Sunday, 30 December 2018

Christmas 1 Looking for Jesus

Audio here 

Luke 2.41-52, 1 Samuel 2.18-20 & 26, Colossians 3.12-17

Families and Christmas go together don’t they. Hopefully most of us will have got together with family and friends over recent days and if not there’s certainly been no shortage of opportunity to join this church family with the wide range of worship and celebration around Christmas.

A gift to me this year was a musical one, not something I can physically hold but an app for my ‘phone which gives access to an apparently infinite library of music via ‘Spotify’. Now I have my own account my children won’t be texting me when listening to their music in the gym only to be interrupted by me using their account to listen to my outdated tunes from Paul Weller or Bryan Ferry!

It almost goes without saying that I had to grudgingly ask for some help setting it up from someone many years younger than me. In many areas of life the recent decades have produced the largest number of situations in living memory where the older generation turn to the more tech savvy younger people for help and advice.. But outside of technology, has this also produced an older generation who think that children and young people should be listened to more, or does it stop there and revert to type in all other matters?

At the time of the 12 year old Jesus we heard of in Luke’s gospel today a patriarchal, hierarchal system would have meant that until this point Jesus would have been raised and looked after by the women of the family and wider group. Children would rarely have any meaningful contact with the men until this age and would suddenly find themselves thrust from their over protective Jewish mothers into the harsh male environment. Yet rather than being overawed by this new experience Jesus is immediately at home in the temple, testing, probing and provoking the teachers with his questions.

I guess anyone who has ever taught anyone else anything has had that moment when there is no real answer to a question, or it’s clear that the student is thinking far wider than you anticipated. When told by her grandmother that women can be any shape or size they want the little girl in the TV series outnumbered asked ‘what even a hexagon’?

Going deeper than the quirky and amusing challenges young people may present it’s clear that if we close our minds to what they have to offer we will be the poorer for it.

Those reading Luke’s words at the time they were written would have recognised how Jesus was being presented as a future leader in accordance with Greek and Roman traditions. Parallels could be drawn with Roman heroes like Emperor Augustus who at the age of 12 confidently gave the main speech at his grandmother’s funeral Julia Caesaris, the sister of Julius Caesar. But the young Jesus is even greater than Augustus as he shows a wisdom way beyond that expected, giving an indication of his future challenge to the established authority.

You may recall a few years ago when parents of a 12 year old girl who died from cancer discovered some of her writings as they were clearing her room. They were published and can still be found in full on the web. They included wise and thought provoking sayings such as “Love is not about who you can see spending your future with it’s about who you can’t see spending your life without’ and ‘If someone loves you then they wouldn’t let you slip away no matter how hard the situation is.

I guess that it’s the reverse of seeing an older person doing something foolish. It’s all about expectation and preconception.

As we’ve been focussing on the wisdom of young people and particularly Jesus in the temple I almost forgot to address the fact that for 3 days his parent have been frantically looking for him. Upon hearing that Jesus’ parents noticed that he wasn’t with them what was your first reaction? How could they not have noticed, what sort of parents were they? After all we are told that they travelled for a day without noticing that he was missing.

Today in our Western culture men and women travel together because were usually hopping on a plane, train or in a car. But it would have been traditional for women in a caravan, a travelling group, to set out earlier than the men who would catch them up in the evening when they had settled a camp and it seems likely this was when Joseph would have said to Mary and Mary to Joseph…’I thought he was with you’ followed by a sickening feeling in the pit of their stomachs!

So after 3 days Jesus’ parents find him in the temple with many others. Luke doesn’t say that his mother took him to one side or asked for a quiet word in private, so it seems possible that the Son of God, among temple leaders and many impressed by his wisdom, gets a rollicking from his mum. It is likely that she was both relieved and angry in equal measures and showed her emotions as she said ‘child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ What he was told by his mother to look at we don’t know, maybe a distressed looking pair of parents, exhausted, filthy with tears in their eyes. We are given a glimpse of the more human side of the meek and mild Blessed Virgin Mary we often sing of.

Put in his parents shoes would you be happy with an answer that begins ‘Did you not know’? It implies surely you would have thought to look for me here at an early stage, yet clearly they didn’t know.

Perhaps it was a message to Joseph and Mary as to who he regarded as his true Father, perhaps a landmark moment as Jesus matures and builds his own awareness that he is the Son of God in a truly unique way. God’s approval had become more important than that of his parents as he started to grow into his mission and Jesus seemed surprised that his parents didn’t get it.

We are told that Mary treasured all these things in her heart. Upon reflection she may have come to understand more about the significance of these events.

It’s a good discipline for us all to draw upon, calm reflection and contemplation about something we may not have fully appreciated or understood at the time or something which we find disturbing. For some a quiet space is needed but for many Christ’s wisdom can be found as we dig the garden, sit on the train or iron the shirts, maybe for Mary it was in times of cooking and weaving.

