Sunday, 28 February 2016

So... Do you feel guilty enough yet? (Third Sunday of Lent)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

Luke 13:1-9
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’


Hello you miserable sinner. How awful do you feel about yourself so far this season of Lent?

Sadly, guilt can be, and often is, used by religious organisations to manipulate people, but Jesus doesn't work like that. His intention is that we are changed and freed, not shackled. Let me explain.

It is the easiest thing in the world to make people feel guilty, especially if they are people in church or in some religious cult. Christians are generally, by definition, people who are aware of our own inadequacies. The church has traditionally referred to that as sin, but I prefer a modern definition: Sin is the human propensity to screw things up.

That's a slightly abridged version of the definition written by Francis Spufford in his book, Unapologetic, but I think he's right. Sin is the human propensity to screw things up.

So if you're in a church, the chances are you're already there because you know you've screwed up, at least that's my reason. I know that the world outside these doors tends to think that we come here because we believe that we're better than anyone else. They think we're goody-goodies. We know better. Or at least I hope we do. So we're already half way down the path to feeling really guilty.

And the people who put these lectionary readings together seem to be playing on that too. Look at that reference to sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians. How many of us squirm in our pews because of something in our past or our present that we wish had been otherwise, or that the authorities in the church tell us is wrong (even though we think otherwise...)? As soon as a reading like this is trotted out, it's bound to reinforce that feeling of guilt and to make space to be controlled or manipulated.

Or in case that doesn't get you going, then there's also a comment in there about complaining. And what happened to the people who complained? They were destroyed by the destroyer. Oo-er. Better make sure you never complain then, and sit there in your pews doing whatever the leader or the authority says you should. And if you have complained about something, well, there you go, that's why you feel guilty. And we're in the middle of Lent, so we are supposed to feel guilty aren't we? Isn't that the point? We come to church and the preacher makes us feel guilty and so we repent and go away feeling all better thank you because someone has put a sticking plaster on the wound of our sin. And I can make you feel guilty if you like. But I'm not going to.

Now don't get me wrong about guilt. I'm not averse to my unconscious mind or the Spirit within me warning me that I've done something wrong. It happens most days. It's just that, despite what you might have heard, that is not primarily what Christianity is about, and it's not what church is about. Or at least it's certainly not what this church is about. I will grant you that there are, sadly, some churches and also pseudo-Christian organisations where the leaders will use guilt to manipulate people, but that is not what Jesus does in the Gospels, and today's reading make that clear as, despite provocation, Jesus does not try and shame his listeners. He is, instead, far more creative as he tries to show us how God really works.

Here, when he is confronted with two stories about sudden death, he does not do as his listeners expect; he doesn't blame people for bringing down death on themselves because they were sinners.

We don't know a great deal about what took place. The stories are lost in the mists of time and there are no historical mentions of it anywhere but here, but it seems that a group of Galilean pilgrims were slaughtered by Pilate. We don't know why, but we do know that he had a reputation for a casual brutality.

And as for the tower falling, again there is no record of this. There are steep inclines around that part of Jerusalem so it's quite possible that a tower built there could fall. But neither of these are the point.

And notice that at no point does Jesus try and give us an explanation of why these things did happen. All he does is to make it clear that they did not happen as a result of sin. The people who died weren't any worse than anyone else. This gives the lie to the saying 'Things happen for a reason.' Sure some things do, that's action and reaction. If I blow air into a balloon it gets bigger. If I drive like a lunatic, someone might get hurt. But other things happen due to chance. When something goes wrong and we say, 'What did I do to deserve this?', more often than not the answer will be, 'Nothing, that's just the way the cards fell.'

Take notice of that.

Jesus is presented with an absolute gift on a plate in terms of making people feel guilty. It's an old style evangelist's dream, and he doesn't take the bait. He doesn't use this as an excuse to make people feel more guilty in order that they get down on their knees and pray a prayer of repentance, which sadly, in some places, means 'Do whatever the leaders tell you.'

All Jesus basically says is, 'It happens.' Things happen and people die. It's very hard to maintain this body as a living, breathing and thinking thing. You have to avoid accidents, eat, drink and sleep, not catch a disease that will kill you and so on. Staying alive is hard. Dying, though, happens too easily. One mistaken action, or being next to someone who's infectious with a killer disease, or eating something toxic or whatever and the body dies.

