I have a confession to make, I love the Book of Isaiah, I mean properly love it! I love it in a slightly nerdy sort of way. I do understand that it is not good to have favourites, that all of the books are divinely inspired and that just cherry picking the parts that I already agree with or enjoy leads to all sorts of problem in theology and the way that I end up perceiving the world with but deep in my heart I have to say that some bits of the Bible leave me cold whilst others really do float my boat.  

For instance, I have been known to eat shellfish, I have been known to eat a cheeseburger and I am probably wearing mixed fibres as I speak (all of which are prohibited in the Levitical laws) but Isaiah shines like a beacon amongst all the other books around it. I love its poetry, I love its message, it points more directly to the coming of Christ and is staggering in its range and scope. It was written at a time when the nation of Israel was in exile, dragged from their homeland by the Babylonians. The nation of Israel was looking for deliverance, for some sort of divine intervention to rescue them from their captivity. What I find staggering is that although the Israelites were suffering the book is not merely blind fist shaking in blind fury, blaming everyone else for the mess that they are in.

It is instead full of contrition, readily accepting that much of their misfortune they have brought upon themselves. They fully understand that they messed up, have strayed and they are looking for solutions, to resolutions to their predicament and how they can reset their relationship with God. It is miles away from the book of Genesis, when God asked Adam, “Who told you to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge?” and Adam, like any toddler does, points straight at Eve and says, “It was her, she told me to do it!” And so it continues with this passage, it is asking God, how do I get this right? What can I do to get back on good terms with you? And we have the answer to hand.

On Thursday I joined some school children to a visit to Keach’s meeting house in Winslow. It is the oldest Baptist chapel in the area. If you haven’t been I really do recommend it. It is a small building, tucked away, hidden. Inside it is stripped bare, no stained-glass windows, no altar, aside from the pulpit the only other hint to its use is a very simple candle holder suspended from the ceiling which holds 3 candles. Those candles, as well as being the only source of light in the building, are there to represent the Holy Trinity, Father Son and Holy Spirit, the 3 parts of God that are in constantly changing, dynamic relation with each other. The way that they interact with each other is sometimes portrayed as an equilateral triangle. And it is that where the importance lies. Our faith is all about relationships.

Every time that we look up to heaven, we are also invited to look out to others. We instinctively, just as the Israelites did, want to look vertically up to God and God, in his turn tells us to look horizontally, towards others. The simple fact is that everyone wants to be blessed, but not everyone wants to be a blessing.

God tells us in this passage and in this whole book, “When you reach out to others, I’ll reach out to you”. We believe not just in a God who loves but in a God who IS love, and by loving each other we bring ourselves into his presence.

If we are ever in any doubt the answer is simple. We need to ask ourselves are we the conduit to the blessing that we are asking for, does it reside in us and the relationships we have with our neighbours throughout the world and the entirety of God’s creation?

Do God’s blessings flow through us or do we expect them to just flow to us? It is a big difference and that difference could mean the world.

Amen

Mark Nelson

 

If we took all the different stories of how we managed, individually to be here will be as many different tales about coming to faith as there are people, no 2 people will have the same story, they will be almost infinitely variable. One of the stories that you get asked quite a lot as soon as people find out that you want to be a vicar is “How on earth did you end up doing this?” And during the course of my training I have often stopped and pondered the same thing. “How on earth have I ended up doing this?”. It isn’t the most obvious choice it has to be said, I don’t sound like Derek Nimmo for a start, but the fact remains that I am now here, doing this because I couldn’t keep on ignoring that niggle that refused to leave me alone.

But enough about me, we have all these other stories in the room about people coming to God or maybe you are just simply wondering, “What is this all about?” Those stories that people have could be big. In the Bible we have Jacob wrestling with the Angel or Jonah doing what he can to run away from God, but for most of us it is a much less dramatic affair, I have not heard of too many people being swallowed up and regurgitated by a Big Fish…thankfully. Unless anyone has anything to share now….

What most of our lives comprise of is a series of small decisions that gently guide what it is that we become, and our faith is no different. We love stories of dramatic conversions like Paul on the road to Damascus but it is not usually a finally and forever kind of thing. We find that being followers of Christ means that our entire life consists of being converted, of being converted in increments. Even if we have some drama in there, we are mostly shaped and formed into the likeness of Jesus in the small things that we do. As we talked about last week, over and over again Jesus comes to us saying “Follow me”, and we decide if and how we will follow.

This resonates with the Gospel reading. The first interaction between Jesus and his followers is only that, a first interaction. Our relationship with Jesus is grounded and experienced in the people and events of our lives and our world. It started off dramatic, downing tools and following, but that wasn’t the last decision that they made. They continually chose to keep following, usually getting things wrong but following nonetheless. We see that through the remainder of Matthew’s Gospel the writer doesn’t just describe the life and ministry of Our Lord and Saviour but also the ongoing shaping and forming of the Disciples' lives. That shaping and forming happened in Jesus’ teaching of the beatitudes, in his healing of the sick, in his parables, his feeding of the 5000, in Peter complaining that they had left everything behind, in James and John arguing with the others about who would be at Jesus’ right hand and his left. In Jesus’ crucifixion, his resurrection and his ascension, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Every moment that they and we have a choice to make echoes with Jesus saying “Come and follow me”, every one of those moments is a turning point. The turning points in our lives bring us face to face with Jesus and they come in lots of ways, they can be planned, they can be surprises, they can be joyful, they can be filled with sadness, they can affirm, they can confuse us. But each turning point gives us the opportunity to have Jesus refashion our lives. He tells us, just as he told Peter, Andrew, James and John “I will make you…” He makes us more than we are. He changed them using the same sailing boats that they always used, on the same lake as they always were on, using the same nets.

