Living in the Spirit

Living in the Spirit – A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

As I have mentioned before, the Feast of Pentecost is our third biggest event in the liturgical year after Christmas and Easter. And, as I also mentioned, it is the only one of the big three that our culture has not taken over and secularized in a commercial way. This is entirely our feast as the church. You won’t hear any mention of it in popular culture. And perhaps that is the way it should be.

Pentecost Sunday has also been characterized as the birthday of the church. And in one sense, it is both a completion and a beginning. For Luke the gospel writer, it is the conclusion of the miraculous events of the gospel accounts. It really is the end of his first of two books. It is as if the God is now saying to that small group of disciples and believers, “All right – now the rest of the story is up to you.” Get out there into the world – spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and transform the Kingdom of God.

And just to make sure you stay on track and remember what you have been chosen to do, I will send you my Spirit – the Spirit of the presence of God active in the world and walking beside you all the way. And that is literally what one of the names given to the Holy Spirit actually means: A term we don’t use much any more but one with meaning: Paraclete. Paracletos in Biblical Greek and originally used to describe someone who speaks on one’s behalf in in a court of law. An advocate. A lawyer.

But Jesus uses it in John’s gospel in the 14th chapter as one who is a helper, one who is always there for you (to use modern jargon) “I’m here for you, man”

Someone who walks beside you on the journey of life and urges you to go a certain way and to do certain things. A comforter – an ever present friend and counsellor. It is a term that is hard to pin down to just one function.

And to go back to the 14th chapter of John’s gospel for another look, we find Jesus speaking to his followers in the days before he is arrested and put to death and he is attempting to comfort them. And he says: “I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate (a paracletos) and he will be with you forever. This is the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive because it neither sees him nor knows him, but you know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

And a little further on, Jesus goes on to say, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” And then these wonderful comforting words

“I will not leave you orphaned.”
And in all of this, Jesus is speaking in the future tense. This is something that is going to happen. It has not yet happened. And it cannot happen until he has finished his earthly journey and has gone to be with the Father.

Which is why we celebrate Pentecost Sunday exactly 50 days after Easter Day. Why 50 days? Because it was originally a Jewish feast called Shavuot – a celebration in Israel of the first spring wheat harvest about 50 days after planting. And it was also a Jewish feast commemorating the giving of the Law to Moses by God.

So naturally, Luke records, “When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place.” Still Jews in so many ways, this was a natural thing for them to do – to gather together probably for a common meal, perhaps to go to the temple and make a sacrifice and to remember to give thanks for God’s gift to Moses.

But God has a surprise for them. “A sound like the rush of a violent wind, tongues of fire resting above the heads of each one of them, and the whole community babbling in all sorts of foreign languages. And the most amazing thing is that even though they are all speaking different languages, miraculously, they all understand each other perfectly.

No wonder people looking on thought they were drunk. And I love the Apostle Peter’s objection to this slander – “How can we be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning?” Well, I know a few alcoholics who might disagree with that conclusion.

So what is going on here?

Well, like many of these amazing events in the gospels and elsewhere. There is a lot of symbolism and metaphor in Luke’s description of the Pentecost experience.

And that description should have reminded you of an equally amazing event in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Remember the tower of Babel. How God punishes the people for daring to reach heaven by building a gigantic tower – all on their own. The Bible records that, at this time, all the people of the earth only spoke one language and so God punishes them for their pride and daring by cursing them with all different languages and their inability to understand each other and then get along. The story was meant not only as an explanation for all the different languages in the world but also for the tribal violence and warfare which resulted when they could no longer understand each other.

So what is going on at the Pentecost experience? It is the reversal of the curse of humankind. The Spirit allows us to understand each other in spite of our differences. The church is being born not only for the Jews but for the whole world. This is God’s gift to humanity, a gospel that transcends our petty differences and binds us together as one. Christ’s teachings and his gospel are for the whole world.

And the Spirit is saying, “Get out and spread the news.”

The Spirit said that to the small group of believers at Pentecost and is still saying it several thousand years later. The work is not done – not by a long shot. Our world is still a very divided place – we all speak different languages on so many different levels. And it sometimes seems as if it is getting worse rather than better.

But our job is to live not only in unity and love with each other but with all the rest of our brothers and sisters. Because the way we live out the gospel on a daily basis will speak far louder and get far more attention than any words we speak. Words are great but actions speak far louder.