Jesus went with his parents to Nazareth ‘and was obedient to them’. As I read our Colossians reading we hear the writer telling church members to ‘clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience’ I thought what greater meekness is there than knowing who you are together with so much power and potential and yet the Son of God was obedient to his loving earthly parents.

As we contemplate Jesus as God’s son we consider that our reading from Samuel is also part of story about different kinds of sonship. Samuel is not Eli’s son but is growing up to see him as a guiding figure that he respects, ministering under him in the temple, learning from him and accepting him as a father figure.

Contrast this with Eli’s actual sons who exploit the temple for their own ends causing their father great sadness in the way they behave. Normally Eli’s sons would succeed him but God has chosen Samuel, a fact which becomes clear from later events in this prophet’s book.

So we are challenged to broaden our thinking about parenting. Clearly it has potential to extend way beyond our own blood lines both in our opportunities to lead and nurture those we can help but also to recognise God’s ultimate call as Father of all.

Again and again in the bible matters don’t follow predictable time trodden routes. Eli’s sons would have scoffed at the thought of Samuel succeeding their father, as their complacency for their rights of succession made them lazy and sinful.

Later others would scoff and mock Jesus as the son of God, what right could a person of such humble heritage possibly have to proclaim such greatness.

As we reflect on what the words from the bible mean for us today I would suggest that we can give thanks that our church benefits from a wide range of ages and be open to learning from each other regardless of years accumulated.

The great philosopher and comedian Peter Kaye made a lot of sense to me when he said ‘knowledge is knowing a tomato is (scientifically) a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’

We need to discern the difference between knowing what the bible has printed in it or the words we hear read and how we might employ our understanding to make God’s love known. What difference would it make if we were to clothe ourselves in Christ as suggested in the letter to the Colossians, above all ‘clothe yourselves with love’ we are told. Maybe we should put a sticker to this effect on the inside of a drawer or our wardrobe, particularly those who are grumpy in the mornings, and arise each day determined to live our lives in Christ the best we can.


Kevin Bright

29th December 2018

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

A light in the window: a story for Christmas Day


There was once a grumpy farmer. No one knew why he was grumpy. As far as anyone could remember he had always been grumpy.

He lived in a little two room farm house two fields away from a village. He kept himself to himself, and everyone gave him a wide berth too. There was one room for him and an adjoining room which served as a stable for his few animals, a cow and a couple of sheep, and beyond that a vegetable garden with a beehive.
Every evening he would eat his supper by the light of the fire - there was no point in lighting a candle just for him, and this was long before there were electric lights – and then he would go to bed.

Spring, summer, autumn went by until Christmas Eve arrived, not that the farmer ever took any notice of that. The farmer ate his supper by the firelight, and went to bed, just as he always did. There were no presents, no cards – who would have sent them? – no tree, no decorations, nothing to mark this day as any different from any other.

Now, as you know, I’m sure, at midnight on Christmas Eve each year, all the animals in the world are given the power of human speech. If you don’t believe me stay up and ask your dogs and cats next year… The animals in the grumpy farmer’s stable didn’t know why this was, because they’d never heard of Christmas, but each year they enjoyed their little chat with each other – normally the cow could only speak cowish and the sheep could only speak sheepish, but on this one night of the year they could understand each other perfectly.

On this particular Christmas Eve they were just agreeing about how sweet the grass had tasted that summer and how glad they were that they had this warm and cosy shelter since it was a cold and windy night outside, when all of a sudden a pure white dove squeezed through a hole in the thatch and flew down to perch on the windowsill. She shook herself out and looked at them “Brr… I am so glad to have found some shelter here from that cold wind, but I only came across this house by accident. Tell me, why, on this night of all nights, don’t you have a candle burning in your window like everyone else?”

“Why should we have a candle burning in the window tonight? “ asked the cow.
“Don’t you know? It’s Christmas Eve” said the dove.
“What’s Christmas Eve?,” asked the animals. “We’ve never heard of it ”.
So the dove told them about Mary and Joseph, and the baby Jesus, who was born in a stable and laid in a manger, because there was no room for him anywhere else. She told them about the shepherds who were the first to hear the news – the sheep liked that! – and the Magi who followed a star to visit the baby. She told them how the child was special, the son of God, sent to show people how much God loved them.

“That’s a lovely story” said the cow, “but what’s it got to do with putting a candle in the window?”
“Oh well” said the dove. “You see, it is said that every Christmas Eve, Mary and Joseph wander through the world once again, looking for a place for Jesus to be born. So people put a candle in their windows as a sign that they would be welcome there. Everyone does it – just look over there at the village!”

The animals crowded round the little window and sure enough they could see that each house in the village had a tiny pinprick of light in its window, a single candle ,burning to welcome the Holy Family if they should come that way.

