Traditionally, 18th-25th January is observed as The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Last year we held a very successful service on Zoom with participation from across Sutherland and Easter Ross and beyond. When we remembered about it, we thought that it would be a good thing to try to mark Christian Unity every year and so we propose a
Zoom service next Tuesday
25th January at 7pm
The Zoom details have been sent out by email, but if you haven’t received them, please get in touch.
The service materials have been prepared by the Christian Churches of the Middle East, including the Orthodox, Coptic and Syriac Churches. The theme is the Epiphany and there is some splendid Middle Eastern music, which really brings the theme alive. You can access the Order of Service here.
As part of the service there is a ritual act for which you will need a a star – exactly what form depends on your creativity – and also a candle and the means to light it.
A woman sits in quiet dignity on her own whilst there’s a boozy party going on.
Is the person at the centre of it all, at work or at a party?
Why is His first action one that seems almost frivolous when He later heals serious illness; calms terrifying storms; and feeds the hungry?
By the way any correspondence between anything above and recent events is of course purely coincidental.
“On the third day … and the mother of Jesus was there”
“Jesus did this, the first of his signs … and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him”
John isn’t simply a reporter. He’s a theologian who reflects deeply on the broader picture of what the coming of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God actually means. John records Jesus as saying that there were many significant aspects of his message that he couldn’t tell his disciples while he was still with them, but that under the influence of the Holy Spirit they would come to understand theseat a later time. so when we read John we need to do so with sensitivity to the resonances of what the Spirit is saying.
The Wedding at Cana passage opens with the words: “On the third day there was a wedding at Canaand the mother of Jesus was there”, it follows three passages in chapter one which start “The next day”. People who read the whole thing as a sequence of diary entries and ask, “The third day from when?” counting back through these events, are missing the significance of these words. Sometranslations replace them with “Two days later”. Now it’s not that the phrase, “On the third day”, isn’t part of a succession of days in John’s narrative, but that John’s intention is much more subtle than that of a diarist piecing together entries in a careful sequence.
John’s making an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus which also occurs on the third day. John’s subtly connecting the resurrection and this wedding. He’s suggesting that the victory of God that’s wrapped-up in the resurrection of his Son, is a cause of celebration; much like a wedding party.
Incidently it’s an allusion that he repeats in his apocalyptic vision in the book of Revelation, that the victory of God is much like a wedding. He uses wedding functions as a metaphor for salvation. There are of course other biblical metaphors for salvation but today let’s think about the wedding metaphor in the story of the wedding at Cana.
Wine is a crucial part of this story. The wedding host has run out of wine, but at this event, he doesn’t send someone down to the off-licence with a suitcase to pick up some more. No Mary asks Jesus if He can do something about it, to which he replies “my time is not yet come”, then he acts. You’ll notice in this story that the amount of water Jesus turns into wine is quite large. The text suggests that Jesus made about 120 gallons of it! That’s a lot of wine and a pretty boozy party.
John may also be hinting at Old Testament prophecy that says that when the Messiah comes and inaugurates God’s kingdom once again on earth that there’ll be an overabundance of wine?
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever.Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
So John’s telling his readers, “This is the Messiah that we’ve been waiting for, rejoice and be merry”.
Mary’s not only central to Advent and Christmas, she’s central to God’s whole plan for humanity. It’s through her faithful ‘Yes’ that Jesus is born. It’s when she visits her cousin Elizabeth that Mary breaks into song with her great prayer, ‘The Magnificat.’
In the gospels there aren’t many details about Mary. We do know that she followed Jesus as he preached and healed. She saw him being betrayed, denied, arrested and condemned. She was there at the cross with the other women when he died. She buried her son and then “On the third day” went to the tomb with the other women. Then at Pentecost, she was there when the friends and followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary is truly the example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Marys’ greatness is that she points the way and leads us to Jesus through her own example. She’s not asking us to do anything she hasn’t already done herself. She doesn’t seek or ask for any attention for herself. At this family wedding in Cana Mary’s an invited guest, but her concern about the wine is about the reputation of the young couple, not about herself.
When we think of Jesus’ miracles, we usually think of him helping those in desperate need – feeding the hungry, healing the blind and the lame, delivering the possessed, or even raising the dead. These account for most of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels; they’re acts which relieve suffering, provide healing and restore life and wholeness.
