Tag Archives: God

Reaping the Harvest

This weekend had all the elements of a traditional Harvest Festival at church. The autumnal colours of the flowers; an altar groaning under the weight of tins and fresh produce brought as gifts for the local foodbank; children singing upbeat harvest songs with prayers and blessings for the abundance of God’s grace within his creation. Our sung Evensong lectionary, however, reminded us of a different harvest to come.

Based on the following readings: Revelation 14:14-20 and Philippians 4:4-9

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Our passage from Revelation this evening, at first glance or first listening, fits beautifully with the theme of our Harvest Festival today, an almost idyllic image of the harvest being gathered in for all is ripe and ready, at its peak of maturity. But the passage itself is actually plucked from a whole series of chapters and verses describing the Battle of Armageddon… So this is not some John Constable ‘hay wain’ moment but an eschatological vision given to John on the island of Patmos

Here we have two distinct and opposite images; a reaping of the grain and a gathering of the grapes. The first is a positive one of Jesus as the Son of Man, as he foretold his disciples when they asked him in Matthew’s gospel about the signs of the end of the age, sitting on a cloud, surrounded by angels, coming to gather the elect. Those humans who through God’s grace, have been chosen because of their faithfulness, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, a gathering of all who responded on earth to the Messianic message.

The second one a negative image of the judgement of the unrepentant nations and people. These grapes were not to become a wine of celebration, but to be gathered and then thrown into God’s winepress of wrath, a pressing that will produce rivers of blood ‘as high as a horse’s bridle for a distance of about 200 miles’, which was roughly the length of Palestine from north to south.

Here is Jesus in all his power and glory, revealing absolute dominion over all of the nations, represented by his golden crown, who with one swing of his sickle, a single action, ‘reaps the earth’ and gathers the people of God instantly into the Kingdom. This is an action that suggests there is no judgement involved. The people who are part of this special harvest are those who have lived in the light of God’s grace…For all the others, as I mentioned in the second image, there is the gathering and then the pressing – a time of judgment and divine retribution.

Thus the response to the proclamations of the angels is left open to two final possibilities; salvation or judgement.

Better then to hope to be in the elect than in those who have ‘the mark of the beast on their foreheads’ (Rev 13:16). The verses before this reading, vv1-5, speak of the Lamb and the 144,000, who will be saved. However, we don’t need to take this number literally otherwise we’re going to be very few in number, but numerology in the bible was important, and this number is based on twelves. The twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve apostles of Christ, now multiplied together a 1,000 times, symbolising the complete gathering of the faithful, from Israel and the Church, the ‘redeemed’.

Everyone, whom Christ has rescued from the power of sin and death by giving his life on the cross and who have committed themselves totally to him, living lives marked by self-control, honesty and a clear conscience.

For Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, a church he founded himself and who have always given him loving and generous support, he urges them to be united in their faith and to see Christ as the supreme goal of their life and mission. He writes this letter from prison, but his heart is free and full of joy, and this joy now breaks out.

He urges the Philippians (and indirectly all of us) to rejoice in the Lord, a joy that doesn’t depend on life always being good or feelings of happiness, but a much deeper satisfaction that comes from belonging to Christ and being united in his love and purpose. It is more fitting to be gentle, yet confident and prayerful as we await his coming. Anxiety must be turned into prayer; prayers of thanksgiving that God will return to us in the form of an amazing peace that comes when the love of Christ conquers and embraces all.

We are to fill our minds with good and beautiful ideals, that purify our imaginations and inspire our actions, so that we can live out the gospel in practical ways.

Paul speaks without arrogance, but as a true teacher – he practices what he preaches. If we then, follow his example, and have a perfect trust in God we can be assured that we too will find ourselves, not through our actions but through God’s grace, safely gathered, as part of the harvest, in heaven’s great garner store. Amen

Harvest Loaf

Replacing Law With Grace

from-law-to-grace

Replacing Law with Grace

There are times when the Law is important and there are times when it needs to be replaced with Grace; whether it is to make a point or whether it is part of the way we need to live.

Readings: Isaiah 58:9-14 & Luke 13:10-17

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son or Holy Spirit. Amen

Let me start by asking you three questions, and please don’t think you have to confess anything out loud. Have you ever broken the law? If so what were the circumstances? Do you feel you were justified in breaking the law?

No doubt a great many of us can probably answer yes, I admit that I probably do it quite frequently when I exceed the speed limit, and a recent survey in the Telegraph newspaper found that ‘millions of people who declare themselves innocent law abiding citizens actually commit around seven crimes a week’, with the most common offences being speeding, texting or talking while driving, dropping litter, riding bicycles on the pavement, parking on pavements or not cleaning up their dog’s poo!