Jesus doesn't even attempt to explain why, perhaps because death was much closer to people in that culture and a more accepted part of living. No one thought that living to 90 was their right. But what he does say is simply, Everybody dies, so what will you do while you live? Will you have used your gifts? Will you have turned and followed God? This isn't about dying because you've done something wrong, it's about living, and taking the chances you have been given. It's about repentance and being the people we are supposed to be. The question I think we are faced with is far more, what are you going to do with the life you do have, not the guilt you carry? So whilst some testimonies can sometimes sound like a person found Christ and became successful middle class people with no problems, sometimes it helps us to be reminded that Christ can really change lives.

Sometimes it can help to be reminded of this. This example is not meant to be a political compliment because my political views are very different from his, but many of you will remember the politician Jonathan Aitken who lied in court under oath and was sent to jail. What happened to him next? Well, while in prison he began to study theology having been on an Alpha course that stirred his interest. And now? He has been the president of Christian Solidarity for ten years. I still don't agree with his politics, but he is an example of someone who began the long process of change and of bearing fruit that lasts. And that brings us to the parable Jesus tells.

Now what I think happened to Aitken, and I'm sure to many of us, is the kind of thing that Jesus is telling his story about, because the parable is not about guilt, but to understand that we have to remember that it's a parable, a story that makes a point to ponder, not an allegory that makes a point about God. The focus is on the fig tree, not the other characters.

I want to be clear about this.

There is a big difference between an allegory and a parable. The problem with allegorising a parable is that you end up tying yourself in knots. Who is the garden owner? Is it God? Are we the fig trees then? He doesn't sound like he cares much for us if he's so willing to chop us down. But then who's the gardener? Is that Jesus? So is Jesus like the friendly Son of God trying to placate his angry Father God who wants to cut down the trees?

And what if the tree is us as individuals? Of course that would play well on the 'Woe is me, I am a miserable sinner' muscle that we all have. But traditionally in the Bible the fig tree represents Israel. Oh, then is this actually about God trying to get Jesus to make Israel repent? But then what if it's about the church? Is that the whole church or just our denomination, or just the Roman Catholics, or the Baptists? Can you see how allegorising a parable is very dangerous.

There is, instead, a far easier way to deal with this.

Notice perhaps the most important thing. What is a fig tree supposed to do according to this story? It's supposed to bear figs. That is the fruit that is supposed to grow on a fig tree. But it wasn't growing any figs. It wasn't doing what it was meant to do, what it was created to do. So what happens? Well by rights it should be chopped down, but it isn't. The gardener says to the owner, 'Give me some more time with it and maybe I can get it to grow figs.'

The meaning of this parable then is more than about simple repentance.

It's about more than being made to feel guilty. It's about asking the question, 'Are you doing what you are meant to be doing?' Are you bearing fruit? And if you're not, (and please don't go straight on to a guilt trip that will tie you up in psychological knots), but if you're not God isn't about to cut you down and throw you away. He's going to work harder with you to try and make sure you do.

What are your stories? How did you come to believe what you believe today? I bet that if you look back on your life carefully you will be able to see little things that happened to guide you to where you are now. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, in what ways is the Spirit of God tending to me now to try and enable me to bear fruit?

We have to ask ourselves if there are ways in which we are being prompted, and are we responding? The voice of God is usually such a quiet whisper on our souls that we can crowd it out with other things very easily. Do you sense the Creator quietly saying to you, 'There is more. You're not done yet'? Christians don't get to retire until they put us in the ground.

Our stories are likely to be different from one another. Some of us will have gone through huge changes as a result of the way God has met with us, and others of us will have experienced small, incremental changes. But the changes should still happen because the Spirit is trying to work with everyone of us to help us produce fruit. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ continues to work with us, to try and change us, to help us so that we do start to produce the fruit that we were designed to produce.

So what is the fruit you're supposed to bear? I can't answer that one for you, but please don't stop searching. And some of you are bearing fruit. But if you are wondering what you should be doing, then pray; ask for guidance. Come and chat. I can maybe help you ask the right questions, but ultimately this comes down to you in your relationship with God and the commitments you have in the world. What are you going to do with the remainder of your life?

When we baptise someone, as a mark of hope we give them a candle lit from the Easter candle, the candle that symbolises Christ's light in the world, and we do that as a symbol that we believe wherever they are in the world will be better and brighter because they are there shining with his light within them.

If you are doing what you are supposed to be doing then your corner of the world will be a better place because you will be the hands of God. Are you and is it?

Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Bible says....

1st Sunday of Lent

Romans 10:13
For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Luke 4:1-13
The Temptation of Jesus
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The bad Bible...
I wanted to call this, 'The bad Bible', which is, of course, intended to be a provocative title. Perhaps it would be better to use the phrase, 'Bad use of the Bible'. Today marks the first Sunday of Lent which is the season in which it is intended that we look very closely at ourselves and our nature, and what I want to do is to question the benchmark that we use to do this. What I mean by that is, how do we know that something is right or wrong in our behaviour? I mean, sometimes it's easy. If I walk up to someone in the street who I've never seen before and put them in an armlock before wrestling them down to the ground, that's very clearly wrong because it's a use of unprovoked violence. But what if I'd done that because I'd just seen that person lift someone's purse out of a handbag? I take the same action, but now that we can see the motive for my action, that changes whether it's right or wrong. I've done the same thing but now it is an act of protection for someone.

Or how about this? This was a story I was told in a session on situation ethics many years ago when, as a teenager and very enthusiastic new believer, I went to a week-long Christian conference. The speaker spoke of a very shy woman, very quiet and who always had her head in a book. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that, except that for her it was a way of keeping safe from the world, of not engaging with it. And then one day, quite out of character, she met a man to whom, unexpectedly, she was very attracted. And again, quite out of character, she had a one-night stand with this man. The result of this single sexual encounter for the shy woman who never left home was that her world suddenly opened up with a self-confidence she had never before known and an experience that left her wanting more out of life.

And so she began to live.

She began to make something more of her life. She began to become someone who socialised and engaged with the world. Now I remember being very shocked, as a new Christian, to hear this story at what was a charismatic and evangelical conference. Surely sex outside marriage was wrong, I thought. And especially a one night stand of uncommitted passion. Yet here was a leader who called that into question, and it began to get me questioning, and to ask a question that I continue to ask throughout my adult life, which is this, what is the benchmark for right behaviour? That is a question to which the answer you will normally be given is, 'Well what does the Bible say?' And that, I think, is when we begin to get into problems.

At the beginning of Lent, what does the Bible say?

I mean we live in an age when Christians are fighting against Christians about all sorts of issues, but especially about the role of women in leadership and human sexuality. Over and over again I hear people say something along the lines of, 'The Bible says that marriage is between one man and one woman.' Well, yes it does... Eventually.

But it also gives the following examples of marriage:

There were plenty of polygamous marriages where a man has more than one wife. Granted that the tendency with time was towards one man and one woman, but King Solomon was not condemned for having too many wives; he was condemned because he married women of other religions and followed their gods. The sin, according to what was written about him, was not the many wives, but that he became unfaithful to God.

Then there was Levirate marriage where a widow with no sons was married off to her dead husband's brother. Children of that union were legally counted as the children of her first husband. And of course, she had no say in this. If her brother in law was a brute, that was tough because her duty was to have children for her dead husband so that there was someone for his property to pass on to.

Then in addition to polygamy, a man could also have several concubines. These were a kind of secondary wife meaning that any children conceived had no inheritance rights. Following on from that come the more shocking examples, yet these are not condemned but were culturally acceptable practices. So female prisoners of war could be forced to become wives or concubines, and unmarried victims of rape were forced to marry their rapists. All of these came about because women were treated as property in the Bible. This is something about which we violently disagree now, based on ethical principles which we derive from our faith, yet those ethical principles are fairly new.

The point I am trying to make is that, when we are trying to decide upon what is sinful behaviour, it is not as simple as looking in the Bible for a verse to guide us. One has to execute judgement in the matter, and have a good idea of the breadth of opinions expressed, and the culture within which they were written. And this is brought home for us in the story from Luke's Gospel about the temptation of Christ.

Jesus is tempted by the devil with three different temptations. In the first one the devil appeals to his relationship with God. Just a few verses earlier, at his baptism, Jesus heard God say to him, 'You are my Son.' So here the devil begins with 'If you are God's Son.' So he begins by trying to sow a seed of doubt in the relationship he has with God; did Jesus hear his Father correctly?

The second temptation is an appeal to be powerful and influential; all Jesus has to do is ascribe honour and worship to the devil. But it is the third one which most affects us here in the context of understanding scripture because the devil quotes the Bible at Jesus.