We may find it a bit surprising that the first miracle of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel is one that seems almost frivolous. There’s no desperate, life-threatening need in this story, no crisis of hunger or illness. Rather, the crisis in this story is that the wine’s run out at a wedding banquet. It’s a problem which threatens to cut the celebration short and cause considerable embarrassment to the hosts, but certainly it poses no immediate danger to anyone’s life or health.
Turning water into wine seems almost trivial. So why did He do it, why did John decide to include it in his gospel, and what does it reveal to us about who God is?
You might argue that the purpose of not only this miracle but of all of Jesus’s miracles is to reveal His glory. But they’re never inward, self-aggrandising displays; they always serve to benefit others. He always brings others with Him into glory. This first miracle sets a tone for the rest of Jesus’s earthly life and ministry; one of kindness, one of empathy, one of care.
Turning water into wine is a small yet profound miracle; it’s exactly what’s needed when it’s needed. Jesus is really good at that: being what we need when we need it; not trivialising our issues and our worries and being there to help us celebrate our joys and achievements too. For Jesus perhaps work and parties are the same thing.
Through the witnessing of arguably the smallest miracle in the gospels, we’re reminded that God’s with us and for us; we’re reminded that the smallest work of God is still greater than anything we could do by ourselves. And that’s a reminder that we’ve never needed more than we do just now.
A number of years ago when my aunt came to visit she gave us each felt glasses cases with another piece of felt in the shape of a pair of glasses sewn on, presumably so that we’d remember what to put in the case. The last time she came she gave us a pair of felt egg cosies with pieces of felt in the shape of chickens sewn on, but we haven’t been able to find chickens small enough to wear them yet. Then this year she heard that I had a new phone and send me a felt phone case. She does like to make her presents felt!
Now I rarely start my sermons with a joke and having heard that one, you’re probably relieved about that, but it does help to make a point however you’ll have to wait for that point to emerge.
Matthew’s account of the visit of the wise men is fairly brief, with very little detail. Almost all that we think that we know about Epiphany comes from hymns and poems and other creative writing, all of which have added layers of meaning and detail to the tradition surrounding it.
Our opening hymn: ‘As with gladness men of old’ is a pretty pared back account, not even mentioning the Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh (which may themselves have been Matthew’s embellishment). In contrast our final hymn: ‘We three kings’ has a great deal of embellishment. The tradition has even given the wise men, now promoted to kings, names and places of origin – Melchior from Persia, Gaspar (also called “Caspar” or “Jaspar”) from India, and Balthazar from Arabia. Their gifts have been given special symbolic meanings as well: gold signifying Jesus’ status as ‘King of the Jews‘; frankincense representing the infant’s divinity and identity as the ‘Son of God‘; and myrrh touching on Jesus’ mortality.
It’s so easy to get carried away with all these details.
Suppose that I was to tell you that in defiance of Scottish Government Guidance we’d invited three people over for a party at New Year (we didn’t by the way). There are a number of ways that I could tell that story, which give very different impressions.
Maud arrived first from Tain and she gave us a wonderful scented candle. The next to arrive was John from Dornoch who brought a lovely bottle of red wine and finally there was Daphne from Lairg with a yummy box of chocolates. We had a bit of a blether and shared food and drink until the bells. It’s about who, where they’re from and their gifts.
On the other had I could tell you that three long-standing friends came over to see the New Year in with us and we really enjoyed spending a little while together catching up on all that has happened during the pandemic and what our families are up to.That’s much more about the purpose.
When I took my first wedding, I was particularly struck by a piece at the bottom of the invitation that said:
“Please no presents. Your travelling from near and far to celebrate with us is the greatest gift of all”
The gift of the company of their friends and relatives and the memory of celebrating together, that’s what this couple wanted from their guests.
For me, that’s the most important part of the Epiphany story some strangers from afar who weren’t connected with the Jewish Tradition undertook long journeys to honour an extraordinary happening, God had become incarnate as a tiny baby. This was God being revealed to the wider world – to all.
Woody Allen is reputed to have said that 80% of life is just showing up and I think that’s the most important aspect of this story, spiritual presence rather than worldly details.
