Archive for the ‘Sermons’ Category
Healing Mark 7:24
Jesus wants to get away from it all but his bolt hole is discovered by a woman whose daughter he cures. He goes elsewhere and cures a deaf and dumb man. Everyone’s amazed and the more he says ‘don’t tell anyone’ the more they do.
An apt summary of today’s gospel? Need any more be said? (And I’m not expecting the answer ‘No’ !)
A parody in what I’ve just said of the way Mark writes his gospel. It’s crisp; it’s punchy; it focusses on action: it includes 17 miracles and has few parables and direct teachings. So when Mark plugs in some details in his narrative it pays to look at them as we’ll see.
Last week’s gospel reading, focussed on the opening verses of Chapter 7 describing Jesus’ row with the Pharisees over the question of cleanness and uncleanness. A whole ritual had been established for washing up to the elbows after touching cups and vessels which might have been contaminated by contact with Gentiles. Jesus and the disciples stand accused of breaching these man made rules and tradition.
It’s a tense time. Jesus is preached out, prayed out and peopled out. He just wants to ‘get away from it all’; to have some ‘quality time’ on his own or whatever the current idiom is.
But no sooner does he find a ‘bolt hole’ than his cover is somehow blown. And there’s a woman knocking at the door asking him to do a job. (Know the feeling chaps?) And here’s where the details first come into play: for Mark gives us a careful description of the woman.
She is from the area, a mother, a Syro Phoenecian – one of the Gentiles. She has come to see if Jesus will do something for her demon possessed daughter. She’s hoping that he might do something to heal her deepest sorrow. Perhaps she knows it’s a long shot. He’s a Jew and she’s a Gentile and between the two stand centuries of bad blood. She is intruding and he’s tired. Her biggest fear is that he’ll tell her to go away or be unable or unwilling to do anything. And he does indeed give a troubling response to her request: (v27) “ First let the children eat all they want , he tells her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs”.
The detail in focus here is “dogs”. We all know that the word can be used in a pejorative sense: we talk about ‘things going to the dogs’ During Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China it was used as a term of abuse for Westerners – they were called ‘running dogs of imperialism’. And that abusive usage of the word ‘dog’ would no doubt have been common amongst the Jews in talking about the Gentiles.
But the precise word which Jesus uses is less harsh than it might initially sound. In the Greek text of the gospel the word used refers to household dogs -domestic pets or puppies. The word ‘children’ in this gospel passage Jesus uses as a simile for the Jewish people.
The woman must wonder for a moment precisely what Jesus’ response could mean. Does he mean that for now, he could only help his own – the Jews?
She concedes that what he says is right (v28) and is inspired with the courage and wit to say that ‘even the puppies under the table eat the children’s crumbs’. Jesus greatly appreciates her answer: not because it was a clever one but by the faith bound up in the woman’s response. Her answer says I need you. I know that by just a crumb of your power my daughter will be healed.
And Jesus responds to her faith regardless of her being a Gentile and once again challenges the established order of things: (v29) ‘for such a reply you may go: the demon has left your daughter’.
Shades of another healing story when Jesus again responded to a Gentile’s plea and healed the Roman Centurion’s servant. On that occasion he said (7:9) ‘I have not found such great faith even in Israel’.
In the second healing story Jesus has moved to a different area where some people bring to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk and challenge him to lay his hands on him and heal him. Is the crowd looking fo some kind of show at the expense of this deaf person? Jesus takes him aside and heals him in a way that stands in sharp contrast to the approach in the previous story. He begins by putting his fingers into the man’s ears. He then spits (presumably onto his fingers) and touches the man’s tongue. Jesus seems to be making contact symbolically or ritually with the defective parts of the man’s body.
Why in this instance Jesus touches and spits when at other times he simply speaks a healing word is unclear. What is made clear and again we return to the detail in the text, is the source of Jesus’ healing power. He acknowledges this by looking up to heaven, symbolically the location of God, and groaning or sighing.
Jesus’ efforts, albeit different this time , result in an immediate healing. The man hears perfectly and now speaks clearly.
Jesus’ injunction to them not to tell is a bit of an enigma: for earlier (Ch5) in the gospel after he has healed a demon possessed man who tries to become one of is followers, he says to him (v19) ‘ Go home to your family and tell them how much your Lord has done for you’ and that’s exactly what he did in the surrounding towns as well. ‘And all the people were amazed’ as it says at the end of that story too.
As well they might be for by these healing miracles Jesus was transforming the old order of things and bringing in the new order of God’s Kingdom. Just as foretold by the prophet Isaiah when he said of the coming Messiah: (35:5-6) ‘ then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy’. Compassion and healing available to all regardless of who they were.
Which leads us to consider: is that transforming power still at work – does God heal today? To which the answer must be an unequivocal ‘Yes’. Much as Jesus did not have a sole way of healing, so there are different approaches today: prayer, the ‘laying on’ of hands, the Oil of the Sick. The rest of the morning could profitably be spent on this, but I’ll make just a couple of comments.
Should people today expect a miracle or be open to that possibility? God does sometimes respond to prayers for healing by working a miracle. And yet there have always been those with strong faith and beset by illness who were not healed. My friend’s wife, very much a person of the charismatic church, suffered the ordeal of Multiple sclerosis before dying but remained rock steady in her faith to the end, even publishing a little booklet of her thoughts and prayers.
In some way, even when God does not work a miracle of physical healing, Jesus always heals his children when they come to him. Sometimes he brings them into a closer and deeper relationship with him, giving contentment and peace even in the face of death. Even when he allows them to die, they are not beyond his healing power.
Death ushers them in to the great and final healing of those who go to be with Christ, where they find that peace which the world cannot give.
We can take comfort as did the Syro Phoenecian woman and the deaf and dumb man that we too can bring our sorrows and pain to Jesus. We can be confident that when his children ask, he never turns them away at the door: never fails to give his children the bread of his healing power. Amen
Before I continue with the sermon this morning I am going to ask you to do something a little different. I want you to listen to the reading not with a heart of faith but with a sceptical mind. If it helps, imagine that you do not know that Jesus is anything else but a teacher. You are a first century person who has just been introduced to him. [Read John 6:35, 41-51]
Pretty incredible isn’t it? For someone to make such claims. What if, later today, you were introduced to someone and that someone said, “Hi, I am the bread that has came down from heaven.” You would look at your friend who just introduced you to this person and you would say, “I’m sorry, what did he just say?” Anyone who seriously made such claims would easily be labeled a nutter!
