Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christ is born!

Christmas night

I’ve got an uncle who is forever sending me emails of jokes & little quotes & things. I thought this was a wonderful quote from a 7 year old named Bobby:
"Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen."

It’s really tempting to spend a few minutes giving you the talk that goes ‘never mind all the presents & cards & decorations & stuff’ the REAL meaning of Christmas is this – the birth of Jesus.

But the real meaning of Christmas is that God became human, that God takes all the human stuff seriously. God shows us how he feels all of our lives are important – not only spiritual, heavenly airy-fairy bits. God being born in Jesus means that God is earthy, grounded - real.

The real meaning of Christmas is that it is all real – that God comes to us in all the ordinary stuff of life – crying babies, overbooked hotels, cold shepherds, so-called ‘wise’ men who are lost & won’t ask for directions. God comes to all of us & all of this world – in Jesus.

So whether this Christmas you are happy, lonely, filled with regrets, fearful, angry, still getting over that flu bug, or just a bit jaded, listen to the angels’ song ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all people’.

God is with us in all of our Christmases.
Every ordinary place & ordinary person can become part of God’s heaven & filled with God’s love.

I found a lovely prayer for Christmas night, someone called Pat Bennett

This Christmas, Lord,
take a corner of my life and steal in
invade the busyness of my doing
with the quiet of your coming.

This Christmas, Lord,
take a corner of my mind and steal in .
illuminate the darkness of my thinking
with the brightness of your seeing.

This Christmas, Lord,
take a corner of my heart and steal in
infuse the coldness of my loving
with the warmth of your Being.

This Christmas, Lord,
as at Bethlehem’s stable,
come and steal in .
take the unprepared places
of my life and make them fit for your dwelling.

So may we be blessed by the love of God in Christ which comes to us tonight & all our nights and days. Amen

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Christmas's coming!!

Amid all the carol services I thought I had only 1 sermon to preach tomorrow - at an 8am. Then I've realised I'm not doing that service - so some of these thoughts will no doubt get recycled at some point next week.
Funny how when you're up against it you create yet more work for yourself by doing unnecessary things!

Advent 4
It has been the hardest preparation for Christmas I can ever remember. Like so many I have had the chesty/throaty/coughing and rasping bug.
I’m sick of it, if I’m honest. I’m tired of keeping saying to myself – ‘just keep going – one more thing and then you can rest – just do this & then stop’ and ‘oh I wish I felt better’.

And now it’s here – well Advent 4 anyway – and all the carols services and wonder of Christmas Eve & Christmas Day & then… oh blissful moment when I can stop.

And here, right here, in these readings is the reminder I have needed – that Christmas is God’s initiative, not mine, and I have to ready only to croak out a ‘yes’ to God, for it all to happen.

I came across this prayer yesterday – and I think it says all we need to hear:
Into the bleakest winters of our souls, Lord, you are tiptoeing on tiny Infant feet to find us and hold our hands. May we drop whatever it is we are so busy about these days to accept this gesture so small that it may get overlooked in our frantic search for something massive and over­whelming. Remind us that it is not you who demands large, lavish celebrations and enormous strobe-lit displays of faith. Rather, you ask only that we have the faith of a mustard seed and the willingness to let a small hand take ours.
We are ready.
Come, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Advent 3

Well, can you believe it? Advent 3 already!
This means 'Experiencing Christmas' at one church - a series of 'stations' inviting people to journey with the shepherds, the magi & with Mary & Joseph to the stable at Bethlehem: we're adapting material from the diocese of Gloucester which looks very effective.
I also have a sermon to preach, on:
Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11
John 1: 6-8, 19-28

God’s gift to us

‘What would you like for Christmas?’ I’d be very surprised if most of us haven’t been asked that by someone or other this year. Friends or relations who want to get us something, but get us something useful not the usual ‘bathsalts & inexpensive scent & hideous tie so kindly meant’ that John Betjeman puts his finger on so well in his poem.

