Sermon by Charles King, Michaelmas, 26 September 2021
Readings: Genesis 28:11-18; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
It’s a curious thing, preaching yourself out of a job. And I have to say, I hope I don’t find myself doing it too frequently! But that is part of my task today – and I’ve known it in the back of my mind ever since I began here. Because this first post after ordination is necessarily time-limited. Three and a bit years, and then there’s a new chapter. For my wife, Anke, and Hannah, that’s now to Knebworth. It’s kind of in the north – well, North Herts at least – and there’ll be a new beginning. So although the phrase ‘beginnings and endings’ trips off our tongue most happily, just at the moment, the words are really the other way round in my mind: ‘endings and beginnings’. And as much new beginnings as endings, as that’s what I think our readings point to today; and it’s what we’re doing when later in the service we welcome Charlotte into the life of the church in baptism.
So in Maria von Trapp’s immortal words, “Back to the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start.” Whilst I was training at College, our church was St Peter’s, here in St Albans, and of all the parishes we could have ended up in across Beds, Herts, Luton and Barnet, I don’t think we ever thought my curacy – funny Church of England language for your first post – would be in the next-door parish, just down the road. The warmth and love with which you welcomed me and Anke, and then Hannah, when she came along shortly after, was absolutely tangible. For all this, a huge thank you from us all.
It’s a time for training, ongoing learning as we continue to practise and reflect on all the things that we were taught. Of getting things wrong – and rejoicing when they go well! But also growing, and seeing God at work in so many different settings: in homes; the classroom; the pub; animal services as well as great cathedral celebrations like confirmations. To have the privilege of sharing in life moments; at baptisms, funerals or at weddings; and it is especially lovely to have Richard and Alexandra here today with Charlotte, as theirs was the first wedding I took; and it was wonderful to baptise Charlotte’s older sister Elodie as well. In 2019 to be able to preside at the Eucharist for the first time as a priest, to lead us together as we gather around Christ’s table with one another, celebrating his risen presence with us.
There was in the middle of all this a small interruption. Certainly, ministry in a time of pandemic had not been a mainstream subject for would-be vicars at College. Perhaps it will now. But in some senses, it doesn’t need to be. Yes, as in so many different areas of life, the church has had to reimagine how to do certain things: amongst others, we’ve had a well-deserved prompt to get on with technology, and we’ve had to pace ourselves, because it’s not always been easy.
But at the heart nothing changes. Our faith as Christians gives us the confidence to know that we do need one another; that despite HGV driver shortages Christmas will and can never be cancelled. The fundamentals remain the same. God doesn’t go away, even though it might seem to us as if he’s sometimes quite distant. And if that’s ever been your experience, then may I join you? I’ll put my own hand up and confess that occasionally I’ve felt that, too. I think it’s just part of faith, of being Christian. But despite all of this, I know that the Lord is always with us. In Jacob’s dream, in that first reading from Genesis 28, Jacob is to know the Lord’s presence with him always: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, […] I will not leave you.” (v15). If Jacob ever thought that God was too far away or distant, then this dream is a reminder that he’s very much present: “Surely the Lord is in this place,” Jacob says “ – and I did not know it!” (v16).
Jacob was on his travels, and a whole host of new beginnings awaited him. But as he journeys, we see him grasping God’s promise to him, working out the implications, if you like. Working out the implications of those words, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, […] I will not leave you.” On the back of this, later in vv20-22, Jacob makes a vow to serve God, and that will mean serving him in all his endings and beginnings, but he does so quite because he knows God’s love and care for him first.
In our Gospel reading from John, I think something similar is going on. We’re launched right into the middle of a scene with Jesus, Philip and Nathanael. But focus for a moment on Nathanael. Jesus speaks of him, but Nathanael’s confused. “Where did you come to know me?” he asks. “I saw you first,” replies Jesus. It’s like, “I’ve spotted you, and I’ve got your back.” And then begins a whole series of new discoveries for Nathanael. You sense the excitement when Jesus says, “You will see greater things than these.” It speaks of new visions, new opportunities, of heaven touching earth. This is what new beginnings with Jesus are like.
Today is Michaelmas, St Michael’s Day, the patronal festival celebrating the saint to whom this very church is dedicated. In fact, St Michael is the third most popular dedication in this country after St Mary and St Peter. In Marks & Spencer’s, for 70 years his name was used on a line of clothing to sell underpants and other garments. Michaelmas is associated with daisies, pies and geese. In the Book of Revelation, there’s that extraordinary picture of Michael who slays the dragon – the same Michael who in Daniel chapter 10 is described as the special defender of Israel, of God’s people. He’s a chief prince, a pastor, a protector, reminding us of God’s love for us first. But as Revelation shows us, as the old order comes to an end, Michael is there as the new begins. And so it’s entirely fitting that we should be baptising Charlotte on this day – with all the rich imagery of being born again in the water of baptism, of turning from darkness to light, of a new beginning in faith.
I’ve had a fabulous time as your curate in this parish, both here at St Michael’s and St Mary’s. It’s been a huge privilege to serve here. Thank you to you all from the bottom of my heart for your prayer, support, and simply being there. But behind it all, and wherever any new beginnings take us, is God, a loving God, who as our heavenly Father, can say “I am with you,” because I have seen you first; behind it all is a God, who in Jesus can say, “I am with you,” because I have seen you first; behind it all is a God who through the Holy Spirit can say, “I am with you,” because I have seen you first. Amen.