A Christmas reflection

‘The most unexpected thing’, said Major Tim Peake from the International Space Station ‘was the blackness of space. We always talk about seeing the view of planet earth and how beautiful it is, and so you come to expect that. But what people don’t mention that much is when you look in the opposite direction and you see how dark space is. It is just the blackest black and you realise how small the earth is in that blackness.’

He could see a contrast between light and dark which you just don’t get on earth. A higher perspective had brought understanding. Something similar is happening in St John’s gospel, from which we just had our reading. The gospels of Matthew and Luke have a more earthly perspective. They interpret and explain the facts and events around Jesus’ birth – the familiar stories we all hear at the Nativity and Crib.

But if all we had was John’s gospel, we wouldn’t know any of that. Shepherds, angels, wise men, no room at the inn – none of that appears in John. If all we had was John’s gospel we wouldn’t even know Joseph’s name. For John’s gospel has a more heavenly perspective. It is written to complement the others – I think it assumes we’ve already read them. The fourth gospel reflects deeply on who Jesus is and what he means. Like an astronaut on the space station, looking down, John has the time and the distance to see the big perspective.

And he marvels at three wonderful mysteries. Word. Light and the Son of God. Firstly Word. Jesus makes God intelligible. That’s the heart of verses 1 + 14 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ What is a word if it’s not communication? And what is communication if we can’t understand it? John says that we can understand God because of Jesus.

That’s a pretty big claim to make. You might expect that God would be unknowable, completely beyond our understanding. If God is God, even the best human mind is feeble and darkened compared to him.

And it’s true, if it were just down to us and our guesses, we could never even begin. But what if God decided to reveal himself to us? If God took the initiative in communicating, as our Hebrews reading says he did through the prophets, it would be utterly reliable. It is better for a perfect and powerful God to stoop low to us than for us to try and think our way up to him. The message of Christmas is that this has happened in Christ. Because it is God taking the initiative, we can trust what he says. God’s self- revelation in Jesus is reliable.

As Hebrews puts it: ‘In the past he spoke through the prophets, but in these days he has spoken to us through his Son, who is the reflection of God’s glory.’ Like breath condensing on a wintry day, Jesus makes the invisible God visible. In Jesus God condescends to make himself known. The infinite is encompassed within a mortal span.

How that happens is a mystery. We will never fully grasp the wonder of what occurred that first Christmas. How God became man. God reveals to us what we need to know, and we can trust him. But He does not reveal everything to us – we know that the Word became flesh but not how – and at times like this we just bow in awe and worship.

One of the most amazing things that happened to me this year is seeing my son Jonathan find his voice. If you don’t know Jonathan, he has such severe cerebral palsy that he can’t speak. He can’t control his movements enough even to push a button, so for nine years of his life we’ve had to guess what he’s thinking through his smiles and frowns.

The breakthrough came this year when he began looking at letters on a Perspex board. By standing the other side of the board, and noting what letters he looks at, you can write down the words as he spells them out. And you know, he has the most wonderful character and amazing mind. My proudest moment was when he won the prize letter in Aquila magazine – it took him three and a half hours to compose. Finding the right communication has unlocked his personality.

I mention that because when many people talk about God, they talk as if God’s unknowable. If he exists, they say, he must be so far off, so distant, so much greater than us that we cannot know anything about him for sure. Many talk as if our attempts at faith are just grasping at clouds. But you know, that leaves God’s initiative out of the picture. It doesn’t allow him to act. God does not have locked in syndrome. God communicates with us. That’s the beauty of Christmas – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

In doing so, the difference between the darkness and light becomes clear. The presence of Jesus throws the darkness into sharper relief, even as he banishes the night.

So I wonder how many different forms of light you have experienced today? Perhaps you have had lively children in the house, full of joy and excitement at the fairy lights. When they were eventually persuaded to go to bed, did you curl up on the sofa enjoying the comforting warmth of a log fire, reading a book by its light? Surely when you ventured out you were guided on your way by street lamps or the headlights of a car? And entering the church the candlelight speaks of hope and promise amidst the dark.

Jesus the light of the world reaches us in body mind and soul. His light guides us, heals our emotions, restores the spirit, gives hope. ‘That light was the life of all people’ – if we ask him to, he will meet our deepest need – which is for him. When we know him – and he responds to all who ask – we can find a profound fulfilment that goes further than anything else.

He can do this because he is God’s Son; who shares God’s nature and makes him known. The most wonderful thing is that he invites us to be God’s children too. Surely you’d think it would be enough for God to communicate with us? For him to forgive and heal and meet our deepest need? But that is not enough for our loving God.

He would also make us his own children! Love, cherish, honour us as his own! So the Son of God became like us that we might become like him.

