Saturday, 24 December 2016

Cribs and Carols

. . . a Christmas morning sermon :-

Many of us have enjoyed singing Christmas carols for a week or two now. Those of us in serious choirs will have been singing them for months. And at last here we are on the day itself, and in the church that must have one of the most interesting and unusual Christmas cribs around, thanks to Owen and to the inventiveness of his junior helpers.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the traditional Christmas crib, and the traditional Christmas carols. Carols like Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head; like silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright; or like  in the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

For most of us I would guess our images of the Christmas story are formed as much by the carols we sing as by the story told by Matthew or Luke. Carols were the songs of the people, and Christmas carols help to move the story told by the gospel writers into the frosty landscape of an English winter.

Not every Christmas Day is frosty, and most are not snowy. This year the only record in danger is the one for the record high temperature. But the imagined extra details our Christmas carols, nativity plays and Christmas cribs provide help us to enter into the story of our Lord’s birth by making it a winter story. Like the shepherds and kings, we can be there too.

The very first Christmas crib is said to have been created by Francis of Assisi, to show the people of the village what the birth of Jesus really meant for them by bringing them to see the scene for themselves. This was in 1223 in Grecchio, in Italy.

Francis gave instructions for a stable to be prepared, with a manger full of hay, and an ox and ass standing by; and in the middle of his full size Christmas crib was an altar table, and the holy communion was celebrated at the heart of the Christmas story, with Francis himself assisting. We're told he read the Gospel with such devotion that many of those who came were moved to tears.

The tradition of the Christmas cribs springs from that event. Now they take many forms, though most don’t contain aliens or crocodiles, as I believe on occasions this one has. Most cribs remain quite traditional in terms of what they contain. But in fact the ox and the ass standing by date back to Francis' own imagining of the scene and not to the bible stories themselves.  Many cribs contain a camel, in fact there are quite a few in our crib at home; well, the Wise Men rode them, didn’t they? Or did they? In fact, camels aren't even hinted at in the bible story.  Shepherds, well they’re Biblical, but the Bible doesn’t mention them giving a lamb, or the shepherd boy plating a tune for the baby on his flute. They’re often in cribs though.

Crib figures vary. Some you see are finely detailed and in appropriate period costume; others wear medieval clothes, like in one of the nativity paintings of past ages; some crib figures are in modern dress to try to bring things up to date. I have some olive wood figures I bought in the Holy Land, and I like them because they don't have any clearly carved features. They are in a sense, everyman and everywoman, which to me is sort of the point of it all. Jesus was born in a particular place, and at a particular time in history, but he is not limited by place or history; he is for the whole world, a brother to all the world's children wherever they are.

Wherever and whoever we are, it’s good we can make ourselves part of the story of this birth. The child born in Bethlehem is God’s gift for not just the shepherds and the wise men, but us too: the sign of a love that is forever, the eternal light to shine in every darkness. So I’m happy we can imagine this child born in a Shropshire stable, and in an English winter.

For then we’ll be singing our carols not about him but to him; and as we praise him and pray to him, his light may be born anew in our hearts. The world is a dark enough place on the borders of 2017. But in the uncertainties of today the Prince of Peace is still born to dwell among us, and the Light of the World still shines.

Our cribs remind us also that this child is not born into privilege and worldly power. His parents are far from home and will soon become refugees; this child newborn has no settled and secure place. He’s born on the edge of things, he takes his chance. It’s the same with our hearts. He waits for us to say yes, he stands at the door and knocks, but only we can open it to him. Outside the door to many a human soul, he waits for us to want his love to catch flame within us.

So Christmas cribs remind us that Jesus belongs here as well as there, and now as well as then. They remind us that he comes to a humble place, and waits on us there. And the other thing we need to remember is this is only the beginning of the story.  The humble crib shows us what sort of gift the world is given, but the gift itself requires the journey on, is revealed in the man this child becomes. Today's child who seeks a place in our hearts is tomorrow's man, longing to light the darkness and melt the coldness of our world with the warmth of his saving love.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

What happened to the news, then?

One of the best news programmes on the BBC is the 30 minutes of "News from a global perspective" that begins the BBC4 schedule each evening. Except this week. This is not a week that's been short of "news from a global perspective", it seems to me. And it is, let us not forget, a working week. All week, Monday to Friday. Christmas is next Sunday, as I'm sure Auntie is aware.

