I wonder how many times over the last ten years you have heard me use phrases like, ‘a church fit for the 21st century’ or ‘a Church fit for the age we live in.’, or ‘the kind of church God is calling us to be.’ Hundreds of times, I suspect. And I have tried to spell our what these phrases mean: a more mature, adult Church; a Church where lay men and women exercise their responsibilities as a baptized people; a Church which enables its members to develop a faith rooted in a deep personal encounter with Jesus; a Church open to the world; a Church which has something relevant and meaningful to say the men and women who share this moment in history with us, and so on. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and that, if we lose our taste or our light grows dim, then we are, to use another of those phrases, ‘a Church not fit for purpose’.
Three of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke give an account of Jesus’ baptism. But John’s Gospel is different. He makes no mention of it. And the three accounts we have are not identical – the Gospels rarely are completely consistent with each other – and it’s a subtle difference between Mark and Matthew that I want to take as our starting point today. Mark’s was the earliest Gospel, the first one to be written. Matthew’s came later and so is more developed. Mark tells us that the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”. In Matthew, however, it says something quite different. It says “This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him.” In Mark, the words are spoken to Jesus himself. But in Matthew’s later version, the words are addressed, not to Jesus personally, but to the crowds standing around. And, ultimately, of course, to people like ourselves in every age.
It’s not often that I give a homily on the Feast of the Presentation. In fact I don’t remember ever having done it before. It’s just that today is the Second of February, forty days after Christmas, when St Luke tells us the parents of Jesus took him to the Temple to present him to the Lord as laid down by the Law of Moses. Christmas is a distant memory now, but, until we have celebrated today’s, the story is not complete, something that was brought home to me last week in Lytham where both the town square and the church next door still had their cribs up until after this weekend. So what is there in the story of the Presentation that has something of relevance to say to us today?
Given that wise men from the east figure in our Liturgy today, I would like to say something about wisdom itself. So what is it and how do we acquire it. Well, on the question of what it is, it’s one of those areas where it’s easier to say what it isn’t than say what it is. It’s certainly not intelligence. Intelligent people can do very clever things, but that does not mean that they are wise. Highly intelligent people invented the nuclear bomb. to know. But was it a wise thing to do? Novels and films are filled with mad scientists and evil geniuses causing havoc for the world, perhaps the best known example in recent years being Jurassic Park. In the film, intelligence and technology recreated the dinosaurs, but the underlying question at the heart of it was whether it was either wise or right to so?
Whenever I read that Gospel story, a particular person whose retreat I directed many years ago always comes to mind. She was thirty at the time, a graduate from Art School, who had, a year or two previoulsy, joined quite a traditional order of nuns. Why she had done so was not entirely clear to me or to her. Strange things go on deep in the human unconscious, and who knows why a young woman who had been bullied at school should join an order where authority was exercised in a very controlling way? We’ll just have to leave that question to Mary and her therapist. The end result, however, was that Mary was still being bullied, even although the people doing the bullying would not have seen it in that way.
The Saints are men and women who, at different moments in history, have lived lives of faith and are held up before us now as examples of how we might do the same. Each of them embodies a different aspect of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and today the liturgy invites us to look more closely at one of them, John the Baptist.
Few have had as close a relationship with the historical Jesus as John had. Apart from the fact that they were cousins, John was the one who prepared the way for Jesus and baptized him in the River Jordan.
One of the things I am convinced of after fifty years as a priest is, that, if we are to have anything to say to the modern world about the things of faith, we need to learn a new language. The words and images we use to speak about God no longer make sense to people. They belong to a different age and in many cases are simply not fit for purpose, the Christmas story being the most obvious example. And there are two reasons for this. The first is that, through nativity plays, Christmas carols and so on, it is, by far, the best known part of the Gospel story. In some cases, the only part. And the second reason is that, while they are happy to join in the celebration, millions don’t believe a word of it. For them, it is little more than a fairy tale, something for the weans, with its parties, nativity plays, school concerts and, of course, all those presents. And so the profound message at the heart of Christmas – and it is truly profound - is lost under all the tinsel and mince pies.