Sunday, 29 January 2023

Candlemas: Jan 29

 Candlemas 2023


Malachi 3.1-5, Luke 2.22-40


He was just one small child; how many other babies might there have been in the Temple on the day that Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus six weeks after his birth? Probably many. My experience of the old city of Jerusalem was of a bustling, crowded place, with narrow streets packed with traders and travellers and pilgrims, and I am sure that’s how it was in the time of Jesus too, a place where people were coming and going constantly, and mostly anonymously, with families of all shapes and sizes in tow.


There were no angels singing, no fanfare playing for this particular child, no unearthly glow that would have signalled that he was anything out of the ordinary. His parents weren’t wealthy. We know that because the sacrifice they brought, of two pigeons, was the budget version, a concession in the law for those who couldn’t afford the standard offering of a lamb.


And the only two people there who acclaimed him, who recognised him as the Light of the World, were probably equally insignificant in the eyes of the Temple authorities. Simeon and Anna seem to have been regulars in the Temple, but they didn’t have a particular role, just two elderly people who hung about praying and talking. Anna had lived as a widow for many years, and according to the Gospel she never left the Temple. I wonder if she had anywhere else to go, any family to support her. Simeon is described as righteous and devout but he wasn’t a priest or a Levite, a scribe or a Pharisee. If he had been, Luke would have told us.  Whatever he had done with his life it seemed now to be drawing to a close. Simeon and Anna weren’t among the movers and shakers in the world they lived in, if they ever had been, and I’m sure there were those who thought they were well past their sell-by date, maybe a bit eccentric, religious obsessives, easy to write off. 


Being written off and ignored is something that many people encounter at some point in their lives. It’s easy for those with power to assume that some people are too young, too old, too poor, too disabled, from the “wrong” background, of the “wrong” nationality or the “wrong” gender to have anything to say that’s worth hearing, to have lives that are worth noticing, and the people we meet in this story are among that number. A poor, ordinary couple, a baby that hasn’t even learned to talk yet – what do they matter? And Simeon and Anna’s lives are nearly over. They are part of the past, not the future. Why should their opinions count for anything?  


This may be a story that’s 2000 years old, but it could also have happened yesterday. This week there have been two shocking news stories which ought to have been huge, but which, after a brief moment in the headlines seem to have sunk without trace.


It was announced earlier this week that nearly 200 young people have gone missing from places where they ought to have been safe over the last 18 months. Usually when one child goes missing, there are tearful press conferences with their anxious parents, and whole neighbourhoods offering to help with the search, t-shirts printed, and flyers plastered on lamp-posts.  Why the lack of interest in this case? It’s because they were unaccompanied refugees - asylum seekers under the age of 18 who had arrived in this country without parents. They’d been housed in hotels – often with no real regard for the normal safeguarding practices - but many had subsequently vanished, in many cases apparently just picked up by traffickers right outside the places they were staying. Around half have been traced, but many haven’t and have disappeared into the shadowy world of modern slavery – cannabis farms, car washes, sex work…. “So what?” say some commentators, “most of them were 16 and 17 year olds, some were probably over 18 but had lied about their age to avoid being deported”. Does that make it any better? How would we feel if these were our children, or children we knew, or even ourselves at that age?  Many were Albanians, smuggled in by people traffickers, lured by the promise of easy money and a comfortable life, but finding that the reality was very different. All teenagers do things that are na├»ve, trusting people they shouldn’t, making decisions they regret. Slavery is a heavy price to pay for that, and not one we would countenance for children we knew and loved. The traffickers targeted young people, vulnerable because they were poor and far from home because they thought no one would notice or miss them. And it seems they were right.  Their story was told, but then news cycle rolled on, people seemed to shrug their shoulders and turn away. One MP said, dismissively, “they shouldn’t have come here illegally then”.


The other story which I think should have made a much bigger impact than it has done was the report on the abuse of children in care homes in South Yorkshire. For years, whistle-blowers had reported that vulnerable children were being beaten and punished harshly, ridiculed and taken advantage of, but no one had taken it seriously. Some of the children were disabled and couldn’t speak for themselves and say what was happening. Others were simply not listened to, and they knew they wouldn’t be so often they didn’t even try to speak up. How terrifyingly sad is that?


Like the abduction of those missing refugee children, it all happened in plain sight. People knew about it, but no one seemed to care enough to act. Yet again, the voices of the vulnerable didn’t count. Their stories vanished from the news as quickly as they had arrived, just as many other stories of abuse and neglect do; of vulnerable elderly people, those with mental health issues or those who are homeless. If that doesn’t make us angry, I think it should.


And that’s why I think this Gospel story we heard today matters so much, because in it Luke shines the spotlight on people like these, people who seem not to matter to the world around them. He says, “here, in these people, the ones the world so often discounts and ignores, is where God is at work”. It’s a bit like going to the theatre, and looking hopefully at the stage, waiting for the play to begin, only to find that the real story is happening in the darkness at the back of the stalls, or in a tatty dressing room backstage, or outside in the street.


The Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood are meant to foreshadow his adult life and ministry, giving us clues about what to expect, and this is a perfect example. Jesus will grow up to bring to centre stage those whom the world has side-lined, the old and the young, the disabled and poor, women and slaves and those whose lives have gone off the rails. He will point to them and say, “You want to see the Kingdom of God, God at work in the world? Here it is! Ignore these people and you will miss it. Fail to listen to them, you won’t hear what God is saying either.”


