Transformation

I wonder if anyone’s been involved in organising a wedding recently? The level of planning is often extraordinary. And of course whenever anyone mentions ‘wedding’ the cost of a particular item seems to double. I looked up the average cost of a UK wedding last year. It was £30,355. Now you can get married in church for less than 500 quid, but it’s the venue and the number of the guests that make the difference.

 

So anyone planning a wedding will be used to drawing up a budget, working out what can be spent, tailoring wishes to fit the finance, and dipping into the overdraft or credit card. It’s the way life works, you have a certain amount of resources and cut your cloth accordingly.

 

From the reading we’ve just had in John 2:1-11, it seems that the typical first century Jewish wedding might have been a bit different. It sounds like the wedding Chantal and I attended while we were in India.

 

We were staying with a retired bishop, and he had been invited to take part in a marriage ceremony. The couple obviously had lots of clergy friends, as there was a grandstand at the front of the church with all the vicars all standing on it. Each one had a part to play in the service – but as there were over 30 of them, they only had a line or two each. And there was only one service book, so they had to pass it from one to the other. So someone would say ‘Do you so and so take such and such to be your wife’ and then the book would travel down to the other end of the grandstand where the next chap would say ‘to have and to hold’ – and then there’d be a pause and some fumbling around while the book made its way up to the top – ‘from this day forth’ and so on.

 

Anyway, the bishop said to us: ‘Would you like to come too?’ And we replied ‘of course we can’t, we haven’t been invited’. And the bishop said, ‘oh we don’t worry about that, you’re my guests.’  No-one batted an eyelid. We were welcomed, sat down with the honoured guests, given a banana leaf covered with biryani. Near the door stood the poor people of the community, each receiving a parcel. It was so generous.

 

In John 2, the whole village seems to have turned up and they seem to be heroic drinkers too. Disaster! The wine runs out – not just an end to the party but a cause of shame to the family too. As the story unfolds we see how Jesus responds to their lack of resources. We realise that the resources we see in front of us are only part of the picture – God has his resources too, a way of transforming things.

 

Stories like this are sufficiently common in the Bible that we can say there’s a consistent theme. Think of the feeding of the 5000, or when Elisha feeds 100 with a few loaves of bread. God sustains an entire nation through 40 years in the desert by the gift of manna. And when the Old Testament prophet and his servant are surrounded by enemy soldiers, Elisha prays ‘open my servant’s eyes’ so he can see the fiery chariots of the armies of God.

 

God can transform the resources we have. His resources are all around us. So when in our lives we ask ‘How will I manage’ or when in the church we ask ‘How can we sustain the children’s groups’ – we need to bring that honestly, humbly before God, ask for discernment so that we can see what we already have, and allow him to transform the situation.

 

Verse 3 starts us off with the statement ‘They have no wine’. They is emptiness, a lack, a need… Or is it potential? In v.6 Jesus sees an opportunity: ‘Standing there were six stone water jars, each holding twenty or thirty gallons’. Can we like Jesus see the opportunities in the challenge? If plans don’t work out the way we intended, is our reaction to mourn what is lost or to look for the silver lining?

 

I was watching a programme about recruits training to be paras, and this guy called Kojo had been called in to see the officer. ‘Kojo, why are you here?’ he said. ‘Because I failed sir’. ‘That’s the problem Kojo, you see it as failure and don’t learn from your mistake.’ Yes, it’s a bit of cliché, but they gave him a second chance. To start again with a different mindset. Not a closed attitude, but one of growth.

 

‘Fill them up with water’ Jesus says. He takes ordinary water, nothing fancy but what’s there to hand. The resource that they have in abundance becomes the raw material out of which God can make something special. He takes the things of everyday life and transforms them in the service of his Kingdom. God has given us gracious provision through his creation – gifts, talents, resources – are we able to discern the ways that God has already blessed us?

 

Do we have light we hide under a bushel, talents that are buried because we can’t see how to use them? Church communities often have an idea of what they would like to be, how they aspire to be like somewhere else, but in doing so can easily neglect their existing strengths, their particular God-given charism.

 

Perhaps the greatest asset that wedding couple had was their need. If they had fullness and self-sufficiency they might never have brought it to God. But they came in their emptiness and lack, so God provided.

 

An awareness of our own need is an immensely powerful thing, for it opens us up to the help of others and the grace of God. Have you ever been in a group where people are talking about some shared task which everyone is finding difficult but no-one quite has the guts to say so and it’s all a bit unreal? Then somebody has the courage to say what’s difficult – and the situation is transformed. That willingness to be vulnerable has built community and created a team.