And I believe that God’s Spirit is constantly working in our world to bring about the Kingdom. Even when we sit down and try to hammer out a peace treaty or a cease fire to stop the killing. Even when we send food and supplies to various parts of the world to help those in distress. Even when we recognize those rare people in our world who work tirelessly to bring peace.

Many may not see the hand of God – the hand of the Spirit – working in those human efforts but I believe that is how the Spirit works.

A wise Bishop once told me, “It is easier and clearer to see the work of the Spirit when one looks back rather when one looks ahead”. He said, “It may seem as if we don’t know where we are going in the church much of the time, but when one looks back, the pattern and the direction are there. That’s the Holy Spirit”

For many of us, the Holy Spirit is that still small voice in our heads, giving us advice, helping us find a direction, encouraging us when things look grim, just like a constant friend who may not say very much out loud or very obviously but who is always there for us. Even when we don’t even know it. Even when we think we are the only ones in charge – even when we think we know how to get to heaven all on our own.

I have been aware in my own life, those choices I have made and paths I have taken have not been entirely of my own doing. One can be a sceptic and call it chance or coincidence – one can even rationalize it all – but when one looks back, as the Bishop said, one can see the pattern and the design. And faith tells us that it is not of our own doing. God’s hand is there. The Holy Spirit was probably walking beside us all the way.

Where do we really find Jesus?

Sermon – May 24, 2020 – Ascension A – Acts 1: 1-11, Ephesians 1: 11-23, Luke 24: 44-53
Where do we really find Jesus? Where did he go?

A mother was dreading telling her little girl that her beloved Grandma had died. This would be her 6 year old daughter’s first experience with death and she did not know how to break the news. So she said, “Grandma won’t be coming to visit us anymore.” The little girl said, “Why not?” The mother replied “Well she has gone to heaven.” The little girl said, “She won’t be coming back?” “No, I’m afraid not.”

The little girl thought about it for a while and then said, “Where is heaven?” The mother took a deep breath and, without thinking much about it, pointed upwards and said, “Far away up there.”
The little thought about that one for a while and then said, “Above the ceiling?” Fearing that she might think Grandma was in the attic, the mother explained that heaven was way up above the house, in the sky and even above the clouds and the sky.

And you can imagine what questions and responses that led to. And many of you may have had that kind of deep theological discussion with a 6 –year old. No parent is ever completely ready for that one.

And if we are honest about it, how would each one of us answer the question, “Where is heaven?” “Where did Jesus really go?”

And for many of us, in our language, in our imagery, all though various aspects of our culture, heaven is still “up there” Somewhere beyond the ceiling, beyond the earth, beyond the skies. In many ways, we still live in the three-story universe understood by the people of the New Testament. There is heaven – There is earth – and there is hell. And no one even today ever speaks of heaven as being beneath our feet, and no one even today speaks of hell as being up there somewhere. Even if they don’t even believe in those places.

It still is convenient imagery – but it may stand in the way of a deeper understanding of the reality that some of us believe in that is beyond this present world and our mortal lives.
Where did Jesus go? We have two versions of the ascension in our readings today.

The Book of Acts says this: “As the Apostles were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Luke’s gospel says this: “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”

For Luke and for the writers of our scriptures, heaven is very much up there. Moses went up to the top of the sacred mountain to die at the end of his life. Elijah was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire. For the Hebrews and for many other nations and traditions, heaven is up there, beyond the clouds, beyond the firmament. The watery chaos.

How do we remain true to the faith understanding of our ancestors and our tradition and yet understand the ascension and what we mean by heaven – but in our own terms and in our own time?
I suspect that if the mother had answered her daughter’s question with the answer – “Grandma has gone to be with God.” She might have got a response something like this: “And where is God?” Where does he live? Can I go there and visit?

Where indeed? Profound theological question. “Where is God?
And where is heaven if it truly is union with God? Maybe a question that asks where heaven and God are in purely space-time words is the wrong question. Or at best, phrased the wrong way.

Jesus gave us a clue, I think, in one of his most important statements to the disciples: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18: 20)
Those are encouraging words for small congregations or communities of faith. We live in an age that is obsessed with numbers – events are judged by many how many people they attract – the larger an audience or the more participants the better. Manufacturers judge their success by the number of units sold. The size of a crowd matters to the press reporting the event. And to some extent, we have been infected by the numbers game even in the church. But Jesus was no more impressed by a huge crowd than he was by one important encounter with one person. Jesus is present when any number are gathered in his name, when any number tell his story, when any number gather in prayer, when any one person reaches out to another with love and compassion.

