Church of England Diocese in Europe

Sermon in Ankara for the Second Sunday before Lent (7th February 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin

The compilers of the lectionary have given us for our Gospel the familiar reading from John that we heard on Christmas Day, so I thought that I would talk about the first two Readings instead. Because of my visit to Izmir last week I produced the order of service before writing my sermon (a reverse of the normal order) and so discovered with irritation when planning my sermon that for some inexplicable reason the church website whose printed readings we use had for both first and second readings substituted the inferior Common English Version (CEV) translation for the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) version we normally use. There are significant differences, as you will see, though I will try to avoid being too academic!

The first reading is from the Book of Proverbs. This book is designed to teach wisdom. It was begun in the time of King Solomon, himself renowned for his wisdom, and is a composite work of material collected over time. In the book Wisdom is personified as a woman. Today's reading describes Wisdom's role in creation. Wisdom was created, she proclaims, at the beginning of God's work of creation. The language of the passage echoes that of the creation narrative in Genesis 1. The Hebrew word " 'amon" used here of Wisdom is rather ambiguous as it can mean an artisan, the quality of faithfulness, or the activity of growing up. Thus the English version (NRSV) we normally use speaks of wisdom as a "master worker" with the alternative translation "a little child", while the New International Version here describes Wisdom as being "constantly at God's side". The Authorised Version rather cleverly managed to reflect two of the three possible meanings with "as one brought up with him". The CEV we used today reflects the other two possible meanings: "I was right beside the LORD, helping him plan and build."

In any case Wisdom is God's delight. God created the world in delight and he delights in particular in mankind. Human life, guided by wisdom in the way of righteousness, is God's special delight, and, by analogy, he is particularly distressed as well as angry when sin causes us to diverge from those paths of righteousness. God the Creator is like all parents who delight in their children's achievements and are saddened by their misbehaviour. Cardinal Basil Hume once wisely remarked that we should not worry too much about whether we love God but we should always remember that God loves each one of us.

As a child develops by playfully exploring his or her environment so Wisdom reveals that she rejoices in exploring creation in her delight. God's creation is a world of delight and discovery, a world of wonder. Wisdom is simply having fun, two concepts that we may not often join together. It is good to be reminded of how positive and exciting God's creation was intended to be. We humans have let God down by our sinfulness, but also by forgetting the joy and delight that suffuse his creation. In that respect young children (as Jesus himself recognised) are often the best guides as to how to welcome the kingdom of God in joy and wonder. It is very unfortunate that the CEV uses the weaker words "happy" and "pleased" in place of rejoicing and delight, which are more accurate translations of the Hebrew. 

In our second Reading we heard part of the letter that Paul sent to the Christians in Colossae. This reminds us that we have the good fortune to live in a land of the Bible. The Phrygian city of Colossae was 245 miles south west of Ankara and about 100 miles from Ephesus. It was eleven miles from Laodicea, and Paul indeed asks for his letter to the Colossians to be taken on to Laodicea and read to the Christian church there. In his letter Paul is concerned to explain Christ's role in the economy of salvation. As we read his eloquent exposition it is important to remember that the Christ of whom he says such things is none other than the Jesus who had been crucified less than thirty years earlier in Jerusalem. For us that event has acquired the patina of antiquity but for Paul's listeners in Colossae it was very recent history. Paul himself had worked and prayed and argued with men who had been Jesus' friends and disciples and it by no means impossible that a traveller to Colossae had come to the Christians there with an eye-witness account of Jesus' crucifixion. If as some scholars believe Paul's letter was written in the 50s, then the crucifixion of Jesus would have been as recent to the Christians of Colossae as events in the 1990s are to us.

<span style="font-size: 1rem;">It is worth stressing how recent was Jesus' death, as Paul makes some powerful claims for him. Christ, that is Jesus, is the visible image of the invisible God. The CEV translation loses this picture entirely with its "Christ is exactly like God, who cannot be seen." Paul wrote that Christ is the image of the invisible God, as the NRSV and most other versions correctly translate the sentence. The Greek word here translated "image" is eikon.  An icon is something that exhibits the same form or appearance as something else. Thus an Orthodox icon of a saint exhibits the same form or appearance as that saint himself. Just as we see the saint revealed to us in the icon, so we see God revealed to us in Christ. Of course this is a more profound revelation than that of the painted icon as it involves a whole human body. As Jesus says in the Gospel according to John (14.9) "he who has seen me has seen the Father". 

In Christ the fullness of God is to be found. This is fullness in the sense of completeness. Everything God is was present in Christ. As John says in today's Gospel passage, "He was with God and was God". Christ as the image and fullness of God exists as a direct channel to all that God is and does. That we have truly encountered God in Jesus is indeed something to celebrate with joy!

These two passages have been chosen to accompany the prologue to the Gospel according to John that we heard as our Gospel reading, and indeed they make an excellent combination. Wisdom has spoken of the joy and delight to be found in God's creation and Paul has explained that Christ is the visible image of God, through whom all things have been created. The Gospel passage goes on to explain how Christ the Word was with God and is God, and how he is indeed the light shining in the darkness. The joy and wonder and light in God's creation are all revealed to us in the person of Christ. Thanks be to God.