Monday, 27 December 2010

The Christmas Branch

Christmas day 09
The Christmas Branch

Many years ago there was a mother with a large family. Her husband had died, leaving her a widow. She worked as hard as she could but she struggled to find enough money to pay for food and clothes and fuel for the fire. She and her children were often cold and sometimes hungry too.

The hardest time of year for them was Christmas, though. As the children walked through the village where they lived, every window they passed seemed to have a Christmas tree in it, decorated with beautiful ornaments and shining with candlelight. They would have loved to have a tree like that, but they knew it wasnt possible. Their mother would have loved to have given them a tree like that, but she knew it was out of reach too. It was coming up to Christmas time and, in the town where she lived, people were getting excited.

One year, on the night before Christmas Eve a storm blew up. All night long the children could hear it howling through the forests around the town. “At least it will bring down some wood that we can gather for the fire,” said the childrens mother. In the morning of Christmas Eve sure enough, when they went to look, the forest floor was covered in fallen branches. If they had nothing else for Christmas at least theyd be warm. As the widow gathered wood for the fire the children went off to see what they could find. Soon they were back, not with an armful of twigs, but with an entire branch which had fallen from a fir tree.
We will have a Christmas tree after all they said. It may be a bit battered  more of a Christmas branch than a Christmas tree - but it will do. They dragged the branch all the way home and into the house and propped it up in a corner of the room. They had nothing to put on it, but it made the house smell of pine, just like the proper Christmas trees in the rich peoples houses, and they were happy with it.

But after they had gone to bed their mother sat in a chair by the fire and looked at fir branch. She was glad the children were pleased with it, but it was a bit pathetic really, compared to the trees in the other houses. It was lopsided and plain, with sparse branches. Suddenly she felt a wave of sadness sweep over her. She wanted to be able to give her children a tree like the other children in the town had, with shiny decorations on it, and candles to brighten it  even presents round its base, but there was no chance of that.

As she looked at the branch she noticed something moving in it. A spider crawled out and began to make its way to and fro across it, spinning a cobweb as it went. Back and forward, back and forward, the strands of the cobweb stretched across the branch.
It was the last straw. Wasnt it enough that she couldnt give her children a beautiful tree  now this spider had to come and spoil what she had with its web. She might have been poor, but she kept her house clean, and she wouldnt put up with cobwebs. Even on Christmas Eve,” she said to herself, theres no rest,. She reached into her apron pocket for a cloth to sweep it away with  and got up from her chair. But as she did so she heard a small voice, a tiny voice. It was coming from the spider.

No, please dont!, it said.
Give me one good reason why I shouldnt sweep you away, you and your untidy cobweb! said the woman.
“But all I am doing is worshipping the Christ Child, just as my ancestors have always done.
By leaving a mess all over our tree! How can that be worship?
If you sit down, and put the duster away, Ill tell you, said the spider.

So the woman sat down, and the spider started his story.

Long ago, he said, one of my distant ancestors lived in a place where there were hardly any trees. She lived in a cave by the side of a road going south from Bethlehem to Egypt in the middle of a stony desert . Now and then people came down the road. The spider took no notice of them, though, and they never noticed her either.
One day, though, she saw a tired looking couple  a young man and woman  trudging down the road towards her. The woman was carrying a tiny baby and both of them looked worried, glancing over their shoulders as they walked along.
As they came to the cave, the woman said to the man, Weve got to rest, Joseph  the baby needs to be fed, and we cant go any further tonight. Why dont we stop in that cave over there?
But Herods soldiers are following us, Mary answered the man and if they catch us, were finished, and so is Jesus!
Thats as may be, his wife answered, but I cant go on any longer, and its almost dark.
So they decided that, dangerous though it was, theyd spend the night in the cave. Joseph said hed stay awake and keep watch while Mary slept. But he was just as tired as she was, and soon his eyelids began to droop, and he fell asleep.
Now the spider was watching from a corner of the cave. She didnt know what had happened, but she could see that this little family was in danger, and she wondered what she could do to help.
She couldnt fight off the soldiers they had talked about
But then she had an idea. He went to the mouth of the cave and began to spin a web. Back and forth she went, across it, gradually building up strand upon strand of cobwebs until the mouth of the cave was covered.
She only just finished in time too. Because as She did, She saw two soldiers tramping down the road towards the cave, their weapons and armour shining in the moonlight.
They looked behind every rock, every scrubby shrub as they came.
Theres a cave up ahead there one said to the other. That would be a good place for them to hide. Yes, wed better check that
They came closer and closer to the cave. The spider trembled with fear. Would her work be good enough.
Nah! No ones been in here for years! said the soldier. Look at this cobweb  its so thick you cant even see through it!

