Saturday, 27 January 2018


It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. That, I believe, is a Chinese proverb, and the gist of it is that we should never just sit about moaning about the things we don’t like. Maybe we don’t think there’s much we can do, but we can always get on and do something: and each single small candle starts to make the world a brighter and better place.

We don't often light candles these days just to get light, although most winters we have a few breaks in our power supply. And I’m always careful to have some candles in and know where they are, just in case. But what we mostly do is to light candles at times of celebration. We put them on birthday cakes, or on the table when a couple, or a family, or a group of friends meet for a special meal. We like to light candles as part of the decorations when we want a place to look special: real candles on our Christmas tree when I was little, battery operated LED ones on our tree these days.

And of course we light candles in church. The candles we light on the altar are there to draw our attention to the holy table, and to make it the focus of our worship. As we break bread and pour wine and share these things together, our candles help mark the fact that this is a celebration initiated and given and shared by our Lord himself, and that he is present as we meet at his table. 

Candles are also a sign of prayer; whenever I do a day’s chaplaincy at our cathedral I light a candle or two by the shrine of St Thomas, and take some time to remember people for whom I want to pray. Lots and lots of our visitors and pilgrims do the same. We don’t need to - our prayers are just as valid, and will be just as much heard by God, without candles being lit; but somehow we find it helps us to do it.

Partly that’s just because we’re doing something, expressing our inner emotion in a practical action; but candles also speak of the presence of God, and Jesus is hailed as the light of the world. In the Book of Genesis chapter 1, the story of Creation, light is the first thing God makes; the first creative act is to roll back the darkness, and everything else follows. So our candles in church can remind us that God is always looking to change darkness into light, and always close to us; when we meet to worship him, or kneel to pray, he’s not far away, he is as close as our own breathing. We don’t need to shout for him to hear us, we only need to whisper our prayers.

Candlemas really happens next Friday, but we’re encouraged to keep it in place of the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, which is today. Candlemas is the popular name for the feast day known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It’s the story told in the evensong canticle the Nunc Dimmittis: Old Simeon in the Temple sees the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, and he knows straight away that his long wait is over. This is the child through whom God's salvation will be worked for his people; this is the child born to be a light to the gentiles, given not only for the salvation of his own people, but as good news for all the world.

Simeon sees a small child in his mother's arms, as his parents come to the temple to do what the law requires. He sees a very tiny light, like a single candle flame in a great big dark room. But he knows it is the true light; and however big and scary the darkness may be, once one small candle is lit then it's not really dark any more. Simeon and Anna the prophetess recognised that day a new and special light, a flame to bring light to every dark place, to change everything. 

It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Often we can feel weak and vulnerable as we look at the world and hear the news. Especially at this still dark time of the year. What can we do, when so much seems so bad? What can we do against the mountains of greed, intolerance, racial violence and hatred, poverty, terrorism, and the gradual hardening of hearts into selfishness that so much these days seems to encourage? People get anxiety overload, and our natural desire to give and to help gets paralysed. And maybe we deal with how that feels by looking back wistfully to half remembered, half imagined past days when everything was nicer and simpler.

But we won’t find the child Simeon rejoiced to see back in the rose-tinted past. He is always striding out ahead of us, and calling us on: “Follow me,” he says to each of us. Light your one personal candle and follow me. And though one small candle may not seem very much, the little light Simeon saw at that first Candlemas is a light to shine for ever, a love that will never be extinguished, and our light is lit from him. Jesus told his disciples that they must shine as lights in the world to the glory of God, and we use those words at holy baptism when we give a candle to a newly baptized child. Being lights is fundamental to our calling as Christian people, whether we’re big and many or small and few.

Most of what Jesus says in the Gospels is directed to the small and few, by the way. Don't be afraid, little flock, he said to his friends. Don't be afraid to be seen to be mine; don't worry that you seem so very small. After all, once you’ve lit your one candle you can light others from it. One candle is a small light, but put them together and they become great. The darkness that seems so strong is forced back and conquered.

The lights went out in the cathedral one day when I was on duty there - I think they were doing some electrical checks, and Hereford is quite a bright cathedral during daylight hours, so it didn’t much matter. What I did observe though is just how bright the rows of votive candles were, all together - a lot of them had been lit that morning. Your light and mine, and others besides, can change the world, if the light that first lights us is the light of Christ, the light with which God first pushed back the dark of chaos, and began his work of creation.