But the remorseless spread of Christmas continues. There will be no BBC4 News next week, not just on the two designated bank holidays, but all week. I can just about accept that, after all, most people will be off work all week; but why no news this week, which is supposedly at least a normal working week? Are the sort of people who watch BBC4 so wedded to being entertained by the likes of Ray Mears, Alice Roberts and Jago Cooper that they've no time for news this week?  Do they really need an hour-long repeat of "Indian Hill Railways" in place of their update on a world in which this week seems depressingly normal in terms of terrorism, war, tragedy and political ineptitude? Or is it perhaps that the news staff are so busy this week attending pre-Christmas sherry parties that they have no time to gather and dispense the news?

I am surprised and a little depressed that the BBC, with its mission to "inform, educate and entertain" (words carefully placed in that order by Lord Reith), should be so quick to drop the news from what is supposed to be its most informative channel, for the spurious reason that "it's nearly Christmas".

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Night on Which Reindeer Fly (a sermon for Christmas)

To be preached at the Midnight Service at Chirbury . . .

Welcome as we celebrate this most special night of the year: the one on which we suspend all disbelief and are happy to believe the impossible. Welcome to the night when reindeer fly about in the sky, despite everything we know about the laws of physics, or, for that matter the habits of reindeer; the night when one fat guy dressed in red manages to deliver presents to homes all over the world, something Amazon requires thousands of poorly paid staff to achieve. For that matter, welcome to the night in which angels fill the sky to sing glory to God. Maybe we find that just as hard to believe. But tonight we do believe it, for the sake of the children, and maybe also for the sake of the child within ourselves.

So welcome to the night on which we dream of a better world. A world in which soldiers emerge from their trenches to embrace as friends and play a game of football. A world in which we can be children again, and innocent again, and our childhood world is sweet and peaceful and lovely, with angels and shepherds and kings, and a newborn child in a manger.

And then all too quickly it's gone. And the year’s gone too. We're back there in the grey winter world of jammed motorways and late trains, of colds and flu, of scraping frost off the car every morning, of dreading the next heating bill, and dreading too perhaps all the dire and dreadful things that 2017 seems likely to promise. In the grown-up world.

So very soon we’ll be packing away the tinsel and the lights, and with them the fairy tales and the legends and the carols and the Christmas pop songs, and the reindeer and fat jolly Santa and his hard working elves. And the dreams. And Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus, and those angels that sang in the skies? Do we pack them away too? What if we didn’t, what if we stayed with them instead? After all, as a big sign I saw outside a church in Hereford reminded me last week, 'Jesus is the reason for the season'.

Now in one sense that’s not true. From the builders of Stonehenge onwards, people have wanted to do something at the winter solstice, to lighten up this darkest time of the year. Some of our familiar Christmas traditions may well go back almost to those times: the burning of yule logs, the way we deck our halls with holly and ivy - and mistletoe. We need something to cheer up the winter gloom. And our distant ancestors needed to carry out the rites that make sure the sun began his journey back to summer strength.

And that’s why we celebrate at Christmas a child who probably wasn’t in fact a Christmas baby. The Church simply took over the old pagan midwinter festival. And why not? We don’t know when Jesus was really born, but it feels right to celebrate him at this darkest time of the year, for we celebrate the one hailed in John’s Gospel as the Light of the World.

I can imagine the shepherds rubbing their eyes as the sky grew dark again after that vision of angels, and saying “Did we just see what we thought we saw, did we just hear what we thought we heard?”, as they looked down on the little town of Bethlehem. “Let’s go and see,” they said, and they could do that, but we can't. What can we do, then? How do we keep this child's birth as something real and true; as something more than the mix of stories and legends and fairy tales that are told and traded at Christmas?

We do so by looking beyond the birth itself. It’s a lovely story, but on its own it doesn’t mean much. It’s just a birth, just one more baby born into a cruel world. What makes this birth special is who this child is and what he is born among us to do. Of the four Gospel writers, only Matthew and Luke mention his birth in detail. But John speaks of the Word of God by whom all things were made being born among us. Divine love is made flesh, divine glory comes to dwell here on earth. So a manger in a humble stable contains the Word of God.