This week, as the news unfolds, perhaps this Gospel might encourage us to see the stories the news presents with fresh eyes, enlightened by Jesus. Whose stories are being told, and whose aren’t? What gets the column inches, the airtime, and what is brushed aside? What catches our attention, and what do we click away from in boredom or in discomfort? Who do we think matters, and who doesn’t, not really, not enough to see them as our siblings, people we care about as much as we do our family and friends.


“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”, says the prophet Malachi, but the Gospel tells us that if we want to recognise him when he comes we’ll need to have our eyes open to his presence in what is small and weak and vulnerable and despised in the world, and in ourselves, otherwise he may come and go, and we’ll have missed him, and the blessing he brings us.



Monday, 23 January 2023

Epiphany 3: Change your mind

Isaiah 9.1-4, Matthew 4.12-23

Land of Zebulun, land of Napthali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

We heard those words, or variations on them, twice this morning. The general gist might have been obvious – they are words of good news to people who are desperate for light in a time of darkness – but some of the detail may have slid over our heads. Lands of Zebulun and   Naphtali? Galilee of the Gentiles? Where are these places? Why does it matter so much to Matthew to tell us that this story about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is set there? 

Matthew’s first hearers would have known the answer, even if we don’t. The tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were in the northern part of what we would now think of as Israel, around the sea of Galilee, but it had been a long time since any members of those ancient tribes had lived there. Seven hundred years before Jesus, the brutal Assyrian armies had swept over the north of Israel and deported the people who lived there, scattering them across their vast empire, where they simply disappeared, swallowed up into the nations they went to. They’d resettling the area with people from other countries and faiths. That’s why it was called Galilee of the Gentiles or Galilee of the Nations. Galilee just means “region”, so this was the region where you’d find people from many backgrounds, in contrast to the more exclusively Jewish areas in the south around the Jerusalem, and historically it was disputed territory, a tinder box where trouble was often brewing.

Assyrian rulers had been followed by Babylonians and then by the Greeks, and by the time of Jesus, large numbers of Roman soldiers were encamped there, living off the rich crops this fertile territory provided, whether the locals liked it or not. 

When Isaiah promises that God will set this area free, bringing light into its darkness, he is making a very subversive statement, and when Matthew applies his words to Jesus, he is being equally provocative. He’s setting us up for a story about the use and abuse of power, about kingdoms – human and divine - and how they are built and ruled. It’s no accident that his stories about the birth of Christ centre around the visit of the Magi to corrupt King Herod, and the massacre it unleashes. 

And the first stories he tells of Jesus’ adult ministry are about conflict too. John the Baptist has been arrested because of his challenge to Herod’s son, another corrupt king. Jesus had heard about this. He could have decided to give it all up there and then, but he doesn’t, but instead he wades straight in and begins to preach the same troublesome message. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. 

That’s the backdrop to the calling of his first disciples, Simon and Andrew, James and John. They aren’t just called away from their settled lives to the hardships of a travelling ministry. They aren’t just called away from their families and their private, self-contained lives. They are called into a battle with some mighty and very dangerous opponents. 

The safest thing, if you live under an oppressive system, is to keep your head down and hope no one notices you. But they decide to take up the company of someone who is very deliberately challenging that system. The danger to Jesus and to his followers couldn’t be clearer. When they rise up and follow Jesus they are embarking on a path which will lead many of them, like Jesus, to suffering and to death. 

So whatever made them do it? Why did they leave their comfortable lives and head off into the unknown? What did they see in Jesus, in the split second he called them, that convinced them that he was worth following? And what did he see in them? 

Let’s think about the first of those questions first. What did they see in Jesus? Matthew doesn’t give us many, but maybe the message itself can tell us. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It doesn’t sound like a very appealing message. We don’t tend to like the idea of repentance these days - sackcloth and ashes are out of fashion. But the real meaning of the Greek word Matthew uses is “change your mind”. It’s not about making yourself miserable, but about allowing yourself to be transformed, understanding yourself and the world around you differently. 

We might be used to looking at the world with cynicism and despair. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “learn to see the hope God has for you.” That’s repentance. Or we might feel that our lives are pointless, that we are just on an endless treadmill. “Change your mind” says Jesus, “you matter, your life has a purpose, God is at work in you”. That’s repentance too. Or we might look at the forces, political, personal, ranged against us and think, “what chance have I got against all that”. “Change your mind,” says Jesus, “God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. “ That’s what repentance looks like in practice. It’s not about despair or misery; it’s about hope. 

If that’s the case, no wonder these fishermen leapt up and followed Jesus. Things could be different. Things were going to be different.  “The kingdom of heaven has come near” he said to them. “God is here. He’s at work in the world, at work in you, if only you open your eyes to see it.” They had lived their whole lives in the darkness of oppression and injustice, but now the light had dawned. Of course, they wanted to know more. Of course, they wanted to follow. 

But if that’s what they see in Jesus, what is it that he sees in them? Why does he call these ordinary fishermen to be his followers? Again, Matthew doesn’t tell us, but I think that’s the point. It’s not who these people are that matters but who they aren’t.  They aren’t superstars. They aren’t particularly rich or well-educated. They aren’t even necessarily good or religious people. In Matthew’s version of this story, they seem to be simply the first people Jesus comes across. God doesn’t just call extraordinary people, Matthew is telling us, people with gifts and talents that single them out from the crowd. He doesn’t just call those who are especially intelligent, resourceful, strong or brave.  He calls everyone.