In one profound sense, Jesus has not gone anywhere. He is here among us today. He is in our towns and our countryside and our cities. He is in back alleys with junkies. He is with all who suffer and cry out in pain and despair. He is with any who, in faith, seek for meaning or just help in dealing with all of life’s problems. But he is also with us in times of deep joy and happiness. He is with us during the good and the bad. Even when it may not seem like it.

And that really means that Jesus, in one sense, is not up there and that heaven, in another sense, is not up there. It is right here and he is right here.
Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as both now and yet to come. He lived both in the present and yet was eternal. He is both here with us and yet also with God.

Paradoxes – statements that appear to contradict each other but yet are true in a larger sense – they drive us crazy. Especially if we have a tendency to take things literally. But the Christian faith lives with paradox – and words can only take us so far.
There are countless numbers of Christians who, for centuries, have attested to the presence of Christ in their lives. Jesus is present for them in the faces of others, in those rare moments of prayer of meditation when they sense that they are not alone, in those moments of transcendent beauty and happiness. And for many it is an intimate and deep relationship.

Many people who have lost loved ones will attest to the experience afterwards of being still aware of their loving presence even when no longer physically there. For some, it is as real as feeling those arms still around you, of knowing that they are close by.

And it may be that by thinking of heaven and the presence of God as somewhere out there beyond the blue, beyond the skies, we have missed the more important idea that heaven and the presence of God are right here among us. Right now. In one sense, Jesus hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s always been here and always will be.

Listen to what the two heavenly figures say to the apostles in the last part of the Acts reading:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.”

Many people read that line as a prediction of the second coming of Christ at the end of time. And certainly, the descriptions of that event in scripture talk about Jesus’ return in those images, but Luke follows this statement in the next chapter of Acts with the description of the coming of the Holy Spirit from above with tongues of fire, a passage which we will hear in this place in two weeks’ time. What if Luke meant that kind of coming of Jesus into our lives and hearts?

So, even if we no longer see Jesus in his physical earthly form, I am absolutely convinced that he is here present among us, every time we meet in this place, every time we tell his story, every time we sing his praises, every time we reach out to each other in love and support, every time we leave this place, to share that love and support with others, then we truly become the body of Christ present in the world today.

Yes, he may have physically gone up out of sight, but in a more profound way, he is still right here, walking along beside us, just as he walked the roads of Galilee with his disciples and followers.

Called to be sheep or called to be good shepherds?

All three of our scripture passages this morning are excellent examples of the dangers of reading the Bible and attempting to take it too literally. Jesus knew that, and was wise and brave enough to tell his listeners that he was using a “figure of speech” when developing his metaphor about shepherds and their flocks of sheep and the relationship between them.

I don’t know about you but I have always struggled with the image of sheep as a metaphor for the faithful in the church and in parish life. My experience with sheep has come primarily from working at Upper Canada Village. We did not raise sheep on the farm on which I grew up and I think I am rather thankful for that. If there is a way out of the pasture fence, sheep will find it. Not only that, they will mindlessly follow the first lead animal to penetrate the fence. That’s why you don’t herd or move a flock of sheep from behind like cows. You get them to follow you. We had a code in the Village. If somebody came along one of the streets yelling “sheeps out” all of us had permission to drop whatever we were doing, if we could do so safely, and get out there and prevent them from wandering where we did not want them to go. The more of us, the better, so they weren’t constantly tempted to follow any unguarded lane or path in the wrong direction. Again, that is why one leads sheep from the front not herd them from behind. I prefer cows.

I think you may be getting the idea why Jesus developed this image in front of an audience that from experience knew a lot about how sheep behave, as he also appears to know as well. Listen to what he says to them: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow him…” It is obvious that Jesus and his audience knew the culture of raising and caring for sheep.