 

In the same way we need to be honest with God in our personal prayers. Of course he knows what we need – but the act of asking opens us to his grace. In the life of a church we should be honest with God about our needs and bring them to him in shared prayer.

 

Doing that means we are able to listen to God’s will together, and ask ourselves ‘is this the right course of action?’ For not every need is one that it is right to fill, not every project is crying out to be blessed if only we have enough faith.

 

I heard of a church that had a grand plan to celebrate the millennium. What this church really needs is a spire, someone thought. A big pointy thing with bells in. The money wasn’t there, but they built one anyway. I don’t think God works like that – if something is his will he makes it plain and part of that clarity is providing the necessary resource, sometimes admittedly at the last minute. Believing in the provision of God does not excuse us from making difficult choices about what can be funded and what not – but we have to discern prayerfully when God is calling us to step out in faith.

 

When we are called to offer what we have, even bring our emptiness, God can transform it into what is needed. In v. 10 the steward has tasted the wine and comments that the best has been saved until last. God does not do things by half measures! When we intend to be a blessing to others, when we share the good things we have, God provides what is needed. It’s interesting that churches which give a free Harvest Supper often collect at least as much in donations as churches which charge – and everybody feels good about being generous.

 

So God’s transformation leads to joy, and most importantly it brings in the Kingdom of God. Those old stone water jars were used for ritual washing, an external cleansing from sin. But Jesus transforms their contents into the rich wine of the Kingdom, wine which speaks both of his sacrifice and of joy. Jesus is able to take the regular worship and change its heart so that people encounter him. As it says in v. 11. ‘This was the first of Jesus’ signs and his disciples put their faith in him.’

 

Finally, we do not know how Jesus did this. There is no explanation. No scientific account. The reading gives us no hints. But people obeyed Jesus, even when it seemed counter-intuitive. It’s a lot of work to fill up seven thirty gallon jars with water. It’s a big step of faith to take a ladle-full to the wine taster. But as they obeyed, Jesus was at work, making it happen. Striving for the Kingdom of God can be a lot of work. Speaking of our faith can be step into the unknown – how will people react. But it is as we bring what we already have, even as we bring our emptiness, to God, that Jesus transforms it into glory.

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Discernment – Matthew 2:1-12

I wonder if you’ve heard the story all about the space probe that landed on the far side of the moon? I say ‘all about’ – but what exactly is it all about? At face value the story is all about the science, nothing has ever landed on the far side of the moon before so now we can find out a lot about the very different other half of the moon that we never get to see.

 

But would it be more true to say that this story is ‘all about’ something much more symbolic – the rise of China as a global player, reaching even into space. State TV has made much of it: China has now achieved something that even the mighty NASA has never done. Perhaps this significance is what the story is all about.

 

Less often considered are the assumptions that lie behind the story – the framework that makes it possible. You could equally tell a story all about the understanding of physics and the progress in rocket technology that has made it happen. These are the assumptions that we don’t often consider, but they’re necessary for it to happen, they create the framework for the story.

 

You might have seen the short film over Christmas based on the Julia Donaldson book about a school for dragons. This endearing little cartoon made several assumptions without which the story wouldn’t work: that dragons have wings and can fly, dragons can breathe fire, and of course dragons capture princesses. Except that the twist in the tale is when a key assumption is overturned.

 

As we look at the story of the Magi we can read it at several different levels.  I’d like to look at the assumptions that underpin the story – the basic facts about God and the world which we shouldn’t take for granted. They were radical at the time, and as we make them explicit, we shall see that they are also radical in our world, and potentially change-bringing in our lives.

 

Firstly the whole story assumes that God is active in the world, that he causes a star to happen and leads the Magi to the infant. It paints a picture of a God with a plan who communicates it to people, a God who is sovereign.

 

This is very different to two ideas that people had about God at the time and still have now. On the one hand there was the far-off diffident god of the philosophers – if he even existed then surely he wasn’t that interested in what human beings got up to. A God to whom we wouldn’t pray because what would be the point?

 

On the other hand there were the ideas about gods which you can see if you go to the Roman Museum in Bath. Preserved in the springs are hundreds of little engraved tablets, each one a magic spell. ‘A curse on the thief who took my eggs’ ‘Please bless my shop’ ‘May the girl next door start noticing me’. These are the gods of superstition, gods we can manipulate and invoke, gods we can bribe with offerings and promises to do our will, a god we may feel owes us one for our faithful service.

