Posted by: owizblog | February 2, 2014

“The End of the Beginning” Sermon, UCB, 2 February 2014 (Communion)

Aert_de_Gelder_-_Het_loflied_van_Simeon

Malachi 3:1-4; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

Malachi 3:1-4;   “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

[Title slide: Hebrews 2]

Hebrews 2:14-18:  14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them,[a] fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

1

Winston Churchill said many things that are quotable, quoted, and misquoted. One of the less-remembered of these is to my mind one of the most humanly significant, because it goes to our human experience of time – long periods of time. The end of 1942 saw the triumphant Axis war-machine encounter a sudden series of checks: Stalingrad, El Alamein… It was after the battle of El Alamein that Churchill suggested this, in a speech in the House of Commons:

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning…”

We know what it’s like to be mired in stuckness, at all levels. Globally, human existence has been mired in a stuckness since 2008, as wealthy people have felt poorer, and poor people have been made poorer, and the poorest have suffered terribly, and everyone has felt insecure – even though they have felt their insecurity differently, because their circumstances, what they had to lose, what they actually lost, was different. And because the economy of the world has chilled, life has felt as though it’s in deep freeze.

We’ve all known what it’s like to be mired in a shared stuckness. I would imagine that each of us knows what it’s like to be mired in our own personal stuckness, too. Things not happening. Big things, perhaps a number of big things, or one immense thing, turning our living into a slow-motion trudge through an emotional bog.

“Isn’t the Minister in a happy mood this morning?” I hear you say…

Well, of course, our human experience can also be of new beginnings, of the sudden, unexpected dawn of hope, of things moving again after a long cold wintry paralysis of life. And it can be of good times that we simply take for granted. Harold Macmillan’s best remembered Prime-Ministerial quote is probably “You’ve never had it so good!” He was, of course, hoping that if people would notice, and agree, they would vote for him. And sometimes we do need to have it pointed out to us that life is good, and sometimes, too, it’s only as a day is coming to an end that we realized that it was extremely special, and will stay with us for a long time.

2

We humans experience time in many different ways. We experience it emotionally. We expeience it economically. We experience it moving at different rates, flying when we’re having fun, standing still, or crawling, when we are waiting, or hurting, or in grief.

But our living is immersed in time, swimming in it, soaked in it.

Think how long ago Christmas feels. It’s only five weeks! But it’s February now. The days are lengthening. A twelfth of the New Year is by. 2014 doesn’t feel all that new any more! Does it feel different…?

And suddenly, we are dragged back almost to Christmas by this morning’s Gospel reading – which you haven’t heard yet, of course. The baby Jesus, brought into the temple, and there Simeon, the old man who has been waiting for the fulfilment of his people’s history, sees the baby, and grasps who and what this is.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning…”

And that, in a nutshell, is how Luke’s Gospel understands the coming of Jesus. In fact, one of the most important books on Luke’s Gospel, by the German scholar Hans Conzelmann, has a German title which translates as “The Mid-Point of Time.” This child, for Luke, splits time itself in half. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning…”

Easter’s very late this year. You wouldn’t know it from the shops, which already have Creme Eggs on sale in them – and Hot Cross Buns, would you believe?!? – but the long walk with Christ towards Easter 2014 hasn’t actually begun yet. And that lets us stop here for a moment, at a natural pause in the story. It lets us stop, and look back at Christmas, five weeks ago, and Easter, still    weeks away. It lets us do what we do when we press “Pause” on the DVD or the video, and freeze-frame the picture. And the picture is the one we saw on the screen at the beginning of the service, of Simeon, the old man, holding the baby in his arms, and trying to take in the immensity of the moment – that this is the meaning of the promise made to him, and therefore of the promise made to his people. This infant…

Who is just like us…

The Micah reading we heard moments ago was of the God who is suddenly there, who, out of mystery, is suddenly with his people, revealed, and in the most intimate identification with them.

The Hebrews reading is of the complete identification of the Son with his people, in their humanity, in their mortality, in their fear of death, in their captivity – and what better way to describe fear and captivity than a stuckness from which we can’t free ourselves, can’t struggle loose. Here, says Hebrews, is the Son, here, in that, in that mortality, and anxiety, and stuckness, and fear. The identification is complete.

We often get it wrong when we think of Jesus as the Son of God. We think of his humanity as being the bit of him that’s like us, and his divinity as the bit of him that’s totally different. We think of his humanity as what lets him live, and feel, and experience, as we must live, and feel, and experience – and his divinity as the bit of him that exempts him from that, that holds him above, and out of, that. His guarantee, if you like.

This is what’s behind those monstrous misrepresentations of the meaning of Jesus’ passion, that suggest that while he may not have liked the idea much, Jesus was OK with the concept of dying for us, because he was the Son of God, and had a partial exemption from what would terrify us into insanity if we understood it was before us.

All of that is terribly wrong, terribly mistaken, and totally unbiblical. Jesus’ divinity isn’t what partially exempts him from our experience. Jesus isn’t exempt from any of our experience – our stuckness, our fear, our confusion and terror, any more than he’s exempt from our joy, our relief, our happiness, our sadness, or anything else. Jesus’ humanity is total. And it has to be. Because Jesus’ humanity is God’s total identification with us, in vulnerability, in uncertainty, in sorrow and in joy. And in weakness…

That’s what the Letter to the Hebrews says.