This Epiphany let us reflect on the essence of the story rather than a whole load of fictional embroidery and through that see the call to reveal God’s presence in the world to everyone – to the grumpy, the depressed, the selfish, the worried, the suffering, the disadvantaged and everyone else that we meet.
The St Finnbarr’s Charities Shop in Dornoch is scheduled to re-open for business after the Christmas break on Thursday 6th January.
The shop will be open on Mondays to Saturdays from 10am to 1pm.
Great efforts have been made to make the shop safe for customers and staff so we would ask that everybody follows the ‘rules’ carefully. As you will be aware, the shop is small and the number of customers who can be in the shop at any one time is limited. We have a wireless bell for customers to press to let us know they are waiting and staff will be on hand to guide you and answer any questions that you may have.
Donations of Items
It would be appreciated that if you have been saving donations of items for the shop that you drop them off during opening times only and in fairly small quantities as we don’t want to be swamped and have limited storage space.
We look forward to welcoming everybody in the coming weeks, meanwhile keep safe.
At New Year we get lots of people making prophesies about what will happen in the coming twelve months. Jeremiah 30-33 is known as Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation. The first two chapters are full of prophesies of promises made to the Northern Kingdom. These verses offer really good news to a people longing for some when things looking bad.
They’re words of hope and restoration; a message of joy and praise. But there’s a catch, they’re not a statement of fact. It’s an oracle, a promise yet to be fulfilled, a description of things hoped for. Jeremiah is ever hopeful and his message is delivered to a people sorely in need of hope, who’ve suffered long in captivity and eagerly accept any prophecy of divine promises of release and restoration. A prophecy of hope is also what many in our society are looking for, those whosometimes feel hopeless about the challenges confronting them in their lives and communities.
These verses are addressed to people who’ve survived the devastation of being overrun by the various conquerors of their nation and offer assurance of God’s enduring presence that will ultimately bring about their restoration. They’ve suffered devastating loss in their personal and family lives, in their religious and societal way of life and to their culture.
Remember that I said there’s a catch. The Northern Kingdom, to whom they’re addressed was swept away into exile in the 8th century BCE. The promises in chapter 31: “again you will plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria” and “the sentinels shall call in the hill country of Ephraim,” weren’t fulfilled for them, their land was forcefully repopulated by the Assyrians and they never returned home. Indeed, most folk of the Northern Kingdom died in exile in Syria and Babylonia.
As the Covid pandemic has rumbled on, we’ve been hit with many prophesies ranging from “it’ll all be over soon and we can return to normal by Christmas” to “there’ll be huge numbers of cases/deaths unless we stop doing x or y or z”. Most of these have failed to be fulfilled and I think that we’re getting used to that and taking some of it with a pinch of salt.
Failed promises can be difficult to face, especially when these are made, not just to the population at large, but to specific groups of people: the blind, the physically disabled, and women in their third trimester. These promises are made to the grieving, to people who’re overcome by “hands too strong for them,”. Jeremiah’s not kidding when he says: “your hurt is incurable…there is no medicine for your wound, no healing for you”. It’s not hyperbole when Rachel refuses comfort because “her children are no more”, just her reality.
Although this kingdom and it’s people disappeared from history, their words and their poetry was preserved, leading to many reuses of it. In a sense “failure is just material waiting to be recycled”.So hopes that emerge from failure can bring new life to others.
Tuesday was the Feast of the Holy Innocents and it’s Matthew who uses this failed prophecy to suggest that Rachel’s weeping refers to the children in Bethlehem slaughtered by Herod, mappingpresent grief onto an earlier sense of loss.
But we can’t be satisfied with the idea that people die and suffer so that their hope can be recycled for others. While there’s quite a lot that can be done with failed hope, what about the people of Jeremiah’s time, the people to whom he prophesied. What happened to those women in their third trimester who hoped to return home but never came back?
In asking this question, we’re not alone. The book of Tobit is about an 8th century Northern Israelite who was exiled to Ninevah. The story focuses on two folk who tried to do what was right by God but things never turned out, Tobit and Sarah a distant relative. They both feel despair and a desire for death. Tobit’s sends his son and his dog on a journey with a relative who turns out to be an angel in disguise and which ends in his meeting and marrying Sarah. So our question, “what becomes of these people?” connects us to the ancient author of Tobit who wondered the very same thing.
