Sunday, 30 December 2012

on Jesus' obedience to his parents

It is amazing how time flies and these children grow up. It only seems like last week that we were celebrating his birth, and today Jesus is 12!

There is that line in one of the carols that we sing: It comes in 'O little town of Bethlehem', and includes the line, 'Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as he'. As a child I refused to sing it – as a parent I sing it very loudly! I suspect that it was written by Cecil Frances Alexander after visiting her godchildren (she was married but didn't have children of her own) when they were running riot.

Jesus, even though he was the eternal Son of God, even though he already had an astonishing wisdom, was willing to be obedient to his parents. 

Jesus knew that he was the Son of God.

In the passage we had read today, when his parents do finally find him and Mary says, 'Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you', Jesus replies, 'Why were you searching for me - didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house?'

Mary says 'your father' meaning Joseph
Jesus says 'my Father' meaning God.

[Note: For anyone, let alone a 12 year old child, who probably had not even yet had his bar-mitzvah [that usually happened at age 13] to call God his Father, at this time, was quite exceptional.

Jews had called God 'Father' in their prayers, but it seems to be extremely rare. In 2 Sam 7:14 (echoed in Psalm 2:7) God states that David will be his Son and he will be his Father; in Jeremiah 3:4, the people are calling God 'Father', but God challenges them and says it is just talk; In Isaiah 63:16 and 64:8 the prophet proclaims, 'You, LORD, are our Father'. There may be an additional reference in Malachi 2:10, but the father mentioned here could be God or Abraham. What does seem unlikely was that any individual prayed to God as their Father - to do so was, at the very least, to make a messianic claim]

In other words, Jesus is asking, 'Why have you been searching for me? Why didn't you come to the temple first? Who is my real father?'

And I know as a parent that when you do lose a child (and we've been there), you don't think rationally. You panic – but in your panic you need to stop and think, as best you can. And Joseph and Mary knew about Jesus. They'd had the message of the angels, the trauma of Mary's virgin pregnancy and birth. They had run for their lives from Herod, and lived in exile, because of who Jesus was. You don't forget that. And so when Jesus was missing in Jerusalem they really should have thought, "Ah, well that is obvious. Jesus is missing in Jerusalem. Where will he have gone? He is the God-child. He will have gone to his other Father. Let's go to the temple."

But when they lost Jesus, they forgot God. They thought, ‘Jesus - on his own in Jerusalem - who will he have gone to? Let's go round all the relatives, the friends, all our contacts in Jerusalem’. The one thing they didn't do was pray. We know that, because they don't go to the temple till the third day. And my guess is that by then they must have feared the worst. They didn't go there to look for Jesus. They went there because by now they were desperate. They went there to pray.

As an aside, we give ourselves far more anxiety (particularly in the bringing up of children) than we need, by using prayer as the last resort when we are utterly desperate, rather than the first thing we do.
We don't need to go to the temple, or come to church for a guaranteed connection to God. Because of Jesus we can pray wherever we are. And although we can, in a panic, pray 'God help me', we usually need to stop what we are doing for a moment; if possible go to a different room (Jesus says, 'Go to your room and shut the door' [Matthew 6:6]) and pray. And then try to sort it out.
The problem is that, like Joseph and Mary, when we are out of our depth, when fear grips us, when we are sick with anxiety - we don't pray. We become practical atheists: it is all about what we can do.

[Note: It is also significant that Jesus' question to his parents, 'Why were you searching for me - didn't you know that I had to be in my Father's house', is echoed by the question asked of the women who are again looking for Jesus; but this time they are looking for his body after his crucifixion. The angels say, "Why are you looking for the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen" (Luke 24:5)]

So Jesus knew that he was the Son of God.

He really could have been the most arrogant of teenagers – although in his case it would not have been arrogance.

And yet, we are told in Luke 2:51, he goes to Nazareth with his parents and was obedient to them. A more accurate translation is that he 'submitted himself' to his parents.

In other words, what we are talking about here is not an external obedience, but an internal obedience.

The story is told of the little boy who is standing up in the back of the car. His mum has been telling him to sit down. Finally dad loses it and yells, 'Sit down, or I am turning this car round and we are going back home, and then you will be in trouble'. The boy sits down and the journey continues in an uncomfortable silence. And then this little voice is heard from the back, 'Outside I am sitting down. Inside I am standing up'.

The Christian virtue of obedience, submission is not an ‘outside’ obedience done because we have to, or out of fear, or to get them to like you. The Christian virtue of obedience is a freely chosen obedience to another person.

[We are told that earlier, when Jesus was a baby, in Luke 2:40, ‘After Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him' (Luke 2:39-40). Now that he is 12, almost an adult by Jewish practice, we are told, 'He went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them .. And as Jesus grew up, he increased in wisdom and in favour with God and people'.

Do you see the difference? There is no reference to obedience before Jesus was 12. Paradoxically, it is only as you grow older, as you begin to become an adult that you can truly choose to be obedient to another. You can only choose to be obedient when non-obedience is also an option.]

So why are we told that Jesus chose to be obedient to Joseph and Mary?