It seems that people are not at all bothered about committing what they consider ‘minor’ crimes, because so many people are breaking these laws that they have almost become legal. Even so, it still depends on what sort of law you may have broken. Was it a law established to protect people and uphold society, one that carried a defined punishment in breaking it? Or was it a rule created for a particular group for a particular time? And how is that law being upheld?

In Isaiah we hear about the exiles’ complaint about God’s perceived lack of response to their prayers. However, the basis of their worship is that of self-interest – what they can get out of it, rather than opening their lives to God’s presence with them and the promise of God’s grace to transform them.

The covenants and the Laws that had been handed down to them were not wrong or unnecessary, but were part of the journey that God was taking humankind on towards complete reconciliation. The Old covenants would be superseded by the New Covenant that was Jesus. They were not separate goals for each group of people to aim for, but one goal. The difference being between the journey and destination; between the interim and the ultimate.

God’s meeting with Moses on Mount Sinai was the supreme revelation of himself in the Old Testament. The laws, the rules, the regulations that were handed down were relevant to what was happening to people at the time – the food laws, the hygiene laws, the clothing laws,  the laws of possession, the laws of laws – all made perfect sense for an itinerant band of travellers to provide protection, both physical and spiritual. However, the physical can never contain the reality of God.

The perceived wrathful, vengeful, inaccessible character of God would go on to be revealed anew in the gloriously accessible person of Jesus. Condemnation would be swallowed up in love and forgiveness.

In this morning’s gospel our focus it not centred on God’s power to heal –the fact that the women was restored to full health was almost a given; just one of many examples we have of Jesus’ power to heal throughout the New Testament. Nor is it concerned with the importance or value of the Law – Jesus himself declares in Matthew’s gospel, that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it; adding that ‘truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass form the law until all is accomplished.’

 ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;
I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’
Matthew 5:17

The Law of Moses may seem irrelevant to twenty first century Christians, laws such as don’t shave your face, don’t eat shellfish, don’t do any work on the Sabbath, and we consciously choose to disregard them. Even so, the law still remains, and, it is the same God as then as is now that we follow. In many cases the laws remain right, but it is how they are being used that is the nub. Is the law being used as an instrument of condemnation or as an instrument of grace

In this particular narrative, those who use it to condemn are ‘hypocrites’, masquerading as agents of a gracious God while being nothing of the sort. Jesus’ action demonstrates grace, his power to heal and all the while bears the fruit of God being praised in the response of the woman. The action has led to the Sabbath being honoured.

Jesus was rebuked because he dared to heal on the Sabbath or Holy Day – an action that was considered ‘work’. If he’d waited till the next day he’d have been fine, but he insisted that no one’s suffering should be prolonged just for the sake of the law. If good can be done today then it shouldn’t be postponed until tomorrow.

The synagogue official was putting the system of law above the individual, but in Christianity the individual comes before the system and it is fair to say that democracy itself would not exist without Christianity. Civilisation has developed based on the relationship of the individual to the system. But all too often the social system takes on a life of its own and swallows up the individual. As the theologian William Barclay says, ‘Should those Christian values start to disappear from political and economic life then we can only look forward to a totalitarian state where people exist not for their own sake but simply for the sake of the system’.

This, therefore, is the big wide world in which we all have to live in, but what about the world within the church. How do we react to those whose only concern is that of Church governance, that consider the method more important than worship of God or service to others. Even more worrying is those who seek only to condemn because of a narrow-minded and blinkered interpretation of what God wants us to do rather than applying the grace that God offers to everyone.

The law doesn’t bind us to what we should  or shouldn’t do on the Sabbath or any other day. In fact the law shouldn’t be a bind at all. Laws are created  and upheld to protect us, to guide us and to enable us to make the right choices. And we do have a choice. We can ask ourselves is this something that is immutable or does my love and knowledge of God allow me to break or remove it all together.

Does our respect for the present position of the church on matters such as marriage, divorce, disability, homosexuality preclude us from recognising God’s grace for these situations and the individuals they affect.

When the law changes around us how do we react as Christians? Think of some of the things that have happened within many of our lifetimes. From the apparently mundane decision to allow shops to open and trade on a Sunday, to the well-considered remarriage of divorcees in church, the full inclusion of those considered disabled in some way, to the current impasse over the pain and suffering that has been and continues to be inflicted on members of the LBGTI community by certain Christian theologies and biblical interpretations. Where has the love and compassion that flows from God’s grace been in all of this?

