Jesus replies? Very gently, against all the noise of Simon the Zealot, he sings,’ Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand, nor the Romans, nor the Jews; nor Judas; nor the twelve, nor the priests, nor the scribes nor doomed Jerusalem itself, understand what power is; understand what glory is; understand at all.’
You see - God’s power is shown through Jesus and through his self-giving and sacrifice, and suffering. Jesus Christ and him crucified; that is the power and wisdom of God. As St Paul said, "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God". (1 Cor 1:18). It's a different order of power that works not through violence and victory but through love, service and sacrifice.
But you know - it is possible for us to see both those kinds of power at work today. On the one hand, we can see the power of violence and victory - as we see armies marching against each other around the planet, as we see selfish companies and individuals grabbing all the riches and wealth that they can, as we see man's inhumanity to man continuing to spread around the world. But we can see the other kind of power as well.
Every time that someone stands up against the violence and greed. Every time someone reaches out a hand to help another human being. Every time a hospital is opened, or a school is started, or a refugee is fed or given a tent - that's the power of God at work...showing us that there is another way...the way of love, service and sacrifice. And actually - I think - if you were to count up all the people in the world who are involved with education, healing, loving their families, relieving poverty, serving their church or their local community, or working for reconcilliation - and then counted up all the people who are money grabbing war-mongers...you know I think we'd see, pretty quickly, that God's power is very much in evidence. I think you'd see really who is reigning on Earth.
We hear about the atrocities - the terrorist bombs, the famine and poverty - because they are real, and they are horrible. But what we don't hear about is the day to day normality that most people actually live with. God is the God of normality. He delights in the simple loving acts of families, and communities and churches all over the world. He delights in those communities around the world who are not obsessed with grabbing power, and working every hour He sends to buy the latest gadget, or the bigger house - those communities, instead, who take just what they need from the land, and spend the rest of their time pursuing friendship and art and community. His power is found there. He is there.
That's why we can sing, with such joy, that Jesus Reigns over all the Earth! Because although we hear more about the bad stuff in the world - the reality is that God is alive...and 'God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.'
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, on that first Palm Sunday, he was profoundly misunderstood. But the power of God that he was embracing and sustaining and sending forth throughout that first Holy Week has continued to shape and affect lives all around the world ever since. The power of God is not about war and conquest, its about love and sacrifice. The power of God is not about gaining wealth, its about gaining simplicity.
If only we could really get hold of that message in our modern, consumer-society! We live in a society which is raping the earth of all its resources. We are on a road that is leading to disaster. Every conflict that our world has ever seen has been ultimately about human notions of power...the power to control the earth's resources...the power to impose my ideas over yours...the power to fill my pockets with gold, while yours are empty.
But Jesus' idea of power is absolutely the opposite to those kinds of notions. Jesus says "God's power is found in love, in serving others, in forgiveness and sacrifice." Unless we repent, and turn away from our selfish, power-grabbing, war-mongering, planet-raping, pleasure-seeking, wealth-hunting way of life...then quite simply, there will be no hope for us.
And as ever the Pharisees are there, going along on the edge of the crowd, watching everything. They become anxious about what will happen if the authorities in Jerusalem think that this is a messianic demonstration going on. They shout across to Jesus, ‘tell your disciples to stop all this noise and celebration’ and Jesus replies, ‘if they were silent, even the stones would shout out.’
From Jesus’ point of view a great celebration is what there should be, because he is coming to his final act in bringing God’s salvation to the world. Yes, even the stones would cry out if people were silent.
For our point of view - the point of view of those who know not only the story of Palm Sunday but of Good Friday and of Easter, this is a call to cry out in celebration. We are called to be living stones, building up the house and kingdom of God in our time.
And so as we share today in the last supper of bread and wine, let us recall the new age that Jesus came to usher in, an age not based on military power or might but on suffering and service, love and obedience. And let us commit ourselves anew to being people of his Kingdom - people who embrace his way of living...the way of self-sacrifice and love.
As a sign of that commitment, I'm going to ask you to make a gesture this morning. When you come to the rail, to receive the sustaining power of the body and blood of Jesus, we are going to offer you a Palm Cross. After you have received the bread and the wine, please reach out and deliberately take that cross, as a sign that you are taking up the challenge that Jesus offers us. Take that cross home with you - and put it in a prominent place. Let it be a reminder, throughout the rest of this year, of the fundamentally different way of life that Jesus calls each one of us to embrace. Not the way of power, and wealth, and consumerism. The way of love, of self-sacrifice, of simplicity, and of peace.