So we try to think – is there something we need? A little treat we wouldn’t otherwise get for ourselves? Something that’s broken & needs replacing? And of course we have to assess how much the person asking the question is probably willing to spend: should we ask for a paperback book or a new watch?
My granddad was always very disparaging about people giving each other Christmas presents – he would watch Marjorie give Maureen a set of hankies & Maureen give Marjorie some bubble bath & Granddad would chuckle & say “it’s like taking in one another’s washing!”.

This is the season, it seems of giving & busy-ness & lists & frenzy.
But now in this season it’s time to pause & think about God’s gift to us: a gift without wrapping, fuss, or price. I want us today to concentrate for a moment not on giving but on receiving.
Stop for a moment & hear the voice of John the Baptist ‘Make straight the way for the Lord!’.

What is it the Lord comes offering us? The prophet Isaiah declares:
“He has sent me to announce good news to the humble,
To bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to those in prison.. to comfort all those who mourn.”

For the people of God at a time when their country has been invaded, their leaders have been taken captive and their sons have been slain in battle, God, through Isaiah, is offering what they most want, most need, most long for.
When you hear these words from Isaiah you will remember, perhaps, that in Luke’s gospel these are the words with which Jesus begins his ministry. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring the good news of comfort, liberty and healing.

We might wonder just how Jesus brings us these most wonderful gifts.
We might even be tempted to jump ahead from Bethlehem with its manger and stable, wise men and shepherds – to jump ahead to a time when Jesus actually does something, begins healing & teaching. Jesus himself was to grow to be thought of as a wise man, and to refer to himself as the Good Shepherd. Is the story of the birth of Jesus anything more than a humble beginning to the story of an extraordinary life?

I had a fascinating discussion with a Muslim at about thi time of year a few years ago, in which we compared the traditions about Jesus passed on through the Christian and Islamic faiths. She told me of the story of an angel appearing to Mary to tell her she was to have a special child, even though she was a virgin. But in Islamic tradition the story goes on to describe how Mary is rejected by her village & forced to give birth alone. Mary is only believed about the circumstances of her motherhood, and received back into the village, when Jesus, still a babe in arms, miraculously speaks and tells the people she is telling the truth and he is a prophet.

There are, of course, elements which are common to this account and what we are told in the Christian gospels. But for Muslims, Jesus is a prophet and not the Son of God – as soon as he can start to prophesy he can bring truth and understanding to people, he can do God’s work on earth.

The difference for us as Christians is that who Jesus is carries more importance than what he says or does. We tell the good news of God with us in Jesus Christ – of the divine become human and entering this world as a helpless baby.

I have spoken to Muslim clerics in the past who have patiently explained to me that God cannot do this, that God cannot lower himself to enter his creation. All I can say is to quote what the angel says when Mary protests that she cannot become pregnant “with God, all things are possible”.
We cannot know how, but we are told that God enters our world in Jesus Christ: a helpless, crumpled, human baby.

God’s gift to us is himself. Leaving aside some of his power and majesty – ‘emptying himself’ & ‘making himself nothing’ as Paul says in the letter to the Philippians – God takes on human life in all its messiness and danger and is born – Jesus Christ.

What does it mean to say that God gives us himself in Jesus?
It means that the phrase ‘God is with us’ is so much more than an empty promise or meaningless platitude. God has come to live among us to experience and understand our human condition, and then to transform it.

The truth of God with us takes us light years away from our pre-packaged, high pressure, high-spending Christmas. What we buy, what we eat, who we see is all secondary to the fact that God has touched this earth, taken on our human life, and shown us a glimpse of his heaven, where there is healing for our wounds, comfort for our sorrow, freedom where we are trapped.

Here is the greatest gift of all – wrapped in human flesh – the God of love come to us where we are, as we are, to make us all we are made to be.

Thanks be to God for this gift beyond words, offered to us here in bread and wine.
Thanks be to God.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Sunday's sermon

Another frantic week: many funerals I'm afraid.