If we honour God with our rituals so must we also honour God in our lives. So rather than break the law let us always instead replace it with the law of grace.  Amen

creation and grace

Sabbath Rest

Sabbath Rest

It’s really hard when you want to write about something that you know is a good thing to do but you are not so good at actually doing it yourself. A someone commented yesterday when I delivered this sermon, ‘Physician, heal thyself’! Still, as I said, it acts as a good reminder to me as well as everyone else

Bible Reference: Luke 10:38-42

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit

I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to say this morning, because I am sure that some people could so obviously accuse me of hypocrisy, quite possibly a case of ‘do as I say and not as I do!’ But I believe there is an important message that needs to be explored and undoubtedly, I need to hear it as much as others might.

But first let me ask a question for you to ponder… when was the last time that you actually spent time doing nothing? Not doing something that you wouldn’t consider work, nor doing something that involves you organising your leisure time, not even setting time aside for prayer or to read a book… but just simply doing nothing but resting.

I guess that this simple kind of resting could go one of two ways. You either fall asleep or you allow yourself to simply bring yourself for those few precious moments into God’s presence. I call them precious moments because so many people nowadays have lives that do not involve seeking any time of rest or relaxation. We are conditioned to wake up and immediately our brains are focussed on what we must achieve that day or over the coming week. We have to plan and organise every single minute of our time, whether that is doing work, or filling our leisure time with activities or for parents of young children making sure that they are involved in stimulating pursuits, because, heaven help us, that they should be bored or have nothing to do!

But what’s wrong with a bit of boredom every now and again? Yes, it can be a state of mind caused by a lack of stimulation that leaves us craving relief, but it’s also acknowledged that without boredom we couldn’t achieve our creative feats. It often gives us time to think, to explore and to rest awhile.

It’s the difference between being a Martha or a Mary… not that I’m suggesting that Mary was bored, having nothing to do… but the two women in our gospel are demonstrating the need to set aside time to simply be with God. It’s also not the case that we need to choose between being a Mary or a Martha, whether we should only be one or the other. Rather that it’s essential to be both. Like Martha we think that the important thing is doing, but Jesus teaches us through Mary’s example that we need to sit, to listen, to learn, to love.

For Mary and Martha, their friendship with Jesus meant that they would have been proud to have this popular man as a guest in their house, together with all of his entourage and followers, and Martha, as the principal hostess would have wanted to make sure that he was comfortable and that his needs were catered for. So she welcomed him into her home and went into the kitchen to prepare a meal for him.

However, her sister Mary did NOT go into the kitchen but instead ‘sat at Jesus feet’, and fair enough when you have guests you do not generally abandon them straight away and all disappear to do other things. But for Martha, it wasn’t okay that her presumably younger sister got to do nothing, while she had to organise and cater for so many.

Luke tells us that Martha ‘was distracted by her many tasks’ and I’m sure we all know how that feels, don’t we! The times when we’ve experience being ‘in over our heads’, when we’ve needed help, but didn’t know where to turn. The times perhaps when we’ve pitched up to help with something and end up doing everything, while others sit around chatting. So Martha’s anger at being abandoned in the kitchen was understandable, and the stress and anxiety spills over into calling out Mary in front of everyone. There was no subtle sidling up to Mary and saying, ‘Mary, I need some help’. instead she rebukes Jesus, her principle guest, whom she had acknowledged as ‘Lord’ and basically orders him to ‘Tell my lazy sister to get into the kitchen to give me a hand’ or words to that effect and meaning.

‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?
Tell her then to help me.’
Luke 10:40

Now everyone is aware of the tension in the room, but we can still feel sympathy for Martha, and in some ways we want Jesus to appreciate and commend Martha for her hard work and suggest that they both go in there and give her a hand. However, Mary’s focus on her relationship with Jesus was also right and whereas Martha’s anger was disruptive, and Jesus acknowledges that she is ‘anxious and troubled about many things, he points out that Mary has chosen to the one thing that is needed

She had set aside time, in the busiest of situations to spend time with God. What we might call Sabbath rest, when we very deliberately take time to do nothing but make ourselves more aware of God with us. And don’t get confused, this is not just setting aside one day a week to abstain from work, because even that is no longer a day when we rest our minds and our bodies, instead filling it up with alternative tasks; but times, whether it’s a few hours or minutes that we switch off from the everyday normal.

This idea of taking time to step aside, is nothing new. From the very beginning we are given this example of Sabbath rest. After creating the heavens and earth, in whatever way or timescale you believe, God rested. It didn’t mean that God was tired and needed a rest, unlike most of us, because being omnipotent he never tires, but he simply stopped what he was doing, he ceased from his work. It was a message and example that he called the Israelites to follow when he handed down his commandments. They were to remember the Sabbath day and ‘keep it holy’. They were to lay down their work in order to spend time in worship and prayer.

