s070e03 Lockleys 2/2/2003 Presentation of Christ in the Temple
"he is able to help those who are being tested" Heb 2.18
Today at our 9 am service we are having, as is our custom on the first Sunday of the month, a time where those who care to do so are invited to come forward to the altar rail for the ministry of laying on of hands and anointing. And it is passages such as this in Hebrews that form the basis of what we do. We look to the Lord for help, for ourselves and for others.
People come with a certain amount of diffidence, for the words about fire and soap in the reading from the Old Testament are not entirely encouraging! The Lord's remedies in fact might not be as palatable as the doctor's!
However the point of the refiner's fire is that which is precious is untouched by the flames. The silver in the furnace is not hurt by the heat. It is only the impurities that are done away with. So too with the Lord, that which is precious, indeed sacred, is untouched by the fire. It is us who are this precious and sacred thing, who are untouched by the flames. Indeed the flames are there that we might be truly ourselves - not something or someone else. It is only the frustrations and human limitations which are done away with - and this is something to which we can look forward. So we will not be changed, we will come to be more of our true selves. We can look into the mirror in the morning and rejoice rather than despair :-)
The fire of God's love will not make us into a clone of someone else, as if the Lord actually wanted us to be someone else from the very beginning - but somehow made a mistake. Nothing can be further from the truth. As the old saying goes - God must love ordinary people like you and I - after all he made so many of us! However, and on the other hand, we are all extraordinary and unique.
It is important, when thinking about the Lord's help, to realise that this was not Jesus' primary task. The primary task of Jesus was to break down barriers between people and help us get on with those God puts around us. So Jesus' primary way of helping us will always be through other people. It may be through the expertise of doctors, nurses, and the huge array of specialist professionals at our disposal.
If God knows the actual diagnosis and the appropriate treatment, I suspect we do well to trust the human person who is God's instrument of healing.
"Other people" will also include the care of family or friends, people who take the time to express their care. And it is wonderful that people in this congregation take time to do volunteer work in hospitals and the community, for the specialist medical professionals are indeed often run off their feet.
I have no doubt that God will never heal us when there is a perfectly good human being there ready and able to do so. If God got into this habit, there would be a whole class of people "privileged" enough to have God's immediate assistance and those "second class" citizens who had to rely on human therapies. We know that this cannot be the case for God loves all people equally.
Much of what we do, when we undertake such ministries as that of anointing and prayer, is to say to each person that they are sacred enough for God to care and for others to care. It is so easy to think, when illness or calamity strikes, that one is bereft of God's love and bereft of human companionship.
So again the anointing and prayer we do today is no substitute for the care of other people. It is a way for other people to express their care.
When people come to the Altar rail we use a set prayer. The Lord is well aware of who you wish to pray for, the real diagnosis and prognosis. The Lord accepts your offering of love for what it is. Neither Fr. Douglas or I need to know who you are praying for or what the needs are. Some people may be in the throes of a marriage breakdown, and it is hardly wise to need to mention this publicly.
I want to now turn to the parents of Jesus who brought, as parents have done for aeons, their child to the Temple. The action has been dignified by calling it Mary's purification and that it was done according to the law of Moses, but the reality is that parents do want to bring children born to them to the Lord. Often the reasons are half formed. Many will see the birth of a child as having something of the miraculous about it. For some it will be one of the real highlights of their lives. The person whose occupation might be the most menial in the world can achieve the greatest miracle and blessing, bringing a child into this world. Parents want others to share in this joy, for they see it as a stage whereby they cease to be a couple and become part of the ongoing life of humanity and civilisation. And they bring the child to God for God to bless him or her. To demean the offering, the offering of the most precious thing in that couple's lives, or to say that it is inappropriate - is to imply that the parents are not worthy and that God has nothing for them. I find it no wonder that the Church finds itself in dire straits! Indeed parents come, in some senses demanding acceptance - if they have done nothing else - they have achieved this.