1. It is a picture of the divine humility:
It is how Philippians 2 was lived out in Jesus’ life.
There we are told that: “And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross”.

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who created life and being, time and space, humbled himself – because of love – and became a human being.

And as a human being he humbled himself before other human beings; he allowed himself to be subject to human laws and to human authorities.
He ate his sprouts not because he wanted to, but because Mary told him to – and he had chosen to be obedient to her.
And later in life, he allowed himself – the judge of all people – to stand before Pilate, and to be sentenced to death.

Jesus subjected himself not just to God, but also to human authorities – even when those human authorities completely messed up

2. It is recognition of the role of parents
The role of parents is recognised in the fifth commandment: ‘Honour your father and mother so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you’. It is often pointed out that the fifth commandment is the only commandment which has a direct blessing associated with it.

There is so much that could be said here! All I note is that if Jesus recognises the importance of parents, then we dismiss the idea of the importance of fathers and mothers to our own risk. A generation which respects and honours previous generations, which does not always think that change is good and which does not assume that it knows best, is going to be, inevitably, live in a more stable society than one that does not.

3. It is an example to us
If Jesus chose to be obedient to his parents, then as people who follow him, we too are called to be obedient – not just to our parents, but to those authority structures which we find ourselves under.

However, we need to be careful here.

There is the obedience that is motivated by fear, compulsion or the desire to please
And there is the obedience which is motivated by the love of God.

The Christian tradition really does not get hung up about rights.

That is probably one of the reasons why Christians have not always been in the forefront of the fight for civil liberties. Yes, there have been some shining lights. One thinks of Wilberforce and the emancipation of the slaves; one thinks of Martin Luther King and the struggle for racial equality in the United States. But on issues such as women's rights or the rights of oppressed minorities, we've never been completely in the forefront. We always seem to be following a secular agenda.

But there is a reason for that: and it is not that Christians are racist or misogynist (although we have been at times and need to repent). It is not simply because Christianity has colluded with the powerful and the status quo (although, again, we have and we need to repent). Rather it is because Christians have never put asserting their individual rights very high on the agenda. They are not primarily concerned about external freedoms, but about an internal freedom. And they have not, like society, made civil liberty and human rights their ultimate God. 

Rather Christians are called quite explicitly not to assert their rights, to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ [Ephesians 5:21], which means to look to consider the other person as better than myself, and to look for their interests and not just my own [Philippians 2:3]. And that is an expression of love.

And while the New Testament does teach that if a person can improve their situation (without pulling someone else down) they should do so [cf 1 Corinthians 7:21-22], we should never make that our goal in life.

Instead, our goal in life is love: the desire to be united with others, as brothers and sisters, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and so the New Testament calls us to be obedient to those under whose authority we find ourselves in order to win them over for Christ.

So for instance, in a society in which wives were treated as objects which belonged to their husbands and were expected to submit to their husbands, Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:1 ‘Wives in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of their lives.’ In other words the key priority is not the assertion of rights, but love that seeks for others to come to know the love of God.

And if, for a moment, I can flip this around and speak about those times when we do exercise authority over others, please remember that this kind of ‘inside’ obedience can never be compelled.

Of course as parents, officers, teachers, employers we can demand outward obedience. There are times when it is necessary to do so. We can sing that line from ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ very loudly. We can compel them to sit down on the outside. But that is not the sort of obedience that is being spoken of here.

Rather, if we are to allow our children or the people who work for us, to discover the true freedom of inward obedience, which comes from God and the Holy Spirit, then your task is not to get those people to simply do what you say. Your job is not to rule them, but to genuinely serve them, so that they are lifted up, exalted, and given independence to become fully mature adults.

Only a completely free adult can truly obey.
And if they choose to walk away from us, to reject all that we stand for, even to spit in our face, it will hurt like hell. God knows.
4. It is an example of Jesus’ total trust in the purposes of God.
The reason that Jesus was able to be obedient to very flawed human authorities, even a human authority who sentenced him to be tortured and then executed, was because he was absolutely firm in his identity as Son of God, and he was absolutely convinced that the purposes of God would triumph in the end.

And as a Christian, whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself in the ladder of life – at the top or at the bottom; or if you find yourself in an incredibly difficult or painful situation which you simply cannot change – you can still choose to love and, if necessary, choose to obey - because, as a Christian, like Jesus Christ, you know that God’s purposes will ultimately triumph, that the experiences you face in this world are preparing you for a weight of glory that you cannot imagine, that you belong to another world, that you are deeply and profoundly beloved child of God. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

The three (alternative) Christmas gifts

At Christmas, we think of the wise men who brought three gifts.

I would like to imagine that tomorrow when you have opened all your gifts, you see that there are still 3 gifts left under the Christmas tree. You don’t know where they came from, but they have your name on them.