For Jesus himself, there were times that he must have experienced the stress and anxiety caused by overwork. As more and more people came to seek him and listen to his teachings, so the time that he had to take that rest became more and more elusive. Still he recognised the importance of stepping aside if only for a short time. In Mark’s gospel we hear that ‘because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.

Who hasn’t skipped a meal because of the workload we’re experiencing, but after resting, it’s so much easier to exit that secret place, go back into the world, and feel re-energized, focused, encouraged and strengthened to continue doing what we’re called to do.

So many mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression can be caused as the saying goes, by ‘too much work and not enough play. And not taking time out may make any existing mental health issues worse. And what’s even more alarming is that even primary school children are showing signs of mental health problems – including anxiety, panic attacks and depression –caused mainly by family problems, pressures of exams and social media, which lead to problems such as self-harming, eating disorders and OCD.

So, when we find ourselves in stressful situations such as a difficult phone call, a crowded train journey home or a looming deadline, we need to give ourselves time to pause and calm down. Imagine what Martha could have done. Instead of stomping into the living room and having a go at Jesus and Mary, she could have gone into her bedroom and closed the door. Martha could have prayed ‘God, I’m so angry. It would be so tempting to take out this anger on Jesus and Mary – but I know that would be wrong. Please drain this anger out of my heart. Help me to feel love for Jesus, my guest, and Mary, my sister.

 Better still, Martha could have gone and joined her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet and listened to him speak and be in his presence for a while. Who would have worried that the meal was late when was it was Jesus that was with them

We are such busy people, and we live in such a busy world. It’s easy to miss the important things. The story of Martha and Mary tells us that there is value in sitting – in listening – in learning – in loving. Whether at home or work or school, take a moment to look around and find the blessings in your life. Take a moment to thank God for giving you another day to discover more. Sit at God’s feet for just a moment. Be quiet. Listen. Treasure the moment.

We all live in a Martha world, but take time to be Mary for just a bit. Jesus says that that’s the one thing that’s needed. He says that’s the good part that won’t be taken from us. Give it a try. You will find a blessing! You will find that Jesus was right.

Amen

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
Luke 10:41-42

Mary and Martha - Vermeer

Mary and Martha by Vermeer

 

Drawn From The Deep

Sunlight Under Water

He drew me out of deep water

Based on Luke 5:1-11

When I was little I would occasionally be allowed to go fishing with my dad. I say allowed, because it was actually for my father a time when he could escape the busyness of his work life and just simply sit and enjoy the peace and quiet of the river bank, certainly not to have to entertain a young child; but eventually I too learnt to appreciate this time of quiet companionship.

Of course, there was also the benefit of catching a few fish, that would be placed to wriggle around in the keep net until it was time to pack up and go home, and they would then be returned to the freedom of the water, presumably to swim free until the next time that they took the bait of the fly hook of another fisherman.

But there were also the days when we would sit there in virtual silence and the keep net would remain obstinately empty. For Simon Peter and his partners, James and John it must have been one of those days when much effort had brought little reward. Yet, suddenly here was this man inviting them to try one more time.

No doubt they were tired and weary, and also slightly sceptical, but something about him gave them a sense that they should do as he asked and trusting his confidence they cast their nets once more into the water and were suddenly faced with a catch that was almost overwhelming in its abundance.

It was miraculous, but what was even more surprising was their response, that they would immediately leave all that they knew and depended on to become followers and fellow missionaries with this young man. I guess it is this last outcome that most of us find difficult to understand and imagine ourselves duplicating but it is the whole story that leads us to see why this might be so and what it says to us about discipleship.

We know that Jesus will often use the situation he finds himself in to help people understand more clearly the point he is trying to make, so a miraculous catch of fish to a group of fishermen would certainly bring home the point very effectively. However, we can see that this was already being mirrored in his interaction with the crowd. Here was a sea of people, like a lot of people nowadays, who were beginning to realise that they were in deep water, all around them the water was foaming in turmoil and although they had the freedom to go anywhere, it was usually only in the direction that the tide took them.

Jesus, through his teaching was casting the net as the Word. This was not a net that was set as an entrapment, but a means by which God could rescue his people. As it says in Psalm 18, ‘He reached down from on high and took hold of me, he drew me out of deep water’.