If God could work through the random bunch of people we find following him in the Gospels - people who get it wrong as often as they get it right - he can surely work through us too. For most of us, thank God, that calling won’t involve martyrdom, but all of us are called to do something – or maybe a succession of somethings during our lives – which will make a difference in the world in some way or other, to work with God in creating his Kingdom where we are, in our workplaces and neighbourhoods. We create that kingdom as we stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves, as we love those others have no time for, as we learn to react with mercy and forgiveness, not fear and hatred, to those who hurt us. This is a ministry we’re all called to. There are no exceptions. There is no one too young, or too old, no one too insignificant, and no one too important either, to be called by God to do this work. 

All we need to do to begin is to change our minds, to learn to see ourselves and one another as God sees us, full of promise, full of hope, chosen and called. “Repent – change your mind – for the kingdom of God has come near.”


Monday, 9 January 2023

Epiphany Sunday 2023


Epiphany Sunday 2023


Eph 3.1-12. Matt 2.1-12


Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi, the Wise Men, arrive in Bethlehem with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Epiphany is really on January 6, of course, but we celebrate it on the nearest Sunday. It’s the start of a whole season – Epiphanytide - when we take time to think about what the birth of that baby in Bethlehem means to us. It lasts right through until Candlemas on February 2, which is why the crib in church, and in my home, stays up until then, as we ponder this story of the child in the manger, God with us in vulnerability and littleness.


It’s good that we give this story time. Anyone who has had a baby themselves, or been close to new parents and children, will know that the birth isn’t the end of the story. Of course not. It’s just the beginning. However well prepared parents think they are for the new arrival, they don’t begin to know what their child will be like, and how he or she will change them until they arrive, and even then it’s a gradual process, as that child’s unique personality starts to reveal itself.


The word Epiphany means “revelation” - literally “shining out” - and I think that’s what happens when any child comes into the world. They gradually reveal themselves as they grow up. Their light begins to shine on those around them.


If it is true for all of us, it was certainly true of Jesus, and the stories we hear during Epiphanytide explore how people gradually came to understand who he was, and what he meant to them.   


Epiphanytide begins with the “shining out” of a new star in the sky. It catches the attention of the Magi – philosophers and astrologers probably from Babylon. But what does it mean? For them, the answer was obvious. It was a common ancient belief that a significant birth – a king, a leader - would be signalled by the appearance of a star.  So they set off in its general direction.  


But that’s where the story gets complicated, because despite the apparent clarity of this revelation – a stonking great star in the sky - the Magi struggle to find the child. They head for Jerusalem, and for Herod’s palace. It’s a disastrous decision, not at all wise. Herod was a megalomaniac, paranoid dictator, who’d had quite a few of his own family killed, so he was hardly going to take kindly to people suggesting that a new king had been born. Their visit triggered the massacre of the children in Bethlehem. Why did they get it so wrong? Well, to be fair, the star wasn’t very specific. It didn’t go before them in the first part of the story. It just indicated the general direction. But more to the point, they assumed a king would be born in a palace, that God would be at work, first and foremost, among the rich and powerful, the movers and shakers of the world as it was. They don’t expect to find God in an ordinary home, among ordinary people.


When they do find the Christ child, in a back street in Bethlehem, it changes them completely. They go home, “by another road”, not just literally, to avoid Herod, but spiritually too, different people to those they were when they set out.


It's an extraordinary story, and there’s no evidence that we are meant to take it as literal history, and we usually end up heading down lots of blind alleys if we do – what did Mary and Joseph do with the gold, frankincense and myrrh? Was the star a comet? It doesn’t fit with Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, either, with shepherds, and a manger and “no room at the inn”, but that doesn’t seem to have bothered those who drew together the books of the Bible as we now have them. They knew that the real importance of these stories was as a sort of overture, a prologue, introducing the themes of Jesus’ adult ministry, hinting at the person Jesus would grow up to be.


Matthew writes about the visit of Gentile Magi – foreigners from far away – because he knew that Jesus had grown up to welcome people from all sorts of backgrounds later. He emphasized his ordinariness because he knew that the adult Jesus hadn’t sought status or the affirmation of the rich and powerful. He was no more to be found in a palace as a grown man than he had been as a baby.


This story invites us to ponder where we are looking for Jesus today, where we expect to find God at work. Do we expect to find him only, or mainly, in a church building? Do we expect to find him only in lives which are neat and tidy, respectable and sorted out? Do we expect to find him only in times when all is well, or can we imagine he might be sitting with us in the darkness? Do we expect to find him somewhere else, rather than where we are? When Covid struck two years ago, and we couldn’t meet together in the church building, although it was a terrible time, it also meant that many people began to reimagine their homes, and the other places they spent their time, in new ways, as places where they could meet God, as they joined in virtual worship, or prayed and reflected where they happened to be. Maybe you’re listening to this worship podcast now at home, or on the way to work, or while walking the dog. In doing so, you’re proclaiming that wherever you happen to be at this moment is holy ground. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” says Psalm 24. It’s not a “second best” to pray at home. In fact, if we want a faith that’s firmly rooted and can sustain us through the tough times, we need one which has literally “come home” to us, which is where we are, not dependent on being in a special place.


