Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve communion service

Christmas Eve
Busy time, Christmas, isn’t it!
Sometimes you have to work hard just to keep going and keep smiling.
So it was good to sit down in front of the TV last night and watch “A grumpy guide to Christmas” – though those who know me well might say I don’t need any tips on being grumpy! But right there in the middle of all that grumpiness there was a profound theological truth – just when you think you’ve finished work for the day.

One of the grumpy old men was being scathing about the so-called wise men and their gifts – gold, he said ‘well fair enough coz it’s worth a bit’ ‘and maybe incense is good to get rid of smells’ ‘but what’s with myrrh – that’s what people use on dead bodies: what is he saying there? ‘congratulations on being born,kid – you’re going die?’…
Well... yes. The amazing truth of the incarnation – of God becoming a human being in Jesus, is that God was accepting not only the whole risky process of entering this world, and the painful business of learning to live in this world, but God was accepting the natural and only way of leaving this world – everyone who is born must, one day, die.

This is what it means to become truly human – accepting the whole package.

One of the great lives which ended in 2009 was the poet U. A Fanthorpe. Her poem ‘The Wicked Fairy at the manger’ imagines a dialogue between the wicked fairy (who in the style of Sleeping Beauty has come to curse and not bless the baby) and the baby, who of course is Jesus.

My gift for the child:

No wife, kids, home;
No money sense. Unemployable.
Friends, yes.
But the wrong sort –

The workshy, women, wimps,

Petty infringers of the law, persons

With notifiable diseases,
Poll tax collectors, tarts;

The bottom rung.

His end?

I think we’ll make it

Public, prolonged, painful.

Right, said the baby.
That was roughly

What we had in mind.

Our celebration of the incarnation of Jesus Christ begins this night with the memory of a birth, in extraordinary circumstances. (Though I wonder what would be ordinary circumstances for the birth of the Son of God?).
But our celebrations continue with the Eucharist, in which we remember the whole life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and give thanks that this whole story tells of God’s care for each of us.

And as we come to receive this bread and wine in Jesus’ name, or as we sit and reflect on this amazing story, Jesus is born again, this night, in each of us.

Thanks be to God for this gift beyond words.


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The mystery of the incarnation

How to tackle this? Every year I try and every year I marvel at the wonder of the true joy of Christmas.

At the Christmas eve midnight service tomorrow I will probably use this:

The Wicked Fairy At The Manger 
by U.A. Fanthorpe

My gift for the child:

No wife, kids, home;

No money sense. Unemployable.
Friends, yes.
But the wrong sort –

The workshy, women, wimps,

Petty infringers of the law, persons

With notifiable diseases,
Poll tax collectors, tarts;

The bottom rung.

His end?

I think we’ll make it

Public, prolonged, painful.

Right, said the baby.
That was roughly

What we had in mind.

Whilst on Christmas Day I will use a tatty old wooden orange box to reflect on the amazing contrast of the baby in the stable - the king of heaven made flesh.

Of course I have tomorrow morning & most of the afternoon to sort myself out!
Hope the mystery is opened to you this Chirstmas, faithful readers!
Happy Christmas.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Advent 4

Here's another sermon I'm not going to use (actually from 3 years ago.. I'm going to be using Lythan's very apt reflection on Mary's story instead - it's good to have talented friends!

Mary – the voice of a prophet Luke 1: 39 – 45 & 46 -55

I deliberately split this passage up into two to give us some sense of time passing. Often we hear the story of the angel appearing to Mary & rush into this visit to Elizabeth & Mary’s little speech which is sometimes called the Magnificat – as if it all happens in the space of the 5 minutes it takes to read it all.

But let’s just pause and think.
Imagine you’re a young girl, you’re betrothed to Joseph, a nice reliable carpenter – and one day an angel appears and tells you that you are going to have a baby which will be God in a human form. Your first reaction is not ‘My soul tells out the greatness of the Lord’. Your first reaction is probably shock, disbelief, even horror. The angel tells you that there is another sign that God is at work – your cousin Elizabeth, who has had no children in her many years of marriage, is pregnant. Because, the angel says ‘God’s promises can never fail’.
Well, there is certainly something to think about here – can God really be acting in the land of Judah, in the lives of an old woman and a young girl?

So Mary rushes off to see Elizabeth – who is indeed 6 months pregnant. And when Elizabeth sees her she says the baby within her leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice: ‘Happy is she who has faith that the Lord’s promise to her would be fulfilled’.
Then Mary knows – what the angel said about Elizabeth was true – she has been blessed with a child - and so Mary now comes to believe that she, too, will have a son – the Son of God.
And this is when Mary praises God.
And not just with any words – Mary’s words are very like those of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, when she has finally had a son in her old age. Mary sings a song which is not just her song, not just about her situation, it is a song about the greatness of God in all generations – it is a song of a prophet.

Mary says this is how God acts – he never abandons his people, generation after generation; he uses lowly and weak people and overturns great kings; he takes care of the needy, the hungry and the poor; his promises are always kept.

Mary, like all the other prophets, wants us to know that the love of God is real, the promises of God are true, and the presence of God is forever. Mary puts her hand to her belly and says ‘God is here and God will save us’. Jesus is born and shows how right she is – healing, teaching, living & dying… and being raised from death to show the reality and the power of God’s love.

