One of my earliest memories was sitting bolt upright in my pram – and it was a real pram those days not a glorified shopping trolleys you get these days – when a big head appeared – it was not a face I recognized which is why I have probably remembered it all these years later. The person whom I did not know was taking a peek.

It is something most of us do when we see a baby or a toddler. We take a peek.

I wonder how many babies Anna peeked at in the course of her long sojourn in the Temple. How many parents would remember her words as she looked at them and passed comment.

I wonder how many babies Simeon blessed.

In attempting to come to terms with what the Jesus event meant, the compiler of Luke’s account of the Gospel delved into various sources. From them he selected material that would best fit his take on what was so bewildering to so many people.

Much of his material would come from a document that would eventually become the account according to Mark. Another source that he would use was also known to the person who put Matthew’s account together. Then there was material known only to Luke. Amongst that material is the account of Jesus being presented to the Temple.

It is safe to assume then that Luke included the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple because it meant a very great deal to him.

Luke does highlight his lack of knowledge of Judaism – he notes that they went up to the Temple for ‘their purification’ when only the mother and not the father needed to undertake such a ritual.

He also makes the same mistake that so many of his co-writers would make and so many have continued to do so since. Judaism has never taught that salvation was only for the Jews, salvation was always possible for non-Jews too.

Be that as it may we are left with a fascinating insight into Luke’s understanding.

Not only are Simeon and Anna taking a peek at the new-born child who would come to change the world for ever, Luke is also inviting us his readers and hearers to take a peek too.

People throughout millennia have no doubt taken a peek at the new-born. There are plenty of old masters that show adults looking at the innocence, fragility and beauty of a new-born child.

Those of us who love animals are almost as fascinated by the new-born foal, lamb, puppy and kitten.

But it’s not just living, breathing creatures with which today’s generation are fascinated.

So many of us take a peek at all manner of objects. Objects of desire and fantasy.

I used to love going into a car show room to not only peek at the latest model off the production line but to soak up the cleanliness, the smell of the new tyres, paintwork and upholstery. A visit to the local garage was always a delight for my teenage senses.

As an adult I have tended to avoid such places as I know I can’t afford the conversation with the sales agent that is bound to ensue.

Today I prefer a peek at the impressionists in the National Gallery; they fill me with a sense of wonder at their choice of colours. Like the cars of my teenage dreams they are of course only to be viewed and not handled, let alone owned.

Some things I can handle and occasionally own are the items I take a peek at in TK Maxx.

I have even been known to try on the shirt, sweater or jacket, take a selfie and send it to the boys for their comments. They often say ‘no way Daddy’ but occasionally I get approval. I tend not to send such images to Karen because her comment is always ‘no way Brucey’.

I understand that a lot of high street shops have a difficulty with the availability of such instant communication today. So many customers take a peek at the goods on display, check prices elsewhere on line using their mobile phone, walk out of the shop and purchase via the internet.

Taking a peek is a characteristic of our age.

So it is when we come to faith.  Options are available. No longer do we have just a handful of choices, Protestant or Catholic, Anglican or Free Church. And it’s not just the mainstream religions that are on offer today.

We can take a peek at all manner of things that promise to bring us salvation.

I have already mentioned cars and clothing, the holy grails of the consumer age.

Then there are social networking communities that put us in touch with people we wouldn’t otherwise knew existed or if we did then they would probably have been out of our reach.

So when it comes to Jesus it’s not just Simeon or Anna that take a peek. Millions do.

They will often form a judgment on Jesus by peeking at us first, his representatives on earth, the ‘God Squad’ as some would describe us.

Our responsibilities are great when it comes to representing Jesus to those who are taking a peek.

If they don’t like what they see they are quick to move on.

One of the things that really turns people off is not the style of liturgy, it’s not whether we are happy-clappy or half way up the candlestick, or whether the heating is on or not, one of the main reasons for people turning away from Jesus when they take a peek is the attitude or behaviour of the church members.

The Church took a massive hit after the Great War, not just because large numbers of their boys and men didn’t return from the trenches, but because the Church was seen to have been complicit in the slaughter, acting as recruiting agencies.

One of the reasons why the Church took another hit in the ‘60s was not just because there was so much more to do, it was because the church failed to embrace the social changes that more often than not seemed to be more in keeping with the message of inclusivity and peace of Jesus than did the Church bent on acting like some latter day Canute holding back the tide of change.