To be a Christian is to be part of God’s creative process. Paul speaks about the Christian community as “having the mind of Christ.” Yes, we have the mind of Christ and the light of Christ: a light to change and transform the world. Candlemas is the traditional very end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. We’ll move on this year to just two Sundays of Ordinary Time - celebrating God’s creation (next week) and thinking of Jesus transfigured on the mountain (the week after), before we enter Lent and turn our faces towards the cross and on to Easter.

As the year moves on, we move on from celebration to action: from candles lit to brighten our Christmas celebration, to candles lighting candles lighting candles as we seek to take what Simeon saw in this little child - God’s promise of love and peace and justice and healing - out into all the world. Mission, in other words. We surely want mission, don’t we? Well, I do. I want this flame to lighten and enrich and change more and more hearts and lives, and I know that that begins here, in me; and in you, too. As candles burn for Jesus here on this Candlemas Day, may they burn also in our hearts. And may we, small as we are, be ready to say yes to being part of his work, witnesses to the world of the love born among us, the light no darkness can quench.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Miracle at Cana

A sermon to be preached today at Cefn . . .

It seems a little strange to be speaking about wine at a Methodist chapel, but it is a fact that the first miracle Jesus performed, as recorded by St John, turned water into wine.

It happened at a wedding, and wine does seem to me to be the proper drink for a wedding. I can’t somehow imagine drinking a toast in anything but wine to the bride and groom at a wedding. At any rate, that would certainly have been the case at a traditional Jewish wedding at the time of Jesus. The Jewish rabbis used to say that "without wine there is no joy." Don’t imagine that people went to a wedding expecting to drink themselves senseless - in fact, drunkenness would have been regarded as a most disgraceful thing; but the guests at a wedding would expect good wine to be served and in decent supply. And it would also be a disgrace if the hospitality offered to the wedding guests was found to be deficient.

So at a good and successful wedding you would need to make sure that there was enough wine and to spare. But at Cana there wasn’t, it seems. What a disaster! They had run out of wine! Why should that be, we might wonder. Maybe someone miscalculated, or maybe some of the wine had not been of good quality, and it had turned too sour to be used. Whatever the reason, it was a major problem, and potentially a real disgrace.

So Mary perhaps turned to her son and whispered, "Do something!" If she did, the reply Jesus gave her seems at first to our ears to strike a somewhat harsh note. It comes across as discourteous, really. “This isn’t any of my concern!” is what he tells her, and he seems to go on to say that it isn’t the right time. But any spoken words translated from one language and culture into another are likely to sound strange. It’s perhaps best to think of Jesus as saying to his mother that he won’t be doing this just to get this wedding host out of a hole (which was his mother’s concern), he will be doing it as a sign of God’s greatness.

Mary had faith enough in her son to say to the staff, "Just do whatever he tells you." But what then happened didn’t only save the party, it was one of the Epiphany events in which Jesus the carpenter's son was revealed as the one sent by God, the Christ - for those who had the eyes to see it and the heart to understand.

I quite like the fact that the very first miracle Jesus performed took place at a social do, with the result that a party went with more of a swing than it might otherwise have done. Christians are sometimes tempted to be too puritanical, so it’s good to be reminded from time to time that God’s people are supposed to enjoy life, to enjoy the world, to enjoy his creation in all its wonder and beauty. And, though I hesitate a little to say this in chapel, that might even include enjoying a glass of wine.

A wedding was certainly a good and right setting for this miracle. Prophets like Hosea called Israel the bride of God, because the Covenant made when the Law was given to Moses joined Israel to God as a wife is joined to her husband. That Old Testament image was attached by New Testament writers like Paul and John to the New Covenant made in Jesus, the new relationship into which we are drawn by the cross: we the Church are the new Israel, and that Church is hailed as the Bride of Christ.

The miracle at Cana is a story told by John, and when John tells a story every detail tends to stand for something beyond itself. Some commentators suggest that because the big water jars at Cana would have been intended for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, John may want us to think of them as symbolising the old Covenant. And even the fact that there were six of them might be significant, because in Scripture six is an imperfect number: so maybe John wants us to reflect on the imperfection and insufficiency of the old Law, which is going to be transformed into something new in what Jesus will go on to do.

The miracle changes what was merely water into wine. So again, some scholars make the point that water was what John the Baptist used; but John also spoke of “the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire” - and new wine is a symbol of Pentecost, a symbol of new life in the Spirit. 

Biblical scholars can be a little fanciful sometimes, but we’re on more solid ground when we think of the quantity of water contained in those jars: they would have held something not far short of two hundred gallons. Imagine that much wine released into a wedding! What a sign of the liberality and abundance of God's grace! We can see in this miracle how generous God is. No need on earth can exhaust what he has to give, because what God gives - in Jesus Christ and in the gifting of his Spirit - is himself.