But, of course, in other areas of life we find it all the time. The first person who I can clearly recall laying such claim to being a great “I am” was Cassius Clay/ Mohamed Ali. Of course, in his case he too turned out to be the Greatest, the Greatest Boxer, perhaps in our life time. But others commonly lay claim to being the greatest, “I am this and I am the other”, I’m the greatest footballer, or rugby player (we’ll leave Cricket out for the moment!), or if you watch X factor “I know I am the best singer, you’ve just got to believe in me!” and so it goes on. But we never accept these people’s credentials. But people to whom Jesus was addressing were being asked to do just that.
Jesus makes a very assertive “I am” statement in today’s Gospel, and does so no fewer than four times: “I am the bread of life.” Indeed, it’s one of many “I am” assertions he makes throughout the Gospel of John. In chapter 8 he says, “I am the light of the world,” and “I am from above.” In chapter 10: “I am the gate for the sheep,” and “I am the good shepherd.” In chapter 11: “I am the resurrection and the life.” In chapter 14: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and in chapter 15: “I am the true vine.”
Each time he makes an “I am” statement, it is highly inflammatory for his listeners, and sometimes dangerous for himself. When he makes the assertion in chapter 8: “before Abraham was, I am”, they pick up stones to throw at him. In chapter 10, when he says: “I am in the Father,” they try to arrest him.
My examples of “I am” aren’t particularly good ones to be honest because what is actually happening here that Jesus in stating “I am.” He is making an outrageous statement because it goes right back to the Divine Name of God. In fact it goes all the way back to the book of Exodus, when from the burning bush God instructs Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. At first Moses shrinks from the task. This great man and lawgiver is reduced to a gibbering idiot, feebly asking: “Who am I?” He protests that if he tells the Israelites he’s been sent by the God of their ancestors, they’d ask: “What is his name?” and he stammers, “what shall I say to them?” But God, cutting right through his prevarication, replies: “I AM WHO I AM… you say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
No wonder the Jews were aghast to hear Jesus claiming “I am”. As far as they were concerned, if you felt able to assert “I am”, you were effectively claiming to be God. They just didn’t understand that Jesus was God.
And Jesus pushes it even further when he claims, not only to be the bread of life, but superior to the manna God sent Moses and their ancestors in the wilderness. Rather than merely providing physical nourishment from one day to the next, Jesus, the bread of life, will provide eternal sustenance.
Discovering your identity, your true identity, can often be a problem for people. If you’re a rebellious teenager, or you’ve ever been one, or the sibling or parent of one, you’ll know how agonising a young person’s search for identity can be. Nor is such confusion confined to teenagers The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer also wrestled with identity. His poem “Who Am I?” was published a year after he was executed for plotting against Hitler. In it he draws out the bitter contrast between the confident, easy-going man other people see, and what he knows of himself: “restless and longing and sick”.
As far as Jesus’ listeners were concerned, to be human is to be humble enough to ask the question asked like Mohamed Ali, Hitler, Bonhoeffer and Moses: “Who am I?” and anything else was blasphemy. But Christians believe that, through the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross, all people have a way of asserting “I am”. Again, the key is to be found in John’s Gospel. In chapters 10 and 14 Jesus says, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me,” and also: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Bonhoeffer acknowledges this in the last line of his poem, when he has a flash of inspiration in the midst of his dark thoughts: “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”
The German theologian tells a story of a hungry man passing a store with a sign in the window, “We Sell Bread.” He entered the store, put some money on the counter, and said, “I would like to buy some bread.” The women behind the counter replied, “We don’t sell bread.” “The sign in the window says that you do,” the hungry man said. The woman explained, “We make signs here like the one in the window that says ‘We Sell Bread.’” But, as the theologian concludes, a hungry man can’t eat signs. A hungry man needs the Bread of Life, as we all do.
Life sometimes fools us too. Bread isn’t always found where it seems to be. Like the crowds looking for something else or that man looking in the wrong store, we often miss the point when God offers us enduring life in Jesus as the Bread of Life.
Today we gather in this church to receive a taste of food that will help us remember who we are. I mean the bread of life, our Father’s gift to us. This is the food of God’s kingdom, and reminds us that when Jesus said “I am the Bread of Life” then he truly is.
One of the many problems that the Christian has to deal with is that of diverse opinions among the various faith groups whether they be Muslim, Jewish or Christian, to name but three.
People who follow any faith cannot and do not know it all; the problems arise when they think they do.
People are easily swayed by convincing talkers, especially if we think that they know more than we do.
I like to watch quiz shows on the television and one of my favourites is the Eggheads, where a resident panel of proven quizzers is pitted against a panel of challengers who could be from any walk of life, some are regular quizzers, while others may have never quizzed together before.
In the first 4 rounds one player from each side is pitted against the other on a particular subject and the winner of each of these duels is entitled to compete in the final round, which is of general knowledge.
If there is more than one player on a team in the final round then they are allowed to confer with each other.
What often happens in this final round is that the players will come up with different answers to a question and so they then have to decide which answer to give.
Sometimes they choose the right answer, while at other times the person who has the right answer is overruled.
This can happen when the person with the right answer is not sure of their ground and so they do not stick to their guns; or when the person with the wrong answer is adamant that their answer is right.
Unfortunately exactly the same situation happens with religions, and when it does it can lead to vitriolic arguments and in extreme cases to violence.
So what we have to do is to figure out a way of getting to the truth.
In our Old Testament reading we heard of the way elijah was able to deal with the situation.
Ahab was the King of Israel and he had married Jezebel, a princess of Sidon, who was a Baal worshipper. She was a stronger character and converted him to her less demanding religion.
Why Ahab called the people to this showdown on Mount Carmel I don’t know, but there was only one prophet of the Lord left, Elijah, speaking out against the 450 prophets of Baal, so Ahab probably wanted rid of the one dissenter once and for all.
The 450 were called on first to make their offering to Baal who they called upon to accept their offering. But after crying out to this false God from morning to evening nothing happened.
When it was Elijah’s turn he called upon the God of Israel and his offering was consumed by fire and the people realised that they had been led astray.
Unfortunately we will probably not be able to use such dramatic methods to find and to demonstrate the truth; however there are less dramatic ways that we can employ.
These range from prayer, to discussion and study, but even then we might find that we cannot reach a consensus so will have to agree to differ.
And it is the agreeing to differ that can bring peace between conflicting beliefs.
As you know there are 3 readings that the lectionary offer each week and this week the 2nd one, which we did not hear this morning, was from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
In this he is admonishing the Christians of Galatia, which was a Roman province in the middle of modern day Turkey, for turning away from the true gospel and introducing rights contrary to those which Paul had taught them.
They had been told by some of the Jewish Christians that to become true followers of Christ they had to follow the practises of the Jews such as circumcision and dietary restrictions, in other words they had to become Jews.
