Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Dec 26th

Dec 26th Isaiah 63: 7-9 Matthew 2: 13-23

So here we are, caught between Christmas and New year. The bin is full of wrapping paper, we’re wondering quite where to put the presents and looking forward to al those delicious left-overs of Christmas dinner. The new year beckons and we wonder what 2011 might bring us: and in our papers we read stories of political unrest in Korea & Pakistan, of the terribly sad deaths & diappearances and the unhealthy scrum of the sales…what happened to the story – just yesterday of peace on earth and good will to all people?

Matthew, bravely, tells us what happens immediately after the magi have returned to the East. Here is the unsavoury part, the bit that gets missed out of our Carol services. Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt, and Herod in his fury orders the massacre of all the boys aged two and under in the whole region in his attempt to rid himself of the threat of this rival so-called ‘king’ of whom the magi spoke.
Some of the most compelling and dreadful Christian art involves the depiction of this ‘massacre of the innocents’ – the terrible brutal killing of a whole generation of babies.
Meanwhile, Jesus, the target of Herod’s wrath – escapes.

It is only human nature to ask ‘why’?

If Christmas tells us God is with us, why does there seem to be more bad news than good? And if Jesus has truly come as saviour of humanity, why so early in the story do we get the very reverse – the birth of Jesus causing a terrible massacre, while Jesus himself is saved by the warning of an angel?

These are questions we almost daren’t ask, for fear of not being able to answer them. But ask them we must.
If God is truly with us, God is with us in the bad news as well as the good.
The message of God incarnate is not a sickly-sweet, reality-defying tale of ‘the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’, the arrival of an unearthly one who causes no offence. ‘God with us in Jesus’ is the God who takes on flesh and blood and bone and sweat to stand shoulder to shoulder with a world where terrible things happen and will continue to happen.

Nothing could have been achieved by the infant Jesus being slaughtered by Herod – his mission to bring Good News would have died with him at that point.
Yet Jesus was not spared slaughter indefinitely: he was truly human and subject to the same laws of nature as each one of us. So the moment of accepting incarnation, being born in flesh, was also the moment of accepting a mortal death. And with the wisdom of hindsight we can see that sooner or later the authorities were going to take issue with his radical message of God’s love for the least and the lowest, Jesus’ breaking of the rules of order in society.
Jesus is not entirely spared the massacre of the innocents – God merely delays his fate so that the Good News can first be heard and the kingdom shown in Jesus’ life.

So where does this leave us? When the innocents of today are massacred – by soldier’s sword or terrible accident or human folly – how can there possibly be Good News? Jesus shows us God with us: weeping with the sorrowful as the God who truly shares our humanity, nerving us to stand for justice and peace against all the odds, calling us forward into his kingdom of light.

And isn’t this better news, in the end, than being told that God is with us only in the good parts of our lives – when we are strong, or victorious, or feel blessed?
When life is at its darkness, we are promised light.
When pain threatens to overwhelm us utterly, we are promised hope.
When innocence dies, we are promised new life.

This is the real good news, the true depth of God with us, the gritty truth of incarnation, of God made flesh.

And if all this isn’t amazing enough, as we stand at the brink of the New Year God offers us a promise and a challenge.
He will be with us – here in all our worship and whenever we are in need in this year to come.

But we are not promised protection while those around us suffer. We are called to be the body of Christ, to be God enfleshed for the suffering and the hopeless. We are called to offer the Good News in a hurting world – God with us, in 2011 and until the end of time.

So may we use the future god gives us to grow in the knowledge of God with us and to share that Good News with our neighbours.
In Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. Amen

Friday, 24 December 2010

Christmas Day

Yes, it's short - do I expect complaints on christmas morning? NO.

Christmas morning
You might have felt that the whole week has been building up to this morning – that’s certainly the way it’s been in my household! – but for the modern-day Magi – those who like to watch the stars and planets, the big event this week was the lunar eclipse on Tuesday morning. At about 6.30 in the morning, the moon passed into the shadow of the earth & so for a little while went first a coppery-colour & then quite dark – until reappearing as the relative positions of the earth, moon & sun, shifted.

No, I didn’t get up at 6.30am – but there was some wonderful footage on the BBC website – and a very excited astronomer describing what we could see. He said ‘there’s the moon, a quarter of a million miles away; and you can also see Venus, very brightly – 46 million miles away. And in the opposite half of the sky there’s Saturn, a billion miles away. It’s at a time like this we can see our place in the solar system’.

All those millions and billions make me feel that our place in the solar system is very small and insignificant. It’s at a time like this we can see our place.