What amazing depths of love God has for us! What an astonishing invitation to receive! What a wonderful Saviour to celebrate today! Amen.

 

 

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Merry Christmas!

Show someone they’re loved this Christmas. Recognise the slogan? Yes, it’s the John Lewis advert. Much admired, and much parodied, at least you can say it’s made an impact.

In case anyone has spent the last two months 100 foot underground in a reinforced steel bunker and so has no idea what I’m talking about, I’ll recap. In the advert: One evening in the run-up to Christmas, a bored girl looks through a telescope at the moon. Zooming in, she sees a crater with a little house in it.

A lonely old man lives there. The girl can see him pottering about, he forlornly watches the earth rise, but he cannot see her. Trying to make contact, she wraps up a message in an arrow, she throws paper planes at the moon but of course they all fall short.

Then, as Earth celebrates Christmas the old man sits alone on his bench. A bunch of balloons floats down, bearing a parcel. Eagerly he unwraps the gift – its a telescope! Now he can see the towns and streets, and his little friend waving at him. The ad ends with a tear-brimmed eye and the tag line ‘Show someone they’re loved this Christmas’.

And we all said ‘aaahh’. Or if you’re a scientist like me, you said ‘but his head would have exploded in the vacuum!’

I find the advert intriguing because showing someone that they’re loved at Christmas is very much what Christians are trying to do. It’s what we believe the festival is all about: we celebrate Christmas because God loved us so much and showed it by giving the greatest gift he had.

The ad also appeals because Christmas is a time for remembering those in need. We try to help those less fortunate than ourselves. In the ad the old man’s problem is loneliness and it’s solved by the gift of friendship. By giving us the gift of Jesus, God addresses humanity’s most profound needs.

We are all too aware of the darkness in the world – the darkness that St John spoke about in the reading, a darkness that we see all around us in violence and greed and destructiveness. But how do we address it?

Apparently the Times newspaper once had a debate on its letters page. Somebody had asked the question ‘What is wrong with the world?’ people wrote in with their answers. Many attempts, complex diagnoses and creative plans – but nothing that was truly convincing. Eventually a short letter appeared: ‘Sir, what is wrong with the world? I am’

The writer, G K Chesterton, had realised that much of what is wrong in the world around us can be traced within. We need to fix the human heart. We share responsibility. When any of us choose wrongly, disregard others, or live as if we were independent of the universe – that’s when the darkness grows. It isolates us from one another and from God. That may sound a bit negative, but the correct diagnosis of the problem leads to hope. God brings a solution.

In the advert, the old man’s isolation is cured when the little girl sends a gift, establishing a connection with him. At the first Christmas, God sent the most wonderful gift to us, his own Son Jesus. Incidentally, this is another great point of contrast with the advert – Jesus is not a fictional character. Admittedly in a recent survey 40% of adult Britons said they thought that Jesus was mythical or legendary – but you’d be hard pressed to find a serious historian who thought that. Historians might well disagree on whether Jesus was who he claimed to be – the Son of God – but there’s no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth did exist.

What God gives us in Jesus is more than presents. God gives us his Presence. P R E S E N C E. Jesus is God with us. He is God come to earth so that we can really know what he is like. The wonderful thing is that we can know God through Jesus. Not seen at a distance as if through that telescope, or second hand reported in a book. But God connecting with us, coming to earth, and always with us by his Spirit.

So we can be reassured: when Jesus talks about how we should live, he speaks with divine wisdom and perfect insight – and also true authority from human experience. We can be comforted, because Jesus has been though the challenges we face, he has endured suffering and has conquered it. Jesus Christ is a reliable sympathetic guide for life, a powerful presence alongside in trouble, and the source of strength within to overcome and do what is right.

He does even more. As the gospel reading says, the light shines in the darkness. Through his death, Jesus defeated evil (as promised in the reading from Genesis). On the cross, he allowed the darkness to carry out its full rage upon him, and so exhaust its power. He took the penalty for human sin so we could be forgiven and free. Jesus has the final victory, and if we follow him we will ultimately share in it.

One final thing about presents. If a gift’s going to be any good to you, you have to receive it. In the John Lewis ad, the old man could have been grumpy and let the balloons float past. He could have lacked curiosity and not opened the parcel. When he opened it he might have thought: ‘a telescope? What do I need that for? I’m fine on my own!’ Instead he understands his particular need and has both the courage and humility to accept the hand of friendship and assistance that is offered.

Christ asks something similar of us this Christmas. Will we be honest and realistic and admit we cannot thrive on our own? Will we acknowledge our need of Christ and accept the love, forgiveness and power he offers? God reaches out to us with his gift – it is up to us to receive.

