Our Light in Winter

Sunday 31st January 2016
The Forth Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Haggai 2.1-9
John 2.18-22

One of the most disorienting factors in our lives is the bad habit of the mass media in beginning disaster stories and then moving on without reporting an ending. Who here could tell me about: the level of violence in the Palestinian state; economic conditions in Zimbabwe; and the results of the Millennium goals. You can be sure that if the markets go down rapidly it is at the top of the news but that if they recover you will be lucky if it is at the bottom! The focus on bad news has a profoundly misleading effect on the way that we see our world. We are acutely aware of our individual and collective failings; we are assaulted with fault and error; we are goaded with imperfection. We know we are, individually and collectively, sinners, every last one of us but repeating the fact improves nothing. If we were simply sinners we wouldn't be here tonight.

Part of the problem, if I may depart for a moment from theology to philosophy, is that we have, as a society, largely opted for Plato's view that everything we do is imperfect rather  than Aristotle's view that everything we create is beneficial because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. True, there is quite enough for us to be miserable about but there is even more cause for rejoicing.

Let us start with the Reading from Haggai. We are all familiar with the major prophets who bemoaned the unfaithfulness of Israel which resulted in the exile in Babylon but we are much less aware, reverting to my point about good news, of the return of the Chosen People from exile and the re-building of the Temple. Haggai is one of that small group of prophets, notably Nehemiah, Ezra and Zechariah, that tell the story of the restoration, brought about by the Persian conquest of Babylon whereby the Emperor Darius formed an alliance with Zerubbabel, of the Davidic line, to rebuild the Temple of Solomon. Good news indeed.

Of course we heard the missing piece between our two readings at this morning's Eucharist with the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Incarnation of the Good New (with capital letters) beginning a new phase for the Jewish people where Jesus would not only be a light for us, the Gentiles, but also for the People of Israel.

Our Second Reading from John is one of those passages with profound meaning in spite of one of John's clumsy jokes, in this case playing on the temple of Jesus' risen body and the physical Temple which, at this time, was still in the course of the great reconstruction of the Herodian dynasty. The work had begun around the time of the birth of Jesus and it was not to be finished until 63 AD, only seven years before it was destroyed and whether or not we believe that John wrote his Gospel before or after that destruction, the message is clear and beautifully put in lines from Robert Graves set to music by Herbert Howells:

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with toil and care he buildeth,
Tower and temple fall to dust.

In a sense, we know everything I have so far said at an intellectual level or just from habit of mind: we know that Jesus is the Good News that surpasses all earthly endeavour and, indeed, that our endeavour will necessarily fall short; but only our reception of the Spirit's fire will turn this into active faith which, in turn, will urge us to live our Christian life in the world in our own words and deeds. This morning, we took a taper and lit it from the Paschal candle and then the light was passed from person to person because although God's heavenly glory is still as the stars of the universe are apparently still, we are carriers of the light, from person to person, not only inside the church but outside it and although we may feel that times are hard, that we face insurmountable difficulties in a hostile world, that is nothing to the bitter exile in Babylon of the Chosen People; and yet God kept his promise in the political figures of Darius and Zerubbabel, by which I do not mean to imply that we will suddenly be graced with a political revolution where the good triumphs; what I mean is that we simply have to get on with it, labouring against negativity and seeing God's purposes in the good that we know is around us but which is rarely acknowledged. Which does not, as we know, justify self congratulation because we do nothing except of God, but, yet, we are required to maintain a sense of balance in our world. I often think as I get older that I am glad I live in the present time and that I would not want to live in the frightening future but I am sure that that thought is a commonplace of growing old which should be resisted. We who have suffered but seen much good should not bemoan God's creation which we have tarnished but should instead extend the scope of hope, passing on our optimism that all human beings can labour to build the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. It might all, in Graves' words, come to dust but to build and rebuild is our lot and to pass on what wisdom we have acquired is our duty.

In spite of our scientific and self-styled sophisticated times, much of the world's wisdom is passed on, not in treatises but in stories; and we have the best story of all which we should not tell only on Easter Sunday. I disagree with the child Mamillius who says: "A sad tale's best for Winter". It is fitting that we should read of the foretelling of the Resurrection on the Feast of Candlemas when Winter is at its deepest because that is when we need it most.

Christ is our light in Winter!

Christ is risen!