“Oh, but we should have a candle too,” said the cow, “We would love a visit from these very special people. How sad that, all these years they might have been passing by and not known that we would have helped them. But what can we do? We have no candles ourselves, and I don’t think the farmer has any either!”
“Oh yes he doezz” said a small voice…
The animals looked to see where it had come from, and they spotted a small honey bee, which had crawled through a crack in the window frame and was sitting by the dove on the windowsill.
 “ I thought you bees were all asleep for the winter.” Said the cow “I’m surprised to see you up and about”.
“Normally we would be” said the bee, “but every Christmas Eve all the beez in the world wake up and zing and dance to celebrate Jesus’ birth – I thought everyone knew that! We zing together one of the zongs in the human bible, Psalm 100, they call it ‘Make a joyful noize to the Lord all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladnezz, come into his prezence with zinging…’”

“Yes, yes, yes,” said the cow… “I’m sure it’s a very lovely song, but tell us,  how do you know that the farmer has candles?.”.
“Every year, “ said the bee, “we make him lots of lovely beeswax to make them. We watch him make dozens of candlez and put them in a big box in his room. He looks at them zadly, though, and shakez his head. ‘ No real point in doing this,’ he zays, zince no one ever comes to zee me, and I’m zure Mary and Joseph won’t. Oh yes,” said the bee, “ he haz many hundreds of candles, but they have never come out of the box he put them in!”

“What a shame,” said the sheep, ”Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could get one of those candles and put it in the window here to welcome Mary and Joseph. But how could we do it? We can’t get out of the stable. We can’t get into his room. We can’t open the box, and even if we could carry a candle back without waking him, how could we light it, since we haven’t got a match…?”
They all stood in silence and racked their brains for a solution.

“Well,” said the cow. “There must be a way, even if we haven’t puzzled it out yet. I know – why don’t we tidy up the stable and put some fresh straw in the manger anyway, just in case. And perhaps by the time we’ve done that one of us will have figured out what to do.”

So they all set to work. They pushed the dirty straw aside, and spread out fresh straw on the floor. They lined the manger with new hay and the sheep even scratched off some of their wool against a beam which the dove laid on top of the straw so it would make a soft bed.  The bee just carried on singing his song in the hope it would keep their spirits up.  When they’d finished, if a baby ever had to be born in a stable, this was surely the very best stable he’d find.

But they still had no idea how to get that candle. The animals stood with their heads hung low. All that effort, but it would be no use…

And then, there was a knock at the door. They all swivelled round to look as it slowly creaked open, and a man’s head appeared around it.

“Can we come in, me and my wife? We’re looking for shelter, and somewhere for our baby to be born.”

The animals all stood with their mouths open.

“Are you…?” said the cow…”Are you…? Said the sheep “Are you…?” said the dove and the bee.
“Are you Joseph, and is your wife Mary,” they all said together.

“Why yes, of course” said Joseph. “So, can we come in?”

 “Yes” “Please do” “we’d be delighted”, they all said at once.

And Joseph led Mary in, and the cow lay down on the strawy floor and offered her broad back for Mary to rest against, and the sheep surrounded her to keep off the draughts. And very soon the baby came squalling into the world, as babies do.

In the room next door the farmer was still fast asleep. He was used to the sound of the animals moving around, so he hadn’t woken up as they cleaned the stable. But in the depths of his dreams, he suddenly heard a noise he wasn’t expecting. He sat bolt upright. Was it a lamb? No, it sounded like a human child. Someone had broken into his stable, probably trying to steal something…

He got out of bed, and picked up a heavy stick. Then he crept out of his door, round the side of the house. He gripped the stick in one hand and the stable door handle in the other and …one, two, three… he flung it open.

“Ha! Caught you in the act, you miserable thieves…” But all he saw in front of him was a woman, leaning on the back of his cow and surrounded by his sheep, and a man, looking a bit worried, behind her, and a baby, lying peacefully now in his manger on a bed of soft wool.

“Are you…Could you be…Mary and Joseph…in my stable…in my house?”
“Why yes, of course, who else would we be, and where else would we want to come?” they said.
“But , but, there is no candle in the window? How did you find your way here?”
“There didn’t need to be a candle,” said Mary, “The kindness in your animals’ hearts shone more brightly than a thousand candles. They did everything they could to make this place ready for us, and if a child ever had to be born in a stable, surely this is the one they should choose.”

And the farmer saw that it was so. And a tear slid down his cheek, and he sat down and told Mary and Joseph how he didn’t really want to be grumpy, but early on in his life, the other children had never wanted to play with him. Perhaps he was odd or different. Perhaps it was just that he lived two fields away, not in the village with them. But he had learned not to ask to join in with their games, not to hope that someone would be his friend. And once he’d started to keep his distance, he just couldn’t seem to stop. So no one ever risked visiting him, and he never risked visiting them either. But if God himself, in his Son, could come to visit him, and even be born in his stable, then perhaps he should think again.

And the farmer thought again. And suddenly, he had an idea.

And he rushed next door, and threw open the box with all those candles in it and gathered up armfuls of them and piled them on his table. Then he sat down and he wrote lots of paper labels which he tied to the candles. Then he threw them all into a bag, and set out across the fields to the village.