But that was then and this is now. And there may be some inherent dangers in thinking of human beings as sheep, especially in the church or in politics, or as an accurate metaphor for the general population of our land. It’s not a flattering comparison, given that as human beings our collective brain and group behaviour does not seem to be as intelligent as some individuals. Sheep do not have the reputation of being smart and neither do human mobs. And that may be that we should not focus on the object (sheep in groups) in Jesus’ image as much as the relationship between its two parts. Shepherd and sheep. That’s what this passage is all about. It’s all about relationship. And Jesus goes on to develop his metaphor even further as he knows that sheep will only respond to someone whose voice they recognize.” They will not follow a stranger” he says, “They will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

We live in an age where there are many voices – voices that are competing for our attention. Voices that claim to have a solution to the ills that beset us and our society. Voices of politicians. Voices of those who tell us what we need to be happy. Voices that tell us how to lead healthy lives. Voices that tell us how to raise our children. You can find an expert on just about any subject. Try surfing the internet just to see what I mean. Start your google search with the words, “How do I….” and a million sites will pop up. There’s a lot of searching activity but not much light.

Even Jesus was asked questions like that. Remember the rich man who came to him and asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And the answer was a tough one: “Sell everything you have, Give it to the poor and come and follow me.”

Try giving that answer even today to someone who asks, “What must I do to be happy or at peace?” Selling everything you have and giving it away is probably just as difficult today as it was in Jesus’s time. But notice once again, Jesus’ emphasis is on anything that stands in the way of a relationship between us and God. It’s all about relationship. Not only the relationship with God but our relationship with the things that stand in the way – be it money, possessions, anger, jealousy, disillusionment, those whom Jesus characterizes as thieves and bandits, because they only steal and kill and destroy. And again, if we read this passage too literally we miss the much larger point that Jesus is making. The things that steal and kill and destroy don’t only have to be physical things – they can be emotional, mental, and even spiritual. Whatever stands in the way of an abundant, meaningful life.

Even the early Christian church took Jesus’s teachings about poverty quite literally in the beginning. Our reading from the second chapter of Acts indicates that very clearly. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute to all, as any had need.” And that was the way the church community organized itself in the very beginning. If you wanted to join them, you had to get rid of everything you owned. Again, try that one out in our modern age. Try making that the entrance requirement for joining the church. Later in chapter 5, there is the story of Ananias and Sapphira who joined up, appeared to sell and donate all they owned but secretly held back a piece of property for themselves. Confronted by the Apostle Peter with their dishonesty, they were both struck dead on the spot. The account concludes with these words: “And great fear seized the whole church.” I bet!

Again, if we take these accounts too literally I think we miss the larger points. There were probably good reasons why the early Christian church needed to form a protective communal society where they looked after each other. They were in danger. They faced being hunted down and killed. Luke’s account of these days in the Book of Acts was being written when that was going on around him – big time. How else could they survive but by banding together?

But is this a model by which we should organize ourselves today in the church or in society at large? Political communism seems to have failed in our modern world. Christian communal societies are few in number and even ordered communities of nuns and monks are rapidly diminishing. Most of us live in small nuclear families in the western world and even in the developing world, tribal and communal societies are becoming fragmented. Many who want to recreate the New Testament church in our own time often conveniently ignore the model of owning all things in common.
And yet, perhaps, the larger less literal truth of this passage is that, in the church, we should still look out for each other. We should still be aware that some are struggling not only financially but in many other ways that diminish their lives and we should care deeply enough about them to help in any way we can. Even if it inconveniences us or it has a cost. That’s what this passage is really about. It’s all about relationship.

And finally, we come to the passage from the First Letter of Peter. The basic advice of this passage is to put up with whatever suffering you experience in life not only when you clearly deserve it, but even when you have done the right thing. Don’t complain. Don’t fight back. Don’t seek revenge. When you are abused and punished for doing the right thing, God approves.

Really? Do we actually believe that? I think this is one more example where it is good to place this passage in a little context. If you look at this passage in your Bible, the verse (18) that comes right before this reads, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” Wow! Try that one today. Slavery was a reality in the early Christian church. Some members owned slaves and some were slaves. Slavery was accepted in almost every culture at the time. Philemon, to whom St. Paul writes a letter, now in our New Testament, and a leader in the church at Colossus, had a slave called Onesimus, who became a Christian. Does that mean that the Christian gospel condones slavery – that because the early Christians had slaves, we can also? That’s what people actually argued during the American civil war. Really? The Bible sanctions slavery?

But there is more going on here than the literal meaning. St. Paul refers to Onesimus, the slave as “my brother” or “my son” one who looked after me in prison and one who is in Christ with me. It’s all about relationship. The gospel makes us brothers and sisters of each other. Christ binds us together. And we are called to love and look after each other.