That’s why, at Seal Church, we practice the ancient Epiphany tradition, of blessing chalk. It’s common across Northern Europe, but happily developing here in the UK too. The chalk is used to mark the doorways of churches and – most importantly – of homes, with the numbers of the year – 2023 – and the letters C, M and B. You can pick up some chalk from the church porch, or use some of your own. The letters, depending on your viewpoint, either stand for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, the traditional names of the Magi, or for the Latin words “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” – Christ bless this house. Either way it is a statement of faith that the places over which it is chalked will be places where God is, where love is, where there is a welcome for wandering wise men and women, or foolish ones for that matter.


It's a bold proclamation, and a scary one. Are we telling the truth? Do we believe that God could be at work in us, that we can find him right where we are, that his light can “shine out” in our lives? That’s the challenge of Epiphany. Like the Magi, we may not always know where we are going, or what we are doing, but in the end, if our eyes and our hearts are open to God, we will find him, and be welcomed. Amen

Sunday, 25 December 2022

Christmas Morning: The Song of the Angel

 The Song of the Angel

There was once an angel. Now, you know about angels, I’m sure. Shiny, winged creatures, who sing a lot, especially the singing. Glory to God in the highest. Holy, Holy, Holy. All angels sing.

Except the one in this story. From the day he was created he had had a voice like a foghorn, or, if he tried for a high note, fingernails scraping down a blackboard. 

Anyway, one day God called all the angels together. He had an announcement to make. “I have seen the misery of my people on earth,” he said, “and it breaks my heart. There is love. There is joy, but there is so much hatred and injustice that it is often drowned out. So I have decided to do something about it. I am going to send my son to be born among humanity, one of them, to show people what my love looks like And you will be a part of this, because I want you to sing to welcome him when he is born. You have nine months to dream up your songs, and you can start right now!”

The angels were filled with excitement. They rose up into the air and headed off to find a corner where they could compose their new tunes, all except one, our angel, the one I told you about earlier.

When all the others had gone, he stood in front of God and said “Lord, what about me? You know I can’t hold a tune to save my life - what shall I do now?”

But God looked at him and said, “My friend, you have the most special job of all. I am sending you to earth, ahead of all the rest, to find your voice, and your song, because when my Son is born, yours will be the best song of all. So, fly down to earth, and find that song.”

The angel looked doubtful, but he trusted God, so he did as he was told. He flew down to earth, and as his foot touched it, his wings disappeared – he wouldn’t be needing them, and they would just be in the way. It quite threw him off balance though, and he tumbled forward onto his hands and knees, and knelt there, winded for a moment. “Ark! Ark! Are you all right?” came a voice from the nearby trees. There was a glossy, black raven, sitting in a branch. “I’ve had some rough landings, but that one looked very painful, and where have your wings gone?” The angel explained who he was, and what had happened, and what God had told him about how he, the angel, would find his voice and a song to sing to God’s Son when he was born. 

“Can I come with you?” asked the raven. “Maybe I can find my voice and sing that song too – as you can hear, mine is pretty dreadful now. The larks and the nightingales all make fun of me”. 

“Sure”, said the angel, “though I have to tell you I don’t even know where to begin looking”

So the two set off together. Having no better ideas, they thought they would try to find some musicians who might give them singing lessons, so they went to the nearest village and asked around. But when the village band heard them sing, they roared with laughter. It was the same in the next village, and the next and the next. Months went past, with no success. Now and then someone tried to help them, but with a day or so would always shake their heads sadly and say that they didn’t think there was anything they could do. Sometimes people even threw things at them to make them stop, or ran them out of town. 

One day the two friends were sitting by the side of the road disconsolate. 

“God always keeps his promises,” said the angel, “ but, for the life of me, I can’t see how ours will ever be a song his Son will want to hear, and his birth is only just over a month away”. A sad silence fell between them, but it was soon broken by noises even worse than their singing, the sound of an old woman wailing with grief, and a donkey braying feebly, and an angry man shouting “Get up! Get up!”

The angel and the raven hurried along the road and soon they came across the source of the commotion, an old woman, kneeling in the dust, her arms around a donkey that was no more than skin and bones. The man was standing over them, a stick in his hand, beating the poor donkey.

The angel was having none of this. “Stop that! Don’t you dare hit that donkey! What is happening here?”

The old woman looked up at him. “When my husband died, I had no money for food, and I foolishly borrowed some from this man. Now he wants ten times as much back from me, and I can’t pay him, so he says he will take my donkey, and put him to work for him for a month in his stone quarry, pulling a cart full of heavy stones, to pay the debt. But my donkey is so old and frail that I know it will kill him, and he is the only friend I have in the world!” 

The angel thought for a moment. Then he stepped forward and said to the man, “Take me. I will work in the donkey’s place for a month. I am much stronger than he is.” 

The man looked at the angel. He did look strong, glowing with health in fact. So the man agreed. “And when the debt is paid, you must promise that you won’t bother this poor woman and her donkey again,” said the angel. “Of course,” said the man, “my word is my bond”. 

So the angel went with the man, and straightaway started to work in his stone quarry, hauling huge carts piled high with stones. From dawn till dusk he worked, day after day, week after week, his hands blistered and chapped, until finally the month was up. Then he went to the little stone hut, where the owner spent his days, supervising his workers and knocked on its stout oak door and went in. 

“I have worked for you in the donkey’s place, for a whole month, and I hope I have worked well.”