Martin Luther puts it like this. After this pivotal point in history, after the incarnation, God’s taking our human nature, our flesh, upon himself, “One cannot say any longer ‘God is here…’ without also saying ‘And so is Jesus Christ in the fullness of his humanity.’” What starts with Christmas – Immanuel, God with us, God in Jesus Christ taking our human nature  fully upon himself – doesn’t finish, ever. The understanding from within of what it is to be us, what it is to be flesh, and blood, and mortal, and afraid, and happy, and sad, and angry, and tired, and at the end of our tether, and terrified, and all these things, is wrapped up in the humanity of Jesus. That’s what we mean when we say to someone “God understands!”

Not “God made you, and has memorized the plans, so he understands what’s going on in pretty precise terms.”

But “God in Jesus Christ, in full humanity, was here, and is here, and understands from inside what it is to be in this place, as a human being of flesh, blood and mortality. God understands…”

And that’s why, when we take this enormous insight and apply it to our own living, we find ourselves in the same position as Simeon, with that baby in his arms, in the Temple, contemplating God’s total identification with his people. In their stuckness.

“This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning…”

[Break: Hymn: Let us build a house where love may dwell…]

 

Luke 2:22-40 22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,  you may now dismissyour servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation 31   which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,   and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

We’re off to Ireland this week for Carolyn’s birthday. This created a bit of an emergency a fortnight ago, as I couldn’t find my passport anywhere. Ireland will let you in with a driving licence, but Ryanair, with whom we’d already booked, demanded a passport. So I dug out my birth certificate and took it to Glasgow, for the expedited process for a replacement passport – which was absolutely excellent by the way. And I looked at my birth certificate, and remembered that my mother had been in hospital for a week after I was born, as we were both very ill. And there was an ongoing discussion in the family about what my name was to be. In those days, the Registrar actually made the rounds of the maternity ward, and my mother was convinced, as he came by, day after day, to be told that they still hadn’t decided on my name, that he thought my parents couldn’t afford the 7/6d to register me.

The name of a child is a vastly important thing – not least because as soon as it’s given, it seems unimaginable that the child could have been called anything else. Even if the child grows up to be known by another name, maybe a nickname, it;s usually the original name that generates that.

So when Luke tells us that “They called his name ‘Jesus’” – it’s no small thing. And we know of the connection of Jesus’ name with salvation, and the deliverance of his people. Jesus is, after all, the Greek version of Joshua.

And Simeon, with the baby in his arms, must be contemplating that. Salvation. The promise, fulfilled, but fulfilled as a promise – because that’s what a baby is. A baby is simultaneously fulfilment and promise, already and not-yet.  “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning…”

And Simeon stands at the mid-point of time, as Luke sees it, he takes the infant into his arms, and he must think all sorts of things. And he must be looking both forwards and backwards. But at least it won’t be as Burns does, contemplating the fieldmouse he dug up:

 

But Och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

 

No, Simeon looks back in gratitude, and now he looks forward in hope. But backwards and forwards, he is looking at the same, real world he’s lived in, all his life. It’s into this real world, not some fantasy world of magic and denial, that God’s promise is delivered.

And that’s why he does something that I do, every time I baptise a baby. I hand her back to her mother. And I say something. What I say is “The Lord be with you, in the high and holy duty he has laid upon you.”

What Simeon says to Mary is ““This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Because this is the real world. But more to the point, much more – this is God’s promise come into this real world. No exemptions from reality, or the full experience of reality. No exemptions for him who is the fulfilment of all God’s promising. No exemptions for him who is, as Hebrews says, the Son who is perfected by his experience of the real world – by suffering – no exemptions for the compassionate and merciful High Priest, who feels along with us (which is what com-passion means in Latin, and sym-pathy means in Greek) because his experience is our human experience. No exemptions, as the mature faith of the Church confessed, for the Son of God who took flesh, and was made man, and was born of the Virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate, and was crucified, dead and buried.

Because if you aren’t prepared to say that, and grasp what it means, you can’t say the rest of the Creed: that he is Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, and is seated at the Right Hand of the Father…

And you can’t do what we will all do in a few minutes, when we go bck out into the real world, to our real lives, to everything that was there when we left the house and came to Church this morning, and to communion; you can’t go back to all that and say “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning…” if you haven’t paused for a moment, and, with Simeon, contemplated what it means to say that God in Christ has identified himself totally with us, without reserve.

So let’s do that now. And where better than at the Holy Table, where the substantial truth of Jesus’ humanity is conveyed to our faith by the bread and the wine.

This is the feast that sustains us on our journey. This is the feast that is the promise of the banquet in heaven. This is the feast of the Love that brings us through all things. “This is not the end. But it is the end of the beginning…”

 

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  1. […] & Evening service Led by REV. Owain Jones. https://owizblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/the-end-of-the-beginning-sermon-ucb-2-february-2014-communi… I had a reflective prayer, using my […]


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