As for putting up with suffering and abuse without complaining and without fighting back or seeking revenge, I have to admit to you that I am still personally a work in progress. Although it is generally true that most of us eventually turn a deaf ear on those who complain all the time about their illnesses. But I believe that we must confront bullies and abusers. We cannot in our society for the sake of the most vulnerable let them just do what they do. And our church takes a strong stand, I am glad to say, on many social justice issues. We must confront injustice wherever we find it. Maybe there should be more Ghandis in our world, those who resist evil non-violently and passively but they are always pretty rare. How to best resist evil in the world is a complex thing. And we all struggle with it. But one thing I am sure about – we should look after the victims the best we can. And that’s about relationship as well.

Are we called to be sheep? Are we called to live in poverty? Are we called to endure suffering? Our readings this Sunday asked some pretty tough questions. The answer may lie in our relationship with God and with each other. Amen.

A Few Words of Easter Hope

During the last several weeks I have had occasion to reach over and shut off the radio or TV because the constant update of bad news has become too much to listen to. The numbers of infected and dead climb daily and, at some point, one cannot absorb the meaning behind all those numbers. And yet, we know that behind every one of those numbers there is a human story of suffering and loss. And yet, the other part of the story is that, behind every person who has survived infection and is restored to health, there is hope. There is a very real form of resurrection for those who have been seriously ill and close to death.

Holy week brings us face to face each year with a similar story. We begin with the joy and enthusiasm of Palm Sunday where the crowds follow Jesus into the city shouting their Hosannas and hailing him their new King and Messiah. And, in a very real sense, many of them expect a bright and wonderful future in a new Kingdom of God.

But the story quickly darkens. Waiting in the shadows, like viruses, the enemies of Jesus gather and plot and gradually the crowds go silent and fade away because they sense that bad things are going to happen. And the disease of hatred and fear begins to infect many of them, so much so that that same crowd that hailed him their Messiah on Palm Sunday now call for his death. The dark time has come and the world goes silent and empty as they lay his lifeless body in a tomb. And his followers wait in fear and isolation because there may be more deaths to come.

But wait, the story does not end here. God often comes into our world and appears in a completely unexpected and marvellous way. And Mary Magdalene announces to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord. He lives”. And with those words, their whole lives are transformed for ever.

Many of you have said in phone conversations with me in the last while that you believe that we will come out of this present time changed. We will not be as we were. And I believe that is true. Many of us have been reminded of our mortality, our vulnerability and that has made us more aware of the vulnerability of others around us, others whom we can help safely in many different ways. We may come out of this transformed, one hopes, for the better. Just as the early church discovered that they needed community and support in each other, so are we re-discovering that same truth. Perhaps we will be a more thoughtful people, more mindful of our relationships and the things that really matter in life.

Many of our churches are reaching out with various forms of communications technology and some are finding that on-line liturgies are attracting greater crowds than normal times. Others are re-discovering that a simple phone call is a form of ministry and comfort to many. We are finding new ways to be the church without buildings. We are being reminded of the things that are really important.

St. Paul, speaking to the church in Corinth during a difficult time, says this: “Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…….Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because in the Lord you know that your labour is not in vain.”

My Easter hope for all of us is that we remain healthy and safe and that we all come out the other side of this transformed in some way that will serve us well as the people of God in this place and at this time. I look forward to us all being physically together at some point so that, together, we can bear witness to the transforming power of God.
Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.


Heavenly Father, we pray that thou wouldst come and care for those who are in danger and uncertainty at the present time.
To people who are sick, bring healing.

To people who are displaced, isolated from family, friends or work, bring comfort and companionship.
When communities are fearful, give a calm spirit.

Guide the medical staff, we pray, as they care for the sick and elderly, and protect them from harm.

Give skill and insight to those who search for treatments, prevention and a cure.

To public health authorities give wisdom to manage both this difficult time and our anxieties.

And through this time of danger, help us to love and support one another as you have loved us.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.


Jesus – The Light of the World

This is a special Sunday in the church year. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation or as it is more popularly known, Candlemas. Actually, it was yesterday – February 2nd but we are allowed to observe it on February 3rd , the following Sunday.
And this day has a rich and meaningful history not only in the church but in many different cultures and traditions around the world.

