Tag Archives: joy

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

Savouring Solitude

Savouring the solitude of Alton Abbey

Savouring the solitude of Alton Abbey

Prior to my ordination, after which life will change and inevitably get a lot busier, I decided to spend a day on a personal retreat at Alton Abbey. This community of Benedictine monks offers generous hospitality, prayerful worship and a space to simply be, all the while surrounded by a  natural and inviting arbors from which you can gaze at the world in contemplation.

Alton Abbey 011 blog

Be still, and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10

I went there principally to gain a sense of stillness; a few hours to calm the mind and refresh the soul, but as the day wore on I realised that there is never complete stillness in solitude. For God’s presence is fully alive in creation and she demonstrates her vivacity in a vibrant showy display of life in sight, sound and smell.

On other occasions It might have been a day for expressing myself in poetry or art, but I discovered that this day was purely a time for sitting and waiting, observing and listening. Let me share some of these moments with you now.

Alton Abbey 4 blog

The Abbey houses bathed in sunlight

Firstly, I have to acknowledge that I visited on a glorious, sunny day – something that the Brothers told me was unusual, as the Abbey often has its own micro-climate of fog and rain, and summertime has its own pleasures when the freshness of spring has given way to abundant blooms and lushness of grass and burgeoning leaves on trees. So after a period of settling into the room I have been allocated for the day I ventured out into the gardens and grounds

A walk along the first path I saw from the doorway took me past the overflowing honeysuckle (see title picture) with its sweet scent and colourful trumpets, before I came to a pause, suddenly aware of the movement and sounds that were coming to me. A row of trees whispered loudly that they were very much alive as their leaves danced in rhythm with the breath of the Spirit; their rippling tones a background pulse to the melody of the birds whose notes rose and fell as if urgently repeating a song of sheer joy.

Woodland shades

Woodland shades

Choices… whether to take the woodland path or enter the formal garden with its gated entrance and a notice that stated, ‘You are welcome, the rabbits are not! Please shut the gate behind you’. I plumped for the shady woods.

Fallen fruits, yet like sparrows 'not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father' Matthew 10:29It was cooler and quieter here, and yet underneath my feet crunched the husks of autumnal beech nuts, reminding me of harvest abundance. Whilst the cascade of lace-capped hydrangea and towering rhododendrons gave promises of future profusion and growth. Even the flowers that had fallen to the floor, still radiated beauty; and in the dappled shifting shade, glints of light flashed like beacons signalling a presence.

Fallen blooms, yet like sparrows ‘not one of them will fall to the ground
unperceived by your Father’ Matthew 10:29

On days like this, time ticks imperceptibly onward and I found it was necessary to hurry back into the Abbey Church to join the Brothers in Midday Prayer, then lunch, which even though it was taken in silence, was much appreciated and gave one time to digest one’s thoughts.

The drowsy courtyard steeped in peace

The drowsy courtyard steeped in peace

The sun by now was high above in a cloudless sky and although I am not normally a sun-worshiper of any kind, I was drawn to the tranquility of the courtyard where I settled on a stone bench and closed my eyes, Warmth has its own life, as it seeps into your bones and lingers on the surface of your skin. My sense of drowsiness was dispelled by the sound of water erupting in shimmering jets of cascading jewels that fell to tumble over a moss-covered fountain, splashing the lily pads, under which fish found shade, their diaphanous tails swirling in lazy circles. All the while the tall purple and yellow irises quivered in anticipation  as gentle bees brushed their petals and a kaleidoscope of pansies turned their faces to the sun, exuding a honeyed fragrance so familiar from childhood.

Alton Abbey Daisies 012 blogThere is nowhere that creation is out of place and as I left the courtyard, my feet grazed the small stubborn weeds that had pushed their way up through the cracks in the paving and brushed against delicate ferns that sprouted in vertiginous splendour high up on the walls. These humbler plants, despite attempts to eradicate their existence, are no less beautiful, and as I walked around the side of the church to seek a shadier nook I encountered tiny white daisies nestling with bright blue speedwell and baby pink cranesbill, which had escaped the mower’s blades.