He reached down from on high
and took hold of me,
he drew me out of deep water
Psalm 18:16

There was a growing realisation that without God they were lost, and Jesus was there to remind them of this. Simon Peter’s obedience and trust that what he was being told was a good thing, put him on his first step to acknowledging who Jesus really was. But this realisation also made him fearful; since the prodigious haul of fish only proved the awesomeness of God’s power and made his or anyone else’s effort pale into insignificance., ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’.

Yet, Jesus’ response was that they should not be afraid. The fact is that when they and we are drawn into God’s presence he asks us to part of his mission, to be his ears and eyes, his hands and feet, to work together as the body of Christ. And just as Simon Peter called for his partners to help with the extraordinary catch of fish, we never do it on our own, whether as individuals, or one church, but as the whole Church.

So the disciples were to be sent out to catch people. To use the Word to act as the net to draw them closer to God, and that net was to be cast far and wide. Just as each net of fish brings up not just one type of fish, but gathers many, so that diversity is reflected in the many different types of people who are called and seek to be in his presence. God is not looking for any particular type of person, just those who are willing to be transformed.

Of course there are always going to be as few who for some reason want to wriggle out of and escape the net, but for those who choose to believe and to take up the challenge there is no reason to hesitate, real freedom has been gained, grace offered and accepted and the task of catching people for God begun.

Amen
Luke 5

Wedding Vows

Wedding couple

The year 2018 was full of new and exciting events in our family, amongst which was the wedding of our youngest daughter, Ruth, to her fiancé, Josh. Not only are weddings great social occasions, when distant family and friends make that special effort to come together, but they are also the start of what we all hope will be a lifelong journey of discovering what being married really means using the promises and vows that you make on that day to be your yardstick.

Later this morning I will be conducting a special service for a couple who are renewing those vows after 50 years of marriage and who want to thank God for the blessings they have received over those years. Of course, vows are not all about expecting only the good things to happen – for better, for richer and in health, but include the possibility of for worse, for poorer and in sickness.

Entering marriage knowing that it will bring the likelihood of both opposites means that you can be prepared to weather the difficult times and celebrate the joyous ones, because underpinning it all will be the love that first brought you together

 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love
1 Corinthians 13:13

The love that you have for each other; the love of your family and friends; the love that God blesses you with, are all powerful reasons for holding fast to those wedding vows.

Wedding Boquet

It was also, just as I had done for Lizzie and Lewis, about love that I wanted to write this poem for the newly-weds:

When Love Comes

Who may stand against love when it comes?
For it rushes with fervour into our hearts,
breathlessly catching hold of the other’s hand.
Tingling with electric sparks, causing
laughter to bubble up and burst.
Still smiling inward to hug a new secret
between two souls.

Who can unlock the mystery of love?
That makes tentative enquiry of
feelings, unexpected, yet welcome.
That hesitates to speak out loud,
yet knows spontaneously that this
is the one – its confirmation sealed
by the infinite band of earth’s riches

Who denies the power of love?
In gentle caress of skin against skin.
Yet ferocious as a roaring lion,
fiercely protective of the other,
declaring mutual respect and care,
that selflessly offers itself up.

Who has the fortitude to resist love?
That holds strong to bear tragedy,
overcoming life’s sadness;
stretched and strained from time to time.
Which seeks its boundaries;
nonetheless, drawing back
to the very core of its existence.

Who can weigh the worth of love?
More precious than man’s treasure trove
of glittering trinkets and trifles.
Daring to dream dreams and
crystallising hopes for the future.
Selflessly deepening its roots
allowing each to flourish and be built up.

Who can but rejoice in the joy of love?
Expressed in vows that set a seal
between two hearts.
Union in sacred, ancient ceremony;
that offers friendship twixt families.
Celebrated and blessed
By God’s own love.

On the occasion of the marriage of Ruth Galvin and Josh Gallocker – 30th June 2018

Wedding Group

 

 

 

The Best Laid Plans… On Being Prepared

Blake - The Angel Appearing to Zechariah

William Blake – The Angel Appearing to Zacharias (1799 -1800)

Sometimes you think you’ve got it all under control, the necessary preparations have been made, the last minute arrangements set up, and you’ve just celebrated with nearly 800 people the Nativity story and the symbolism of a red beribboned orange, pierced with a foil held candle, four cocktail sticks and various fruits and sweets (a Christingle), when someone leaves you a voicemail saying that the readings for this evening’s most important service, to which many will come for what might be their only visit to church in a year are incorrectly printed in the carefully prepared service sheet, not only incorrectly printed, but basically incorrect. Now what would you do?

Based on 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-11, 16 and  Luke 1:67-79
Actual readings heard Isaiah 52:7-10 and John 1:1-14

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

It’s wonderful to see you all here tonight, on this most important of nights; this holy night; this night when we celebrate once more the coming of God in the person of his son, Jesus Christ to earth.

