Candlemas with Confirmation & First Communion – Sermon from the Bishop of Huddersfield

First Reading: Malachi 3.1-5

Gospel Reading: Luke 2.22-40

Today, in the Church’s calendar, we are marking the Presentation of Christ in the Temple or “Candlemas”.  It is the day on which we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as the Light of the World – as our saviour and our guide through the darkness and uncertainty of our world.  And my goodness, how much do we need God’s help and guidance at the moment!

In this passage, Luke is telling us that a new Messianic Age is now dawning.  That is the theme of Simeon’s prophecy: he has been waiting for this for years, and on seeing the child Jesus, he proclaims: “… my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel…” (vv.31-32).  With the birth of Jesus, a new era is dawning.  The Messiah is coming into the world and nothing will be quite the same again.

But how exactly does the birth of Jesus make a difference to the world?  What should it change, for instance, about the way we live as Christians, including those who we are welcoming at this service today?  To answer that question, we need to think for a moment about the nature of God’s involvement with the world – and about what we are asking for when we say that we want God to change the way things are.

We need to realise that if we are asking God to intervene directly to stop the awful tragedies that have so often scarred human history then we are actually asking God to change the whole nature of the world in which we live.  Human beings are weak and fallible and at times downright evil creatures – but at the same time we are free.  We have the freedom to choose how we will act.  We have the freedom to love and to hate, to kill and to save life.  We can either go with the tide, or in our own small way we can resist and choose to make a difference.

But does that mean that God remains outside the world, doing no more than look on at the tragic mess that we often make of it all?  In which case, surely he might as well be either deaf or dead?

And the Christian answer of course is a resounding “No” to that.  We believe above all that God became involved in the world and all its tragedy and evil precisely in the birth of his Son.  At that point God reveals that he is utterly involved with us, not as an onlooker but as a participant.  We also believe of course that God is active in the world in response to our prayers, shaping events by his providential care.  But at the same time, the way God is involved is still in a sense limited by his respect for our freedom as human beings.  To take that away would be to destroy what we are – and we would then become just puppets, rather than free creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

That is why it is so significant that Jesus comes in the vulnerability of a baby.  It demonstrates God’s commitment to sharing our life and to working with us to put things right – rather than imposing a solution upon us from the outside.  Simeon’s prophecy makes it clear that Jesus will indeed bring salvation to the world – but that salvation is experienced and received in the here and now as a love which forgives us and a light which guides us, not as a force to compel us to change, or a magic wand that waves away all our problems.

All too often we load the blame for the way the world is onto God – when rightly it lies with us.  We need to remember that the guilt for the evil we see around us (on both the global and the personal level) rests firmly with human beings.  And not just with those people who actually carry out evil deeds – but with all those who fail to speak out or to go against the tide.  We are all involved – and it is our shared calling as God’s Church and people to be involved.

The love that Jesus revealed in his life and the light that he brought into our world is the thing that can really begin to change our tragic and broken world.  This is the kind of love to which we are called – and we in our turn are called to bring the light of Christ into the darkness of the world.  We need to understand that God does not take away freedom and responsibility from us – rather he offers us the invitation to be changed by his grace, and then to play our part in helping to change the world around us. 

The challenge rests with us.  How will we respond to what we see in the world?  How will we play our part as we begin to come out of and then recover from the pandemic?  What will we do about the situation of refugees and asylum seekers, including right here in our own communities? Will we speak out or will we remain silent over the climate crisis and its impact? How will we respond to the poverty and deprivation that exists just down the road from us here in West Yorkshire?

And for those who are being confirmed or welcomed to Holy Communion today – please understand that this includes you – even though you may feel like you are only just starting out.  You too have a part to play in making a difference to those around you – at home, at school or college, in the places where you work and in the communities where you live.

And in terms of our Diocesan Vision – Confident Christians, Growing Churches, Transforming Communities – what are we doing as local churches to help grow Confident Christians able to bring the light of Christ to our friends and neighbours?  In what ways are we seeking to be churches that are Growing both spiritually and numerically?  And what are we doing both individually and together to Transform and make a difference in the Communities we serve?

We have a part to play in changing the world – and it must begin right here and now in the way we treat one another and relate to those around us.  The question is this – are we willing to let God change us and work through us? And then are we willing to become part of his work of changing the world.  Because that is what God is calling us to be and to do.  Amen.

Bishop Jonathan Gibbs                                                                                 30th January 2022

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