“Yes, indeed,” said the man, getting up from his chair and walking to stand between the angel and the doorway. 

“So now, I shall be on my way. The debt is paid, and you will leave the woman and her donkey alone, as you promised”

But, quick as a flash, the man jumped out of the door, and slammed it shut, and pushed the iron bolt across it, trapping the angel inside.

“No one’s word is their bond when there is a profit to be made. I have no intention of letting you go, and tomorrow I shall bring the woman and donkey here to join you!” And off he went laughing to himself. 

The angel was appalled. What had he done? The woman and the donkey were no better off than they had been. As he sat there, stunned, he heard a flutter of wings, and through a crack in the door, he saw his old friend the raven. 

He told the raven what had happened. “Please tell the woman to escape now, tonight, with her donkey, as far away as they can, and go with them to guard them. 

The raven flew off into the darkness.

But not long after, the angel heard the sound of the bolt on the door being slowly, quietly slid back, and the door being slowly, quietly opened. As he sat up, the old woman’s head appeared around the door. “What are you doing here? Why haven’t you run away?”

 “Shh! We couldn’t leave you behind, after you had been so kind to us and so brave. Come with us, and we will all run away together. Quickly now!”

The angel crept out of the hut, and they made their way onto the road, and headed off, no matter where, so long as it was far from the quarry. All night long and all the next day too they walked, looking behind them to make sure they weren’t being followed. 

As they walked, the angel told the woman who he was, and why he’d come to earth, “but now it is almost time for God’s son to be born, and I am no nearer finding my voice and my song than I was when I started,” he said, sadly. 

“Well,” said the woman, “I hope you do find it – maybe I will find my voice and sing again as well. I used to sing beautifully when I was young, but now age, and sorrow, have left it cracked and wheezy. And as for my friend here, “ she patted the donkey, “ his voice could do with some improvement too!” “Eey -aww”, said the donkey, as if agreeing. 

Night fell, and they all knew that they must rest. There was a village on the top of a steep hill not far away. “Perhaps there will be somewhere there where we can sleep” they said, as they struggled up to the top of it. A ramshackle stable came into view, with a light coming from it. And as they drew near, the angel could swear he heard some very familiar voices singing. He pushed open the door and, sure enough, it was full of angels, and in the middle of it, an animal feeding trough, with a baby in it, wriggling and squirming and squinnying, and a tired looking man and woman looking on. 

Gabriel, the leader of the angels turned around to look at the bedraggled party coming in through the door. “Ah, my friend!” he said, “God told us you would come, and not a moment too soon, because God said you would have the song the baby needed to hear. As you can see, we can’t get him to sleep, so perhaps you can!” And right on cue, the baby started wailing. 

“Oh dear! I am sorry to disappoint you,” said the angel, “but I don’t think my singing will help. It’s no better than it ever was! I have found many things – these friends for a start, who’ve shown me love and kindness and courage – (“ and he’s shown those things too!” said the old woman) – but I haven’t found my voice and I haven’t found a song to sing.”

“Well,” said Gabriel “God said you should sing, so, whatever you think you sound like, I think you should. If it will help you feel less self-conscious, we can all put our fingers in our ears.” And that’s what the angels did, and Mary and Joseph too. 

“Now, “ said Gabriel, “sing!”

And the angel started to sing, and the raven, the old woman and the donkey joined in to encourage him.

Now at this point, you may be expecting me to say that, miraculously, the raven sounded like a nightingale, the old woman found the voice of her girlhood, the donkey sang like Pavarotti, and the angel sang – well – angelically. 

But it wasn’t like that at all. They sounded just as awful as they ever had done, like a thousand fog horns, and all the fingernails in the world scraping their way down a blackboard. It was the worst singing you’ve ever heard.

But a strange thing happened. The baby stopped crying. Then a huge smile lit up his face. Then he clapped his little hands together in delight. Then, as the song came to an end, he fell fast asleep. 

The four friends were astonished. “What just happened?” said the angel to Gabriel. “I have no idea,” said Gabriel quietly, so as not to wake the baby, “but I’m not surprised. God once told me that he doesn’t hear as human beings or angels do. He hears what is in people’s hearts. The finest song, sung without love, sounds to him– how did he put it? – like a clanging gong and a clashing cymbal. But the song sung by people who live with love sounds like the sweetest music in the world. And I suppose – like Father, like Son…it is the same with this little one” he said, gesturing towards the baby. 

“But now our job is done,” said Gabriel, “and we must be away back to heaven. Are you coming with us? Wouldn’t you like your wings back?”

The angel thought for a moment. “No” he said. “I think I will stay here with my new friends and we’ll sing our song of love together .”

And that’s what he did, and it is said that he still walks the earth, looking for those who have lost their song, or who think no one would want to hear it, and that he tells them of the love of God, who longs for us to come to him, and sing our songs, just as they are.


Sunday, 18 December 2022

Advent 4 : Whose family?

 Advent 4 22

If you are a fan of the TV series Call the Midwife, you may recall a story which featured in an early episode. I first came across it in Jennifer Worth’s memoirs on which the TV series is based, an account of her experiences as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s and 60s

She tells of an older man, a widower in his late fifties, who’d married a woman twenty years his junior.  He loved her very much, with a quiet, loyal devotion, but while she was fond of him, it was plain that it was something of a marriage of convenience for her. 

