Today is Vision Sunday at All Saints – it says so on the notice sheet, so it must be. Now I have to be honest and tell you that when I planned this I did not realise that this Sunday was also the first Sunday of Epiphany, it is just one of those serendipities that sometimes God arranges for us. This morning, as the young people brought the wise ones to the crib we thought about the vision that had brought them there, the vision of the star and the way in which they had followed that vision to find a yet greater vision, the revelation of God on earth, Immanuel, God with us, Jesus.
When we met to pray before the service this morning, we looked at the readings and Heather asked me if they were the lectionary readings for Epiphany, because they seemed so appropriate, especially the gospel, but I had to confess that they were not, they were readings I’d chosen to help us think about vision in general and vision for All Saints in particular, but with no thought of Epiphany. And yet, I was very glad for Heather’s observation because it made me go back and look at the gospel passage in a new way.
Close to the beginning of Jesus’ life, the wise ones brought him gifts. What did they bring? They brought gold and frankincense and myrrh, often understood as symbols of Jesus kingship, Jesus Godhood, and of Jesus humanity and death. Gold for the king, the incense of worship for God, and the myrrh of burial for the one who would die for the sins of the world.
In the aftermath of their visit, the jealous king Herod commands the death of all the boys under two in Bethlehem, and Joseph and Mary flee, refugees, to Egypt. Time passes and eventually they return. There’s an exciting trip to Jerusalem when Jesus is twelve, but apart from that we hear nothing else until Jesus is about thirty and his public ministry begins with his baptism. For three years he travels around the country with his band of followers, teaching and preaching, healing and showing signs of the Kingdom. And now we are at the other end of Jesus’ life. It is six days before the passover, the passover night on which Jesus will be betrayed and handed over to the authorities to be put to death. We are entering the final act of Jesus’ life as we join the supper in Bethany and it seems to me that as we do so we hear echoes of the first act.
Here we see Martha, serving her Lord, her King, no longer arguing or angry with her sister, but content to serve. Here we see Mary, kneeling at the feet of her God in worship, spilling out precious perfume in love, worship, and adoration. Here we see Lazarus reclining at the table with his friend. Jesus is engaged in the normal, human activity of sharing a meal with friends, truly human, truly God with us. And, in the background, in the shadows, is the cross, Jesus knows that that is where he’s going – he knows that he is going to need burying.
So, as these echoes from the beginning and end of Jesus’ life resonate down the ages, what do they bring to us tonight?
What does it mean to serve Jesus, our Lord and King? The wise ones brought gold, their wealth to Jesus. Judas was distressed that money that he wanted for himself had been spent on worship resources. I wonder where we sit in our attitude to money and wealth. One of things that I think is very healthy about All Saints is that we do not spend time and energy fund raising for the work of the church. We have a solid and well founded discipline of giving generously, both for the work of the church here, across the town, and across the world.
Another thing that has encouraged me as I have got to know people is hearing the sheer variety of different things that people are involved in, both as ministries within the church and as ministries out and about in the community. From CAP debt centre, to Street Pastors, to the hospice and hospital visiting, to mentoring schemes. It seems to me that All Saints folk have a heart of service and I want this church to continue to encourage, equip and send people out for service.
There are some tensions around service though, and it seems to me that it is helpful to recognise them and to name them. Those of us who have an inclination to be “doers”, who are naturally the last ones out of the door, who see something that needs doing and get on with it have a gift. In my experience we also tend to have a weakness, we can get frustrated with those who don’t have that gift. Sometimes we get a bit Martha-ish. I was reading the account of the reconciliation of Peter and Jesus on the beach in Galilee towards the end of last year, and I was drawn to the verse where they’re getting towards the end of the conversation and it says this,
“Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them … When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return what is that to you? You must follow me.”
Sometimes it seems to me that God calls us to serve in a particular way, and we can fall into the trap of asking, “what about him or her over there” rather than just getting on with what we’ve been told to do.
Of course, there is always stuff that needs to be done, and it is not fair that it always falls on the willing horses. There is a place for challenge to everyone to do their share of the work, but there is a way of doing this with grace and generosity that invites people to participate rather than guilt tripping them into submission. It is my hope that at All Saints we can commit to find this way together, so that we can do what God is calling us to do.
