New beginnings

January 8, 2017

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Preached by Canon Gregory Clifton Smith, using Joshua 3: 1-8, 14-17; Hebrews 1:1-12 at Choral Matins on Sunday 8th January 2017 – Epiphany 1 (Baptism of Christ).

The beginning of a new year is a time when many of us want to mark a new beginning in our own lives. There are the perennial new year resolutions, of course. But perhaps we might want to use this as a time for coming up with a  Rule of Life, or if we have one already, of reviewing it. A Rule of Life will be familiar to those who have a particular connection with a religious order. If one is a Tertiary Franciscan or a Benedictine Oblate, for example, having a Rule of Life is one way that those living in the world can identify their Christian journey of faith with those living in a religious community. Our Bishop is keen to encourage all of us to evolve a Rule of Life that will challenge us to live and witness more effectively our Christian faith in the contexts in which we live out our lives. The arrival of our new Dean next month could be seen as adding grist to our collective mill as to how, as a cathedral community, we might better be sustained and bear witness to the love of Christ in this place.

The scripture readings today both speak of new beginnings in the lives of different communities of faith. In our Old Testament Lesson, despite the death of Moses , a new chapter begins under the leadership of Joshua, as the Children of Israel journey into the Promised Land. In our New Testament Lesson, at the beginning of the Letter to the Hebrews, in the midst of various Roman persecutions, a community of Christians is reminded  of the uniqueness of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.

When new leaders take over, it is important that their credibility is assured. As we are seeing only too clearly in the United States at present, this takes time. Whereas we’re hearing about President elect Trump’s ‘Tweet’s in real time. it’s important to remember that the events of which the Book of Joshua speaks were in all probability only written down four hundred or so years after the events themselves. Whilst they contain a collective memory of the past, they can in all probability not be regarded as an accurate historical record. Furthermore, the writer of the book of Joshua is likely to be influenced by hindsight. The voice of God might have spoken to Joshua to lead his people into the land God  has chosen for them, after forty years of wilderness,. But the people remain to be convinced. His sending out of scouts to spy out the land has shown wisdom, and enables him to act decisively. His sending the Ark of the Covenant before the people not only mirrors God going before his people in the wilderness as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; Joshua leading God’s people as they ford the Jordan, mirrors Moses leading his people across the Red Sea as they set out on  their wilderness in the first place. This episode also resonates with Elijah and Elisha travelling dry shod over the River Jordan in the opposite direction just before Elijah is taken up into heaven. Just as the mantel of Elijah has fallen upon Elisha, so the authority of Moses has now passed to Joshua.

This episode of land emerging out of water also resonates with creation itself when order emerges out of chaos. Then as now, we are reminded, that  God is everywhere, he is not just with us in times of tranquillity, but in times of fracture and fragmentation too. Not only is the Ark of the Covenant seen to embody the very power and presence of God himself, it contained his will, his teaching in the form of the 10 Commandments, again providing a link with Moses, as it was Moses who received these commandments from God on Mount Sinai. As Christians, we see the properties of the Ark as being personified in Jesus himself, who through his earthly ministry, his teaching and his miraculous acts, embodied the power and presence of God, and continues to go before God’s people today.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews, recognises the vital role that prophets have played, in times ‘long ago’, responding to the many and various ways that God has spoken to them, by speaking to the communities of which they are a part in a similar variety of ways. He recognises that their message could not help but be fragmentary in what it sought to reveal about God and of his work in the world, as it had to be understood afresh in each successive generation. But the writer  goes on to remind the community to which he speaks that in the person of Jesus, God is revealed in a completely new way. Whereas the prophets were the friends of God, Jesus is God’s Son. God revealed in Jesus is timeless and is complete in and of itself. In the person of Jesus,  the shining light of God’s glory is made manifest among all peoples for all time. Jesus, the Word of God through which creation came into being, is nothing less than God’s reflection, God’s image.

Because  the letter’s writer is schooled in Greek as well as Jewish thought, he is keen to make the point that as well as offering a superior revelation of God than the prophets, so too Jesus offers a superior revelation of God than angels. Whereas angels are present in Jewish spirituality, as a kind of court of advisers to God (the key ones with particular functions to undertake), they can so easily become confused with the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods. At the time Hebrews was written, this fascination with angels was fed by an emphasis on the transcendence of God over his immanence. Jesus the Son of God, born of a woman, entering our human condition so completely, who died the death of a wrongly accused criminal,  who through his resurrection and ascension defeated death itself, the perfect priest who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, could not be more immanent. Access to God is not longer mediated by the prophets, nor even angels, but is freely accessible to all through God’s Son.

In our Eucharist this morning we shall hear how Jesus marked a new beginning in his own life, indeed marked the beginning of his adult ministry, the moment he was baptised by John. His ministry would not be easy. Those moments of doubt that come to him on the cross  attack him thick and fast in that time of retreat in the wilderness. The Christian journey of faith is never easy. It is often strengthened through moments of adversity. And when Jesus emerges from that wilderness experience he calls those first disciples to follow him and in so doing, lays the foundation of the Christian Church of which we ourselves are a part, and who are called to follow him too.

And so I end where I began. At the beginning of this new year, how can we better live and witness more effectively our Christian faith in the contexts in which God has set us? How can we, to borrow words form this morning’s Collect, better ‘both perceive and know what things we ought to do and also have grace and power faithfully to fulfil the same?   Just as every great musical composition emerges out of, and returns to, silence, perhaps a simple first step would be to ensure that somewhere in our day, we too make space for silence so that we can simply be still and savour the presence of God. And who knows what symphony may emerge as we seek to resonate the presence of God with those around us.

Let us pray.

In the stillness of this moment, help us to know that you are God.

In the stillness of this moment, help us to know that you are our beginning, our companion and our destiny.

In the stillness of this moment (through what we do, through what we say, and through who we are), help us to know how to share this liberating reality with others.

In the stillness of this moment, write your music in our hearts that the world longs to hear.

In the stillness of this moment, help us to know that you are God.