January 30, 2022

Candlemas: what’s the point of coming to church anyway?

A sermon preached by the Rev Aaron Kennedy on the Feast of Candlemas 2022.

Ezekiel 43.27 – 44.4; Psalm 48; 1 Corinthians 13.1–13; Luke 2.22–40

I am struck this week
through my conversations with several of you
how much uncertainty there can be,
even for those of us who’ve been coming to church for years,
about what the point of it all is.
Uncertainty about certain doctrines,
uncertainty about whether one has the right ideas about God,
uncertainty about what the Old Testament is for,
and how to make sense
of many of the obscure things we read about in the bible.

I want to share something that I hope will cut through all of that,
and bring a bit of simplicity, and clarity.
Something to hold onto when the questions loom large.
And it is this quote from Richard Foster
“The River of God is flowing today.
No-one can stop it and no-one can contain it.
It is a deep River of divine intimacy,
a powerful River of holy living,
a dancing River of jubilation in the Spirit,
and a wide River of unconditional love for all peoples.
And the promise is that everything the River touches will live!
End quote.

Everything we are doing in church this morning,
and every other Sunday of the year,
is about learning how to step into this great and good River of God’s life,
a river which cleanses, restores, reconciles and heals all things.
A river which shapes our thoughts, feelings, bodily reactions even.
It is a river of love,
a river of love that flows from the perfect love
of the three in one,
the divine persons so perfect in their overflowing care for one another,
that the world has been created.
And even though we have stepped back out of the river,
it continues to flow,
drawing us back into its effervescent vitality.

And that’s why we’re here.
That’s how we are here.
Because of God’s initiative in seeking us out
in seeking to woo us back into love with him,
because of this, the nation of Israel was created,
the Hebrew scriptures were written.
It is why Jesus Christ came among us,
an expression of the River of God’s love,
reaching out to win us, to woo us back.
And because he came the church was formed,
the New Testament was written,
and the Good News of the River of God
has spread its tendrils all over the world.
Many of us, I know, find some of the stories in the Bible obscure and difficult.
We struggle to connect with the God portrayed there,
in stories of war, other people’s history,
and the foreign context temple worship and sacrifice.

Simon will be leading a course after Easter on how to read the Bible,
so look out for that if you want to go deeper with this,
but we must first of all acknowledge
that the bible is a work of literature.
It is not on the level of a sermon drafted by a clergy person.
It is not written first and foremost for our edification.
It’s many books cover many genres
including poetry, history, prophecy, psalm,
Gospel, and epistle, and the apocalyptic.
And while parts of it may seem very strange to us,
they connect us, in their different ways,
to the great River of God.
Yes, it’s ancient history.
But it’s our ancient history,
and tells how we can know the divine intimacy Foster speaks of,
how we can live holy lives that bring joy to God and to us,
and to all peoples.

Ezekiel’s words may have left you nonplussed this morning,
but Ezekiel too was caught up in the river of God,
just in a very different context to our own.
He happened to be priest in the temple in Jerusalem
and experienced the terrible violence of war.
Israel was invaded and he and thousands of others were exiled.
Jerusalem was smashed to bits.
The temple – the symbol of Israel and it’s connection to God,
the cultural and religious centre of society,
was destroyed.
And of course many of the other common realities of war
were inflicted on him and his people.
Rape, murder, abuse, you name it.
Consequently, Ezekiel likely suffered from PTSD
and flash backs and nightmares,
and this is reflected in his writing.

And yet, the River of God is catching up with him even in exile,
even in in the midst of great trauma,
teaching the people of Israel through his words,
how to worship God is a strange land, a foreign place,
in the aftermath of a horrible war.
God’s relentless flow of goodness knows no bounds,
and Ezekiel is given glorious, beautiful, and terrifying visions of God’s majesty.
The temple is has been destroyed, Jerusalem is in bits,
but God is not dead.

The River’s joy and power is more obvious perhaps
in our Psalm, a psalm of praise,
that uses the image of Jerusalem, God’s dwelling place,
to talk about God’s power and majesty.
But still, you may ask, how is this relevant to us?
What are we meant to do with this?