Today we live in an age of scrutiny and we have taken a hit again. Our failure to uphold the truths of the Gospel that is meant to be for all people irrespective of their gender and sexuality has made many turn away having taken a peek. Thank God that God hasn’t given up on us; but I do believe that our failure to embrace what God has been saying to us for so long has brought judgment upon us. Thank God that there is now a woman Bishop in the Church of England. But if the Methodist Church is anything to go by it will take a very long time for the House of Bishops to be truly reflective of the congregations they seek to serve.

Other matters must still be addressed not least equal marriage.

But things are moving forward, slowly for sure, but at least they are moving forward.

Our own responsibility will be to uphold the values and truths of the Gospel as we have received them and let others make their own judgment.

It is a tall order being a disciple of Jesus today. But it has never been any different really.

When others take a peek at us may we hope and pray that they find the spark of the divine in us just as Simeon and Anna did in Jesus at the Temple that day so long ago.

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Mark 1.14-20

The Christian has often claimed that the coming of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth ushered in a new age. After all Mark records that Jesus had proclaimed that the kingdom had come near.

A Jew would beg to differ; and so would many others.

If the time had been fulfilled, they would argue, if the kingdom had come, then why is it that there remains so much suffering in our world? How is it that warfare continues to take the lives of so many? Why is it that the Magnificat of Mary goes unheeded in the financial markets across the globe?

So the critics find it easy to dismiss our claims. Jesus couldn’t possibly be the Messiah because the world hasn’t changed a great deal.

One nineteenth century theologian, von Harnack would state that Jesus sought to usher in the kingdom and all we got was the Church. It is but a poor imitation of what we had hoped for.

Bultmann, a twentieth century theologian, would seek to clarify what we mean by stating that wherever Jesus was active, whenever the Gospel is preached and acted upon the kingdom comes near.

Maybe Jesus didn’t mean for his teaching to be interpreted in any other way – that all he intended was for others to realise the kingdom, the sovereignty of God, wherever and whenever they stand up for righteousness, justice and truth.

Last week figures suggested that low income families have fared the worst in the economic downturn of recent years. Some of us probably didn’t need research to tell us that.

Because we are in an age of austerity, because we are anxious about our security, because we are fearful of what may lie round the corner, for example if there will be sufficient health provision to meet our needs, if the sweeping changes brought about by greater mobility across the planet threaten the ways we have normally done things, if the church no longer seems relevant in the lives of millions while other faith communities seems to be in the ascendancy, we are prone to look for easy answers and adopt the populist policies of extremist politicians. Don’t fall for them – others have done so in the past and society has been damaged as a consequence.

The message is, hold fast, be confident in the Gospel, we have been here before; and whilst such knowledge should not lead to complacency but action we should not lose heart.

Jesus calls his first disciples in places familiar to them.
Simon and Andrew, James and John beside the Sea of Galilee.
Matthew at his tax booth.

He meets people where they are, the woman at the well, the teachers of the law in the synagogue, market traders at their stalls, the sick in their homes.

And to what are they called when they encounter this enigmatic, almost elusive at times, itinerant preacher whose words seem to ring true even when there are so few of them?

Today we often seem bewildered at what we must do. So we sink all our efforts into preserving a building. It is a symbol of our commitment. Maintaining the Methodist Church has become our raison d’etr.
Not what Jesus had in mind.

His intention was to reform Judaism and by doing so change the world.
Our role is nothing less, to reform the Church and change the world.

In commenting on this passage Elton Brown in Feasting on the Word drew on the example of the film Billy Elliott.

In the film Billy is a working-class lad growing up in the North East during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

His mother dies young and he falls under the influence of his nan who aspired to become a professional dancer but growing up in a Durham mining community the opportunities would not have come her way.

Billy’s dad sends him to the local gym for boxing lessons but Billy’s imagination is captivated by a ballet class meeting in the same building
He of course joins and discovers a real talent for it.

His father is not a happy bunny but eventually having seen him dance he decides to do all he can to support him, even to the point of considering crossing a picket line to raise the necessary cash for Billy to travel to London for an audition at the Royal Ballet School. His elder son Tom blocks him for his own safety and the local mining community generously raise the necessary funds under very difficult circumstance for the trip. The film ends 14 years later with Billy dancing in Swan Lake, and his dad, brother and former teacher are in the audience.

A modern-day parable of discovering a talent, going against convention, overcoming all the odds and achieving something very special.

