Monthly Archives: December 2014

So, This Is Christmas…

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s Midnight Eucharist on 24th-25th December 2014 – Christmas Day. The readings were Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4,5-12 and  John 1:1-14

So, this is Christmas. And what have you done?

Are you hanging up your stockings on your wall? It’s the time when every Santa has a ball.

For every mother’s child, is gonna spy, to see if reindeer, really know how to fly.

Are you waiting for the family to arrive? Are you sure you’ve got the room to spare inside?

With logs on the fire & gifts on the tree, a time to rejoice in the good that we see.

Music, for good and for bad, surrounds us at this time of year, and it’s amazing how these songs have become part of the fabric of Christmas for so many of us, for society in general. But there’s one song we hear a lot, in many different versions – in fact that I heard being sung on this very spot at the Dame Dorothy Christingle last week – that I believe to be one of the scariest songs ever written.

I think you’ll all know it – a little ditty called “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” It’s a great Christmas song, especially the way Bruce Springsteen does it, but have you ever stopped to think about the lyrics.

“You’d better watch out. You’d better not cry. You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”

I mean, that’s positively terrifying. Who is this fat bearded man & what is he going to do to me & my kids?!?! I really don’t think it does Santy justice to be fair. But however you look at it, the message is clear – he’s coming.

Now, this isn’t the only song with this problem – and it’s not just with pop music where we get caught up with the tune and the feeling we get from the music without taking stock, thinking about, the words we’re singing along to. Jerusalem, anyone?

John, in our reading tonight, is reminding us that there is power in words. But, more than that, there is great power in The Word. As you read through John’s gospel, there are occasions where Jesus spells out who he is to those around Him – particularly in the I Am sayings, also in other things He says & does – but still they didn’t get it.

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

The religious people, even His own disciples, missed things that, to us, in hindsight, seem obvious. Or do they? We talk about a lot of Jesus life in church, we sing about it, read it in the liturgy printed in our service sheets, live in a society whose laws and customs and public holidays are primarily built around the teachings and life of Jesus – but do we actually get it. Do we want to get it?

Some carols suffer from the theological equivalent of the Santa Claus is coming problem – to be fair, some are not the most accurate description of the nativity accounts, of the coming of the Christ-child. But as we sing along, the message is clear – He’s coming. He came.

God became man; the Word, present at the beginning of the world, who set all things into being at the dawn of time, became flesh, walked among us and remains with us today through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Are we willing to take these words, this Word, on board? Because Jesus is not just for Christmas. As we follow His growth from baby in a manger to crucified man to resurrected saviour through the Church year, do we have the courage to follow Him in our daily lives, to make room for in our hearts & not try and keep him parked in the stable round the back, to be visited at Christmas and on our terms, but not allowed to make a huge impact on our lives, like an awkward relative.

As He said himself, Jesus is the light of the world. Dare we allow that light to brighten our lives, to brighten the lives of others, this Christmas?

Dare we give the gift of Christ to our friends, families, communities this Christmas, this coming year, this lifetime? As Isaiah says,

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation”

Do we dare to be that messenger?

So sing along loudly to your favourite tunes this Christmas, but as you belt out the words, take a moment to consider the Word who became flesh; a helpless, vulnerable bairn in a barn, for you – because he loves you.

Who lived and died and rose again for you – because He loves you. Because He loves us, loves me, loves you.

So hark now hear the angels sing, a king was born today. And man will live forever more because of Christmas Day.

Amen.

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Advent 4.0: A Good Sermon To Die Hard

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am Eucharist on 21st December 2014 – the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The readings were 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27 and Luke 1:26-38.

Your starter for ten – what’s my favourite Christmas movie…

Die Hard. Yep. That’s right. Die Hard. It’s tricky to do the film justice in a paragraph, but it’s widely recognised as one of the greatest action films of all times, turned Bruce Willis from a comic actor into a Hollywood tough guy & is referenced to this day in movies, comedies & cinematic in-jokes.