As we look at our boats, our lakes, our nets, the circumstances of our life. What is the turning point that we face today? What is happening? What do we see? Maybe we are ignoring it, not recognised it or maybe we know exactly what it is.

Regardless, there is Jesus beckoning, calling to us, longing and desiring for us to listen. There he is standing there saying “Follow me, I have picked you”.

Amen

Mark Nelson

I wonder whether you have ever had a favourite Sunday night television series you used to watch?

One of the most popular dramas in the 1980’s was Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected.’ The tales worked a bit like this: each episode sought to tell a story which at face value ought to have had a fairly predictable ending, however, through the agency of various characters the story often took and subtle and sinister turn, usually for the worse. In many ways the gospel reading for today is a Tale of the Unexpected, although I would like to change the word sinister to subversive.

Mary and Joseph have taken the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary to be cleansed, with the idea that she will leave the temple purified, according to the Levitical Law. What they think they are about to experience is a beautiful, dignified but entirely predictable ritual. However, that’s not what happens, because through the introduction of various, let’s call them ‘guests,’ uninvited guests, the structure of the drama, or ritual changes.  A stable story, drama or ritual is subverted, leading to an unexpected outcome; an outcome designed to challenge previously and deeply held, perhaps even unchallengeable, assumptions. Through the agency of three characters the entire script is suddenly and unexpectedly rewritten. The characters I am referring to are Simeon, Anna and, most importantly of all, the Holy Spirit.

Simeon, we are told, is able to do what he does and say what he says because, ‘the Holy Spirit rested on Him,’ because the Holy Spirit ‘had revealed to him....that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah’ and because he allows himself to be ‘guided by the Spirit.’ So our first challenge in reading or hearing this story is to ask ourselves a simple question: do we seek and crave stability above all else or are we, like Simeon, open to the destabilising yet renewing work of the Holy Spirit? If we are we might find ourselves, just like Simeon, both saying and believing some fairly radical and extraordinary things.

Let’s just ponder the words of the Nunc Dimitus through which the Spirit-led Simeon declares that infant Jesus, the Jesus who has thus far done nothing revelatory, miraculous or heroic, is truly the Messiah: ‘for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of ALL peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.’ These are, perhaps, amongst the most remarkable lines in the whole of the Christian drama. In one short sentence Simeon declares that Jesus is the Messiah, but that he is not an exclusive Messiah. His messiahship is for all people in all places at all times. Please, just once again, ponder the radical and unexpected nature of this. Mary and Joseph have come to celebrate a very local and domesticated story and yet Simeon, through the work of the Holy Spirit, subverts the script changing it from a local story to a universal story; a story which offers the means of salvation to all peoples, in all places for all time. Do we prefer local stories or universal stories? Do we seek the safety of a carefully authored script or the fluidity of a drama directed by the Holy Spirit? These are the questions and challenges Simeon poses for us today.

But Anna also poses a challenge for she asks us to consider two things, things which at first sight appear slightly contradictory: humility and praise. Anna has spent a great many years hanging around the Temple, waiting for something to happen, living a fairly austere life. There are, however, two seemingly small points of detail we need to be aware of. Anna is a prophet and she is a member of a tribe. If anyone was supposed to say the words of the Nunc Dimitus it should surely have been Anna. Anna, not Simeon, is after all the prophet. And yet Anna is, like Simeon, open to the improvising, role reversing work of the Holy Spirit. She is also open to the idea that Simeon might just be right and that this baby Jesus is to be no tribal Messiah. In fact, she is so open to the rescripting work of the Holy Spirit that her response, when her very identity is challenged, is joy and praise. Anna is perhaps one of the least defensive people we encounter in the Scriptures and she challenges us to ask of ourselves to what extent we are open to the Holy Spirit reshaping the perceptions we cling onto about our roles and identities. Anna asks us to think about whether our response to change is defensiveness-protectionism or the openness of enthusiasm, joy and praise.

The story we have been considering today is a wonderfully subversive story, an unexpected story, but I guess when all is stripped away it is, in reality, asking us to consider just a few fundamental questions of ourselves. It is asking us to consider whether we, like Anna and Simeon, are open to the radically subversive work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that reshapes the entirety of the story as well as our own characters. The story which at its most basic insists that Jesus is not to be hoarded, protected and domesticated but that he came for all people, in all places, for all times.

If we can answer yes to these questions the result will be that we will become pure in heart and that we will shine brightly in and for the sake of the world. The twist in the tale is this: purification and illumination aren’t in reality about strict observance of narrow ritual as prescribed through the Levitcal Law, but about being open and responsive to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit that leads us back to Jesus, the universal Messiah, who came for all people, in all places, for all time. Amen.