Monday, March 10, 2008
Ezekiel 37: Dry Bones or New Life
We've all heard, and probably sung, the song 'Dem bones Dem bones Dem dry bones'. Its a lot of fun. 'The toe bone's connected to the foot bone, the foot bone's connected to the ankle bone'...and so on. But what's it actually all about? What is the meaning of this ancient story of Ezekiel's vision there for? Why has it been passed on to us, down the centuries?
Let's think a little about the context in which it was written. Now forgive me if I tell you things you already know - but I usually find that there are at least some people in every congregation whose knowledge of Jewish history is a little vague! And why shouldn't it be? It's not something that we are taught very often nowadays.
The book of Ezekiel was written during the period known as the Exile. About 600 years before Christ, the nation was conquered by the Babylonians, and most of the leadership, the wealthier Jews, royalty and the priesthood were taken to Babylon - in modern day Iraq. According to the Scriptures of the time, this was a punishment from God, for a nation that had stopped worshipping the true God, and turned instead to other Gods. For about 70 years, the cream of Jewish society languished in Babylon - slaves to the Babylonians.
It's from that period that we get the great laments like Psalm 137..."By the rivers of Babylon we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion" (Zion is of course the name of the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem is built.) It's also from that period that we get books like Daniel - with its tales of Jewish men serving in the Babylonian courts. It is also, incidentally, the period in which scholars believe that the Law of Moses - the first five books of the Bible - were substantially edited and expanded into the form we have today.
So let's put ourselves in the position of the Exiles. Here we are, thousands of miles from home - strangers in a strange land, singing sad songs of longing for Zion. We are homesick for our ancestral lands. We believe that God has sent us here as a punishment for the disobedience of the whole nation. And so, naturally enough, we begin to think about how we can please God enough to allow him to change our circumstances, and send us back home.
In such an atmosphere, two things tend to happen. The first is that priests start to insist on greater adherance to the Law - and so, as scholars tell us, they set about codifying and editing the collection of laws which had been handed down...seeking to establish laws that will change people's behaviour...so that they will please God. It was out of that process that the Pharisees arose. By the time of Jesus, when the nation was once again under occupation, the Pharisees believed that if the whole nation could keep all of the religious laws for just one day, then God would rescue them from their oppressors. That's why they got so upset when they saw Jesus treating their laws with such disdain.
The second thing that tends to happen in these kind of circumstances is that visionaries arise - prophets...who tell people that they need to trust in God...for God is at work and on the move. So, in the book of Daniel for example, we see visions of how the various nations surrounding Israel will be defeated, and how the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah will be re-established. And that is the theme that the prophet Ezekiel is also pursuing...
At the very start of his book, Ezekiel tells how he saw what calls 'visions of God'. But we might actually turn that phrase around, and say that what he was seeing was 'God's vision'. In other words, through his visions, Ezekiel was being given a 'God's eye view' of events...looking at things from God's perspective. In his great vision of chapter 37 - the story we heard just now - Ezekiel looks across the valley and sees dry bones scattered all around. As he learns later in his dialogue with God, these bones represent the people of Israel - who have been lamenting to God that they are like dry bones...as good as dead.
But God's perspective is different from theirs. He doesn't just exist in the moment...God is not limited by time and space as we are. He hears the complaints of the Israelites...but he also sees into their future...a future in which the nation of Israel will be restored in Jerusalem. So, through Ezekiel, he promises them, in verse 12, "I will bring you back to the land of Israel". Then in verse 14, he says, "I will settle you in your own land".
We might ask - how will he accomplish this? The answer comes again in verse 14: "I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live". The words used here are an echo of the story of the first man...who was created by God out of dust...but who needed God's Spirit, God's breath, breathed into him in order to live. God describes himself as the very life that courses through our veins...both as individuals, as nations, and as the whole human race.
Once again, we are invited to see things from God's perspective. From the perspective of the Exiles, life looked pretty bleak. They had been ripped from their homes and from their land. They were under the domination of a foreign power. They had been in that condition for decades...and they couldn't see how things could possibly change for them. But God knew what he was doing.
The Exile - as terrible as it was for the Exiles themselves - gave to the world a rich body of Scripture. The writings of the Exile, like Ezekiel, some of the Psalms, the book of Daniel and so on...they all speak to us of how God remains God, and very much active and alive, even through the toughest of circumstances. That is not to say that God himself causes those tough circumstances...time and time again (as we saw in the Nazi holocaust for example) it is not God who causes the suffering...but man's inhumanity to man. But God is present in the suffering - looking for ways to bring good out of it...to transform it from death to life, from defeat into victory.
