Saturday, 25 December 2010

What can I give him? : A Christmas Story

Every year on Christmas Day morning, instead of a sermon, I tell a story. This is this year's offering, inspired by the Gospel for the day, Luke 2.1-20.


There was once a boy called Jacob. His family were all shepherds, and they lived not far from Bethlehem. Jacob wanted to be a shepherd too when he grew up, like his father and older brothers, staying out on the hillside at night, watching the stars come out and talking round the camp-fire, but for now, though he helped in the day, he was always sent home at night. He hated that.
Next year, his mother said, he would be big enough, but for now it was too cold, too dangerous for a young boy, and anyway, she said, she needed him, because each morning she would send him up the hill with breakfast for his father and brothers – who would go if he didn’t?

One morning Jacob woke up early, before it was light, and went to his mother as usual to collect the food. He put it all in his bag, and put on his sheepskin jacket, and set off. He hurried up the hillside as fast as he could to the family’s camp. As he got closer he could see the golden glow of dawn up ahead of him, but there was something strange, because that golden glow wasn’t where he expected it to be. The sun rose on the other side of the sky – whatever this light was, it wasn’t the sun.
As he got nearer he could see that actually this glow was a lot of separate lights, circling in the sky. And his father and brothers were nowhere to be seen; the sheep were just wandering aimlessly, all on their own. One of the lights swooped down towards Jacob. He was terrified. Perhaps his family had been right. The hillside at night really was a dangerous place. The light landed on the ground, and inside it Jacob could see a winged figure, tall and golden. “Don’t be afraid, Jacob…” said the figure. How did it know his name? Jacob was so puzzled he forgot his fear. “Who are you, and where are my father and brothers?” he asked. “They have gone to Bethlehem to see the baby,” said the figure. Gone to Bethlehem to see a baby? Jacob was even more puzzled. His father and brothers weren’t usually interested in babies. “What baby?” he asked. “The baby born to be king,” said the figure, “the Messiah God promised, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom of justice.” Now Jacob understood. He knew about the Messiah, the one God had promised to send to help his people. Everyone knew about the Messiah, and everyone longed to see the day he would come. No wonder his father and brothers were excited, so eager to be gone.

“But what about me?” said Jacob. “Why can’t I see the Messiah?” “You can, “said the figure. “if you are allowed to go to Bethlehem on your own. You’ll find him lying in a manger.” Jacob often went to Bethlehem running errands for the family, so this was no problem at all. “I’m off then! “ he shouted “Thanks!”. The figure swooped back up into the sky and Jacob set off running across the fields.

After a while though, Jacob stopped. If he was going to see this baby, shouldn’t he take something to give him? His mother always took a present when she went to see a new baby. But what did he have? He thought for a while, and opened his bag. What was there in it? A lot of food, but that would be no use to a new-born child. What else? Down at the bottom of the bag he felt something familiar. He pulled it out. It was smooth round wooden ball. His father had made it for him when he was small, and it had been his favourite toy. It was polished after years of play. But now he was growing up, surely he didn’t need it any more. That would do – the baby Messiah could have it to play with now. Good. That was settled. On went Jacob, clutching the ball in his hand.

The hills around Bethlehem are steep, and full of ravines, but Jacob knew the landscape well. He ran happily along the narrow mountain paths, not thinking twice about the steep drop to one side, cut by the mountain stream below. Whistling happily to himself, he tossed the ball in the air and caught it, tossed it in the air and caught it, tossed it in the air and…and, oh dear! He missed it, and down it fell, down and down into the river far beneath, where it was swept away by the swift flow of the water. It was gone. His precious ball. His gift for the Messiah. He tried hard not to cry, but he felt so sad, and so stupid – how could he have been so careless?

And what could he give the baby now?
He looked again in his bag. There was the food; but that was still no use to a baby, so Jacob sat down and ate it himself to cheer himself up. And as the bag emptied and his stomach filled he realised there was something else in the bag which he’d forgotten about. A small reed pipe, which Jacob had learned to play, as all proper shepherds did so they could while away the night watch, and signal to each other across the hillside.. Perhaps he could give that to the baby? He’d be too small to play it now, but Jacob could play it to him, and then as he grew up he could learn to play it himself. Jacob picked up the pipe and played a lullaby for a new baby. That would do! He was sad about the ball, but perhaps this would be even better?

He put the pipe safely in the bag – he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice – and he went on his way, and soon he could see Bethlehem, down the hill below him. He quickened his steps down the mountain path. He was nearly there. But all of a sudden Jacob’s feet went from under him on a slippery patch of gravel. He began to slide, and then to tumble, over and over, until finally, he landed in a bush and came to a painful stop nearly at the bottom of the hill. He lay still for a moment, sure he must have broken something, but his arms were all right and his legs, and slowly he got his breath back and sat up. He was covered in grazes and bruises, but he seemed to be all right. But if he hadn’t broken any limbs, what was that crunching sound he could hear when he moved, coming from his bag? He opened it. There was the pipe, all crushed to pieces. There was no way it could play a tune now, no way he could give it to the baby Messiah.