However, they say that you should be prepared for anything and at about 8 o’clock this evening, it was pointed out to me that the readings that are printed in your service sheet are actually the ones for Christmas Eve – Morning Eucharist. An easy mistake to make I keep trying to tell myself, as we start this service on Christmas Eve, but we end it on Christmas Morning. I suspect when I was preparing the Worship rota in October, this minor, but important fact escaped me – I should have turned the page in the Lectionary – and so when I came to prepare my talk earlier for this evening it was the these ones that I’d used on which to base it

But I couldn’t let you not hear those beautiful readings from Isaiah and John, otherwise for some it would just not be Christmas, and I wouldn’t have got to read one of my favourite gospel passages from the bible – ‘the world became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory’ At least it also mentions John the Baptist…

It also wouldn’t be right to make you listen to both of the other readings as well, but please do glance through them so that you at least get an idea of where I’m coming from – the first one a message from God  through the prophet Nathan for King David and his kingship, and the second a song of thanksgiving, formally know as the Benedictus, and sung by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist which prophecies about the coming saviour and the part that John will play in that.

The fact is nothing ever really happens without some preparation and for weeks (or months even) we have been preparing our workplaces, schools and homes to reflect this celebration. Or have we? Nowadays, we have to look hard amongst all the trivial fripperies, the giant inflatable Santas, the cheese advent calendars and unicorn reindeer to catch a glimpse of the real story of God coming among us.

But he is there, and your being here tonight is a sign that despite all the tinsel and the glitter, the message he came to fulfil still resonates at the deepest level with our needs as human beings.

The preparations for Jesus coming among us, probably started the moment that Adam and Eve stepped out of the Garden of Eden. God wanted us back, to heal the relationship that had broken down, to restore his trust in us.

Come forward several eons and we find ourselves in the presence of Nathan, a prophet in the time of King David, now only one thousand years before the birth of Jesus. Now at first there doesn’t seem to be any mention of a saviour, but again God is working on his preparations and it includes building a house – not a physical house – although the temple would be established by David’s son Solomon – but a dynastic house

To David, God has promised to ‘make for you a great name’. David, the unlikely king, a murderer, an adulterer, a drunken carouser – sounds a bit like he’d have fitted into the cast of Eastenders Christmas special, and yet a mighty warrior, a loving father and a great king. Originally a shepherd, one of the least amongst his society, yet an appropriate choice to be part of the lineage of Jesus.

Yet this was to be no ordinary royal dynasty – and if we want to be picky – the genealogical proof that both Luke and Matthew give us at the beginning of their gospels, that Jesus, in his humanity, was a direct descendant of Abraham and David through to Joseph, Jesus’ legally adoptive father and by birth, through Mary, is actually a messianic rather than a physical bloodline.

Come forward to another prophet, Isaiah, whose prophecy, ‘Unto us a Son is born, unto us a son is given….’ was a little premature – some seven hundred years premature to be exact, but it was further evidence of God’s preparations, before there began a silence…. A long silence… a very, very long silence…

Even at the next stage of preparations that silence was to continue as we now need to imagine we are in the temple, carrying out our priestly duties, we are called Zechariah and we have been drawn by lot to enter the sanctuary to offer incense. Zechariah probably wasn’t prepared for the sight of the angel that appeared to him, far less the news that his wife was about to embark on a geriatric pregnancy, hence why his incredulous questions rendered him unable to speak for the next nine or so months!

When he does regain his voice he uses it to confirm the child’s name and to break out into what we now call the Benedictus, his song of thanksgiving to God. It is this child that we hear about in his prophetic words, the child that will grow into the man John the Baptist, who will make the final preparations to announce Jesus’ ministry and the fulfilment of God’s promise.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways
Luke 2:76

But we’ve jumped too far ahead, because tonight we have come prepared for the Christ-child’s birth, in a stable, in the night, as a helpless babe. We’ve also prepared for it during the season of Advent, where each week we’ve watched and waited and thought about the reasons for his coming. Reasons, as I said, that we all instinctively know make the most sense for our lives but seem so difficult to achieve both on a personal and global scale.

The reason that he came to bring joy. A joy that was shared in the songs of Zechariah, of Mary and the angels; a joy that is heard in words and the music of the carols and songs that we sing tonight.` The angels that bent near to the earth, to bring glad tidings of goodwill from God, tiding of joy and of reconciliation. A joy that can be shared among us, in friendship and fellowship to all, not just tonight but every day

The reason that he came to bring peace. An outward peace in a world where men and women need to hush the noise of strife and warfare and look for ways of working together for the common good; and an inner peace, through the message that John will share, that ‘the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’.