Its story origins we just heard in the gospel reading for today. Mary and Joseph, as faithful Jews, were obligated by Leviticus law to bring their first-born son to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth. They did so for two purposes – one was to present their first born male child to God as a special offering for God to use this child for his purposes, and if possible, to dedicate him to the service of God in the temple, as a messenger or prophet of God, or as a rabbi in the local synagogue. First born male children were special. And for the Jews, they were a symbol of the belief that God had spared the people of Israel by saving the lives of every first born male child prior to the Passover in Egypt. So, in one sense they were sacred and set apart. They generally inherited most of the family wealth if there was any but the obligations placed on them were serious and difficult – to be the head of the family someday – to be responsible for the care and well-being of the entire extended family and to make sure all women and younger brothers were properly married or taken care of in some way.

And so, like the wedding in Cana or Galilee and many other of Luke’s stories about the early years of Jesus, we get a glimpse into the life of Jewish people at that time.
And not only was the child presented to God in the temple, Mary, as a woman who had given birth a short time before, had to be ceremonially purified and restored to full and public status after a period of time in which she was ceremonially unclean and not allowed to mingle freely and socially with anyone except her immediate family. And so Mary and Joseph present a sacrifice of two young pigeons to show her full restoration to society. And life goes back to normal – or so they think. Except that all this is noticed by two people closely connected with the temple: Simeon and Anna, both prophets and both holy people who live in the temple full-time.

And they say the most amazing things. For Simeon, he is literally saying “Now I can die in peace – I have seen God’s anointed the one who is the salvation of his people and a light for people all over the world”, except he says it much more poetically. These are words so memorable that we used to repeat them in our service of Evening Prayer as one of the two canticles along with the Magnificat of Mary.
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
Some of you know this by heart. We sang in in Morrisburg during Evensong in December. We often repeat or sing it even today at a funeral as the deceased leaves the church for the last time.
And Anna also affirms that this baby is a special child, destined by God to redeem Israel.
Both these holy people recognize this child as the long-awaited Messiah of God.
And Mary and Joseph are amazed at what is being said about him.
And so they return to Nazareth and the child grows and becomes strong and is filled with wisdom and the favour of God. And I am sure Mary continued to think deeply about what the future might hold for all of them – and what sword – predicted by Simeon – might pierce her heart.

Again, we have only Luke’s gospel to thank for this story – just like the wedding in Cana – just like Jesus in the temple at the age of 12 – just like the whole story of his birth in Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds and wise men.
And we can only speculate as to how Luke, of all the gospel writers, had access to this very private information about Jesus. Did he really get all this from Mary later on? We don’t know for sure but who else could tell him.
But there is no doubt that this story of Jesus being presented in the temple captured the imagination of many in the church in the very earliest days. It is one of the oldest of the special services in the Christian church. Long before Christmas and December 25th was officially sanctioned, a pilgrim to the church in Jerusalem, a woman called Egeria, describes in detail a mass being held in the early 300s on this day in February to mark the occasion. And it involved everyone holding a candle to light the darkness and to read this story that we just heard, and to sing about Jesus being the light of the world. And it was a very special day. And later, when Christmas day was officially sanctioned in the Roman church, this day in early February marked the official end (40 days later) of the entire Christmas season.

And it is still a big deal in many parts of the world. In the Middle Ages, it was the day on which there was special blessing said over the candles to be used in the parish churches of Britain and many parts of Europe. And people would bring their own candles from home to be blessed as well – Hence, the popular name of Candlemas. And they read and heard the same gospel we have just heard today.

In French-speaking parts of Europe, people would serve crepes for dinner that night – round pancakes – golden in colour – symbols of the sun, warmth, spring, increased light coming into the world, and of Christ himself as the light of the world. And, in many homes, the women would flip the pancakes so that they done on both sides in the pan and a perfectly flipped pancake that landed back in the pan was a guarantee that the coming year would be one of prosperity and good luck and abundant crops and harvest.
And somehow, as time went on, we managed to transfer that little custom of pancakes to the evening before Ash Wednesday. So flip your pancakes this year to bring good luck to you and yours.

There is another custom traditionally associated with this story and that is something you probably heard about in the news yesterday – Groundhog Day. Yes, there is a Christian connection.

