Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Advent 3: Joy?

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-11

So now with three candles lit on the Advent ring we have to admit that December the 25th really is nearly here, and we don’t have much longer to prepare ourselves for Christmas and all that it will bring.

Isaiah brings us the promise of the Good News of God’s coming.
This will be good news for the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captive, the prisoner, and those who mourn.
Isaiah promises a day of good news for those who long for justice, blessing and joy.

Prophesying to people who were probably standing in the ruins of their city, Jerusalem, wondering how they would ever get life back to normal, Isaiah promises that God will come and all will be well. This city will once again be God’s city, this place will once again be God’s place.

It might not look like it to the people of God who have returned from exile, but even in the midst of the rubble, God promises he is at work and his messenger is told to declare good news.

How do you feel when you hear that promise? Do you feel that you can listen to these tidings of comfort and joy and hear the good news, or do you look around and see a world still filled with oppression, imprisonment and mourning? Has God fulfilled his promise to bind up the broken-hearted? And can he do it again for you and for me?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been left broken-hearted by the story of Charlotte Bevan and her four day old daughter, who lost their lives in the Avon Gorge, as Charlotte was overwhelmed by mental distress after the birth.
Twenty years ago when I had my daughter I survived mental illness following the birth – what is now called postnatal psychosis. I can remember thinking it was all meant to be different, the promise of a new baby was meant to bring a time of joy and blessing, it didn’t seem fair that I was struggling so much. But I was lucky, and Charlotte Bevan wasn’t.
Where is the promised world of justice and blessing and joy, which Isaiah declared?

It’s here. Broken, poured out, shared amongst the undeserving.

Advent prepares us for the coming of our God, acting in the world from a position of great weakness, not mighty strength. The creator of the universe, entering his creation as a feeble baby, to show us what justice, blessing and joy look like when wrapped in human flesh.
And is the birth of this baby Jesus only a story of joy? Surely there are echoes of something darker, even in the joy of the birth, echoes of the suffering that God inevitably takes on when he takes on human form.

Mary ponders…and will soon be warned by Simeon “a sword will enter your own heart”. God made flesh is not God come in power with a joy that will never fade, but is God made vulnerable, God made suffering, God made mortal. Jesus has to rely on Mary to bring him to birth, Joseph to rear him, strangers to provide a resting place, simple followers  - women and men – to tend for his needs in life and in death.

This baby does not only bring joy into lives, but in his real life of joy and pain Jesus becomes the focus for a whole new life of the kingdom of God. All those who follow him become part of the life of the kingdom too.

So this Christmas the URC is supporting Christian Aid, with a focus on mother and baby projects in Kenya. It’s not too late to give and have your gift matched pound for pound by the UK government .

But whenever and however you help the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captive, the prisoners and those who mourn, you are part of the kingdom, following Jesus Christ in making the promise of Isaiah come true.

The good news of justice, blessing and joy was made real in the baby of Bethlehem, who grew to be Christ our saviour who lived and died for us.  God’s good news lives on in each of us who is part of the body of Christ.

In this bread, this wine, to each one of us and through each one of us, Christ come to heal our broken world and bring all the promise of the kingdom.
Hear again the word of Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn”.

People of God, hear the good news – and rejoice.
Come eat and drink, remember all that Christ offers, and welcome him and God’s kingdom of justice, blessing and joy.  Amen.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Advent 2: Comfort

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

Today’s reading from Isaiah starts with the words that are the first you hear in Handel’s Messiah:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”.

Of all the things our world needs for Christmas, maybe “Comfort” should be top of the list. The weather finally feels wintry, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who has turned to comfort food, comfy warm clothes & seeking the warmth and comfort of home after a hard day.

And if this week, in your warm home at the end of a cold day, you have turned on the radio or the TV, or read a newspaper, you may be more in need of comfort than ever.

Tragedies – for families, for whole countries, for the most vulnerable, abound: the terrible story of the death of Charlotte Bevan and her baby daughter in the Avon Gorge; continued suffering in Syria, talk of financial cuts that will take social services down to the lowest level since the 1930s.
It seems our world is in a terrible state.

We need comfort – but where can we find it?
Isaiah should know about the need for comfort. What we have just heard comes from a part of the book 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 as Advent continues and Christmas draws closer, receive the gift of real comfort -  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 comes to us. Amen.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Advent Sunday - it's real love.

I'm deeply indebted to David Lose of "Working Preacher" for his comparison of Mark's passion account with Jesus' parable - I would hate anyone to think such a brilliant idea is my own!

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37

I’m going to begin by showing the 2014 John Lewis Christmas advert, or if that isn’t possible, reminding people of it.

Once again this Christmas we hear the gospel according to john Lewis.
“Give someone the Christmas they’ve been dreaming of”.