So you open the first gift, and inside you find

1. The most astonishingly wonderful and precious ring:
When we went to the orphanage in Zimbabwe earlier this year, we had a bit of a wait at Heathrow. So two of us entertained ourselves by wandering round the jewellery shops trying to find the most expensive item on display. We got some very odd looks. The winner was a watch which cost about £31k

That watch has nothing on this ring. This ring holds a stone, and the stone is spherical. It is predominantly blue, but there are dashes of green, brown and orange, covered with whispers of white. When you look closer there is the most incredible detail. The stone seems to be suspended above the ring and is rotating. You have no idea how it works, and you know that some of your friends will spend hour after hour trying to work it out. But it is beautiful, magical and obviously unbelievably expensive.

You put the ring on. It fits exactly. There is something so right about this ring and you. You go together. It was almost as if you were made for each other. Whoever gave you this ring, and you have no idea who they are, clearly knows you and has given you something incredibly precious.

So you turn to the second gift. The wrapping paper is different, but there is something about this gift which makes you think it is from the same person.

2. A very old book: it has one of those old hard covers, and the pages are slightly brown.
So you open it carefully. Inside the front cover is a hand written note. ‘To (and then there is your name) with love from the author’. And there is a P.S: ‘p.s. I wrote this for you’.

You start to flick through it. At first you think, ‘What’s this got to do with me?’ It is written in an old language. It is understandable, but you’ve got to work to understand it. As you flick through, you read passages that don’t make much sense, passages that are boring and passages that are just strange.

You are very tempted to look at the ring and forget the book. You can always put it on the bookshelf and after a decent time give it away to the charity shop. But then you look at the ring and you think, ‘Why would the person who gave me this, also give me such an uninspiring gift?’

So you take a second look. You think, ‘If the person who gave me the ring really did write this book for me, what are they saying’

And as you read a bit more you find stories (some of them are quite gripping), poems, wisdom, instructions, warnings and promises. And it begins to make sense. More than that, as you persevere, the words begin to leap out of the page at you. They are so relevant. They help me make sense of who I am, why I am here, where things have gone wrong, and what can be done to put things right. They tell me a little about the person who wrote this book, and how much they love me.

And you think, ‘This book was written for me. How is that possible? It is much older than me. How does the author know that about me?’

This is indeed a very precious book.

So you eagerly look for the third gift. You are now pretty certain that this third gift is from the person who gave you the ring and the book.

This gift if quite large. You open it, and inside you find:

3. A hamper. But all that is in this hamper is a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and a note!
The wine is OK, and the bread is .. an alternative gift .. but the note is odd.

The note reads like this:
‘I gave you the other two gifts because I love you. They are both incredibly precious – but they cost me nothing. I have more rings, far more precious rings, than you can conceivably imagine.

You can wear the ring, examine the ring, be obsessed with the ring and forget me. Or you can delight in the ring and remember me.
You can put the book aside or study the book as you might study any other old book. Or you can read the book, trusting that I wrote it for you, and listen to me.

But this last gift is different.
It cost me everything. It cost my life and my death. It is the gift of real life, of love, of myself. And if you choose to receive my love, and to eat this bread and drink this wine in the spirit in which it was given, then – as the bread and wine come into you - I will come into you and change you. I will fill you with my love, I will become part of you and you will become part of me.  

Friday, 21 December 2012

Christmas is all about penguins

A Crib service 2012


Light Advent candles

Opening prayer

O Little town of Bethlehem

[Powerpoint of Christmas card]

P: Christmas is all about penguins

L: What makes you say that?

P: Well it’s obvious, isn't it? Christmas is when it is cold, and penguins like cold; Christmas cards always have penguins on them - look there’s my uncle Pickup ... Pickup the penguin. And the best Christmas crackers have penguin jokes in them. 
What do penguins have for lunch? Ice-bergers
What do penguins sing on a birthday? Freeze a jolly good fellow
What do you call a penguin in the desert? Lost
Why don’t you see any penguins in Britain? Because they’re afraid of Wales

L: (interrupting) Thank you! NO, Christmas is not all about penguins. 
In fact, Christmas has NOTHING to do with penguins. The only reason they have penguin jokes is because penguins are ridiculous (penguin looks hurt); and I have no idea why there are penguins on Christmas cards. It is really because people have forgotten what Christmas is all about. 

P: Well if Christmas is not all about penguins, what is it about?

L: Let's look at another Christmas card. 

 P: Look there is a sheep, a lamb, a goat, a cow, a dog. There must be a penguin. (searches) Where's the penguin? (realisation) There's no penguin. I know what it is. It is discrimination against penguins. 

L: Penguin, you are missing the point. What is in the centre of this picture? 

P: A baby .. (hopefully) penguin? Why is he there?

L: No. It is not a baby penguin. It is a baby boy. I think we better tell you the story.
Penguin settles down. 
It all happened a long time ago. 2000 years ago. 
An angel came from God to a girl called Mary. She lived in a town called Nazareth. He told her that she was going to have a baby.

'I have come with special news'
(Gabriel comes to stage and goes to back of church to Mary)

Mary's baby was going to be different to other babies - no he wasn't going to be a penguin. He was God's Son, and he had come into the world to save people from sin and death. 

Now Mary lived in Nazareth with the man who was going to be her husband, Joseph. And the emperor ordered everybody to go to the town they had originally come from. And since Joseph had come from Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. But it was a difficult journey because Mary was almost about to have the baby. She was very big and round

P: Just like a penguin.