When the fishermen were working on the shoreline the day that Jesus came upon them it had been an ordinary day. Perhaps they were chatting about something at home, gossiping about someone in the village, wondering what would happen next in the world of politics; who can say. One thing is for sure they would have lived and died in obscurity had they not have taken up the invitation of Jesus, to discover something new, accept the challenge to do it and find the kind of fulfilment in their lives that would otherwise have eluded them.

The invitation is no different today.
What is it that you most desire for your life and world?
For your family?
For your friends and neighbours?
For the church to which you belong?
There is the possibility of achieving the goal of all our loinging.
In many ways the world hasn’t changed. It isn’t what some had in mind when they first recorded the life and teaching of Jesus. But because it hasn’t changed then the invitation and the possibilities are the same too.

Jesus still says follow me – now who will come?
Who will forgive where forgiveness is called for?
Who will speak a word of kindness in an otherwise difficult and disturbing conversation?
Who will say yes Jesus – I will come, now lead me on into places that I never had the guts before to go?

Love one another like you never loved before.
Act as if it were wholly true, this Gospel so many deride, for it is true.
Find a fulfilment that you will never know otherwise.
For in Christ the kingdom has come.

These thoughts draw on the incident in 1 Samuel 3, Eli and Samuel

It is clear that our world is tired. There are examples of this tiredness all around.
From the increasing number of people suffering from depression to the fraught global economy.
From the uncertainty that brings on anxiety to the doubt and despondency that allows extremism to flourish. From fear of the future to apathy in the present. That apathy has to be challenged for the sake of us all and for the sake of those yet unborn.

Events in Paris this last week have highlighted the conflict that has been waged for some time now. France had been experiencing an increasing number of terrorist attacks for some weeks but nothing of course on the scale of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the Jewish supermarket siege.
Today our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved, injured and traumatised, with those who will march through Paris, Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of no faith at all. Our thoughts are also with the leaders of government, the community and religious leaders and the teachers who must together find ways to prevent more young people becoming radicalised.

But the conflict is not restricted to France. It is a Global conflict, the likes of which we have not known before.

This blog does not provide us space toa drress all the issues sufficiently. My fear is that all too few in the public sphere are so overwhelmed by the enormity that they too do not give enough of themselves to the dangers the West is facing but are too focussed on the immediacy of more parochial matters, not least a coming election. However difficult, we must all consider the long term, a time beyond our own lifetime.

Eli lived in a time of uncertainty, a time where powerful people feathered their own nest and forgot about the needs of their neighbours. Society was in danger of fragmenting. The faith that had sustained the community for so long was being brought into question. It was a time without vision and miracle. There was no longer a sense of direction and there were no grand examples of God’s love in action. No burning bushes and parted seas. No manna in the desert and no great leader with tablets that would be of clear direction to the people.

Eli himself was tired; old, blind and tired.

It would take a boy, wet behind the ears to change the course of history, a boy without baggage to carry, a boy fresh to faith.

As Christians we may lose some of the humour and also the impact of this incident because when the Lord is calling out ‘Samuel, Samuel’, he is actually saying ‘Sam-u-el’ which is translated as ‘God has heard’. Not only is God calling the boy he is also stating quite clearly that he has heard the cries of the people. ‘Ok I hear what is going on, I know something has to be done and we are going to do a new thing.’

Today we long for a better world, we just seem to have lost the energy, drive and conviction to bring that world about. God has heard.

We know that we are allowing extremism to rise, whether it be radical Islam or the far right in the form of politicians and parties that are built on personality and popularism. God has heard.

We know that neighbours are anonymous to us. God has heard.

We know that things ain’t right. God has heard.

A century ago men, young boys and men who should have been too old to fight lay down their lives in the belief that they were going to build a better world. It didn’t work out in the way they had hoped. The industrialisation of 20th century warfare and the subsequent slaughter in the trenches put paid to the dreams of one final war to end all wars. All too many names were carved on the memorial tablets in churches up and down the country, all too many women were left without menfolk and children without fathers. If millions died many millions more were never born.

The untidy end to the war and the subsequent impact across Europe in particular Germany and Austria meant that another war was inevitable, even worse than the previous one. As a consequence Europe has been reluctant to forcefully challenge those things that could lead to fragmentation again, we have sought to build bridges believing that everyone had the same design, they didn’t.

So now we have to rise again in defence of democracy and freedom of speech, of the value of diversity and the values that millions before us fought for. We won’t have to lay down our lives in trenches but we will have to kill the prejudices in our own hearts that have added to the mistrust, suspicion and fear.

