Saturday, 28 December 2013

The dark side of Christmas

Today we look at the dark side of Christmas.

The period of Christmas can be very painful.
There is more domestic violence and more family break ups at Christmas than at any other time of year.
It is that period when people can most feel their isolation and lonliness.
And of course, if there are people we have loved who are no longer with us, it can hurt like hell.

We tend to focus on the joy: the birth of the baby, the angels, the shepherds and the wise men. But that first Christmas also brought immense pain.

And today we read about the slaughter of the innocents.

Alison was about to show her class of 6 year olds the film The Nativity. She thought she was on fairly safe ground. But she had to turn it off very quickly, because it begins at the end of the story, with the soldiers preparing to ride into Bethlehem to carry out this slaughter.

is not going to tolerate any possible threat to his throne. So he sends his soldiers to murder all the baby boys who are two years old or under, in Bethlehem and its region.

Not that many children would have been killed. We are not talking about a big population here. There would probably have been about 12 children. But if that is the case, then that first Christmas brought utter devastation to 12 familiesOnly those who have lost a baby will really understand their grief and brokenness. And just because it happened a long time ago, far away, at a time when life was harder and more brutal, it would not have been any easier.

The bible does not gloss over this incident. In fact Matthew specifically draws our attention to it and quotes from the prophet Jeremiah (Matthew 1:18).

Jeremiah tells of how Rachel (the mother of the Israelite nation) weeps for her children (the people of Israel) as they go into exile.  But Matthew tells us that Rachel was also weeping for something else: for these children mercilessly cut down, and for their families.  She is inconsolable.  

So why?
Why would God not only allow this to happen, but in this case to actually be the direct cause of it?
If Jesus had not been born, or if the wise men had not gone to Jerusalem and spoken to Herod, then those children would not have died.

And on the surface their death didn’t do anything. Their death didn’t make the world a better place. Their death didn’t save Jesus. It appears to be an exercise in brutal utter pointlessness. Joseph had been warned in a dream to get away. Why hadn’t God given dreams to their fathers? Why hadn’t God spoken in a dream to Herod? Why hadn’t God stopped the soldiers? In the OT, three squads of 50 men come to get Elijah. Elijah calls down fire on the first two squads and they are destroyed. If God could do it then, why could he not do it now?

I’m not going to try to explain why there is so much suffering in the world. I’m going to leave that to Andrew Buttress for next Sunday evening, when he is going to be leading us in thinking about ‘Why does God allow Tsunami’s?’!

But there are several things I would like us to remember

1. Evil things happen when people refuse to put what they have under the authority of God. 

It was not God who murdered the children. Herod murdered the children because he was not prepared to place his authority under God. He thought that political power – and everything that came with it - was his by right and he was going to do everything he could to hold onto it.

It was all very much on form for Herod. When he came to power he began by annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews. He slaughtered 300 court officers. He murdered his wife Mariamne, her mother Alexandra and two of his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. Five days before he died, he murdered his eldest son Antipater - and as he died he arranged the death of 3000 of the leading citizens of Jerusalem (which was, thankfully for them, not carried out).

And today evil things happen because people who have power or status or material possessions won’t place them under the authority of God, think they are theirs by right and try to hold on to them. 

It is easy, and right, to point the finger at Kim Jong Un, Assad or Mugabe. But we need to examine ourselves here.

I quote, “Each year about 11 million children die of preventable diseases, often for want of simple and easily provided improvements in nutrition, sanitation and maternal health and education. More than 50% of these children die at home due to poor access to any health facilities (UNICEF, 2002). That is not 12, but 30000 children dying each day because those of us who have are not prepared to share what we have for the sake of those who have not.

And the brutal fact is that while the global power structures and economic instruments are stacked in favour of the richest populations in the world, it will continue. And it is political suicide, especially in a democracy, for a government to advocate policies which disadvantage their own nation in favour of others who are less well off. Woe betides the government which introduces a trade agreement which is advantageous to the other. Woe betides the government which says toothers: by comparison with you we have an amazing health service, partly staffed by experts from your country because we can afford to pay them more than you can – so you are welcome to make use of it. We would vote them out.

The problem is that evil happens when people who have, refuse to recognise that what we have is a gift of God.

2. God knows

The eternal Son of God did the exact opposite of Herod. He did not cling to power, but he gave up heaven and came and lived in the world as one who had no power.

He was born in a stable, and became a political refugee: an asylum seeker in Egypt.

When he came back from Egypt he lived with his family in Nazareth – no doubt a delightful town, but not the centre of the universe. Matthew’s comment, So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene’” is difficult, because we know of no prophet who said that. But the prophets did say that he would live on the edge in an obscure place.