The reason that he came to bring love. A love that is all encompassing, limitless and freely given. Which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians. A love that brings its own peace from knowing that whatever situation we find ourselves in, whatever we might have done, there is forgiveness available to us, and because of that forgiveness we can be in a loving relationship with God again, and through our relationship with Jesus we can love one another better

Finally, the reason that he came to bring hope; the realization of the Messianic hopes of the Jewish nation as they impatiently borne the yoke of the Romans, and continually sighed for the time when someone from the House of David would be their deliverer and to whom Zechariah was pointing in his prophecy. That same hope that is offered to all of us, regardless of age, gender, sexuality or ability. A hope that is everlasting, because of what Jesus would go on to do through his death and resurrection in order to bring us back to him at the end of time.

Zechariah wasn’t initially prepared to trust what God was going to do through him, and too often we can be so distracted by the world around us that we find it difficult to just accept what God might be saying to us, how he calls us into a relationship that demands nothing of us but to simply be prepared to open ourselves up to the possibility that his joy, his peace, his love and his hope are all that we really need.

So tonight, be open to hear his invitation to come and be prepared to receive him into your heart. Tonight, be open to share with others the things that you discover about Christ and yourself and be prepared to be that herald of good tidings. Tonight, be open to having your life changed by the child in the manger and be prepared to be transformed. Tonight be prepared for anything and everything.

Amen

Starry Starry Night

O Holy Night – starry skies over Japan

How To Fill The Time In Between

Questions

The First Sunday of Christmas is what I call the in-between time. It sits between the great festivals of Christmas and Epiphany and doesn’t seem able to muster up its own special liturgy after all the awe and wonder  of the Saviour’s birth and the star lit revelations of the Wise Men. We also leap from cradle to the teenage years and then back to a toddler in the space of two weeks marking three of the four biblical appearances of Jesus as a child, which still leaves us with a lot of questions. Who, where, why and how? But as with all questions, if we ask the right ones we should get the right answers and learn something.

Based on Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52

I suspect that we all have stories of our childhood, some which show us in lots of different lights – the early achiever ‘Yes, she was walking and talking before her first birthday’; the dexterous enabler, ‘Oh he could put together all of the Star Wars’ Lego models by the age of two!’; the future celebrity, ‘I think she came out of the womb singing and dancing, we LOVE all the ‘shows’ she creates for us to watch’; but also the innate rascals, ‘every tree, every wall, every supermarket aisle shelf would need to be climbed – I think he’s going to be a mountaineer.’

Of course, we don’t always remember the things that we did from a very early age but have to rely on stories that are passed down to us and which become part of our family’s history. No doubt for Jesus, there were also stories from his childhood, that his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins would remind him of as he grew up, but we don’t get to hear about these, despite his later ‘fame’. Nothing comes out of the woodwork to show us the times when he wasn’t so obedient or got into scrapes with other children or indeed did anything out of the ordinary.

We have to be content with four brief episodes to tell us something about the child that grew into the man who was God, his extraordinary birth, his presentation in the temple, that he had some special visitors when he was a toddler, and that by the age of twelve he was displaying wisdom and knowledge beyond his years, astonishing his elders whilst at the same time being utterly respectful and freely submitting to his parent’s authority.

Yes, we could look for other remarkable stories of the child and youth Jesus, offering healing and miracles, that were recorded in the Infancy Gospels of Thomas and others, but these were gnostic texts, written some two centuries after his birth and we have no way of knowing whether any of ‘these’ stories are true and reliable and they were certainly not accepted into the canon of the bible

In our gospel today, the gap between the twelve year old on the cusp of becoming a nominal adult through his bar mitzvah and the man Jesus beginning his ministry following his baptism, is covered in one brief sentence, that he grew ‘in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour

Perhaps this is all God determined that we needed to know, but it’s obvious that these were the years in which he would have been able to experience humanity to its fullest extent before living the last three years of his life in a fishbowl. If we recall the verse that Luke give us immediately beforehand (v40), ‘the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him,’ it indicates a normal childhood and early adulthood. We can imagine Jesus learning his trade as a carpenter from Joseph, his adoptive father; being a pleasant and hardworking individual, inquisitive and innately knowledgeable beyond his years, which amazed some who saw him as an uneducated handy man; growing physically, spiritually and mentally under the cover of God’s grace.

