Sunday, 18 January 2015

Epiphany 2 God's surpises 18th January 2015

Tell God your plans and you're in for a surprise!

Again and again in my life I work, as the conscientious guy I try to be, to set up the best future for myself, for my family and for my church - but we have a God of surprises!

We have a God who as Paul teaches in Romans 8 works all things for good for those who love him and he works it both through our planning and through the surprises he gives us.

We are God’s Church and must keep open to God's surprises.

The call of Samuel in our first reading was a surprise to him. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. We're told. Yet At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’

After two rebuttals we heard how Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.

Samuel – and Eli – have a surprise of the Spirit which they need to come to terms with. In consequence of Samuel recognising God’s call Israel gets a new start that leads through Samuel to Saul, David and the Kings.

As we move through the first month of a new year many of us are looking for one sort of fresh start or other. Could we do better than seek refreshing of our relationship with God? To seek the newness imparted us again and again from the permanent newness of Jesus who's the same yesterday, today and forever?

For our second reading we had a passage from the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. I've actually been to Patmos, the Island we’re told where John’s vision came to him when he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day. I attended the Orthodox Liturgy on the Island and when you read the passage of the priestly elders falling down before the sacrificial Lamb you could imagine John dreaming at the eucharist which is so structured – led by elders we gather round the altar as Christ’s sacrifice is represented and we behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The book of Revelation is a mighty surprise of the Spirit to any who read it with devotion. We had a particularly upbeat section of it read out today.

Upbeat and upwards pointing, just like our spire which invites our village to look to God in worship and prayer.
Worship may be outwardly the same here Sunday by Sunday but, as in the passage, we find here the eternal newness of Jesus. We join round the altar of God as if lifted into paradise 'with all the company of heaven'. This morning I cannot but think of Lesley Whiting and my mother-in-law Doris Scott being one with us in this anticipated feast of heaven we call the holy eucharist.

Back to surprises - our Gospel reading has Philip very much surprised by Jesus. Such a surprise! So much taken up was Philip, we read, that he went and got Nathanael, Saint Bartholomew, who, initially sceptical of Jesus was won over by the surprising knowledge Jesus had of his being under the fig tree Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel! He says in homage to Jesus who presents him with this astounding promise that extends to all believers: I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

Now that will be a surprise for us on the last day, or on the day of our death, as it was for those first disciples when they saw their friend and Lord ascending into heaven at the end of his earthly ministry

So what can we draw for ourselves from today’s readings?

That God is a living and therefore surprising God. 

We can’t tie him down in human categories since we are to him as dust to the heavens above. Indeed in God’s house whether you’re the greatest saint or worst sinner puts you either top or bottom of the carpet so to speak.

In that respect what’s most surprising is God’s actual interest in us humans in the first place. How he takes trouble to call Samuel, John the Divine, Philip, Nathanael – and, yes, you and I - for we too are called and to be equipped for his purposes?

C.S.Lewis wrote a book ‘Surprised by Joy’ to describe the confounding of his dismal atheism by a surprising encounter with the living God.

Sometimes it can be the same for us.

We go through phases of practical atheism when God doesn’t seem to count much in our lives only to be woken up like Samuel by a voice from above spoken through our circumstances as were the people touched in last week’s anointing. 

Here I am, for you called me, we find ourselves saying in obedience to God’s surprising intervention.

If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans. The point is we need an openness to his possibilities that’s bred in humility. 

At the end of the day we’re not ultimately in control of our lives - God is. 

God must many a time be amused at the presumption of humanity in the plans we make since we can’t possibly comprehend the variables as we look forward in life as he does.

Plan we must, as this New Year gets underway, but let our plans leave us open to welcoming the surprises of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Archbishop Robert Leighton, Saint of Horsted Keynes

Believe, and you shall love, believe much, and you shall love much. Robert Leighton

Saint Giles has a saint in the Churchyard. It has a Prime Minister too – Harold Macmillan – but Archbishop Robert Leighton buried there 1684 and commemorated 26th June in the church calendar has first place. Leighton’s tomb and wall plaque have been cleaned by J Gumbrill through the generous donation of church members to mark a year of celebration close to the 400th anniversary of his birth.

Called affectionately “The little bishop” Leighton devoted the last decade of his life to praying, preaching and visiting the poor and sick of Horsted Keynes having spent forty years carrying the torch of peaceable Christian faith during tumultuous times which saw both the loss and restoration of kings and bishops.   