The simplicity and purity of the traditional Christmas story continues to catch our hearts, I think, for all the hype and commercial bustle of the modern version of the old midwinter festival. The child born in a stable refuses to be crowded out of the picture. If only it could always be like this, some part of us says, even when for the most part we’re all grown up and cynical and world-weary. But we know it can’t be. We have to grow up. And of course, this child does too.

I came across a little story about a man who was altogether cynical about religion. The story of Jesus being born among us had no meaning for him, he couldn’t see the point of it. Till one day a small bird got into the room where he was working. It fluttered about in increasing panic, risking all kinds of damage to itself as it crashed into furniture. He tried to shoo it out, opened windows, but nothing worked. Everything he did just seemed to work the bird up into a greater sense of panic. “If only I could be a bird,” he found himself thinking, “then I could lead it to safety.” And as he thought that, suddenly the penny dropped, and he understood.

The child of Bethlehem is born to lead us to safety, born to be our Saviour. Here is our God refusing to leave us as we are. At Bethlehem he takes the decisive, risky step only he can make; for he loves us even as we are, broken and sinful and imperfect, and he loves us too much to leave us like that. But it’s not the birth of a child but the man he becomes who will bring us salvation, and he will do it by the example of his life, by the challenge of his teaching; and by his death.

And here for me is what Christmas is or isn’t about. It can be just one night of magic, one anomalous day on which reindeer fly and stories have sweet happy endings, and the world is showered with stardust; it can be one day that’s a break from the grind and tedium and the general pointlessness of being human, before we launch ourselves into the January sales.

Or it can be the day that begins the story of salvation. The day that shows us how things are meant to be; a day that assures me that the Word of God is with us and will not abandon us, and that light really is stronger than darkness, that love really is stronger than hatred and sin, and that life really is stronger than death. Bethlehem may or may not have been silent and peaceful on holy night, probably in reality it was scruffy and noisy. However those shepherds found the place, what they saw was the Word of God incarnate among us.

A dog is not only for Christmas, we’re reminded by the sign in the back of many a car. Well, neither is faith only for Christmas. If you believe in the Baby, believe also in the man he grows up to be, and be prepared to follow him all the way to the cross on which he proves his love for you, for me, and even for those who ignore him or hate him.

Tonight he asks us not only to pause for a moment to see where he lies in a manger, but to invite him to take his place in our hearts and in our lives. He asks us to join ourselves to his love, to join him to be lights in the darkness of a world that is more than ever in need of light, and in need of love, and in need of peace. Peace may just be a one-day pious dream at Christmas, but it could be more than that: but only if we’re prepared to work for it and build it on foundations of care and concern, justice and love; and where better to start than by following the one born to be the Prince of peace?

Friday, 16 December 2016

Yes to God - a sermon for this Sunday

To be preached at Chirbury and Coedway . . .

Here we are on the last Sunday before Christmas, one week to go. I feel as though I’ve spent most of the month already singing carols, probably because I have been. That began with an Advent carol service three weeks ago at the Marsh Chapel, with the benefice choir singing; and plenty of opportunities since then for carol singing. One of the carols we sang at the Marsh was explicitly a carol for Mary, who is our theme on this last Sunday of Advent: “The Angel Gabriel from heaven came.” The words are I think by the Cornish parish priest Sabine Baring-Gould, and I find them most evocative. “The world will laud and magnify thy holy name, O highly favoured Lady, gloria!”

There was a time when Christmas carols were not sung until the day itself. Services of Nine Lessons and Carols were held on the Sunday after Christmas, and full churches were guaranteed. Now we say we simply won’t get folk in unless we do it before Christmas, and we’re probably right when we say that. But I was still quite surprised to find the Radio 4 broadcast service for last Sunday, the third in Advent, taking very much a Christmas theme, including singing the carol “Silent Night”.

I recall some years ago the Bishop of Leeds (then, I think, Bishop of Croydon), Nick Baines speaking about the reservations he has about 'Silent Night,' and other Christmas carols. After all, how silent would that night really have been? Israel and the lands around were almost as troubled then as they are now; even without the place being full for the census, there’d have been very few silent nights. Many of our carols and crib scenes paint far too peaceful and lovely a picture - or so he reckoned: Bethlehem that night would have been packed to the rafters, and its streets would have jangled with bad-tempered visitors, who'd been forced to be there. We should beware an over-sentimental view of Christmas.