Monty the penguin gets what he really wants for Christmas – real love.
But is Monty the penguin himself real? It depends how you look at him – in the eyes of the little boy who is his friend, of course he is real. And the love the boy has for him is real, and the new penguin for Christmas – she’s real too.
“It’s real love” croons the background music.  And if that isn’t the real meaning of Christmas, I don’t know what is.

But you won’t find real love at a John Lewis store near you, this Christmas.

So where should we look?

Let’s try Isaiah, shall we. The prophet say to God :
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence.”
Plenty of awe – but not a lot of love, it seems.
Isaiah in any case concludes
“you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

Isaiah is warning the people that their sin has caused God to hide – but that they can look forward to a time when God, the God of great and mighty deeds, will be revealed to them.

So maybe Mark’s gospel has something to say about God revealed in love in the face of Jesus Christ.

We heard Jesus speaking to his disciples just before his arrest, suffering and death. In the very next chapter Jesus will be seized in the garden of Gethsemane and taken to the High Priest.
Jesus warns his followers to keep awake and to be ready to discern the signs of the coming of the Son of Man.

Jesus first gives an apocalyptic vision of the end of time – the darkening of the sun & moon, stars falling from the sky..and the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory to gather the elect.
Scary stuff – not much sign of real love here – although we might gain a little comfort from thinking that at the end of time Jesus, who was with God the Father at the creation of all things,  will gather all things back to himself.
But I’m just guessing that isn’t the Christmas most of us have been dreaming of.

So let’s look at the second part of what Mark records Jesus saying
“About that hour or day no one knows…Keep alert, for you do not know when that time will come.”

Then Jesus tells a sort of parable
“it is like a man going on a journey…you do now know when he will return ‘in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn’.

No-one knows when Jesus will return, when God will be fully revealed, when real love will be really visible to this world.

But it may be that Mark gives us some clues about what we should be looking for.
It is possible that Mark believes that the advent of Jesus that has already been witnessed can give us some clues as to what we should be looking for in any subsequent coming of Christ.

Jesus says to look for the coming of the master in the evening, at midnight, or at cockcrow, or dawn.

Mark then divides his story of the passion of Jesus, in the very next part of his gospel account, into those very same time periods:
Firstly he tells of the Last Supper, beginning, “When it was evening he came with the twelve…” (14:17).
Next come Jesus’ prayer and betrayal: “And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy” (14:40) because it was the middle of the night.
Then Mark tells us about Jesus’ trial, ending with Peter’s denies Jesus for the third time just as the cock crowed ” (14:71-72a).
And finally  Jesus is delivered to Pilate for trial “As soon as it was morning”(15:1).

Do you see the coming of God in this places? Do you see the coming of God’s love in Christ, giving himself up to death? Do you see how this Advent we should be looking for Jesus Christ in all the suffering and sacrifice and grim vulnerability of this world?
It’s real love.

This Advent, I pray we will all see the face of Christ and know the coming of Christ and the flow of the love of God, in the vulnerable and helpless and lowest of this world.
And I pray too that when we feel vulnerable and helpless and low we will know God’s love in Christ in each person who reaches out to us.

That’s the Christmas I’ve been dreaming of. 
And here it is - wrapped in bread and wine.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Reflection for Churches of Cornwall

Based on Philippians 2; 1-11: for the closing worship of the day to celebrate one year on from the signing of our ecumenical declaration of intent on November 16th, 2014.

We meet here, one year on from the signing of the declaration of Ecumenical Intent for Cornwall & it’s a good time to ask what has been, what is and what shall be.

It’s good, too, to look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which he writes about what has been, what is & what shall be:

Paul says of Christ  -
What has been : He had the nature of God, but emptied himself, gave up all he had, became like a human being.
What is : As a human being was humble, he walked way of obedience – even to death on a cross
What will be :  God raised him to the highest place & gave him the name over every other name.

Then (although it is first in the reading, I think it is as a consequence of their identity as followers of Christ) Paul says of the church in Philippi –
What has been:  Your life in Christ has made you strong, you have fellowship with the Spirit
What is: You should have the same thoughts, share the same love, be humble, look out for one another’s interests
What will be ; Then you will be like Christ.

So what about us today, as Christians of Cornwall ?
What has been: we could tell stories of separation, histories of division and difference
What is: we have shared some stories of where we are walking more closely together, seeking unity: in mission, strategy, theology, learning from each other.
What will be: as we grow together we will become more like Christ, more true to the name we are given of Christ’s body. As we go forward together we will grow more like Christ in our humility, love, service, in our seeking of the will of God the Father.

How will that happen? By following Christ more closely: praying more, being more open to the Spirit, and placing our concern for God\s kingdom above all our human organisations.

So may all that we have been, all that we are and all that we shall be glorify God,