Monthly Archives: December 2021

No lack of effort

God certainly tries hard! Over the ages he has used every way possible to be heard and understood. There is a debate about whether God can be “seen” in nature – if you go for a walk in the next few days, you can test it out, and wonder if the order and goodness say something to you. Then there are the Patriarchs: God’s work with people starts with some rugged individuals – Abraham, leaving the world he knew for a promise, then Isaac and wily Jacob.

Moses forms a nation as he leads slaves out of Egypt – not for the last time God says something about setting people free – and gives them a Covenant, to direct their relationship with God. Sacrifices and festivals help to shape their character. Some don’t respond to that, so there are prophets. Some (Isaiah, Nathan) work within the system; others (Amos, Jeremiah) are radical dissidents – but all speak for God to guide and correct.

So give God credit. Through the events of history, through a variety of people (all sorts of people!), through the written word, through creation itself, God is communicating, trying to make himself understood.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son

Hebrews 1:1-2

That is what the New Testament reading for Christmas Day (Hebrews 1:1-4) is saying. God, the abstract absolute, becomes a human being in order to make himself more easily understood. But being the sort of God he is, does not arrive as Superman, but as a baby, vulnerable, needing the protection of those who care – at some cost to themselves. That tells us amazing things about God, and his desire to work with us, but leave us the freedom to choose.

And that is what we celebrate. Jesus, who communicates God not just when he grows up and tells us by parables and teaching, but by the way he arrives, the life he lives, the fact that he is content to live our life. He gives significance to every part of our life – work and rest, family, community. God communicates, not by shouting louder, but by removing every obstacle for those who want to hear. So celebrate now, but don’t stop listening.

Better than Sacrifices

What’s going on? You may say it on joining a group of people after being out of the room, or on coming across a riot, or in other circumstances. We hope people will ask it of Christmas: What’s going on? What does it all mean? Why the celebration? The writer to Hebrews explains in Hebrews 10:5-10 “when Christ was about to come into the world” and he uses words quoted from Psalm 40:6-8 to explain What’s going on – the purpose and significance of Christ, his birth, life and death (confusingly, he uses Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which differs slightly from the Hebrew original behind our English translations).

What is the main point? OBEDIENCE is very much more important than SACRIFICE. The punch line is

Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—     I have come to do your will, my God.’”

Hebrews 10:7

Of course, sacrifice was set out in Old Testament, but it was educational, and temporary. The killing of animals who had no idea of what was going on might teach the cost of sin, and God’s ownership of all creation, but it offered no lasting solution to restoring the relationship between God and his people. Even in those times, prophets and others pointed beyond the observance of sacrifice; now Jesus arrives, and

And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Hebrews 10:10

This is what we celebrate at Christmas, the beginning of Jesus perfect obedience through life, and to death, which is the perfect sacrifice. It leaves us to think about our own obedience. Sacrifice is much easier – I’ll go to church, I’ll give some money. Obedience lets God into all sorts of things; will I do things that way – will I let God tell me how to do everything? Sacrifice is easier, because it is limited; obedience is better but it is the best and fullest way!

Forced Smiles?

In Christian worship, some things work and others don’t. That’s OK – you’re allowed to make mistakes. If it’s just minor , we smile and even enjoy it. Other bits matter more. For example, when we say “Lift up your hearts” (as many churches do at the beginning of the consecration of bread and wine) – and you say “Yes, we are suitably solemn and miserable, you can go on, and, oh yes, ‘We lift them to the Lord’”. That really doesn’t work! – which is a pity. Worship isn’t about reading the right words from a book. Useful as careful words can be, there has to be a reality about the whole thing.

“Rejoice in the Lord” says Paul to the Philippians (reading Philippians 4:4-7). He doesn’t say “be happy”, because that would not be practical – Christians are not meant to be grinning idiots, ignorant or uncaring about the difficulties and pains of the world and its peoples. He does say, “Rejoice in the Lord always”; ‘in the Lord’ helps – this is not about me and my situation, my success and failure. It is about what God has done, is doing, and will do – but it requires me to want to see further than my own horizon.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all” – because if you can look beyond your selfish issues to God, you will find it easier to see other people and their issues also in the perspective of God. “Do not be anxious about anything” Remember what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6)? It’s the same sort of thing – if you can see things as God does, some of them change significance.

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding”, because some people will never understand how there could be another way of looking at life. But you should, for your own good. Rejoice! You can’t always be happy, but joy can find a place even in sorrow. The Lord is near – whether he is coming back soon, or near us as we worship, or both!. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8) I hope you understand – what Paul says to the Philippians is not some trivial “Cheer up, it could be worse”. This is not some emotional self-help manual, but a key part of Christian faith: you must look beyond yourself to God, beyond your situation to the actions of God, and

“Lift up your hearts”

Those words have been used for at least 1700 years – we call them Sursum Corda from the Latin – by Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, and some Methodist and Presbyterian Christians. Not because they didn’t understand, or couldn’t be bothered to change, but because they say something important. Make the effort – see what God has done, and is doing, and be glad of it! Our worship will not be perfect on earth, but do watch out for those words, and use them as a reminder to rejoice, not to be happy, but to rejoice.

Bits of Good News

When Paul writes warmly to the Christians in the Greek city of Phillippi, it is clear that he feels they are close. Part of that is shown in Philippians 1:6 ( we are reading Philippians 1:3-11 ), which talks about the “day of Christ Jesus” – the day Jesus will return, with judgement. You might think that this is not a positive message, but think again. One of the attractive things about Christian faith is the sense that nobody gets away with anything, and even better because it is not our job to bring injustice to light and administer judgement. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t report criminals and uphold the law – of course we should. But all human investigation and punishment is partial and flawed, all verdicts conditional. The final justice, administered with mercy and full understanding, is up to God. And that’s good news, for all will be fair, and we needn’t worry about those who appear to be getting away with things.

Final judgement is an Advent theme, appropriate for the time leading up to Christmas. Another “Christmassy” part of this text is fellowship, the experience of Christians who don’t just try to live the same faith, but find a deep unity of purpose and values in the life they share. Paul talks here of the “partnership in the gospel” v5 which he shares with these people, who are more than friends. His prayer for them is love, knowledge and depth of insight (v9) – things that will help them live and work together, and get things right as they prepare for what is to come. It may not have happened yet, but it is an important perspective for us too! It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen for another ten thousand years after our death, but we should be ready for it one afternoon next week!

There is one more encouragement in v 6. However much we may find life difficult, or make a mess of it, God is not giving up on us! People who have begun to welcome the love God offers should know it will not be withdrawn. This is the basis of “assurance”, not a foolish carelessness with the important consequences of life choices, but a confidence that the God who has called us and given us love and forgiveness will not lose interest or change character.

Judgement, fellowship, assurance: three more reasons to be thankful for the gospel good news, and three things to share.