But today is Christmas Day – and at a time like this we can see our place in God’s universe.
Isaiah says :
‘Break forth together into singing… for the Lord has comforted his people…and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.’

Meanwhile John describes how the one through whom ‘All things came into being… became flesh and lived among us’. It’s Christmas – and at a time like this we remember that despite the enormity and vastness of the universe and the glory of the God who holds it all in being, we are blessed with a child, in whom we can see all the glory and truth of God.

At a time like this, God comes to us in flesh and blood and bone.
At a time like this, God comes in bread & wine & celebration.
At a time like this – at this time, may we know God with us.
And may we know a Happy and Blessed Christmas. Amen

Christmas Eve!

Not sure I have time to post everything I'm saying over the next, mad 48 hours: but here's this evening's reflection:

Christmas Eve.
It’s been a hectic few weeks, hasn’t it: and I’m sure I’ve complained as loudly as anyone - so much to do, so much to plan and think about, constant lists.. and then the snow to make everything that bit more difficult!
And then the blessed Angels sing ‘Peace on earth’ – and we wonder how to even get a moment’s peace, let alone how to pray for peace for our mad world.

I’ve got an uncle who is forever sending me emails of jokes & little quotes & things. This was one of his better ones: 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 a talk that goes ‘never mind all the presents & cards & decorations & stuff’ the REAL meaning of Christmas is this – the birth of Jesus. ..

..so create a space to stop and think and pray and then you’ll know the real meaning of Christmas.

But the real meaning of Christmas is that God became human, that God takes all the human stuff seriously. God shows us that 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 phrase ‘The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes’ is not a clue to the unearthly nature of Jesus – it’s just the romantic imaginings of a Victorian hymn-writer. There would have been crying, and not just from Jesus – but I’m sure from Mary & Joseph too!

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 inns, 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 all of our mess and frenzy. God comes to us – in Jesus.

So whether this Christmas you are ready or not – whether you are happy, lonely, filled with regrets, fearful, angry, or just a bit jaded, listen to the angels’ song ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all people’.
And know that 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.
So may we be blessed by God’s love and know real peace this night & always. Amen

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Reflections for Advent 4

So, here's the bones:

Matthew 1: 18-25

Then 'Joseph's story'
Well, everyone knows the story of Mary & the angel. But you can’t blame me for not believing it at first. I’ve seen it before, you know, some of my friends... Betrothed a long time and – well, they get a bit impatient and accidents happen & they get married pretty quickly. But we weren’t like that – Mary & me. We were content to wait, do it right.
Then she came & told me about the baby. I was devastated. Well, I knew it wasn’t mine – so I naturally assumed it was another man. ‘Let me tell you about it’ Mary said – I didn’t want to hear it – I didn’t want to know who it was and how much she loved him more than me, and how sorry she was for letting me down & hurting me. I didn’t want to hear her say anything.. I just wanted to get away. I stormed out & left her standing there shaking her head.

My brother said to me ‘Have her stoned – her and her fancy man – whoever he is – that’s the law. Report her and at least have the satisfaction of seeing her punished’.
But I said to him ‘Reuben – I still love her, that’s why this hurts so much – I’ll just break off the engagement quietly and in a month or so she can marry the father of her child and I’ll just have to find someone else.’
And I thought that was the end of it: a sad & sorry end, but there you go.

Then I had the weirdest dream – an angel came & told me to marry Mary: he knew my name and everything! He said that this child was from the Holy Spirit and that we should call him Jesus and that he would ‘save his people from their sins’.
I have no idea what all this means, or what the future holds in store… but I went straight to Mary when I woke up. She laughed and cried and kissed me – and said that she had tried to tell me about the angel for herself.

It’s a good thing God took it in hand and sent me his messenger.
So now I’m looking forward to marrying Mary and meeting this ‘Jesus’ and raising him as my own, precious son.
I wonder what he will be like…


Luke 1: 26-35

Then Mary's story (after The Rev. Sherrie Dobbs Johnson's Midrash "Mary in the stable")
It often happens to women – being falsely accused of wrongdoing..
The new bride of a handsome widower. . . .People say she was going with him before his wife's head was cold in her grave.
The young woman who married the only man who ever treated her like she was gold instead of giving her gold-plated necklaces and bracelets and rings. . . . People say she married him for his money.
The dark-skinned woman who lives with a dark-skinned man, yet has a light-skinned baby. . . . People say, "No way!" could that baby be her man's child.
Wrongly accused – judged-misunderstood.