This desire to follow the lost is precisely what Jeremiah did with his Book of Consolation. The failed hopes for the Northern Kingdom may have served as reading for Jeremiah while in jail. So in wondering about the lost, he used his imagination, shaped by God’s hopes for those people, to write a new book in solidarity with them. His Book of Consolation is actually his “Letter from a Jerusalem Jail”.
Even during his incarceration, he didn’t adopt a simplistic hope that God would make everything better and would restore some sort of ‘normality’. Jeremiah was maybe the ultimate skeptic, when you compare him with his contemporaries who just preached hope and protection.
Jeremiah’s willingness to be skeptical and a big helping of imagination, gave him the power to see beyond what was happening. “Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry”.
God is concerned even about the weakest among us. The blessing of God isn’t a sign of worthiness. God’s compassion and justice extends to all and promises the hope of God’s restorative justice to those who’ve been brought low by any and all circumstances of life. The promises of God delivered through the words of the prophet transcend time and place and gather all people of every time and place into the ever-present grace of God that offers fullness of life to all.
We see exactly the same message in the prologue to John’s Gospel when we read:
“To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
The start of a New Year and whilst that’s often a time for celebration, there’s also a tinge of sadness as we say goodbye to 2021, with all its highs and lows and all the things that have happened in each of our lives, in the lives of those around us and in the life of our Church and our nation.
Today in St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, the funeral is being held of Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu, who died last Sunday. For those gathered and for all the people of South Africa, there’ll be sadness at the death of the man who for many years was a very passionate and effective leader in the peaceful struggle to end apartheid, but there’ll also be a joyful celebration of his life and what he did for his nation, his family and for the Anglican Church.
Desmond Tutu will always be remembered as the clergyman who won the Nobel Peace Prize, who helped bring down apartheid and who served as a beacon of light in a divided nation, when everything seemed rather bleak. Yet for some reason he always seemed to be joyful and his cackling laugh was infectious. He was also an insightful observer of the human condition and almost always started his sermons with an amusing story, of which he seemed to have an endless supply.
When speaking to audiences around the world, the man who they called ‘Tata’ (father) who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and spoke out against corruption in the post-apartheid government just as he had against the apartheid one, was frequently asked the same questions:
“Why are you so joyful?” “How do you keep your faith in people when you see so much injustice, oppression and cruelty?” “What makes you so certain that the world is going to get better?”.
In the preface of his book “Made for Goodness”, he asks:
“What these questioners want to know is, What do I see that they’re missing? How do I see the world and my role in it? How do I see God? What is the faith that drives me? What are the spiritual practices that uphold me? What do I see in the heart of humanity and the sweep of history that confirms my conviction that goodness will triumph?”
“Made for Goodness” Desmond and Mpho Tutu
Questions that might be useful for each one of us to reflect on as we start 2022. Desmond Tutu’s answer is to be found in the stories of the goodness of ordinary people that he and his daughter Mpho have encountered in their lives and ministries and which they share in the book.
In the last couple of years, most of us have faced dark days as the Covid pandemic has waxed and waned repeatedly. But what’s really struck me is the stories of the goodness of ordinary people that I’ve heard from friends, neighbours, relatives and in the news. People who’ve given their time as volunteers in food banks and vaccination centres; people who’ve made sure that their elderly or vulnerable neighbours are kept supplied with the essentials that they need; all those doctors, nurses, pharmacists, workers in care homes and those visiting people at home, who’ve gone much further than just an extra mile and also those who’ve given generously whenever there was need.
Along the way new friendships have been formed, for example between people who’ve lived near each other for years but never really done more than say good morning. Yes there’ve been acts of selfishness and some people who’ve sought to exploit others, but to derive our view of the human condition from these would be to miss what Desmond Tutu calls the inherent goodness of people. He writes:
“As we allow ourselves to accept God’s acceptance, we begin to accept our own goodness and beauty as God does. With each glimpse of our own beauty, we can begin to see the goodness and beauty in others”
“Made for Goodness” Desmond and Mpho Tutu
A happy New Year and may you face 2022 with acceptance, joy and laughter and perhaps see more of the inherent goodness in everyone, as both Jesus who called His Father Abba and Archbishop Tutu who South Africans often called ‘Tata’ did.