Why they were told this we can only speculate on. It could be that the hard line Jewish Christians who were putting forward these views were motivated by a love of their Jewish heritage.
Or it could be that they were trying to integrate Judaism and Christianity, or even that they had a jealous desire to destroy Paul’s authority.
But whatever it was these Galatian Christians, who were mainly of Greek extraction, were in a quandary and many of them had strayed from the simple message that Paul had originally given to them.
He pointed out that a person is saved by Grace, through faith. Salvation is a gift from God and not a reward for certain deeds.
Jesus Christ has made this gift available to all people, both Jew and Gentile, it is one of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith so we must beware of people who say we need more than a simple faith in Christ to be saved.
When people set up additional requirements for salvation they dilute our belief in the power of Christ’s death on the cross.
There are many different Church organisations and many different ways of expressing our love and worship of God.
When Christine and I are in Scotland we usually worship in a Church of Scotland church on the North coast at Canisbay. The style of worship is very different from our worship here, but it is in no way less valid nor is the worship offered in the Baptist, Methodist or Roman Catholic Church, many many more.
However, if a Church starts to stipulate that you must carry out this or that ritual we should always bear in mind that these rules are only requirements to be a member of that particular organisation and not a requirement to be a Christian.
In my opinion anything which helps us to worship is a good thing, if you find kneeling helpful when praying then kneel; if you find incense helpful then sometimes you might want to attend a service where it is wafted.
But beware of thinking that worshippers who use these aids have a better chance of receiving salvation than those who do not.
It is Christ who offers salvation; we cannot earn it by worshipping in a certain way or carrying out certain rituals.
Christ died on the cross and in doing so took our sins upon his shoulders. This is his gift to us. Nothing we can do or say will alter that.
But we do have the choice to accept or reject the gift. It is our belief in him that means we accept it, not the way we chose to worship him.
In our gospel reading this morning we heard about the Roman Centurion who was obviously sympathetic to the Jewish faith.
Most Jews hated the Romans, but he had helped them, even going to the length of building them a synagogue, so when he asked the elders to intercede with Jesus on his behalf they did so.
But it was not his good works which had commended him to Jesus, it was his faith.
So this is the message I take from today’s readings: that we must not substitute our belief in religious practices for our belief in God.
There will always be people who will try to impose their particular brand of religion on others and the twisting of the truth is always more difficult to spot than an all out lie.
But the truth is that God is love. He loves us and wants us to love him; whatever we can do to nurture that love is good while anything that separates us from God will only cause hurt and anguish.
Jesus Christ came down to Earth to seal the bond between man and God, that seal is love, a simple love which is open to everyone. All we have to do is to believe in him and our worship, however simple or complicated will be acceptable to him.
Sermon John 13: 31-35 Love
Well it’s 28th April and Easter seems a long way ago. But the lectionary tells us we’re still celebrating (it’s the 6th Sunday of Easter) and the liturgy in our service sheet bids us praise ‘Alleluia He is risen indeed’. A theme which is at the root of this morning’s gospel.
Gospel readings occasionally include a statement which bids us ask a question right from the outset. This morning the words ‘When he was gone’ preceding Jesus’ own comments, lead us to wonder who ‘he’ was.
The answer is that Jesus has just concluded the last supper with his disciples and Judas is the one who left. His exit begins the series of events that will lead to Jesus’ death and Jesus starts explaining things to his disciples. Jesus begins with how he and God are glorified in each other (v31-32). Throughout his gospel John uses the phrase ‘to be glorified’ to refer to Jesus’ passion and his return through death to his Father. Jesus knows that his coming departure and death will be a great shock to his disciples but he stresses right at the start that he’s on his way to glory.
After this reminder of glory which we know is to be accomplished through Jesus’ suffering on the Cross, Jesus breaks the news gently to his ‘little children’. It’s common in the bible for people about to depart or die to give a kind of ‘farewell speech’: looking ahead to what will happen when they’re gone; with their hopes for the future, warnings about betrayals and prayers for their friends who will find themselves without their leader. So now Jesus announces the grave news: (v33)’I will be with you only a little longer’ and tries to explain that they cannot come where he is going. (v33).
So Jesus’ way to glory involves him going away and the disciples are going to need a new way of living without him being physically present. Jesus has already pointed toward this new way earlier in the supper which they share .
Such is his love for this motley crew of followers that he picks up a bowl and a towel and washes their feet. In those times walking in open sandals on unsurfaced roads that were dusty or in wet weather muddy, made everyone’s feet dirty. It was the practice for water to be provided for new arrivals at a house to wash their feet and if they were lucky a servant to do it. A menial task like this though could not be required of a Jewish male servant, only from women, children or non-Jews. But in Jesus the usual order is turned on its head.
Like someone nursing a dying spouse for whom even the most menial tasks are an act of love, so Jesus kneels at his disciples feet. He begins with this visual aid of his love and goes on to teach them to follow his example in their care for one another (13:16).
The command he gives them is that they need to love each other ‘as I have loved you’ (13:34).
He calls it ‘A new command’ but in one sense it’s not a new commandment at all. In the outline of the commandments in the Book of Leviticus (19:18), at the heart of the Jewish law is the instruction to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. What is new about it is that Jesus gives it a new motive and power; a sense of immediacy through his risen life. It’s not just a rule to be obeyed. It’s a personal response to Jesus. We love others in response to Jesus’ ‘as I have loved you’.
This ‘new command’ is so simple and straightforward. It’s central to what we should be about in our lives as individuals and churches. This is the heart of the gospel – so simple and yet so hard to do.
Jesus tells his disciples to love one another. If you do that ,he says, (v35) ‘ all men will know that you are my disciples’.
We’ve just sung a hymn which encapsulates the gospel message that the followers of Jesus need to nurture each other and that in so doing they will set a distinctive style of living that will lead others to the same way. Nurture and leading are the key concepts. How do we stand as a 21st Century parish church in these dimensions?
We’ll begin with a ‘for instance’ of our time. For instance if someone was looking for employment and currently on the basic Employment and Support Assistance of £71 a week and they now had to pay £13 to the council because they had 2 bedrooms and only needed 1, how do they find the extra whilst they’re looking for a 1 bedroom place to live? The answer is that with heating and lighting costs at a premium there’s no slack there and so it’s going to be the food budget which takes the hit. If someone were then to give that person a bag of groceries, is that an act of love? Are we the sort of church where that happens? Are we happy to be at the service of others?
Sunday by Sunday when we meet for worship: is that a process of nurture too? Do we find a welcome, a fellowship, a sense of trust – all of which stem from that simplest of instructions, ‘love one another’?