 

But the God of the gospels is not like that. He is passionately concerned about our lives, he is working through events. He has a plan which he is bringing to completion. And this plan he has revealed beforehand to his prophets. It’s very clear in v 3 to 6 when the not-so Wise Men blunder into Jerusalem noisily asking to see the Messiah. Wily Herod wants to know where the Messiah will be found, so he asks the priests who duly reply in the words of Micah: ‘Bethlehem in the land of Judah.’

 

God has a plan to send a Saviour, who will be born in Bethlehem. Centuries ago God had made that plan known to the prophet Micah. His words had been treasured until in due course they came true. God’s plan is revealed in prophecy which is then fulfilled – that’s what we see from a human perspective.

 

Humanly speaking it’s easy to imagine that God lives in this timescale too. That God is like us, living in time. That God has a plan for the future, that he knows what he will do, tells the prophets about it, and then God duly does it later on. A bit like the joke: ‘I almost had a psychic girlfriend. But she left me before we met.’

 

Yet if God is really what we mean by God, then he’s not part of this universe. God is not another created thing, existing within time. God is beyond the creation, God is not bounded by time. He lives in eternity, where all time is eternally present to him. Our past, our present, our future are all equally, constantly present in God’s loving view. He has forever to consider a split second prayer.

 

God knows what will be for us because for him it is. I wonder if you have ever sensed that? If you’ve ever got the feeling that something will be? Or when you’ve been anxious received a clear peace and assurance from God? I remember when I was trying to get my first job as a vicar, writing so many applications but not even getting an interview. With only four months to go before I had to leave my curacy it was getting desperate when a long shot came up. I remember praying about it, a couple of days before the interview, and getting this absolute certainty that this was it. God has a plan for our lives, and sometimes to strengthen us he gives us a glimpse of it beforehand.

 

Of course, all this assumes that God is free to communicate intelligibly to human beings. Although God is completely beyond us, totally other, yet he is able to connect with us. The Bible wouldn’t make sense without that assumption! In the passage we see God communicating in a variety of ways: through the Scriptures and dreams, through the leading of a star and whatever symbolic code the Magi used to understand it. We see both the written word for everyone – the Messiah shall be born in Bethlehem, and the specific guidance for the individual ‘get up quickly, take the child and leave for Herod wants to kill him.’

 

It is easy to take this for granted. Every day, morning and evening I pick up the Bible and read passages as part of my rhythm of prayer. How often do I expect God to speak directly to me? Yet even if I haven’t made the space or put in the effort to really listen, there is still a value in being familiar with the Bible. As it sinks into us we become attuned to the ways of God. We recognise his will.

 

It’s good to read a bit of the Bible every day, even a little bit adds up over the years. It is even better to come to it expectantly, prayerfully, asking God to speak, to open our minds, being still waiting for his nudge. Of all the assumptions I think this is the one we take the most for granted – if we really grasped that God speaks to us surely we would pore over every phrase, we couldn’t be torn away from it!

 

That then is a question of discernment, of recognising the true nature of things, and acting upon them. It’s all there in the story of the Magi for those who have eyes to see. The star was presumably visible to anyone, but only the Magi had the understanding to discern what it meant.

 

Scripture’s words about the Messiah were there for everyone to read, but it seems the priests don’t act upon it. Herod believes the prophecy, but tries to stop it. Only the Magi act on what they have heard. They find the infant Jesus and bring him gifts – gold frankincense and myrrh which symbolically point to what Jesus will be and do. Part of the gift of discernment is seeing meaning beneath the surface of events. Finally when Joseph is presented with a dream, he has to discern whether this is from his own fears, or a message from God.

 

This discernment is not forced. The meaning is there to see, for those who are willing to take things deeper than their face value. To those who are willing to listen and pray, God’s purpose is revealed. Those who are shaped by immersion in God’s word begin to sense what he is doing in the world. This year, may we be people who are formed by God’s Spirit, able to discern his presence, and respond in loving action.

Lost in the temple

I can still picture her. Brown hair all over the place. Wild frantic red rimmed eyes. Rushing down the riverbank towards us, gasping out: have you seen my child? The mother didn’t wait for an answer – our blank looks told her all she needed to know, and off she ran.

 

We quickened our pace, scanning the steep banks around Durham and down into the waters. We never saw her mother again. But no news is good news – so I imagine that she found the little boy happily playing, scooped him up in her arms, and overcome by relief, gave him a solid piece of her mind.

