Tag Archives: Light

Sleepers wake: the Advent call to rise from the darkness and be lights in our world

A reflection given by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Advent Sunday, 29 November 2015, as part of a service of lessons and carols for Advent:

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[Click for Audio on Soundcloud]

One of the first classical concerts I ever took part in, as a boy treble attending a German Lutheran High School named for the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, was a liturgical performance of Bach’s famous Advent Cantata, ‘Sleepers wake’ – ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’. We were all dressed in our black and white concert gear, assembled on the choir galleries of the large impressive city centre church, the orchestra at our feet, with the conductor poised to break the silence of the audience with Bach’s wonderful music.

As the violins soared, the trebles called out the solemn cry of the watchman on the city wall of Jerusalem, ‘Sleepers, wake, the bridegroom comes; wake up, all you who sleep in the city of Jerusalem’, we sang. It was an electrifying moment when the director gave us trebles our entry: ‘Wachet auf’, we called in Bach’s unforgettable setting of the timeless words. And the basses, tenors and altos took up our theme, calling the audience to be alert, awake; to listen to the Good News that the long awaited bridegroom had finally arrived.

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The text on which Bach’s famous cantata is based is one of the last parables (or teaching stories) Jesus tells his friends, the disciples (Matthew 25.1-13): Jesus tells of those who kept alert, awake, through the night, who had kept the light going in the middle of darkness, and were able to see when the bridegroom arrived. As they joyfully entered the brightly-lit wedding hall for a midnight feast, those who had let their lights go out remained outside, were left behind in the darkness, Jesus told his friends. And encouraged them, ‘be alert, therefore, for you do not know the time or the hour’ (Matthew 25.12).

We do not know the time or the hour when Jesus Christ will return, joyfully like a bridegroom, to take us out of the many darknesses of our nights into his brightly-lit chambers for a feast of light. For each of us those darknesses may be different, may pose different challenges, represent different fears. For some, those nights of waiting are spent in fear or nightmares – the fear of persecution for their faith or displacement, the nightmare of terror or war; the fear of ill-health or age, the nightmare of depression and anxiety; the fear of redundancy or injury; the nightmare of unemployment, or of no longer being able of to make ends meet. Each of our nights, each of our Advents; looks and feels different.

But in each of these seasons of waiting through the hours of our nights and darknesses, we are encouraged to keep a light burning. Jesus’ story tells us to keep a light burning. A light that will both cast a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and that will keep our eyes alert, wakeful, ready to see the light-filled procession when the bridegroom comes. Jesus’ story tells us to keep our lamps trimmed; drawing on the resources of our faith – our prayers, our intent to love the Lord our God, and our neighbours as ourselves – in order to keep those lights burning through the night.

And Jesus’ story invites us to come together in our waiting; to leave behind the isolation of the darkness and to seek out glimmers of other lights, others who will share with us in our season of waiting. Because where many small lights come together, there the darkness is already disappearing. Jesus’ story invites us to fill the dark hours of our world with our lights, and to do so together, as a community of faith: encouraging one another as we wait for the greatest light of all to come, and extinguish all darkness forever. And as we wait, as a token of that hope, we are each given a lamp, a light, to share and to shine into the darkness, as we await the promised feast when Jesus comes again.

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I loved performing Bach’s music as a child, and am delighted that I still get to sing today, once or twice a year, with the MSO Chorus. I well recall the excitement of that first performance, poised for my entry to sing the joyful song that the darkness now is over, and the bridegroom is here: ‘Wachet auf’, we sang, ‘Sleepers wake’, we sang out; telling all who would hear that those who kept their lights burning through the night were already on their way into the wedding hall, and inviting others to join the joyful feast of the Light that has overcome the darkness, of the Light that illumines even the middle of the darkest night.

The season of Advent is a bit like preparing for a musical performance, like Bach’s ‘Wachet auf’. Rehearsed and ready, in our concert clothes, standing in our places, with music in our hands and the song ready in our heads, watching out for the conductor to signal us to sing. Alert and awake, ready to sing out at the right signal, ready to call others to join the joyful song, ready to call any who will listen to hear that now is the moment to awake, to leave behind the darkness and to enter into the light.

