Life will never be the same again
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Today we celebrate Candlemas, one of the important occasions in the narrative of the Gospels, redolent as it is with numbers, and a key milestone on the road. For the Celts, it represented one of the Quarter Days on which rents and other dues are settled. And if you were an Anchoress in medieval times it would mark one of just fifteen occasions during the year when you could take Holy Communion. The point at issue is a simple one. Forty days after giving birth, a mother went with her child and husband to the Temple to receive ritual purification and these are the events of the day that we celebrate from Luke’s Gospel 2:22–40:
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”)
So why is this so special for me this year? A few weeks ago, I had been invited to preach Sunday’s sermon for the Eucharist service. As a Lay Reader in the Church of England, I have had a number of opportunities to preach this sermon over the years, but a couple of small things had so far escaped my notice: the facts recorded haven’t changed but our perceptions do, especially influenced by outside events of the day. God moves in mysterious ways was a favourite saying that came back from my past and, once again, a curious train of events brings me to the invitation to write this blog.
Some years ago, I read a poem written by Mark Greene, until recently the Chief Executive of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, who published a collection of Christmas poems under the title Adventure. This poem was simply titled ‘Simeon’; it appeared on one of the regular mailings from LICC. But the book was out of stock on their website for a while. I had a nudge to look again and, in the early part of December, there it was at last: I ordered two copies immediately for Christmas presents, both gratefully received.
Three weeks ago, at the end of a Prayer Group meeting, one of the intercessors mentioned another prayer meeting which had concluded that, in this pandemic, we have not moved into a new season but into a new era: this touched my spirit. My interest was also aroused because I lead a Julian Prayer Meeting and Julian of Norwich lived through not one, but two, episodes of the Black Death.
Curiously, Julian’s writings, the Revelation of Divine Love, contains none of the detail of her ordinary life at all. We know virtually nothing about her beyond the occasional comment from another of the Mystics of her day and what we learn from history books. But we do know that she survived both major waves of The Black Death. That pandemic was held to be responsible for bringing about a seismic shift in the way of life for the whole population, coming as it did in the midst of the longest continuous war that England had ever fought, the 100 Years War. It changed the landscape of the country and the movement of labour: life would never be the same again was the simple outcome.
I wanted to use Mark’s poem at the end of my sermon and therefore sought permission from the hitherto unknown publishers. Whilst looking at the intriguing website, I found two books of great interest and without appreciating the outcome, promptly put in an order. Muddy Pearl were generous with their permission and that is nearly the end of story because an email the next day produced some detail on one of the books I had ordered, Amazed by Jesus by Simon Ponsonby. Within seconds, I had joined up the trail of dots that had been laid before me: we have a kind God who looks after all our needs. The book arrived in time and I had permission to extract a few words for the sermon.
Of course, for Simeon and Anna, life would never have been the same for either of them. And how they waited. I once tried to work out how old she must have been, having been widowed for eighty-four years. And Simeon’s age? We don’t know but from the brief description we have we can only conclude that we are taking about a very godly man. Life for us, post pandemic, may never be the same again.
The bible passage continues:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
Last Sunday’s sermon has been filed away and I am left with Simon Ponsonby’s book as a permanent reminder of an extraordinary train of events. And now I have time enough to read it. The whole of Chapter Five is devoted to a Simeon-eye view of the events of that day, a powerful exegesis of Luke 2, and verses 28 to 31, covering part of the Evening Prayer and Compline canticle, the Nunc Dimittis which has formed a cornerstone of our liturgical life since the fourth century. Simon Ponsonby has woven into the narrative profound theological reflections, a reminder of history and much more, all beautifully written and allowing the author’s heart to shine through the text: this is real relationship with Jesus on display. Pearls of wisdom will be found in every paragraph.
I should end this piece with a few words from the end of the Preface, ‘He Turns Water into Wine’:
Water into wine, and Jesus saved the best wine till last.
Maybe your life feels like you have run out of wine. Or maybe the wine of your life has turned to brackish dishwater. In this book I want to show you that Jesus is there, and Jesus cares, and Jesus can make a difference. He can turn it all around – it’s what he does.