All of those qualities, too, are essential for establishing collegiality: A word you don’t hear much these days. The best way of describing it is that it’s opposite to adversarial: that it stresses the objective of working together as colleagues in a common cause. Without it, it ‘s difficult to be effective in any task.
Moving on to Jesus’ final remark in this morning’s gospel: are we, through the way we ‘love each other’ , ‘showing to all men’ that we are his disciples’?
A bit more complex to size up that one because it’s not just contingent on what we do within these 4 walls in the form of gathering for worship, important though that is in refreshing and inspiring our faith and spiritual lives. It depends on how we handle our relations with the outside as well, our families, friends, the community who may not be a close part of what we do here. What is the impression we leave with them by our actions, thoughts and behaviour not only as individuals but as a church: our coffee mornings and events; the Mother and Toddler group and so on.
When we turn to the broad brush picture of the outside world, the secular environment we now inhabit, we could be forgiven in feeling completely beleaguered. Because that is an environment where attention to oneself -self centredness and that only – seems to be the paramount attitude and motivator.
And the broader picture of the churches themselves: Jesus’ new command’ is at the heart of the gospel. Is it at the heart of what they’re doing? Looking at some of the current preoccupations with gender and sexuality one begins to wonder.
And when it comes to a sense of unity even within our own Anglican communion, let alone amongst the plethora of other churches, it’s easy for secular critics to scoff and say, well if they can’t put their own house in order, how can they have the affront to tell us we should be living according to the gospel.
It’s not the easiest of climates in which to be a professing Christian, conveying that simplest of messages ‘ love one another’.
But we should never sink into doom and gloom about it.
The 2 disciples, Clopas and his friend, were returning from what had been for them at the time, the devastating events of that first Easter in Jerusalem. Walking along the road to Emmaus they were joined by Jesus, alongside them.
The risen Lord Jesus, glorified at Easter, will be walking alongside us too, nurturing, sustaining, guiding, however hard the task of fulfilling his gospel command ‘love one another’ might sometimes appear to be. Amen
Advent 2 (C)
I like airports. I don’t particularly like flying but there is something very different about being in an airport and watching. Airport terminals are strange places. They have a mixed-up atmosphere that seems to come from the excitement of holidays, the weariness of the business trip, the anticipation of returning home, and the boredom of prolonged waiting at unearthly hours of the day or night. I like the fact that I don’t actually have to do anything, I’m just there. They have the clinical feel of a waiting room — except you have to buy your own magazines. Even the shops selling enticing things such as watches, souvenirs and huge bottles of whisky can’t distract you for long from the fact that there is nothing to do except shop. And then there are those endless loudspeaker announcements trying to find people who have got lost somewhere between check-in and take-off. In an airport, you are in a kind of geographical limbo — it’s as if you belong neither to the country you are leaving, nor the country you are going to. For however long you have to wait, you are neither here nor there, and there is little to do except listen eagerly for your gate to be called.
The Bible has its own geographical limbo: the wilderness. Much more than a place of dust and rocks, the wilderness has a special spiritual significance in the relationship between God and his people. It is in the wilderness that God calls Moses from the burning bush to lead his people out of Egypt, and it is in the wilderness that the Israelites wander for forty years while they learn what it means to be the people of God. After his baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, and filled with the power of the Spirit.
So when we read that the word of the Lord came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness, we know that something of real importance is about to happen. John has spent the best part of his life in this geographical and spiritual limbo; just a chapter earlier we read that he was in the wilderness from his childhood until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. Even allowing for the fact that we don’t know how old John was, we can make a good guess that that’s a long time to be hanging about in a desert. It was a measure of the importance of John’s future work that he required the kind of spiritual preparation that only the wilderness can give. And when the word does come to John, it sets off something that will change the world.
John’s call is the drum roll that announces that salvation is near, that something really new and really good is about to happen. It is a turning point in time, which is perhaps why Luke takes such care to locate this event in history, by giving us the names of the rulers of the day.
A friend of mine once began a sermon on this very text by saying that if you daydreamed during the first sentence, you missed the whole point. Not only does Luke list the details of some of the villains in our story this morning, but in so doing he sets the ministry of Jesus in its wider context. In other words he pays respect to the principalities and powers of the Roman imperium, just as he had done in the infancy narrative. It’s worth, therefore, going over that 1 verse:
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Just as it was Jesus in that little town of Bethlehem – and not Ceasar Augustus – who is acclaimed by Shepherds and Angels as the real Lord and King, so the really important news, in our story this morning, is about John the Baptist, not the notables in Lukes list. They in fact play negative roles in our story, although there abuse of power will be used by God who will work out how to bring salvation to the world. And so don’t daydream in this first sentence, by not doing so we, like the writer, share the same reality. We then know the history, the world in which this all takes place; we become part of it; and we can see, understand and believe.
John hears his call and sets off into public life to call people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and to baptise them as a mark of their decision to lead a new life. And so he becomes John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord. John is like Jesus, a Prophet. His continuity with the OT tradition is revealed in his message and behaviour and in his persecution and execution. He was creating an excitement, a fervour, that was setting the stage for the Christ. He is actually preparing Israel for God’s intervention. Of course, he is more than just a Prophet, he is himself fulfilling the prophecy and the word of God is coming to fruition in John. John the Baptist is rather like Mary. They both straddle the Old and the New Testaments and embody promise and fulfillment.
Advent is uniquely the time when the church focuses on Prophecy and fulfillment and John is at the centre of that. It is a difficult period for us when the Christmas message is now in almost full swing with the nativities, carol services and other parties and productions. The temptation for any preacher, therefore, is to preach about hope and to talk about glad tidings of great joy. The Advent preparation for Christmas is, however, about repentance. Nevertheless we look to this time to reflect on God’s judgement against sin and his response to the crisis sin has created.
We all know what it’s like to be in limbo: to feel that we are neither here nor there. Generally speaking, we are creatures who love to have a purpose, and we get restless and unhappy when we lack one. It may be that this “wilderness” is a stagnant time in our lives: a dead-end job or relationship. Some people talk of retirement as a time when they feel lost and useless after many years of work. Some parents talk of feeling strangely empty when their children leave home, and for some children the school years have a kind of aching boredom that can only be described as a wilderness.
Our experiences are all different, but the thing to note is this: that just like the airport, the wilderness is a place where things are about to happen, a place of preparation. It may be a long wait; it may seem painfully boring, it may seem pointless, but the wilderness is where the seeds of change are sown and nurtured. Those who are currently in the wilderness may not readily understand that. It may not be an easy time but it is a time to embrace. It is a time for waiting and listening carefully for the voice of God. And when it comes, who knows where God might lead us?