And in the morning, when the villagers awoke on Christmas Day, every one of them found a candle on their doorstep, with a label tied to it, which said, “This is not a Christmas candle. This is an anytime candle. Let it shine as a sign of welcome, because when we welcome each other we welcome the Christ child too, and he is born in us. Christmas blessings, from the not-so-grumpy farmer” 

And ever after that, when night fell, if the farmer wanted company he would look out of his farm house towards the village and see one of his candles burning in the window of this house or that house. And he would set out across the fields and knock on the door and be welcomed in for a chat and a drink and maybe a game of cards or two, except, that is, for the nights when he lit a candle in his own window, and everyone else came to him.

Favoured people: Midnight Mass sermon

Midnight Mass 2018

It was the middle of a long dark night for the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem. They were expecting absolutely nothing out of the ordinary when the sky seemed to split open and the glory of heaven flooded down to earth. The angel who gave them the message that Christ had been born was joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host” – it was as if they suddenly had a glimpse into the courts of God. And it wasn’t just the light that dazzled them. Singing filled the air as well.

But what was it that the angels sang?
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!”  
Or something like that…
Because the problem with this angelic song is that no one is quite sure now exactly how to translate it. The Gospels weren’t written in English, of course. They were written in Greek. Now,  it’s the middle of the night and you probably don’t want an ancient Greek lesson right now, if at all, so suffice it to say that whenever you translate anything from one language to another you have to make choices. Words and ideas don’t necessarily correspond exactly from one language to another.It’s the last few words that cause the problems, the ones we heard tonight as “on earth peace among those whom he favours.”

Older translations, like the old King James Version, say   “on earth peace, good will towards men”. It’s a very comforting translation, full of bonhomie, the sort of spiritual equivalent of a glass of mulled wine, “jolly good, as you were, Merry Christmas one and all”. The problem is that modern scholars don’t think it’s really what the Greek says, so in modern bibles you’ll hear words like we heard tonight, “peace among those whom God favours” (NRSV) or even “Peace among those with whom God is pleased” (ESV) I don’t know about you, but hearing that leaves me with some big and disturbing questions. Who are these people whom God favours, the one’s with whom he is pleased, and more to the point, am I one of them?  Does it mean me? Am I included?

Most of us have probably had experiences of being left out, or worrying we might be. It starts in childhood, if we’re the last to be picked for the games team, or don’t get the invitation to the birthday party that everyone else is going to, or find that our attempts to join in at playtime are rebuffed. It hurts, doesn’t it? And the feeling often lingers, no matter how many years pass. We doubt ourselves. Are we really wanted, really loved, really secure? Do we really belong?  Are we “friend-worthy”?

Even if we were popular during childhood, our self-confidence can take all sorts of knocks later on; a relationship breakdown, a job loss, financial difficulties, mental health issues can all pull the rug out from under our feet. We feel like outsiders, looking in on the happy, settled lives of others. Will anyone really want to know us?

It’s no wonder that so many people are lonely. A study this year found that one in twenty say they are lonely often or always, and it’s something that hits all of us at some point. Loneliness affects people of all ages. In fact the 16-24 age group in that study reported feeling most lonely most often.  Social media can connect us to the whole world with a touch on a screen or click of a button, but “likes” and “follows” on a social media account aren’t the same as having people who matter to you and who you matter to, real friends you can trust , communities that you feel you really belong to, neighbourhoods where you’re known and loved. It isn’t enough simply to have people around you. You can be lonely in a crowd. What matters is knowing deep down, inside, that you are “friend-worthy”, that people want to be with you.  

Earlier this year at Seal we started a very small initiative to try to counter this loneliness that affects so many. We’ve called it “Talking Village” and it’s part of our “Know Your Neighbours” movement.  We’re trying to provide and advertise regular times and places in the village where anyone can turn up for a chat – about anything or nothing – and know there will be someone else there to chat to. The Monday afternoon sessions in Birch’s cafĂ© in the High street are proving popular, and other already established groups like the Friday Group in the church hall and Seal Tiddlers for parents with young children have also come on board.  Talking Village has all sorts of possibilities for expansion – evenings in the pub, walks together – so do pick up a leaflet from the porch on the way out if you’d like to know more or get involved, or look on the church website. It’s not rocket science, but then friendship doesn’t need to be; it is small things that make the big difference.

Being reminded that we are “friend-worthy”, welcome just as we are, is important to our human relationships, but it’s equally important to our relationship with God.  Do we matter to him? Are we the “favoured” ones the angels sing about? Is his message of love really for us? Or is it for someone else, someone holier, someone with more to offer, someone whose life if more sorted out than ours is?

That’s why it’s so important to remember where we hear the angels’ song first, not in Herod’s palace, not in the Temple in Jerusalem but on a Bethlehem hillside being sung to a bunch of astonished shepherds. These were people who lived rough and ready lives on the margins of their society, who were often looked down on because they couldn’t keep the rules of their religion or society. They had no influence. They weren’t the movers and shakers of their world. And yet this is where God starts; these are the top of his list of “favoured” people, these are the people God chooses to announce his big news to first.