Both his quotes come from Psalm 91, and if you read the psalm as a whole it is all about how God will protect those who love and trust him. It's a wonderful psalm and can be very comforting. But what the devil does with it is to take that one psalm on its own and make a theology out of it in isolation. If you throw yourself off the top of the temple, the angels will catch you because it says in the Bible that they will. How often do we hear that phrase, 'The Bible says...'

Now if you are of a mind to use the Bible as your benchmark for what is good behaviour, and that in itself is not a bad thing, we have to be very mindful that this is the devil quoting scripture at Jesus in order to justify a particular act. But Jesus rightly quotes another bit of scripture back at him to paint the whole picture. And that is the essence of what I want to say here.

If you use the Bible as your benchmark, then you must use the whole Bible, not just a part of it, otherwise it will say exactly what you want it to say. There's another example in the new testament reading from Romans where Paul quotes, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' Hallelujah! Praise God! Everyone, without exception, who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. We know it to be true because the Bible says it's so.

Except... Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, 'Not everyone who says “Lord, lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.' Jesus paints a far more complete picture. It's not just about asking for salvation, it's about responding and living as someone who has been given it. To understand our faith you need to know all the Bible,

So as we begin Lent, and as we start to consider the standards we live by and how good we are at living to those standards, can I encourage you to become far more fully engaged in learning the Bible as a whole, not just the bits you can remember or which seem palatable. Allow yourself to be challenged. If you are local to us, the Pilgrim course for Lent is running through Lent on Wednesday afternoons and Thursday evenings. I invite you to come and learn more, that we may better understand what is asked of us.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

In the presence of God

Ezekiel 43:27-44:4
When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God.

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.

Then he brought me by way of the north gate to the front of the temple; and I looked, and lo! the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord; and I fell upon my face.

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Richard Rohr said these words: 'We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.' We're going to think about the glory of God in his temple in Jerusalem and in the many temples of the Holy Spirit now. But first, in order to understand the Old Testament reading, we need some historical background about Ezekiel the prophet.

As so often happens when we start talking about Old Testament prophets, we feel a little confused because we think we know so little. Yet there are passages from Ezekiel that many of you will know or remember, even if you didn't know where they came from. For example there's the one that Erich von Daniken was so fond of back in the 1970s when he was busy trying to convince everyone that God was a spaceman, which is the story of Ezekiel's calling to be a prophet which tells of the bizarre vision he has of God's chariot with wheels within wheels and strange looking angels. No, not a UFO, but radical prophetic and Jewish imagery. And you may remember the story of the valley of the dry bones, or at least the song 'Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones.' That one is a prophecy of hope that God can even bring that which is utterly lost back to life.

But there is no doubting that, like all the prophets, Ezekiel was quite an eccentric with a vivid imagination on which God drew. Incidentally, this is yet one more reason why we need to accept that God's people come in a variety of psychological shapes and sizes. The prophets of old, from Elijah to John the Baptist, were not the equivalent of men and women in smart suits. But Ezekiel seems to be among the most outlandish of all, and I wonder what he must have been like to live with. We do know that he was probably of an important Jewish family. We can infer this because he was amongst the first wave of Jews to be carried off into exile in Babylon after the defeat of Judah, and the way in which the Babylonians worked was to carry off the most important first, to make a leaderless people in their own country far easier to govern.

So Ezekiel was probably reasonably high-born. This is perhaps the reason why, unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, his book is much easier to follow because it is almost entirely written in dated order, with only a couple of prophecies seemingly out of place. He was an intelligent man who knew how to write.

And his book is divided into two halves, both written in Babylon. The first chunk of the book is full of doom and is addressed to the Jewish nationalists remaining in Judah, warning them of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, perhaps to warn them off the rampant nationalism that would get them all killed by the Babylonians. Suffice it to say that didn't work. After the fall of Jerusalem, however, the prophecies turn to become ones of hope, beginning with the valley of dry bones, and of a return to Jerusalem, and that is the context in which today's reading falls.

But it is also worth mentioning that the Jews learned a very important lesson in exile, that worship of YHWH could take place in a different land; that their God was still God even though they couldn't worship him in their temple. This was a massive change in religious practice because hitherto all nations had local deities, but the Jews in exile discovered that YHWH was not local and he could still hear and answer their prayers. This was the environment in which Jewish monotheism began to develop more fully. Yet despite that, there was a yearning to return to the temple to worship because that was where they felt the presence of God dwelt, and that brings us to the subject at hand today. In order to understand it, though, we need to turn back a number of chapters to an earlier episode in the book.