They hadn’t expected to have children, and the husband hadn’t had any with his first wife, but the woman discovered that she was pregnant, and he was delighted, and took his role as father-to-be very seriously, doing everything to support his wife.

Eventually the time came for the child to be born, and the midwives were called. The husband was banished downstairs to wait, as was normal then, and the baby was delivered safely. A perfect baby boy. The only problem was that while both husband and wife were white, the baby was very clearly of mixed race. It couldn’t possibly be his. There was an awkward silence in the bedroom, until the woman said that she supposed her husband had better be invited up. Everyone expected a huge scene, shouting, tears, crushing disappointment on the part of the husband, but he came into the room, looked in the cradle, picked up the child and announced that this was the most beautiful baby boy he’d had ever seen. He was delighted. The midwives looked at each other. Had he really not noticed? They said nothing; it wasn’t their place. The mother said nothing. And neither did her husband, not then, and not ever. The boy grew up, doted on by the man who called him son, cared for and supported despite the fact that he looked nothing like him. Of course, there were plenty of people who laughed at the husband behind his back, but he took no notice. Jennifer Worth’s verdict was that he’d seen that if he questioned his paternity, the child would be the one who suffered most, and he’d decided that having this child in his life was worth more than any injured pride he might have felt. As Worth put it “Perhaps an angel’s voice told him that any questions were best left unasked and unanswered.” As a result, a child and his mother, who might both have been rejected, knew love and stability. Tragedy was turned into triumph because of that man’s courage and commitment.

It's not hard to see why that story might have come into my head as I looked at our Bible readings today. Joseph knew that whoever the father of Mary’s child was, it wasn’t him. And if 1950s Britain wasn’t a good time to be found to be pregnant by someone other than your husband, first century Palestine was even worse. The penalty for adultery was stoning, and at the very least, having a child out of wedlock was likely to result in rejection and shame, for mother and child, and for their extended family too. 

Joseph faces utter humiliation, when Mary’s pregnancy is discovered, and while we might think it terrible that he was planning to “dismiss her quietly” – break off the betrothal – that was actually the compassionate option. At least he wasn’t calling for her death, which he could have done.  

But in his dreams an angel appears to him and asks him to do something that would have seemed extraordinary to those around him - to throw in his lot with this mother and baby. The child is “from the Holy Spirit”, he’s told. God is at work in this situation, in Mary and the child. So Joseph does what he’s been asked, and takes the consequences, sheltering and guarding the little family from the murderous King Herod, taking them as refugees to Egypt, and then returning to live in Nazareth, where it is clear from references in the Gospels that people were very aware that there was something suspicious about this child’s birth. 

It’s a costly choice, but one which Joseph makes freely and deliberately, and there’s a tiny detail in the story which underlines that. The angel tells him to name the child and, in the closing words of the Gospel story, that’s exactly what Joseph does. 

In Jewish thinking either the mother or the father could name the child. In Luke’s Gospel it is Mary who is told to name him. But if the father named the child it was considered a sign that he accepted the baby as his own. There was no way to prove a child’s paternity scientifically at the time; men had to decide for themselves whether to acknowledge a child. Roman custom went one step further. The child was laid on the ground at birth, and if the man decided to acknowledge it as his, he would pick it up. There’s no evidence Jewish fathers did that, but naming the child performed the same function. By doing as the angel asks, and naming Jesus, Joseph treats him as his own, even though he knows he’s not. Mary and Jesus may, technically, not be anything to do with him, but he makes them to do with him, part of his life. Metaphorically, if not actually, he picks him up and takes him into his arms, and says, “my life is going to be tied up with this child’s, and his with mine.” 

We can read, and be inspired by this story in many ways. 

It can be a starting point for thanksgiving for all who father and mother children who aren’t biologically their own – foster parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, godparents, the teacher or youth worker who goes the extra mile for a child in need of encouragement.  

The early Christians saw in this little family an image of the church, a place where a diverse group of people were shaped into a new and different family by their choice to love and care for each other, not by an accident of their birth. We can ponder the story from that point of view too.

But it seems to me that we can also read it as an invitation to look at our own relationship with this child. Are we prepared to let our lives become entangled with his, as Joseph does? It’s tempting to be a spectator in our attitude to faith, to keep our options open, to shy away from commitment, but what would happen, this story asks, if we threw in our lot with Jesus, committed ourselves to living as he did, loving as he did, let him be an abiding presence in our lives, “God with us”? What would it mean for us to name him – Jesus – which means “God saves”? How would he save us? What from? What for? How would he change us, as every child changes their family? This story invites us to pick up the child, to declare that he has a claim on us, that he is ours, and we are his. That sort of commitment won’t ever be simple or trouble free – it certainly wasn’t for Joseph - but in the end, if we could ask Joseph, I think, like that man in Jennifer Worth’s story, he’d tell us it was worth it, bringing blessings that he could never have imagined. 


Saturday, 10 December 2022

 Advent 3 2022

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? 

John the Baptist asks a poignant question in today’s Gospel reading, via some messengers he sends to Jesus. He has to send messengers because he’s in prison. He’s offended King Herod by challenging his incestuous marriage to Herodias, formerly his half-brother’s wife – and the half-brother was actually also her half-uncle – so the whole set up was not only monumentally complicated, but also very definitely illegal under Jewish law. John’s challenge would eventually cost him his life, though, and he must have realised that.  However strong his faith, however strong his passion for justice, there must have been times when he wondered whether speaking truth to power was worth it, whether he shouldn’t have chosen a quiet life instead, kept his head down, and his opinions to himself.