If we are interested in learning how to step into the great River of God,
to experience the life of God for ourselves,
we do well to read not just the bible, but the Psalms in particular.
These are the prayers of a whole nation,
so well used, so often prayed,
they are like the worn stone steps of a cathedral,
a thin place where God draws near,
and one can feel the flow of the River.
Take Psalm 23, for example.
Why not start a practice of committing it to memory, and saying it everyday?
It will draw you into the great river of God.

And then we have 1 Corinthians 13.
Perhaps, depending on your experience,
you may know it as the wedding service reading.
Or you may know it as the funeral service reading.
And you may think it is useful only for occasions like that.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The love that never ends,
which Paul speaks about here,
the greatest of the virtues,
is itself the River of God that wells up within us to eternal life.
We must have it.
Whatever else we’ve got,
whether it is youth, beauty, money, fame,
or a theology degree and good preaching skills,
is of no value if we don’t also have this love.
This is the treasure that a man found in a field,
and he went home and sold all of his possessions
so that he could buy that field.
This is the very life of God itself.
And Paul calls us to put aside our childish ways,
and step into the flow of this love,
the love which began it all,
and which will be all that remains,
when everything else
– whether youth, beauty, money, fame, pleasure,
has run its course and gone the way of all flesh.

And lastly, we have the Gospel reading.
A passage that recalls what is known
as the presentation of Christ in the temple.
You may not know what this was,
you may have no idea why it is relevant to us this morning.
But remember this:
it represents one of the important twists and turns,
in the strong current
in the deep and wide River
of God’s unconditional love for all peoples.

Simeon and Anna knew themselves to be standing in the flow of God’s life.
They knew their history, and the scriptures,
and they expected God to act.
Not merely in ancient history.
In the present moment of their lives.
Simeon, we are told, had long felt this way;
he had longed for the fulfilment of God’s promise
to bring Israel back into the flow of the river.
It seems he was a man of great singleness, great purity,
of heart and mind.
And this was all that he had been waiting for in life.

Both Simeon and Anna looked for God’s anointed;
they longed for the Messiah.
And they knew.
As soon as they saw the child in Mary’s arms
that here was the one.
That here was God’s actual life before their eyes.
Here the River had its source.
Here, in the life of this little baby
the flow of the River was strong.
The sheer beauty, the literally limitless potential of God’s life,
was the fulfilment of Simeon’s and Anna’s heart’s desire.
Simeon, we are told, could now depart this life
in fullness of joy and contentment
assured God’s promises would be fulfilled.

And all of this, my friends, before we even get to the life,
to the ministry, the suffering, the death, and resurrection
of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The deep and almighty flow at the heart of God’s life in the world.
The same flow which brought the church into being,
and has sustained and expanded it,
and brought it from the shores of Galilee,
to the banks of the Thames in Battersea,
and drawn you, and I, here this morning,
to worship Christ the King,
and so be drawn into the Eternal and unstoppable life of God.

So, please if you remember one thing today, let it be this:
The whole point of our religion,
of all the obscure traditions,
the difficult, violent, and even offensive bible passages,
is to draw us near to the river,
and nearer to the light and life of God
which is for all people’s.
Only we can jump in for a swim.
Only we can make the choice
to live holy lives devoted to this great life,
and so experience, and know for ourselves,
what is the point of coming to church,
of reading the Bible,
of receiving Holy Communion,
week after week, year after year.

It will not always be easy.
We have a transformation to undergo.
We have to be pulled into shape,
put back together,
made to look more, feel more, think and act more,
like Jesus Christ –
who came that we may have life, and that abundantly.

Here’s the second part of that Richard Foster quote:
Oh my friend, may I urge you
to step into the flow of this mighty River of God
and then determine never to step out. …
Let it be for us, as Jesus says,
that streams of living water
will ever flow out of our innermost being.”


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Enter your details below to receive the St Mary's weekly newsletter.

Get in touch

If you want to know more about St Mary's, contact the clergy or for another enquiry, please use the Contact Us facility below.

Contact Us