The other tension that I think is worth recognising is our frustrations with our own reduced capability to serve in the way that we want to. This might be because of family responsibilities, poor health, getting older. Whatever the reason many of us face the reality that we would love to do more, but cannot. And this can leave us feeling depressed, guilty and despondent. John Milton, the author of “Paradise Lost” experienced this as he became blind aged 46, feeling that he could no longer serve God as he desired. In the midst of this he wrote a sonnet that concludes,
“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
There is no need for guilt or depression. Serving God faithfully is not about the amount that we do, it is about the attitude of our heart.
And that, I think, brings us quite neatly to worship, which also about our attitude of heart. The attitude of Mary’s heart was unmistakable. The whole of verse three is just outrageous. And we should not make the mistake of thinking that it sounds a bit odd from our cultural perspective, not very English, but probably perfectly acceptable and common place in first century Judea. No, this was outrageous by the standards of the day.
Half a litre of pure nard. Worth a year’s wages. That’s £20,000 pounds worth of perfume. If you wanted to buy half a litre of pure nard today you could, and the price has come down a bit. It would only be about £500. And half a litre. That is a lot of perfume, that’s like a massive jug full. This is not a little dab on the wrists and behind the ears, a splash of aftershave. This is over the top.
Yes, they did used to wash people’s feet as they came into the house, but that was the job of the lowliest servant, not the hostess of the party. And there is only one kind of woman who lets her hair down in mixed company – a prostitute. Mary is as far beyond the reasonable and accepted cultural norms of society as it is possible for her to be. She is completely abandoned in her worship of Jesus, because he is her God. She has seem him raise her brother to life and she is besotted with him. She believes and trusts him and wants to express her love for him in ways that are unrestrained by convention.
I wonder if that ever describes our worship?
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that our worship should be completely unconstrained all the time. Mary’s wasn’t. She didn’t do this every time she met Jesus, she’d never have had enough perfume. It was a very particular set of circumstances that came together to bring this response from Mary. It wasn’t a pattern for normal weekly worship. But I would say that if our worship is never as abandoned and free as Mary’s was on that evening, then we might want to have a think and a pray about why not. We might even want to ask the Holy Spirit to show us more of Jesus’ love for us and to release us to worship with more freedom.
One of the ways the Holy Spirit might do that is by giving us a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jesus in his humanity. By inviting us to see ourselves as Lazarus, rescued from death and given new life by Jesus and now sitting with him and sharing a meal as friends. Because Lazarus’ story is our story. All those of us who acknowledge Jesus as Lord and believe in his name have been rescued from death. We will still go through the physical process of our bodies dying, but death will not be the end. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection we will not die, our eternal life has already begun. Jesus calls us friends, and welcomes us to sit and eat with him, God with us, for us, in us.
As we live that new life, as we grow in friendship with Jesus, so we come to know him better, serve him more faithfully, worship him more passionately and the light of the life that we have been given shines more brightly. And what happened when the people saw the new life that was in Lazarus? Two things. Firstly, some people put their faith in Jesus. Secondly, other people planned to kill him.
The same two things happen to Jesus followers now as we live the new life that Jesus has given us. Firstly people will put their faith in Jesus. It’s not complicated, it’s how it’s meant to work. I know that we don’t see it as much as we want to, and that sometimes it’s difficult to see it at all, but I remain convinced that the most effective way of people coming to faith in Jesus is by our living the new life that Jesus has given us with boldness and authenticity, always being ready to give an answer for the hope that we have in us. As we do that, the second thing is likely to happen, we will face opposition. But that’s OK, because we know that we have a new life that cannot be taken away from us. We do not live for the praise or good opinion or approval of people, but for the glory of our Lord and God, Jesus our Saviour.
He is the ultimate vision, the epiphany, the revelation, the Word of God to the world. It is my vision for my life, for All Saints, for all of us, that we look to him and serve him where he sends us, worship him with our whole hearts, and know him as our deepest friend.