And the reason that God kept Jesus safe now, at his birth, was because Jesus needed to be able to freely choose, as an adult, to give up his life. And 33 years later he did choose to give himself up to death that was far more brutal than those little children experienced. He had nails hammered into his wrists and his ankles and he was hung up to die publicly, slowly and in agony. And, as he died, his mother’s heart was broken and, more significantly, his Father’s heart was broken.

So even if we don’t understand why God allows suffering, we do know that he knows what it is like. He knows what the parents of those 12 children went through. He knows what some of you have been through. He knows what some unknown parents of some unknown child dying in Bangladesh for lack of clean water are going through.

I remember hearing of a man who visited his sick child in a hospice. It was the child’s birthday, and he had brought in a cake. But when he got to the ward, the child was dying. Two hours later he walked away from the bed of his now dead child, still holding his cake – and in his grief and anger he hurled the cake at a statue of Jesus on the cross, and then broke down. Only later did he realise the significance of what he had done: God knows what it is like to lose a child.

3. God is in control

It is very clear that God is in control of everything that is happening here. Three times in our few verses Joseph has a dream which guides him; three times we read the words, ‘And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said’.

In one sense this simply deepens the mystery of what is happening here. If God is in control, why doesn’t he do something?

Why doesn’t he step in and stop Herod?
Why doesn’t he step in and strip us of what we have, given that we are not going to choose to give it up voluntarily – so that others can live? Or perhaps he does?

But there is also something that brings hope here. The God who is in control is, we are told, a God who loves us, who delights in us and desires that we should grow to become the people he made us to be, so that he can rejoice in us and we can rejoice in him. And while we do not understand what on earth is going on now, we can trust him and we call out to him.

Because God is in control there may be no answers now, but we can still ask the question now in trust that there will be an answer then.

4There is hope.

Egypt in the bible is an enigmatic place.

It is the place that God uses to bring refuge to his people.
Do you remember another Joseph, who lived many many years before our Joseph?He was sold as a slave by his brothers and taken to Egypt; but he was also sentthere by God in order to prepare the way for the very people who sold him to be kept safe through a famine.

But Egypt is also the place of slavery and of suffering.
The descendants of the very people who sold Joseph as a slave became slavesthemselves in Egypt. And Pharaoh, like Herod, would not voluntarily give up power. So as the numbers of the people of Israel grew, and as they became a political threat to him, Pharoah did what Herod did. He slaughtered their baby boys.

But God saves one child from the slaughter. His name was Moses. And God uses Moses to bring his people out of slavery and suffering in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land.

And now we are told that God tells this new Joseph to take his son to Egypt, where he will be kept safe. And then Jesus returns from Egypt to Israel. ‘And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ (Matthew 2:14)

Do you see what Matthew is telling us about Jesus?

There is hope.

Just as there once was a man called Moses who God used to rescue his people fromslavery and suffering, so now another one will come who will rescue people from the tyranny of Herod and from the tyranny of evil. ‘He will be called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21)

I’ve mentioned that Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31:15, which speaks of the grief of Rachel weeping for her children.
The following verse states: “This is what the LORD says: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded," declares the LORD. "They will return from the land of the enemy.  So there is hope for your future," declares the LORD. "Your children will return to their own land.”

 Because of Jesus, sin and death do not have the final word

Sin does not have the final word.
You and I can be changed from being like Herod to becoming like Christ. He really can change us – I know it is hard to imagine - from being people who grab hold of what we have got and keep it, into people who are set free to give and to love. Not because we are told to do it, but because we freely choose to do it.

Death does not have the final word.
These 12 or so children have often been considered the first New Testament martyrs for Christ: the first of many who explicitly died in his name - and who will be resurrected with him.

I do hope that you have had a good Christmas. But if it has been painful, be reassured that it is not really about tinsel and mistletoe. It is about the Son of God coming into the darkest places of our world and the deepest hurts in our lives and saying, ‘I do know; I’m still in control and there is hope’.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

A Christ-mess: a talk for a carol service.

Christmas is about tradition. It is predictable and safe.

There is all the stuff: Christmas trees, decorations, school nativity plays and carol services – concerts – celebrations (I get quite confused these days when welcoming people, so I say ‘welcome to the school Christmas celebration concert service’), Christmas cards: yes, with the newsletters! You read about their children: big Jimmy has become an international Rugby player; little Jemima has got into Oxford (at the age of 13). And then you look at your own children … and love them. It is about wrapping paper and presents, Downton Abbey and Dr Who, Father Christmas and Christmas stockings, John Lewis adverts (‘if I see it again I will go on a bear hunt’). And it is about traditional food: turkey, mince pies and sprouts!!

Woe betides anybody who suggests that anything should change.

My sister in law has proposed that we don't have turkey on Christmas Day. By the response she has got anybody would think that she had suggested that we dance naked round Stonehenge on the winter solstice.  