Way back in chapter 10, Ezekiel was writing about Jerusalem during the time before it was laid waste. And he tells of a horrific occurrence for a Jew of that period who was focussed on the temple, as he describes how the glory of God left the temple, heading east, because of the behaviour of his people. After that event, Jerusalem fell. Then we start to hear messages of hope from Ezekiel until finally in chapter 43 he describes the awesome beginning of the return of the glory of God to his temple as he hears, from some distance, coming out of the east from whence he left, the sound of mighty waters. Finally his vision culminates in the last verse of today's reading: '...and I looked, and lo! the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord; and I fell upon my face.' This was a vision of hope for the future, that one day there would come a time when God would return to his temple, and the only response that Ezekiel could do was to fall down on his face and worship. YHWH was back.

Our Gospel reading comes from almost six hundred years later, a time of Roman rather than Babylonian rule, in a rebuilt Jerusalem with a rebuilt temple. Once again this is the focus for Jewish worship, although the lessons learned in exile in Babylon mean that worship also took place in synagogues all over the country. Nevertheless the temple was the main focus. The reading finds us with an eight day old Jesus, about to be circumcised, and because he was Mary's first born, under Jewish law he was to be offered before God at the temple.

Now the temple was a busy place. The plaza on which the temple was built was huge and would have been about 480 x 300 metres, with various courts that one could enter depending on whether one was a Gentile, a Jew, a Jewish male, a priest or the High Priest, with each court being closer to the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the temple. This was not like a little quiet and private family baptism in church on a Sunday afternoon. There would have been lots of people around, and so Mary and Joseph, two faceless, anonymous peasants, like many before and after them, enter the temple courts to bring Jesus to be named and circumcised by a priest.

Enter Simeon, a man of great age who was devout in his prayers and righteous in his life. Here was a man so aware of God that he had heard the voice of the Spirit telling him that he would not die until he saw the one anointed to save the people. That morning the Spirit had moved him to go to the temple and there he saw Jesus, and then he knew, this was the one for whom he had been waiting all his life. So he takes up the little baby in his arms before his astonished parents and declares the words we sing almost every Sunday night at Evensong, '‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

Can you see the implication that this is tied to the vision of Ezekiel? Can you see how this could be interpreted as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the return of the glory of God to his temple? Yet the glory of God seems different to an onlooker to how it seemed to Ezekiel. To Ezekiel there is the sound of many waters, a rush of noise, but to Simeon there is a quiet voice; 'Go and see Simeon. Go into the temple now and watch. That for which you have waited all your life is to be revealed in the temple today.'

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

And then there is Anna, another prophet, an eighty four year old woman of unceasing prayer, a woman so incredibly aware of God that the moment in which Jesus entered the temple would be forever etched on her consciousness as she felt pulled to the glory of God, returning to his temple.

Yet how many others knew? Just Simeon the devout and Anna the prophet. The glory of God visits his temple again but only two people, not even his parents are aware of it. They know the truth of what Richard Rohr says: We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

And it makes me wonder, just how often do we miss the glory of God? How often, in our busy troubled lives, does God walk right by us and we simply don't see because we're looking the other way?

Or not even looking at all?

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

So how then do we gain this awareness? Is it through attending church every Sunday? Nope, Simeon wasn't in the temple when he was called there that day, and there were plenty of other people, presumably including a very bemused priest about to do the circumcision, who were there in the temple, as they were on every sabbath, but they didn't see either.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

Anna and Simeon are our answers to this puzzle of awareness. They practiced the presence of God. They knew what God felt like because of the amount of time they had spent in God's presence. If you take a look at other believers, what do you see? St. Paul reminds us that our bodies are temples to the Holy Spirit. God is here in the midst of us, in the centre of each one of us, as we sit here with the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Your heart is the Holy of Holies; your core is the dwelling place of God. Maybe God came to you like the sound of rushing waters, as Ezekiel experienced. Or maybe you never knew God was there until this moment.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

And when we share in communion together, in is the on-going sacrament of the presence of Christ in and amongst his people, as we take his body and his blood into us to make it a part of us.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

So let us learn the practice of being still. Let us learn to notice God by slowing our selves down and gazing; gazing at each other; gazing within; gazing at the world God inhabits. This, then, is how we learn what God asks of each of us. Because God is already here, already calling.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.