Poor Jacob! The bag was empty, except for the splinters of wood from his pipe. He had nothing to give the baby now. Shaken by his fall, and shivering a bit, he pulled his sheepskin jacket closer around him. His sheepskin jacket! What about that as a gift for the baby? Surely that was perfect, especially for a baby lying in a manger. This was a much better gift than a ball or a reed pipe, something really useful to keep him warm. Thank goodness he’d put it on that morning!

Now he was right on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Surely nothing else could go wrong. He set off to walk the last short distance – carefully! But as he walked along he realised what a mess he was. That fall down the hill had left him covered in dust and mud. He couldn’t go to see the Messiah looking like this – he looked like a scarecrow. At the bottom of the hill there was a small river, so Jacob decided to have a wash. He took off the sheepskin jacket so it wouldn’t get wet and laid it on the river bank. He waded out into the water. He splashed the water on his face and washed his arms and legs. There were a few people around – groups of children like him, and others coming and going, but he took no notice of them. All he could think of was finding that baby and giving him his present. When he was clean he waded back to the bank to pick up the sheepskin. But where was it? It was gone. Jacob looked up the river and down the river. Far off in the distance he saw those children he had heard. They were running away as fast as they could, and they were carrying Jacob’s sheepskin jacket with them, throwing it to each other and laughing. There was no way he could catch them. The sheepskin was gone.

Jacob stood there in the field by the river, shivering a bit in his thin tunic, looking around. There wasn’t even a flower growing in the field he could pick and take with him. Just mud, and grass and an old rickety shed in one corner. He went over to it, sat down with his back against it and howled. It had all gone wrong. Now he had nothing to give the baby – what was the point of even looking for him?

As he sat there sobbing, the door of the shed creaked open and a man came out. “Shh, you’ll wake the baby,“ he said. “The baby?” said Jacob. “Is he in there? Is he lying in a manger?” Yes, that’s right,” said the man. Jacob started crying even more. “Then that’s the baby I came to see, but now I can’t”
“Why ever not?” said the man.
“Because I’ve got nothing to give him!” Jacob told the man what had happened to his gifts. “You see, it’s all gone wrong!”
“You can say that again!”, said the man. “This isn’t what I hoped for Mary and the baby at all. Do you know what I am? I’m a carpenter, that’s what I am, Joseph the carpenter. So when I knew this child was on the way I started making him a crib. It was the best crib you’ve ever seen. I used the best bits of wood I had, and I carved leaves and flowers on it and painted it in bright colours. I put it all together beautifully so it would be safe and solid for him.”

“It sounds wonderful,” said Jacob, “so what’s the problem?”
“The problem? The problem is that it’s in Nazareth, where we come from, and we’re here in Bethlehem! And all because Caesar Augustus decided to make everyone traipse from one end of the country to the other to be registered. We don’t know anyone here and there’s nowhere to stay but here in this shed. So instead of sleeping in his beautiful crib, our son is lying in an animals’ feeding trough! A couple of planks nailed together, and not very well nailed at that. It’s a wonder it hasn’t collapsed. And it’s full of splinters. If only I had thought to bring some sandpaper… Fine carpenter I turned out to be!” Joseph sighed, and Jacob sighed with him. “And yet…” said Joseph…

“Wait here a minute”, he said to the boy. He went into the shed and a few moments later, he came out, carrying the baby, who had begun to stir.

“The strange thing is,” said Joseph, as he looked down at the child, “ever since he’s been born I’ve been wondering whether any of those things I’ve been worrying about really matter. The angel told me that he was God’s Messiah,”
“– “me too!” said Jacob –
“and isn’t he the one God said he would send to help us when we couldn’t help ourselves? Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we have nothing to give him. Perhaps the message is that he is the gift that God gives to us when we need it most. Here, you hold him and see what you think.” And he put him into Jacob’s arms. And the baby opened his eyes and looked up at him. And Jacob knew that Joseph was right. It didn’t matter that he had nothing to give – this baby was the gift God gave to him. And suddenly Jacob was glad that he had come empty-handed, so that his arms could be open to receive this wonderful child. And he went home that day with his heart full of joy.

Midnight Mass: Sermon by Stephen Snelling

John 1. 1-14

So I wonder what Christmas means for you. Maybe you look forward to it but if the statistics are to be believed, then for most people Christmas is actually a pretty stressful and expensive time. I read that in 2005 the average person in the UK spent 15 hours looking for Christmas presents, made five separate shopping trips, walked 20 miles and spent two hours queuing to pay. Office workers spent up to 7 million hours of company time doing their Christmas shopping, costing businesses £72 million in the first three weeks of December. On average, each household spent approximately £160 on food and drink, £660 on gifts, £20 on cards and postage and £75 on the tree and various decorations – so it will be more that that this year! It’s no surprise to discover that a majority of people in Britain find Christmas more stressful than going to the dentist – I’m not so sure about that!

