Monthly Archives: December 2017

Try it out

Why do we start this story after the angels have left? (Luke 2:15-21).  It might seem we are missing the point, but perhaps there is a point to make this way, too.

For the shepherds, it was one thing to be told; quite another to go and see for themselves. There’s effort and risk involved, but it makes the whole experience their own. The walk into Bethlehem may have been less fun than the angel choir, but doing it made it part of their own experience, not just an “entertainment”, however heavenly.

The shepherds prove what was said – they find a baby in a manger, and are able to tell what has happened to them, before they go home “singing praises to God for all they had heard and seen; it had been just as the angel had told them” verse 20

For Joseph and Mary, the shepherds visit may have been a shock, but their story provided confirmation that God was at work. We might wonder how they could forget, but it had been a long time since the angel’s appearance to Mary, and Joseph’s dream. We all need reassurance, and this is a confirmation they share, to make them more sure – and ready for the next difficulty.

So, if the end of the story, the shepherds visit to the Bethlehem babe, was important for them and for Joseph and Mary, what about us? We continue the celebration of Christmas, while many have finished with it for another year. Like the shepherds, we need not only to hear about it, but to see it, and make it our own. It needs trying out, as well as hearing.  When we have made sense of it, we then need to share it as well, passing it on, whatever reception it gets. (Nobody recorded the impact of the shepherds on Bethlehem.  I like to think they may have made quite a stir!).

We may worship with many people vaguely aware of God, but with no idea that he might be involved in their lives. That was the temptation for Joseph and Mary; but they were reminded of how God was using them, and it strengthened and prepared them for the next steps.

It’s no use just sitting back and enjoying it – even if “it” is a choir of angels. We have to take action on what we are told, and when we have found out for ourselves, we need to share that, and to build on our experience of God at work, so that we know we have a place in his work, and are ready to take on the next challenge.

Commitment!

Talk about commitment is not the sort of subject that makes you friends. Its so difficult to get right – it seems hard to please everyone. People tell you that you have to be committed in your relationships – you must make time, keep promises, be reliable even when others let you down. And, well you might manage that, if it wasn’t that – they say much the same thing at work, or in education, or even if you volunteer. “We want your commitment”, “You must give this priority”, “no excuses, 110% effort”.

Ah well, perhaps you can take some time off – sport, music, maybe a club of some sort. What happens? – we expect you to be there for training, practice, matches, concerts, evenings out. You have to be reliable, you’re no use unless . .  Instead of being relaxed, you find yourself exhausted. And that’s why we celebrate Christmas. Yes really.

“In the beginning was the one who is called the Word” (John 1:1-18) Right at the start, God is into communication – not shouting orders from a safe distance, but keeping in touch.  He creates, and in his creation is light.  But the real celebration is about commitment – His commitment to us, not ours to yet another responsibility!

“The Word became a human being and lived here with us” (verse 14)– that’s commitment for you! God comes to share our life, with all its risks and problems. The commitment shown in the Creation, in all the help and encouragement at critical moments, now takes baby form. He lives with us, he dies for us. That’s what we celebrate; that’s why we celebrate. His commitment, not ours. Later, we can ask about how we respond, but for the moment, just enjoy it!

Something missing?

The story of the angel’s visit to Mary (Luke 1:26-38) sometimes gets crowded out (as it may this year) with the rapid approach of Christmas.  That would be a pity, because it has plenty of interest.

It is full of realism.  Mary has to be told not to be afraid – this is not the land of fairy stories where angels appear and disappear without comment.  She is perplexed, for the message doesn’t seem to make sense.  But the thing that strikes me is something that isn’t there.  There is no apology.

There could be several, or so we might think.  The angel does not apologise for frightening her, puzzling her, disturbing her routine, or (more significantly) for giving her a job which will be emotionally draining, at times deeply traumatic, and immensly difficult. There is no offer of counselling, compensation, or even reward, because  . . .   ?

Because, in the end, and despite our assumptions, God is entirely within his rights. That sounds harsh.  God is not playing with people’s lives, but there is a lot at stake, and what is asked is only what has been freely given.  Mary is indeed given a most difficult and demanding role – which is what her life was intended for, and which will bring its own rewards. It is the same for us. God does not apologise for the demands he makes on our lives – our whole lives, all our time, money, and effort. It is what we are intended for, and brings its own rewards.

Perhaps, sometime over Christmas, we shall each feel a bit sorry for ourselves.  You know the sort of feeling: undervalued, ignored, overworked . .  Mary could so easily have felt like that, or just refused her mission.  We celebrate her faith because (whatever she went through on the way) she understood that life is meant to follow the plan of God, and that is how it achieves the best things.

 

The Value of Antiques!

Antiques are popular! Perhaps some like them for good workmanship, others for their style. At any rate, shops, books, fairs and television programmes abound.

In the New Testament, if you were to look for antiques, you would immediately turn to John the Baptist. (John 1:6-8 and 19-28)  Perhaps he was himself an antique, to judge by what other gospels say about his clothing and style – the “classic” Elijah-type prophet.