 

How it must have felt for Mary and Joseph is beyond imagining, knowing that Jesus is also the Messiah. Exactly what happened isn’t clear and it begs some questions: how did Jesus become separated? Did he not think to tell them or was it accidental? How do you manage to leave a major city without counting all your children in? Perhaps it was a bit like a playdate going wrong: some misunderstanding over which family was responsible for whom.

 

When lost, it makes a lot of sense for Jesus to go to the temple. As v.41 tells us, he would have been familiar with the Temple because they used to go there for the Passover. Perhaps also at the age of twelve he might just have had some sort of coming of age ceremony, a bit like the modern Bar Mitzvah, and that might also have been held there.

 

And it’s logical too – it makes sense if you’re lost to stay in one place. If you both wander round looking for one another then you can miss each other by minutes many times. Jesus does what children are told to do. Talk to a person in uniform – probably not a Roman solder, but the priests would be well known. Go to the big obvious central place, the fete marquee, the massive building at the centre of the town. Or like the lad who was recently recovered years after wandering off in an Indian city, seek out a charity where you will be looked after.

 

In all three Jesus does the obvious and right thing: he goes to the temple, where the priests will be able to feed him. So why did Mary and Joseph take so long to find Jesus? Maybe they went back to the place where they stayed, checked out the relatives, or just panicked.

 

Perhaps there’s a small comfort here that it can happen to anyone; that even the Holy Family could have parenting disasters. But there’s rather more going on. This is a type of story which was quite common at the time – there was a widely held belief that events in an important person’s  youth gave insight into the character they would be when they grew up. Like the infant Hercules strangling the snakes in his cradle. You could call it a ‘Wonder Child’ story – the events here give pointers about who Jesus is and what he will be.

 

Most obviously, there is verse 49: ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ The point is not that the temple is the obvious rational place to go – but that Jesus calls God his Father. That is why it is hard for Mary and Joseph to understand what he has said – for it was not at all common to think of God as a father. For Israel as a nation perhaps, but not individually.

 

Already Jesus has a sense of a special relationship with God. There is an intimate connection. God is Jesus’ Father and he must spend time with him. Already we see the understanding of unique identity which marks out Jesus and enables him to do the amazing things he does.

 

This relationship with God also radically changes the traditional boundaries of family. We might think forward to another time when Mary and Jesus brothers (Joseph presumably being dead by then) go to restrain the adult Jesus because they think he has lost his mind. On being told that his mother and brothers are outside, Jesus replies: ‘Who are my mother and brothers? Everyone who does God’s will is my mother and sister and brother.’

In other words, when we follow Jesus we become part of a much bigger family. The family of God. The church is a large family of those who follow Christ. That incidentally is what a Family Service means – not a service only for mums, dads and 2.4 children, but a service for all the Family of God. Where else in society other than the church do you find 90 year olds and 5 yr olds chatting happily if they’re not related? How many other structures exist which enable people to help one another?

 

In the book of Acts the mutual assistance and support which the members of the church gave one another was a huge factor in its growth. In our atomised society, the church as a family has immense potential to show people a different way of living – for instance a place where those who live alone can be welcomed. But to do this we need to reach out beyond the familiar groups of those who are like us, make the effort not just to speak to old friends; put lots of different people on welcoming duty so that visitors can see someone they might connect with. Jesus here points us to a bigger understanding of family.

 

I wonder when he had that idea? Was it something he came up with himself, or was it formed in dialogue with others? There’s a lovely image in v.46 and 47 of Jesus sat with the experts, listening to their debates, asking questions and suggesting answers. ‘And all were amazed at his understanding’.

 

Clearly, this points us to the future, to Jesus who knows the true meaning of Life. Jesus, who cuts through to the heart of the questions. Jesus, the one who can captivate the crowds with his stories while leaving you with something meaty to chew on. Jesus the great teacher.

 

But what would have happened if Jesus had held on to his questions? If he had kept his mouth shut thinking: ‘Is this is a stupid question?’ ‘Perhaps people will laugh at me’ ‘Am I allowed to say this?’ Thoughts like that can hold us back, they can stop us growing. It’s important that we can learn from Jesus’ humility and curiosity and ask the questions.