So with all the preparation and expense that Christmas brings for many of us, it is little wonder that the Christian message at the heart of Christmas is sidelined or forgotten. With so much else going on and so many other things left for us to worry about, for some people the Christmas story is really a bit to tack on if they have time.

So it’s really great to see you all here tonight – coming to ensure that Christ stays at the heart of Christmas and that it’s not abbreviated to Xmas or, worse still, a politically correct ‘Winterval’ or whatever.

And despite all the stress we have reason for a double celebration because three hundred and fifty years ago tonight the people of this country were again celebrating Christmas after fourteen years when it had been banned by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans because, as they said:

“More mischief is at that time committed than in all the year . . . . What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting . . . . to the great dishonour of God.”

But it is precisely because we have something to celebrate that we do so. And what is it that we celebrate? Why the birth of Jesus Christ of course. However, just suppose that you had never heard the nativity story before you might be forgiven for wondering what this evening’s Gospel reading is all about.

Because John’s gospel has no story of the birth of Jesus. No mangers and shepherds, no angels and wise men. No heavenly choirs. No doubting Joseph and his dreams. No risky flights to Egypt, no visits by wise men bearing gifts. John leaves that for Matthew and Luke to tell.

John’s gospel was written after the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and was written predominantly for a non Jewish audience - it assumes you already know the important details of the birth of Jesus.
Instead he begins his account of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus with a Prologue. He begins his gospel as the book of Genesis begins the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, “In the beginning.” His purpose is as far-reaching as the purpose of the author of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth”, begins Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”, begins John. He sets the story of Jesus within the context of an overarching story of God and his mighty works. God is. God loves. God speaks. God creates. God redeems. God has purpose.
God speaks. The Word was God. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. There is reason, logic and purpose in what God is and does and this reason, logic and purpose is revealed to us in what the man Jesus Christ is and does. This is a great claim that John makes: if you want to understand the meaning and purpose of things, the “why”, of the universe, the created order, of the world and all that is in it, the way to approach the matter is through God’s Word, with him from the beginning, God’s Son Jesus Christ.
This is difficult for us to grasp but you don’t need to explain how the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, any more than you need to explain how water can be a Baptism of the Holy Spirit or bread can be the Body of Christ or wine His Blood. You need only take the Word at His Word and enjoy the company. The darkness need not understand the light to receive it; it only needs to be darkness. And the darkness can’t keep out the light or overcome it. Light always fills the emptiness of the darkness, as it did on the first day.

We who sit in darkness need only trust that the Light that gives light to all people shines on us in the Person named Jesus. Our Light and our Life and our Salvation. He is the Word that creates us and holds us together.

But does Jesus make a difference to our lives? Are the events of the first Christmas just an irrelevant sideshow? Something we remember briefly each year and then leave behind until the next time?
People question the idea that the Bible has authority for us today. Yes it contains inconsistencies and some things that are just hard to accept. But overall it speaks plainly and clearly about a God who cares about his people. A God whose existence spans the whole of history and who is not limited in his capacity for love and willingness to forgive and accept people for who and what they are. A God who invites all people to be one with him and to share his life, a life without limit, and of real peace and blessing beyond measure.
It speaks also of the one who has come to show us the way to find this God, the one who came from God and is God, but who is also fully human, in fact, the only truly fully human person who has ever lived – the only one who has ever lived a life completely in accord with God’s will and purposes.
We pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth. We are incapable of making the first part happen by ourselves and we struggle with the latter. We are unwilling to let Jesus make a difference to the way we are as individuals. We have limited ambitions for what we could let God achieve through us, we resist his attempts to change us.
All too often Jesus makes no difference to our lives because we refuse to let him make a difference even though he brings us the greatest Christmas gift of all – John tells us that if we let Jesus into our lives we will become the children of God. He is here, ready and waiting, all we have to do is to say “yes” and give our lives to him.
The coming of God into the world and all that Jesus did in his ministry and supremely in his death, shows the lengths God is prepared to go to in order to help us change into what he wants us to be. We are so limited in how we see ourselves – ugly ducklings afraid to dare to change or be changed. God sees us as the beautiful swans he intends us to become.
The Christmas story doesn’t change – we come back to it year after year and it is the same – but we needn’t be the same – we can take God at his word – the Word being his Son – and allow ourselves to be changed by him into something a little more like the kingdom people God has called us to be.
To do as God wants us to do. To tell the Gospel story to others. To love one another. To transform the world by caring for the sick, the outcast, the starving, those in the midst of war and civil disturbances, those who don’t know God, and the drunk in the street, and the single mother abandoned by her parents. On this Christmas, accept with gratitude the abiding presence of the Christ child and then, in him, go into the world to love and serve the Lord.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Advent Breathing Space 3: Waiting in darkness

Isaiah 59.9-14, Luke 2.8-20

It’s rare today for us to experience genuine darkness. When it gets dark we just flick a switch to chase it away. We expect our streets and our public places to be lit too, with the result that the sky is so light that we can hardly see the stars anymore. This is a recent phenomenon, though. Our ancestors, like many people in the world today, had very little access to artificial light. When night fell, that was it. Candles were expensive, and for many people a feeble, smoking rush-light or the light of the fire was all they had. They knew what it was like to be in the dark in a way we have largely forgotten; the helplessness and vulnerability of it, the dangers that might be concealed in it and the limitations it places on normal activity.