 

 

 

 

Mary

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Traditionally it is the day when the church remembers Mary, the mother of our Lord, and the important role she plays in the story of salvation. Without her openness to God’s call, without her care for the young Jesus, would we be here in church today?

But before we look at the passage I’m aware that I need to pause for a moment and just acknowledge that amongst our own congregation, and elsewhere, there may be a range of very different reactions to the idea that the church might commemorate Mary.

In parts of the Roman Catholic Church of course, Mary has an immensely prominent role – there will scarcely be a Catholic church without a colourful statue of Mary and candles burning in front of it. The Hail Mary may be said or sung, reflecting a spirituality in which people ask Mary to pray to her son for them. There are also doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and Assumption which the Roman Church asserts from its own tradition but the Protestant churches do not accept as they cannot be proved from Scripture.

If Anglicans reject the extremes of Marian devotion, we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The example of Mary can teach us a lot, she is like a signpost pointing beyond herself to her son, it would be a shame to lose sight of some truly Biblical insights. So let’s turn to Luke’s gospel, chapter 1 verses 39-45.

Of course, this story only makes sense in the light of what has gone before. Verses 26 to 38 tell of how the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town named Nazareth. He announces to Mary that she will bear a son, named Jesus, who will reign over the house of David.

We can only begin to imagine how Mary felt. Surprise and fear at the angel, surely. Perhaps delight at being chosen as the mother of the Messiah? Or feeling unworthy of this honour? Interestingly neither of those feelings seem to be in the Biblical reading – only the immensely down to earth question: ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’

The angel answers at a practical level – it will be a miracle of God. But he doesn’t answer all the unspoken questions. What will this sudden pregnancy mean for Mary? Will she try and explain it as the angel told her? Will anyone believe her? What risks will she run to her health, safety and reputation? Will Joseph believe her and what might he do? Mary will have her own cross to carry. Motherhood in general has a cost and hers in particular.

Although Gabriel’s words about Jesus are couched in traditional Old Testament terms of kingship and rule, although there is no hint of the crucifixion in his speech, nonetheless a great deal is being asked of Mary. She has very few answers, can only see dimly what is involved, and yet she says yes. In verse 38 ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord, may it be to me according to your word.’

In stepping out into the unknown, in following without fully understanding, Mary becomes an example of someone who responds wholeheartedly to God’s call. Any call, any new venture, indeed life itself is like that. We cannot understand completely what is involved, there will always be surprises. The nature of the call or circumstances around it may change. Unforeseen things will crop up. We will be challenged and grow in ways we never thought possible.

But if it is God’s call we are responding to, if we are living in his way, then he promises that he will always be with us. We need not fear the unknown pathway if he will be our guide. It’s probably better that way – to be honest, if we knew what was ahead, we might never set out! Yet God gives us the strength for each day, a day at a time.

One of the ways God blesses us is through the ministry of other people. In v.39 Mary sets out and goes with haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Is she running away from her home town, fearing reactions? Matthew’s gospel suggests that there was some time between Joseph finding out about the pregnancy, and him having a dream in which the angel reassures him. Is it during this gap that Mary seeks sanctuary?

She goes to Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, who is herself miraculously pregnant carrying John the Baptist. Elizabeth was a much older woman, the wife of a priest with a righteous reputation – yet Mary finds not condemnation or judgment, but hospitality and understanding.

An older person can be a great help to a young person who is in difficulty. Sometimes all that is needed is a welcome and the time to provide a listening ear. Appropriate wisdom, given when sought, can put things into perspective. But often what helps most is the space and hospitality to order one’s own thoughts.

I wonder if you know of a younger person, perhaps a mother, who is struggling? Are there ways it might be appropriate to help? It also makes me wonder what reputation we might have? What would a young mum or dad in trouble see in you or me which might make them want to turn to us?

There is a third generation in this story – the unborn John the Baptist who already seems to have the gift of prophecy. In verse 44 ‘As soon as I heard the voice of your greeting the child in my womb leapt for joy.’ Verses 26 and 56 tell us that the child is at the six month stage – and God is already overshadowing his destiny – is it too much to say that his character is already being formed?

With today’s medical care a baby born at that stage stands a fifty/fifty chance of survival. And yet it is also legal to abort a healthy baby up to 24 weeks.

There is so much promise and hope in a child, and yet so much vulnerability. I suppose the vulnerability of the child is part of the gift of motherhood – otherwise there would be no need for care and love. And vulnerability is part of what parents take on – we accept the risk and openness of having children, the step into the unknown of what might happen, the commitment it demands of us if something does go wrong.

Perhaps we can see reflected there part of what it means for God to be our parent. He creates us, gives us free will in the full knowledge that we may go our own way. Christ gives himself, accepting suffering so that God’s children may be redeemed. God holds out the hope of our return, without any guarantees that we will respond. In this lovely passage, God in Christ unconditionally opens himself to the vulnerability of this world and thereby also its love.