L: It was a difficult journey.

Little donkey
(Mary and Joseph come to front)
L: They arrive in Bethlehem. The town is full of people – so full of people that there is no where they can stay, and nowhere that Mary can have her baby. But then an innkeeper allows them to use his stable – that is why there are the cows in the card – and the baby, the special baby was born in the stable and was laid in the cattle feeding trough. And Joseph and Mary called him Jesus.

The virgin Mary had a baby boy

L: There were shepherds looking after their sheep. That’s where the sheep come in. They (the shepherds and the sheep) were having a bit of a snooze because it was very late, when suddenly a whole crowd of angels appeared to them and sang praises to God. And they told the shepherds: ‘A baby has been born in Bethlehem. He is God’s son, and he has come into the world to save people from sin and death’.

It was on a starry night
(shepherds and sheep come to the front)

L: Now there were, in a far country, wise men who saw an unusual star. And they knew that a special baby had been born, a baby who would be King. So they bought their presents for the new king, packed up their bags, got on their camels and followed the star

Jesus you’re the morning star
(wise men et al and stars come up)

L: After a long journey the wise men arrive at Bethlehem and the star stops over the place where the baby is. And they go in and see Jesus, and they kneel down, and offer him their gifts.

That is what Christmas is all about. So I’m sorry. It is not about penguins – but it is about the birth of Jesus Christ

P: So it’s got nothing to do with penguins?
L: No, I’m sorry.
P: Not even if we are cute, small and fluffy
L: Not even if you are cute, small and fluffy
P: In which case I think I’ll stick with birthday cards. Is it OK for us to be on birthday cards?
L: Yes, of course it is
P: And Christmas is Jesus’ birthday?
L: Yes! clever
P: So I can be on Christmas cards, so long as I remember that they’re Jesus’ birthday cards.
L: I suppose so! I think we better sing again.

Away in a manger

L2: Thank you. I’ve got a Christmas card here.
It doesn’t have a penguin on it. It has a scene showing Jesus birth. Wise men and shepherds are kneeling down before Jesus. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there. It may have been like this. It may have been very different.

I wonder if we could get a person inside a Christmas card?
We’ve got a person into a Christmas card!

But the astonishing thing is that at Christmas, God – who is so so big – far bigger than we can possibly imagine – got Himself inside a baby. He remained God but became completely a human baby.

So God knows what it is like to be us.
- He came to rescue us.
- He came to be our ruler.
- He came in order to help us get to know God

Because God is ‘up there’, so big that he can’t be seen, we could never get to know him. But by becoming a human being, we can begin to know what he is like.  

So Christmas is, I’m sorry, not all about penguins. It is not even a little bit about penguins - although maybe human beings would treat penguins a lot better if they allow Jesus to be in control. Christmas is about God packing himself into a baby, living among us, dieing and rising from the dead, so that we can get to know him:
‘Father God, thank you that your Son became a baby and was born as our Lord Jesus. Thank you that you came into this world to set us free from sin and death. Help us to get to know Jesus and to get to know you. Amen.' 

In the bleak midwinter

Final prayer

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Christmas talk: how God gets involved

John 1:14-18

An address given on the occasion of a mayoral carol service 2012

One of the things that this season gives us is the opportunity to gather together and to say thank you. 

Thank you to each other. And I wish to take this opportunity to say 'thank you’ to all of you who represent our borough and the people of our borough – and thank you particularly to all of you who have chosen to stand as councillors or elected officials, whether you were elected or not. 

It takes a great deal of courage to stand for election to public office. I know - because I wouldn’t dare to do so. You get a lot of stick. And I get angry when people have a go at our political leaders, whether at national or local level, and when they say, ‘They’re all the same. They’re all in it for what they can get out of it’. I know that in 99.9% of cases that is simply not true. Joshua Hordern was a councillor here before he took up his post at Oxford university earlier this year. He was also a member of our congregation. And I know that he, like each one of you – whatever your political persuasion - went into it because you have a passion for society and how it is shaped, and you have a passion for people. And you are willing to get involved. 

So Mr Mayor, if it is not presumptious of me to say so, ‘thank you’. Ladies and Gentlemen councillors – borough or town – and I mean this, and I am not just saying this to butter you up, or to persuade you to sort out the traffic problems in ...  (!) - 'thank you'.

But of course when we gather for a carol service, it is also an opportunity for us to say thank you to God. Because he chose to get involved. Thank you for all that he chooses to reveal and all that he chooses to give. 

Our reading from John states that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen his glory, glory of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). When we look at Jesus Christ we see the character of our Father God. 

Yes there was that moment when Jesus went up on a mountain and shone with all the radiance of an exploding super-nova. The disciples could not look at him. They saw him quite literally in a completely new light. They saw his glory.

And they saw his glory, the character of God when he enabled a virgin to conceive, when he turned water into wine, when he healed a man born blind from birth, when he fed 5000 and calmed the storm. They saw his glory when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. 