Isaiah paints a vivid picture of life lived in the dark in our first reading. “We wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes. We stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.”

Of course, Isaiah isn’t talking about literal darkness. He is using this powerful imagery to express the experience of hopelessness that he and many of his fellow Israelites were going through in their exile in Babylon. The reading begins “Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.” Justice and righteousness are the lights his people long for, but their world remains pitch black. They can’t see the way ahead, and they suspect that God can’t see them either. What is worse, they think this is all their fault; they turned away from the light of God when times were good, and now they find themselves far from him, not even able to see the path that will lead them back. There is no help for them now.

I think theirs is an experience we can all identify with. Most of us, sooner or later, come to a point where we don’t know what to do for the best, where we can’t see the road ahead, don’t know what direction to take, and are paralysed by the fear of what might be out there in the darkness. It might be our fault – we have done something we know is wrong and now we can’t see how to set it right. It might not be our fault; we may be the innocent victims of the wrongdoing of others, caught up in a darkness not of our making. The end result is the same. We are in the dark, directionless, feeling alone and abandoned. We can’t help ourselves, and we can’t imagine than anyone else can help us either. When there is no light, how can anyone else even see your plight, let alone come to your aid?

It is no accident, then, that Luke sets the central part of his story of the birth of Christ in the dark, in the middle of the night, with the announcement of his arrival being made to people who were well aware of its hazards. Why were these shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night? Because they knew that the night was the most dangerous time for their sheep, the moment when they were most vulnerable to attack by wild beasts or simply to wandering off and getting lost. These shepherds were men who had to face the dark constantly, to live in it; they had no choice, and they stand for the whole human race in this story, for all those who stumble about in the night of injustice or sin or sorrow. It is to a group of night-dwellers that God’s light comes first and most strongly, in the glorious radiance of angels. It comes to those who need it most, and it comes to them when they need it most, too, when the darkness is at its deepest.

In these three Advent Breathing Space addresses this year, I have been thinking about waiting for God, waiting in stillness, waiting in silence, and now waiting in darkness. This is the reality that we all have to accept. We like to think we are powerful, clever and independent, that we can run our own lives, sort out our own problems, but the truth is often very different. All of us face times when we can’t act to help ourselves, can’t find the words to express our need, can’t even see the way ahead or believe that anyone can see us in our darkness. Such powerlessness frightens us, which is why we prefer to pretend it isn’t so. And yet, as we discover in the wonderful tale of Christmas, God acts when we can’t, God sends his Word into our wordlessness, God not only sees us in the darkness where we thought we would have to live forever, but gives us the Light of the World so that we can see him too.

It’s all about grace, this Christmas story, the unmerited gift of God’s love. It is the most basic element of Christian faith, yet we all struggle with it. We so easily start to think that we must earn God’s favour, hiding our weakness and our need from him. We strive and we struggle when really he is waiting for us to sit still, shut up and hold out our hand in the darkness, so he can take it in his and lead us to the place we need to be. Amen.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

All Age Worship talk: What's in it for me?

Matthew 1.18-25

At the beginning of the service we sorted out which elements of the Nativity story were found in Luke's Gospel and which in Matthew, and which we had added that were found in neither, (like the donkey, the innkeeper and the stable!)

We’ve seen that the story of the annunciation to Joseph only comes in Matthew’s Gospel, and the truth is that often we don’t really take much notice of Joseph at all. Even in Matthew’s Gospel, where he is centre stage, he never actually speaks. We sometimes get to know what he is thinking, but he never actually says anything at all.

Mostly he just stays in the shadows.
That’s why today I wanted to focus on him, because actually I think he’s really important to the story, and he has something really important to tell us too.
It’s easy to find pictures of Mary, of course, but it’s quite hard to find pictures of Joseph - perhaps painters thought that a young woman was a more appealing subject than an old carpenter. As you can see I did manage to find some though, and I have printed on the service sheet. There are larger, colour versions of them on the board too, which you can have a look at later if you’d like to.

The first shows the incident from the Gospel story we’ve just heard. (The dream of Joseph. Georges de la Tour 1640). Joseph and Mary are betrothed, but not yet married, and in in their culture that meant that though they weren’t yet living together, the commitment between them was as firm as it would be when they were married. But now Mary is pregnant, and whoever the father is Joseph knows it isn’t him. It is a disaster. In a small community there is no hiding this. The natural thing would be for Joseph very publicly to disown Mary, to shame her, so that everyone knew that this wasn’t his fault. But that could have very profound consequences for her. She could even be stoned to death for this, and she certainly would be rejected by the community. But if he goes ahead and marries her now, it will dishonour him in the eyes of his neighbours. To work and struggle to raise another man’s child, a cuckoo in the nest, would make him look like a fool.