And the aged Simeon and Anna rejoice to see the child being brought, even though, for Simeon, it would mean his immanent death. Both these aged people rejoiced, even though they knew that the child meant that things would not be the same as they were when they were in their prime. They welcomed the child and they welcomed the change. They welcomed these things because they were of God and if they were of God they were by definition good.
God is in the habit of welcoming all people, including children and the sick. Indeed this reminds me of the cardinal tasks of the christian: "to care for orphans and widows in their distress". (James 1:27) The orphans and widows I mean are not the ones who have lost their natural parents and natural lover, but those who have lost contact with their heavenly parent, their heavenly lover - those for whom the trials and tribulations of this world have cause them to loose their faith. And James calls for us to care for them - not to criticise or berate them.
God is in the habit of welcoming all people and accepting their offerings. One of the institutions I have little sympathy for is the Legislative Council when such a body sees itself as having the task of correcting the aberrations of the government of the day or filibustering. It is not a reflection on particular members, or the institution. If they can operate to encourage reform and change then they would deserve to continue to exist. I have been a member of some diocesan committees which have sought to be the final arbiter of all that happens, to the extent that usually nothing does! The reality is that society is changing at such a rate that the government and the church need to make decisions quickly and be supportive of those who are trying to think laterally and address issues imaginatively.
For if there is something that people can contribute, and those who wish to do so think that their contribution might be for the small betterment of society or the Church, more often than not it is offered willingly and without hesitation. It is when someone feels an offering is not appreciated but "expected", or will be used and forgotten that people become decidedly reticent.
One of the things that modern organisations do these days is to have a "mission statement", and at this stage in my sermon preparation I was grateful to come across the one for the "Anglican Media (which) exists to challenge people with the gospel of Jesus, Lord and Saviour, and to promote the interests of the Diocese of Sydney through effective use of the media." (http://www.anglicanmedia.com.au/index.php/article/articleview/441)
"Challenge" the fifth word in this mission statement, and the first verb - is what they see as their primary task. The word "challenge" has sort of crept into the parlance of the church by stealth, and it is often viewed as a morally neutral word. So the very presence of a mountain challenges people to attempt to climb it. However "challenge" particularly as the primary objective in a mission statement of an evangelical diocese such as Sydney considers itself to be, is hardly likely to be morally neutral. In fact if we think of "challenge" in these terms we are deceived. "Challenge" is defined by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary as; "to accuse; to reprehend; to object to; to call in question; to lay claim to; to summon to a conquest, to defy, dare ..." I suspect that these are actually what this media organisation really wants to do - challenging especially those who dont come to church. I will not have any part of this.
My reading of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus was that he challenged nobody - and certainly not the ordinary "run of the mill" people - sinners with whom he sat down and accepted their hospitality. My reading of the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus was that it was the religious authorities who considered that Jesus acceptance of ordinary "run of the mill" people challenged their positions of superiority over those people and had him killed for this impertinence.
In fact the few times "challenge" is used in the Bible it is used correctly and never of Jesus "challenging" people. (e.g. Jer 50.24 "challenged God" nrsv c.f. also John 8.13, 18.26 niv, ) This fact alone should call the use of this word by the media arm of a Diocese which supposedly takes the words of the Bible more seriously than others, into question.
It may seem that I have strayed a long way from my text, which was "he is able to help those who are being tested". Jesus primarily helps those who are tested, eternally tested by the religious authorities who challenge (test) ordinary people. Jesus helps by saying that the offerings of all are accepted, except only those that are at the expense of others.
So there is a question before us - does Jesus challenge us or help us? And of course it depends on what we are aiming to do. If we are sick and are looking to the Lord to remain independent of other human helpers, I have no doubt we will be disappointed. If we are Christians and want to maintain the doctrinal purity of the Church from the likes of ordinary people - be it evangelical purity or any other brand - again I suspect that we will be disappointed.
But Jesus does help us all, to be ourselves, and for others to be themselves. We and all people were made who we are quite deliberately. The Lord loves us and others as we are. This is indeed good news, as it is good news for all people.
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