It’s equally strange that God would call foreign astrologers far away in the East to hear the news that Christ was born. What has a Jewish messiah got to do with them? Good Jewish people wouldn’t have even been willing to share a meal with them, never mind a Messiah.

And that whole business of choosing a young unmarried woman to be his mother, a woman who shouldn’t have been pregnant at all…What was all that about; it was bound to cause scandal?

But that, of course, is the point. God chooses shepherds and foreign Magi to be the first to hear and respond to the news of Christ’s birth, and a woman who risks disgrace to bear him, because he wants us to know that if they can be “favoured” people, then anyone can, and so, surely, we can be too. His message, his calling, really is for us, however far outside the pale we think we are.  Christ comes into lonely human hearts to tell us that we are all beloved, “friend-worthy” in God’s eyes. He comes to tell us that whatever other people think of us, whatever we think of ourselves, we matter to God more than we can imagine.

There’s a story in the Old Testament about a man called Jacob, who’d run away from home in the aftermath of a family quarrel, and found himself out in the middle of nowhere when night fell. He had no choice but to sleep in the open, with a stone for a pillow. But as he slept, he dreamt of a ladder set up between earth and heaven, with angels coming and going on it. When he woke he said in amazement, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it! This is the gate of heaven!” He may have run away from home and family, but he couldn’t run away from God, because God ran right along with him and his vision of angels proved it to him.

The Christmas story carries the same message. God is in this place, in us, in our lives, in our hearts. It’s where he wants to be. It’s where he has wanted to be all along. It’s we who have failed to see him. I’ve never bought into the idea that there is a great gulf fixed by God between him and us; that our sinfulness means he turns his face away from us in wrath or disgust. I think that’s in our heads, not his. After all, Bible stories like that of Jacob show him popping up all over the place in people’s lives – in burning bushes and angelic appearances, in pillars of cloud and fire in the desert, in still small voices in the depths of their hearts. He shows up whether people are ready or not, whether they are expecting him, or looking for him or not. God is here , with us, those whom he created. We are all his favoured, “friend-worthy” people – it is only we who have ever doubted that.

So this Christmas, I pray that we will hear the song of the angels, “peace among those whom he favours” and I know that it is sung for us, and for everyone else around us too. I pray that we will hear that message with boldness and confidence, that we will let it sink into our souls, because if we truly believe it, then it can change the world.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Advent Breathing Space 3: God is this person

Over these last three Thursdays we’ve been thinking about the message that all angels communicate, that God is here, that God sees and knows us. The angels remind us of God’s presence, in the places where we are, in the times when we are.

In this final thought for Advent we’ll think a bit about the God who is here in our lives and the lives of those around us.

It might seem strange to begin with Hagar and Ishmael. After all, they don’t figure at all in the story of the Bible after this point, and in some ways, we could argue they weren’t meant to feature in it at all. Abraham had been promised as many descendents as the stars in the sky, but his wife, Sarah, bears him no children. In an attempt to manipulate the situation, she tells Abraham to father a child with her slave, Hagar. Hagar becomes pregnant and has a son, Ishmael, Abraham’s first born. But a few years later – we heard this story last week – Sarah becomes pregnant and also has a son. Now there is a problem. Hagar and Ishmael are really redundant, no longer needed, and Sarah wants to be rid of them, in case there is any suggestion that Ishmael should inherit instead of his younger half-brother, Isaac. So she tells Abraham to drive the mother and child out into the desert, presumably knowing they are likely to die there. And die they very nearly do, as we hear. But at the last minute, an angel intervenes and points the way to a well. They survive and, as the story ends, we are given just a hint of what is to come – Ishmael becomes a renowned hunter, we are told, marries an Egyptian and makes the desert of Paran his home.

They walk off into the wilderness and into a whole new life. Hagar and Ishmael just seem to be extras in the Biblical story, with brief walk on parts that move the tale along, but without any lasting significance, and yet the fact that their stories are told at all is important. “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is” says the angel to Hagar . “I will make a great nation of him” says God through this angel. We may hear no more of the two of them, but they matter to God, and he hasn’t finished with them. 

It’s interesting that Arab peoples believe they are descended from this first son of Abraham, Ishmael. According to Muslim tradition Abraham and Ishmael set up the Kaaba,  the sacred stone in Mecca which is still the focal point of the pilgrimage – the Haj - there.

This story is a reminder of the significance of every single person, however peripheral they may seem to our own lives. We may sit next to someone on a train or pass them in the street, and never know their names, but they are as important to the world, and to God, as we are.

In the first of this series of talks I talked about Jacob and his dream of the angels ascending and descending a heavenly ladder. “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!” he says in wonder. We could say the same of the people whose lives we only encounter briefly, “Surely God is in this person, in every person, even if I did not know it!

The story of the Bible is full of apparently insignificant people who turn out to matter very much indeed – an apparently abandoned baby in the bulrushes called Moses turns out to be the liberator of his people. A childless nomad called Abraham turns out to be the father of not one but two nations. A little shepherd boy, called David, the youngest of his brothers, is almost overlooked when the prophet Samuel comes to his home, but eventually becomes the greatest king of Israel.