I am Mary, a teenager who is about to have a baby without the benefit of marriage.
I am engaged, but my fiancé and I have never had sexual relations. People laugh at me when I tell them this. While that hurts, what my fiancé believed was more important: If not by him, then by whom?
His face when I tried to tell him.. I thought he would never believe me.

Thank God for angel who told Joseph I was not made pregnant by any human, but that the Spirit of the Lord had put this new life into my body. I told him – that’s what the angel told me, too!
Then we laughed. he is such a good man, my Joseph. We wonder what it will mean to give birth to the Saviour of the world. We're going to name him Jesus, like the angel said!

So let the people talk. Let 'em laugh. I said to the Lord those months ago, "I am yours." I meant every word I said.
And now I wonder about this child I bear: how can such a tiny baby save the world?

Then a Reflection on these stories.
As we listen to Joseph’s story and Mary’s story with all their wondering and questions, we may well have questions of our own.

What will this birth mean? - shame & scandal; or life & hope?
Perhaps we are so familiar with the ‘happy ending’ we see of the nativity scene on the Christmas cards that we forget how difficult it must have been for Mary & Joseph. Mary said to the angel ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ – but there must have been times in the next 9 months when she wondered if she should have objected a little more to God’s plan.

Mary & Joseph each face the facts of what is happening – including the visit from an angel and have to decide what they should do - run & hide? grin & bear it? Or listen to what God's messenger is telling them and live with the consequences?
What about us? Can we allow this story to challenge us – to spur us on to new commitment to God’s plan for humanity? Dare we offer to be a part of the kingdom of God?

And finally as we listen to this story of the birth of Jesus from Mary’s and from Joseph’s points of view we might wonder where God is in all this. Is it God who is sorting out the mess, by sending the angel to tell Mary & Joseph what to do? Or does God cause the mess in the first place, with this plan for Jesus to be born?
Or maybe, that night in Bethlehem, in a stable, among the animals, the straw, the blood and the sweat, we will look at the mess and see God right in the midst of it.
God with us.
Amen.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Advent 4

I've been looking in particular at
Matthew 1:18-25

which gives the birth of Jesus very much from Joseph's point of view.
I'm thinking of balancing it (as the gospels do) with Mary's point of view, and then bringing us to our own point of view, as we look at some fairly simple questions:

what will this birth mean? - shame & scandal; or life & hope?
what should I do - run & hide? grin & bear it? listen to what God's messengers are telling me?
where is God in this? sorting out the mess? causing it? right in the midst of it?

If I have time (hah!) I think I'd like to write reflections by Mary & by Joseph, with time to think in between & then a concluding reflection bringing it 'home'.
Oh yes, and I have a wedding on Saturday & 2 carol services on Sunday to finishing organising too!

Because someone asked 'Where is it?'..

... here are the notes from Sunday's sermon at the adult baptism. It seemed to make sense to people. I hope so.


I have to confess I’m getting to the stage when I’m losing track of what day it is. Twice last week I thought it was Friday when it wasn’t – once on Wednesday and once on Thursday. The problem with these days as Christmas is getting closer is that they’re all a bit the same – loads to do, a mixture of writing cards, opening cards, writing more cards, buying and wrapping presents, thinking about food & drink and (for me at least) preparing lots of services. I may not know what day it is – but I know it’s very nearly Christmas – the signs are all around in The TV adverts, the shops, the music, the lights & trees... it all seems to have come round incredibly quickly.
We are all filled with expectation & excitement... or apprehension & dread, depending on your psychological make-up. It’s soon going to be Christmas.

So I’d forgive you for wondering why we have had a reading not about the birth of Jesus, but from 30 years on, when Jesus has started his work and preaching. John the Baptist has baptised Jesus and then John has been put in prison for his condemnation of his ruler, Herod. John is beginning to wonder whether Jesus is the Messiah after all. He sends his disciples to ask “Are you the one, or must we look for another?”.
Jesus tells him to look at the evidence “the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought good news”. If Jesus was a modern day teenager he would simply say to John ‘Am I the one? Like, duh!’.
Who else but the Messiah could do those things?
When all these good thigns happen, you know God is at work in his world.

Darren, your baptism is just the beginning of a journey for you today. You want to be a good Godfather, you want to help to shape and guide a young life, and so you have taken this step of baptism yourself. You are responding to the evidence you have seen of God at work in the world in new life and new hope.

I want to give you – and all of us – a challenge today. You know it’s Christmas because of the evidence all around you. But right at the heart of Christmas is this message that God came into the world in Jesus. John the Baptist was challenged to look for the signs around him and I believe we are each challenged to look for the evidence around us. Look for goodness and new life, hope and joy in he world – and when you find them, think about the presence of God in them.