Advent is a call to wake up, listen and carefully respond to God’s initiative. In the style of Luke, the gospel writer, “In the 61st year of the reign of Elizabeth 11, when David Cameron is Prime Minister and Theresa May is Home Secretary and during the last days of the archiepiscopate of Rowan Williams, the word of God comes to us all in the wilderness of the 21st Century Christmas celebrations.
Christ The King
Can you sum up the Gospel in three words? Can you find a phrase that incorporates the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection? Can you describe the means by which the way of rebellion and pride is replaced by freedom and justice? Can you cover the commands of the Sermon of the Mount; the abiding presence of Jesus; the council of the Holy Spirit; the return of Christ? In three words, can you account for the reason why Christ is misunderstood, hated and feared at the same time that he is loved, obeyed and worshipped?
The earliest followers of Jesus Christ had just such a phrase. They knew that the key to the Christ-life was the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord”. Or, in other words, they knew that if Christ is King then all else follows.
The claim of kingship was not an abstract concept for Jesus or the people who followed him. It was the sign of their sharpest break from the world – the source of their persecution. When Gentiles living in the Roman Empire proclaimed that Jesus was Lord they were also proclaiming that Caesar was not. When Jews proclaimed the kingship of Christ they were upsetting the nationalist expectations of a warrior Messiah. Anyone using the phrase was marked out as different, subversive, even dangerous. It was a phrase that could have led to serious persecution and even death. Of all the things that could have been put above his head, it was the proclamation of Jesus’ kingship that Pilate had nailed to the cross.
Today the Church makes a bold assertion, because today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. Who is in charge of the world? Christ is, we proclaim. Who is in charge of the church? Well, as I fully appreciate, it is not me. It is not the Church Wardens or the PCC? I may have a leadership role, wardens and The PCC may have responsibilities but if anyone is in charge then it must be Christ, our King.
Is Christ the king? Look around you. Does it seem like it? The world appears to be in the grip of financial, political and natural forces completely beyond our control. Record levels of rainfall in, Pirates on the seas surroundling Somalia, Terrorists fighting British soldiers in Afghanistan, Gaza and Israel in rows resulting in recriminations. It is probably quite legitimate to ask, Can the world survive? Will it be nuclear war that destroys us? Or global warming? Or the collapse of all our financial systems? Or a flu pandemic? It is difficult to find evidence that Christ really is king of the world.
And yet we say it. Whatever the evidence, whatever we feel, today we say that Christ is king. We assert the truth which is deeper than appearances. We reaffirm the truth that at the heart of the universe is a force for peace and justice and love which is stronger than all human forces, which has been from eternity and will be to the end of time.
Centuries of Christian history have perhaps dulled us to the matter-of-fact nature of the phrase “Christ is King”. It is easy now for us to hear Jesus’ statement that his kingdom is not of this world as meaning that his Lordship is purely a “spiritual” one. Christ might be king in our Sunday worship but in our public, everyday life the claim has no real purchase. The phrase has become a subject of inner belief and not a rallying cry for outer obedience. Since Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, runs the logic, then the kingship of Christ has no relevance for the way we spend our money, regulate our business or organise our social groups. This certainly makes life easier for those of us living comfortable lives. But if Christ’s kingship has nothing to say to the powers that be, then it also has no hope to give to people crushed by injustice or to a world having the life squeezed out of it by our systems of habitual violence, haughtiness and greed.
As Christ’s people we live in a kingdom whose rules of life have not been drawn from the surrounding kingdoms but instead have been set by our king. In other words, we live in a kingdom that is in this world, but not of it. As Christ’s subjects, we strive to remain faithful to his example. Yet we also live in expectation that though we live as aliens in this world our rightful king will return to claim his throne. That is why since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have used another three words to accompany their great gospel proclamation that “Jesus is Lord”, and that is the prayer “Come, Lord Jesus”.
It is rather apt that today we remind ourselves of the kingship of Christ, the authority of our Lord. That is because we are clearly a church that needs to be reminded that Jesus is Lord. This week I am more than concerned that the church has failed, dismally, to remember just that. The failure of the vote for Women to the Episcopate has ignored the will of God for sure. Has ignored the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, that Jesus is in charge of the church. It is abundantly clear to everyone that Gods will over this issue to ordain Women as Bishops now. This vote was not about whether we are to have women as Bishops but the mechanics behind how that might be achieved, to safeguard a small minority who object. That is why I can say quite emphatically that the will of God is for women to be ordained Bishops and that by not doing it now is ignoring that will. Jesus Christ is in charge of the church not the small minority of folk who sit on a very unrepresentative body and who exercise their own bias views, not listening to the views of the vast majority. People who claim to be concerned about authority and yet cannot, it would seem, accept the authority of their Bishops currently who are overwhelmingly in favour of female colleagues. People whose views are intrenched in the past and unable to face the future. Whatever their motivations there is a simple fact that the wider society, which we could call the Kingdom, do not understand the finer points of the debate and for that reason in the words of The Archbishop ” everyday we fail to resolve the issue is a day when our credibility in the public eyes likely to diminish”. This then is a matter of mission and the infighting is preventing the mission of the Church. I do not want to be a part of a church which has no credibility, no time for mission and which cannot see the will of God. Which cannot recognise that Jesus is Lord and that same Jesus is the Jesus in charge of the church. The needs of a small minority, whilst important, cannot be greater than Gods will for his Kingdom.
We are now faced with a difficult future. This is a serious issue. People’s loyalty for the church they have supported, some for all their lives, will be tested.
This matter has been the focus of a great deal of prayer and debate over recent years. It involves issues which affect people deeply and personally; it is testing personal relationships and indeed people’s loyalty to the church which they may have served and supported, as I have said, for all of their lives.
My prayer is that somehow by God’s grace we will be enabled to move forward. That we might hear Gods will for a church in which Jesus is Lord. May God grant us to be both faithful and fruitful in the work to which he calls us.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
What a question! The rich man in our reading today was so desperate to know the answer that he knelt in front of Jesus to ask him. He evidently knew about Jesus but seems not to have been one of the followers, perhaps he had heard about Jesus’ reputation; in any case he was prepared to humble himself before this traveling teacher. To put this in any kind of modern context it would be like Richard Branson kneeling in the dirt in front of a street preacher and asking the same question. – Unlikely perhaps, but possible if he had nowhere else to go to ask the question.
We know from the versions of this story in Matthew and Luke that the rich man was young and that he was extremely wealthy; he had everything that he needed and wanted for nothing in a material sense. Yet he wanted something else, something that, even with all his wealth, he could not buy.
Do you remember what Steve Redgrave said when he won his fourth Olympic Gold Medal at Atlanta in 1996, he said “If anyone sees me anywhere near a boat again, they have my permission to shoot me.” Yet he eventually decided to compete again in 2000. This was a man who suffered from Colitis and Diabetes, who had won gold medals in many events as well as in the Olympics, he had nothing to prove, his reputation was secure; and he had everything to lose.
