A LIGHT TO THE NATIONS – A sermon preached in Winchester Cathedral on Sunday, January 17th, 3.30p.m.


Preacher: Canon Gary Philbrick, Area Dean of Christchurch, and Priest-in-Charge of the Avon Valley Partnership

 Scripture Reference: Isaiah 49:6

Ps 145:1-13

Isaiah 49:1-7

Acts 16:11-15

O God, who commanded light to shine out of darkness, shine in our hearts to bring us to the knowledge of your glory shining in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

You may have heard this before – it was a favourite story of the great writer and spiritual teacher, Henri Nouwen, who died in 1996.

A rabbi once asked his students: ‘How can we determine the hour of dawn, when the night ends and the day begins?’ One of the students suggested: ‘When from a distance you can distinguish between a dog and a sheep?’ ‘No’, the rabbi answered. ‘Is it when one can distinguish between a fig tree and a grapevine?’ asked a second student. ‘No’, said the rabbi. ‘Please tell us the answer then’, begged the students. The Rabbi said, ‘It is when you can look into the face of another human being and you have enough light in you to recognize your brother or your sister. Until then it is night, and darkness is still with us’ [From: “Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith” by Henri Nouwen with Michael J Christensen and Rebecca J Laird, 2011, adapted].

The light dawns when we can look into the face of another, and recognise that person as a sister or brother.

70 years ago at this time, the first-ever meeting of the United Nations General Assembly and on this day, the first-ever meeting of the Security Council, were taking place at the Methodist Central Hall in London.

Out of the embers of the Second World War, and as a successor to the League of Nations, the UN Charter had been agreed the previous year at the San Francisco Conference, and begins:


  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.

It’s worth reading the whole preamble if you have time.

In effect, the United Nations was formed so that, across the world, we could look into the face of another, and recognise that person as a sister or brother.

That’s an aspiration which has clearly not always been fulfilled over the past seventy years, but one which it is still worth holding on to and striving for.

Just after Christmas the Independent Newspaper published an article called ‘11 ways the world got better in 2015’ [27/XII/15 – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/11-ways-the-world-got-better-in-2015-a6787371.html]. For those of us fed on an unremitting diet of distressing news, it was an extraordinary ray of hope. Often through the support of the United Nations, there were huge improvements in universal education, combatting extreme poverty, connection to the internet, micro finance, Aids, malaria, polio, starvation, clean water, child mortality and, perhaps, after the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, a tipping point in the fight against climate change.

In many different ways, people have looked into the face of another, and recognised that person as a sister or brother.

Was the formation of the United Nations a movement of the Holy Spirit across the face of the waters [Gen 1:2]? Are all the ways in which the world got better in 2015 signs of the Kingdom of God breaking in to a sinful and fallen world [Luke 4:18-19]? Where is the Gospel in all of this?

The passage we heard from Isaiah 49 as our first reading this afternoon is a highly striking one – and one which should give us cause to look upwards from our own small circles and our own concerns, and outwards to a world in need, and to all of our sisters and brothers.

Second Isaiah, usually thought to be writing in the sixth century BC, at an incredibly difficult time for the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon – Isaiah affirms their calling as the people of God: ‘Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me’ [Isaiah 49:1]. Out of all the nations, God called Israel to be his people. The mystery of election! Why choose these people? And yet, he did. The chosen people, called by God, and now in exile – no wonder the Prophet writes, ‘I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing [Is 49:4].

In this darkest hour of the Exile, the temptation must surely have been to concentrate on the most important things, the matters nearest to hand, what was most urgent – returning to the Promised Land of Israel, getting away from this unhappy exile in Babylon.

But God, speaking through the Prophet, has other ideas. He says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ [Is 49:6].

Yes, there will be a restoration of Israel, the tribes of Jacob will be raised up – but that is not the main task for the people of Israel. The main task is to be a light to the nations, that salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

As Christians, we are not only called to ‘work out our own salvation with fear and trembling’ [Phil 2:12], but we are even more importantly called to be lights in the world [Matt 6:14], salt for the earth [Matt 6:13], yeast for the Kingdom of God [Matt 13:33]. Our calling is always to look upwards and outwards from our own concerns, our own needs, to see the needs of our brothers and sisters, and to be ‘a light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth’.

Last Sunday evening I was at the Licensing of a colleague in one of the Churches of Christchurch Deanery where I serve, and was struck afresh by another Preamble – that of the legal declarations and affirmations required of every priest when licensed by the Bishop to a new post in the Church.

The Church of England is part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation [The Licensing Service].