So here we see Jesus take what is imperfect and transform it; the message is that in him we find unlimited and superabundant grace to meet our every need. That word “grace” expresses a love that holds nothing back, and is open to all: It’s for everyone - all may partake, like the wine at the feast. And it’s not restricted to special and holy places; anywhere we meet in fellowship together becomes a holy place if Jesus is there. It’s good, by the way, that this story turns up as a reading each year as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity approaches. This is a gift to break down barriers and confirm unity. We may sing different hymns and worship in different styles and places, but the one loving and generous God pours abundant grace on all of us. 

Wherever Jesus went in life, whatever he did and said, was like water being turned into wine. Invite him in, and hearts and minds and lives and relationships are transformed. Without wine there’s no joy, the rabbis said. But we do have cause for joy, and for hope and courage too: if we give our lives to him, Jesus gives us the new wine of the Spirit as the source and spring of a joy that is real, and that is firmly founded and forever.

A January Walk

On a very cold morning I walked out from our place in Welshpool, through the small woodland reserve at Bryn Glas, then across a field of sheep to the lane below Gungrog Hall. I turned down to cross the canal, and reached the main road. A heron lifted up from among the grazing sheep just ahead of me, and drifted down in the direction of the canal. A small covey of maybe eight or nine redwings took flight from a nearby tree. I had hoped to see their larger cousins, the fieldfares, sometimes present in tremendous numbers, but no joy today.

Over the main road, I crossed a field to pass round the back of the market, busy again on the first Monday after New Year’s Day. Hazel catkins brightened the trees by the path. These “lamb’s tails” are the male flower, opening widely to allow the winter wind to disperse the plentiful pollen. The female flower takes a bit more searching out: it resembles a small bright green bud, topped though with a little star of deep red filaments maybe a couple of millimetres long, the styles awaiting the pollen to begin the process of forming next autumn’s hazel nuts.

I crossed the Shrewsbury road to leave the market behind and cross the fields towards Pool Quay. Soon I shall hope to hear curlews and see sand martins here by the Severn, but not yet awhile. What I did see, standing in a single row along the cliff edge of the river bank, was a line of maybe forty or so Canada geese. There were a few more on the other side of the river, so fifty or more altogether. These are handsome birds, but, frankly, a bit of a pest. They will have been happy to feed on the grass in the field - geese are grazing birds - but I’m not sure why they were all stood in a row like that. They ignored me completely.

A small group of mallard on the water did not ignore me, and splashily took flight down river. A single tree in the field turned out to be well stocked with jackdaws, which also took off at the sight of me (still no fieldfares, sadly).

I reached the main road, crossed it, and made for the canal towpath to head back to Welshpool. There were plenty of examples here of another catkin tree, the alder. Its catkins, dark in colour, were visible, but not yet open and shedding pollen; as they open they will look greener. Catkin trees need to shed huge amounts of pollen, as they are wind pollinated, and can’t target their pollen as insect-pollinated plants can.

Great tits were very vocal in the woodland - their “teacher, teacher” call is one of the first you’ll hear as the year looks towards Spring. A robin was singing from an ivy-clad tree - they sing all year round, as each robin holds a territory through the winter. A lot of ivy had been cut down, but I was pleased to see it had been left there: the shelter it provides is important to birds and of course to the invertebrates on which many birds, like wrens, feed. As if to prove my point, a wren burst from the stacked ivy and crossed the canal in front of me. A pair of moorhens and a few house sparrows were prospecting the reeds, as I left to turn uphill for home.

Saturday, 6 January 2018


For services at Coedway and Welshpool :

King Herod, Herod the Great as he was called even in his own lifetime, was a man who must have thought he was in control. We I think would call him a paranoid megalomaniac; after all, he had many of his own sons put to death, as potential threats to his power, which they probably were - though that was maybe not that unusual for a king of his time, I suspect. But how in control was Herod, really? He was a client king of the Romans, part of their empire, within which he’d built up something of a power base; he was respected and feared, and had the ear of the emperor. He had rebuilt cities, and his biggest project had been the great temple in Jerusalem. But even a king as mighty as Herod was constantly looking over his shoulder, watching for the next threat.

And one day, strangers arrived from the east. They were looking for a new king, having seen something special as they studied the stars. People have always wanted to understand and explain the world, to foresee the future, to trace some sense of order and direction in what might otherwise seem to be simply chaotic. And these magi or wise men believed that patterns in the night sky might somehow chart the course of history and the direction of human lives. Many people shared their belief.