As devout Jews, his parents would each year travel to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover, they would have travelled together with a large group of family and friends, and at twelve, Jesus would not have been expected to stay with them. So, the fact that they would not have noticed he wasn’t among the returning celebrants, would not have been negligence on their parts, and with men and women generally travelling in separate groups, it wouldn’t have been until the end of the day, when they came together that they might notice that he was missing. You can imagine the conversation of Mary asking Joseph, ‘Have you seen Jesus since this morning?’ and Joseph replying, ‘No, I thought he was with you’.

No doubt they were worried and spent the next few hours increasingly frantic, asking all their friends and relatives whether they’d seen him, before setting off back to Jerusalem, and finally the relief of finding him after a three day search, calming sitting among the teachers, asking questions, not quite oblivious to the apparent distress he has caused them, as indicated by their understandable reaction, ‘Why have you put us through this anguish’ but reassurance that why would they think he would be anywhere else but in his Father’s house, not Joseph’s house, but God’s house.

‘Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’
Luke 49

For Mary and Joseph, there was still no full understanding of who Jesus was and what his work would entail, but Mary would once more reflect carefully on these events and would add them to her treasured memories of Jesus’ life. So, we hear that Jesus, returned with his family and as far as we know caused them no further upset, accepting their authority of parenthood, and at the same time growing and maturing into perfect manhood.

Now I don’t know about you, but I did not have a perfect childhood, mainly because I was not the perfect child! I can remember that I was not always obedient to my parents and would often find myself in trouble. However, I do know that I was loved, and any discipline metered out was undoubtedly for my own good. But that’s another story!

Let’s, therefore, get back to this morning’s story. We know that Jesus’ calling was to follow the will of God, so for him to spend time in the temple, the centre of Jewish worship, was an opportunity to discuss theology with experts, develop his own understanding and challenge people on their concepts of God. He was able to do this because of the personal relationship that he had with God

We too are called to develop a personal relationship with God in order for us to better understand his will for our lives. However, for many people the sense of being drawn closer into the story through the events leading up to and celebrated at Christmas is already dissipating. ‘Phew, I’m glad that’s over and done with, let’s pack the baby Jesus away with the rest of the nativity set and get back to some kind of normality’. Of course, they don’t really mean it like that, what they do mean is they’re glad the frantic shopping has ended, no more stressing about whether the presents you bought are appreciated and family member and other guests are finally heading home… and even though you love them and have been glad to spend time with them, there is the relief of getting back to your regular routine.

Relationships can be pretty tricky; there was an article I read the other day that asked people if they had argued more over the Christmas period and what had they argued about? Most people said, ‘Yes’ they had had a row and that it was about petty things like the tree decorations, how the turkey was cooked and what they wanted to watch on television. An expert commented that this was perfectly understandable as when people in families are thrown together for a time, tensions can be unearthed and expectations can be different.

Just like Jesus’ parents were stressed, there was probably some tension between Jesus’ true identity, what his mission is and his relationship with his parents. I am sure that they didn’t expect to find him discussing theology in the temple, otherwise they’d have gone straight there and not spent three days searching.

Why Jesus

But Jesus was setting the foundations for a new understanding of family. One that would be built on a relationship with God the father though his son, Jesus and which would be founded on love, forgiveness, peace and thanksgiving. A family not sharing a bloodline or DNA but linked together through the Holy Spirit.

Our reading from Colossians sets this out in more details. It’s a reading that a lot of wedding couples choose for their reading as they too set out on a new relationship. It starts by reminding us that we are all part of God’s family, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. Many people feel unloved and some are damaged psychologically. Yet no-one is unloved. God loves each and every person so much he sent his son Jesus to die in their place on the cross.

It is a wonderful, unconditional, free love and we are called to live lives that reflect this. To clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. To bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances we may have against one another.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony
Colossians 3:14

Showing compassion that comes from within, concerned about meeting people’s most basic needs; kindness that is gracious and humble; a gentleness that is not weakness, but a willingness to suffer injury rather than inflict it and patience that forgoes anger and resentment and does not seek revenge.

Of course, we all have our own faults, but God has forgiven us and so, who are we, who have been forgiven, to withhold forgiveness from someone else? This is based on God’s choice and love for us and is completely undeserved and helps put into perspective any problems that really are no more serious than a Christmas tree or a turkey!

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t attempt to correct any conduct that is not part of God’s will, we are Christ’s ambassadors, we bear his name and we should reflect his kingdom values in everything that we do.

Many people came to church this year, and we hope that they would have felt loved, welcomed and accepted. But let’s not be complacent, instead let’s make sure that we continue to reach out to show even more compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. In that way we will all grow in wisdom and in both human and divine favour

Amen

colossians k3