… Which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

It’s not been an easy week for the global Anglican Church, with the meeting of the 39 Primates of the Anglian Communion. At the beginning of the week, schism was forecast on the news. By Friday that seemed to have been averted, with the leaking of a communique, in effect suspending the American Episcopal Church from the representing the Anglican Communion on ecumenical bodies, or taking part in decision making on issues of doctrine or polity. It has clearly been a difficult meeting, and perhaps this was the only way of avoiding a split in the Church – although, rather a drastic one.

Amongst the Primates, and across the Churches of the Communion, there are very different interpretations of the meaning of ‘proclaiming the faith afresh in each generation’.

And there would also be very different interpretations of the verse from Isaiah I have been reflecting on this afternoon – ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’.

Just as the Israelites in exile were struggling with their immediate need to return from exile, to go back to the Promised Land, and yet were challenged by God to look beyond those immediate needs to the needs of the wider world, so I think we are being challenged to look beyond those issues which challenge us within and between the Churches, and focus on the needs of the wider world.

The Gospel can make a real difference to the lives of those near and far; many Christians have been involved in those 11 ways in which the world got better in 2015; Christians, as well as those of other faiths and none, work within the remit of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter, seventy years after it was first proclaimed; and all of us are called to be lights in the world, for ‘It is when [we] can look into the face of another human being and have enough light in [us] to recognize [our] brother or sister’ that we will fulfil our calling to be ‘a light to the nations’. AMEN.

Sermon preached at Evensong, Epiphany 2, St Mary’s Fordingbridge

The theme today is very much about gifts and relationships. This morning the gospel was about the wedding at Cana in Galilee when the wine ran out and Jesus produced a miracle – not I might add according to his own wishes but that of his mother, Mary. She knew who he was and what he was capable of but maybe she had slightly misunderstood when he would use his gifts. They have a bit of a difficult conversation where Mary says, it’s ok my boy can fix this” and Jesus says to her “oh mum, not now, not here”, but he realises he has to help so he engineers a situation where the only people who know what is secret is are his few friends and the servants who won’t be believed whatever they say. This morning’s epistle also discussed the varying talents give to us and that we should use them wisely. But the theme of both passages was about relationships. Jesus did what his mother asked because he loved her and he used the situation to show his disciples a bit more of himself before they all left the wedding and it says that he “revealed his glory to them”. I’m sure the miracle he had performed helped them to believe. So Jesus turned a difficult situation into a win-win for everyone although I suspect Mary got a bit of a telling off later.
This evening Paul is still talking about the gifts we are given and the need to use them in relationship with one another to promote the Gospel and to achieve his work, showing the world that the Christian way is service. Paul also tells us that sometimes we may need to tell the world how it is and that may make us unpopular, but we must stand up for what is right. Samuel learned this lesson in our first reading. Eli seems to be a mixture of wisdom and stupidity, he soon realises it is calling out to Samuel and tells him what to do, but Eli has not done the thing he knows he should do – stop his sons’ evil talk, and Samuel has to repeat this to Eli, the man whose roof he lives under, and also that Eli’s family will be cursed for ever. I wouldn’t have wanted to be Samuel. Eli however realises the truth when it is given to him straight and he accepts what will be. It is clear that Samuel has the gift of prophesy and God uses him this way from this point onwards.
Relationships are easy when everything is ok but sometimes it is really hard to tell someone the truth they need to hear because we appear to be judging them and they may not thank us for it, and that relationship may suffer. Clearly some people are better at this than others, and so in our Christian context I guess we should always try to ensure the right person has that conversation, perhaps because they are known for wisdom or we know the person who has to hear trusts them, “use your talents as you have been given them.” I work with some very evangelical Christians who I often think tell it rather too straight which upsets people more than necessary and they simply justify it by saying “that’s what I have been told to do” forgetting they have also been told to have compassion as well.
Where this morning and this evening diverge is about this issue of telling the difficult truth. Being prepared to expose the elephant in the room and to deal with it. The Anglican bishops have been meeting over the last few days and one of the subjects they have to deal with is how the Anglican Communion deals with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender situation, just one of a number of elephants following on from one another, women priests, women bishops and now single sex marriage.