John the Baptist’s central message had been that the Messiah, the chosen one of God, who would bring in a new kingdom, a new age of justice and peace and integrity, had arrived in the person of Jesus. He had staked everything on that, but in the darkness of his prison cell, facing death, he seems to have wobbled, and wondered, could he have been mistaken?

That’s the background to John’s question. Have I got it right? Is what I have laboured for worth it?

It’s a question we probably all ask at some point in our lives. It’s at the heart of many a mid-life crisis, that moment when people look at their lives, and wonder what would have happened if they had taken a different route, whether the life they have built over many decades really makes any difference to anyone. Is this it? They ask. Young people aren’t immune to this sort of question, though. It can paralyse  them as they try to choose their path through life, their education, career, relationships. Is this the right thing to do with my life, my “one wild and precious life” in the words of the poet Mary Oliver? They can end up like the donkey who starves to death between two bales of hay because it can’t choose which one to eat, unable to commit themselves to anything, in case they get it wrong. 

At the other end of life – and this is perhaps saddest of all – sometimes people are haunted by “might have beens” or decisions they regret, but can’t do anything about. 

No life can ever be perfect, because we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and the trouble with hindsight is that we never get it until it’s too late, but I think we all need to feel that we are doing, or have done, something that matters to us and to others, whether that is in our work, or in our family, in our hobbies and interests, or, as in John the Baptist’s case, in the things we stand up for. I’m sure the same question plagues those today who are imprisoned for their beliefs, like those challenging the regime in Iran, and suffering for it. In John’s case the question that ate away at him  was whether he’d been right to back Jesus, to acclaim him as God’s Messiah?

The idea of a Messiah was much debated in Jewish society in the first century. Some people thought God’s chosen one would be a military leader, some a priest, some a great teacher, some a member of the ruling elites. Many thought he would come in power with obvious fanfare, but few people, it would seem, had their money on him being a carpenter from Nazareth, born to a humble family, with no connections to the ruling classes, no army to support him. Few would have thought he would care so little about his own fame and fortune either, apparently content to associate with people on the margins who would never be in a position to offer him anything in return. John had felt certain at the beginning, but being stuck in prison, with only your own thoughts for company probably has a way of amplifying any doubts and fears you might have.  It’s no surprise that John wondered whether he had really been right to point to Jesus, and tell his own followers to follow him. 

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  he asks. In answer, Jesus doesn’t give him a theological lecture or a political statement. He tells John’s messengers simply to report back what they 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.” 

Jesus’ message tells John about the real people – this person, this person, and this person - whose real lives are being transformed as they meet Jesus, people who have found in him something they were desperate for, something which brings them healing and hope.

It's a distinctive claim of Christian faith that God came to us in a particular person, at a particular moment - the “Word was made flesh”, as the famous words from Johns Gospel put it. Christianity isn’t, fundamentally, a religion of ideas– though it has often become that – but of experience. In the person of Jesus, those who met him felt that they were meeting God, seeing God at work, and that was enough for them to start calling him the Son of God. What, exactly, they meant by that has kept theologians busy ever since, but it’s important that we realise that pinning down concepts wasn’t the main concern of the first Christians. It was people who mattered. As soon as we make faith a matter of understanding ideas – incarnation, atonement, salvation the Trinity – we start putting the cart before the horse, letting the tail wag the dog. Fundamentally, for the first Christians, their faith was about knowing a person, who had changed them, who had made “the wilderness and the dry land” of their lives rejoice, the “desert blossom” in Isaiah’s words.  

What does it mean, after all, truly to know someone? We can never plumb the depths of someone else, whether they are the son of God or just Joe Bloggs who lives next door. Human beings are a mystery. There’s no way to pin someone else down, to explain completely who they are and why they act; there is always more to discover, they can always surprise us. If we want to tell others about a friend or family member they haven’t met, we don’t reach for philosophical concepts or psychological profiling. We tell stories about them, and the things they have done for us, the real practical encounters we had.  It was the same with Jesus. He wasn’t a concept to be grasped with the mind, but a person, who loved and healed and blessed those he came into contact with. Ultimately, it is the impact he had on those around him which matters, and the impact he has on us. 

And that brings me back to where I started. We don’t know how John the Baptist felt about the answer he received – we can’t even be sure he did receive it, though I really hope he did, because I am sure it would have given him comfort. But if we, like him, are wondering about our own choices and commitments, as we pick our way through the maze of life, perhaps we can draw inspiration from this story. Are we following a path which brings good news to those who need it, freedom to those who are oppressed, welcome to those who are excluded? If we are, whether our work goes seen or unseen, rewarded or unrewarded in this life, we can know that we are walking in the company of Christ, on Isaiah’s Holy Way, the way of everlasting joy.


Saturday, 3 December 2022

Advent 2 2022 : Trees of life


Advent 2 2022


There’s something very powerful about trees. Perhaps it’s their size, towering over us, or their age – some are hundreds, or even thousands of years old, far older than we are – but they matter to us in ways that other plants often don’t.