This Advent, I give thanks for the joyful song that promises to call us from darkness to light. I give thanks for the time of preparation, the time when we rehearse that song through our prayers, our reading of the stories that remind us of God’s promise that the darkness will not have the upper hand, when we share our works of hope in a world where there is still so much hopelessness. I give thanks for those who rehearse, who wait, with us, who share their light, their companionship, with us as we wait. And I give thanks for those who lead us in our song, who keep their eyes alert with us, who encourage us to keep our joyful song ready in our hearts – ready to call out: ‘Sleepers, wake: the Lord is here’.

Ⓒ Text and Audio: Andreas Loewe, 2015 

Walking in the light of life: bringing others to Jesus

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, at St Paul’s Cathedral on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22 March 2015:

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In last week’s gospel reading, we heard how Nicodemus, a ‘teacher of Israel’ sought out Jesus at night. Jesus had first come to his attention when he entered the Jerusalem Temple at Passover, and swept away the tables of the money-changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. Fascinated by this sacrilegious intervention, Nicodemus had come to talk with Jesus. Concerned about his status as a Temple leader, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night. As they spoke, Jesus challenged him to shun the darkness that hid his actions, and instead ‘come into the light so that his deeds may be clearly seen’ (John 3.21). And explained to him that the Son of Man would be lifted up so that all would have life, just as Moses lifted up a serpent to ward off death in the wilderness.

We heard how, at the end of the story of Jesus, how Nicodemus stood at the foot of the cross on the eve of another Passover. How he saw Jesus lifted up on a cross in the darkness of the eclipsed sun and moon. How it was there that he came to understand Jesus’ challenge, and recognise Jesus to be the Light and Life of the World. We saw how Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, left behind the certitude of his former beliefs. How he decided to step into a future shaped, not by his status in the temple hierarchy which once had compelled him to seek the anonymity of darkness, but rather by his newly-found faith in Jesus as the Light of the World, whom the darkness would not overcome, and the One who by dying would bring life to the world. How he left behind his former identity and became part of a new community of faith and belonging.

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Today’s gospel reading continues the contrast of darkness and light, death and life. Again, Jesus is in the Temple at Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Again, Jesus had just caused much notoriety by his actions: this time he had been greeted by the people of Jerusalem in a royal progress with palm branches held high. Seated on a donkey, Jesus had made his way across the Kidron valley to the Temple Mount, the people hailing him as their king. This will be the last Passover Jesus celebrates. As he teaches in the Temple precinct, Jesus again challenges his hearers to shun the darkness that already encroaches: ‘walk in the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, Jesus tells them (John 12.36). And promises them, ‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself’ (12.32).

This time, Jesus’ hearers are not only faithful Jews, like Nicodemus, but also outsiders. We read in today’s gospel reading that ‘some Greeks’ came to ‘the festival’ (John 12.21). The ‘Greeks’ who attended the Passover festival were very likely proselytes. Our English word is a literal rendition of the Greek. And that, in turn, is the word used to translate the technical term for ‘resident alien’, used by the ancient equivalent of the immigration office, in Hebrew ‘ger toshav’ (גר תושב). The Greeks, then, were gentiles who, in return for their right to live in or near the land of Israel, have accepted some of the key tenets of the Jewish faith. They do not yet fully belong to the people of Israel, but know of and share their beliefs. They have permanent residency, but are yet to pass their citizenship test.

The ‘Greeks’ encounter Jesus’ followers in the forecourt of the gentiles, and ask to see Jesus: ‘Sir’, they ask Philip, ‘we wish to see Jesus’. John is very specific about who it was that the ‘Greeks’ sought out, isn’t he? He explains the reason for their choice of go-between with the terse comment, ‘Philip was from Bethsaida in Galilee’ (John 12.21). Philip not only bore a Greek name, but was brought up in the cultural melting pot that was ancient Galilee: home to Greek-speakers who had settled there during the Hellenistic colonial days, home to Roman occupying forces such as that commanded by the centurion who would seek Jesus out to heal his slave, home to ordinary Jewish people, who tilled the land, fished the lake and, like Jesus and his father Joseph, built the edifices that made up the Greco-Roman administrative centres, or the Jewish cities.