He knew better than anybody how hard it would be training every day, he knew his age was against him, he knew the risk of putting everything on the line. The price of making his decision was high, higher than almost anybody can imagine, but it was a price he was prepared to pay. It was just as well that nobody took him up on what he had said in 1996 because he did race again in 2000 and he did win. That prize could not be bought by possessions, Redgrave paid the price in the currency of determination, physical and mental commitment and unbreakable will.
Jesus challenged the rich man by reminding him of the commandments, not to commit murder or adultery; not to steal, bear false witness or defraud; and to honour your father and mother.
The man’s apparently honest response was that he had obeyed all these laws. Then Jesus did something that I believe is easy to overlook in this story. He looked at the man,………. that doesn’t sound significant does it, ………..but I don’t think that this simply means that he looked towards him before he spoke. It seems to me that he was ‘LOOKING WITH INTENT’, weighing up what the rich man had claimed, getting the measure of him.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of a look that seems to penetrate your very being, goes to the heart of your soul; a look indeed that implies that the person looking at you knows everything about you? That look is greater than mere perception. I have only experienced such a look once or twice, but it is memorable when it happens.
Jesus did not question the man about the laws, he did not sent him away with a rebuke; instead the bible says that he loved him. He simply told him to go and sell all that he had and give the money to the poor; he would then have treasure in heaven and could then come and follow Jesus.
GO SELL GIVE
The rich man who wanted for nothing was shocked, astonished and appalled; Jesus had put before the man a hurdle that he could not countenance. His many possessions meant too much to him and without protesting he went away in grief.
Following his discussion with the rich man, Jesus turned to his disciples and taught them about entering the kingdom of god in a wider sense. They would already have been surprised at his treatment of the rich man because, in his actions, Jesus was challenging the tradition and culture of an entire society. Riches and possessions meant power, and power meant influence, and influence meant that you got what you wanted.
Interesting isn’t it, some things don’t change much, even over a span of 2000 years! The mentality that money is the key to everything remains all too common today.
It is easy to think about the Russian oil oligarchs who can buy football clubs because they are fans, or the regimes in Africa that funnel foreign aid into their own pockets at the cost of the existence of their populations. Look closer to home though, over the last few years we have had the ‘cash for questions’ and ‘cash for honours’ scandals. It remains a sad reflection on society that if you have money, you have a tool that can be abused. I repeat …….can be abused…….. because it is not necessarily so. Many people do use their riches to help others but some do not.
When Jesus said to the disciples how hard it would be for wealthy people to enter the kingdom of heaven, and then repeated himself for emphasis, they went from being surprised, to perplexed and then to downright astonishment. Jesus suggested that a camel was more likely to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom. Essentially he said that it was not possible.
Not surprisingly, the astounded disciples started asking each other how anyone could be saved. At this point Jesus fixed them with another ‘LOOK WITH INTENT’.
It seems to me that this look would have felt something like “Be quiet and listen, you really do not get it do you?” Jesus tried to make things clearer for them, telling them that God can do things that for humans are not possible; God can do all things.
Jesus had talked with the rich man and the disciples; then Peter, on behalf of the disciples, pitched in. He started to justify the disciples by reminding Jesus that they had left everything behind them to follow him.
Jesus interrupted Peter, but not with a rebuke this time; he told him using the solemn and powerful words ‘Truly I tell you”, that all those who gave up their families and possessions for his sake would benefit greatly in this world, and more importantly, in the next. They had already:-
GONE SOLD GIVEN
Jesus had not condemned the rich man, he had not denounced him for his wealth or possessions; instead he had loved him. The man had turned away by himself because he could not let go. Jesus does not want us to literally dispose of every material thing in our lives; houses, computers, cars, boats, savings!
He does want us to make him our priority, to use what we have to help those who have nothing; to use our skills and gifts to benefit others. We must not be distracted by the love of possessions; Jesus loved the rich man and he loves us so how great should our love of God be. It sounds so easy but it asks much of us.
Steve Redgrave’s prize for his determination and dedication was a gold medal. How much greater a prize awaits us for our faith and belief; ………..eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Let us make the hard decisions and walk the extra mile to build on our faith.
Jesus knows each one of us.
If we can stand strong before the LOOK of Jesus, then God will grant the prize.
Let us make that our goal.
Lent 3 (b)
A television company conducted a survey on the question, “Which of the Ten Commandments do you feel is the most relevant today? Which is the least relevant?” In a representative sample of the population, 56% thought the most relevant was “You shall do no murder”, while “Honour your father and your mother” took second place at 14%. The least relevant was “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me,” scoring 27%.
Now, before we get too excited, it’s worth looking more closely at the survey. The fact that “You shall do no murder” came first and honouring parents second suggests that human life is key to people’s religion today. We generally value home life. That’s all to the good but “no other gods before me” as the least relevant is surprising. It could be the reason why we are gradually losing Sunday as a special day. Christians may take heart from the fact that among the churchgoers questioned, 38% said that none of the Commandments could be thought to be least relevant.
When Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem he set about the money changers and traders on the grounds that they were using the Temple as a market place. Can you imagine the scene? It wasn’t anything like a Church Christmas Market today with stalls selling home-made marmalade, woolly knitted animals and tempting tombola. Here in the Temple were real animals, cattle, sheep and doves and you couldn’t buy anything until you’d changed your money into Temple currency which was the only legal tender for buying in the Temple. The noise was impossible. The smell was appalling. And into this mayhem came the little known prophet, Jesus.
We’re told that he set about driving the traders out. We’re not told that he did this in anger. He appears to have acted calmly and precisely – although he did make a whip to use while driving them out! The authorities didn’t immediately express their objections, either. Perhaps they were aware that something needed to be done.
Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a market place!” In his day, dishonouring the Father was taken with the utmost seriousness. Little sign of the Jesus “meek and mild” that we learned about in Sunday school. In an action of the most authoritative kind, he overturned the tables. And, at the same time, he also overturned everybody’s thinking. He brought a new dimension to the Temple scene.
St John is the only Gospel writer who records this incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The other three evangelists mention it towards the end. John wants us to learn from the beginning that Jesus had come to overturn people’s lives. The old ideas about God would be rewritten. The old ways of sacrifice in the Temple would be replaced by new life in a new fellowship. Jesus would build a new temple, open to all.
This action occurred in the outer part of the Temple at Jerusalem, known as the Court of the Gentiles. If you were not Jewish, you were barred from going further in. The new temple of Jesus would welcome all people. All must have access to God. His new temple would have no controlled market and no special money would be needed to buy your way in.