Let’s also be like his teachers. It speaks volumes for them that these learned men sat and listened to the questions of a child. They didn’t dismiss them as dumb, they looked beneath the surface to what was really being asked. Similarly, we should never be dismissive of questions whether from children or adults. Be respectful, patient, thank someone for asking and wanting to make it clear. A culture where it’s ok to ask questions is a culture which fosters reflection and learning. Let’s set that example in our churches.

 

There are some other, more tentative questions here. Isn’t it interesting that in v.46 Jesus is lost for three days before being found again…as it were dead for three days before appearing to life.

 

Perhaps there is also another pointer to Easter. They find Jesus at the temple, yet he is the one who ultimately will replace the temple. His sacrifice of himself means the temple sacrifices are no longer necessary. We do not need to go to a special building to find our Heavenly Father – we can meet him anywhere because of Jesus. We can know God, not just through a building, sacrifice, law and study. Instead we can know God through a person: Jesus himself.

 

In a way it’s a bit like looking for a new home. You can read all the estate agent’s blurb, you can look it up on Google Earth, you can ask someone nearby to check it out for you. But in the end, if you’re serious, you have to go and visit – and once you walk through the door you will know if it’s the house which can become your home.

 

It is that personal encounter which God gives us in Jesus. We do not just hear about God, or find out about him third hand. In Jesus God meets us. God becomes known to us in the best way we can understand – a fellow human being. His Holy Spirit continues to mediate that love. God calls us into relationship with himself. That’s the point of Christmas – in Jesus God once and for all makes himself known, and calls us to know him. May we then accept that call this year.

Christmas Midnight

2018 will be remembered for many things, but in my house it was the year of the great Christmas Tree Debate. The living Christmas tree, replanted in the New Year, roots and all outside, had not done well in the dry Summer. Twiggy, and brown in parts, it was less festive than festering.

 

Wouldn’t it be good to involve the children in the decision, we thought. Fatal mistake. Plastic tree? No Daddy! – haven’t you seen David Attenborough? A cut tree then? –we don’t want to kill a tree! What then? Bring in the outside one – we can decorate it and make it look great.

 

You see, I’d forgotten that for children everything is very practical. They hear about pollution in school – as far as they’re concerned every bit of plastic is liable to end up in a dolphin’s tummy. There’s no such thing as a purely theoretical question – they live out what they believe.

 

Adults need to tell the difference too. For instance, a question which may be purely hypothetical in July – like ‘does it matter if bread sauce has lumps in’ – becomes very practical at 12.30 pm on December 25th.

 

As we hear the reading from John’s Gospel at Midnight Mass, it may come over as very philosophical. ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Yet it is just as much grounded in experience. That wonderful prologue tells us that Jesus was in the beginning with God and that this Jesus reliably shows us what God is like ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’. Or to use another example: The light of the world is a concept which speaks of the concrete experience of wisdom, guidance and hope that we find when we follow Jesus’ way.

 

So the faith that Christmas begins is concerned both with what we believe, and how we act. We can’t separate the two – we remember the birth of Jesus, and we give to the homeless charities.

 

In fact, whenever the English versions of this passage use the word ‘Believe’, it would be just as accurate to translate it ‘Trust’. ‘Whoever believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’ – that emphasises head knowledge. But it would be equally right, the original Greek covers both, to say ‘Whoever trusts in his name’ – that’s a matter of the heart, the will. Faith involves both – the understanding and the ability to act on it.

The Christmas present I’ve got for my son this year is an add-on for a computer game. It’s a scenery upgrade for a flight simulator – so we can pretend to fly anywhere in the world together. He loves this game, and so do I. Which is odd, because I’m quite a nervous flyer.

 

Perhaps it’s good that as a Vicar you never get to go away at Christmas. I’ve tried to deal with my fears by finding out how planes work. I’ve read up on the physics of flight. I totally understand at an intellectual level, I really believe that flying is safer than driving. But while I’ll happily get into a car with anyone, stepping onto a plane is for me a real step, a venturing out into trust. For me, understanding is fine, but acting on it is a real step. For other people, they’ve got no idea how 70 tons of metal stays up in the air, but they’ll happily fly off to Ibiza every summer.

 

It may be that some people have a faith like that – a simple trust that doesn’t worry much about understanding. I suspect though that many of us are different. Like me flying. Some people seem to understand it all, very well informed but somehow don’t get on board. Perhaps some of us would like to have a deeper trust, but worry because we don’t understand some things. The Nativity is beautiful, but can I really believe if I don’t ‘get’ the Trinity or am troubled by suffering? Actually, yes, it’s as we begin to step out in living the faith that we see it begins to make sense. It has to be lived, it was never intended to be a purely academic exercise.