But may I suggest that if you wish to have a predictable and safe Christmas then you are probably in the wrong place! 

God is in the business of creating chaos at Christmas

He did it the first Christmas

There was poor Joseph.
His life plan was blown out of the water.
He dreamt of marrying his nice uncomplicated devout Jewish girl; they would settle down, build a home together, have children, be respected.
Instead the Word of God came to him in a dream. It shook him to his very core. God told him to still marry Mary even though she was pregnant. If he said ‘Yes’, then his reputation was in pieces. If he said ‘Yes’, he would become a joke.

And then there were the shepherds.
They were having a quiet evening minding their own business, when they experience something which would blow anybody’s mind.
I love the cartoon which shows them waving their fists at the angels saying, ‘Shove off; you are frightening the sheep’.
But those angels tell them that that there is something more important than business. They show them that there is something that is bigger than what we can see or feel or touch or smell or taste: that there is another dimension to this world. And they declare that the key to this other world is lying in a drinking trough in a cow shed in Bethlehem.

And then there were the wise men.
They had their heads in the cloud, quite literally. They were the academics of the time, studying the books and the stars.
But when they realized that the king they were waiting for had been born, they knew they had to do something. ‘Let’s go and see him’, they said, ‘Let’s take him gifts and pledge our obedience. If this child is THE king, then we want him to know that we are on his side’.
It cost them a lot. It cost them their time (it was a long journey); it cost them their money (those gifts were expensive); it cost them their dignity (kneeling before a very ordinary baby) – and (if, as I suspect, camel riding has not changed in 2000 years) it also cost them their backsides!

And if we are prepared to hear the call of God that there is a world that is bigger than what we see, hear or feel, and that this baby is the key to that world, then we will have a disruptive Christmas.
If it is true that the baby born 2000 years ago is the eternal son of God who came to live among us and die for us – then:

It turns our motives on their head.
In the last couple of weeks I met two men who have recently become dads. Both of them said that their child has changed their lives, and has turned their world upside down. They both said that they have someone to live for.

It is a big step to remove yourself from being the focus of your thinking – and often the birth of our own child can help us to do that.

But I think there is a further step we need to take. If this child born 2000 years ago was the son of God, if this child was actually the One who gave us our children, then even before we live for our own children, we need to learn to live for him.

It turns all our values on their head. 
It means that it is not about powerful people in powerful places. He wasn't born as a prince in a palace but as a pauper in a pigsty. It is instead about identifying ourselves with the most broken and vulnerable.

It means it is not about our reputation, asserting our rights, living a comfortable life surrounded by nice things. It is about service and self-sacrifice.

It means it is not about getting, but giving

It turns our lives on their heads  
It means that God exists, not up there distant, aloof, uncaring and unconcerned. He has come to live among us. We can’t ignore him. Jesus is God’s calling card. If God is God then we need to treat him as God. He does not exist for us; we exist for Him. He does not fit in with our schedule; we fit into his. And it is not about putting ourselves in the centre, but putting God in the centre. 

It means it is not about trying to prove ourselves; it is not about trying to show to ourselves or to others that we are acceptable or lovable or deserving of forgiveness. It is instead about being open, and ready to kneel down before God, coming with nothing to offer, and simply receiving his love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his power for living and his destiny for our lives.

If we are prepared to put our trust in God, then we will realize that Christmas is not just about the trees, the presents or even the sprouts - but it is about people who were enemies of God becoming people who are friends of God, knowing him in a way that is more real than the way that we know those who are closest to us.

And so Christmas is not just about tradition, predictability and safety.
It is about God coming to earth in order to shake our lives to the very core.

Think of that young woman, probably about 14 years old, brought up in a respectable God-fearing home. She was a good girl. Her whole identity was probably built around being a good girl. And now, even though she would remain a good girl, if she said ‘Yes’ to God she risked losing everything: the man she loved, her family, her future. She risked becoming a social outcast; no: more than a social outcast. When she started talking about the angel, you know what they would say: ‘It’s that mad slut Mary’.

But Mary heard the call of God and put her trust God. She said ‘Yes’ to God; and as a result God came quite literally into the centre of her life.

I think of people in our town who have heard the soul-shaking life-changing call of God. As a result they have set up town pastors, a debt counseling service, a food bank long before food banks became the social thing to do, a programme to support those with special needs and those who care for them, a work with the homeless, youth clubs, football clubs, and support for the elderly and shut in.

And if we hear the soul-shaking life-changing call of God and say ‘yes’ – whatever it costs – then the God-seed will be planted inside us (not, thankfully, quite in the same way that it was planted inside Mary) and it will begin to grow in us, and transform us and make us not into good people, but into God people. People who know the presence and the peace and the power and the purpose of God.