There is, of course, no more powerful example of God doing that than through the event of the Cross. On the cross, as Jesus cried out 'why have you forsaken me?' he appeared to be at his lowest ebb...as good as dead... dried up bones. But there, just at the moment when evil had seemed to overcome good, the moment when the Son of God has been nailed down...God intervenes; and transforms the situation utterly. From being a cross of defeat, it becomes a cross of victory. Sin is defeated, and all humankind is offered eternal life. The resurrection - the greatest reversal of fortune in history - powerfully proves that God is at work.
So what about us? What can we learn from these stories that can apply to our situations? Well, I think that if we begin to see our lives and experiences from God's perspective...trusting that what he has done in the past he will do again in the future...then I think we have reason for hope. There are two levels to this; the level of the church itself, and the level of our personal experience of God.
Perhaps, like me, when you look at the church worldwide - appearing to tear itself apart over theological issues...you might have a deep sense of gloom. Perhaps, like the Exiles, you feel that you want to cry out to God..."when, O Lord, will the trouble be over? When will you rescue us?" But, if we pause to look at the situation from God's perspective...with a God's-eye-view...perhaps we can begin to see another pattern emerging. There is no doubt, for example, that the theological splits of the church are man-made. They are examples of human arrogance...human beings who believe that they've got a personal hot-line to God...and that they know better than their fellow Christians how God wants them to act.
But I think God takes that human folly, and in typical topsy-turvy Kingdom ways...somehow manages to redeem it. Can you imagine, for example, how small the church would be if every church did things the same way? If all churches were like our church, they would only attract a certain number of people...people, in our case, who find comfort in the ancient words of the Prayer Book, and who enjoy singing psalms. But instead, because of the very issues that divide us as a world-wide church, there are a fantastic variety of ways in which people can experience God at work. Suddenly, seen from a God's-eye-view, the human folly of argument and division becomes a divine opportunity for colour, variety, and infinite creativity. In the same way that God saw the dry bones of Israel as an opportunity for divine action, he sees the dry bones of the church as a chance to break through...and let people experience God in all his glorious creativity.
And on a personal level - I think God invites us to see him in action in our lives too. Ezekiel's vision invites us to see that however tough our own circumstances, however difficult is the journey of faith for us, God is at work...breathing his Spirit into our situation...looking for ways to bring glory out of defeat, and life out of death.
Because that's the kind of God he is.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Readings: Luke 2: 34-35 + 1 Sam 1: 20-28
Here we are again. Another year has turned, the daffodils are peeking up through the soil, and children all over the country are either presenting their mothers with breakfast in bed… or, right now, rushing down to the newsagents in a last minute attempt to find a card or some flowers!
Motherhood is of course something that most people have to grow into. It’s a road that is paved with all sorts of good intentions…many of which get thrown out of the window the first time that your darling little baby turns to you and says ‘No…I won’t!’. Motherhood – and for that matter fatherhood – sort of creeps up on us. Here are five signs which conclusively prove that you have become a mother – which I found on the internet:
- You start spending regular half hours in the bathroom…just to be alone!
- You start hoping that tomato ketchup is a vegetable, since it’s the only one that your child eats.
- You find that, without thinking about it, you’ve cut the crusts of your husband’s sandwiches
- You hear your own Mother’s voice coming out of your mouth when you say “NOT in your best clothes!”
And finally…the most telling sign of all…
- You use your own spit to clean your child’s face.
This morning’s readings invite us to consider something of both the joy and the pain of motherhood. In our first reading, from the 1st Book of Samuel, we see Hannah, Samuel’s mother, celebrating the birth of her long-awaited son. She is so grateful to God for the gift of a child, that she offers him back to the Lord – to serve in the Temple under Eli the Priest.
That’s a passage that has particular resonance for me – if I might be allowed to share a personal story. A few hours after I was born, it was discovered that I had a life-threatening condition, in which my tummy was twisted 360 degrees – so that no food would pass down my pipe. I was rushed to the Bristol Children’s Hospital, and while I went through very invasive surgery to correct the problem, my own mother prayed and prayed for her first child.
Obviously I survived. And around 35 years later, I went to visit my parents, to tell them of my decision to offer myself for ordained ministry. My mother was deeply touched by the whole event – because, as she explained, when she had been praying for me all those years before, she had said to God “If you let my son live, I will offer him to you!”. Like Hannah, my mother had decided to give her son back to the Lord. And as with Samuel, the Lord honoured the gift.
