Sermon preached at St Andrew’s, Sudbury on Sunday, 31st January 2016
for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
Come Holy Spirit, may I speak the Word of God, and in the Word may we see a vision of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thank you Greville for your invitation. I am a lay minister at St Stephen’s, Canonbury in Islington and am also involved in encouraging mission relationships between parishes and schools here in London and our sisters and brothers in the Anglican Churches of Mozambique and Angola through the ALMA Partnership.
This morning, I am delighted to be here to share something of the good news of partnership in the gospel as we reflect on prophecies and stories about messengers.
Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He spoke the Word of the Lord to the people of Israel about 500 years before the birth of Jesus. His name, Malachi, means ‘my messenger’ or ‘my angel’. He reminded Israel of God’s love and warned priests and people they had stopped being in love with God. Then in our reading this morning he announced they were going to see two messengers coming from God.
These messengers would be different. ‘See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord who you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, he is coming.’ There would be a messenger to prepare the way and a messenger of the covenant between God and his people. Two different messengers but working together for God who sent them. 2
Some 500 years later, two baby boy cousins were born in miraculous circumstances. One born to Zechariah the priest and his elderly wife Elizabeth became John the Baptist, and the other born to her virgin cousin Mary was Jesus of Nazareth. They were partners in the mission of God, both called to speak about the love of God, one to show the way to God is by personal repentance of things we’ve done wrong, and the other to reform God’s covenant of love so that God and his people can have a good relationship again. The cousins were different but were a partnership of messengers to God’s people.
In our gospel reading, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple. It was quite a journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, but it was important to them to make this thank offering to God for their son. They encounter two other people in right relationships with God, Simeon and Anna.
Simeon’s name means ‘he has heard’ or ‘he who listens’, listens to the word of God. The words he speaks to Mary and Joseph resounded for them and still resound for us two thousand years later as they are part of the liturgy of the Church. Simeon spoke of what he had heard God say, and of what he saw God was going to do through Jesus, and the spiritual pain that would cause his mother Mary. 3
Anna means ‘favour’ or ‘grace’, she was daughter of Phanuel which means ‘face of God’. She was recognised as a prophet and spent most of her time in the presence of God. Anna praised God and spoke about Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 4
So here we have a story of two visitors to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph, meeting with two local prophets, Simeon and Anna, in the presence of the child Jesus. In their different ways, Anna and Simeon both praise God for allowing them the privilege of seeing this child. They announce he is the revelation of God, that he is salvation and glory. In effect they say he is the Messiah, the Christ. They are messengers to Mary and Joseph. If Joseph and Mary had any doubt who this child was that they had brought to the temple, they can have none now. He is the Christ of God.
Dialogue leads to hearing God
In these two stories, we meet messengers from God and people who received words from God through them. Messengers are people sent with a message, like John the Baptist and Jesus, like Simeon and Anna. Each messenger is on a spiritual journey themselves. Those they speak with may also be on a physical journey, as Mary and Joseph were.
Partnership in the gospel is like this. We are a partnership of messengers to each other. A partnership of messengers to God’s people. We live in the world which Christ has redeemed for God, but ‘we only see through a glass darkly’ as the Apostle Paul put it. 5 Partners – messengers – can help us see more clearly.
Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have helped us in the West to understand the African philosophy of Ubuntu that ‘A person is a person through other persons’. We need each other to see more clearly.
We say in our African idiom: “A person is a person through other persons.” A solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. A totally self-sufficent human being is ultimately sub-human. We are made for complementarity. I have gifts that you do not; you have gifts that I do not. Voila! So we need each other to become fully human.
This is also true of the different nations: that one people has particular gifts, a distinct world view, a cultural ethos, which is not necessarily better or superior to those of other people. It is just different and needs to be balanced by those of other peoples. So we find, for instance, that Africans have a strong sense of community, of belonging, whereas [Westerners] have in contrast a strong sense of the individual person. These attributes, in isolation and pushed to extremes, have weaknesses. For instance, a strong herd instinct can smother individual initiative so that the person is often sacrificed for the collective, whereas a too highly developed individualism can lead to a debilitating sense of isolation so that you can be lonely and lost in a crowd.
God is smart, making us different so that we will get to know our need of one another. We are meant to complement one another in order to be truly human and to realize the fullness of our potential to be human. After all, we are created in the image of a God who is a diversity of persons who exist in ineffable unity. 6
Building relationships in the world church such as yours with the parish of Chiuanga means you can be a partnership of messengers to each other. The Anglican Communion is held together through thousands of such relationships.
Based on the idea that God can be known only through personal relationships and personal love, Pete Ward suggests ‘Communication within the Church becomes an expression of divine life.’ ‘The Church is a place of divine encounter.’ Dialogue leads to hearing God and to sharing in the mission of God. 7
Around the ALMA Covenant are words written by Bishop Dinis Sengulane, ‘To be a partner is to be one another’s angel.’ As we now know from Malachi, to be a partner is to be one another’s messenger.
God of heaven,
you send the gospel to the ends of the earth
and your messengers to every nation:
send your Holy Spirit to transform us
by the good news of everlasting life
in Jesus Christ our Lord.
- ‘Malachi The Prophet’ by James C. Lewis in Raw Noire Icons of the Bible. See ‘What would characters from the bible really look like?’ in HuffPost Religion [accessed 31 January 2016].
- Malachi 3.1.
- Luke 2.25-35.
- Luke 2.36-38.
- 1 Corinthians 13.12.
- Desmond Tutu, An African Prayer Book, (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp.xiv-xv.
- Pete Ward, Partnership and Mediation, (London: SPCK, 2008), pp.96-98.
- ‘The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany’ in Additional Collects, (London: Church House Publishing, 2004), p.9.