Philip and I walked past what used to be a fine stand of trees near Kemsing this week, most of which had been felled because of Ash Die Back disease. There was no choice in that case. It was the only way of stopping the disease spreading, but it was a very sad sight, a huge gap in the landscape, and it reminded me of all the trees around the world which are felled for far worse reasons. Apparently 10,000 acres of trees a day are being cleared from the Amazon rainforest, mostly for cattle grazing and cash crops. It’s an old story – humanity has form for this. Dartmoor was deforested by our ancestors in the Bronze Age, as agriculture developed, and Seal stands on what was once the edge of the great forest of Anderida, which used to stretch almost unbroken up from the south coast to here, and from Ashford all the way across to Petersfield in Hampshire.


Trees matter to us, but it’s often only when they’re gone that we realise how much. They’re a vital part of our physical landscape, but they’re equally important to our spiritual landscapes too. Sacred stories from many religions celebrate them. Norse legends speak of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, a giant Ash around which all creation was formed. The Buddha found enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree. And trees are hugely significant in the Bible too.


It starts with those trees in the Garden of Eden – fruit trees of every kind, given as food for humanity and, in the midst of them, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the one whose fruit Adam and Eve ate. According to the story, Adam and Eve lost that first paradise as a result, but at the end of the Bible, the Book of Revelation describes the tree of life standing at the heart of the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city, bearing fruit every month of the year, and leaves which are “for the healing of the nations”. It’s a reminder that whatever happens, the God of life is with us, and nothing can defeat his life. Adam and Eve may have been driven out of the Garden, but they were never driven out of God’s heart.


Medieval legends say that a seed from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was placed in Adam’s mouth when he died, where it grew, and eventually, after a series of twists and turns too long to recount here, wood from the tree was used to make the cross on which Jesus died. There’s no foundation for that in the Bible, but it shows how important the symbol of the tree was to the medieval storytellers. It represented the continuity of God’s love and purpose.


But why all this talk of trees? Well, it came into my mind because both our readings today mention them.


In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist thunders at his hearers, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”.


He’s challenging people who think they have an absolute right to be at the centre of everything, who are resting on their historical positions in the national life and faith, and have marginalised others in the process. “You may think you are here for ever,” he tells them, “but there’s no tree so mighty that it can’t be felled.”



It’s important that we recognise that John is talking to particular Pharisees and Sadducees here, part of the religious elites, not to the whole Jewish people. John the Baptist was Jewish, and so were Jesus and all his first followers. There’s no evidence that any of them intended to found a new religion, or reject the old one. John isn’t saying that the Jewish faith is like a tree which has outlived its usefulness, to be felled and replaced by Christianity. That interpretation is sometimes called “Replacement Theology”, and it’s been used to justify appalling treatment of Jewish people, including the Holocaust. Essentially it says, “Judaism got it wrong, but now Christianity is getting it right, so Judaism doesn’t matter anymore”. All too often the unspoken end of that sentence is “and neither do the Jews who practice it.”  


But John’s not saying that. He is challenging us all to look at our own sense of entitlement, the feeling that we have a right to hang onto whatever power or position we happen to have, that we, or our pet projects are “too big to fail”. The truth is, though, that the things we think will be there forever, can topple and fall in a moment, especially if all we are focussing on is the top growth, the bit that shows, and not paying enough attention to the health of the roots, and the soil in which they’re growing.


There were some ripples of anxiety running around in church circles this week, when the 2021 Census data revealed that those ticking the “Christian” box on it had fallen to 46% nationally. How useful that statistic really is is very much open to question. It obviously doesn’t translate into actual churchgoing, and never has done. I would love to have 46% percent of the parish expressing their Christian faith in church on a Sunday, though we’d need a pretty huge extension, because that would be about 800 people… If we had that many listening to the podcast I would be delighted, but I’m not holding my breath!


But our reaction to that statistic tells us something important, nonetheless. If our faith is shaken by the prospect of not being quite so much at the centre of national life as we once were, if it depends on a sense of historical power and influence – then it’s a faith which probably needs re-examining. If we want a faith that’s deep enough to weather the storms of life it needs to be one which is personal, ours, rooted in our knowledge of the love of God for us, practiced and expressed in our own daily life. That kind of faith will endure, sustain us and overflow to others, whether the church is strong or weak, rich or poor, at the centre or out on the margins, plentiful or just “two or three, gathered in his name”.


In the Old Testament reading, Isaiah speaks to a nation which was going through a devastating fall from power, defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile. It was as if the mighty tree of the nation, and the faith it was built on, had been felled, leaving nothing but a bare stump. But trees are amazing things, says Isaiah. Left to their own devices, if the roots are healthy, the stump will send out shoots. That’s what God will do with them “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse”, he says. Jesse was the father of King David, far from an obvious candidate for kingship, a little shepherd boy, the overlooked youngest son of his father, but the greatest king that Israel had ever known.


God isn’t done with us, says Isaiah, and John the Baptist echoes his words, as he points forward to Jesus, the “one is coming after me…who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.” All we may see above ground are ruins – the stump of the tree - but God sees the possibility of a wonderful kingdom of peace and justice, and of glorious diversity – lions and lambs coexisting in harmony. God isn’t limited by our imagination, our understanding of what is possible. It’s not the grand top growth that matters to him, but the roots, the hidden parts of the tree, which no one sees, but which bring life out of what appears to be dead.


Today’s readings, then, invite us to ask ourselves where our roots are. Circumstances can fell the strongest of us, but if we’re rooted in God, if our sense of worth and purpose come from the knowledge of his love, then his life will spring up in us again, and we will be trees that are fruitful and life-giving to those around us too.