The only thing he can think of to do is to quietly call off the wedding and hope her family have the sense to keep her hidden or send her away somewhere till the child is born.

When the angel comes to him, in a dream, although he comes with a message that is supposed to be reassuring, you have to wonder what Joseph thinks. It may make him feel better to know that this is all right in the eyes of God, but his neighbours aren’t very likely to be convinced by talk of angels and dreams.
There is nothing in this message which is going to make any difference to their whispering campaigns.

Tissot’s painting of “The anxiety of Joseph” captures it perfectly. You can see him in his workshop, so preoccupied that he can’t get anything done, with those neighbours he fears so much going about their business all around him.

Joseph’s decision to stand by Mary is a brave one, angels or no angels, and that’s not the end of the cost to him. The picture below (Durer: detail from The Seven Sorrow's of the Virgin") is a detail from a bigger picture. Joseph is leading a donkey, on which Mary sits with a rather wriggly looking Jesus. It’s not a pleasure trip, though. They are on the run from King Herod, who has given an edict that all the children of Bethlehem are to be killed, because he is so desperate to get rid of anyone who might be a rival to him. In Matthew’s Gospel, as we saw, they are living in Bethlehem from the beginning of the story. But now they have to leave their home and run for their lives, down to Egypt, a foreign land, not knowing if or when they’ll return. Joseph is leading his family into exile, with no idea of how they will live there, just as many fathers do today. All this could have been avoided if he had cast her off, but he doesn’t.

And when they do come back, it isn’t to Bethlehem, their home town – that’s still too dangerous. They have to make a new home in Nazareth, way to the north, where perhaps they know no one.

But Joseph has made his commitment. A commitment to Mary. A commitment to Jesus. A commitment to God. And he sticks by it. This is the right thing to do, so he does it.
The question I used as a theme for this service, “What’s in it for me?” is a question that Joseph never seems to ask, or if he does, he quickly dismisses it. There is nothing in it for him, at least not at the outset – just scorn and danger. But he does it anyway, because it is the right thing to do, and without his protection and care, how on earth would Mary and Jesus have survived?

We only hear of Joseph once more after the birth of Jesus. That’s when Jesus is twelve and Joseph and Mary take him to the Temple for the Passover – his first – and manage to lose him there, each thinking he is with the other as they set off home. Our stained glass window here has the moment when they find him again, holding forth in the Temple and confounding the religious experts. He’s still causing trouble even then, and still Joseph sticks with him. We presume that Joseph died before Jesus began his public ministry, because he isn’t mentioned then, but his work is done by that time, and it has been done well.
The other pictures I have put on the sheet are, I think, really powerful attempts to fill in the gaps. Guido Reni (Above: Guido Reni: St Joseph with the Infant Jesus 1620s)shows the developing bond between Joseph and Jesus – the perils of having a beard and a small baby! The next picture (Childhood of Christ: Gerrit Van Honthorst 1620) shows Jesus holding a light while Joseph does his work – Jesus, the Light of the world, has brought light into Joseph’s life, light he never expected to see. The two figures in the background are angels watching with approval.
And the last picture (Giovanni Battista Caracciolo:
Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus c.1625)
is one which I think is a detail from a bigger picture, though this is all I have found, and I think it is quite remarkable. We might talk about New Men and the changes in the expectations of fathers over recent generations, but here is Joseph, an affectionate father figure with whom Jesus feels just as safe as he would with his mother, just as physically close.

What is in it for Joseph? At the start, apparently nothing, and yet, the love and commitment he gives to Jesus are returned to him in full measure, pressed down and overflowing. This child, who ought to have brought him nothing but trouble and shame has actually brought him delight.

As I said at the beginning, Joseph actually never says anything, but if he could talk to us, I wonder what he would say? I’d like to suggest two things.

The first is that families come in all shapes and sizes, and they always have done, and whether they are full of love or full of strife has much more to do with the quality of the relationships within them than it does with the biological or legal ties that bind the members of the family, the number of parents around, or their gender. It is love that makes the difference.

The second is that “what’s in it for me?” though it is a perennially popular approach to life, may end up leaving you poorer rather than richer, missing out on the blessings that only come when you give up your own agenda and open yourself up to the glorious surprises of God.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Advent Breathing Space 2 Waiting in silence

This is the second of three addresses written for our Advent Breathing Space communion services. The final service takes place on Thursday Dec 16 at 8pm.

Psalm 62.1-7, Luke 1.5-25,57-66

We live surrounded by words and it is easy to find we are drowning in a sea of them. As well as face to face communications there are phones, texts, emails, words thrown at us by newspapers, advertising, the internet, television and radio. We can “have our say” on almost anything too, giving instant, and sometimes ill thought through opinions on discussion boards, blog comments, Twitter, Facebook.