When Jesus entered the temple that day he found a faith that was stale, downright dirty. People were taking advantage of others and ritual had become more important than the condition of the heart. What Jesus did, I believe, was challenge a smug, hypocritical religious system that desperately needed to change. Therefore, a little demolition was necessary, not to mention an all out assault to clean house.
The faith community at that time was so wrapped up in rules and ritual the fresh revelation of God could not get through. It was impossible for them to “see” because they were blinded by obstacles that hindered their ability.
In this story we get an image of Jesus as a one-man wrecking crew, swinging a sledgehammer. There is no way to make improvements in an old house without making a mess. There is plaster dust, dirt, nails and smelly carpet. It is hard work. It is impossible to paint without getting paint on yourself. I am sure that Jesus absorbed a few skinned knuckles that day, not to mention getting his garment dirty.
The faith community needed a good housecleaning and Jesus took it upon himself to do just that with zeal and determination.
What would Jesus find in our churches? Although he probably wouldn’t find cattle or sheep, would he find the same attitude — religious rituals being just a business? Is the church building simply a place where people and God take care of business? Can worship become centered on the things we do, rather than the God who is present giving to us and forgiving us in Word and Sacrament? How can we change faulty worship attitudes?
Can “church as business” be a problem for the “professionals” in the church? Can leading worship for the clergy become simply a job for which we are paid? Does the laity sometimes think that they are “paying” the minister to do the worship for them — thinking, “We pay them to do this for us”?
Do we think of God more as a vending machine — put in our sacrifices or offerings or good deeds and out comes blessings? Do we misuse our (supposed) obedience to the Ten Commandments as bargaining chips with God?
Why the whip (only mentioned in John) and the harsh actions? Wouldn’t it have been more diplomatic and have caused fewer problems to sit down with the church leaders and discuss the problem? When are swift, harsh actions needed rather than diplomacy? When should a pastor just do what he believes is right, or go through the Parochial Church council.
What did witnesses of the scene in the Temple make of all this? The disciples of Jesus commented from the touchline, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” They saw Jesus acting decisively because he was zealous for his Father’s house. He couldn’t bear to see it disfigured in this way.
In our own lives, there will be times when we see things going on which offend our Father in heaven. Some very unfair things happen today. How should we react when we witness unfair action by others? One could be justified in feeling angry when others lose their job through no fault of their own. Is righteous anger not called for? We do well to test our own zealous actions against the example of Christ.
There is a story about a man who visited a church. He parked his car and started toward the front entrance. Another car pulled up nearby, and the irritated driver said to him, “I always park there. You took my place!” The visitor went inside and went into the sanctuary and sat down in an empty pew. Within moments another member walked up to him and said, “That’s where I always sit. You took my place!” The visitor was troubled, but said nothing. Later, as the congregation was praying for Christ to be present with them, the visitor stood, and his appearance began to change. Scars became visible on his hands and on his sandaled feet. Someone from the congregation noticed him and cried out, “What happened to you?” The visitor replied, “I took your place.”
Some things that happen in church are silly. Some things are down right scandalous. Some things may even be sacrilegious. But the Church is still the body of Christ and it was for the Church that Christ died.
May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Magi brought three gifts to the child who has been born king of the Jews. So, at the risk of sounding like someone from the Reduced Sermon Company, this sermon has three sections about the Magi, the gifts and us.
The Magi were mysterious, magical, powerful but above all Gentiles, non-Jews, from the East who came to worship the babe of Bethlehem. At the start of Matthew’s Gospel they show us where the Gospel will take us. Christ is a son of David, he comes from the Jews, but he is for the whole world. Matthew makes a particular point that the ministry of Jesus’ lifetime is not to anyone other than Jews but at the end of Matthew’s Gospel the risen Christ, just before his ascension, gave his disciples, and gives us his hearers, the ‘great commission’:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing people everywhere in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.
The travel writer William Dalrymple tells of The Travels of Marco Polo, 13th C Venetian explorer and of his discovering the tombs of the Magi in the Persian city of Saveh, in modern Iran. They did not convert to Christianity but they worshipped the Christ child and when they returned home kept the memory alive. Dalrymple also writes of the Persian defeat of the Byzantines in the seventh century in which they swept through Palestine destroying all the important buildings. The single exception was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem because over the doorway was a huge mosaic of the recognisably Persian Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child. The building, and more than the building, survived because there was a connection with their own experience.
The gifts brought by the Magi give us the eyes to see who Jesus is:
Gold for a king – it was the custom to approach kings with a gift and what gift is more suitable?
Frankincense for a priest – this was used in the Temple at times of worship, and it reminds us that Jesus is the great high priest, and that he mediates between humans and God.
Myrrh for the one who is to die for the love of God – this costly item was an ingredient in the oil used for anointing the dead, and it reminds us that Jesus came into the world to live and to die for us.
We could equate this today to the offering up of worldly power to the infant Christ: the gold of economic power, frankincense of religious power and myrrh, which was apparently used in ink as well as for burials, the power of the media.
We’ve all been enthralled by money and power at one point or another and have thought they can do more for us than they can. Our tendency is often to blame others for our failings and mistakes and perhaps it is now time that humankind began a sort of process of conversion where the powers of this age need to rediscover the humility of God and offer these gifts of worldly power to the Christ child. When we look at our society, our western way of life, we are starting to get ourselves out of proportion, risking making idols of things, and failing to live in service to the love of God.
We come to worship and we bring gifts. Each week this service is constructed from the gifts of those of us who gather and make an offering to God. It’s not only the collection and the bread and wine being offered from the gifts God has given us. We offer the gifts of our skills and abilities. Our wardens and sidesmen exercise a ministry of welcome which, if it did not reflect deep and personal commitments to hospitality would be vacuous. Our cleaners, flower arrangers, organist and choir bring their gifts in service of the church. Most of us know that even the creative have to struggle to produce what others see as ‘gifted’; that it’s 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. For our creative gifts to be realised we have to work at them. Welcomers have personally to practice hospitality. Musicians and choristers have to practice. Clergy who lead worship in public have to pray in private, and so on.
If this season of Epiphany is about anything, it’s about open eyes, open hearts, open lives – it’s about recognising the brightness of unexpected dawns, of eyes lifted to look around. It’s often recognising the doors that are opened for us in the unexpected revelations and encounters that are part of daily life – and of thankfulness that in such things we can enter into the presence of the one who is God-with-us to all eternity, bringing our own unique gifts to offer to the Christ Child.