I’ve had more than the usual number of religious Christmas cards this year, which is nice, but I do always think the stable looks far too neat and tinselly, and Mary seems far more serene and untroubled than I think she’d have really been. How clean and neat would a stable have been, attached as it was to an inn frequented by travellers who needed somewhere to bed down their animals? The picture I have is of two tired and rather frightened young people having to come to terms with parenthood in the most trying of circumstances.

Last Monday I was in the charming little church of St Catherine’s, Blackwell in Worcestershire, listening to the very smallest children in Blackwell School, among them my grandson, singing 'Away in a Manger.’ That includes the line 'Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes', and that one doesn’t quite ring true either. I imagine the  infant Jesus as just as likely to cry as any other baby. And yet I know what the writers of carols and the painters of crib scenes wanted to get across: that this is a special place, a special time, a special purpose. A special baby. For me, seeing the scruffiness and scariness of it all enhances that sense of special, rather than taking it away.  But I have to agree with everyone who's ever sung a carol and meant it that what we have here in Bethlehem is 'a great and mighty wonder'.  And it’s that sense of wonder that I find most important.

I’m having an email correspondence with a friend just now about the definition of Christian. I post my sermons on the web, and sometimes people comment, maybe seize on and argue some point I’ve made. My friend is a slightly more conservative Christian than me, and he feels there should be precise boundaries, clear instructions about what you say yes to, or no to, if you’re a Christian. Me, I’ll always have some reservations about those who seem to me to want too many i's dotted and t's crossed, whether they’re Christians or of any other faith. I like a bit of leeway and flexibility; without it I feel uncomfortable.

But he does have a point; of course there do have to be boundaries and definitions, or else anything goes. But religion is our human attempt to relate to the ultimate mystery and wonder of existence, of life and life's purpose, and of the creative power whom we call God; and surely at some point we have simply to stand in awe before what we cannot, on this side of the river, fully understand or define. At this season Christianity uniquely tells the story of the divine mystery and wonder coming to dwell among us, by means of a birth in a humble back street in an ordinary town. God whose love is the ground of our being takes flesh among us, freely accepting the dirty stable and the manger bed. The baby may or may not have cried, but if he did it wasn’t a cry of divine complaint, just the hunger cry of a helpless child. A great and mighty wonder: love not forcing its way into our world, but taking its chance.

But that's for next Sunday. This Sunday, the last of Advent, our focus is the beginning of that story. Mary, the young and innocent maiden who despite her fears, offers herself as the handmaid of the Lord. And we see that God incarnate among us is vulnerable in his coming not only to the crowded alleyways and backstreet stable of Bethlehem; he is also vulnerable to Mary's free will, for she could have said no.

The 'Yes' she did say makes her not only the God-bearer, to use an expression from the Orthodox Church - the means by which God is made incarnate among us - but also the blessed first among saints. We find in Mary’s offering an example of faithfulness, trust, response to God's call that should inspire and challenge us. God will never force his way into any human heart: in Nazareth, and in Bethlehem, and again wherever we are, he takes what chance we give him. But I think the test of whether I am his depends not on the things I believe, nor on the boundaries I remain within, but on the relationship I accept: my love responding to his love, my self responding to his call.

I'm glad to see that carols remain popular. Our grandchildren’s nativity play in Blackwell had mostly modern songs, but it was nice that “Away in a Manger” was still in. In Radio Times a couple of weeks ago Aled Jones was quoted as saying carols remained his favourite songs. That’s good, not least because traditional carols are songs of the people, designed to be sung not in cathedrals but out on the streets; and not by clerics and holy choirs but by wassailers around the houses, or, across the border, by parties at the plygain locked in church with maybe a barrel of good ale. Carols are subversive. Carollers sang about real things to do with their own lives as well as of silent nights in Bethlehem. Ultimately, the Gospel faith depends not on theologians, bishops, holy buildings and sacred liturgies but on ordinary people like Mary, who faced with the challenge of love, faced with God’s call to service, said “yes”.