For those who’ve never seen it, or haven’t for a while, Bruce Willis is Detective Lieutenant John McClane, a New York City police officer who has travelled to Los Angeles in the hope of reconciling with his estranged wife Holly at her office Christmas party. While he is changing his clothes the building is taken over by terrorists, led by the excellent Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, who are looking to steal the $640 million in bonds in the company vault. They hold the employees hostage, execute the boss & set about their elaborate plan, not reckoning on the tough cop lurking unseen in the building. McClane sets about taking out the terrorists & trying to rescue the captives while the LAPD & FBI try unsuccessfully to sort out the situation their way.

Some of you may think this is a strange choice, especially for a man of the cloth. But, as we see in our Gospel passage today, the old “God moves in mysterious ways” cliché really holds water.

To many of us the annunciation in Luke is a familiar story. But, like so many of our readings at this time of year, their familiarity can lead us to miss their significance as we rush headlong to the manger and the birth of Christ. In it we see a really human reaction to an extraordinary spiritual event. 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 through her. But just stop a moment and consider Mary. She isn’t at all an obvious choice for this job. While it’s true for Christ to be both fully human & fully divine he has to be born of a woman, why one unmarried? Why one so young? Why create such scandal?!

At this point she doesn’t know how Joseph will react – we know the punishment for a woman caught in adultery, spelled out very clearly in Leviticus 20:10 and John 8. There was a strong possibility Joseph could just get the stones out – she can only trust he’ll do the right thing. And although society has moved on from that point of view, at least in the west, we shouldn’t forget how some girls and women who fell pregnant outside of wedlock were treated by those claiming to represent God even within some of our lifetimes. You only need to read or watch ‘Philomena’ to get an idea.

So Mary only has her faith in God, her trust in the angelic messenger, to carry her forward.

Surely her cousin Elizabeth would be the far better choice – respectably married to a priest in the line of Aaron, barren and “in her old age” so able to provide the ‘miraculous’ element of the birth – maybe calling to mind Sarah and Abraham, to give the establishment something to hang the story on to? A far more sensible, “White Christmas,” “It’s A Wonderful Life” kind of choice.

But God needs to create the scandal – He needs there to be no doubt in Mary’s mind the Christ-child has been conceived of the Holy Spirit & not of man. So Mary through her willingness ends up carrying the weight and expectation of the whole of Israel and, ultimately, the whole of humanity. She accepts what is said as true and allows Jesus to make His home inside her, with the full knowledge that one act will change not just her life forever, but also the lives of those around her too. And when we read this passage alongside the section of 2 Samuel we just heard, it strikes me that since the beginnings of the people of Israel, since the Exodus where they became God’s chosen, He sought to be amongst His people in amazing, new and unexpected ways – appearing in the burning bush, leading and guiding them in pillars of cloud and flame, giving assurances of his presence in the Ark of the covenant. But as time went on, the people sought ways, for good or ill, to contain God and keep Him set apart in a special place where they could go and worship, but at an appropriate distance.

David has the bright idea of settling God in a house – after all, God has blessed him with a safe & settled place, so why should he not repay the favour. But God turns this around –

“Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.”

This as a king is a great thing to hear for David – ideas of a long lineage & settled kingdom for the people of Israel may have filled His head. But God is getting at something even more amazing. Think of the opening chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, tracing “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

Eventually Solomon does build a temple, the Hebrew people come & go across the centuries, the temple is rebuilt after destruction, and God does live with them, remains with them, through their trials, troubles & triumphs – but through the incarnation, the word made flesh through Mary’s willingness to accept the task given to her, God finds a new way to dwell with his people – by dwelling in His people.

But I can’t help thinking we, all these centuries later, have begun to make the same mistakes as our spiritual ancestors. Standing here, opposite that amazing wall, you can almost feel the centuries of prayer, blessing and worship surrounding us – the great cloud of witnesses joining with us this day and every time we meet here to glorify the risen Lord. But if the Christmas story, if Mary’s story, teaches us anything, it’s that God’s plan for His creation is to live in us, work through us, thanks to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and His gift of the Holy Spirit.

