Friday, 23 December 2011

Christmas Eve

It is nearly time for the child to be born.

The birth of a child is always good news. In the bit of the world I come from – the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, there’s a poet who’s well known - Sam Laycock. In his poem ‘bonny brid’ – written about the birth of yet another child to a poor family during a time of famine in Lancashire, he manages to be realistic about how hard it is and yet strikes a positive note of good news at the birth of a child:

Tha’rt welcome, little bonny brid ,
But shouldn’t ha’ come just when tha did;
Toimes are bad.
We’re short o’ pobbies for eawr Joe,
But that, of course, tha didn’t know,
Did tha, lad?

Cheer up! These toimes ‘ll awter soon;
Aw’m beawn to beigh another spoon-
One for thee;-
An’, as tha’s sich a pratty face
Aw’ll let thi have eawr Charley’s place
On mi knee.

(For those who want to see more about the poem, there's a webpage here)

It is nearly time for the child to be born. And that birth is Good news.

It’s a night for good news. We’ve nearly got to Christmas day. Whatever isn’t done now – shopping, cleaning, delivering - will have to remain undone.
It is nearly time for the child to be born and for the world to rejoice.

And so we hear Isaiah promising a time of rejoicing, a time when the Lord God will come and live among his people.
It is nearly time for the child to be born – and that child is Christ the Lord – God among us at last.

But then we hear what John’s gospel has to say about the coming of what he calls ‘The Word’.
It is nearly time for the child to be born – and that child is the one who is not always recognised by the very world that he made. Yet John is clear “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

But just before that John says something even more amazing. He talks of children of God, born not through human desire and human will and human will, but by the will of God.

It is nearly time for the child to be born.
And some will say that that child is born because an angel told a virgin it would happen. And perhaps when you hear John speak of amazing birth, you might assume he’s speaking about the birth of Jesus himself.

But he isn’t – John is talking about the amazing truth that the gift of Jesus and his love makes it possible for all who believe in God’s love to become children of God – born by divine, not human means. John has nothing to say about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, he is talking about our birth – yours and mine. John says that we can be born as children of God, if we just believe in his adoptive love.

It is nearly time for the child to be born.
And that child is you.
God bless you with love this Christmas. Amen.

Christmas Day

A very short reflection...we all have turkeys to cook, don't we?

Christmas Day
So all through Advent we have been looking at the Advent gifts ‘ God can’t wait to give’
The lit candle – hope in the darkness.
The Word of God - which brings comfort.
The water - which reminds us of John the Bapitst & the new life from God.
The baby, born to Mary – who shows us how God chooses to enter the world.
Today’s final gift – is.. a crown (a simple paper crown from a cracker!)

We are reminded that the child, Jesus, the baby born to Mary & placed in the manger, is the King of all. He will grow to heal, teach, lead and ultimately to save people. His life, his death & his resurrection will demonstrate the amazing gift of the love of God.

God is born in human flesh – come to be among us and yet born to be our King and our Lord.

The crown also reminds us of the 3 wise ones who are traveling to worship this baby king – with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But the crown also points us to the most amazing thing about Christmas – because we all know if we find a crown in our crackers this lunchtime that this crown is .. for us. (I will put the crown on here. And yes, I will look silly!)

Through this wonderful gift of Jesus at Christmas, God crowns us with love, comes to be with us for ever, and makes us his children and the heirs of the promise that we are all sons and daughters of the most high God – loved and precious as the richest royalty.
Enjoy your gifts, whatever they are, and enjoy God’s greatest gift of love. Amen.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Advent 4 notes

Advent 4 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:26-38

The Advent gifts ‘gifts God can’t wait to give’ just keep coming. We have had the lit candle – a sign of the light of hope in the darkness; the Word of God, which brings comfort; and the water – to remind us of John the Baptist and the promise of new life. This week’s final gift is…a child (photo of a baby), which reminds us that God decides how he will come into this world.

The idea that a child can be God’s gift to us is certainly not earth-shattering. I had a friend who used to joke ‘children are a gift from God – don’t tell him where you live!’. But Advent tells us that God does not just give us the gift of a child – but that the child who comes is God’s gift of himself.
We know this – it is why we sing ‘O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Immanuel – God with us’.

But you might wonder about the relevance of the reading from the second book of Samuel, where David wants to construct a home for God. Through the prophet Nathan God makes it clear that he, God, will decide how and when he will be present with David. God reminds David of all that he has done for him – bring with him al his life as he lifted from obscurity and caring for sheep to be the most renowned king of Israel. Instead of David making a home for God, God promises to make a house for David – a family line which will stretch through the generations, all the way to Joseph and therefore to Jesus.