In our celebration of this holy season, I hope we won't overlook either the scruffiness or the mystery of the first Christmas. This is a story with a real location, involving real and ordinary and often rather frightened and confused people. But people who, despite their fear, and despite not knowing all the story, or even probably very much of the story, still said 'Yes' to God. And where I agree, I’m sure, with my friend who debates these things with me, is that religious reductionism - religion-lite, if you like, religion hived off into a safe place on the edge of things, is no answer to the darkness of our modern world. To be a Christian is to encounter the Lord whose call to each one of us is personal and particular and real. And the Lord is here, his Spirit is with us, wherever the prayer is made, soul to soul, heart to heart: Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay.

Monday, 12 December 2016


My Nature Notes article for this month . . .

The rook is one of our commonest birds, and rooks are about all the year round, but they do seem rather more obvious at this time of the year. Partly that’s because our resident rooks are joined by visitors from the continent during the winter months, especially in colder years, but it’s also rooks gather in their nesting colonies long before most other birds are nesting. With the trees still bare, it makes counting our breeding rooks much easier than it can be for other birds: the bulky nests are very obvious high in the branches of tall trees.

Rooks are members of the crow family, and are distinguished from the similar-sized carrion crow by the bare grey face patch around the bill, and by the thigh feathers which look rather like scruffy trousers, as well as by their sociable habits. Rooks can form very large feeding flocks indeed at this time of the year, feeding on buried insects and insect larvae, with wireworms and leatherjackets among their favourites. These are found in greatest numbers in permanent pasture, and changes in farming practice have led to a reduction in the rook population in recent years, though it remains a common enough bird.

Rooks do cause some damage to crops, but to a degree that is balanced by their liking for insect pests. Rooks will often follow ploughs, walking behind to pick up exposed insects with a somewhat strutting gait. Rookeries are often close to human habitation, and can be noisy places as the colony gears up for another breeding season.

The nest is a bulky arrangement of sticks, many of which are apt to be stolen by neighbouring birds as the nest is being built. The male collects the materials and the female does the building, lining the cup with softer material including moss and wool. Sudden noisy and often argumentative flight displays are a feature of the nest building stage. Rooks lay up to five eggs, and the young birds are harder to distinguish from carrion crows than their parents, as they don’t at first have the bare patch around the bill; they do, however, have the scruffy trousers!

Rooks are found in every part of the UK, apart from some of the wilder parts of the far north of Scotland. I don’t see them in my garden (unlike carrion crows), but they’re never very far away, and fly over often enough to be a regular “score” on my garden bird list. Most of the rookeries I know around here are of small to moderate size, with between a dozen and say, fifty or sixty nests. Many are very old, with rooks present in a particular place for as long as any of the human residents can remember. And some colonies can develop to a remarkable size, with many thousands of nests counted in some long-established rookeries.

Rooks are among the birds shot as pests from time to time - and eaten: rook pie is a long-established country dish, usually made using young birds shot in May or June. I prefer the living bird, which for me is one of the sights and sounds which makes the countryside of Britain special.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Being Prophetic - a short sermon to be preached at Sarnau URC

What a strange man this John the Baptist was. The Bible tells of the voice that would cry in the wilderness, and people decided that John the Baptist was that man. He certainly lived out in the wilderness, in the desert, dressed in clothes made out of wild animal skins, and eating locusts, of all things, and wild honey.

That’s the sort of thing a prophet might do. Prophets tended to do strange things, that marked them out as different and unusual and special. People said that John the Baptist was a new prophet, like the prophets of the olden times. They called him the last of the prophets, for he had come to prepare the way for the Messiah.

What exactly is a prophet? Is it someone who predicts the future? Is a prophet the same thing as a fortune teller? Do prophets read tealeaves, or gaze into crystal balls, or study the stars? John the Baptist did none of those things. What he did do was to speak God’s word, and it was a word of warning and of instruction and challenge. Like the great prophets of the Old Testament, people like Jeremiah and Isaiah, he had a clear vision of what God was calling his people to do and to be. Like those great prophets old, John said: ‘It’s time to change. If you go on behaving like that, you will come under the judgement of God.’

What John told the people was that a lip-service religion wasn’t enough. God had to be at the heart of all they did. So he called on them to re-dedicate yourselves in God’s service by being baptized. And then to live life in a new way, with God right at the heart of everything they did. You have to do this right now, John told them, because something new is about to begin.