Very near the heart of Christian faith and practice is an encounter with God’s questions, ‘who are you, where are you?’ Are you on the side of the life that lives in Jesus, the life of grace and truth, of unstinting generosity and unsparing honesty, the only life that gives life to others? Or are you on your own side, on the side of disconnection, rivalry, the hoarding of gifts, the obsession with control? To answer that you’re on the side of life doesn’t mean for a moment that you can now relax into a fuzzy philosophy of ‘life-affirming’ comfort. On the contrary: it means you are willing to face everything within you that is cheap, fearful, untruthful and evasive, and let the light shine on it.
To quote the Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘The most pressing question we now face, we might well say, is who and where we are as a society. Bonds have been broken, trust abused and lost. Whether it is an urban rioter mindlessly burning down a small shop that serves his community, or a speculator turning his back on the question of who bears the ultimate cost for his acquisitive adventures in the virtual reality of today’s financial world, the picture is of atoms spinning apart in the dark.
‘And into that dark the Word of God has entered, in love and judgment, and has not been overcome.’
The giving of presents is part of our celebration of Christmas because gifts help define our relationship with Christ and with each other.
The gift of the Christ child is for all the world.
The gift of God’s extraordinary humility subverts our desire to gather earthly power to ourselves and calls us to lives of service.
Yet, for myself I can only affirm Christina Rossetti’s words:
What can I give him, poor as I am.
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give him, give my heart.
Christmas Day (Eve)
It was nearly Christmas and everyone in the school was in a festive, end-of-term mood. In the art class the teacher announced, to the children’s delight, that they’d be making Christmas cards for their friends and families. Out came the red and green paint, the glue, the glitter and the cotton wool, and all the children busied themselves producing colourful pictures of Father Christmas, robins, holly, snow and stars.
Abby was especially happy with her picture of the nativity scene, complete with ox and ass. She’d decided to make the card to cheer up her Great-Aunt Jean, who’d be spending Christmas with the family, and who always seemed a bit miserable and humourless. So she finished off the card with a flourish, writing a special message beneath the picture. She was using a broad paintbrush and she didn’t have enough room to write “Merry Christmas”, so she compromised by painting, in bold red letters, “Merry Xmas, Aunt Jean”.
At last Christmas Eve came and Aunt Jean arrived, and the family was sitting down for a cup of tea. Abby’s mother nudged her daughter, who was suffering from a sudden fit of shyness. But Abby overcame her nerves and went to fetch the card. Presenting it to Jean, she smiled sweetly and said: “Happy Christmas – I made this for you at school.” You could hear a pin drop as the elderly spinster rummaged in her bag for her spectacles, which she perched on the end of her nose to examine the card. Then she smiled and said, “It’s beautiful, Abby, thank you.” Abby breathed a sigh of relief, but in the next moment her joy turned to dismay, as Jean continued: “There’s just one thing, though, Abby. It would have been better to write ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Xmas’, because when you write 2‘Xmas’, you’re crossing out Christ.”
Of course, there are always folk who are ready to criticise despite the overwhelming good. They will pick up on the one thing that is not quite right. This was devastating for Abby and needlessly so. Does it really matter? Surely it was the gesture that was so much more important than the use of incorrect phraseology if that is what it is. I’m not sure that it is particularly important and who says you shouldn’t use Xmas instead Christmas in the first place. Surely, then, Christmas is a time to show love, support and concern for one another. Looking for the good and not the faults. But we often miss the point in favour of living out our expectations for a perfect Christmas, as we celebrate the word made flesh.
It’s clear that God’s Word has far greater power and deeper significance than we can ever grasp and is, at the end of the day, utterly beyond the reach of linguistic description or human comprehension. Whether we use one word or the other, xmas or Christmas, or, as in Johns gospel, The Word. And yet we keep trying to define and describe it. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul advises against “wrangling over words”, because, he says it “does no good but only ruins those who are listening” (2:14).
Ultimately, as Paul says, “the Word of God is not chained” (2:8). All the scholars and theologians can do is produce words about a word which means “word”! When you read the wrangles over some of the finer points of the liturgy, particularly those in the Creed, it’s hard to understand just how people could become drawn into such bitter arguments for the sake of a single word. That’s not to say that all the efforts of scholars and theologians are futile – the results can be both illuminating and beautiful in themselves – but we must always keep sight of the fact that we are incapable of chaining such a great mystery. We continue to miss the point and very often fail to live out God’s will in so doing. For example, I read a recent story of a colleagues experience last year at a carol service in Salisbury Cathedral. There was a very quiet moment in the service which was pierced by the sound of a crying baby. Some seated behind my colleague was heard to say huffily to her neighbour “They shouldn’t bring children to services like this”. But what is Christmas about if it is not about a baby crying in the night? God with us in the form of a child and the lady missed the point because she was concerned about herself.
Actually, we do a lot of that in the church. We forget whose church it is and try and create a church which is something that we want for ourselves and forget others and what might be Gods will. Who is to say who the church is is for? Is it for the faithful regulars or for those who attend hatches, matches and dispatches or even less during a year? Is it for the rich who can pay their way or for the poor who struggle in life? Is it for the fit and healthy or the sick? Is it for the young people who might make a few noises or the the more senior well-behaved folk? Well actually the truth of the matter is the church is for everyone, young or old, rich or poor. It is our church, not mine or a few senior members of the church laity. It is our church and the Jesus Christ is the host. And if we can begin to remember that then we can put our approach to such events as Christmas in to a proper perspective. And the proper perspective for me is that we love one another as God loves us.
This is a very contemporary version of a piece of scripture which famously reminds us that love is our greatest gift from God, it puts it into a particular perspective for Christmas:
If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.
If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.
If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.
If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend la myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.
Love stops the cooking to hug the child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband. Love is kind, though harried and tired. Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.
Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way. Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will endure for ever and ever.
Poor little Abby, whose generous gesture only met with disapproval! Poor Aunt Jean, whose problem was that she didn’t know how to talk to children, how to show love to her family and resorted to strictness. In the end Abby’s mother managed to reassure the little girl that she hadn’t done anything wrong – and they had a very happy Christmas – or Xmas, or Noel – or whatever you choose to call it. Actually you could argue we shouldnt use the word Merry but rather Happy instead. But the bottom line is that the occasion is bigger than its name. Of all the presents you will receive today, there remains one more beautiful than anything you’ll find under the tree – the most tantalising of all. But this particular gift will remain wrapped for as long as you or I live – because it’s wrapped in the mystery of the Word made flesh – God incarnate. That is the mystery which shone out of that Bethlehem stable on the first Christmas Day, whose light shines undimmed, never to be overcome by the darkness but to shine out in love for each and every one of us.
If Aunt Jean was offended by using a Cross instead of Christmas I wonder if she was more offended by the use of the cross at Easter. Or perhaps she has missed the point.