But they also saw the glory of Jesus, the character of God when Jesus was born as a baby in a cowshed; and when he hung on a cross, out of love for his Father, and out of love for us. 

You see the glory of God is not just shown in the power stuff. 
The glory of Jesus is shown in the love stuff. 

The glory of God is shown in the fact that out of love he came to save the least and the lost and the last. 

And for those of us who are in positions of influence we need to remember that. 

When we stand on that last judgement day before God it will not be about status, or wealth, or whose phone number we have in our contacts list. It will not be about how big we are, or how many projects have our name on them, how long our wikipedia entry is (if we have one), how many followers we have on twitter or about our celebrity rating.

Rather it will be about how much we have loved like Jesus. It will be about whether I bothered to visit Fred Arbon in Pinford End, who 7 years ago had a haemorrhage and suffered 95% brain death, and who has since been there in a near total vegetative state. It will be about how I treat Joan, an elderly housebound lady. That is what will matter.

And my problem is that, on those criteria, when I stand before God I don't have a chance in hell. I don't even pretend to begin to get anywhere close to anything resembling the love stuff of God.  

But – and it is a very big BUT - John continues, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16) 

We think that the last, the least and the lost are those people out there who we care for. 

But we can only begin to receive those blessings from God when we realise that we are the ones who are lost. 

That is why God has, in his mercy, to bring some people very low in order to receive him. I think of Chuck Colson, President Nixon’s chief of staff, or Jonathan Aitken. They both became Christians in prison and since then have been and are being (although Colson is now in glory) used dramatically and powerfully by God. They’re particularly dramatic cases. 

But we can only receive forgiveness when we recognise that we need to be forgiven; we can only receive strength to change so that we can begin to love when we recognise that we are pretty self-centred and need to change; we can only receive a free pass, paid for by Jesus, into the kingdom of Heaven if we wish to go there and if we realise we can’t get there by our own achievement or effort. 

That is why the Christmas story tells of the wise men, known as the three kings, who come to Jesus. They are good men, respectable and respected men – and yet they fall down and they worship the baby.

Why? Because they have met with the awesome power of God? Possibly. 
Simone Weil wrote of an encounter she had with God while praying in the C12th chapel of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, ‘Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees’ 

But I suspect that they went down on their knees because they realised that they were in the presence of the mercy and love of God – who gave up heaven in order to come to earth so that we might begin to live the life of heaven on earth. And they wanted it. 

So at this Christmas time, as we say thank you to you for choosing to get involved (and I would encourage others here to get involved - whatever your political convictions) and for all that you do, it is very good 
- to remember again the story of Jesus - how he got involved
- to look at him and to see the character of God; 
- to come to him so that we, who ourselves are broken, mixed up and lost, can receive forgiveness, mercy and the strength to live lives that are controlled by a passionate love for God and a deep love for others. 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

on Marriage, men and women

On the occasion of a wedding

You’ve asked for the reading from Genesis which speaks of one of the earliest understandings of the origin of marriage. We can’t expect it to be a scientific description because it describes an event which happened before what God-thinkers call the fall, when men and women rebelled against God and space and time were radically corrupted. So we can only use picture language to describe what happened before that moment.

But it is worth spending a bit of time with, because – however we understand this story – it tells us some pretty astonishing stuff about the unique place for marriage.

1. It speaks of the equality of husband and wife. 

At the very beginning, the first man seems to have been a pretty androgynous character. Woman was still in him. He was both man and woman.

And it was as man and woman that he names the animals.

And the original purpose of God was that man and woman were created to take responsibility for creation, under God, together.

I may have mentioned how in the Orthodox marriage service, crowns are held above the head of the bride and bridegroom. They symbolise that man and woman together were given responsibility for creation.

It is when we do things together that we are so much stronger. It is when we bring our different gifts together that we can do so much more.  Two cords are stronger than one. So do talk together. All the books and all the experience says that there is one critical ingredient for any marriage to work: ‘communication’. And if our marriages are to work, if they are to be effective, if they are to enable us to work better and to serve more, then we need to talk together. We need to whisper our secrets, share our hurts, sing our joys, discuss our ideas and speak of our news. Do watch yourself when your pain makes you go more and more into yourself. Make the effort to share how you are feeling. Do be very careful when tiredness or busyness make you withdraw into yourself. If you are too tired or too busy to talk, you are too tired or too busy. Make time to be together. Put it in your diaries. Set it aside as almost sacred.

2. It speaks of the partnership of husband and wife

To find a suitable helper for this man, God had to make ‘him’ less and he had to make ‘her’ obviously part of him. She alone could fill the gap. That is what is going on with the rib business. Women and men do have the same number of ribs, but on this occasion, with the specific first man and the first woman, God takes a rib from Adam and forms it into Eve. So when Adam sees Eve, he sees that which he once had but is now missing from him. In other words, when he sees Eve he sees part of himself. ‘This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’.

In other words, what we have here is a vision of one who becomes two, in order that those two might become one again, but in a much richer way.

As a married couple you really are now part of each other. People sometimes talk of their marriage partner as ‘their other half’. You are. You need each other.