Philip was a citizen of two worlds: a Jewish world and a Greek world. He was an ideal go-between for the Greeks who wanted to see and speak with the man who, only a day earlier, had been hailed by the citizens of Jerusalem as ‘king of Israel’ in his solemn procession to the Temple mount. Philip in turn sought out Andrew, another disciple bearing a Greek name – Andreas – and both went and told Jesus that here were people who had come to hear him.

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Jesus does not acknowledge the strangers who had gone to so much trouble to see him. John doesn’t even tell us whether Jesus had even seen them. Instead, Jesus answers his two disciples that ‘now’ – at the moment that the gentiles from Galilee had sought him out – ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (John 12.23). Jesus had spoken of that hour before, and the arrival of his gentile hearers indicated to Jesus that his ‘hour’ had now come.

Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ ‘hour’ is a decisive moment in which barriers are broken. The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus breaks cultural barriers by sharing a drink of water with a Samaritan woman, and telling her, ‘the hour is now here when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, but … worship the Father in spirit and truth’ (John 4.21-23). The ‘hour’ is there when Jesus shatters Jewish religious expectations, by assuring them that it was he who would break the final barrier of death: ‘the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (John 5.29).

Hour by hour, then, the story of the cross unfolds until, at last, the hour comes for Jesus to be arrested, condemned to die, and be crucified. Hour by hour, decisive moment after decisive moment: the Samaritans are brought in to worship God in spirit and truth; the Jews challenged in their beliefs about death and life, darkness and light – both openly and secretly; and now the gentiles are brought near: ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be to be glorified’ (John 12.23). The hour of completion was near as, moment by moment, the ancient and the new people of God were brought together to meet, hear and be deeply perturbed by the One who would call them to a new life altogether.

Not only those brought to Jesus were perturbed by their participation in those crucial moments, their living through these ‘hours’. Jesus himself was ‘deeply troubled in his soul’ at the realisation that ‘now’ was the moment that would – ultimately – lead to that other ‘hour’ (John 12.27). The hour when ‘all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation’ (John 5.28). That ‘now’ was the moment that would begin to set in train the inescapable process to save all people from condemnation, ‘for the Son of Man to be lifted up … that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3.14b-16).

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‘Now’, then, was the hour, the moment in which Jesus would begin to be glorified by being lifted on a cross to die. A deeply troubling kind of glory, John’s glory. For Jesus tells his hearers that it is only by dying that he can bring life eternal, just as a harvest of wheat is brought forth only from buried grains; and that it is only by dying to this world, that they themselves will ‘keep their lives for eternal life’ (John 12.26). And as he challenges Jews and gentiles to strive for that new life, he pours out his own humanity in prayer: ‘what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. “Father, glorify your name”.’ (John 12.27-28). As he denies his own life so that others may share life, and as he bends his own will in obedience to God’s, God speaks to him of another glory – ‘the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ – as God the Father affirms, ‘I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again’ (John 12.28).

The glory of being God’s only Son, ‘close to the Father’s heart’, had been first made known when ‘the Word became flesh to dwell among us’ (John 1.14). Soon it will be made known again, ‘when [he is] lifted up from the earth, to draw all people to [himself]’ (John 12.31). For now, there remain the Father’s words of glorification, spoken and heard by those who believe, or perceived as thunderous noise by those who do not yet have ears to hear. For now, another hour has passed on the way to the cross: some Greeks have been added to the growing group of believers that now include Samaritans, Jews and gentiles. And all of them are the recipients of Jesus’ challenge, to ‘walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you’, and to ‘believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.36).

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What, then, is our part in this story of transformation?

I think that our part is two-fold.

First of all, we are called to be witnesses to the story of Jesus. People who understand and believe that glory can mean suffering, and death does not always mean the end of life. People who believe that faith in Jesus means changing our lives, dying to the life of this world, and serving and following Jesus, so that ‘where I am there my followers may be also’ (John 12.26). People who believe that Jesus was glorified in his death, and that he died to draw all people to himself, died that we may not be condemned but instead be granted eternal life.

