Saturday, 28 December 2013

Christmas Presence

Here's an (attempted) written version of the all-age talk I gave during the Christmas Day Eucharist at St. Andrew's. It was a bit looser & more ad-libbed than this, but the key message was the same...


Who managed to open their presents before coming to church this morning? Did you get anything nice? Well, I didn't get the chance, so I brought mine with me – would you mind if I opened them now?

This ones nice & big! It's... a jumper & hat.
Hmm. I try to get excited by clothes...

Well, onto the second one. The label says “Merry Christmas – thought this would help you clean up your act!” It's...shower gel! I'm always a bit worried if I get this kind of things - are they trying to tell me something?!

Ah, last one – and it's such an unusual shape! I wonder what it is...a torch! Is this some kind of wind-up? Oh, here's a handle – it's a wind-up torch...!

Do you ever feel like the presents are more exciting when you don't know what they are? Don't get me wrong, these are great presents & I'm very grateful for them, but when they were wrapped up& hidden they held so much mystery & promise, and now I know what they are that's all gone.

I wonder how the shepherds felt when, after all the excitement of the angels appearing and filling the sky, they got to the stable? Maybe they had in their mind the kind of nativity scene we've seen around us over the last few weeks (or months) – glowing halos, a fluorescent, radioactive glowing baby, more angels? Instead, its likely they a very ordinary young couple: travellers, homeless, relying on the generosity of others to have a roof over their head, huddled together with a very ordinary looking little baby...

Perhaps they were disappointed at first glance. The wrapper had come off, but the gift seemed so much less exciting. And yet, when they saw the family, “they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.”1 The true worth of the gift of Jesus was not the outside appearance, but what his birth meant – and still means. God with us. The promised saviour is here!

The gifts I just unwrapped might not look exciting, but what do they represent. Maybe the hat reminds me of Jesus with me in my thoughts – his Spirit guiding my prayers – his comfort and his peace when I need him most?

The jumper could be Jesus in my heart, helping me to love the stranger, the poor, the refugee, the homeless – people existing just as Jesus did in his own life, on the margins of society.

The torch could remind me Jesus the light of the world, a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path. This one never runs out of power, you just keep winding it – Jesus light shines for ever!

And the shower gel...well, maybe this reminds me that Jesus would go on to die on the cross for me, and for you, to wash us clean from our sins “not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”2

The best present any of us have got this Christmas is Jesus. His love is a gift for today, tomorrow and the rest of our lives. We shouldn't just clear him away with the left-over turkey, or pack him up with the baubles until next year. He is willing to be with us every day, not just at Christmas – and that's a gift that money can't buy.

1Luke 2:17-18
2Titus 3:5

Sunday, 22 December 2013

♪ ♫ So here it is... ♫ ♪

This is the sermon I preached at both St. Andrew's & St. Peter's today (22nd December - 4th Sunday of Advent).


So, are you ready for Christmas? Are you prepared – or do you feel like there's still loads to do?

Well, however you are feeling about Christmas today, take a few moments to relax. Maybe close your eyes. I'd like us to use our imaginations for a bit. Imagine it's tonight – you've had a busy day, what with church this morning, then rushing to get dinner sorted so you can come back at 4 'o' clock for the Parish Christmas Celebration, then dash to St. Peter's at 7pm for the Traditional Lessons & Carols. You've had a glass of mulled wine and too many mince pies afterwards, and now, you're ready for bed. You drift off into sleep - and something happens.

An angel 'appears' – how does that happen to you? A voice in your head? A sense – a feeling – a physical presence..? However it happens to you, this is a real possibility – it's happened to plenty of others before.

The angel brings a message. You've recently found out something about somebody who you care for deeply – something that indicates they have broken the law, and hurt you in the process. You've decided to cut off your ties from them, but in such a way as not to expose them to shame & humiliation – at least, as best as you can. Yet this messenger says you are to stick by this person – not in spite of what they have done, but because what they have done is actually the right thing, no matter what others say. The explanation of the situation, of how it is really ok, is impossible - or at least you think is impossible - and God wants you to be part of it.

What's your gut reaction as I say that? He wouldn't ask me! He couldn't ask me! I would do anything for God (but I won't do that...)

It's interesting that Matthew chooses to tell this part of the story from Joseph perspective, unlike Luke who explains it all from Mary's angle. Joseph isn't involved in the conception of Jesus at all, yet Matthew makes him centre stage – why? Well, partly because, through Joseph, Jesus becomes part of the house of David, thus fulfilling the scriptures and adding weight to his being the promised Messiah. But more so, it is to emphasize a particular human response to God's word which Matthew sees as essential to Christianity.