Just as Mary chose to let the Christ come to birth in her & through her, we are challenged to avoid leaving God in church as we walk out on a Sunday, avoid leaving Jesus in the manger as we pack away the Christmas decorations, and let Him be born in us today and every day.

Think back to where we started. The whole plot of Die Hard revolves around John McClane being the only one who can save those who are held captives – as he is on the inside. We all face varying degrees of darkness inside ourselves. Some things, some people on the outside help, and some hinder. But without the presence of the saviour within, the darkness has more opportunity to overrun, to seek to hold captive or even to destroy the good. Part of the climax of the film – so close your ears if you don’t want to spoil it – is the terrorists take all the hostages up to the roof in an apparent concession to the authorities. In fact, they plan to blow up the roof, killing the hostages & faking their own deaths so they can escape. What looks like a path to freedom, created by the goodness in society, is actually the path to destruction.

Only the saviour on the inside can rescue them from this and lead them to freedom. Only the true saviour, Jesus Christ, can lead us to real freedom by His Holy Spirit living in us. To accept this can seem a big ask. It has scary consequences – the metaphorical sticks and stones may be thrown in our direction, the terrorists and elements of darkness won’t like the light emanating from us and will seek to extinguish it. But as we just heard from the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans,

“God is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.”

As advent draws to a close, as we prepare to celebrate the light of the world breaking through the darkness, dare we follow Mary’s example & accept God’s will, allow the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon us and let Jesus Christ, the son of God, make His home in us, make us His holy temple, and build His kingdom in and around us?

So don’t pray for the courage of a vest-wearing New York cop – pray for the courage of a young Middle Eastern virgin. Don’t look for help from a tough guy with guns and explosives, but from a defenceless baby in a manger. We don’t need an action hero, but we do need a saviour.

Amen.

One Direction?

This homily was given at St. Andrew’s 8am Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Advent (7th December). The readings were Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-14 and Mark 1:1-8.

I need a new sat nav. I’ve said that on numerous occasions to my wife – usually when we’re heading off the wrong way on a journey, or have missed a turning. It’s always the sat nav’s fault! I know, I know, a bad workman & all that. But I feel mine is particularly poor.

When I was training down in Oxford we used to pop up here occasionally to see the family or to visit the parish when we were exploring coming here, and each time, on the return journey, the same thing would happen. I would approach the last roundabout before where we lived. The sat nav would instruct me to go straight over. But I knew that if I turned left, took the first exit, I would just go round the corner & be home. The machine’s plan was to go straight over, join a main road, drive down it for about a mile, turn right round a roundabout there, drive back in the opposite direction, re-approach the same roundabout I had crossed but this time from what was originally the third exit, go straight over & then be home, which would take about 10 mins. So I would ignore the machine and turn left. The female voice would say “turn around if possible” then “perform a u-turn” – then suddenly realise where we were & proclaim “you have reached your destination.” I would say “I need a new sat nav!”

I think there seems to be a tendency in the Biblical material, both Old and New Testament, of people in power saying “we need a new prophet!” It’s fair to say the messages of those who we hold in such high esteem now were not well received at the time – you only have to glance through Jeremiah to see what he went through just for honestly declaring God’s word. Even Jesus noted this – in both Luke & Matthew he proclaims

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

John the Baptist was used to this kind of treatment. A figure of fun to some, “ye na, the gadgie in the hair shirt, always got a few locusts on the go,” a real nuisance, a threat even, to others. But his message was as simple as that of the sat nav – “turn around if possible” – “perform a u-turn.” In Greek the word is metanoia. It means literally to “turn, to change, to reverse oneself.” It’s not a religious word – just an everyday word for turning around and going the other way – but it’s use in the New Testament shows it is not a mere “change of mind” but a complete reorientation of ourselves.