And the soldiers went back to the road and marched off into the distance.

In the morning, Mary and Joseph woke up. Look at the cobweb  theres been a very busy spider here”, they said as they broke through it to get out. And look  said Joseph, there have been some busy soldiers too. All around the cave entrance they could see the footprints of the soldiers in the dust. If it hadnt been for that spiders web, they would have found us for sure
Well, thanks be to God for spiders! said Mary. “Ive often wondered what God created them for, but now I know  they have saved his son from death, and Ill never think of them the same way again. And Gods blessing on them. Whenever they spin their webs they should tell the story of this night.”

“And that,” said the spider in the fir branch, to the widow, “is why, on Christmas Eve, all spiders spin their very best webs. We cant sing, we cant read from the Bible, but we can remember when we hid that tiny child from the soldiers, and so this is our worship.

Well, then, you must spin away, said the woman to the spider, for we all have to do what we can!
And she thought to herself as she watched him spin. She often felt just like that spider  there was little she could do for her children, and yet she could do what she could  love them and look after them with Gods help. For a while she watched as the spider carried on spinning his web but in the end, her eyelids felt heavy too, and she fell asleep in front of the fire.

She was woken next morning by the shouts of the children. Look mother, look at our tree!
And she looked, and every strand of that cobweb had turned to silver, and the tree shone as brightly as any they had ever seen. It was the very best tree that anyone had ever seen.

And thats the story behind the tinsel we put on our Christmas trees. Ive brought a lot of this fine cobweb tinsel with me today, and Id like to give each of you a few strands of it as you leave. Take it home and put it on your tree, or in your house somewhere as a reminder of that spider who protected the baby Jesus with his web, and a reminder that all of us can do something to help others, weaving love into their lives, even if it sometimes feels as fragile as a spiders silk. When we do that we are offering the kind of worship God really wants. It might not seem like much to us, but it might just make all the difference. Amen

The King's Storyteller

The Kings Storyteller

Long before there was television, or films or even printed books, if you wanted a story, you needed a storyteller to tell it to you. Im going to tell you the tale of one of those storytellers

His name was Isaac and hed been telling stories since he was a small boy. Hed started by telling stories to his friends and family. They loved them, and soon his whole village realised that Isaac had a very special gift indeed. He could spin stories all night, stories to lift you up, stories to calm you down, stories to amaze you, stories to amuse you. Isaac always had a story. His fame spread round his village, and to the next village, and eventually it even reached to the capital city, and into the palace of the king.  Now kings like stories just as much as anyone else, and when the king heard of this new storyteller he decided that he wanted to hear his stories too.

So the king sent for Isaac  Come to the palace and you can be the Kings Storyteller. Isaac was very excited. The kings storyteller! What could be grander than that? Hed be telling stories to the rich and famous at the kings banquets, dressed in fine clothes. Hed be rich himself, and powerful too with the king for a friend.
But Isaac was nervous as well as excited, because this king was a king you may have heard of. His name was Herod and he was a hard man, a ruthless, cruel king. Keep him on your side and youd be set up for life; make an enemy of him and it could be the end of you.

But Isaac couldnt resist the lure of fame and fortune. So off he went to Jerusalem and to Herods palace. At first he was terrified, but soon he realised, that as long as you told Herod stories he wanted to hear, he was happy. And what sort of stories did he like? Stories, Isaac discovered, about kings like himself, ruthless kings, rich kings, kings who got their own way, no matter how.
So Herod was happy, and Isaac rose high in the court, rewarded with fine clothes and gold and a grand room in the palace

But one day something dreadful happened. Every morning when Isaac woke the first thing he did was to decide on a story to tell that night, but this particular morning , no matter how hard he racked his brains, he just couldnt think of a single tale he hadnt told. He tried to make up a new story, but nothing came into his head, no plot, no charactersHis head was empty of ideas, empty of words. What could he do? Things looked bad for him. If he couldnt think of a story by that night, hed be in a whole lot of trouble.