And before we throw our hands in the air and say that there is nothing we can do, claiming we are old and tired, that we will have to leave it to the rising generation we must be loud and clear: no, no, no.

Eli may have needed Samuel to tell him what God was saying but Samuel needed Eli to draw on the wisdom of experience to enable him to know that it was God who was calling him in the first place.

A few weeks ago we heard of a young girl upon whom the Holy Spirit descended. She would visit her cousin Elizabeth, a much older woman and together they would converse on the meaning of all that was happening to them.

Today I am thinking of a young boy whom God was calling and who would converse with a much older man to make sense of it all.

Today’s world may be tired in parts and bursting with the frustration of a disenchanted youth in others; but the two need each other to deal with the problems we are facing.

No one need feel left out of this.

As a church we could make moves towards our Muslim neighbours.

A failure to build a bridge now may mean that the otherwise inevitable wall will be too great a height to climb in a future almost too dark to contemplate.

STATEMENT ON THE CHARLIE HEBDO MASSACRE

The assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was barbaric. There is no justification whatsoever for such violence whatever the excuse given by the perpetrators and has rightly been condemned by people of all faiths and none. Our prayers are with all those affected by the killings.

The terrorists’ objective was not only an attempt to silence satire but to provoke a response. We must do all we can to ensure that neither objective is realised. Free speech is a cornerstone of civilised society and whilst we may not like what someone says, we should defend their right to say it. If someone’s views are deemed to be offensive then we have a duty to criticise; but no one has the right to kill their protagonists, even if one’s faith is the target. By doing so the murderers have displayed their own limitations and immaturity.

Like 9/11 and 7/7 before it, the attack in Paris on 7th January is a serious reminder that a global conflict is being waged and indeed, has been underway for some time. No corner of God’s earth is safe from those who would destroy the society we have struggled to create over centuries. Like those fascists who sought to build a world based on fear and complete control, the jihadists will be defeated. But this is not a war like any other. This is a battle for hearts and minds; it will be won not through tolerance, for tolerance is insufficient in such a time, but through a dialogue that breaks down ignorance and suspicion leading to a new community that embraces and celebrates diversity. This is the only way we can live together in an increasingly crowded and mobile world.

Democracy is worth dying for and millions have. Today, we have to allow those things within us that promote prejudice to die; it is a significant sacrifice for some but no greater than what our forebears were prepared to do for the sake of those yet unborn, including ourselves. Reaching out to those who worship in a different way to that which we have grown accustomed, sitting down to eat and drink with those whose beliefs seem very strange to us and being honest about our own shortcomings whilst being receptive to insights others might bring are the steps we need to take to prevent our world being put into a constant state of fear. This is our time and it is for us to now rise to the challenge. We can only overcome the extremists by isolating them through joining with the moderates in every faith community to display solidarity; we cannot defeat them by reacting with another form of extremism.

As a Christian I am reminded of a verse that seems to be a rallying cry for this age of uncertainty: ‘perfect love drives out fear.’ May our hearts be so filled with love for all God’s children that fear and hatred are driven from the communities in which we live.

On Christmas Eve for the last three years we as a family have attended the afternoon Carol Service at Lincoln Cathedral. It’s an extraordinary occasion. The grandeur of the medieval building, the soaring voices of the choir reaching up into the lofty roof-space and the crowds of people, crowds and crowds.

It seems odd to many who attend services throughout the year that literally hundreds of people gather without any apparent intention to sing. Many don’t even have a decent view of proceedings, yet they come, stand and sit at the appropriate moments and those who manage to get through to the end without walking out, as indeed some do, leave with wonder in their eyes and joy on their faces; I don’t think it is solely relief that it is all over at last and they can get on with the final preparations.

It is at Christmas time that the Church comes into its own. Many congregations record increased attendance at nativity, Christingle and carol services. Where a midnight communion or mass is held strangers come in off the streets.

Some might scoff that the attendance is merely temporary and the doors won’t be darkened by the visitors for another year, if at all again. But that is precisely what Church can offer a world searching for purpose and people longing for truth. And it’s in the awe and mystery of the story, songs and prayers that some meaning is given to lives that are often dismissed as meaningless. It is a form of return, not unknown to the generations that went before us. And return is a central part of both the story in ancient scriptures and a core message within the Gospel.

We are going to look at the nature of return from three different stages of the human faith story with a verse from Jeremiah as our guide:

‘See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labour, together, a great company they shall return here.’ (Jeremiah 31.8)

Firstly we are going to consider the original intention of Jeremiah’s words, then the Christian interpretation before concluding with a glance at the contemporary situation.