But it’s even more challenging than that. You might hear in the Christmas story about Jesus Christ - who was the word made flesh 2000 years ago. But you might wonder how people can see & hear that for themselves, as John did? How can the world of today see the human face of the one who is God with us?

People need to see the face of Christ today in us – that’s why the church, to which you’ve just been joined in baptism, is sometimes called the body of Christ.
Listen to the story the church tells; look at the love in the lives of the people who are part of the church; and think about what your part is going to be in showing the love of Jesus in the world.
Look for the evidence of God – and then be prepared to be that evidence for your godchild and for the whole world. And may God help each one of us to live up to that same challenge – in Jesus name. Amen.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Advent 3

Yes, posts are getting later. Yes, it's my "busy time". No, I'm not ready for Christmas - but then, I feel like coming over all deep & theological & saying 'I'm not meant to be ready yet - it's still Advent'.

So this week's readings are:

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Challenge number one is that we have one of our 'Creative church' services this week (when we try to present the Word other than simply by someone reading all 3 readings as the 'Readings', and invite people to respond in some other than simply by listening and coming forward for communion).
Challenge number two is that we have a baptism of an adult (sprinkling, not full immersion) this week, and so potentially have people there who wont be too clued up on the first Isaiah and how important the later redactions of the text are.
Challenge number three is the usual one about passages from later in Jesus' (and John the Baptist's) life being used here to help us reflect on the identity of Jesus as we prepare for his coming.
Challenge number four for me is that I also have a different service to lead later the same morning & I'm starting to feel like there aren't enough hours in the day (what with also having umpty Carol services & the like to organise). I think I might cheat a little and prepare something on 'Mary' that I can use both this week & next for similar services at different churches.

So:
We have decided to shorten the Matthew reading and make that the only one for the service, read in a 'dramatic' way:

Matthew 11: 2-6

Narrator:
Messengers from John the Baptist.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him,

John: (off stage) ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

Narrator: Jesus answered them,

Jesus: ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Advent 2 - final version

So for those who like to play 'spot the difference' - the end is quite changed!


Advent 2: Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12

Of all the characters we might find on our Christmas cards – Mary, Joseph, Kings, Shepherds, angels… I have never once seen one with an image of John the Baptist. Of course at the time of Jesus’ birth he would only have been a baby himself, but although he’s recognised as a prophet who points us to Jesus the Christ, he’s really not the stuff of Christmas cards – wild, scary, with a rather daunting message of repentance. In fact just this week a friend sent me a picture of John the Baptist looking suitably wild & woolly and saying ‘Merry Christmas you brood of vipers. Now repent’. Not available in all good card shops anytime soon.

John’ message isn’t an easy one. “Choose” says John – choose to repent and be baptised or choose to perish. And don’t think you can hedge your bets by

being baptised but not really changing anything else about your life: to the Sadducees and Pharisees who come for baptism with no mention of repentance or change of life, John spits out vitriol in abundance. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.

I have spent quite a lot of this week wondering why we bother with John the Baptist – I’m certainly not going to be using his baptism policy in any of the four churches. But I have eventually concluded that the question of choice is as relevant now as it was to John’s hearers.

On Wednesday I heard George Carey, from Archbishop of Canterbury, promoting ‘Not ashamed day’. He was claiming that Christians in Britain today are in fear of being persecuted as a minority and was encouraging people to stand up for their faith. Now as it happens I disagree with him about the persecution part: Christians in Iraq are being driven from their homes by violence against them because of their faith – that is persecution, not anything we face in this country.
But maybe this campaign has a point: that Christians are asked to choose to stand up and be counted. If you choose to follow Jesus, you need to be unashamed to declare your choice.

We might find the prophecy from Isaiah much easier to live with than the one from John. Isaiah brings a message of peace and safety for all when the Lord comes.
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Isaiah describes the Lord choosing between good and evil and choosing for the poor. In the kingdom of God even animals will choose the right things to do – to save rather than to harm. So the lion and the lamb will lie down together, munching on straw; and little children will dance around the nests of dangerous snakes without coming to any harm. This is a time of peace with freedom, a time and place where no harm will come to God’s people.

It might seem that John – with his blood and thunder message, is out of step with this peaceful image. But John’s role is to tell the world about the coming of the Messiah – to declare the way of the Lord. And Jesus comes not just offering peace, as Isaiah foretells, or pointing to the choice of others – whether God or wild animals - to do the right thing. Jesus comes declaring that now is the time when all people must make a choice.
The Lord, says John, will separate the wheat from the chaff – he will offer people the choice of being for him or against him.