So what should our response be? It is easy to quote the bible and say, it is there in black and white – marriage is about a man and a woman and any other relationship whether married or not is not in accordance with the Christian view. But at the same time those very same passages and books do not condemn slavery or treating women as chattels of men. I’m not sure any of us in our culture would continue to support either of those two issues, yet in Jesus time and both before and after, they were acceptable.
And that is why reconciling an evolving life with a book whose words are set in aspic is an issue. So we then have to look at how we treat interpretation. Some will argue that the bible is true in every word and some will say that stories are there to explain situations. Was the world created in 7 days or has it evolved over billions of years, some will argue “yes” to one and “no” to the other and others will have the opposite view. For me I have to say it is academic, the point is God created the world and all that is in it. I’m also quite happy to accept that the sea creature that swallowed Jonah could have been a complete one off created by God for the purpose.
In 200 years all sorts of things have happened, take a simple one – lifespans, when the prayer book was written and “til death do us part” was introduced into the wedding service, many would only live into their thirties or forties. Apparently divorce is now quite significant in the over 60s could that be partially because 400 years ago no one ever assumed two people would have to live together for maybe 60 or even 70 years? Divorce and remarriage in churches is now accepted. I’m not arguing that it is right or wrong, I am simply saying that the church has modified its view. I well remember when Michael Barratt, the Nationwide presenter took over presenting Songs of Praise and he was divorced. I recall my mother threatening to never watch Songs of Praise again, but of course she did and I suspect if she was still alive as she would be under 80, she would now accept that divorce happens and not deny someone happiness following a church wedding.
So given the decision of the Anglican Primates this week to suspend the abilities of the American Episcopalian Church to make its own decisions for three years because they allow single sex marriage in their churches – what do we think we should say. The primates have not expelled them; their statement simply says there is to be a working party to work out what to do next. So at the moment it appears there is more concern that the American church has done something on its own than the actual act itself because no one is seeking to stop them. And in that same statement the church apologises for the hurt it has cause to people who don’t fit the biblical norm.
Is the solution inevitable – does the church change its stance and allow everyone equal rights or does it say, “no this is a line we will not cross”. It seems to me that it has to do one or the other – another fudge like women bishops won’t do.
Should we be worried about being out of step with the world or should we move with it, do we see ourselves as a moral compass or a church of compassion that reaches and welcomes everyone. As far as I’m concerned it is quite difficult to say we love you as you are and then add a “but”. Clearly someone’s sexuality isn’t an illness or something they have brought on themselves. As an example, we met someone at the Trust about 3 years ago, she was on drugs, she was in a bad place, she had no money and no food. Some organisations would have turned her away but we exercised some compassion and we fed her despite the fact she had money but it was going to feed her habit because she wanted to get clean. But it was a risk, she might have just been saying that to get some food she could sell to buy more drugs. So we took the chance, and in time she became a volunteer and then we had a job going she was qualified to do and she applied and we appointed her. She needed some dentistry as drug addicts often do and so her appearance wasn’t great and she was now going to meet people, but over time as she conquered her habit, which involved us having to give her time off to get her methadone, she started to make progress. She is now drug free, has had the dentistry done and has just been able to buy a half decent car to replace the wreck she used to drive. We were able to intervene, take a risk, show some compassion, and turn a life around. But in matters of sexuality that isn’t possible, we either have to accept or not, and if we accept I really don’t think we can set boundaries for that acceptance.
I don’t envy our leaders at all. But I do think that we have to start from a point where we seek to build relationships and encourage people’s talents and let God be the judge. And finally we need to decide if the Bible is an instruction book we can never change or a rule of life which allows interpretation and change as a living thing.

Sermon preached at St Giles’ Godshill and St Mary’s Hale, the wedding at Cana

Most sermons I have heard relating to the wedding at Cana, indeed most I have preached relate to the actual miracle itself but this morning I want to concentrate on relationships. There are a number of relationships in this passage, Jesus to his mother Mary, Mary to the servants, Jesus to the servants, the servants to the steward and then the steward to the groom, and finally Jesus and the disciples and his brothers. Each relationship makes the story work.
It doesn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts really, or at least it appears not to. Mary notices the wine has run out and knowing what she does about Jesus, she decides he has to do something. This appears to be one of those conversations I and my mother might have had when she was embarrassed by something and felt I had the power to resolve it and would say “don’t just stand there, do something!” If I had replied “why me, you do something” she would have simply got even more cross with me. Mary on the other hand just says to the servants “do as he tells you”. This implies to me that she knew what he was capable of already, that somewhere in the last 30 years they had spoken about what was to come. Could it be that Mary had jumped the gun? For Jesus replies “don’t tell me what to do, it isn’t time yet”.
I had been the servants and anyone else standing nearby I would have tried to sink into the background lest I should be witness to an embarrassing confrontation. But fortunately for everyone Jesus bites his tongue and realises he has to do something. But his point is – I’m not doing this publicly because this is not the given point for me to reveal who I am, I suspect for one thing he didn’t want to upstage the event. It’s a bit like the Queen turning up at your birthday party and becoming the centre of attention rather than the person with the birthday. Proclaiming “I’m the Messiah” wasn’t the thing to do here, and in any case most of the guests were very merry already and I suspect they would have replied “yeah, right and I’m the Emperor of Rome” and laughed in his face.