Oddly, if there is any truth in this story, man probably needs woman more than woman needs man.

And if we are part of each other, we need to build each other up. There is the story about the husband who, on the day after the wedding, said, ‘Darling, now that we are married, may I tell you some of your faults’. She replied, ‘Of course, my dear, because obviously those are the faults which prevented me from finding a better husband’.

No, rather be like the woman who, on her wedding day, resolved to make a list of her husband-to-be’s 10 greatest faults, and from then on to overlook anything he did that was on the list. Many years later she was asked what the list was. She replied, ‘I never did make that list. But when my husband does something that irritates me, I think, ‘Lucky for him that’s on my list’.  

You are part of each other. When one of you is built up, the other grows bigger. When one of you hurts, the other bleeds. When one of you is exalted, the other dances.

3. It calls men to take responsibility for their marriage.

There is something here about the fact that it is man who is now lacking (the rib, part of himself) and so he tends to take the initiative. After the fall, that taking the initiative becomes twisted, and starts to be expressed in terms of rule and submission. But it was never how God intended. In this case, man – out of desire for woman, for what is part of himself – leaves his family to be joined to her.  

And forgive me for taking a moment to speak to the men here. Don’t be afraid to take the initiative. Far be it for me to say that women should not take the initiative. Of course they should. As I’ve said, we’re in this together. But I think it is particularly easy for us as men, especially on the domestic front, to wimp out, and to leave it to the women. We may be in command of hundreds of people, but when it comes to the bringing up of our own children, or taking the initiative romantically, or making the decision to take time off to have a holiday with the family – we would far rather be at the club or pub pronouncing on subjects about which we will never be able to do anything.

Somebody said that the best thing you can do for your children is to love their mother. It is, of course, essential. But it is equally important that you get involved and take the initiative for your marriage and for any children who God blesses you with.

4. It speaks of the complementarity of husband and wife in marriage.

There is, in the ideal, a beautiful affirming complementarity in marriage. Two people who are different but now one. They are both naked and they feel no shame. Here are two people completely at ease with each other. Someone described love as two older people, who have been married for over 50 years, sitting silently side by side on a park bench, holding hands together.

This really is the ideal for marriage. It is why Christians so passionately defend the idea that a real marriage can only be between man and woman.

The problem is that because human beings have rebelled against God, have chosen to trust themselves rather than his word, our marriages and we ourselves are deeply flawed. And for this we need God.

Next week we celebrate the fact that God came into our broken world as a human being. He died, he rose again, and although we cannot see him now, we believe that he is alive, that he is with us and that one day he will come again as judge. Whereas before the birth of Jesus we were invited to put our trust in a Word of God spoken by the prophets, we now are invited to put our trust in a person. And for us to work and for our marriages to begin to work as God intended, in their glorious complementarity, we need him.

So, I would encourage you, for the sake of your marriage, and for the sake of a joy and peace and happiness which not even death can destroy, to seek the God who has given us Jesus Christ, his Son. He loves you; He would be your ruler, your heavenly Father, and your most intimate friend; He desires to be part of you and for you to be part of him.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

A Christmas message

The bible tells us that when the wise men arrived to see the baby Jesus 'they fell down and worshipped him' (Matthew 2:11)

I find that rather strange.

Grown men, wealthy men, respected and respectable men walk into an unknown peasant home, see a baby and don't just delight that their journey has come to an end, don't just kneel down, but (and the original Greek is quite clear here) 'fall down and worship him'.

It is embarrassingly physical. 

Of course there are certain emotions which might make us fall down and worship. 

It could be sheer fear: the bible tells us of the story of King Nebuchadnezzar. He set up a statue of himself and ordered everyone to fall down and worship it. Everyone did. Because if they didn't, he had said that they would be thrown into a flaming furnace. 

Or perhaps it is desire that makes us fall down and worship: the desire for power, beauty or wealth. The desire to be loved. We don't need to be a Faust or a Dorian Gray or an Anastasia Steele to know desires which make us worship what should never be worshipped. 

But it is not fear or a twisted desire for beauty or power which makes the wise men fall down.

Simone Weil wrote of an encounter she had with God when she was praying in a C12th chapel in Assisi, Santa Maria degli Angeli, a chapel St Francis used to pray in. She writes, 'Something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees'. 

I suspect that when the wise men walked into the house and saw the baby, they realised that they had met with God.
- not the power of God: the power we see in exploding super-novae, or hurricanes or tidal waves. Not the power we see in astonishing miracles or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. 
- rather they met the astonishing mercy and love of God: that God would leave the power behind in order to become a helpless baby, a human being, born as one of us. He became one of us in order that we might know him, in order that we might become like him. 

John writes, 'From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace'. (John 1:16)

And so they fall down and worship - not some perversion that calls itself love, but True Love itself. 

My hope for this Christmastide is that we will meet with True Love Himself - and whether that is in church or on the bus or at home, we will encounter something, no, someone stronger than ourselves, and that we will be compelled, possibly for the first time in our lives - to go down on our knees and worship.