There hadn’t been a prophet for several hundred years, then John arrives, insisting on bringing up things from the past.  The WILDERNESS: the place where a group of slaves became a nation, and a nation of God’s people, with identity, Law, and leaders. John lives in the wilderness, teaches in the wilderness, about JORDAN the original way in to the Promised Land; his baptism seems to be saying “go back to the beginning and do it right!” It’s not just individuals who have sinned, the whole society needs to repent and make a new start.

So it comes to a crisis. John has preached with some success, he has a group of disciples of his own, and then – they send a delegation. John is the son of a priest, so they send Priests and Levites. Who are you? Explain yourself! No, he’s not the Messiah, not Elijah (as Malachi 4:5 expected to return before the Day of the Lord) nor the prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15. His answers get shorter; he’s not interested in being classified. But they go on, they have to have an answer. Eventually, John quotes Isaiah 40:3 (though the Septuagint, Greek, version rather than the Hebrew), for now the voice is in the wilderness, shouting about preparing a Way for God.

John may be the antique dealer of the New Testament, going back to the old style, bringing back a fashion for wilderness, and ways in by Jordan. But he’s got his eye firmly on the situation of Judah, and the future of God’s people. He knows something is happening, and he is desperate to direct people, not to analysing his style, but to preparing for the one who will follow him.

Antiques are junk, unless they adorn modern living. John deals in religious antiques, and perhaps we ought to pay attention to his sales talk, – and buy before the price is our of our range.

Excitement!

Mark begins his gospel (Mark 1:1-8) with an excitement, which I hope has not worn off. To him religion and the message he has to deliver is not only important, and therefore serious, but also exciting and good. Losing that sense of excitement can be one reason why religion becomes boring – and that is the death of motivation!

The good news – the gospel – is of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Again, something we lose sight of at our peril. Jesus is not only God’s gift, through whom we can see the invisible God, and understand what the incomprehensible Deity is like. Jesus is also the way we are brought back to God, forgiven and freed. Mark doesn’t waste time or paper – this is the first line of his gospel!

So, how does it start? With an Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, and his announcement of a messenger to prepare the way. As Mark will make clear, the whole Old Testament has been unfolding God’s plan, and preparing the way for the coming Messiah, the great King. As we shall discover, the King was rather different to what was expected, and so preparation was needed. The prophecies of Isaiah’s book play a part (they feature in Carol Service readings!), not least by creating hope and expectation – an important element.

Then there is John the Baptist. verse 4. Mark understands him to be the messenger Isaiah was talking about, and he comments on his dress and prophetic style. Prophecy had died some hundreds of years before, but its sudden rebirth is a sign of something happening. John calls people to repentance, as part of making ready for his successor. The message is for rich and poor, religious and secularised, and is uncompromising and straightforward: You need to be forgiven, and before my successor comes!

There’s a buzz about all of this. Excitement, urgency, something more than personal preparation. Now is the time to face up to things we have been avoiding. Now we can sort out and put right. Now we can get ourselves right with God, other people and ourselves. It had better be now, because something new is coming which will take our time, effort and attention, but needs us to be ready.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. . . .

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

A Faith with three tenses!

Some people spend a lot of time looking back. If that is all they do, it’s a bit pathetic. Sadly, some Christians seem to be like that, and for many people, that is why faith is not worth the bother. Faith needs three tenses, not one.

In today’s reading (Mark 13:24-37) Jesus talks about the future. (This is Advent Sunday, a new Church year, and we start reading Mark’s gospel). Some of what he talks about would happen in the Jewish war (66AD on), while some is still in the future today.  If that seems confusing, Mark’s point is clear. Christians need to be alert; they cannot live casually, but must be ready for Jesus’ future return, ready to give an account of themselves – what they are doing, not what they did, or had planned . . .

We look to what God has done in the past (that’s the Old Testament, as well as the gospel stories of Jesus, and the New Testament church).  There is lots of direction, and encouragement.

We look to the future, to Jesus return, to a time when right will rule.

And now? Well God hasn’t stopped being active, but the question is rather the same as for Isaiah (Isaiah 64:1-9 is the Old Testament lesson) – are we listening, are we praying, are we available for service, or just wanting a long “time out”? What do we have to say about God in the run-up to Christmas 2017? – and is it about what other people are doing, or what we are involved in?

In case you think this an odd way of looking at faith, compare words repeated in the Welsh (and English) Anglican eucharist:

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come in glory. (England: Christ will come again)

We say that week by week so that it sinks in: that our faith looks back and forward, to make sure that we now celebrate, and pray, and go out to serve.

Isaiah longed for God to act in his time – but had a pretty good idea of why nobody seemed to see him at work. God, the God of the great actions of the Old Testament, and the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is still at work now – but we need, not just to be alert to what he is doing, but ready both to get involved and help, and to explain to other people what is going on.