The day wore on, but still no story came to Isaac. The sun went down and Herods court began to gather in the great hall of the palace ready for that nights feasting to begin. Everyone settled down to eat and drink, but Isaac couldnt eat a mouthful. He had no idea what he would say when Herod summoned him out to tell his story.
Finally the moment came. Herod clapped his hands together Isaac! Kings Storyteller! tell me a story fit for a king!

Isaac stepped out into the middle of the room. His legs trembled in terror. Desperately hoping something would come to him, he opened his mouth…

But just at that moment the door was flung open and a servant rushed in with a great flurry of robes
Im sorry, your majesty, I just couldnt stop them
Stop who?, said Herod.
Visitors from the East, your majesty  stargazers of some sort, but very finely dressed. They say theyre searching for a new king, a baby king, a king who was promised long ago  theyve seen a star that announces his birth, and they thought you might know where he was. I told them to come back another day, but they insisted  they are right outside. Theyre on the way in, your majesty.
Herod went crimson with fury  “a new king! Why on earth would I want to tell anyone anything about a new king! Im the only king around here! How dare they! Are they complete fools?  Send them away!....
No, no, on the other hand he said , Dont send them away  bring them in here He looked around the room.Not a word from any of you, he said, with a wily smile on his face. Watch and learn! Ill show you what kings should be like!

Herod had forgotten about Isaac, much to Isaacs relief. He stepped quietly back against the wall - saved in the nick of time!

In came the visitors. Herod smiled his sweetest smile at them and beckoned them forward to tell their story. And what a story! They explained about the prophecies theyd read in their home far to the east, and the star theyd seen in the skya sign of the birth of a child God would send to bring justice and peace to the world.
Even Isaac thought it was far-fetched and hed told every tall tale in the book! But what we dont know, your majesty, said the star-gazers, “is where this child is to be born.

Herod smiled magnificently at them. If theres anything we can do to help noble gentlemen like yourselves, well be happy to do so he said. He summoned his advisers, people who knew the ancient scriptures. Any ideas?
Well, they said, there are ancient prophecies that talk about Bethlehem  King Davids birthplace  I suppose they could try there!”
There you are! said Herod, but be sure when you find him to come back and tell me  of course I want to go and welcome this new king too  such a great day for our nation! Now  stay and have some food, stay the night  its far too late to travel! But the stargazers wouldnt stay. They said they needed to travel at night to see the stars that guided them, so off they went.

 No time for a story tonight, Isaac! said Herod and I dont think even you could do better than all that nonsense weve just heard anyway! Isaac was off the hook! But as he headed home he had an idea. Hed still need a story for tomorrow, or hed be in the same trouble then. Those stargazers with their hare-brained errand  surely there would be a story in that somewhere. It would be a ridiculous story, but it might make the king laugh. After all they were obviously complete fools if theyd come to Herod to ask him about a rival king, so who knows what they might get up to next.

So Isaac slipped out of the palace and set out on the road towards Bethlehem. It wasnt long before he had the stargazers in his sights. They were moving slowly, laden with boxes and bags, stopping now and then to look up into the night sky. Funny, thought Isaac, there is something there, a star that seems brighter than the rest, one I havent noticed before. He shrugged and went on, keeping far enough behind them so they wouldnt spot him.

It wasnt far to Bethlehem  its only 7 miles from Jerusalem  and the travellers, with Isaac behind them, soon arrived. He followed as they wound their way through its narrow streets  past the big houses  surely this king would be in one of these? . But no, they went on till they came to a rather run-down house on the edge of town. There was no one about, just the light of that strange star shining above them. It seemed to be directly over this house. The travellers spoke quietly to each other  Isaac could see they were confused. This couldnt be right, could it? But then they heard a baby cry  there was a young child here.

