Candlemas: "Groundhog Day"

The Revd Robin Sims-Williams

Happy Groundhog day!

While the world waits on the forecast of a groundhog in Pennsylvania to determine if Spring is coming early you have all risked the winter weather and joined us at St John’s - well done. I wonder if Phil doesn’t see his shadow, and therefore Spring is coming early, what things you will go home and do this afternoon? Will you be preparing your bathers ready for a summer of sunbathing in Hyde Park, or going through your summer wardrobe in hopes of another warm one.

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year, but February is the time when I can recall reconsidering them in the past. Like the year I had decided to go for a morning run three days a week. By the beginning of February I was renegotiating with myself, trying to convince myself that if I could at least manage one morning run a week I might build up to the three runs when the weather was better. But then how was I going to get fit enough to manage the one run a week.

In the last days of 2013 I was listening to radio 4 and the presenter asked whichever commentator he had on the programme that day if he would have any new year’s resolutions. The commentator responded that he didn’t make New Year’s resolutions, they were for people who needed an event to motivate them to do the thing they wanted to do. If somebody were motivated to do something they should get on and do it, not wait for a New Year to change their way of life. But maybe we are all waiting for something.

In today’s Gospel we find Simeon. A man who was apparently waiting for Christ before his life would be complete. We don’t know much about him, we might assume he is of old age - like Anna, whose story we also hear about, or perhaps he is suffering, or perhaps he is desperate to be released from the life of duty he was living, serving in the temple. Perhaps we are all waiting for something before we can be released from the limits of our life. Perhaps like I was, unsatisfied with my fitness, but not convinced I was fit enough to get into better shape. Or perhaps trapped by mortgage payments or debts, unable to risk a change in career. I first considered becoming a priest when I was 15, but I loved maths and science, that was where I excelled. So I studied Engineering and became an engineer. It was the right thing for me and I loved it. I had and have no regrets about that. Sure the idea that I might enter the Church was there, but it wasn’t time for it yet. I became ambitious - keen to take responsibility for some of our equipment and then an aircraft system and a team of engineers… I was lucky that the business gave me great opportunities. I was hoping to ‘succeed’, whatever that meant. What about the priest thing, the church - that could wait until I’d succeeded - still I’m not sure what that was going to look like.

The story gets a bit complicated, at some point Helen started asking me difficult questions, and if I felt like the Church was where I was heading, why I hadn’t actually spoken to anybody about it. A bit like the not feeling in good enough shape to do the things needed to get yourself into shape, I doubted my understanding of Christianity, I’d never studied theology. I doubted my level of conviction - after all I was a wishy washy liberal. It’s easy to convince yourself that you need to change something else before you can take a giant leap.

In society we might convince ourselves that we need to get through the economic downturn before we can tackle other needs in society, to respond to needs abroad, or to respond to the needs of others here at home. We might decide not to have children until we are ready to be parents, or to get married until we are ready to settle down and we can afford it. We are all waiting for something.

In Advent we reminded ourselves that on one level we are continuing to wait for the coming of God’s Kingdom for the consolation and salvation of all people. But Christmas and this period of Epiphany are there to remind us that that Kingdom has broken into the world. That our hope for that consolation, that salvation, is a kind of hope which comes with a level of certainty and which starts now.

For the Israelites this consolation, this salvation was not simply a hope that Simeon would be released from his life. It was a hope that they could be restored to God permanently, because if that happened, they could start living up to their side of the covenant. Through them all people would realise God’s love for them. A bit like the way when 1st January 2015 comes I really will start loving everybody like Jesus commands, even the bus driver who soaks me when he drives through a puddle. Until then, there’s not much point in trying… we are all waiting for something.

But, what the story of revelation we’ve been reading tells us is that we need to stop waiting for something else to happen. The only way I could get into shape was to stop waiting to be in shape and start exercising. You can do all the parent courses you like, the only thing that gets you ready to be the parent of a two year old, is being a parent of a one year old. The only thing that ultimately prepares you to be married is to face the issues you have with being married. The only way I could know if this is what I was meant to do, was to start talking to people about it, to start reading about it and to start studying theology. None of it is easy, it’s hard work and it requires perseverance and sacrifices.

When I revealed that I was resigning to train to become a priest to my colleagues, rather than the sheepish discomfort I expected, at the discovery that I was not only a Christian, but I went to Church, and was willing to commit myself not just to go to Church for the rest of my life, but wear funny clothes while doing so. Instead my colleagues responded with jealousy! Ok, not about the opportunity to go to Church, but that I had stopped waiting. Instead of carrying on, as they were, I was making the decision to do something I wanted to do, to live in a way which meant something to me.

It seems a bit simplistic to try and claim that we can only become better people, by trying to be better people. To say that the only thing that makes the world a better place is if we start caring for the world and the people in it. But in a way that is what Jesus’ revelation points to.

The reading from Malachi describes God coming as a refining fire, purifying Israel like the fire purifies silver or gold.

The act of living the Christian life both brings the kingdom into this world and prepares us for the glory of Heaven.

Now you could say - tell us what we need to do, and be specific - well maybe there is a place and a time for that. But then, if you were waiting for Phil the groundhog to tell you when Spring was coming, you might have missed out on the wonderful sunshine yesterday or today!

Perhaps one of the things we can find ourselves waiting for, is certainty that what we are trying to do or what we want to do is going to succeed. We want to know that we are capable of raising Children, or that our marriage isn’t going to have trouble five years in, or that by putting energy into something, we will get a return on our investment. Will it make any real impact on the suffering of millions of Syrians if Britain takes in a couple of hundred of the most vulnerable refugees? The reality is, in that case, that to the group of refugees coming to Britain will have an impact. Think of the impact that Britain having taken in Malala has made, to her life, and to the lives of other children inspired by her example, and to the possibility for the education of girls in many countries.

Failure is, of course, possible even when we think we are doing what is right. Sometimes failure in itself can find new possibilities, sometimes failure is just failure But we continue to hope, with a certainty like Simeon’s, that we can glimpse the consolation of the world, when we try to live a life like that of Jesus’ with reconciliation and love at its core, living a life like that can make a difference, to others and to each of us.

Because we, like Simeon, are released from our old lives by the arrival of Jesus. We are released to live out the life he teaches, the life he lives as an example for us, one which he is willing to lay down for others. A life where we love one another, the way God loves us.