 

Imagine you’re sitting in a shed in a garden. It’s dark except for a beam of light which shines through a knot-hole in the wood. The light is lovely to look at, golden with dancing motes of dust. Seen from the outside, the life of faith can be attractive while also mysterious. But if you change your position and place your eye in the line of the light, up against the knot-hole, your view is transformed. Becoming part of it, you see the reality.

 

This Christmas Eve, John invites us to this experience. In verse 14: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son.’ Those who walked about with Jesus in his earthly life saw his amazing deeds and heard his teaching first hand. But we are all invited to see: to follow Jesus today and experience the life of faith first hand.  This Christmas I urge you: don’t just look in from the outside, but decide to live it out. Trust Christ, and put your faith in him. Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Philippians 1:3-11

There are times when the Biblical reading seems absolutely perfect for your situation – when it seems to describe precisely where we are. I had that feeling as I read the passage from Philippians chapter 1 verses 3-11. Most of you will be aware that I have been appointed as the next Archdeacon of Malmesbury, and that I will stop being the Rector of the Gauzebrook Group in the Spring of next year.

Approaching that gives me a huge range of emotions: excitement and anticipation about a new role, but also great sadness at leaving this place and good friends. As I think about my hopes for the future of this church, my thoughts and prayers echo what Paul is saying.

St Paul’s stay in Philippi had been brief and dramatic. In Acts chapter 16 we hear about how Paul and his companions had arrived in this regional centre. As there was no synagogue, they had shared the good news about Jesus with a group of women who met for prayer at the riverbank, and some people had believed. Shortly though, there was a riot, Paul was thrown into prison but miraculously freed by an earthquake. Now, some time later, Paul writes a letter to this young church, expressing all his hopes for them.

He is full of gratitude, in verse 3: ‘I thank my God every time I remember you’ As a pastor Paul rejoices in the friends he has made in Philippi; he gives thanks to God that there is a living church there; he remembers the stories of how each person came to faith, and prays for them; he is grateful for all the support they gave him, and the solidarity they shared in his troubles.

These prayers are not just for a minister praying for his congregation – I think we can apply these thoughts and aspirations to ourselves. For instance, how often do you pray for other members of the church? During the coming vacancy it might be a good idea in the intercessions to pray for the other churches in the Gauzebrook Group – that we can stick together as a united benefice, not going separate ways.

And when you pray do you begin with saying thank you? It’s very easy to jump straight into prayers which ask God to help us, interceding for others, and these prayers are important. But starting with giving thanks means you begin on a different note. When you give thanks it builds your faith – you can see how God has already answered prayer and blessed you, so it gives confidence that he will do so again. This also means that prayer begins positively rather than being born out of our anxieties and fears.

Giving thanks for people also opens our hearts and minds to one another. It’s much harder to fall out with someone if you’re praying for them. Let’s be honest: God has made each one of us unique, we have our own personalities, preferred ways of doing things, strengths and weaknesses, little quirks. We share faith in Christ – he unites us – but we might differ on the outward expression of that faith.

Most of the time we can hold those differences creatively. But I have seen in other places that when the vicar leaves, there can end up being a leadership vacuum, with the risk that conflict becomes negative. In a vacancy some people can end up doing a lot – so it’s important to cut one another a bit of slack: to be patient, generous with those who are grappling with new responsibilities, don’t assume that everybody knows what you know but instead keep communicating in a way which is honest but gentle.

Allow people the space to grow and learn by doing things for themselves. For if we want the key roles in the church to continue in the future, if we want a new generation to take responsibility then we have to give them the freedom to do things their way. Above all keep on praying – for when you pray for other people God can help you see where they are coming from, he can show you the wise thing to say, he can create love in your heart.

And Paul wants us to abound in love. The rest of Chapter 1 is all about growing in faith. Paul gives three ways we can do that: growing in knowledge and full insight; overflowing in love; and producing a harvest of righteousness.

I was on a course recently about John’s gospel, and the person who was leading it has spent their life reading and re-reading John’s gospel. At the moment whenever he sees the word ‘Believe’ he replaces it with ‘Trust’. This academic says it’s revolutionising his understanding.

For ‘Belief’ in English is all about your mind, what you think, the things to which you assent. ‘Trust’ on the other hand is all about relationship, relying on someone you know really well. Interestingly in the original Greek language of the New Testament the same word covers both. Trust and belief are intertwined.