They picked their way across the filthy yard of the house and called out softly. From inside the back room where the animals stayed at night, they heard someone call out a welcome. Isaac watched as they went in, lugging their boxes with them. He crept after them, and peered through a crack in the door. What an extraordinary sight! Right where they were, amidst the muck and straw, these finely dressed strangers were kneeling down. Before them was an ordinary looking man and woman with a small child in her arms. As Isaac watched they brought out gifts from their boxes  gold, sweet smelling frankincense, precious myrrh. What could make powerful, rich men like these kneel down in the dirt before a child? There was something extraordinary going on here. Isaac strained to hear what they were saying as they talked quietly with the childs mother and father. Something about Gods love for all people. Something about justice and welcome.

Isaac thought of the grand court where he had made his home, of the power games and the fear, of Herod, cruel Herod, and the iron grip he had on the lives of ordinary people, and suddenly, Isaac felt sick of it all. He leaned forward to try to hear better... when the door he was leaning on flew open with a great crash. Isaac went sailing through it and fell flat on his face in front of the mother and baby.  Wellall hell broke loose. The pigeons in the rafters flapped around in a panic. The animals in the stalls bellowed with fright, and of course the baby woke up and began to wail. But the babys mother just held him closer and smiled at Isaac as he lay on the filthy floor. “You could have just walked in, you know” she said, youre welcome too!”

For the second time that night, Isaac couldnt think of a single sensible thing to say, so he just said the first thing that came into his head. But I dont have a gift to give you he said, looking dismally at the stargazers presents. Then he thought again, No, perhaps thats not true  perhaps I do have something for you. In fact it may be a more precious gift even than this gold, frankincense and myrrh, begging your lordships pardon. You see  Im a storyteller, and I have a story to tell you, a true story that you need to hear And he told them about Herod, about his cruelty, and about the way he was trying to trick the stargazers into telling him where the child wasand about what he would do to if he found him.
They all listened with horror, realising what great danger this baby was in. Thank goodness Isaac had been there to warn them. It was a precious gift indeed that hed given them.

So at first light they all began to pack. The little family said they would head to Egypt, far from Herod. The stargazers decided to take a different route home; there was no way they were going back to Jerusalem  they werent that stupid.

And Isaac? Well, hed certainly found a story to tell  but he wasnt going anywhere near Herod with it!  And the more he thought about Herods court, Herods world, the less he wanted to be part of it anyway.  So Isaac just kept going, from village to village, town to town. And everywhere he went he told this new story of the child born in poverty who came to show Gods love for us all. Did he miss being the kings storyteller? No, because he still was the storyteller for a king, only now he told stories for the King of Heaven instead of for King Herod.

And they say that he wanders the world still, telling that old story to anyone who will listen. Who knows? That might be true. Or perhaps it is just the story that has travelled? After all, someone brought it to me, and Ive brought it to you, and its yours to give away to someone else. As those old storytellers like Isaac used to say, thats my tale, and now its told and in your hands I leave it.”

©Anne Le Bas   Christmas 2008

Marko and the Christmas Visitors

Christmas Day morning

Markos Christmas visitors  adapted from a Serbian folk tale.

There was once an old shepherd. He had lived alone in his little house, high above the village for many years, tending his sheep. One night a storm blew up. Above the noise of the wind and rain, though, the shepherd could hear the sound of crying. Perhaps it was a lamb in trouble? He opened the door, and there on his doorstep was a newborn baby boy, wrapped in a blanket. Who could have left you here? said the shepherd. He couldnt see anyone. Whoever the parents were, and why they hadnt been able to keep the baby, the shepherd never found out. The shepherd had no children of his own, but hed raised plenty of orphaned lambs  food and warmth were what mattered. He wrapped the child in lambs wool and fed him on sheeps milk, and the child lived, and thrived, and the shepherd, who loved his adopted son, called him Marko.

But though the shepherd welcomed little Marko, the villagers were not so sure. They didnt trust strangers, and they were suspicious of this child who had arrived in such a mysterious way. It wasnt long before they realised too that this little boy was different in another way, too  he was blind. He couldnt see anything at all. In those days people were sometimes cruel to those who were disabled in some way, and instead of helping them to live their lives, they rejected them.  Huh! said the villagers to the shepherd, what use will he be? You should never have taken him in! The village children teased him and wouldnt let him play with them. But whenever Marko got upset by their treatment the shepherd would say to him firmly, Theyre only thinking of what you cant do  but I see what you can do, and you can do things theyve never dreamed of. It was true, too. While other people saw with their eyes, Marko had learned to use his sense of touch. He could touch your face and feel whether you were happy or sad. He could tell, somehow, whether you were cruel or kind. If the shepherd brought him an injured sheep Marko would run his fingers over it and soon be able to say exactly what was wrong. You can see with your fingers! the shepherd used to tell him.