Earlier this autumn there was a short but fascinating series of programmes on BBC 2 or called The Big Silence, where five volunteers were introduced to the practice of silence by Christopher Jamieson, the Abbot of Worth, and then went through a eight-day silent retreat. Most had no Christian belief, and none had any real experience of silence before. They found it very tough, but also completely life-changing. In silence, for the first time ever in some cases, they were able to hear the sound of their own souls, and beyond that, something that many of them acknowledged as the voice of God. They found, to their surprise that far from cutting them off from communication, silence opened them up to the most important communication of all, the words they had been longing to hear, words of healing, forgiveness and challenge.

Christian tradition, like many other religious traditions, values silence, time when we don’t speak, and aren’t spoken to either. It recognises the danger of words. They can be wonderful, but often we use them to cut things down to size, to manage and control. If we can put something into words, explain it, pick it over we feel as if we know where we are with it. But that is often an illusion. What I mean by the words I speak may be quite different from what you understand when you hear them. And some things are simply too big, too complicated to put into words at all. We struggle to express things like love or grief, the things that really matter to us, not because we don’t feel them intensely but because we do. We know we will never find words to express them adequately. They are ineffable, to use an old word – unspeakable, beyond description.

Zechariah had an experience of the ineffable in our Gospel reading today, an experience of the God who is beyond all our abilities to describe. He’d gone to the Temple to do his duty as a priest. He thought he knew exactly what was going to happen, that he had it all under control. He would just say the time-honoured words, do the time-honoured rituals and then go home. He’d probably practiced and practiced to get it word perfect. But there is an angel, large as life, standing by the altar, with an explosive announcement to make. His wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, despite the fact that she is far too old for this to be possible, humanly speaking. All Zechariah’s carefully prepared words go to pot, but not only that, his grasp on the rest of his life evaporates too.

Imagine how many conversations he must have had, – with himself, with Elizabeth- over the years as they agonised over their childlessness. How many words have they spoken as they tried to make sense of it? He thinks he has it sorted out in his mind. He has grudgingly accepted that this is how it is. But the angel tells him otherwise. Zechariah demands an explanation. But there isn’t an explanation, or at least, not one that he will be able to get his head around. He is struck dumb, not out of malice or as a punishment, but because there are times when, frankly, it is better to shut up and let God get on with what he is getting on with.

“For God alone my soul waits in silence,” says the Psalmist. Here’s another man who is reduced to silence by the things he faces, battered by his enemies till he feels like a wall on the point of collapse. He could talk about his situation till he is blue in the face, but he knows it wouldn’t bring him the help he needs. “From God comes my salvation,” he says. He may not know what God is doing, but he knows who God is; someone who is faithful and just and who will not abandon him.

By the time Zechariah’s child is born, he has learned this lesson too. “His name is John” he says to his assembled family and friends. Not Zechariah or some other family name. John – Yochanan in Hebrew, which means “God is gracious”. He can’t explain it or account for it, but he knows it to be true as he looks at his miraculous newborn son.

This evening, as we wait for God in silence, let us simply observe the inner chatter of our minds, the urge to put into words what can never be expressed or understood and ask for his grace to find him in the silent mystery of the Word made flesh who dwells among us.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Advent 2: The end of the world is nigh?

Isaiah 11.1-10, Matt 3.1-12

One of the great things about having a number of different people preaching in our church “team” is that sometimes you can pick up a thread from a colleague’s sermon and carry it through to your own, and that’s what I want to do this week. Last Sunday Stephen preached about the sense of expectant waiting that Advent tells us to have. He reminded us of the two Greek words for time. There is chronos – the steady, predictable time that ticks past, second by second, hour by hour. But there is also kairos, which is the word the Greeks used to talk about a special moment, a turning point, a time when something significant happens that changes everything.

Stephen was preaching on a passage from Matthew’s Gospel which talked about the Day of Judgement, something which the early church believed was just around the corner. On that day, said the reading “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.” Normal time – chronos – would be broken into by kairos time, a special moment. It set me thinking about the whole idea of this Day of Judgement, the Second Coming, the End of the Age. I wondered what we thought about it, how we understood it, whether it mattered, and if so, why.

My guess is that most of us don’t think about it much at all, and we certainly don’t talk about it- we’re afraid people will think we are a bit odd if we do. Apparently, by the way, the latest prediction is that Jesus will return on May 21 next year. I read it on the internet, so it must be true… I just thought I’d pass it on, in case you are planning next year’s holidays…
This date was worked out by a man named Harold Camping, but it is just the latest in a long line of similar predictions. The Baptist preacher William Miller predicted that Jesus would come back on October 22 1844, and he said it with such conviction that his followers gave away all their homes and possessions – what use would they be in the new world? This little episode is now known to church historians as The Great Disappointment…

The doctrine of the Second Coming can seem ridiculous to us; it is easily hijacked by people with very strange agendas. But it is there in the Bible, and in our Creed too – Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we say each week. It’s got deep roots in Christian thought, and that might mean that there is something in it which we really need to think about and reclaim.