I suspect that when St Paul prays in v.9 that ‘your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and fill insight’ he covers both belief and trust. Knowledge isn’t just head knowledge. It’s heart knowing too. In other words, we need to keep growing both in understanding, and stepping out in trust in God. How do we do that? Partly by taking risks.

In v.9: ‘May your love overflow more and more’. How do we know that someone follows Christ? By the difference he makes in their lives. By the love they have, not for members of the church and for all.  It’s also shown by the way we live, in v. 10: ‘on the day of Christ may you be pure and blameless having produced the harvest of righteousness.’ Righteousness is about living for God, and often in Paul’s writing we see lists, not of rules, but of virtues. Compassion, generosity, and so on.

I went to the opening of the Pattern Church in Swindon on Thursday. Do you know the old pattern store near the outlet centre? It used to be a pizza restaurant but before that it was part of the railway industry. The Pattern Store was where they kept the wooden patterns that were used to make moulds to cast bits of locomotives.

So it’s a really crucial bit of industrial heritage. This iconic building is now going to be a new church – a team from Holy Trinity Brompton are starting this Sunday, planting a new congregation to reach out to younger generations. What really struck me at the launch was the way the leaders described the new church. The launch service was full of civic leaders – mayor, councillors, deputy lord lieutenant and the like.

And the language was all about transformation. Transforming lives; strengthening relationships; working with existing groups to transform Swindon. Righteousness can sound forbidding, religious, constricting. But everyone understands transformation – and at the heart it’s the same thing. That’s what God calls us to, a journey of transformation, becoming more the kind of people he created us to be.

I think it’s really interesting that Paul talks about growth. Growing in knowledge, love, righteousness. Talking about growth makes two key assumptions: firstly that we need to grow. It would be easy to imagine that spiritual growth is like physical growth – that when we become adults we stop growing. But something’s not quite right if we have exactly the same faith as we did at Sunday school. The experiences we have in life stretch and change our faith; knowing God is a relationship which calls us deeper all the time; our destiny is to explore God’s love for ever, beginning now, which means we are always growing. That’s why Paul speaks about the return of Jesus – we have a destination in mind to which we are headed.

Secondly, as well as needing to grow we need to make the effort to do so. Paul tells the Philippians to increase in love, be strengthened in holiness, be restored in faith. You don’t tell children to grow – they just do it! You don’t tell plants to grow, but when you put the right conditions in place it just happens automatically. Certainly for growth as Christians we need the support of a church, Biblical teaching, the sacraments and so on. But we also need the hunger to grow, the wish to deepen our faith. Paul has to tell us to grow because it’s not automatic – it’s our decision to co-operate with the Holy Spirit. It takes some effort.

Maybe in the 1950s in Britain you could grow by going with the flow. In those days society was set up to support Christianity – Sunday was a day for church, schools taught the faith, social projects were mainly run by Christians. The whole tendency of society was in a Christian direction, so you had to paddle contraflow not to be.

Now the tides and currents pull us this way and that. Sunday working, trading and sports compete for our time. Families live apart and our loyalties are divided. Media distracts us. We know all this, and it is what it is, we cannot turn back the clock, and there are many good reasons why we wouldn’t want to. But it means we have to make much more effort now to grow as Christians. Rather than float midstream and remain Anglicans, we have to swim against the flow to be disciples of Jesus.

That means we need to think about it, and plan. When I told the girls about my new job they were outraged. What do mean, you won’t have a church? What will you do without Morning Prayer? And they’re right! What will I do? I don’t know yet – but I do know that I will need to build in time for prayer. I will need to work out what Sunday worship looks like for me. The point is: It won’t just happen – I need to think about it. Make a plan. And then review it a few months down the line with my spiritual director to see if it’s working.

Jesus calls us all to grow in faith. And for all of us, that needs deliberate intention and action. Through the Holy Spirit God gives us the conditions and ability to make it happen. But it’s not automatic. As Paul’s prayer shows us, we have a great freedom and responsibility to make it happen. Let us pray then that God will give us the desire and hunger to become disciples. Amen

Advent 2018

Before I say anything else I’d like to begin with a big thank you to the Gauzebrook choir, to Eric our organist, and to Katherine  the conductor. They have been ably supported by a team who have organised rehearsals, produced orders of service and offered readings. This is a true community effort, reflecting the unity and diversity across our Gauzebrook Group. Thank you for giving generously of your time and skills, creating such a beautiful event.

