Tag Archives: Messiah

How Far Can We Trust God?

Trust blog

How far can we trust God?

Our readings for Evensong on the second Sunday in Advent bring us the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and his encounter with Gabriel in the Temple sanctuary. It gives us Luke’s introduction of how God’s divine plan is about to unfold…

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11Luke 1:1-25

May I speak and may you hear in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This evening our gospel reading leads us further into our Advent preparations and on this second Sunday of Advent we are reminded of the work of the prophets, and in particular we remember John the Baptist who stands as a link between the Old and New Testament. However, this evening it is not directly about John, but his parents, especially his father’s pre-conceptual reaction to the news of his divinely ordained fatherhood.

It is with this story that Luke begins his gospel and being the historian he is he is at pains to include in his dedication the care he is taking to make sure that we have an orderly and accurate account. He doesn’t set out Jesus’ ancestral claims like Matthew does; or the symbolic prose of John, or even start with John, the adult baptiser, appearing in the wilderness to fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy as in Mark’s gospel. No, Luke wants to start with a story of how people reacted to God’s preparations for the gift of his Son to the world. So, what does it tell us and how might we learn about our reactions from it?

We are introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, chosen by God to play an important role in Jesus’ story. I think we can safely say that neither of them were lukewarm nominal believers. Their credentials meant that they were righteous in the sight of God. Zechariah serving as a priest in the order of Abijah, which can be translated as ‘my Father is Yahweh’, and Elizabeth claiming descendancy from Aaron, God’s original high priest at the time of the Exodus. They walked blamelessly and observed all the commandments. In other words, they were obedient servants of God. Yet, for Zechariah there was an area in his life that resulted in some trust issues.

We can imagine that for a long time they had tried hard to conceive a child and had prayed to God about it, but no doubt as they grew older they had given up hope that it was likely to happen. So it is fairly reasonable that when Zechariah, alone in the sanctuary and terrified at the sudden appearance of an angel, is told that not only is he going to be a father, but that his child will play a pivotal role in proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah, that his first response is, ‘Are you sure? What proof can you offer for this?’

‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’
Luke 1:18

He was confronted with a situation that required faith and trust. The faith bit he had in abundance but the trust was not so easy. Very often we too can face a lack of trust where God is concerned. It seems that we are happy to accept that love underpins our motivation to seek God and to follow his example but trust is harder to pin down. Often this difficulty has to do with our past experiences and our present situations. As humans our fall-back position is to initiate our self-reliance mode. It’s a primitive response to protect ourselves from perceived harm, thinking that we only have ourselves to rely on to get out of trouble

It can also be difficult to imagine stepping out of our comfort zones, but we have to remember that nothing is impossible with God, not even in areas where we have experienced nothing but failure, disappointments and frustration. We have to trust he is there to catch us when we fall and to uphold us as we move forward. It may be that we are holding back that trust because we are happy and comfortable to stay exactly where we are; but this can lead to stagnation; our faith never gets an opportunity to mature, or for our relationship with God to grow stronger as we grow closer to him.

God knows all things; he knows our hearts, our desire to be committed to him and sometimes our desire to be rebellious. But we have to be prepared to take the first necessary step to trust him in each area of our life. Take that step, then another and then the next one. This is the way to grow our faith in God, one step at a time… and how much easier is it as well to take those steps in the company of others, to be encouraged and to encourage each other. Because the more we hand over our lives to God and trust in him the more we can be freer to become the people that God is calling us to be.

With regard to Zechariah’s enforced silence following his lack of trust, I would not see this as a punishment for a lack of faith rather an opportunity for Zechariah to have space for reflection. If we fast forward to his son’s birth, we know that he had become reconciled to leaving things in God’s hands, for his first actions on having his speech restored to him was to speak in praise of God and to leave people amazed at just what his son was to become

We know he was to be ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ but we also know that we too can be responsible to make this happen in our own lives. From Proverbs 3 ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.’

So, this Advent let us all be prepared to step away from self-reliance and instead step forward in faith and trust.