That’s what prophets do; they challenge us to listen, to learn, to repent and to change. These are people who know they have to speak God’s word, even though they might suffer themselves for doing so, even though they might not be heard gladly, even though they might be rejected. They knew God wanted his people to wake up, to come to their senses, to let his word change their hearts, and begin to change their world.

So do we still need prophets today? Do we need the Church to be prophetic? And if so, what does it mean for us? All sorts of people still try to predict the future - in think tanks and via focus groups, by analysing the signs, the stock market trends, the opinion polls. I do sometimes wonder whether any of this is much more use than reading tea leaves - and yet there are signs we should not turn away from, directions in human behaviour, in the way we treat each other, in the way we use or abuse the earth’s resources, in the way we welcome or reject our neighbour in need. There are those in our own faith and in other faiths who are prepared to twist things round and to misread their holy books so they serves our own selfish desires or fuel our fears. There are people who claim to be godly, but who in reality are no longer living as his people.

We believe in the God who creates and loves what he has made. We believe in the God of righteousness and justice. And we believe in the God who is like Jesus. To believe these things has consequences for the way we live our daily lives, particularly as in just two weeks time we celebrate what we believe to be a moment at which the whole course of history is changed: the birth among us of the Son of God, the one hailed by angels as the prince of peace.

A prophetic Church is one that will not reserve this baby for the happy safe tinsel setting of our greetings cards along with Santa’s sleigh and some chirpy robins, but speak seriously about what this child is born to do, what will happen to the man this child grows up to be. The Bethlehem crib is not in itself the story of Jesus; how can it be? Little babies, even this little baby, are just cute and lovely and a delight.

But some of the features of the story of this birth might encourage us to be prophetic, to be aware of what this child might be born to do. To begin with, he's not born in Jerusalem but in scruffy little Bethlehem next door. His parents are poor and far from home, home itself being distinctly unfashionable Nazareth up north in Galilee, not the sort of place a Messiah should come from. And once they've travelled to Bethlehem there's no safe place there for the child to be born, only a manger out in the stables to lay him down in. It's shepherds, men with no place in polite religious society, who are the first people to hear about him and come to see him. And before long the child and his parents will be refugees, driven to seek refuge in a foreign land. So who in our world today is this child identified with right from the start, we might ask? What is his real story, and where in our world might he want us to tell that story today?

Like John the Baptist, we know why this child was born, why he was born where he was, why he was born as he was. We know that this birth begins a story that involves rejection and plots and a show trial and eventually a death, a particularly tragic death. The Gospel of Jesus could be read as the account of an heroic failure, but really it's a love story, and it's a story to challenge us into love. The world needs to hear the whole truth from God’s prophetic Church, the full story and not just the tinselly bits of it. Things are too far gone in our confused world for us only to be saying nice things. Love is too important a thing for us to be overly worried about whether or not people will like us and approve of us as we speak out. Speak out and speak the truth, that's the challenge before us as we prepare for Christmas this and every year; it's not just one day on which to be nice and peaceful, but the never-ending story of our just and righteous and loving Lord, light born into the darkness of human suffering and pain. So dare to be prophets where prophets are needed. Strive for a better world; speak and live the word of God, be people of Jesus.

Christmas Present (a family service sermon for tomorrow)

Long, long ago, when I was a very small boy, I remember just how much I wanted one special present at Christmas. It was a farm set, it came with buildings and fences and model cows and sheep and horses, and a tractor and trailer. Every time we went past the toyshop window in town I would look at this farm set and tell Mum and Dad that I really hoped Santa Claus would bring me one of those. “You’ll have to wait and see,” my Mum and Dad told me, “and of course you’ll have to be very well behaved, because Santa doesn’t bring presents to little boys who are not well behaved.”

So I was very well behaved right through till Christmas Eve, hoping that Santa would bring me a farm set. I remember that I woke up very early on Christmas morning. It won’t have been light by then, it will only have been about 5 o’clock. Now my Dad was an organist and he had to play at the midnight service, so there was a firm rule that while we could get very quietly out of bed and look at what Santa had placed in our stockings, we were not allowed to go downstairs until after 7 o’clock to see what was under the Christmas tree by the fireplace in the lounge.

I sneaked out of bed and looked in my stocking. Santa had obviously been, and he’d left the usual stuff - there would have been a sugar mouse, a small orange, maybe something like a yo-yo, maybe a sensible present like some handkerchiefs. But they didn’t much interest me. What I wanted to know was, had he brought me the farm set.