A great many folk celebrated the Incarnation with us in East Sutherland and Tain this year at six services in four churches over the last few days – people from a range of Christian Fellowships joined us to mark the coming of Christ Light of the world amongst us.
Many years ago, when I was at school, there were these people that we called headmasters. My perception of them is that they were distant, very stern and seemed most concerned with discipline and in particular punishing those who strayed from the path of acceptable behaviour. Now I stress that this was my perception of them, but isn’t that how God seems to come across in the Hebrew Scriptures – distant, frequently absent, especially in difficult times and mostly concerned with discipline.
Now that isn’t how God is, nor of course is it how head-teachers are is it Simon? Head-teachers are ever-present, kind, accessible and caring, supporting staff and pupils and helping them to achieve their potential, are they not? (And I’m sure that’s how they really were when I was at school)
So how could God change that negative and unhelpful perception that the people of Israel had? The solution was elegant in it’s simplicity. God became human and dwelt among us, to experience life from a human perspective.
In my day there was a strict hierarchy in schools with the headmaster at the top and everyone else knew their place. But again that isn’t how God sees the world. When God became human, it was all upside down, it wasn’t properly organised, neat and tidy with everything in it’s place. It certainly wasn’t those in power (or anyone else) who was in control and in our day it isn’t the great and the good, the Church and especially not the clergy and other leaders who hold the secrets of the mystery of God.
Richard Holloway puts it beautifully when he writes:
“The word becomes flesh in all its uncertainty and awkwardness. Grace come to us through weakness. The traditional account of the nativity, purged of its Christmas card glamour, captures this paradox. There is the uncertainty that surrounds the conception. There is the confusion and incompetence that characterises the birth. Yet somewhere the angel sings, because God’s grace has found another of the despised to dwell with. Grace uses every available weakness to pull down our might. It undermines the cruelty of our strength by throwing us on the mercy of our weakness. It is by our sin that we are saved, because through it we reach for the grace that alone sustains us. That is why we should have a special regard for the despised, those on the outside, the impure and the untogether. It is through them that God speaks to the Church. Through them the Church is evangelised.”
From “Limping Towards the Sunrise” by Richard Holloway
Who were the first people to be told of the arrival of God into our world? It wasn’t kings, princes, governors, clergy or headmasters, it was humble shepherds in the fields. He wasn’t born of well-to-do parents, but to an unmarried working couple and the scandalous truth is that Christ Jesus came into the world as a helpless baby:
“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The incarnation marks a new relationship between God and humankind – ever-present, kind, accessible and caring, supporting all manner of people and helping them to achieve their potential, even if that’s not how our society sees it.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.”
Christmas can be a time of complex emotions and no more so in these strange times that we’re living through. For the Queen, it’s the end of the year in which Prince Philip died, after a marriage of 73 years together. As she faces her first Christmas without the man about whom she has said: “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.’, I suspect that many of us will have faced one or more such ‘first Christmases’ after the death of someone who we’ve loved deeply and who we’ll always miss, especially at this time of year.
The present pandemic has made meeting up with other people and especially those who we love, less easy than it used to be. This has perhaps shown us the importance of all the relationships we have with others and also with God – the God who we now know is constantly saying to us “Don’t be afraid. I’m here. Your prayers have been answered.” And perhaps we need to emphasise this more than ever in these times.
As human beings we have an incurable tendency to write off the present as unsuitable or inconvenient. We keep looking forward to some ideal future when things will run more easily and smoothly, things will be better. So when we find our lives disorganised and full of makeshifts, we fondly imagine a future when everything will be sorted out and our lives will be full of nothing but peace and beauty and joy and we’ll be able to settle down again. We could be waiting a long time, perhaps for all eternity, for that to happen.
What God is saying to us in this season is
“I’ve given you my Son, I’ve given you everything that I have. Lift up your eyes and see that my redemption now, it’s all around you. What else are you waiting for?”
In past times the headmaster God spoke to our forebears through the prophets, but in our times the head-teacher God speaks to us in his Son and in all those around us through all their faults and all their weaknesses. Yes it is that messy.
So let me wish you a Joyous Christmas, made all the more joyous through its imperfections and the memories of Christmases past and all the people that we’ve known and who’ve shaped us as the people that we now are.