To begin with then a look at what Jeremiah’s message was conveying when these words were first uttered.

The people were growing increasingly anxious. The nation was facing its greatest threat from her powerful neighbours. It would only be a matter of time before things went terribly wrong. And warfare was no better then, than it is today.

Over the past twelve months tens of thousands have been killed in the region as city after city has been besieged and destroyed, those lucky enough to escape across borders have found themselves in refugee camps while those left behind have often faced the choice of conversion or death, men are brutally killed and women sold into sex slavery.

The people of Jeremiah’s day would not have been unfamiliar to such atrocities. Yet even before war broke out Jeremiah offered a message of hope. All would not be lost forever. There would come a time when the once scattered people would return, those physically and mentally harmed by their experience would return, the newly born and as yet unborn would find themselves in a wholly new community one where there would be food and drink, song and dance.

Such a vision sustained the people in the long and difficult days of exile when it finally came. They would remember Zion and weep but they would not give up what hope they had in a return.

Secondly the Christian Church would take up the message of return after the death and resurrection of Jesus. As time passed and there was sufficient opportunity to reflect upon the full meaning of the Jesus event his followers came to believe in a spiritual return.

Just as there had been a physical return for the Hebrews, Israelites and Judeans over the course of human history whenever they had been scattered, so there is a spiritual return for those who find themselves far from God.

God had kept his promise in Jesus and even now it would be possible for each and every one to experience the promises of God fulfilled in their lives.

Jeremiah had spoken of God as shepherd gathering his flock. Jesus would speak of a Good Shepherd going out with great risk and at great cost in search of the one stray.

Luke would symbolically locate the Parable of the Lost Son immediately after the Lost Sheep to reinforce the belief that God sees the likely outcome, beacuse the Father allows the son to depart and then waits for his return. Jeremiah had seen that even before the catastrophe of exile God was preparing the hearts of the people by filling them with a sustaining hope. The people were rendered vulnerable by freedom but God would be watching and waiting for their return.

Having considered the original intention of Jeremiah and the Christian interpretation we turn to the contemporary situation.

What does this message of return mean for us today?

It is clear that we are far from what God has in mind. Our communities are not experiencing the safety, the justice and the equalities that are found in a biblical image of what community should be. The weak are not always supported by the strong, the rich are not always generous to the poor and the stranger is not always welcomed as they should be.

An age of austerity has always brought with it uncertainty and with uncertainty a sense of fear.

The first casualty in such times has always been selflessness and the preservation of self takes over. The stranger, the incomer, the one from elsewhere becomes a threat to personal security. Hence the hostility that is growing in many our cities and towns across Britain.

The coming election in May will focus on a number of key issues, lurking behind them will be whether our nation can sustain the numbers of those who come to this country looking for work or security. There will be a temptation to fall for the rhetoric of those whose policies are selfish and short-sighted. These are the ones who would not only cap the numbers entering the country but expect many of those already here to go back. Such policies are a slippery slope that foster mistrust, division and a fragmentation of society, a society that has taken decades to build.

This is not the sort of return that our spiritual forebears promoted.

Diversity is part of God’s creation and the community of God’s sovereign grace is thrown open to whoever would come. This is the way to lasting peace. This is the way God intends. This is the return God’s prophets and Christ’s apostles spoke of.

So when the election finally comes take your faith to the polling booth and place your cross next to the candidate whose policies are not based on suspicion and fear but inclusion and hope.

To conclude I share with you an image that Andrew Nagy-Benson links with the Jermiah pasaage in Feasting on the Word.

Consider a child building a sandcastle on the beach.

The sand is carefully patted and crafted over a long time until the construction is complete.
In the imagination of the child there is a princess awaiting her prince, or the castle guards are stockpiling food for the coming siege.

But soon, all too soon, the tide turns and draws ever nearer the about-to-be-filled moat. Within just a few waves the destruction is complete.

The following day the child returns to find not a trace of the castle’s location.

But the bucket and spade are still at hand and a new construction even better than before is soon underway.

Such is the child-like faith that is closer to God’s truth than the one hardened and limited by the years.

God never gives up on us.

Whenever our communities become far from his intention a new beginning is offered.

Whenever we find ourselves far from God’s purpose, in exile even, return is not only possible it is certain for those who desire it.

So just as God does not give up on us, nor should we give up on God.