Believe, and you shall love, he wrote. Believe much, and you shall love much. Robert Leighton’s deep rooting in Christ gave him love to help deal with church divisions in the Scotland of his day where he served as Presbyterian minister and afterwards as Anglican Bishop in Dunblane, where his library is still used, and Archbishop of Glasgow, before retiring to live with his sister in Horsted Keynes.

Seek Jesus, fear not, you will certainly find him Leighton wrote and in him all things. He described Christian life as ‘angelic’ spent between ascending in prayer to fetch blessings from above and descending to scatter them amongst those in need of help and consolation below. To Leighton prayer looks to God as the most faithful and powerful friend, the richest and most loving father.

Our spiritual New Year resolutions at St Giles will include Leighton and we’ll be looking with him at the 5 essentials of Christian life:  prayer, worship, study, service and reflection.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Epiphany 4.1.15 Incense

The wise men knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Matthew 2:11 As the wise men offered worship at his birth, so Christians have for centuries burned incense in worship. 

What is Incense?  Incense is made from various aromatic resins and gums taken from trees and other plants. When burned it gives off scented smoke. In church it is normally burned in a censer or thurible. Because it is difficult to burn on its own, it is burned along with charcoal.

Why use incense in worship?  At the heart of worship in the Temple at Jerusalem was sacrifice. The sacrificial offering was usually a living thing such as a lamb or bird, but the fruits of the earth were also offered, including incense. In the Temple there was even an altar specially set aside for the burning of incense. With the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70 the sacrificial worship of the Old Testament came to an end. The necessity for much of it had already been brought to an end, several years before, by the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

Why did incense continue in Christian worship? Our human need to offer thanksgiving and sacrifice to God remains. In our daily lives, Christians have the opportunity to give the best of themselves back to God in the service of each other. St Paul reminds us that we are like incense.  We Christians are to be a sweet smelling  savour as we live surrendered like incense to God.  (2 Corinthians 2:15)
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness …with gold of obedience and incense of lowliness, kneel and adore. As incense makes for a special atmosphere in Church the surrendered lives of Christians are to have something very special about them, drawing the curiosity and heart searching of those who share our life. Incense is of course a symbol of rising prayer.

One of the elements of good liturgy is the use of colour and movement provided by the use of colourful vestments, processions and the like. Singing and chanting which stimulates the sense of hearing. The use of incense enables even fuller participation in the liturgy by stimulating the sense of smell. It also provides colour, movement and sound as the thurible is swung and its chain 'chinks' and 'tinkles'.

Another aspect of Christian worship is honouring God’s royal presence. Macmillan horse smells. Used in processions before dignitaries. Compostela. In the Eucharist the use of incense draws attention to the royal presence of Christ among his people.  "Incense owns a Deity nigh", The Bible is censed to honour Christ in his word.  The Sacrament receives signal honour as his Body and Blood.  The congregation are greeted with incense to honour Christ among them.

In the Book of Revelation the burning of incense appears to be an important part of the worship of heaven. In ch.5 v.8 we read of "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the Saints".
This whole book is symbolic, and was never intended to be taken as literally accurate. Many commentators, though believe that the writer of the book was strongly influenced by the worship, or liturgy, of his own church. When we burn incense we remind ourselves that our prayers, like the incense, ascend to the throne of God and mingle with the prayers of the Saints in heaven

Which Churches use incense? Most of Christianity use, or have used, incense in worship. All the Eastern Orthodox Churches burn incense at most of their services, or liturgies. In the 'west' the Roman Catholic Church burns incense at many of its services. The Church of England used incense throughout its history, until the mid 1600's, when it fell into disuse generally. From that time, though, it continued to be used in worship in isolated churches such as York Minster, and since the mid 19th century its use has spread and increased. In the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy gold, incense and myrrh are offered on the Feast of Epiphany.  The incense is taken to be burnt in Church.  There is quite a waiting list I’m told.

Where’s the spiritual challenge here? At Epiphany we talk about the manifestation of Christ to the nations which is symbolized by the visit of wise men from afar. The manifestation of Christ in our own age we call evangelism, spreading the good news which is a matter of handing on the fact of God’s love shown in the historical Jesus. It is also a matter of manifesting Christ  personally, which is through our person, through the manner of our living. We are called not just to speak about Christ to the world but to be Christ in the world by our prayer and care and all that we are. 

As the incense grains have been consumed on the charcoal we’re meant to see our lives lost to God and neighbor in the sweet smelling savour of costly service.

Lord, as the wise men offered you incense, help us to make of our lives a fragrant offering to You. We ask this in the holy name of Jesus. Amen.