But life was sometimes sad and difficult for Marko. There was one thing that Marko longed to do more than any other. Every Christmas the people of the village would gather in the little church to put up statues of the Holy Family - Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Children from the village would be chosen to take the statues out of their boxes, where they had been stored during the year, and put them carefully into an alcove in the wall of the church, high up above the peoples heads, where they would stay throughout Christmas, looking down on the congregation. The shepherd had described the figures to Marko  Joseph the carpenters strong, rough hands, Marys smile, and the little child, so young and fragile, lying in a manger. Marko liked hearing about them, but more than anything he wished he could feel them for himself, to see them through his own fingers, just like he did the injured sheep, or the face of the shepherd. Eventually one year, he plucked up courage when the time came, to raise his hand  Could I help? Could I carry the Holy Family? The villagers were horrified. You!  youd drop them, you wouldnt be able to see where you were going with them  and anyway, they are ours, and you are an outsider, a stranger, youve no right even to ask  now, be gone with you  scram back up the mountain where you came from

Marko felt more miserable than he had ever felt in his life. He took to his heels and ran back up the track to the shepherds hut, crying all the way, longing to tell his adopted father what had happened. But the shepherd was nowhere to be found. Marko ran out into the barn, but there was no one there but a few orphaned lambs, brought in to be reared there. He lay in the straw and sobbed  why couldnt he be like all the other children? Why couldnt he, just once, hold those holy statues in his arms, touch Mary and Joseph, and feel the face of the infant Jesus.

He was still crying when he heard the tap at the barn door, and the door being pushed open. Excuse me, said a mans voice, I wonder whether you would mind if I and my wife and baby sheltered in your barn for the night. Its getting cold, and we cant find anywhere to stay  the people in the village said they had no room.
My adopted father isnt here at the moment, said Marko, but I know he would say yes  he took me in, so I know he would welcome you too. Thank you, said the man, then he noticed Markos face, still wet with tears.
Whats the matter?, he asked. As he and his wife began to unpack their things, Marko told them what had happened, how he could see with his fingers as well as others could see with their eyes, and how he longed to hold the Holy Family but wasnt allowed to. Being able to see with your fingers is very clever, they said. Would you like to touch our faces? they asked. Marko reached up. He felt the mans beard and held his rough hands  hands that had done hard work. He felt the womans smile. And then she put the baby into his arms.
Marko, would you hold the baby for us, while we get ourselves sorted out? she asked. Marko took the child carefully  he was very small. He felt his little nose, round like a button, and his ears, like fragile sea-shells. He felt the roundness of his head against his cheek, and the childs soft lips. By the time the man and the woman had finished unpacking and settled down beside Marko on the barn floor, the baby was fast asleep in Markos arms. You keep hold of him, said the mother, hes happy with you.

Just at that moment, Marko heard voices, and footsteps, coming towards the shed. A great crowd of people  he hoped they wouldnt wake the baby, but who could it be? No one usually came here.
The door of the shed was pulled open, and Marko heard a great gasp of surprise. What is it? He asked. No one answered for a long time, but then Marko heard the voice of the shepherd. The villagers came to find me on the hillside,” he said. “They said that my barn was on fire. They could see the light from it all the way from the village. So we came straight away but we never expected to find this.
Find what? asked Marko.
The Holy Family, here with you, Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, asleep in your arms And just at that moment, Marko felt the weight of the child vanish, and heard Mary whisper in his ear, Thank you Marko, for making us welcome  never forget that you have held Jesus in your arms.“

The family had gone, as mysteriously as they had arrived, but Marko never forgot that night, the night when he discovered that whoever you are, you can hold the Christ Child. And the villagers never forgot it either, and the lesson they had learned; that God was not their property, someone they could lock up in their church, but that he goes where he wills, and dwells with all who welcome him.

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.