Friday, 7 December 2012

How to prepare for Christmas

There are 17 days to go to Christmas. And there seems to be so much more to do.

We have only just begun to think about Christmas cards; we still don't know what to buy the children; there is not a hint of decoration in the house - although we do have a trussed up Christmas tree outside the back door. It is mad.

How did God prepare us for Christmas?
How did God prepare people for the fact that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who had always been with God, who was equal to God, was - in love - going to empty himself of all his rights and status and power and become a human baby - in utter dependence on God - in order to restore the broken relationship that existed between human beings and God?

It was very simple. God spoke. He told them it was going to happen.

He spoke, as we remember in lighting our second candle today, through the prophets.

Just to take a few:

Isaiah 9:6-7 (NIV) For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

Isaiah 11:1-5 (NIV) A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him ... and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. .. with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. .. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Jeremiah 23:5-6 (NIV) "The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteous Saviour"

Micah 5:2 "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."

Or there is the passage that Luke quotes from Isaiah which we read today (Luke 3:4-6).

God was speaking though Isaiah to the people of Israel when they were slaves in a foreign land, in Babylon. Because they had rejected God, they had suffered defeat followed by exile. They were captives, they were crushed and they were powerless. 
Isaiah is the voice of the one calling in the wilderness. He is declaring the word of God. He is telling the people of Israel that God is going to bring comfort to his people; that he has forgiven them and that he will rescue them. He will bring them out from Babylon and return them back to the promised land. And Isaiah is saying to God's people, "Believe what God is saying. Get ready for God to come among us and do his work". That is how they can make 'straight paths' for him.

And now, 600 years later, another prophet comes along. His name is John. And Luke realises that he is exactly like Isaiah. He's the voice of one calling in the wilderness. And he is telling people to get ready for the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And John tells us how we can get ready, how we can make 'straight paths' for him. His message is not particularly original - but then we are quite stupid and need to be told the same message over and over again. His message is not complicated: 'Repent. Stop trusting in yourself. Believe what God is saying. Get ready for God to come among us and do his work".

So that is how God prepares for the coming of the eternal Son of God into human history to be our Saviour. He spoke. He tells us it is going to happen.

And how should we prepare for the coming of Jesus?

John tells us that we need to repent. John proclaims "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins".

Now we usually think of repentance as saying sorry for the wrong stuff that we do. And that certainly is included in this - we'll see that when we look at the next few verses here next week.

But I think that there is something specific that John is urging people to repent of here.

The point is that God has spoken. He spoke through the prophets  - like Isaiah. He has told us of the Messiah, God's deliverer, who will come and establish God's kingdom on earth.

And yet the people have forgotten. They have lived as if God does not exist. They have lived as if God would not act. They have turned their back on the word of God.

It is fascinating that Luke begins this passage with the list of the current political rulers. He then goes to speak of the high priests. It is what we would expect. After all these are the people who really matter. They are the ones who have the political power, who can get things done.

It is very easy for us to think that it is all about the people who are in Westminster or Washington or Beijing. It is very easy for us to build up men or women into human messiahs who we think will somehow be able to deliver us - we're not quite sure from what!
We see it happening all the time. People being built up: the great hope was Blair, Obama, Cameron. We put our trust in them - and then, when we discover what we really knew all along, that they are human beings just like us - we tear them down. I see it already happening a little in the Church with our Archbishop-elect. People say, "He'll be able to sort the current mess out, and to bring revival to the church". Give him a break; he is just a human being who almost certainly did not want this!

But, Luke continues, and this is fascinating: While they - the important people - were doing their stuff, 'the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness' (Luke 3:2)

Do you see what Luke is trying to say?

It is not about powerful political or religious leaders. It is about what God has said.

For Luke, the phrase 'the word of God' is incredibly important. He uses it in his 2 volumes (Luke and Acts) about 18 times. Jesus preaches the word of God (Luke 5:1); the seed sown is the word of God (Luke 8:11); he pronounces that those who hear the word of God and obey it are blessed (Luke 11:28); the disciples speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31); the 12 apostles choose to give priority to preaching the word of God (Acts 6:2). In Acts 8:14, the Samaritans accept the word of God; in 11:1 the Gentiles receive the word of God. And we are told that the word of God spread (Acts 6:7). Acts speaks as much of numerical church growth as of the growth of the word of God.

And I would like to quote a longer passage, because it is significant for what we are looking at: In Acts 12, Herod - one of the powerful people - is acclaimed by the people. They declare that when he speaks 'This is the voice of a god, not of a mere mortal'. And then we are told, "Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of The Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died. But the word of God continued to increase and spread." (Acts 12:22-24)

Do you see? Political and religious leaders on one side; the word of God on the other side. Power and status and influence on one side; the word of God on the other.

[What is John coming to do?

He is coming to remind people that God has spoken.

Luke really wants us to get this.

He records for us the words of Zechariah, John the Baptist's father, when he speaks out a hymn of praise. Zechariah says 'Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel .. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago)'. He continues, 'to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham'. And he concludes by speaking about John the Baptist, his own boy, 'And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High'. (Luke 1:68-79)

And by quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Luke again is emphasising that what we are talking about here is the word of God that was spoken through the prophets and is now being spoken by John.]