As always when you visit somewhere for the first time, you’re never one hundred percent sure whether you might stray into areas that are private; secret places full of hidden treasures. Yet the well-worn wall seat was placed invitingly at the end of the two pools of water and seemed a perfect place to linger before Evening Prayer and Supper. Here I was rewarded with a deep feeling of peace, as if God had saved the best till last. Here was life in abundance from the immeasurable variety of insects, including carmine and turquoise bodied dragonflies hovering on lacy wings, and the unseen life within the silty mud, that sent bubbles up to break the tension of the water’s surface, to the chattering house martins that swooped overhead.

I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places. Psalm 45:3

I will give you hidden treasures, riches stored in secret places. Psalm 45:3

As the day drew to a close, and I packed my bag and said farewell to the Brothers, I reflected how lucky I was to have been granted that time and that space to simply be another small part of God’s incredible creation. Those images and thoughts that filled my time there will no doubt sustain me for quite a while to come; a point in time both sacred and divine, a moment of sheer grace.

Alton Abbey blooms blog

Exuberant life in seed and bloom

For more information about Alton Abbey, its people and the work it does, click here

The Empty Tomb

The Empty Cross

The Empty Cross

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

It was with this greeting and response; as we sat down to share our evening meal that a new term began at college. It was only two days beforehand that I had sat next to the Easter cross in my home church, celebrating Easter Sunday and here I was, back to my studies but with new tasks to complete and new challenges. It seemed the same, but then again it also seemed different

I suspect it was the like that for the women, who approached the tomb on the first day of the week. Yes, a dreadful thing had happened and yes, they were probably a bit disorientated and shaken, but they were coming to do what they would always have done if someone died – that at least was normal, but what happened next was very different

Each Gospel gives a slightly different version of accounts. In Mark there are several women together to who arrive to anoint the body, only to find that the stone sealing the tomb had been rolled back and inside was a young white-robed man telling them not to be afraid, but that the body wasn’t there. Despite his call for calm, they are terrified and flee from the tomb, too afraid to tell anyone what they have seen

In Matthew, it is two Marys who go to look at the tomb, only to experience an earthquake, caused by an angel’s descent from heaven; who puts the guards into a stupor and then shows them that Jesus is not in the tomb. He sends them fearfully, yet joyfully, to deliver a message to the disciples that they are to return to Galilee, only for them to meet Jesus himself who confirms what they must do.

In Luke we again hear about a group of women, who meet two dazzlingly dressed men and after being reminded of what Jesus had previously told them, return to the disciples only to be accused of idle talk until Peter runs to look for himself.

Finally, in John, it is Mary Magdalene who, on seeing that the stone has been removed, runs back to tell this to Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, who both then set off towards the tomb, the latter outrunning Peter to reach the tomb, but respectfully waiting for Peter to enter it first, only to be met by discarded linen wrappings. However, it is after this that Mary in a bitter-sweet moment encounters Jesus and can report this back to all the disciples.

All of these accounts add to the story of what happened, but the one fact that they all substantiate is that the tomb was empty.

‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.’ Matthew 28:5-6

I often wonder if it shouldn’t be the tomb that is used more as an image of Christ’s resurrection, a permanent reminder of the defeat of death – but equally it is the empty cross that is a powerful and iconic symbol of transformation to which we are drawn.

This is his blood which he shed for you

This is his blood which he shed for you

The truth is that in a way this transformation is what was happening on Sunday, as I watched people, coming forward to place a flower around the cross. The blooms themselves were fresh and vibrant, and everyone placed them as carefully as they could, trying not to bruise the petals. However, some found it difficult to push  them into the ‘ground’, while others knew exactly the spot they wanted in relation to the position of the cross. One flower in particular caught my attention – a beautiful cream tulip, streaked with red, that was placed right in the centre  at the very foot – which looked this morning as if its cup had opened up to catch the blood that would have fallen from Jesus’ body

Yet, as beautiful as this display had become, each single representative bloom was already dying; just as we are called to die to Christ in order to be transformed and given new life. This truly is the joy of the Easter message and yet not everyone chooses to respond to it. That, no doubt, is the greatest regret as far as God is concerned as he tries, in love, to reconcile all of his creation. However, it still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and do our part by sharing the Good News

Alleluia! Christ is risen
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

He is risen as he said

He is risen as he said