He is amazing.
Amen to that, I say. My life will never be the same again: I believe it will be better.
Six years ago, I was pulling on wellies, ready to tramp through a squelchy field to speak at the early morning New Wine Bible studies on these verses:
The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you
The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace.
So they shall put my name upon the Israelites and I shall bless them.
I never imagined then that it would lead to writing a book about God’s unfailing promise to bless us and make us a blessing.
This shining blessing was first given by God to his people over 3000 years ago. Archaeologists have found silver cylinders inscribed with it, dated 600BCE – the oldest biblical texts in existence! Yet it is still cherished worldwide, and tonight thousands of parents will pray this blessing over their children. Why is it so significant? It is a landmark skyscraper, towering over other blessings because it was uniquely given by God himself.
If you are anything like me, you will endlessly need reminding that God wants to bless you. Could these words of blessing possibly be for me? One of my favourite thank-you letters for my book came from Joan, aged 92; after hearing the Numbers 6 blessing all her life, she had finally discovered that her name was on this invitation. So is yours. God wants to bless you and to keep you, to make his face shine on you, to cover you with his grace, to smile on you with his love and to mark your lives with his wholeness and peace. And it doesn’t end there! The next line is an often-missed promise – God’s plan to write his name and his character on us.
We need never fear that God will miss us out. We don’t deserve it, but astonishingly we are loved with the intensity of love shared within the Trinity. Jesus says, ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.’ Jesus loves us as much as the Father loves Him. As if that was not enough, Jesus tells us that the Father too loves us as much as he loves the Son. That’s bigger than any love I could ever express.
When I first met Jake, he looked pretty scary. It wasn’t the shaved head, the tattoos or the scars – everything about him said ‘Keep out!’ When his wife Kayleigh became a Christian, she began praying for Jake and he began turning up at church. One day, God stirred me to tell him that his heavenly dad loved Jake even more than Jake loved his baby son. Jake tells me he thought it was weird but somehow it stuck. He kept hearing God loved him, and last year he gave his life to Jesus. Now he smiles too much to look properly tough.
Your heavenly dad loves you as much as he loves his beloved son. Recently I got an email from Kath who had heard me speak on this. She told me about the ‘eureka moment’ when she heard God’s voice saying that she was his lovely daughter, a child who could hold her father’s hand. Soon after, she went to visit her father who had severe Alzheimers. She hadn’t visited him for 3 weeks as she couldn’t leave her terminally ill husband so was sure he wouldn’t remember her, but she said,
‘To my amazement my dad grabbed hold of my hand and said to the nurse with a great big beam “this is my lovely daughter”.This recollection suddenly made me realize what heavenly Father REALLY means – how much I am loved and how pleased God is to see me and hold my hand. This was so powerful that I sobbed and shook – amazing!’
This revelation of God’s desire to bless us as his children is life-changing because when we receive this lavish love, it spills over. Have you ever seen a champagne tower? You pour champagne into the top glass and it spills over, finally trickling down to the bottom glasses. John said, ‘We love because He first loved us’; that’s the plan – God’s lavish love spilling over to those around us. It thrills me when I see the overspill happen in our church – in Tom playing football with troubled kids, Emma organising lorry-loads for refugees, Sheena visiting the elderly, the list is endless…
The promise of blessing is life in the overspill.
This is the abundant life Jesus promised, not a nice house and spouse or a plump bank account, but life in the unbeatable, lavishly-loving, heart-healing, soul-calming, mind-washing, thirst-quenching, joy-delighting wonder of his presence where we are blessed to be a blessing in his world.
This article originally featured in the New Wine magazine (#64). To read the article in the magazine, along with other New Wine articles click here.
The Promise of Blessing
Tucked away in the book of Numbers, amid instructions on wave offerings and haircutting, set in the ring of God’s call to his people to be set apart for him, we find a sparkling diamond: God’s gift of shining blessing, given to a weary people wandering in the wilderness.
God blesses those who don’t deserve it, through those who don’t deserve it; again and again he chooses to bless. He is preparing his people for life in the Promised Land. And he is blessing them – us – to be a blessing to all people
More information on the book can be found by clicking here.