Secondly, we are called to become people who bring others to Jesus. People like Philip and Andrew, who have ‘dual citizenship’, who know what it means to be both on the inside and what it may be like for those still on the outside. People who, like Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, like the Greeks and the women gathered at the foot of the cross, have ourselves experienced the ‘hour’ in which Jesus was shown forth as he really was – the Son of God who tore down the barriers that separate and segregate, that keep people apart from people, and people apart from God. People whose own lives have been radically changed, and who now bring others to Jesus so that their lives may also change.

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Jesus said to them: ‘The light is with you for a little longer. … While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light’ (John 12.35-36).

The light to lighten all nations: ‘an obstacle in its original place’

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne on the 145th Anniversary of the Foundation of St Philip’s Church Cowes, Phillip Island, 1 February 2015, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple:

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On Monday, 25 February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported: ‘Cowes Church Hall Dedicated – Vicar mixed the Concrete – Fate of the Archbishop’s doorstep’ (The Argus, Monday 25 February 1935, p. 3). Completed to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary-year of your church, your church hall was a labour of love: volunteers dug the foundations, your then vicar, the Revd William McAully Robertson, drew the plans and mixed the concrete, and the seventh Dean of Melbourne and Archbishop, Frederick Waldegrave Head, laid the doorstep, as the works commenced.

It was the Archbishop’s doorstep that proved to be both ‘the stone that the builders rejected’ (Matthew 21.42) and a ‘stumbling block to many’ (1 Corinthians 1.23) – quite literally: as the Hall was dedicated, the vicar confessed that the stone the Archbishop had laid as an entrance stone now supported the kitchen sink: ‘it had proved to be an obstacle in its original place’, the vicar explained.

Our lessons today (Malachi 3:1-4,Hebrews 2:14-18Luke 2:22-40) remind us that our faith is not always a bright ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people’, but that it sometimes can be a stumbling block, can be ‘a sign that will be opposed’, as our Gospel reading puts it (Luke 2.32, 34). They encourage us to place our hope in the One who was rejected by many, Jesus Christ, and to become ambassadors of that hope. And they give us the example of two faithful people, Simeon and Anna, as signs of that longing, and proclamation.

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’, Simeon prays holding the infant Jesus in his arms, we heard in our Gospel reading (Luke 2.19). Simeon has become old while waiting for the promised Saviour. Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the certain knowledge that the Saviour has come among his people. Simeon, we read in our Gospel reading, was looking forward to ‘the consolation of Israel’ Luke 2.25). The commentators tell us that this term was used to describe the coming of the Messiah, picking up the prophet Isaiah’s rallying cry to the exiled people of God in Babylon: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Simeon had spent a lifetime longing for that promised hope. Now at last salvation is at hand, not only for his own people, but for all nations who seek to share in the hope of the Messiah. Now, at last, he can go home to God, can ‘depart in peace’.

If I have suggested an image of Simeon as a fully contented man with a message that brings nothing but comfort then, I am afraid, I have only described one side of the man. For Simeon knew well about how faith, like your erstwhile Church Hall doorstep, can be a stumbling block; how its challenging message may give offence, can feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’. His prophetic words, addressed to Mary and Joseph, then, temper his own consolation and desire to depart in peace, with a distinctive shadow of darkness.

Where the prophets foretold how God would set free his people by an act of power—a physical act of liberation—Simeon foresees an altogether different fate for Israel: not so much a sunlit highway for the Lord, prepared by his faithful messenger, but rather more a valley of the shadow of death. The end may yet be glorious, but the path there will be a Via Dolorosa, a way of suffering and a crown of thorns. The doom of Israel is foretold in this Infant, born to be a crucified King. While Simeon speaks of light and glory, he also points to ‘the time of cords and scourges and lamentation’.

‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’, Simeon proclaims as he blessed Mary and Joseph (Luke 2.34). The first stumbling block for Simeon’s contemporaries surely is that the ‘many’ in Israel are both the chosen people as well as the ‘nations’, the gentiles, whom the child in the prophet’s arms will call to the radiant light of God’s goodness. If the prophet’s words that infant’s life is inextricably tied up with the fate of nations and people are unsettling, feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’, then his blessing for the child’s mother is even less comforting: the lance, thrust into her Son’s lifeless side on Calvary, will be as if a sword would pierce her soul, too.

Simeon’s prophecy is mirrored in our reading from the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2.14-18). There the promised Messiah, whom we today see presented to the Lord as an infant, is shown to be the last High Priest of Israel who, will sacrifice himself for our sake: ‘so that through death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2.14-5). The destiny of Mary’s child’s, today’s epistle reading makes clear, is to be the final offering to be sacrificed in the Temple, the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ as well as to be the last, the ‘merciful and faithful, high priest in the service of God’ (Hebrews 2.17).

Jesus’ offering in the temple—both as an infant in Simeon’s arms, and as the last High Priest of Israel on the cross—initiates a new relationship with God, today’s festival makes clear. The stumbling blocks of Simeon’s prophecy lie not only in naming the child in his arms as the promised Messiah, but by proclaiming, in the sacred precincts of the Jerusalem Temple, that here was the final High Priest who would do away with sacrifices for sin forever, the One who would open the Temple to all nations in order to be ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ (Luke 2.32); words that surely would have been offensive to any believing Temple worshipper, would have been an ‘obstacle in its original place’.

In the midst of the Temple, as Jesus is presented to the Lord, Simeon prophecies that the Temple’s very purpose will come to an end: the child himself will be the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ our epistle speaks about (Hebrews 2.17). And indeed, the epistle to the Hebrew reminds us later that, at the moment the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two, at the moment at which Jesus dies on the cross, the relationship between God and his people had been fundamentally redefined.

Here, then, is not only a firstborn infant come to be dedicated to God, but a rightful High Priest who takes his place in the Temple; a self-understanding that Jesus himself shares from the beginning when he tells his worried parents a few verses after this morning’s Gospel reading, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2.49). The prophecy that the child presented by Simeon was a High Priest would have been startling enough. The fact that, in the midst of the Temple, he is proclaimed Messiah to the gentiles, who will provide his own sacrifice in his own body on a cross, and that by offering himself will do away with the need for sin offerings, with the need for a Temple altogether, is what makes Simeon’s prophecy so offensive, such a stumbling block to the faithful.

All is changed as the infant is presented in the Temple. The very reason for faith is radically redefined by Simeon’s prophecy: that here is the One who will, by his own offering of himself on the darkest of all days, Good Friday, put an end to the darkness of sin and the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death altogether. That here is the One, who by his glorious resurrection on Easter Day, will in his own risen body show forth the light of new hope, of sins forgiven and lives restored—the light of eternal life—to all those who trust the words of Simeon, that the infant in his arms is indeed, ‘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’ (Luke 2.30-32).

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As we give thanks for 145 years of faithful witness in this place, I invite you to hear again the words of Simeon’s song and discern through them God’s radical work of transformation among his people throughout the ages: a work that turns our preconceptions upside down; a work that transforms people and communities; a work that seeks to shed forth the radiant light of resurrection into the dark places of our world where people long for assurance and hope.

As we give thanks for the past, I pray that may God richly bless you in your future ministry: may your future show forth the same unity of spirit and action that led to the creation of your church and hall—where priest and people created together the place and shape of your ministry.And may your future be characterised by the same imagination and perseverance that, when faced with a stumbling block doorstep, saw in it not a ‘stone to be rejected’ but a foundation for a new, and essential kitchen, and a new function and ministry altogether.

And so, as we approach this crossroads of the church’s year, as Lent draws near, as our gaze shifts from the miracle of the manger to the triumph over the tomb, it is my prayer for you and me, that God will continue to touch our lives, so that we may become people who know in our own lives the mystery that those who come share the Infant’s bonds and burial, shall also be made partakers of his resurrection, and make that message known in our own generation, to all who long for the ‘light to lighten the nations’ today. Amen.

St Philip’s Cowes Photography: nipper30