Here we see three generations, called by God. The old, the young and the unborn, each with a vocation in his plan. Through these three, and their relation to one another, the story our salvation unfolds. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Surprise

Naming a baby is a task fraught with difficulties. Obviously you want to find a name that you like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but I know some parents who don’t like their James being called Jimmie. Does it work with the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.

And then, does the name have a meaning? Henry for instance means Home Ruler, which makes a kind of sense. But what does William, composed of the words Will and Helm (or helmet) mean? Willpower perhaps?

In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading. But Elizabeth, the little boy’s mother, wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.

No doubt that’s what Elizabeth was feeling. As the earlier part of Luke Chapter 1 tells us, Zechariah the priest was well advanced in years, as was his wife Elizabeth. They were faithful people, serving God, but sadly had no children.

One day Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. Apparently by this time in Israel’s history there were so many priests that entering the sanctuary was statistically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can imagine that this might have been a real spiritual event for Zechariah – made all the more so when he sees an angel!

The angel has a message, in v.11 ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John – he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.’ We of course know him as John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ.

So this may be why he is known as John. God is gracious. God has graciously answered Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayer at the point when it seemed too late. God has graciously reached out to his people in the midst of their oppression, promising release.

But Zechariah asks: ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.’ Perhaps an understandable reaction – people of that age do not have children. Yet Zechariah was a priest, well versed in the Old Testament. He knew the stories of Abraham and how Sarah bore him a son in his old age. He knew how God gave Rachel and Hannah the gift of children. Did he perhaps think that miracles were for the past and not his own time?

You might think that perhaps seeing an angel would be evidence enough. Maybe years of disappointment have made him bitter or even cynical. When you have lived long and seen the world, that can happen. If we have had dreams that have never come to pass, it can be hard to be open to future possibility. Allowing yourself to hope can feel like making yourself very vulnerable – will you suffer the hurt and disappointment again? It takes real strength to step out of the protective shell and allow ourselves to be open to God and his plan for us.

But we do need to be able to do that. For God does have a plan. No-one is on the shelf as far as God is concerned. No-one is useless. No-one is too old or too young to play a role in his Kingdom. In fact, for Zechariah and Elizabeth the most important thing they did was near the end of their lives. Just imagine – the previous 80 years have been a prelude for what God is asking you to do now!

I wonder what God might be asking us to do? What opportunities he may have in store for you and for me? Let us ask him to show us. We can do a great deal where we are. The people we meet – how can we show Christ’s love to them? How can our words build people up and encourage? Even someone who scarcely goes out can pray.

Elizabeth and Zechariah were called to be parents to John the Baptist. His miraculous birth would be a kind of parallel, a foreshadowing of the even more amazing birth of Jesus, our Saviour. But because Zechariah did not at first believe, he was struck dumb until the angel’s word was fulfilled.

Not saying a word for the best part of a year. Zechariah would have had to complete his time of temple service in silence, make his way back home, explain things as best he could to his wife. Eventually the baby was born, and 8 days after his birth it was time to name him. As Zechariah writes on the tablet ‘his name is John’, he shows that he has believed the angelic message and is living in obedience to it.

Immediately Zechariah can speak again. He praises God, using the words of the Benedictus which have become a much-loved part of our liturgy. If you grew up with Mattins you will have sung this many times, and there are glorious settings of this canticle. Many are beautiful, some are ethereal – do they run the risk of giving the impression of an other-worldly spirituality? I wonder how many of them really bring out the triumph and revolution of Zechariah’s song?

Now at last, after so many years, God is doing what he has promised. Now, the Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled. Here, today, God is saving his people. We are being rescued from our enemies and delivered from those who hate us. There will be justice and freedom. It is strong stuff. (Like the Magnificat – the words of which resemble a first-century Billy Bragg rather more than Cathedral Evensong.)

Everyone was amazed by these events, the word travelled all around the hill country of Judea. The passage ends by telling us that ‘the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.’ We do not know how long Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, how much of a role they were able to play in their son’s upbringing.

But we do know that they passed on the angel’s message – he will be a Nazirite, dedicated to God. We do know that John followed their strong faith. We do know that God kept his promise and John was the greatest of all the prophets.

This is a wonderful story of a God who is able to transform disappointments; of a God who keeps his promises to his people over many centuries until when things seem darkest relief comes. It is a story of a wonderful God whose plan for us is able to surprise and inspire, even to the very end of our lives; a story of a God who can use our faithfulness – and even our half-believing prayers – at any point. It is a call to follow God now, be open to his will, and never to allow ourselves to believe that our time is past.