The coming of the Lord is the coming of freedom - but the freedom to choose well in life and learn to follow Jesus Christ.

So in Advent we are given the freedom of choice and the ability, if we will use it, to take time to clear some space for ourselves so that we can choose to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
John’s message to us is that we are offered the chance to turn, to repent and to follow Jesus, the one to whom John points the way.

We’re coming to the time of year when no doubt we will be offered many different screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ story ‘A Christmas Carol’. I used to think that it was a shame that this story, and not the story of the birth of Christ, seems to be the one which dominates our televisions. And yet I never fail to be touched by the story of repentance. Ebenezer Scrooge is faced with the reality of who he is and chooses to changes his ways. Dickens novel ends with this description of the repentant Scrooge:
“and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”.

Advent is about being prepared to see God with us. We can choose to live as those who are following Jesus; we can choose to see God in the world – intimately involved with and linked to all that is; we can choose to keep Christmas.
God bless us, everyone. Amen.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Sermon for Advent 2.. so far

If anyone reads this sermon you might think there's a funny jump from the penultimate paragraph to the final one - yes, I think so too: but I'm not sure what else i want to say just yet - think I need time away from it & then will come back & see whether something comes. You might also notice that I've not gone with the 'stump of Jesse' or the 'wilderness' theme (see posts below).. perhaps I should have!


Advent 2: Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12

Of all the characters we might find on our Christmas cards – Mary, Joseph, Kings, Shepherds, angels… I have never once seen one with an image of John the Baptist. Of course at the time of Jesus’ birth he would only have been a baby himself, but although he’s recognised as a prophet who points us to Jesus the Christ, he’s really not the stuff of Christmas cards – wild, scary, with a rather daunting message of repentance. In fact just this week a friend sent me a picture of John the Baptist looking suitably wild & woolly and saying ‘Merry Christmas you brood of vipers. Now repent’. Not available in all good card shops anytime soon.



John’ message isn’t an easy one. “Choose” says John – choose to repent and be baptised or choose to perish. And don’t think you can hedge your bets by being baptised but not really changing anything else about your life: to the Sadducees and Pharisees who come with no mention of repentance or change of life, John spits out vitriol in abundance. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.

I have spent quite a lot of this week wondering why we bother with John the Baptist – but the question of choice is as relevant now as it was to John’s hearers.

On Wednesday I heard George Carey, from Archbishop of Canterbury, promoting ‘Not ashamed day’. He was claiming that Christians in Britain today are in fear of being persecuted as a minority and was encouraging people to stand up for their faith. Now as it happens I disagree with him about the persecution part:
Christians in Iraq are being driven from their homes by violence against them because of their faith – that is persecution, not anything we face.
But maybe this campaign has a point: that Christians are asked to choose to stand up and be counted. If you choose to follow Jesus, you need to be unashamed to declare your choice.

We might find the prophecy from Isaiah much easier to live with than the one from John. Isaiah brings a message of peace and safety for all when the Lord comes.
“He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
Isaiah describes the Lord choosing between good and evil and choosing for the poor. In the kingdom of God even animals will choose the right things to do – to save rather than to harm. So the lion and the lamb will lie down together, munching on straw; and little children will dance around the nests of dangerous snakes without coming to any harm. This is a time of peace with freedom, a time and place where no harm will come to God’s people.

It might seem that John – with his blood and thunder message, is out of step with this peaceful image. But John’s role is to tell the world about the coming of the Messiah – to declare the way of the Lord. And Jesus comes not just offering peace, as Isaiah foretells, or pointing to the choice of others – whether God or wild animals - to do the right thing. Jesus comes declaring that now is the time when all people must make a choice. The Lord, says John, will separate the wheat from the chaff – he will offer people the choice of being for him or against him.

The coming of the Lord is the coming of freedom - but the freedom to choose well in life and learn to follow Jesus Christ.

So in Advent we are given the freedom of choice and the ability, if we will use it, to take time to clear some space for ourselves so that we can choose to follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
John’s message to us is that we are offered the chance to turn, to repent and to follow Jesus, the one to whom John points the way.

Our repentance, our turning round our lives in order to follow Jesus, also involves seeing the world in a new way. Advent is about being prepared to see God with us. We can choose to see the world only as the material: or we can choose to see God in the world – intimately involved with and linked to all that is.

So our Advent prayer is for peace for ourselves, our neighbours.. for the whole world: the peace of the coming of Christ to hearts , minds and lives, in the child of Bethlehem & in this bread & wine.
To the Glory of God. Amen.