God does not need David to build him a house – God will decide how he will be present with God’s people. And when the time is right, God will not come to dwell in a house at all, but in the most unexpected way possible.
The gospel reading from Luke takes us to the very start of God’s plan to dwell with us – which we know as our Christmas story.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary & tells her she will have the child who is to be the sign of God with us – the Immanuel – the incarnate son of God. God chooses Mary – God chooses birth – God chooses to be truly human. Mary agrees – and The Word is made flesh.

Depending on which gospel account you read, the angel also appears to Joseph to tell him not to be afraid to marry Mary as he had planned – and the couple who are chosen by God to be the parents of Jesus are all sorted out.

After that it might feel as if the plans go awry: first there is the Roman census which bring the couple & everyone else of David’s line to Bethlehem – just as the baby is due to be born. Then there is no room at the inn, and so the God of all creation is laid in a manger.

After the careful planning to be brought into the world, we might be tempted to think that God has let the planning slip rather – and allowed the birth to take place in less than ideal surroundings.

But when Luke tells us about the angels appearing to the shepherds there are songs of great rejoicing - good news to all the earth. Then the angels say a strange thing ‘this will be a sign to you. You will find the child wrapped us and lying in a manger’.

A sign to recognize Jesus? But the star and the angels take the shepherd to the place – surely there aren’t a huge number of babies born in Bethlehem that night , that the only way to recognize Jesus is that he is the one in the manger. So if the sign isn’t about identification of the right baby, of what is it a sign?

We immediately associate the word manger with our nativity scenes, with the account of Jesus’ birth. But of course a manger is the feeding trough for the common animals of Jesus’ time – the donkey, the cattle, the sheep and goats.

The sign which the angels refer to could be just this – that this Jesus who has come to dwell with us has come to be foodstuff, like straw in a manger – he has come to feed the world.

This is the child who will grow to feed the five thousand.
This is the child who will grow to offer his friends bread & wine and say ‘this is my body, broken for you’ ‘my blood, poured out for you’.
This is the child who will give up his life so that the whole world may know life in all its fullness.

Christ is born and is laid in a manger – as a sign that God is here to dwell with us and to feed and heal and change the world.

And so our Advent gift is of the baby who is truly God with us , for us, in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Advent 4 initial thoughts

This coming Sunday I have two more Carol services & just one 'preaching service'.

The theme for this week is Mary: ‘God decides how he will be ‘housed’ in this world’
Object in the 'bag' will be a baby photo

The readings are
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38

I heard a great sermon on the significance of the manger from Susan Durber at Westminster College, & I think I want to contrast to care with which preparations are made for any baby being brought into the world - and especially the birth of Jesus - and the whole 'laid him in a manger' bit. Luke has the angels tell the shepherds this is a 'sign'. A sign of what? presumably the identity of this special baby: Jesus, the one who will feed the world, who will be the bread of life for all.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Advent 3 notes

Readings this week:
Isaiah 61: 1-4
John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Advent 3
Today’s advent ‘gift’ from God: is water.

I don’t expect any of us will find ourselves unwrapping a bottle of water this Christmas day: but we couldn’t manage long without the gift of water.
What does water mean to us? We associate water with life – growing, drinking, washing, cleansing.

We have heard in the gospel reading how John the Baptist comes baptising with water – he is offering a new start, a turning around, repentance. John offers people a new beginning – but he is clear that his role is only to start people on the path to a better life. John is the forerunner for the Lord who is to come – he is clear that what people really need is not his baptism with water, but what Jesus has to offer: a new life knowing that God is with them.

So our gift of water is only a sign of the Advent gift of life. What does this life look like?
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. Like water to someone dying of thirst – God offers the gift of life worth living.
When you hear these words from Isaiah you might remember, perhaps, that in Luke’s gospel these are the words with which Jesus begins his ministry, when he is about 30 years old. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring the good news of comfort, liberty and healing. Jesus brings life in all its fullness.

We might wonder just how Jesus brings us this most wonderful gift.
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?

The story of the birth of Jesus to Mary is not only found in the gospel stories of our Bible. The Koran – the holy book of the Muslims, also tells 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 the 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 angel and all that stuff, and received back into the village, when Jesus, still a babe in arms, miraculously speaks and tells the people that she is telling the truth and that 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. Jesus brings God’s promises of a time of peace and gladness and love before he can do anything at all – just by being here. 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.

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.

We might wonder how this happens. Is Mary really a virgin when she gives birth to Jesus? Even if Jesus is the son of Mary & Joseph, how is he also the son of God? Why is this baby the one who shows us God?

All I can say is to quote the angel 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.

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.