So what had they seen? A strangely bright star in the east - though the Greek of the gospel might also mean “a star at its rising” - and many modern translations take that as the better translation. A new star, to speak of a new king. Astronomers suggest it may have been a conjunction of three planets, seeming therefore to be specially bright as their lights were added together. Others suggest a supernova, a distant star exploding. Or it could have been a comet, which might provide more of a sense of movement. Maybe it was none of those things, maybe it was something completely supernatural. Was it something only seen by them? Or was it widely seen, but only they interpreted it in the way they did? In fact, what they saw doesn’t matter so much. It’s what they made of it that counts.

It sent them off to find a king. Perhaps a more careful study of the stars would have led the wise men to avoid Herod. A bit of background research might have made them more aware of what kind of man Herod was. But Jerusalem was the obvious place to go, and even wise men weren't wise enough to imagine that a child born to be king could be found anywhere but in a palace.

Herod, of course, was greatly disturbed. For all his power, he was worried. “And all Jerusalem with him,” we read in Matthew’s account, though I think Matthew would have been referring to Herod’s own court and administration, rather than the wider city. The foundations of Herod’s rule were for the most part sturdy and sure, but they contained one potentially fatal flaw: he was not descended from David. Indeed, he was of somewhat mixed descent, and not everyone accepted his credentials as a Jew, even. Now, I imagine that for many people, even the temple priests, a king in Jerusalem, however dubiously Jewish, was better than direct rule from Rome. And he had rebuilt the temple. But if a king of the line of David were to appear, Herod’s days might well be numbered. Surely the people would flock to such a king?

Herod’s people studied their books, and came up with Bethlehem as the place where a new king might be found. Herod would have been more worried still to hear that: for Bethlehem was David’s city. He tried to turn the wise men into his spies, by asking them to report back to him what they found there. He wasn’t to know that this new king was a different sort of king, whose royalty he’d never have recognised. What sort of a king starts life in a stable? Not Herod the Great, for sure. So the wise men set aside their preconceived idea of where a king might be found, and went to little Bethlehem, where they found the one they were searching for, and offered their symbolic gifts, and knelt in worship. To Herod’s annoyance, they didn’t report back, but headed straight for home, greatly changed in heart and mind - I should think - by their journey and by what they found at journey’s end.

For the king the wise men knelt to worship was nothing like King Herod or the Emperor in Rome. Herods and Caesars, and for that matter Trumps and Putins, want to impose their own order on the chaos of the world. The reason why Herod was called great was all that building he did, the temple especially, and the tough and wily way in which he controlled his unruly domain. But what greatness did he have, really? It didn’t long outlast him.

Herod’s temple and most of his city were demolished hardly more than sixty years after his death. Even before that his kingdom had been broken up and parcelled out, with Judea and Jerusalem ruled directly from Rome via governors like Pontius Pilate. Such is the fate of earthly kings and earthly kingdoms, whatever the stars or those who read them might promise.

Jesus did have a kingdom too - he spoke about it a great deal - but not the same sort of kingdom. We call Jesus the king of love, and love is the currency of his kingdom. This is a king born not in a palace but in a barn, on the edge of things; a king born not to take, or to build, or to achieve worldly greatness or power. This king is born to love and to give, to give without limit: the myrrh the kings present tells us he will give even his own life.

Our world remains a place of chaos and muddle and tragedy. But it’s in this mess of a world that we come to discover love. Love, divine love, is what the wise men encountered and worshipped in Bethlehem; they discovered there the God who does not abandon his people to the chaos, but comes to join us and to walk with us. In the birth of the Christ child God doesn’t take away the chaos of the world, he doesn’t remove pain and tragedy from human life and experience. But he enters the chaos, he takes on the pain: he is come to meet us, to claim us and to save us. He doesn’t conscript us into forced service, but, heart by heart, seeks to draw us into love. 

The magi presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh - sacred gifts of mystic meaning, as one of the hymns of the season describes them. Gold for a king: the sign of authority and power, and there is real authority and power here, not just the show and bombast of Herod or Caesar. Incense for a priest: we see here the only priest who is worthy of the job, who is able to be the bridge between his people and their God, to remake the connection our sin has broken. And myrrh for a death: for the one true and perfect priest is also the one true sacrifice, and he will take upon himself the full weight of our sin and scorn.

Each gift from the wise men to the new king represents a gift that Christ himself will give. And we who receive are bound in turn to give: but what can we give that is worthy of him? “What can I give him, poor as I am?” as Christina Rossetti wrote, in a poem that became a carol. What gifts can we bring? Only this: our lives for his life, and our love for his love. As Rossetti went on to say - 'What I can I give him - give my heart.'