Anyway here is the finished article, based on
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Mark 1: 1-8

‘Preparing the Way’
It’s coming to that time of year when the newspapers and magazines will be full of ‘key events of 2009’ – what they think will happen next year. I’m a sucker for these. I always read them and realise it’s because I would love to know what’s going to happen. But of course we can’t really know.
Apparently Thomas Watson, who was Managing Director of IBM – which made millions from the sale of computers in the 1990s is quoted as saying in 1958 that he thought there was a world need for only 5 computers. I find it strangely reassuring that even a person whose company has capitalised so much from the great computer age couldn’t at first see what was coming.

It seems that the whole church is facing a time of change right now: there is a lot of talk about ‘new ways of being church’, ‘emerging church’, even ‘liquid church’. We might wonder – what is the church coming to? But we can’t predict that future either.

Well, that’s not quite true – I don’t know exactly what the church will look like in 30 years’ time, anymore than those who built this building could have envisaged what our lives would be like.

I don’t know exactly what the church is coming to – but Advent gives us some strong pointers.

Advent literally means ‘the coming to’.
So traditionally we have treated it as the time of coming towards Christmas, a time of countdown or preparation. We open calendars, light candles, read or pray… we prepare on the outside & on the inside.

We also take time to remember and carefully recollect God coming to the earth in the birth of Jesus Christ. We find ways to satisfy our need to refresh ourselves, to make ourselves ready to hear the message of the angels again.

And this is also a time to listen to what the Bible has to tell us about what the world is coming to, about the coming of Christ to us, now.

The prophet Isaiah is giving words of comfort to the people of God at a time when all the important leaders of the land of Judah have been taken from its capital, Jerusalem, into exile in Babylon. He tells them not to worry, because God is coming to them. And the way through the desert for God is also the way of return for God’s people – they are promised that once again they will inhabit the Promised Land and that God will care for them there.
Isaiah promises a time when God’s people and their close relationship to God will be restored “Here is the Lord God, he is coming to rule”.

For the exiles in Babylon, or the ones who were left behind, who are asking ‘what is the world coming to?’ Isaiah promises ‘God will come & sort it out’.

We could pause here to ask the question ‘did Isaiah’s promise come true?’. The answer would have to be – yes and no! – the people returned to Jerusalem, the land of Israel was reunited but there wasn’t the lasting peace which Isaiah promised and the people longed for. There were continued political and military struggles over the land of Israel and of course by the time of Jesus the land was occupied again, this time by the Roman Empire.

In the time of Jesus, people could very well have been asking again ‘what is the world coming to?’.
Mark’s gospel draws a link between the story in Isaiah of a voice which cries out that God is coming and the work of John the Baptist.
John comes baptising and telling people to turn from sin, but primarily he comes to tell people of the coming of Jesus Christ.
For people looking for a sign of what is to come, Mark offers John the Baptist, as the fore-runner of the Lord himself.

Mark paints John as the one who was expected to come to tell people of the coming of the end of time – he comes out of the desert, he looks like the prophet Elijah, and he announces that the Lord is coming.

And when he does arrive, Jesus proclaims “the time has arrived, the kingdom of God is upon you” (v15). There would be people who would let out an immense sigh of relief at John’s message.
‘We have waited and waited for God to come and end the suffering of the people of Israel, the endless fighting and losing and being occupied and being exiled – at last, God will come and will rule and there will be peace and justice and healing’.

And so Jesus comes: but not cutting a swathe through the Roman forces, as some would have liked to see him do; and not bringing the end of time and the day of reckoning for all wrong-doers. Yet Jesus comes, and announces that the kingdom is now here.

Where the sick are healed – the kingdom is here; where the hungry are fed – the kingdom is here; where injustice is challenged – the kingdom is here; where people learn to live fully human lives, loving God and their neighbour –the kingdom is here.