So I did quite a naughty thing. I opened my bedroom door ever so quietly, and ever so quietly tiptoed along the landing and down the stairs. The tree looked lovely, all tinsel and different hangings, some shiny ones, some chocolate ones. In those days our Christmas tree didn’t get decorated until after we’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve.

In the fireplace was an empty plate that had held a mince pie for Santa, and an empty glass that had been filled with sherry. We’d left a carrot for the reindeer and that was gone too. And the tree itself was surrounded by presents, all nicely wrapped in Christmas paper. One looked quite promising; a big box that certainly looked large enough to have a farm set inside it. It had my name on it. Could it be? I had to check! So I peeled back just a little bit of the wrapping paper, and yes! I could see on the corner of the box the word “Farm”. Santa had brought me a farm set, just as I’d wanted.

Well, I carefully put the wrapping paper back, and back upstairs I went, and pretended to be asleep until 7 o’clock. And then as soon as it was 7 o’clock, I woke up my Mum and Dad, wished them a happy Christmas, and raced back downstairs. The Christmas tree still looked wonderful, and there were still lots of presents all piled around it, but one was missing. No box big enough to have a farm set inside it. No box that I knew had got a farm set inside it. Instead there was a message: “Because William sneaked downstairs long before he was supposed to, and peeked inside the wrapper to see what he had for Christmas, I’ve had to take it back. After all, I only bring presents for well-behaved boys - signed, Santa Claus.”

I was devastated. Or at least, I was for a moment or two, before I realised that Santa’s handwriting looked an awful lot like my brother’s. Yes, I hadn’t tiptoed quite quietly enough; he’d noticed me sneaking downstairs and decided to play a trick on me. Oh, how we laughed. And the present reappeared. That was the last Christmas we had my brother, by the way. We got rid of him in the next January sales. No, really I was making up that last bit. But it did take me a while to forgive him for his trick, even though I know we’re supposed to forgive people, brothers especially.

Maybe I’m getting a bit too old now to be waiting and longing for some particular Christmas present. These days I’m more likely to say “Surprise me!” when I’m asked what I’d like for Christmas. That probably means I get socks or gloves, rather than the wildlife holiday in Costa Rica that’s what I’d really like if money was no object and everything else worked out. But I hope we are all looking forward to Christmas itself with eager anticipation. That’s what Christians are supposed to do in Advent: to wait in eager anticipation for the gift, the special gift that comes to us and all the world at Christmas: the birth of a child who will be hailed as the Prince of Peace, the proof of God’s love for us, the coming of Jesus.

Our behaviour is important, if we dare to call ourselves Christians, if we think of ourselves as God’s people; and so Advent is a time of preparing, of sorting things out and getting things right. So that we can play our part in proclaiming this act of love; so that we can do well at letting the love of Jesus shine in our own lives, and from us into the dark places around us. But, whether we who wait for him are good or not so good, whether we’re eager or apathetic, the special child is born anyway: born despite our sin, born despite the world’s darkness, born not as a reward for our goodness but as God’s free gift to us for our salvation, born to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

This is the greatest of all Christmas presents; God gives himself to save us, gives himself because he loves us, dares to enter his own creation, quietly, humbly, lovingly, just as one of us. It’s all right to take a sneak peek at this beforehand; this gift is promised beforehand by the prophets. God wants us to confident of his love, he wants us to be looking forward in hope to what he will give. And the present we are given in Bethlehem, the child who is love incarnate born among us, is one that will never be taken away from us.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Good News is No News? (Sermon for Advent 2)

A sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Leighton :-

Good news is no news, or so they say in the newspaper trade. The more bad news and scandal you can pack in, the better your paper sells, or so it seems. Faced with so much bad news, we may think the whole world’s going down the drain. Maybe it is, though every generation seems to have thought the same; we’re not short of things to worry about: politics, climate, refugees, Brexit, you name it, there’s plenty to get us down. The weather’s no help at this time of the year: short days, long nights and icy roads. I can be quite depressed even before I even open my paper.

There’s nothing new in bad news. Woe, woe and thrice woe, remember the soothsayer in Frankie Howerd’s “Up Pompeii”? Real soothsayers may not have used those words to predict doom, but they’ve always been around, since long before there was ever a Daily Express.