I’m just lucky that I didn’t end up being called Samuel myself!
In the chapter immediately after the passage we heard, Hannah celebrates the gift of her son with words that sound very similar to the Magnificat of Jesus’ mother Mary: “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high. My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance” (1Sam2:1). Later in the same song she sings of the Lord that “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap” – very much a pre-echo of Mary’s exaltation, from Luke chapter 1, that “He puts down the mighty from their seat and exalts the humble and meek”.
This is typical Biblical imagery about what God does – about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. The Kingdom is a topsy turvey place – in which all of our human perceptions of what life should be like are turned on their head. It’s a theme that we see repeated in our second reading.
When Mary and Joseph presented their new son Jesus to the Lord at the Temple, Simeon prophesied over the child – whom he recognised by divine light to be the promised Messiah. And his prophecy contained some strange words – topsy turvey words: “This child is destined to cause the rising and falling of many in Israel…” (Luke 2:34)
When we look at the subsequent story of Jesus, we can see what Simeon meant. Jesus would take simple, poor folk – fishermen, labourers, civil servants – and transform them into leaders of what would become a world-wide church. The great and powerful of the day, however, would have a different fate. The High Priests of Israel would be hated throughout the millennia for their part in Jesus’ downfall. The Temple itself would be destroyed in AD 70. Pilate would become the epitome of the distant ruler who washes his hands of his own responsibilities – and the mighty Roman Empire itself would ultimately fall…while the Kingdom of God advanced down the centuries. The kingdom of God was not advanced by political leaders, Caesars and Herods, but by simple everyday folk – like you and me. Later in his life, Jesus would pick up on these themes – especially in what are known as the Beatitudes: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God…” (Luke 6:20)
Both Mary and Hannah exalted at this prospect. There was real joy in the gift of motherhood they had been given, because they glimpsed something of the potential of the child they had borne.
But there is a darker edge to the prophecy of Simeon too. At the end of his promises about all that Jesus would achieve, there is a dark foreboding in his final line: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Lk 2:35).
Simeon knows his Scriptures. He knows, for example, that Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would have to die to achieve his ultimate goal of saving the Earth. He knows that the path Jesus must tread is going to a difficult one. Perhaps he also knows that Jesus must out-grow the earthly human family of Mary and Joseph – and move to embrace all those who love God. There is the occasion when the boy Jesus stays in Jerusalem to discuss theology with the priests – rather than returning home with his parents…(which is the very next story in Luke’s gospel). And do you remember the occasion that Jesus was told of his mother and brothers being outside – when he responded that his mother and brothers were now all those who hear and act on God’s words? (Lk 8:21)
And that is something that many mothers – and fathers too – must experience. As children leave the nest, and make their own way in the world – there can be pain at their passing. There is a sense in which all parents are called to give back the gift of their child to the God who created them…just as my mother, and Hannah, and Mary did.
And there is worse pain still at the moment of losing a child…as many do. It is right, I think, that we should remember this morning the parents of Madeleine McCann, and now, in this latest week, the parents of little Shannon Matthews. Awful pain. Wretched. And their pain is repeated over and over again in the hearts of mothers and fathers of children – sick children, dying children, abducted children, abused children – throughout the whole world.
There is something for us to ponder here. Can it be that, in acknowledging the reality of this kind of pain, the Bible is warning us, all of us, not to hold too tightly on to the things of this world – even the relationships with which we are blessed?
God knows the kind of pain that human beings are capable of inflicting on each other. Whether that pain is caused by the evil actions of a few individuals – the child abductors and abusers. Or whether it is caused by the failure of the entire human race to stop killing each other, and to focus our efforts instead of finding cures for sickness, and starvation, and death. Can it be that by enlarging the scope of his own family to include all those who hear and obey God’s words, Jesus is inviting us to do the same? Can it be that Jesus is saying that he knows what a rotten place we humans have made this world. But here, in the Church, is a place where the topsy turvy Kingdom of God can at least offer a different way of being…a more collective way, a more community –based way. A way of mutual support – of holding one another up through all the pain of life, and yes of Motherhood.
Perhaps we would do well to remind ourselves of the original meaning of Mothering Sunday – the day when people returned to the church in which they were brought up…to their ‘mother church’…to remind themselves that we are not only given the blood-relations with whom we are blessed…but the whole of God’s people…all the brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers in Christ that we share.