So, what does the Bible say about it? Quite a lot, actually. The problem is that it says a lot of different things about it. It is easy to find predictions about the end of the world in the Bible, but it is impossible to make one coherent picture out of them. If they were jigsaw puzzle pieces we would soon conclude that they’d all come out of different boxes – you just can’t fit them together. That’s because they have come out of different boxes. They were written by different authors at different times for different reasons. Those authors really only wanted to help their people deal with what faced them; they weren’t trying to provide us with a timeline for the apocalypse.

So for example, we read about the Rapture in Matthew’s Gospel, but then we read the Book of Revelation, and where is the Rapture in that account? It’s not there at all. It is quite a different scenario. And what about Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which talks of God in Christ being “pleased to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven.” (Col 1.20). It’s a picture of universal healing and redemption. There is no sorting of sheep and goats, no lakes of fire for those who don’t make the grade.

In today’s readings we have yet more visions of the end times. There’s Isaiah, who speaks of God establishing justice, of a time when even the animals will live in peace – the lion and the lamb lying down together. His vision has no angelic beings or last trumps. It’s about flesh and blood, politics and economics. It is set in the world he knows, even if it is a transformed world, not in some heavenly realm.

Then there’s John the Baptist in the Gospel, calling people to get ready for the kingdom of heaven which was coming to birth among them even as he spoke. His vision is of a new community, one where you don’t need to be a descendent of Abraham, ethnically Jewish, to belong. It is for everyone who wants to be part of it. Anyone can be grafted into the family tree and be called a child of God.

These are all visions of the future, descriptions of what the writers think it will be like when God intervenes, establishes his rule, sorts things out, but they are very different visions, both in detail and in mood. Some are strange and mystical, some are down to earth, some are dramatic and sudden, some speak of a gradual unveiling of God’s kingdom. We would be foolish to take any of them literally as predictions of the future – which one would we choose? And yet there are a couple of common threads which run through all these visions, and it is the common threads, rather than the details which I think give us wisdom for our own age.

The first common thread is that all these visions are set against times of trouble, written for people who urgently need hope and strength. Isaiah wrote when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Matthew wrote his Gospel just after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 and the book of Revelation comes from a decade or so later, during another period of savage persecution. For those who first heard these words the present was hard, and the future was terrifying. Could anything ever change? Yes, said the Biblical writers. God had not forgotten them. They might think they were staring at disaster, the end of everything, but God was at work to bring about a new beginning.

Our lives might seem safer but the reality is that we face just as many challenges as they did. There are global challenges: climate change, terrorism, increasing conflict around the world over natural resources as well as completely unpredictable natural disasters. Then there are personal threats, which can feel just as devastating. Illnesses or bereavements strike out of the blue, and though they are individual tragedies, they can still feel like the end of the world to those who suffer them. But the words of the Bible in those ancient times of trouble can speak just as loudly to us now. Hold on. God hasn’t forgotten you. He can bring new worlds out of the wreckage of the old ones. Whatever we go through, God goes through it with us.

The second common thread in these writings is that they remind us that there are things we can do to prepare for tough times, even though we don’t know what will happen or when.

I’m what a Critical Incident Chaplain – I’ve even got the vest to prove it. I’m part of a team of clergy who are trained to respond, under Kent’s Emergency Plan, to major disasters. We were all put on “stand-to” this week because of the snow, though fortunately we weren’t needed. The training we get for this emphasizes that we can’t anticipate every possible problem in detail – every incident is different. What we can do, though, is to develop what is known as resilience – good communication networks, confidence and experience so we can adapt and improvise, resources and tools that will be useful. We can think through what might happen and practice our response in advance, so that the skills are there when they are needed. That’s not just good advice for heavy snowfall, it is good advice for the rest of life too.

I’ve never actually had to put on this vest for real in a genuine disaster, but my day job, as a parish priest involves helping people deal with personal crises on a regular basis – sudden deaths, serious illness, family breakdown and so on. They are all Critical Incidents to the people concerned, private apocalypses. Everyone struggles when these things happen to them, but I have noticed that some seem more resilient than others, and it is usually because of the habits they have built up over the years, habits which pay rich dividends when times are tough.The habit of prayer and reflection helps them keep things in perspective and draw on God’s strength and comfort. The habit of forgiveness and generous love towards those around them protects them from getting bogged down in resentment and recrimination. The habit of keeping their eyes open to God means that they can find him in even the grimmest of times. These are habits that take time commitment and practice to establish if they are to be deep rooted and secure, which is why during times like Advent and Lent you’ll find me producing material for reflection, or inviting you to groups or special services. They are ways in which we can begin to build these habits or practice them together.

Learning these habits often means we need to change, or as John the Baptist puts it, to repent. That’s a word that might sound a bit severe to us, but the Greek word he uses – metanoia - isn’t one which necessarily implies sackcloth and ashes or grovelling in shame. It literally means to change your mind, your attitude to life, to decide to live differently. Do that, he says, and you will find yourself bearing fruit worthy of repentance, fruit which will sustain you in the tough times, and make you ready to find God at work and work with him.