Years ago, the people of northern Europe, realizing that this day was exactly half-way through the Winter Solstice – December 21st – the darkest day of the year – and the Vernal Equinox – March 2st – a day of noticeable increased light and warmth – they began, on February 2nd, to look for light in the sky. More light meant less use of candles in church but less light meant all the candles had to be lit. And they measure the amount of light in the sky by watching any animals that were out to see if they had shadows. And the hedgehog was one of the most active that time of year. If the hedgehog had a shadow, it meant six more weeks of winter. If not, spring was coming early. When that tradition came to North America, no hedgehogs being native to this part of the world, early settlers used groundhogs.

Enter Wiarton Wille, Puxatawny Phil, Shubenacadie Sam and many other celebrities in the groundhog world. I gather, yesterday, there was some confusion among them all – some with shadows, some with not. So take your pick. I am personally voting for an early spring. I think we call are. Winter, so far, has been pretty brutal this year.

So Pancakes, groundhogs, solstice calendars, etc. notwithstanding, this is a significant moment in the life of the church year. We recognize Jesus not only as the light of Israel but the light of the whole world, regardless of local traditions and weather.
His life, death and resurrection – his teachings and acts of healing and compassion have brought light into the world in so many ways.

And as we leave here today, we carry that light with us out into the world – into our families – our daily lives – our encounters with others – our own acts of kindness, charity and compassion – which are the hallmarks and signs of those who follow Jesus. And if you do feel inspired to speak to someone about your faith and what it means to your life, don’t use the excuse of Jeremiah that we heard in the first reading today. God dismisses that one by saying, “It doesn’t matter. I will put the words in your mouth and tell you what to say.” It might be better to follow the words of Paul in the second reading where he argues that all the good deeds and intentions won’t matter a bit, everything we do and everything we say has to be rooted and founded in love. As he says, “If I do not have love, I have nothing.”

In a very real sense, we are a light to the world. And as the sun, in this part of the world, grows ever stronger and warmer, let us all resolve to live more fully in the light of Christ in our daily lives. That is our mission. To carry the light wherever we go and in whatever we do –Amen.

The Magi visit the infant Jesus

How many wise men were there? The answer is that we do not know. Matthew does not mention how many there were but tradition and time has decreed that there were probably three, since they brought three separate gifts to the baby Jesus – gold, frankincense and myrrh. And three, after all, is one of those perfect symbolic numbers which have such meaning in many cultures. Three persons in the holy trinity. Indeed, the number three is used in the Bible more 400 times and in many cases, it has symbolic as well as literal meaning. Jesus prayed three times in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter denied his Lord three times. Jesus was three days in the tomb before the resurrection.

So why not three kings? And indeed, as time went on as tradition began to add details around Matthew's basic story of the visit of the Magi, symbol piled up upon symbol. And the story expanded, both in detail and in meaning.
You will notice in Matthew's account (the only one of the gospels by the way) that he mentions that when they arrived in Bethlehem, they entered a house (oikos in Greek) not a stable, and only Mary was present, with the baby. We can assume from this that at least a few days had passed after the birth, long enough, at least, for Joseph and Mary to have found better accommodation.

Who were these three visitors? Matthew mentions only that they were from the “east”. And probably since they appear to be influenced by the appearance of the stars and the movement of the skies, they may have been followers, if not priests, of the cult of Zoroaster, a Persian prophet from that part of Persia which we today call Iran. Zoroastrianism, still practised today as a religion in certain parts of India, believes in the basic goodness of humankind but that humanity is led astray by forces of evil. It believes that we need to listen to the goodness in ourselves and look for the good in others and follow the teachings of those who show us the way of goodness and are our saviours both by example and by teaching. Sounds a bit like Jesus, does it not?

Why not be drawn by the stars to see a baby who is destined to be the saviour of his people, and not only his own people but those of the whole world?

But the Magi are more than seekers of truth and goodness. Gradually, the early church begins to see more and more meaning in the prophecies of Isaiah and to use those passages from Isaiah to convince converts that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And one of the passages they went to was the one we heard this morning from Isaiah: Listen to the prophet's words: “The Lord will arise upon you and his glory will appear over you.” A bit like the star that led them to Bethlehem. And then the next line: “Nations shall come to your light and Kings to the brightness of your dawn.” And then further on, “They will bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.”

And so the tradition began that these wise men, the magi, were also kings from the East, wealthy kings who opened their treasure chests to give gifts to the new born babe.