There’s plenty of dire prediction from the prophets of the Old Testament. They were called to expose the misdeeds of the people, the leaders especially, and they didn’t pull any punches. But they were speaking the word of God, and while that was indeed a word of judgement and retribution, the prophets also spoke of restoration and redemption, of new beginnings and an age of peace.

So in our Old Testament reading this morning, Isaiah speaks of the new thing God will do, and the new leader he’ll send. The context is still one of warning and judgement. Isaiah has had plenty to say about God being full of righteous anger at his people’s misdeeds. Unless they mend their ways, he tells them, things will go badly. And yet they remain his people, he continues to love them, even though they’ve been disobedient and let him down. The nation will be destroyed and its people carried off into foreign lands, but a remnant will be saved. The people will suffer in exile, but one day they’ll return to their own land. The yoke will be broken from their neck, and they will come back home.

And so we come to the words we’ve heard this morning, the promise of a new beginning, and a new leader who will wear the belt of justice, and be girdled with truth. We read in these words a prophecy of God’s messiah, or Christ, the holy one he will send to change things for ever. That’s what Isaiah tells us; his words are apocalyptic, they are new age: he speaks of a different sort of world, in which the lion eats straw like a cow, in which a child can dance over the viper’s nest without fear of being bitten.

So where is this new world? We’re not there yet, if the newspapers are anything to go by. There’s still plenty of bad news to fill their pages. But God’s not abandoned his people. We heard also this morning part of Matthew’s version of the story of John the Baptist, the man sometimes called the last prophet. People believed John to be the forerunner promised by Isaiah, the one who would prepare the way for God’s new work of salvation. Remember that although  by this time the Jews were back in their own land and able to worship in their own temple, their land was now part of the empire of Rome; so that the people longed for deliverance, and for the restoration of the house of David.

So they flocked to hear John, but he had tough words for them - for they had to begin again. To put away all the bad stuff, and to be baptized as a sign of the new start they were making. Jews didn’t need to be baptized, they were born into their faith. Baptism was what someone who wasn’t a Jew would need to do as part of the process of becoming a Jew. So John was saying, “You’ve behaved as though you weren’t God’s people, so you’ve got to start again. And people got the message and were baptized in great numbers. But among them appeared some of the great and good of the people, the Pharisees and Saducees, two of the religious parties that dominated Jewish life. People looked up to these guys as godly and pious, but John didn’t. “What are you here for?” he demanded of them. Don’t imagine that your Jewish birth is all you need to be God’s people; prove by your deeds that you truly belong to him.

John also said, “I baptize with water; but the one God will send is going to baptize with fire.” Is that the fire of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost? Or is it perhaps the refiner’s fire that purifies a precious metal by exposing and burning away all that is bad. A fire then of judgement. Judgement’s a constant Advent theme, from the Old Testament prophets to the warning words of John the Baptist, and of course of Jesus himself. We are warned that the time is short, and we need to get things right. That’s what the prophets of old said to the kings and priests and people; and that’s also God’s word for us at Advent, as we prepare ourselves in these short weeks to welcome our King: to sort out the stuff that gets in the way of God, that obscures our vision and drowns out his word.

We may be surrounded by a world of bad news, but we shouldn’t let it swamp us. There’s more good than bad in the world around us, there’s more good than bad in the people I meet. It just doesn’t make the news. Churches are rarely full, and for the most part never so on a Sunday, yet we are mostly surrounded by friends; and most people, whatever they may think about God, continue to believe in their own spiritual selves, and they’re not as far from God as they, and we, might believe. Jesus told his disciples that the fields were white for harvest; they still are.

And the message of the prophets is there is judgement but there is also salvation. God’s angered by our misdeeds and idleness, but he also loves all that he has made, even you and me. The world’s Christmas may be more about the John Lewis TV ad or the Christmas no. 1 than, say, midnight mass or carols from Kings; but the Child born in Bethlehem still makes his quiet entrance, in acts of care and self giving, even in the refugee camps, the desolation of inner cities or the ruins of Aleppo. The branch from the stock of Jesse, who with justice comes to save the poor. Our task is to share him and preach of him, not only in words and carols, but with whatever small deeds of love we can manage, each one a candle in the darkness to turn back the winter of sin.