Like the water that gives us life: God’s love is here – freely available and bring refreshment, new life and a fresh start.
Thanks be to God.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Notes for Advent 2

Advent 2
Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark 1:1-8

This Advent I’ve been inspired by the John Lewis adverts on the TV. If you haven’t seen them yet, they star a 7 year old lad waiting for Christmas. We see him staring out of the window, looking at his advent calendar, trying to make the clock go faster, and finally gobbling down his peas on Christmas Eve so he can go to bed, where he shuts his eyes tight & tries hard to get to sleep. On Christmas morning he finally wakes up, but rushes straight past all his presents… because what he’s been waiting for is the chance to get a badly-wrapped present out of his wardrobe which he proudly takes in to give to his mum & dad.
The punchline is “For gifts you can’t wait to give”.
I’m not being sponsored by John Lewis, but when I got one of their bags, having bought some candles for Whittlesford URC, I thought I would use it.
But my version is modified –
“Advent: for gifts God can’t wait to give”.

Last week the gift was a candle – a sign of the advent hope God gives us: the light shining in the darkness.
This week the gift is the Bible – a sign of the ‘The Word of God’. What sort of gift is that?

We heard today from an earlier part of Isaiah from last week’s reading – today’s part of the book is known as second Isaiah – written at a time when the people of God were in exile. The Babylonian army had invaded Jerusalem and taken away many of the people and all of the leaders into Babylon. The people were in a terrible state – either left at home with no leaders, or living in a strange land among a strange people.

This was the time when (In Psalm 137) the psalmist writes ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion’.

To these people in the misery of their predicament, the prophet speaks the word of God : ‘Comfort’.

I wonder whether the word comfort is too soft for what the prophet believes God has in mind.

We use ‘comfort’ as the name for a fabric softener, we speak of comfort blankets and comfort zones. If you were to comfort someone you might imagine something soothing, full of platitudes – but the prophet is certainly not wanting to just say ‘there, there’ to God’s people!

Isaiah’s comfort has much more of a sense of purpose – almost force. The prophet is told to cry out to the people and assure them that although it might feel as if God has abandoned them, God is still with them, and will give Jerusalem ‘double for all her sins’. The pain and suffering is very real, but God will give them enough to sort out all their problems and more.

When the prophet speaks of the valleys being lifted up and the mountains and hills being made low, he may be speaking of the lengths people will go to, to prepare the way for God to come. But he might also be talking about the effect on the lives of people when God does come.
We all know about the peaks and troughs of life. We may never have experienced being held against our will in a foreign land, but none of our lives are immune from the holes into which we sometimes find we’ve sunk – illness, depression, financial worries, concerns about family or friends. There are times when we feel we have sunk into a pit.
The prophet says, more than that he declares, he cries out - that God will come and the valleys – and everyone in them – will be lifted up. God’s word of comfort is a promise that he will not leave us to languish – he will rescue us.

The prophet is realistic about our human lives ‘surely the people are like grass…the grass withers, the flower fades’ - we know the uncertainty of life – the only certain thing is that it will come to an end. But by contrast, the word of the Lord will stand forever – God’s presence and God’s rescue is a certainty in our uncertain world.

However bad life feels, however deep the pit, however shaky our foundations, the prophet Isaiah declares to God’s people then and now “Here is your God!”.
This is not a promise of comfort at some undefined point of the future – this is a promise that God is here, now, with us.

And God has come to act, not to offer platitudes or to sprinkle fairy dust.
He will feed his flock, gather the lambs, carry them, and gently lead the mother sheep.
This is the God who saves his people from their pit.
Real comfort is to be found not in words which make us feel better, but in a properly worked out escape plan!

You might wonder whether Isaiah’s phrase ‘for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it’ is focussed too much on words and not on action, but the great thing about the gift of God’s word is that it is an active force.
When God speaks – things happen. Remember way back in the beginning of the account of creation – each thing is brought into existence by the word of God – God says ‘let there be light’ and there is light.

So when God says ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ – that glory is already here. The word of God is timeless – it is for the past, present and future – and promises us the comfort of God’s presence with us for all time. So the beginning of Mark’s gospel sees the fulfilment in that time of Isaiah’s prophecy of a messenger preparing the way of the Lord with the coming of John the Baptist.

John declares that the glory of the Lord is to be revealed in the one who comes after him, Jesus – the one who will call himself Good Shepherd, who will come to save all God’s people.

So receive today’s Advent gift – the Word of God – the promise of God’s presence with us forever. Receive the gift, live in the knowledge of the comfort and salvation God offers, and be ready to share that gift with all who need to hear it this Christmas.
In the name of Jesus – the one who come to us. Amen.