Symbolic gifts? You bet they were. This story is filled with symbolism.

Gold, a symbol of Kingship and power.

Frankincense – a symbol of diety – of the presence of God. A symbol of prayer and of holiness.

Myrrh (not mentioned by Isaiah) but a symbol of death, and of suffering and great pain. A symbol of sacrifice. One of the substances used to prepare a body for burial and life after death.

For hundreds of years, as the story is told and re-told, the details are expanded to give these three visitors from the east individual names and separate identities: Caspar, who presents the gold, is an old man from India. Melchior, a middle-aged man who brings the gift of frankincense, comes from Persia. Balthazar, a young dark-skinned man, is from Arabia and it is he who brings the myrrh.

The writer of the gospel of Matthew might be rightly astonished at how his basic story grew in the telling. And yet, the essential kernel of truth and wisdom contained in it remains intact.

This is Matthew's way of telling us that, although this baby is the long-awaited Messiah, the saviour of his people, he is also is meant to be the saviour of the world, Jew and Gentile alike. And this essential truth is even recognized by those who come from other lands, by those who have different understandings of the way God works to save us, by those whose differences are united in their common belief that this baby will be not only a king, but a great teacher and prophet and finally, will save humankind by offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice in which death is conquered once and for all. It's all there in the Matthew's story. The visit of the Magi has an ecumenical point to it.

Isaiah, among others, prophesied it. Matthew recognized how important this story of the visitors from another land really was, and subsequent generations told and re-told this important story, adding details and developing characters, yes, but leaving the essential story and its truths intact.

Someone who realized this was a 19th century Anglican clergyman from Philadelphia who was asked to write a song for a Christmas pageant in the early 1860s. John Henry Hopkins wrote not only the words for the song but the tune as well and the song was designed with verses to be sung by each of the three wise men, Kings, Magi, as solos with a chorus to be sung by all.

Listen to some of the words he wrote for each King in turn.

Gold – “Born a King on Bethlehem's plain. Gold I bring to crown him again”

Frankincense – “Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a deity nigh.”

Myrrh –“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom.”

And in the final stanza, they all sing; “Glorious now behold him arise: King, and God and Sacrifice.” A wonderful summing up of the babe as: “King, and God, and Sacrifice.” Rich with theological meaning.

Hopkins got the point of Matthew's story. So did another man called Henry van Dyke. Another American from Pennsylvania, but, this time, a Presbyterian who spent his life teaching English literature at Princeton University. He was also a writer and poet and you have sung some of his poetry in the form of Hymn #425 – Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee

But his most famous work was a short story published in 1895 under the title: “The Story of the Other Wise Man”. And it goes like this:

At the same time as the original three wise men saw the star in the heavens, it was also observed by another priest of the their land called Artaban and he resolved to go with them and see this child born to be King of the Jews. And he gathered three gifts of his own: a sapphire, a ruby and a pearl of great price. On the way to meet up with the other three, he stops to help a dying man lying by the side of the road and his lateness causes him to miss the caravan of the other three. Lacking the necessary camels and materials to travel on his own, he sells one of his gifts, the Sapphire, to equip himself to cross the desert. He arrives in Bethlehem too late to see the child as Mary and Joseph have already gone to Egypt but while there, he gives the second of his three gifts, the ruby to save the life of a child about to be killed by Herod's soldiers. He travels to Egypt searching for the holy family but never finding them, and becomes a pilgrim, performing acts of charity to all he meets. 33 years later, he arrives in Jerusalem just at the time of the crucifixion with only the pearl left in his possession. He sacrifices the pearl to save a young woman from being sold into slavery. An accident caused by the earth quake at the time of the crucifixion brings him close to death only to realize that although he has been searching for the Christ child all his life, he has actually found him many times every time he helped someone. He dies having fulfilled his dream.

The story of the wise men contains several profound truths. One of them is that the gospel of Christ is for everyone. As the writer of Ephesians says at the end of our second lesson; “The Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel”. And the wise men were the first of those Gentiles to recognize and follow Christ.

The second truth, and one which Henry Van Dyke showed us in the story of the fourth wise man, is that we meet Christ face-to-face all the time in everyone else, and in those whom we serve as if Christ himself.
And Matthew was the gospel writer who gave this wonderful truth in the following words of Jesus himself: (Matt 25: 40)

Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of my brethren, you have done it unto me.