And it’s the same in our Gospel reading. A young girl in a backwater town in Galilee, receives a visit from an angel who tells her that she will bear God’s son. Why her? Is she holier, braver, more devout than any other young girl of the time? There’s no reason to think so, and we are never told why she is chosen, and maybe that is just as well. Because it  says to us that God could, and does, chose and use anyone. He could even choose and use us.

God is here, say the angels to us; in this place, in this time, in this person. In our place, in our time, and in our person too, if we will open our eyes to see him, and like Mary, consent to let him work in us.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Advent Breathing Space 2: God is this time

The theme for our series of talks at Breathing Space this Advent is “God is here”, the message which underlies every other message angels bring. They represent God to humankind. They are a reminder of his presence. Last week we thought about what it might mean to remember that God is here in this place. This week we are going to think about the God who is here in this time, in this moment, now.

Our two readings both told the story of people who had visits from angels; unexpected, mysterious visits. In some ways they are very similar stories. Both Abraham and Zechariah were old men at the time these stories happened, and their wives, Sarah and Elizabeth, were childless. At the age of seventy Abraham had been promised descendants more in number than the sand or stars in the sky, that God would make a great nation out of him. It seemed too late even then, but the decades passed and Sarah didn’t conceive. He fathered a child by her slave Hagar – we’ll hear more of her next week – but that had ended up creating bitter rivalry and making Sarah feel even worse than she already did. Now Abraham was nearly a hundred years old, according to the Bible – perhaps an exaggeration, but we get the point. He, and Sarah, were really way too old to embark on parenthood together, by any logical reckoning. But God had other ideas, and nine months after the visit we heard about in our reading, Isaac was born. His name meant laughter, perhaps because the whole situation seemed so ridiculous, perhaps because it meant that Sarah and Abraham – and God – had had the last laugh in the end. The tribe of Abraham eventually became the whole Jewish nation and through them, indeed the earth has been blessed.

And then there is Zechariah and Elizabeth, people who were, again, too old to have children, but found themselves becoming parents anyway. They had long given up hope – there had been no divine promises to them as there had been to Abraham – but God, in God’s time, gave them what they longed for, a son, who was to grow up to be John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.

Abraham and Zechariah were astonished, amazed, rendered speechless in Zechariah’s case, when God turned up in their lives. Neither of them were expecting anything special that day. Abraham was sitting under a tree in the shade. Zechariah was doing his duty in the Temple, offering incense at the time of prayer. And yet, at that moment, in that “now”, God came to them.

Human beings have no choice but to live in time, one moment after another, but we rarely find it easy to live in the “now”. We either hanker for the past, or wish our lives away hoping for something better in the future. It is hard for us to believe that this moment, the moment we are in, has its own purpose, its own blessing, that God might come to us in it.

We may feel, like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, that we are too old for God to do anything meaningful with us, that we have missed the boat. We may feel too young to be much use. We may feel that we are just in too much of a mess right now for God to turn up in our lives, that we’re not ready for him, or, conversely, that we are getting along fine on our own at the moment, thanks, and don’t need him. But these stories remind us that God comes to us when God comes to us, in his time, with his purpose, that every moment can be blessed, every day can be holy, that the angels of God can appear when we expect them least, if we open our eyes to their presence.
In the silence today, let’s think back over the day that has gone, then, and look for the angels’ footprints in it, the moments when God showed up, with his message of love and life, and ask for his grace to recognise the holiness of “now”. 

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Advent Breathing Space 1: God is this place

Our three Advent Breathing Space reflections this year are all linked to our Daily Advent Angel reflections, at least in the fact that they will all feature angels.

Angels represent God in the Biblical stories in which they appear. Whatever else they communicate, whatever their specific message is, they tell people “God is here, God has seen you, God is with you”. In many Old Testament stories, indeed, it’s not always absolutely clear whether the figure that people encounter is an Angel or God himself. Sometimes the language shifts halfway through the story – what started out as the words of an angel become those of God himself. That’s not surprising. They speak and do what God has commanded them, and like human messengers in the ancient world were far more than mere postmen. They stood in for the person who had sent the message. 

So in the Angelic stories we’ll be looking at over this next three Thursdays, the theme will be the proclamation that “God is here – in this place, in this time, in this person.”
And maybe – though I’m not expecting an angel to show up here – it might help to remind us that God is in the places, times and people we encounter too. 

The readings we heard tonight are both about people who meet God in a place where they never expected he would be. 

Jacob is on the run from his home, having cheated his brother out of the birthright that should have been his, the blessing of his father on the future head of the household. I suppose it seemed like a good idea at the time, but having got what he wanted, Jacob realised that if his brother was going to be angry with him for the rest of his life, then it wasn’t a prize worth having. He’d end up looking over his shoulder forever. So he ran away to relatives in a distant city. And on the way he stopped in the middle of nowhere, and lay down on the bare earth, with a stone for a pillow, because there was nowhere else to stay. And during the night he had his famous dream of angels coming and going up and down a ladder fixed between earth and heaven.  