And this was probably what annoyed the Sadducees & the Pharisees the most about John. They thought they were right – chances are they weren’t deliberately disobeying God or trying to mislead the people, they’d just got lost along the way, but that made things worse. They couldn’t see they were on the wrong road. And surely this shouty bloke washing people in the river couldn’t know more than they did, with all their strict religious observance and proper way of doing things. A bit like how that scruffy carpenter from the poor family couldn’t have a closer relationship with God, or forgive sins…

They felt like I do when the sat nav starts telling me to do things. They didn’t want to listen – he had to be wrong, especially when he started accusing them of taking people the wrong way.

But unlike my sat nav, John was completely on the right track. He was pointing people to Jesus, the Son of God – the one they were all supposed to be heading towards!

So this second Sunday of Advent we think about John & all the prophets who direct our thoughts to the long awaited Christ, who instruct us to be ready, to turn away from the things we do that are not part of God’s plan for us & get back on the right road. And we don’t always want to hear it. I’m not all that bad, I do most things right. But there are things that do need work, things that need revaluating, redirecting. And the last thing I want us to find is we get so caught up making sure things work as they always have, that they keep heading in the same direction, that we miss God wanting to take things in a slightly different direction & end up travelling away from him.

Advent is the time for working through these worries – for taking them seriously, for earnestly seeking the Father’s guidance in making ourselves ready for the imminent arrival of the Christ, for repenting for the things that are wrong in our lives, & strive, with the help & guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish. He will help us do it.

“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

We just have to be prepared to make sure we are listening to the right voice, maybe stop looking for excuses, and “make a u-turn.”

Amen

Black (and Blue) Friday

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am and St. Andrew’s 6pm services on 30th November, the First Sunday of Advent. The readings were Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.

It amazes me that, amongst all the pre-Christmas hype that starts from back around mid-August, as shops push harder & harder to remind us of the true meaning of the season –

spending shed loads of money on stuff we don’t really need, eating & drinking enough to sustain us through the first few days of the New Year’s resolution diet, maybe something about penguins?

– that the advent calendar remains popular to this day. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that the majority of them aren’t purchased to countdown to presents & Santy, or to provide the excuse for that early morning chocolate fix we miss through the other 11 months of the year.

In fact, this year the “Ship of Fools” website asked readers to vote for the best/worst (depending on the way you see it) Badvent calendar – the calendar that was furthest from the true meaning of Christmas as could be. Nominations included a Barbie calendar with accessories for everybody’s favourite disproportionate doll behind each door; a heavy metal calendar with a hard-rocking Santa sitting on a spiky seat, foot resting on a reindeer skull – well maybe after all the glasses of sherry he’d fancied a “Donner” kebab…; or maybe he’d been working through the whisky advent calendar, yours for just £149.99 with a different dram behind each door – maybe perfect for St. Andrew’s day, if we want to use racial stereotypes? And then there’s the palatial mini-manor fold out calendar with 24 different nail polishes, probably for when Mary had her feet up on the back of the donkey & blinging up to meet the kings.

The eventual winner was by our friends at Ann Summers, featuring a naked man reclining by a Christmas tree, eyes smouldering into the camera just inviting you to remove the strategically placed present. Behind each door resides chocolate recreations of various bodily parts – and no, not hands, ears, or spleens. I was going to say use your imaginations, but actually don’t!

So all across the land, a huge number of people are, for fair means or foul, counting down to, waiting for, Christmas.

And despite our national obsession with queuing, we as a nation aren’t very good at waiting anymore.

We’ve moved from the satisfying crackle & hiss of a proper record starting up, (that’s vinyl for the young hipsters amongst us), the sound of anticipation filling our ears as we gently placed the needle into the groove, to the CD with its crystal clarity and ability to skip to wherever we wanted to be, to the digital download where we get the music instantly available without even leaving the house or waiting for the postman. We can get strawberries in December and Easter eggs in January. Instant credit, payday loans and BrightHouse finance deals mean we can get the goods we want without the hassle of saving up so we can afford them.