So may we all praise God for his goodness, shown in Mary and in all our lives – and may we know and rejoice in the love of Christ. Amen.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

The sermon that never was!

Things have gone a bit pear-shaped this week - the upshot being that I'm not preaching a 'main' sermon this week.
Here are the notes as far as I'd got:

Well, what are you lot doing here?
You’ve come to try to save yourselves have you? – worried that God will put a black mark against your name if you don’t come to church?
Or maybe you just had nothing better to do this morning?
Or perhaps you’re looking for something that will make you feel more Christmassy?
You know, it’s no good just sitting there looking and listening unless you’re really wiling to do something!

I bet you’re wishing this sermon wasn’t going to be about John the Baptist – his style is abrasive and his words are hard to hear. And I decided not to call you a brood of vipers!

It’s hard at first to understand what John is doing. The crowd he is addressing is filled with the people who have bothered to come out into the desert to hear what he has to say. It feels a bit like the teacher who rants at the members of the class who are there on time because the rest of the class are late.

But John is warning people that what he has to say needs to have consequences in their lives – it’s no good just listening to John and carrying on life as before – his good news is a call to repent, to turn your life around, to change the way you do things.

And when his listeners ask what exactly they should do, John says
‘share .. coats or food. Treat others fairly and honestly and be satisfied with your wages.’.
If the people in the crowd have come out to him to change their lives for their own sakes, John comes not just to baptize but to throw cold water on their ideas, too. Repentance and salvation are not about what I do to save my own skin: it is about changing the world, making it more and more into God’s kingdom. The things which John tells his listeners to do are all things which will improve the world at large, not just their own lives.

So what John has to say is good news, after all – for the Messiah is coming, God is coming to his people, to give them the hope of the kingdom of God – and to strengthen and enable people to live new lives.

We remember John the Baptist in Advent because he points to the king who is to come, and the kingdom which must be built.
What would John have to say about our celebrations of Christmas?
Its easy to imagine that he might have been very negative about our celebrations – a man who lives in the desert on locusts and wild honey and dresses in rough animal skins doesn’t sound like someone who knows how to have a good time. But John points resolutely to Jesus, and would perhaps tell us that as long as we remember the coming of Jesus Christ then our celebrations are appropriate.

But John might challenge us if we begin to think that Christmas is only for our personal pleasure, or even that of our own family and friends. The coming of the king and the coming of the kingdom is for everyone – John would want to challenge us to social action, to fair shares, to speaking out for the lowest and the least of society.

So it isn't all bad news – and we can hear the more obvious good news of our reading from Philippians.
Rejoice in the Lord always.. do not worry.

Don’t worry about how to ‘keep Christmas’ as Dickens describes it in a Christmas Carol. If we can rejoice at the coming of Jesus and commit ourselves to action to bring a fairer world that reflects the values of God’s kingdom, then we will know God with us – not just for one, but for all.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Advent 3

The readings are

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

This is my VERY busy week, but I'm held in thrall by John the Baptist's words - and the challenge to not just observe the events of Christmas but allow them to work in us and change us.
Wondering about 'You brood of vipers!' as an arresting way to start the sermon! (No, I'm not kidding!).

I still think John the B is a great antidote to the 'theme park' Christmas we're offered in so many places.

I'm wondering quite when I'll find time to write the sermon - but will try to post it here when I do!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Advent 2

Readings for this week are
Malachi 3:1-4
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Last week's Advent 1 readings were about warnings of the End Times - a reminder that God is in charge of human history, and that the coming of Jesus is part of a larger plan. Advent has a timeless quality, in that it relates to then (the birth of Christ), now (our preparations) and what is to come (God's unfolding plan & eventual kingdom in its fulness).
Although (due to St Andrew) I didn't have to preach on it, I tried to think about it, as part of celebrating the whole of Advent.

This week I'm not preaching at all (due to some social plans - but also a welcome deep breath before the hectic next few weeks), but again I have wanted to think about Advent 2 as a part of the whole.

So Malachi reminds us of the astringent nature of God's message and God's messenger - Refiner's fire & fuller's soap.
Luke's gospel tells us of the coming of John the Baptist - possibly a man in need of soap, by all accounts, but certainly astringent & ascetic. No wonder poor J the B never makes it onto any Christmas cards!
I find these two readings a refreshing change from the syrupy 'soft soap' of much of the Christmas hype. Christmas as a time for gladness and joy is of course right - but it is also a time for reflection, change, challenge.

This advent I have been leading the Godly Play Advent stories as part of a short reflection each week. This talks of 'getting ready to enter the mystery of Christmas' - and whilst the 'to do' list seems horrendously long, I feel spiritually more clam and ready this year than for a long time.

The Philippians reading is a very positive outpouring of appreciation for the good news the church at Philippi have proclaimed - maybe if we can preach a message that cuts through some of the syrup to the reality of God with us the world will feel as grateful for our message.

The other advantage of not having to prepare worship for this week - I can try to get ahead on the remaining services before and including Christmas day. 'May hope keep you joyful' (Romans 12:12) keeps ringing in my ears!