Amen

zechariah window

Zechariah and Gabriel at the incense altar in the Temple

Hail To Christ, The King

Hail to Christ, the King

Hail to Christ, the King

On Sunday we came to the last Sunday of the church’s year. It goes out with a bang, celebrating Christ as King. The evening brought a quieter more reflective time when we could think about just what sort of king Jesus is.

Using some of the liturgy from Liturgies for High Days by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, we thought about a different kind of royalty, one bereft of privilege and wealth, whose power lies in truth, faithfulness and grace for all people. We also remembered Jesus’ faithfulness to his calling, entering into the pain of our lives and yet able to leap free of all its bondages.

The cross that frees us from bondage

The cross that frees us from bondage

Our reading for the evening was one of those ones that lends itself naturally into a meditative retelling. Here is my version of Luke 23:32-43:

The journey through the streets had been tortuous, the crowd pressing in on either side. The sounds of jeering and weeping had mingled together to form a cacophony that heralded their progress. Now they had left the city gate and slowly climbed the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. Three condemned men, each bearing the burden of a death sentence, brought out to this seemingly god-forsaken place to be nailed to a cross and hoisted high so that all might see that justice had been done.

Few people had made the effort to ascend the incline; there was a perfectly good view from the shaded city walls, and they were even more grateful for that distance as the midday sun rose to its zenith, its heat intensifying the stench of decay that hung in the sultry air over the place.

Jesus’ thoughts, however, were not for his own physical discomfort but that God might show mercy to those who had condemned him, and he cried aloud, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not realise what they are doing’. Some of those who heard these words felt a pang of guilt sweep over them and turned away, ashamed.

Are there times when we too turn away in shame?…

But beneath the crosses the guards, who had seen it all before, bickered over who should have his redundant clothing before drawing straws; the winner triumphant that he had obtained such a seamless tunic so cheaply. Whilst the representatives of the Jewish leaders, perhaps sensing the remorseful sentiments of the woman who had gathered there, tried to add justification of their part in the proceedings by scoffing at Jesus, pointing out that this man who claimed to be the chosen Messiah of God seemed incapable of saving himself despite his claim to have saved others. Hearing this, the soldiers joined in, offering a toast to the ‘King of the Jews’ with a sponge soaked in sour wine. Even so, they could see no glorious death of a king in battle, no pomp and ceremony, and soon grew tired of mocking this inaptly titled monarch.

When might our desire for ritual and symbols blind us from the simple truth?…

One of the criminals, hearing these things, turned and spoke in derisory tones to the man who hung beside him in silent sufferance, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ His thoughts were, that if this was the hope of Israel then surely he could save not only himself from this punishment but them also, however unlikely that was… and it was a slim hope that he would not die today.

However, the other rebuked him harshly; pointing out that self-preservation was not necessarily the main reason to call on God in these circumstances, particularly when they were both there for being condemned justly for their actions. It was clear to him that Jesus was a victim of a miscarriage of justice; what’s more he had recognised the holiness of this innocent man. Perhaps, he told the other, they should fear God’s ultimate punishment more.

Where does it leave us if we only call on God in times of crisis?

Turning to Jesus, an honest and heartfelt plea came to his lips, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ As the figure at his side turned to look at him with a full gaze, he saw not a broken and bloodied man but a saviour in all his resplendent majesty who spoke immeasurable words of reassurance, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

IMG_5817

Back to the service then, as we sang ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom’ as a prayerful chant and thought about our ‘king’ who calls us to have a more generous love for the world; to bravely dream of the future where we might be a new hope for better things to come and to remain steadfast in our faith in the possibility of Christ’s reign of love.

Hail to Christ, the King,
ruler who lays down the power to destroy,
leader who treads through the costly journey
and into the shadow places of life,
that we might find the rising of life before us:

Hail to Christ, the King,
born to be first witness to God’s truth,
whose might lies in mercy,
whose throne is placed in the midst of humble people.

Hail to Christ, the King

Some material has been reproduced from Liturgies for High Days, Dorothy McRae-McMahon ©SPCK. The meditation is my own.