But these things all come at a cost. Digital music means more illegal downloads to the point where it’s reckoned that 42 per cent of people surveyed believe its ok to illegally download music and films for personal use. This rises to 57 per cent among those aged between 15 and 24-years-old.

It’s estimated one site, set up by a lad from North Shields, cost the music industry £240 million. Growing strawberries all year round, or shipping them across from overseas, has financial and environmental implications. And as the Archbishop of Canterbury is keen to highlight, the credit industry boom is costing people more than just the thousands of percent interest they are charged.

And then we get on to Black Friday. Anyone who saw the news on Friday & Saturday of shoppers’ queuing for hours to get into stores at a minute past midnight to fight over tellys with £50 off must think the world had gone mad.

“Darling, Happy Christmas. You wouldn’t believe how many people I had to punch to get you that…”

But it’s a sign of how our perspective can be so easily shifted by the society around us – things are a bit more subtle than the “don’t forget the Fruit Gums, mum” slogans of old, but shops have been winding up the populous over the last few weeks for these “once in a lifetime” deals, then herding them around like cattle (in some places) before producing a small pallet of limited stock. Somebody I know put a picture on Facebook – the top half was people clamoring for some electrical goods on sale in Manchester, the bottom people in a third world country reaching out for food.

And do you know what. Some people will have bagged a bargain. And I’m happy for them. Some will have to look at themselves in the mirror the next day & contemplate their behavior. I pray for them. But there’s a very good chance that an awful lot of people will find that deal they fought so hard for, in some cases literally, will be repeated later in December, or in the Boxing day sales, or the thing was cheaper online or in a different store, and they’ll feel cheated – if only I’d checked, taken my time, waited…

So waiting is sometimes a good thing, and Advent is the season where we wait, we anticipate the arrival of the Son of God. And we watch. Advent is a time to make ourselves ready for the coming king, to prepare ourselves. We’ve spoken a few times over the last few weeks about anticipating the return of Jesus, and how believers in Christ, those already walking with Him and in relationship should not fear the Day of the Lord as we are already children of the light, and have been given gifts befitting of this status – but also the great responsibility for the building of His kingdom this brings with it.

Advent affords us the opportunity to really focus this waiting, to consciously set time to prepare ourselves.

There is so much darkness around in our world at the moment, and I don’t know about you but sometimes I think we all must feel just like Isaiah at the start of our Old Testament reading today:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

If only God would come down, break into the here & now & solve the problems, stop the wars, heal the sick, make everyone kneel before him. But then, as we look at our own lives, our fears, those little dark corners where the things we’re not proud of or unsure of lurk and hide – so maybe we don’t want that just now; maybe it’s easy to see where Isaiah was coming from when he continues,

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

This is all quite scary stuff. If only I had some time to prepare. I don’t know the day or the hour, but if only there was a way of making a difference in my own life, someone who could help me make the changes that would put those wrong things right, that would help me to make a positive difference on those around me, to help them to find the way, the truth, the light in these dark times:

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

He is with us, he can help us to be the people he has called us to be, to be the change we want to see. “In every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s words give us hope that we are equipped for the task. Yes, it can be painful – facing the truth can be like turning on a lamp first thing in the morning, when the light burns your eyes and leaves you blinking. But then, as our vision clears, we see things as they really are. And that’s important – we need to be prepared, which is why “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So my request this advent is we all try to commit to one thing that will help us prepare for Christmas – really prepare for Christmas. I’m going to read “Walking Backwards To Christmas” by Stephen Cottrell, which tells the Christmas story in reverse-chronological order, helping to get to grips with the darkness in the narrative as a counterbalance to the way we usually approach the nativity. But find something that works for you – Bible readings, a devotional book, music, art – just approach it sincerely, prayerfully and dare to allow the Spirit to move within you as you do it.

Mark’s Gospel reminds us

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

We see the darkness around us. The whole of creation is straining to see “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Let us prepare ourselves, as his elect whom the angels will be sent to gather, for His coming. For God is faithful; by him each one of us has been called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

He will find us ready because, if we let Him, he will help to make us ready. Amen