Luke emphasises Mary's response to the angel – the response of a young woman, promised in marriage & old enough to know where babies come from, who knows what is expected of her when she is wed... and the consequences of what happens to girls who are seen to have done such things before they are married Yet she is somebody who is innocent enough, possibly naïve enough, to trust the angel’s words, to accept them wholeheartedly, and to allow God's will to be done to her.

Matthew, through Joseph, focuses on the active part of the human response to the incarnation. Three times Joseph is given instruction by an angel in a dream, and three times he must do something in response to the message. In this instance, it is to take Mary to be his wife and ensure the child is named Jesus. Later, he is told to flee to Egypt to save Jesus from the slaughter of the innocents, and finally he is told to return to Israel – each time, he obeys, seemingly without hesitation. But Joseph was just a man – and I imagine there must have been times it all seemed too much. When they were travelling to Bethlehem for the census & he was having to nurse his pregnant wife. When he could not provide proper accommodation for the woman he loved, and had to witness her go through the agonies of childbirth in a dirty stable.

Yet he chooses to stay faithful, to believe, as the Queen of Hearts does in Lewis Carroll's Alice Through The Looking Glass, at least six impossible things before breakfast.

So this coming week we celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the point when those impossible things became possible. And at that point, the story begins again. Go into any shop, pub, café & chances are the usual Christmas pop songs are blasting out – which is nice, except when they've had the same CD on since November! But, love or loathe them, maybe they are worth a second listen. You see, I think Slade were on to something. “So here it is, Merry Christmas! Everybody's having fun! Look to the future now, it's only just begun” sings Noddy Holder. And if we turn away from the commercialisation & celebrate a true Christmas – by which I mean observe Advent as a season in itself & celebrate Christmas over it's intended 12 days - then Christmas Day does indeed mark the point where we should celebrate the birth of the Saviour of the world, God's Word made flesh, Immanuel, God with us – then look to the future which has, indeed, only just begun. If we dare to allow Christmas to be a new beginning, if we welcome Christ into our world, either again or for the first time, and let him use us, inspire us, even love us – then it will be a truly new beginning.

Just as Mary's life was changed by her encounter with the angel, by welcoming Christ into her, and by sharing him with others, ours can be too. Her's is a very human story – and yes, there appears to be times when she was scared of the repercussions this would have for herself & the family - for example, when she and his brothers & sisters go to intervene when he is seemingly out of control (Mark 3:31-35). She's his mother – she wants to keep him, and the family, safe. But her overwhelming attitude is that of sharing him with the world – as a baby in the manger with the shepherds, as a young boy with the magi, at the temple with Simeon and Anna, etc., etc., because she knows who he is. She trusts. She believes. And she knows it is important for the world to know that. She even encourages him to do his first miracle, at the wedding in Cana.

Just as Joseph's life was changed by his encounter with the angel – by getting on and doing what God had called him to do, despite the social stigma it would bring, despite the danger, the challenge, the cost to his own ego... ours can be changed too. Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying “Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21).

Paul also challenges us, in his letter to the Romans, declaring our Lord is the one “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name; including ourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”

Dare we let Mary's story inspire us to let Jesus in, completely in, to let him turn our lives upside down, and to share him with those around us? Dare we let Joseph's story inspire us to go out on a limb for Jesus, to put ourselves in a counter-cultural, vulnerable place for He who came into this world to save us?

Christmas doesn't end with the birth of Jesus – it begins. Christmas starts with Christ. Are we ready, really ready, for Christmas..?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Tomorrow's Sunday

Here's my debut article for the Sunderland Echo's 'Tomorrow's Sunday' column - published 14th December 2013.
Tomorrow is the Third Sunday of Advent, and many churches will be lighting a pink (or rose) coloured candle on their wreath. This candle always stands out against the dark, penitential purple candles in the other three spaces, drawing the eye when the whole is unlit. This is only right, as traditionally the third candle represents Joy – Joy that we are now closer to Christmas, Joy at the impending celebrations of the birth of Jesus, Joy that the wait will soon be over.

However, amongst all the busyness and stress that our commercialised Christmas now carries with it, it can be hard to find that Joy, let alone time to appreciate it. We get so weighed down by the pressure to make Christmas 'perfect' that we miss the point; so concerned with buying things to show we care we fail to show the people around us how much we value them.

So this Sunday, why not take a few moments to stop, draw breath and be still? Maybe pray if you can? Look around at what you have achieved, the stuff you have accumulated and ask if you really need to do more. Allow yourself to be thankful for what you have, and pray for those who are less fortunate. Then help your friends and loved ones do the same. Like the rose candle blazing in the darkness that surrounds it, let the love of Christ fill your heart with his joy, and his peace, as you prepare to celebrate the most special of birthdays.