And the call to repent is nothing less than the call to us to stop putting our ultimate trust in the things of this world, but to put our trust in God who has spoken through his word.

Yes, it involves getting rid of the rubbish and living a good life; but that can only happen when we trust what God has said. It is about becoming people who are controlled, directed, comforted, challenged, motivated, driven by the word of God.

That is true faith; that is saving faith.

Whose voice is most important for you? Is it what you feel? Is it what your friends or family say? Is it what political and religious leaders say?

We listen to many voices. There is the voice of the TV, of the papers or magazines we read or the films we watch; there is the voice of youtube or the radio or the songs we listen to, the many voices on facebook, and all the tweeting on twitter. And what we put in, what goes into our head through our ears and our eyes, will shape our mind - what we think and how we live.

I'm not saying 'Don't listen to any of that stuff'. We live in this world.

What I am saying is that we need to repent because we have gagged God. We have silenced him. We come to church for an hour or so on Sunday; for many of us it is the only time we have an opportunity to listen to the bible. We may sit through a sermon for 12 or 15 minutes: and that is the God-input we get for a week. It is nothing.

God has spoken and we have jammed either cotton wool or our iPod speakers in our ears.

John demands, in the middle of all the busy-ness, that we say sorry to God because we give far more weight - in terms of time and priority - to what the world says rather than what he says.

And true repentance involves a decision to change the way we live.
So I urge you to resolve to put aside time each day to read the bible and to pray.

It really is astonishing the difference that it can make.

You will get up in the morning, or you will come to that time in the day when you plan to put aside time for God, and you will suddenly think of 73 more important things to do. That is the devil speaking, and it is a lie. When we do take time to put God first, to listen to him, it is amazing how other things seem to slot into their rightful place. Some of the most busy people are people who make prayer a priority. The busier they are, the more they pray. For me personally it was when I started to the read the bible systematically and seriously that my experience of God came alive, and that I discovered him working in me and through me.

There are so many different things that can help us in our listening to the word of God: Anglican morning prayer; Bible reading notes; Commentaries. What I am commending at the moment is WordLive, a brilliant online resource, produced by Scripture Union, which can help people engage with the bible and listen to the word of God (I was really encouraged when I met someone last week who said that she had been so excited to discover WordLive and that it had already made a big difference to her).

And I do urge you, in the new year, if you are not in one of our midweek small groups - when we come together to learn from the bible, listen to God, and support each other in our Christian faith - that you consider joining a group. Edward and Elizabeth are starting a new group, or there are several others which you could join.

God's people are to be people who are fundamentally known as people of the word.
And I long that you and I would be people of the word - not just listening to it on Sundays, but daily. I long to see small groups of people meeting together to read the bible and to help one another listen to the word of God. You all read the same passage. And when you come together, one of you says, "I've read this passage and I think I'm God". The others can - very gently - question you a bit and ask, "Is that really what it is saying? We didn't get that from this."

I've had the great joy recently of an Introducing Jesus course which didn't work! By that I mean that only one person turned up. But it's been wonderful - meeting with him on 2 or 3 occasions and going through the Bible together. And he wants to do it. He has a hunger for the word of God. Probably, of all the things that I do, it is the one that brings me most joy. Several of you have had the privilege of doing this sort of thing already: meeting with a friend and saying, 'Let's read the bible together and consider: 'What is the word of God saying?'

I've just been reading an article by a Christian leader who said the most significant thing for his growth as a disciple and follower of Jesus Christ was the fact that his pastor met with him every week for 4 years, and they read the bible together, discussed it and then prayed.

And I would encourage you. It is a very easy thing to do - but it takes a bit of courage to begin doing it.
Some of you should be taking the initiative and looking for someone who you could read the bible with. Pray that God will show you who that person can be. Don't wait for me to put you in touch with someone, because it won't happen. If you are getting to know someone, offer to spend regular time with them, reading the bible together, learning together.
And some of you really should be seeking to grow in your faith; and you should be taking the initiative and finding someone who can read with you.  Go to someone you trust; ask them - or ask Matt or myself to find someone for you.

We need to prepare to meet with Jesus.
He came, as the word of God spoken by the prophets and John the Baptist said he would. He was born that first Christmas. And, as the word of God says, he is coming again.

And we need to hear the call to repent; we need to say a serious sorry because we give so much more weight to the voices out there, rather than to the word of God.  And we need to choose to spend time listening to the word, and then living our lives according to the word.

And please do not say that you are too busy to begin today. That is what the other voices are saying, and they are literally demonic. So I am going to challenge myself and every person in this building to - as an absolute minimum - put aside 15 minutes each day, between now and Christmas, to stop, sit down quietly, to read a passage of the bible, to think about what you have read and to spend a few minutes in prayer - even if it is just slowly praying through the Lord's Prayer.

You have a choice to make. Are you going to be simply a person of the world - who only listens to the Pilate's, Herod's or Philip's of this world?  Or are you going to be a man or woman of God who listens to the word of God?