The purple stole used in the service as a focal point was created by Deborah Ireland. See here for more information about her work

It’s Called Christmas For A Reason – The Shepherd’s Story

A Thousand Angels

A Thousand, Thousand Angels

Jonathan shivered and pulled the camel hair aba more tightly around his shoulders. It was still fairly mild for the time of year, but he knew that these clear skies would soon bring bitter, frosty nights. Tonight though, the stars seemed to be vying to outshine each other as they twinkled brightly overhead and the moon, a silver crescent, hung low in the sky westward.

They had been gradually leading the sheep down from the hills into the valley’s pasture, and the limestone cliffs at their back were providing some welcome relief from the dusty winds that had been blowing hard. He was grateful in some ways that the size of the flock meant that they could not all be gathered into the sheepfold around the Migdal Edar* but had instead been allowed to graze the cleared harvest fields; nibbling a few remnants that the gleaners had missed.

Anyway, he didn’t really like going into the town; they were forbidden from going into the synagogue and the people in the streets stared at them and often moved aside as if they were unclean – like lepers! No doubt they did smell a bit, but who wouldn’t after being surrounded by sheep all day. But it was more than that – they wanted to keep him out of God’s house, but he was pretty certain that God heard his prayers anyway.

Still, the town looked very peaceful and it’s residents no doubt dreaming as they slept in their comfortable beds. He looked over at his younger brother Caleb, laid on his back with his eyes closed, gently snoring… some shepherd he was at keeping watch! Yet he knew that at the first sign of danger he’d be up and ready to use his sling to defend the sheep. He’d let him sleep for a while longer as it had been a hard couple of days for his new apprentice.

Jonathan shifted his body slightly to look down the hill. It was uncomfortable sitting on the hard ground; maybe he’d take a stroll in a minute to talk to some of the other shepherds he could see sitting in small groups. He was just about to rise when the whole world disappeared – his eyes were open but a blinding flash had taken away his night vision. Then a clear melodic voice spoke somewhere above his head telling him not to be afraid. Without seeing him, he could feel Caleb clutching his arm.

The voice continued to speak, and by shielding his eyes he could just make out the hazy shape of a man surrounded by a halo of light, who seemed to be hovering above the field. The few words he caught were of ‘good news’ and of ‘a Saviour being born in David’s town’…… Bethlehem!  After he had spoken, the angel, for Jonathan was certain that’s who the figure was, appeared to expand, but then he realised that he had been joined by a whole host and that the entire sky was lit up as if it was daylight. Their ethereal song was full of praise and glory to God; of peace and goodwill.

As the last heavenly notes faded into the air, Jonathan realised that dawn was breaking and he got up and hurried with Caleb over to the other shepherds who were equally amazed. Wordlessly, they all made their way into the town, a few of the sheep and lambs bleating as they followed their shepherds. Without obvious direction, they found the open door of what appeared to be an animal enclosure, from which the faint glow of an oil lamp could be seen.

Looking inside they could see two people bending over what appeared to be a hay manger. The man looked up, slightly startled; then beckoned them to enter. Humbly, they made their way in and in the makeshift crib, Jonathan could see a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, he gazed down at the child, still speechless. Meanwhile Caleb had squirmed his way through to the front and now put his hand out to touch the baby. Jonathan went to stop him, but the child’s mother nodded and smiled, and the infant reached out to grasp Caleb’s proffered finger.

The older shepherds began to tell the story of what had happened in the fields and why they had come. The man seemed to think it incredulous, but the baby’s mother, perhaps already aware of how special this child was, listened to all they had to say and pondered their words.

Afterwards, Jonathan and the others made their way back to their temporarily abandoned flocks, but what to do with the news of all that had happened that night? Who could they tell and who would believe them? Certainly not the rabbis or synagogue leaders. He, stood still for a moment to think, ‘We may be the despised guardians of the Pascal lambs but maybe we have just seen a new kind of shepherd who will lead us beyond the Temple sacrifices – a true shepherd of the sheep’

Then he turned  and ran to catch up with Caleb, who was already striding across the field. Right now these sheep needed him, and as he called out to them they answered with baas and mehs as they recognised his voice.

