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Sermon 5th February 2023

Malachi 3:1-5 Luke 2:22-40

Have you ever made sandcastles on the beach? I remember as a child trying to dig a massive hole in the sand in an attempt to get to Australia. If I just dig deep enough and long enough I will eventually emerge upside down in Oz. With my childlike understanding I thought that if I did dig to Australia, when I got there it would be a topsy-turvey world where everything would be on it’s head. Well, it is the other side of the world – made complete sense at the time! Spiritually speaking, however, we are all called to live in an upside down, topsy turvey world. After all, as Acts of the Apostles chapter 17 reminds us, like other early Christians, Paul and Silas were accused of ‘turning the world upside down’. It remains part of our Christian calling and sits well with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, otherwise known as the feast of Candlemas, which we mark today. Wherever, or whoever, we are in the world, we are all called to ‘live upside down’ in spiritual terms. The Methodist Church in Scotland put this calling to ‘live upside down’ in this way:

Things are topsy-turvy in your kingdom, God. The poor bear gifts of great worth, the dead rise, the meek inherit the earth. Teach us how to live in an upside down world where we are called to welcome the outcast, prepare a feast for the ragged, and forgive those who offend us. So how are we doing with that?

Those words were included in a study resource, entitled Living Upside Down. It’s series of four small group discussions, which can also be used by individuals, offering us one fruitful source for reflection as we journey through this in-between time before Lent. Speaking of Lent, you may have seen, in the Parish News, some suggested ways in which we can come together to journey through lent. There is a book club – on the book ‘Failure’ by Emma Ineson – the new Bishop of Kensington. And a Taketime course. Do ask me about these afterwards if you are interested. The Living upside down resource was purposely designed to address a gap in our journeying through the Christian year: namely this season after Christmas, and before Lent, which we call Epiphany. That in between time, the now and not yet time that we spend much of our day to day life in. The author Richard Rohr uses these words to describe this space – ‘liminal space’, or threshold space, is a very good phrase for those special times, events, and places that open us up to the sacred. It seems we need special (sacred) days to open us up to all days being special and sacred. In the Living Upside Down resources we are invited to reclaim Epiphany as a time in which to renew our lives at the beginning of a new year, by pondering the question ‘If God’s light now shines in the world because of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, what difference will that make to our lives?’ ‘If God’s light now shines in the world because of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, what difference will that make to our lives?’ That question flows out of the story of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple which we reflect upon today, and connects to many Christian traditions in what became known as ‘Candlemas’ in many parts of the Church over the centuries. It is a question which is, however, as much about what is to be as what has been – just as retelling the story of the Presentation of Jesus is not so much about learning about the responses of Simeon and Anna, as prompting us to our own responses. In other words, as Richard Rohr encourages us, it is about re-dedicating ourselves, and our world, to the ‘fullness of time’, his phrase for the time we are living in. At this time in the year, we are at what can be called a ‘hinge’ moment. In terms of nature, in England, we mark the mid-point, between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In the Southern hemisphere, it is of course the other way up; between the spring solstice and the winter equinox. In Gaelic, the word for this time is ‘imbolc’ – which means ‘in the belly of the Mother’, because the seeds of a new season are beginning to spring in the depths of Mother Earth. Indeed, perhaps, as a ‘hinge’, Candlemas works equally well, but differently, in both hemispheres. For here we mark the beginning of a new year and the starting, or re-starting, of many things. So, as in our liturgy today, we are invited to consecrate both this movement of time and the changes of our world with the light of Christ. Light – this is the pre-eminent symbol of this season, and of Epiphany as a whole. For, in the Christian calendar, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple represents the ‘hinge’ between Christmas and Lent – as we turn from the astonishing light of Christmas towards the amazing light of Easter. It reminds us of how all things can be transformed into the fullness of time by the light of God’s grace. This has always been at the heart of Christian witness during the season of Epiphany. The early Church writing known as the Acts of Peter captured in almost surreal terms the idea of seeing the world in a different way, encouraging us to see that:

Unless you make what is right, left, and what is left, right, what is above into what is below, and what is behind into what is in front, you will not learn to know the Kingdom.

Such is the character of ‘living upside down’ and the transformative power of the light of Christ. In some ways, the original traditions around the story of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple are quite alien to us. Not least in relation to ideas of purification around birth. Except in some places, we have mercifully left behind the idea that a mother needs to be ‘purified’ after childbirth. However we are still so far from truly honouring and consecrating life-bearing processes in healthy ways, particularly where they involve the bodies of women and the vulnerable. The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is a call for us to see, share, and shine light in such places, through ‘living upside down.’ It’s striking, isn’t it, how the vulnerable and the marginal are at the centre of this story: on the one hand, the very old, Anna and Simeon; on the other, the very young and tender, Jesus and Mary. Long held, almost extinguished, hopes and dreams meet new, but so fragile, seeds and stirrings. It is in such, as the song of Simeon proclaims, that salvation, transformation, and Richard Rohr’s fullness of time, is to be found. Tired, aged, eyes meet the newly born. In this, the light of revelation, true Epiphany, is found. Such light – what Orthodox Christians call divine ‘uncreated’ light – does not always come easily to us, as Simeon goes on to say, in those heart-rending prophetic words to Mary:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

At Candlemas, we therefore turn from Christmas towards the Passion. Yet, in this, and beyond, lies Resurrection, the ultimate light of transformation, the true fullness of time. In this lies the grace and power of ‘living upside down’. Another aspect of today’s central biblical story which can seem far from us is also the sacrifice of two birds which we are told was made to satisfy the religious Law. Well we live in different times with different outlooks. Yet, if the idea of killing other creatures as part of holiness seems troublesome to most modern minds, the call to ‘sacrifice’- in the sense of ‘making holy’ – is still relevant. The derivation of the word ‘sacrifice’ is after all exactly that – from the Latin words sacer (holy) and facere (to make). ‘Living upside down’ – or following the way of Christ – is our more modern Christian expression. Living lives made Holy is only possible by recognising and embracing the light of Christ within us. Not always easy but like Anna and Simeon, when our eyes dim, or our prayers and efforts seem futile, let us always recall that the light is still with us, if often hidden by shadow and in silence. So where is the light calling you, calling me, calling us? In the ancient world, the light of Christ, the light of grace, the ‘uncreated’ light of divine love, lit up the temple, and the eyes and hearts and lives of those who were open to see and receive. Today the light of Christ is once more presented in the temple. This temple is however the temple of our own lives and world. God’s Love is offered to us, inviting us to see and receive, that, like Jesus, we too may live upside down – welcoming the outcast, preparing a feast for the ragged, and forgiving those who offend us. Resource link to ‘Living Upside down’ V1 (methodist.org.uk)

So may the light of Christ truly shine in us and shine through us in the days ahead. Amen

Rev’d Kia Pakenham 5th February 2023

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