I don’t know how or when the world will end, and neither did the writers of the Bible, but I do know that, as today’s collect puts it, God wants to “come among us and with great might succour us”, giving us the help we need. The question which faces us is whether we have that same desire, whether we are ready to open the door and let him in.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Advent Breathing Space 1: Wait for the Lord: Waiting in Stillness

This is the address which I would have given at our first Advent Breathing Space Holy Communion tonight. Heavy snow meant that I decided to cancel it, however, as it seemed foolish to encourage people to risk coming out through the snow and ice. As you will see when you read it, the fact that we were prevented from doing what we had planned may have been God's way of reinforcing the message!


Psalm 37. 1-11, Luke 1.26-45

Advent is a time of waiting. Children know that well, as they wait for the arrival of the lumpy stocking at the end of the bed or the moment they can open the intriguing parcel under the tree. We can probably all remember how endless the wait for Christmas seemed when we were small – we longed to speed things up. But any attempt to do so, surreptitiously unwrapping the present early, for example, actually ended up spoiling it completely.

Waiting doesn’t get any easier as we grow older, especially when the things we wait for may be far more life-changing, and when we’re not so sure that we actually want what is coming. We wait for a diagnosis of a disease, for the results of an interview, or for a change in a relationship – a declaration of love or an announcement that it is all over. We wait, not knowing whether, when or how that wait will end.

During these three Advent Breathing Space talks, I want to think about what it feels like to wait. I’m going to be looking at three aspects of waiting which often feel frustrating, but which can, if we are prepared to look, give us glimpses of the God who waits with us. We’ll be thinking about waiting in stillness, waiting in silence, and waiting in darkness over these next three weeks.

In today’s Gospel reading we meet two women who are waiting. Elizabeth and Mary are both pregnant, and pregnancy is really one long wait. We have found ways of speeding up almost everything in life – communication, transport, jobs and household tasks – but pregnancy still takes nine long months, nine stubborn months. A baby can’t grow any faster; there’s nothing you can do but wait, be still, be patient. There is a passivity about it which can be intensely frustrating. You can look after yourself and try to make sure you eat the right things, but that’s about it. Most of us like to be in control, to be active, to be able to sort out our own lives, fix what is wrong – or at least try to. But when you are pregnant, it can seem as if everything is just happening to you. You are taken over by a force you can’t command, rendered powerless over your own body.

The pregnancies at the start of Luke’s gospel share that sense of uncontrollability. But there is more. These are also unexpected, unplanned and extremely unlikely pregnancies. They aren’t the only “miraculous” births in the Bible, though, and they follow a pattern which is in some ways familiar from the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah’s child, Isaac, is born in their extreme old age. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, seemed unable to have children when she conceived him. When a child is born in unlikely circumstances in the Bible it is always a sign that they are going to be significant in some special way to the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people. Isaac and Samuel are, and it will be the same with John the Baptist and, of course, with Jesus.

The manner of their births is like a big red arrow pointing at them, which says, “watch these two – they are going to do something new, something great for God.” God is at work in them right from the start, as they are conceived in these seemingly impossible ways, doing things for humankind which humankind cannot do for itself. Through them God will change the world, usher in a new kingdom, a new community which embraces all, both Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free. Elizabeth and Mary are willing – indeed happy – to play their part in this work, but the message is clear that it is not through their human planning, their striving, that it is happening; they shouldn’t even be pregnant at all. This is God’s work, not theirs, done at his initiative, in his time and way.

Christians have a word for this; it is called grace, the unearned, unmerited gift of God, given to us because he loves us, not because we have somehow deserved it or puzzled out how to extract it from him by our own actions. Just as Mary and Elizabeth couldn’t make their pregnancies happen, or control the growth of the children within them, these stories remind us that we can’t control God’s work in our world. We can help to create an environment where his love can thrive, just as a mother-to-be can nurture the child in her womb by caring for herself, but we can’t make God do what we want, however laudable our aims are. In fact our “activism” can often get in the way, as we give in to the temptation to force our agendas onto others, fix their problems for them, scrabble around in desperation for solutions to mysteries that will always be beyond us. We do this because we haven’t learned to trust God’s love; we think that it really is all down to us to keep the world spinning on its axis. We are so intent on taking hold of our lives with our own hands that we never unclench them long enough for God to put into them the gifts we really need. “Do not fret because of the wicked,” said our first reading, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” But we do fret, trying to hurry God up so he fits our timetable.

Advent reminds us that it is safe to be still, safe to wait for God. It reminds us that it’s not our job to save the world, even if we could, and that our attempts to try to do so will usually make things worse rather than better. It reminds us that our task is, first and foremost, to pay attention to the life that is in us, the gift of God to us, to let it grow in his time and his way, confident that he can bring it to maturity to be a source of life for others too, just like these children growing in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth.

Let us pray that we will have the courage this Advent to wait in stillness, and let God be God.