In the morning he declared in awe “‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ … This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ It’s as if you stumbled into what you thought was a cheap hotel late at night and woke up to find it was Buckingham Palace. God was here, even here, right where Jacob was. He might have run away from Esau, but he couldn’t run away from God. God seemed to be content to run right along with him. 

The shepherds in the Gospel story, equally, did not expect God to show up on their hillside. Why should he? And yet, it was the sky above their heads which was filled with angels – heaven opened all around them. And not only had God’s glory come to them in the glory of the angels, he was present, they were told, in flesh and blood in a child in their town, a child not lying on silken sheets, but in a manger, in an ordinary house, squashed in with the animals. That the Messiah had been born in Bethlehem wasn’t a surprise – if he was going to be born anywhere surely it would be in the place King David had grown up – but to be born into such humble circumstances, in a home like their own, amazed them. 

We are perhaps so familiar with these stories, that we forget the shock of them, but for Jacob and for the shepherds,  where they were was the last place they expected to find God. And I suspect we are the same. Our little village of Seal isn’t particularly famous. Nothing much that is noteworthy on a national or global scale has happened here. William the Conqueror’s soldiers apparently camped here on their way up to London after the battle of Hastings. A friend of Jane Austen’s lived in the Grey House when Jane was a teenager – the friend was the daughter of the vicar - so I choose to believe she might have worshipped here at some point, but even that is stretching the evidence somewhat. Apart from it being the start – or end – of the traffic jam that is the A25 through Sevenoaks, it doesn’t really seem to register on most people’s consciousness at all. People tend to say “Oh yes, I’ve driven through Seal many times…” and that’s about it. 

But the good news is that that puts it absolutely into the same category as Jacob’s late night resting place, and that Bethlehem hillside, because they were places where nothing much had happened or was expected to happen, and yet the best thing of all did – God was found in them.  These ordinary places were the ‘the house of God, the gate of heaven.’ And, if we open our eyes, so can the ordinary places we inhabit be. Our homes, our workplaces, the back streets and housing estates, the skanky bits of towns and cities where no one goes after dark if they can help it. God is there. God is here, in this place, and in all places. If we don’t believe that, then we don’t believe in God at all, because the earth is his and everything in it, according to the Bible. 

So this week, as we go about the business of whatever it is we need to do – work, shopping, caring for our families – let’s pause now and then and say to ourselves “This is the house of God and the gate of heaven” and see how that changes those places for us, or changes us within them. 

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Hopeful Signs: Advent 1

Audio version here 

1 Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36

“There will be signs,” says Jesus,” in the sun the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations.”

“There will be signs…”

The world is full of signs. They’re all around us - road signs, street signs, advertising signs, logos, icons. Signs are powerful. Get them right and you can communicate a whole world of meaning; the golden arches of McDonalds, the Nike swoosh, the red and white logo of Coca-Cola. We all recognise them and know what they stand for.

The first signs human beings learned to read were natural ones, of course; the position of the sun in the sky, the behaviour of animals, the tracks of footprints in the mud that told them where to hunt, or what was hunting them. Being able to read those signs kept our ancestors alive.

But that’s the crucial thing, isn’t it. A sign is only any use if we know how to read it, if we know what message it’s meant to convey.

Ancient people were far better at reading those natural signs than most of us are. We’re insulated from nature by artificial light and central heating, and in any case, most of us don’t depend for our food on what we catch or grow for ourselves. We learn to see what we need to see. That means that we may not recognise the tracks of a deer on a forest floor – we don’t need to – but  we can spot the golden arches of a McDonalds from half a mile away and know we’ll find food there.  

A sign is only any use if we know how to read it correctly. 

And that’s what’s bothering Jesus, I think, as he talks to his disciples about signs in the Gospel reading we heard today. 

To be honest, this passage probably feels rather baffling to us - even more than it was for those who first heard Jesus words -and I think we need to acknowledge that before we delve into it. Most of us probably don’t believe that Jesus will literally come again in in a cloud, as the sky splits open. Apart from anything else, we don’t think of heaven as literally “up there” any more, as the people of Jesus’ time certainly did.  But that doesn’t mean that passages like this don’t have something important to say to us.  

To hear that message we need to know the context. Jesus is in the Temple. It is just a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. He knows he’s heading for a confrontation with the Roman authorities, and he knows how that confrontation will end, but his disciples still don’t seem to be able to see it. They still seem to be convinced that God will swoop down and prevent anything bad happening to Jesus. When it happens, then, Jesus’ crucifixion will seem to them like a sign of disaster, a failure, a waste.

There’s another audience we need to be aware of when we hear these words too. Luke wrote his account of the life of Jesus in the early 80s AD. A decade before, in 70AD, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem and expelled its people out of their land into a diaspora that didn’t end until the twentieth century. The Jewish people were reeling from the shock of this, and the early Christians, who still saw themselves as essentially a reforming movement of Judaism rather than a separate faith, were as devastated by this, and the recriminations that followed it as the rest of the Jewish people.  They were also facing intermittent persecution and hostility.  

