window.dataLayer = window.dataLayer || []; function gtag(){dataLayer.push(arguments);} gtag('js', new Date()); gtag('config', 'G-JP8PD7NQMN'); Vicar’s sermon 28.1.24 The Presentation of Christ Luke 2.22-40 | St Mary's Barnard Castle

Vicar’s sermon 28.1.24 The Presentation of Christ Luke 2.22-40

My guess is that most of us have watched the Repair Shop on TV. If not, then you really ought to give it a go, but the basis of the programme is that people bring to a group of experts their most precious items in need of repair -and with them the stories behind why these items might be so precious- and then we are shown the process behind putting something back together and the emotion of it being returned to its owner.
Susie, the leatherworker; Steve and his clocks and toys: Dom, outside in the yard welding and fixing metal; Kirsten, tackling ceramics and sculptures that have been smashed to smithereens; Will working his magic with furniture and the rest of the team tackling musical instruments, books, upholstery, electronics …all these folk begin their work by doing one thing: they dismantle and clean the object in front of them. Steve has a ‘bath’ of potion that de-rusts and degreases the intricate workings of clocks; Dom too is not averse to sending large chunks of metal to be sandblasted-clear of years of grime and gunk; Kirsten peers through her magnifying lenses as she softly eases the results of previous attempts to glue something together away from the ceramics in her care. The other week a picture was brought in that had a large stain across the top of it: slowly, slowly a mist of water was applied to it and the stain lifted by drying.
By the end of the program the item is revealed from underneath a cloth to its owners: worn and battered perhaps but somehow ‘new’; scarred from love and use but strong and able to be used again.…better than ever before.
That process of stripping back, laying bare a problem before attempting to fix it is known to us, but it is hard. Eighty percent of decorating (not my favourite past-time) is in the preparation: shifting the furniture, cleaning down the walls of removing old wall-paper, sanding and calking. Much easier to paint over the lot…but not good enough: you know that!
I’m meant to be talking about scripture, about our bible readings, and I am…but what’s the connection? The connection is judgement. Judgement appears in both our readings this morning:
In our Old Testament reading the Lord says: I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. And then in the gospel we are told that Jesus, (presumably we’re to understand that He is the Lord come to His temple) ‘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.”
In the Book of Malachi it seems that the people of God had been crying out for the Lord to come and help them, to ‘visit them’ with His presence but they didn’t really know what they were asking. This prophesy doesn’t read, initially, like good news. The process of making the people fit for God to dwell amongst them involves sorting a whole host of things out. ‘Be careful what you ask for’ comes to mind: are you really up for this?
In the gospel, Simeon’s words spoken to Mary about her child point to there being a division about to be made as people respond either positively or negatively to Him (‘the falling and rising of many in Israel’). And then we’re given that line ‘and a sword will pierce your heart too’. The Church Times this week highlights the word for ‘sword’ in this verse and compares it to other words that might have been used to describe the different swords at use in the Roman world: the long and the short of it being that this sword is more like a cleaver that divides than a rapier that pierces. The verse seems to say that the secrets of everyone’s hearts (including Mary’s) will be made known rather than the verse meaning that being Jesus’ mum would be difficult!
Amongst my Christmas presents I was given a subscription to a magazine called Plough. This is the quarterly, exceptionally beautiful and well-presented magazine of the Bruderhof community: Christian pacifists with communities around the world. This quarter’s edition was entitled ‘Repair’ and it contains articles about consumerism and the spiritual importance of repairing clothes and tools. There are reflections about repairing broken lives, word pictures alongside portraits of women who have experienced brokenness and some kind of restoration following warfare and displacement. Rowan Williams writes about the incarnation and God’s desire to heal. A teacher who has spent their life teaching in prisons wonders about what he has achieved, what he has offered, and its meaning in the face of so much chaos, rupture and trauma in the life of those attending his classes let alone in the lives of those they have offended.
What I have found in reading the magazine is that healing the world, (mending a life, restoring a community, fixing a broken clock) requires honesty: eyes wide open to the fragmentation and brokenness of things and just how bad things are. I hear God’s words as Malachi offers them and I need to pause, to remember that for all these words of judgement might disturb or frighten, they are uttered by the God who comes to us in Jesus: the God who ‘so loves the world that He gave’ himself to us in Jesus. It is this knowledge of the love behind the judgment that enables us to begin our services in church the way we do:
Almighty God,
to whom all hearts are open,
all desires known,
and from whom no secrets are hidden..
Terrifyingly…but also comfortingly, God sees us. We are an open book to Him. Of course, that list in Malachi (the sorcerers and adulterers, those who swear falsely and who oppress the hired worker, the widow and orphan, those who thrust aside the alien) that’s everyone else, surely? But, on reflection, who are we kidding? Every time we buy our groceries we are complicit in a market that is rigged against the widow and the orphan on the other side of the world. How many of us will rush out to vote for increased taxes for benefits at the next election? There is a reason our schools are crumbling and it is almost impossible to get provision for children with the greatest needs: we are part of that reason. How welcoming are we to those of a different culture or language – the alien? (Ask the refugees from Ukraine how hard it is to find a private landlord willing to have them as a tenant…let alone a young man from Iraq or Syria). How much support do we offer to those who are married to stay married? Why do magazines like The Times last weekend feel that a front page about ‘men and women, their secrets and affairs’ will sell?…because our society doesn’t find faithfulness attractive and we are all capable of hurting those closest to us. Sorcery and truth telling? We avoid the truth. We turn from it. We delay its telling. Years pass and the Post office scandal still hasn’t ended, Grenfell is mired in corporate speak – nothing to see here: say something often enough and a problem has been solved… or magicked away as people forget. Distraction, not honesty. Smoke and mirrors in public life: we prefer illusion to truth.
I remember a lecturer at college preaching on a similar theme of judgement. I remember the rise in tension in the chapel as he announced that he was going to name names and point the finger at those who were ‘guilty’…and then, with immaculate timing he said ‘and the one who bears the responsibility for this is …’me’….and me…and you. None of us are here in church because we’re good. We are here because we know we are not.
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.”
There’s hope in this verse, not just judgement, not just a laying bare of who and what we are but a promise of restoration. It’s there in the phrase ‘destined to cause the falling and rising’ of many in Israel, for here there is hope of being raised: this is the same word as that used for being raised at the resurrection. Death, yes. Judgement, yes. But resurrection and life too. That’s the gospel, that’s the good news. The thing we most want: the intimacy of a relationship with God, cannot take place without an honest judgment or appraisal of who we are. The picture we offer is nowhere near as attractive as we might hope, we are broken beyond repair (some of us realise it more than others) but there is a redeemer (a child, a man, a saviour) who offers so much more than Kirsten or Steve in the Repair Shop. Not just a fix but a new life lived not in fear of judgment but in gratitude for healing and forgiveness.

A prayer
O Christ, the Master Carpenter,
who at the last through wood and nails purchased our whole salvation;
wield well your tools in the workshop of your world,
so that we who come rough-hewn to your work bench may be fashioned to a truer beauty by your hand.
Amen.

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