Mary obviously has insight because even after this exchange she says to the servants “do as he says”. So Jesus says, ok, fill up those empty jars with water and they do – now they aren’t his servants so why do they take notice – the must feel something about him. Then he says – right go to the steward and get him to taste the water. If I was one of the servants at this point I think I might be thinking out my life plan from here – “So Ok, I filled the jars, fine, but now you want me to take a cup of the water to the boss and get him to taste it, are you serious, he will have me strung up for insubordination, insolence and stupidity – not me mate – you take it to him”. Jesus of course doesn’t want to do that because he doesn’t wish to be “outed” as the miracle worker. But again the servants do as they are told – maybe Mary has influence over them – it has been suggested it was a family wedding, but we don’t know that. So why did they do as they were told?

So the steward then proclaims this to be the finest Chateau Lafite he has ever tasted and the servants no doubt sigh a huge sigh of relief. The steward then calls out, presumably publicly, to the bridegroom and says, “hey man, you have style, this van rouge is amazing – where did you get it from?”

We don’t find out what the bridegroom said in reply, and maybe that’s the point, the bridegroom has no idea what has happened and nor have the guests, the only ones who know are the servants and they have no ability to tell the gathering what has really happened. But of course the disciples have seen what he has done and this caused them to believe in him. It then says that they left as a group with Jesus and Mary and went to Capernaum where they stayed for a few days.

So what can we learn from this, well, even if Jesus was annoyed with Mary he respected her and found a way to do as he was told without compromising himself – the option would have been that embarrassing row. So they clearly had a good understanding of each other which is why I suggested earlier that Mary was fully aware of Jesus’ mission on earth, but he was telling her, I’m not here to fix social disasters, I’m here to save the world. Which is why he comes up with this plan which will solve the problem but not expose him to the world. Who knows, maybe Mary knew the disciples needed a nudge to understand; maybe she engineered this seeing the opportunity. Jesus clearly cared for the servants because if the steward had tasted water they would have been for the chop and they understood that it would be ok. They trusted in him. As a by-product the steward and the groom’s relationship also flourishes and everyone else just has a great time.

But of course the real relationship that is built is between Jesus and the disciples with whom the penny drops a little bit further, if not yet all the way, and they all go off for some peace and quiet together.
So what on earth has this to do with the epistle which talks about us all having different gifts. There is probably a much more theological overlap than the one I’m going to consider, but for me it is quite simple. Paul tells us we are all different and we can all do different things. You’d be much better trusting Bill Templeton in a balloon than me for example, as I have absolutely no idea how to pilot a balloon. Mary, Barry and Alice both have amazing talent with music and again, you wouldn’t want me accompanying you.
And the point Jesus was making was simply this – use your gifts for their best purpose. If Barry only ever played the piano in a soundproof room they joy he could bring would be lost to everyone but himself. So he says to Mary – yes I can do this but that’s not what I came for. I have been given something really precious and it wasn’t intended to make me the local off-licence, it has been given to me to do my father’s work here on earth.

And the challenge to us all – use your talents for the greater good. I know a number of musicians who have wonderful talents but are too shy to use them. I know people who have real wisdom but who cannot bring themselves to stand in front of others to impart it. Our gifts are from God and we should use them to his use. And if you are sitting there thinking “I don’t have any special talents” I suggest to you that you do – they don’t have to be spectacular. You may have the ability to listen or to comfort; you may do something quite un-noticed – Tony putting the heating on at Woodgreen – we all benefit from his talent for remembering to do it.

And I’m going to finish by revisiting the end of the Gospel – then they all went away for a few days – and it was only then that Jesus revealed his glory to them, in the private space they had created and I suspect he told them, I’m not here to be hailed as a great king, I’m here to serve in any way my gift can be used. We do well to follow that example now and again – to go off together and discover more about our relationships, who we are, what we can do, and then use them to work out God’s purposes.

Jesus took the humdrum of life – a wine crisis, he turned it into something beautiful and that enhanced the experience of all who were there. He added flavour, fragrance, strength and beauty to situations which benefitted those he touched greatly. In relationship together we can do the same in his name. Amen.