So what is the world coming to? It is coming to a realisation that this is God’s kingdom – a realisation that begins with the coming of Jesus Christ and a realisation that continues where the will of God is done today in the church and in the world. Yet of course the kingdom has not yet come fully and perfectly.

And this is where the church comes in – this is what the church is coming to – we are to be the community of those who recognise that we already have one foot in the kingdom of God, that we belong to God & that God has come to us.
We are here to make the kingdom come where we remember he is with us and walk in his way & by the strength of his Spirit.

As we eat and drink today we celebrate the kingdom of god – we remember God-with-us in Jesus Christ – and we offer ourselves to be used as citizens of God’s kingdom, those who proclaim ‘prepare the way for the lord’.

And as God meets us here his presence helps to prepare our hearts and minds for the good news of the infinite love of God, come to live with us to save us.
To God’s praise & glory. Amen.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Oops - busy bee: late sermon

Advent Sunday (Isa 52: 7-10, Romans 10: 12-18, Matt 4: 18 -22)

As we mark St Andrew’s day, we remember one who gave his life to share Christ’s message with the world.
And what shall our message be, this Advent Sunday?
The world doesn’t need the church to tell it that it's nearly Christmas - every advertisement is shouting it at us, each shop is crammed with tinsel and trimmings, and tomorrow we get to start opening our Advent calendars.
But what the world does need us to tell them is...what? What shall our message be?

Well, today is also ‘buy nothing day’ – an international attempt to make people stop and think about how materialistic and greedy they – and therefore their celebrations of Christmas – have become.
But before you either nod vigourously at me because you don’t want to be greedy, or stop listening because you’d planned to do some Christmas shopping this afternoon – let me say that I don’t think the church is here to tell the world to be less materialistic.

Christmas – or at least the coming of Christ – is all about the material. God with us – in the stuff of life, up to his neck in straw and all the mess and business of our world - is an event of the most amazing materialism. We are not true to the coming of Christ if we say that God wants us to abandon the material in favour of the spiritual – because Jesus Christ did precisely the opposite.
So our message cannot be ‘abandon the material’ but ‘look for God in the material, and celebrate the coming of God through it’.

Yet if this is our message, we had better be careful, as I don’t think the world needs the church to tell it to ‘eat, drink and be merry’!

What else can our message be? If we say 'the Lord is coming' we will see some people immediately write us off as the sort of messengers who want to walk round with a sandwich board which says 'the end of the world is nigh'. Ours is not a message of doom and gloom, but of hope and peace. If our message is to be ‘Christ is coming’ we need to explain what this means – what it meant 2000 years ago, what is has meant to us and what it might mean to a waiting world.

The coming of Christ for Andrew meant a new direction in life – following Jesus, leaving his nets and learning what on earth Jesus meant when he told his new friends they would ‘fish for people’.
Andrew followed Jesus, and saw in his life the promises of Isaiah fulfilled – that ‘God would bare his arm, and that all nations would see the salvation of God’. As Andrew looked at Christ he saw God in the material of life, touching it and healing it and making life whole again.

For Andrew, to follow Jesus meant to recognize the love of God in his life, changing the world for the better. For us, following Jesus means just the same – recognizing that God with us in Jesus, made a material fact in the birth of a baby 2000 years ago, is a living truth today and forever.

Our message is vital - and the world needs it now more than ever – it is ‘God is with us’. God cares for this world he made, and is determined to live amongst us.

Of course our message is more than what we say - it is how we live and how we treat people.
If our following Jesus has taught us something about who he is and what his coming means, we need to share this with our neighbours somehow.

This advent, we need to share with others words of hope, or joy, of love. We need to be living proof that the Christ who came to Bethlehem still comes into the hearts and lives of all those who need him.

I can’t do better than the words of John Betjeman:
We need to show
‘That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine’.

Take this holy sacrament to your comfort, and be ready to share its truth with all you meet this Advent
To God’s praise and glory. Amen.