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by  Francisco de Zurbaran

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) by Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664)

While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground; the angel of the Lord came down, and glory shone around. “Fear not!” said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled minds, “Glad tidings of great joy I bring to all of humankind. To you, in David’s town, this day is born of David’s line a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, and this shall be the sign. The heavenly babe you there shall find to human view displayed, all meanly wrapped in swathing bands, and in a manger laid.” Thus spake the seraph and forthwith appeared a shining throng of angels praising God on high, who thus addressed their song, “All glory be to God on high, and to the earth be peace; goodwill henceforth from heaven to earth begin and never cease!” Nahum Tate (1652-1715) based on Luke 2:8-14

Share the Good News!

*Migdal Edar literally means ‘Tower of Eder’ or ‘Tower of the Flock’ in Hebrew. Biblical records locate it near to the present day city of Bethlehem. It is mentioned in Genesis 35:21 and scholars interpret a passage in Micah 4:8 as a prophecy indicating that the Messiah would be revealed from the ‘tower of the flock’

Watching and Waiting

Signs of Advent

Signs of Advent

At this time of year, in the lead up to the Christmas celebrations, we spend a great deal of time watching and waiting. What is it though that we are watching and waiting for? Is it for the first sign that Christmas is coming? In that case our watching should have started in September, when the first packs of mince pies appeared in the shops! Maybe the earliest sign that we’re watching for is when, what has become an iconic Coca Cola advert, ‘Holidays are coming, holidays are coming….‘ appears on our television, as the twinkling lorry wends it’s merry way to bring cheer and healthy profits for its stockholders – perhaps the waiting is over when we’ve seen that?

On the other hand we might be watching our credit card groaning under the increase in spending as we are tempted to celebrate the season by purchasing an excessive amount of presents to show our friends and relatives just how much we really love them…… Maybe though, we won’t be waiting for the bill to flop onto our doormat and realise that it will probably take a whole year, if not more to make the repayments – if only we hadn’t bought that one extra present that got put in the cupboard last year and might just do as a raffle prize next time someone asks for one!

Indulging in luxuries, wine, and rich food will never make you wealthy
Proverbs 21:7

What is it we are watching and waiting for? Are we watching our weight as the pounds pile on as we tuck into several Christmas party dinners and surreptitiously open the big box of chocolates that we were saving for Christmas – we can always get a replacement before the day. Or are we waiting for the sales that will start on Boxing Day, so that we can go and hunt out all those bargains… the credit card should just last till then… or maybe we could return that ‘delightful’ jumper that Auntie May bought us, then we can buy what we really want!!

Am I being a bit cynical, a bit ‘bah humbug’. I probably am, but I’m certainly not being holier than thou, because at some point or other I have done all of those things – except for returning the jumper Auntie May! For many people the real joy of Christmas will be doing all or some of these things – and there is love and joy and happiness in coming together, sharing, and giving and receiving gifts. For many of us though there will be a little bit of sadness that people won’t watch and wait for something considerably more important and certainly longer lasting than the use by date on the egg nog.

At church we have started a new year, with the season of Advent, The word Advent is an anglicised version of the Latin word adventus – meaning ‘coming’ – what then or who is coming? Well Christmas is coming (regardless of whether the geese are any fatter) and we will spend these next few weeks preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus to earth over 2000 years ago. But we’re not really watching and waiting for his birth – that’s already happened; and his resurrection means that we will not really be watching and waiting for his coming among us, because he’s already here in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

What the watching and waiting will involve is a retelling of the ancient stories of a long awaited Messiah, through the visions of the prophets, the blessing of Mary who carried the Christ-child in her womb and the messengers, like John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus’ earthly mission. Perhaps more importantly we will once again be watching and waiting expectantly in preparation for Jesus’ Second Coming, as we put aside some of the excitement and spend some time being penitent and a little more thoughtful.

“So you, too, must keep watch! For you do not know the day or hour of my return”
Matthew 25:13

In the meantime, we can also spend time doing some more watching and waiting…. Watching and waiting for opportunities, whether it’s time or money, to bring to all those around us, who for one reason or another may not have the same chances or opportunities to join in our celebrations, a feeling of hope for the future; and to show once again that Jesus really is the reason for the season!

May God bless us all this Advent

Watching and Waiting

Watching and Waiting