I know that a great deal of preparation has gone into this service. Even before the shops had their Christmas decorations up, way back in September, we were making plans. For several weekends rehearsals have happened here, all preparing for the big day.

And as I thought about this sermon, it was hard not to be distracted by the sounds of joyful preparation echoing through the house. Clonking sounds in the attic as cardboard boxes are thrown aside and Christmas lights located. Laughter and clapping as the nativity set appears, the singing of Christmas carols and the practising of school play lines.

But I also know that tomorrow is my day off, and in my diary for the day there is a big chunk of time blocked out. It’s called ‘Sort out Christmas’. We will have to compose the Christmas letter – what an eventful year! – go through the Christmas card list, rack our brains on what present to get the Aunty who says ‘oh don’t bother about me’, and draw lots on who gets to go out in the wind and rain and dig up the Christmas tree.

So I end up thinking: in the midst of all the Advent preparation, how can we be truly present? How can we be open to God in the busyness? Looking out for those moments of glory where the meaning of Christmas shines through

For I don’t think it’s always matter of either / or. Yes, Sometimes we do have a choice: there are points where Either I take time out to pray, or I fuss about getting another decoration absolutely perfect. I can choose to let go of some of the unnecessary things.

But I feel that much of what we do in Advent and the run-up to Christmas is important, and depending on how we do it we may be able to connect with God. As I sign those endless Christmas cards can I briefly imagine holding each distant friend before God in prayer?

Can you extend the drinks party invitation to the lonely and isolated? In cooking the turkey can I keep the point of it all in sight so that it’s not a stress but a celebration?

For it’s crucial that we keep the first things first. Remember what you’re really doing. I heard a story recently about a company that got a management consultant in. They were quite successful, making drills, but they wanted to see how they could improve. So the management consultant did her stuff, interviewed everyone, pored through the figures, looked at her graphs.

Eventually the day came for the big reveal. Nervously the whole company staff gathered in the canteen – what would the verdict be? Who would lose their jobs?

The consultant began. ‘I have discovered three things about you’. ‘Firstly, you are a medium sized company.’ Right… thinks everyone. ‘Secondly, you make drills.’ At this point senior management are looking anxious – is this what really they paid tens of thousands for? ‘But thirdly – actually you don’t make drills. You help people make holes’.

And as that company thought about it, and invested in what they really did, they stopped making drills and became leaders in a new technology. Now they use lasers to make holes.

Whether we’re talking about Christmas, or the life of the church, or in our own lives being ready for Christ’s ultimate return – the point is the same. Keep focussed on what it’s really about.

The busyness of the festive season, even the organisation of church life, are not ends in themselves. They are means to an end – the ultimate end of being drawn closer into the life of God and finding fulfilment in him. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why churches are here.

This Christmas I hope we shall welcome many people through those doors. They will come with a whole variety of backgrounds, and reasons why they think they’re here. Let us pray for them, and for ourselves, that we shall be able to discern and respond to the love of God, shown to us most of all in the gift of Jesus.

A God who keeps his promises

It is dark inside the church, and hushed, but with the background rustling and breathing of many people waiting in silence. A match is struck, and at the same time a soloist sings forth ‘Come Lord Jesus’. As candles are lit from one another, the choir sings, and light blazes through the building.

This is one of my favourite times of the year – the beginning of the Advent Carol service. Listening to readings and singing together, we celebrate the dawning hope of Jesus’ coming. The Bible readings speak of God’s relationship with his people, of his faithfulness over the centuries, and the promise that one day everything will be made new. It is a wonderful story of hope.

We live in a world where spiritual things are often conveyed by physical means; human beings are creatures within time. So we need signs of hope – the tangible things and occasions which help us to look beyond the immediate situation. We need stories to tell which change the narrative, moments of encouragement which renew our energy.

Such incidents strengthen hope, yet we do not base our hope on them. Christian hope is grounded on the character of God – a God who, as we hear in Advent, keeps his promises and is faithful. Advent calls us to believe that history belongs to God, that the Kingdom of God will come, and that the whole world will be healed and renewed. So Christian hope is not fleeting or uncertain (I hope I will win the lottery!) but firm because it is based on who God is. Even when the way ahead is unclear, or troubled, Christian hope makes the decision to trust in God. As a Cardinal once said:

To hope is a duty, not a luxury.
To hope is not to dream but to turn dreams into reality.
Happy those who have the courage to dream dreams
and who are ready to pay the price
so that dreams take shape in other people’s lives.