What were they to make of this trouble that had fallen on them? Did it mean God had abandoned them? Did it mean all was lost? Did it mean that evil had won? How should they read the signs of their times, the things that were happening to them? What did they mean? 

So Luke shows us Jesus, talking about the future. There will be signs, he says, and they won’t be ones you want to see. There will be distress. There will be fear and forboding. The heavens will be shaken. It will feel as if the whole cosmos is coming apart. So far, so obvious – these were people who were used to terrible things happening. They lived in a terrifying world. But then comes the twist in the tail of these words. When these bad things happen, says Jesus, when you see these terrible signs, you have a choice about how you read them. You can look at them as signs of failure, signs of the end of everything, or you can dare to hope that they are actually signs of a new beginning, signs of the moment when God breaks through into the world, into your lives, in a new way, when you can “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption – the moment when God rescues you – is drawing near.”

“Look at the fig tree” he says “and all the trees.” In winter they look dead, branches bare and lifeless, but when spring comes, apparently miraculously, new leaves unfurl from the bark. Summer is coming.  For these people, so much more dependent than we are on what they could grow for themselves, summer meant crops, food, the promise of life. It doesn’t look likely, but it happens, year after year. “You’ve learned to look for the signs of summer on the bare branches of the fig tree” says Jesus, “So learn to look for life even in the midst of death. Learn to look for hope, even in the midst of despair.”  Jesus’ crucifixion, which these disciples are about to witness, will look like failure, but it will turn out to be triumph, the gateway to resurrection.  If they can open their eyes to God in these dark times, they will discover that they are completely safe in the hands of God, the God whose love is stronger than death. 

And those people for whom the Gospel was written, facing persecution and turmoil in the times of the early Church? The message is the same for them. In the midst of death and terror, God comes to them, with new life and hope, if they have eyes to see him, giving them the strength “stand up and raise their heads”. 

We may be tempted, when we come across passages like this about the second coming, for us to feel that they are all rather outdated, obscure, irrelevant, fodder for fundamentalists to argue over, but not really having anything to say to us, but we’d be wrong. I don’t believe we should worry too much about the details of these prophecies, the how and when – Biblical writers don’t give a consistent picture of what they believe the future will hold anyway – but I think we throw the baby out with the bathwater if we ignore them completely. 

That’s because they aren’t really about the future at all. They are about the present. What matters isn’t what might happen in some age to come, but what’s happening now, as we encounter the “distress among nations” which we see on the news, and the distress we encounter in those around us and in ourselves too.  We live in anxious times too – Brexit, nuclear weapons, terrorism, climate change, austerity, the mass migration of desperate refugees…  Every human being, sooner or later, discovers what it is like to be afraid. It doesn’t have to be a global disaster either. Serious illness, family troubles, financial worries can make us feel like we are confronting the end of our world, and that can feel just as devastating and final to us. 

If we are to find the courage to “stand up and raise our heads” in these times we need, just as much as the people of the first century, to train our eyes to look for the signs of life and hope in times of distress, to be alert to the presence of God.

Paul shows us one way of doing that in the second reading we heard, his letter to the church in Thessalonica. His first visit there had been a disaster. (Acts 17) The Jewish community had been so angry at his message that they’d started a riot. He and his companion, Silas, had had to run for their lives. 

It looked as if the church in Thessalonica was dead before it had even been born. And yet, a very short time later – this is thought to be the earliest document in the New Testament - Paul writes the words we heard, words of joy and confidence. “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”  He doesn’t deny the reality of the obstacles and opposition in his letter, but he chooses to focus on the signs of hope, the people who have responded to his message and are learning to “abound in love”. God is at work in them and that’s what matters – their love is stronger than the hatred of those around them. Paul sees it and says it, so that they can see it too when they feel weighed down with worry.

Hope is a discipline, something we learn through practice, a habit we build up by choosing to look for signs of life, noticing small acts of kindness, rejoicing in the love we share, the care we take of each other. It doesn’t mean denying the reality of pain and darkness, but it does mean seeing, and saying, that pain and darkness aren’t the whole of the story, the things that define what that story is about. 

And that brings me to Advent, this season which begins today. It isn’t just meant to be few weeks of frantic preparation for the Christmas festivities. It’s meant to be a time when we learn hope, when we practice hope, when we train our eyes to see where Christ comes to us, not just in Bethlehem long ago or in some far distant future, however we imagine that might happen. The rituals and practices of Advent, the Advent candles and calendars, the opportunities for prayer and reflection, the stripping away of decoration which gives us space and stillness, are all designed to help us do that. That’s why they matter. So, this Advent, I pray that we’ll learn to read the signs of our lives and our world as God means us to, with hope, so we can learn to see his presence with us in times of trouble , failure, darkness and distress, which is just when we need him most.