So of course you can have a safe and predictable Christmas, but to do so you need to shut God out – and get away from here as quickly as possible! And would you forgive me if I do not wish you a safe and predictable Christmas? I don’t think I would wish that on anybody! Instead I would love you to hear the call of God and have a disruptive Christmas!! Because it is only when we allow God to shake us up, that we will really discover who we truly are, what our destiny is, and find ultimate peace, fulfillment, hope and joy.

So I wish you, and apologies in advance for this dreadful pun, not happy Christ-mas, but a truly glorious disruptive Christ-mess.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

What is repentance?

Matthew 3:1-12

I’d like us to look this morning at one of those religious words: repentance 

John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Messiah: his message is very simple: 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near'. (Matthew 3:1-12)

[As an aside, it is significant that John was in the wilderness. We look for God in the powerful places of this world, in the magnificent buildings, in the big events. But actually the place where most of us meet with God is when we put those things aside and come to him in brokenness and with nothing. Many of the early Christians, when the empire officially became Christian, chose to leave the centres of power and went into the desert. And the people of God speak with far more authority and effectiveness when we speak from the wilderness, from the edge, rather than from the centre.]

a. So what is repentance?

Repentance is not just about saying sorry for the bad stuff that we do.

It comes from the Greek word metanoia, and means literally ‘a change of mind’. 

When John calls us to repent he is calling us to change our mind about God, to live for God not against God, with God not without God. 

What we are talking about is a complete reorientation of our life. It is about turning from living in a self-centred direction to living in a God-direction. It is about saying that we are no longer going to try and shape God in our image, but that we will allow God to shape us in his image. It is about recognising that God does not exist for me, but that I exist for him; that God is not someone who is going to schedule his calendar around me, but I that need to schedule my calendar around him.

When we repent we are saying that we will not live for either ourselves or the stuff of this world, but for the one who gives us life and who gives us the stuff.

In our real world and in the virtual worlds that we create, we place ourselves in the centre. We arrange the furniture around ourselves. When we repent we are saying to God that we choose to remove ourselves from the centre and ask Him to rearrange the furniture so that he is in the centre.
Repentance is a one off moment that has an eternal significance. It is that moment when a person recognises that they have been living for self and living against God – and they choose to repent, and turn to God. That is the moment when a person becomes a Christian, when they were born again. Some of you remember when that moment was. Some of you won’t, because it happened deep down inside of you, and you are living repentance now. But some of us here will not remember a moment, because there never has been a moment. It is to you that I am particularly speaking today.

b. Why should we repent?

John gives us three reasons

1. Because the Kingdom of God, the rule of God is coming:

 ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near’.

When John talks about the Kingdom of God he is speaking about a time in the future when the kingdom of God will be established.

The prophets did speak of a future time when God’s kingdom will come. There will be a new heaven and earth: it is unimagineable to our minds which are so blinded by sin. We’re looking at Isaiah 25 this evening, which speaks of the kingdom as a time of feasting, of abundance, of joy and of life. There will be no suffering. There will be no death, no fear, no sin.

We’re not talking about an eternity of sitting on clouds playing harps: who wants to go there?! I’m talking about a very solid creation, where, for instance, we will be able to visit what is now Norway and see the fiords but as the fiords were always meant to be. And I imagine that there will be constant discovery and wonder and adventure in this future kingdom. It will be a place of deep fr..endship (where the ‘i’ has been taken out), of laughter and music and astonishing beauty; of space, creativity and freedom; and of unutterable joy. The currency of the Kingdom of heaven will be love; and the values of the Kingdom of heaven will be right-ness, graciousness, truth, mercy and justice.

Imagine that this kingdom is like a physical city, surrounded by high walls. You are on the outside. The many gates are closed and locked, but there is one way in. It is very obvious. There is an open door. But it is tiny. To go in, you need to kneel down and go in on your knees.

But in your own eyes you are too big for that door. So at times you turn your back on the city and pretend it is not there; at other times you go up to the other doors and demand right of entrance because of how good, or cool, or clever or big you are.

But there is only one way in. Repentance is when we give up trying to do it by ourselves, when we stop trying to justify ourselves, and recognise that we will never be good enough, or big enough or cool enough or strong enough to get in to this city - and when we are prepared to get down on our knees.

Why should we repent? Because the Kingdom of heaven is close, and God wants you to be part of it.

2. Because the King is coming.

Matthew tells us that John has come to, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’ (v3). 
John has come to say that the King of this Kingdom is coming. 

In the Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn enters the fortified city of Mina Tirith for the first time as king, the city's steward proclaims Aragorn's royal pedigree for all the citizens to hear: "Here is Aragorn son of Arathorn, .. Captain of the Host of the West, bearer of the Star of the North, wielder of the Sword Reforged, victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing, .. Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?"

So John calls to the people. He says, ‘Here comes the King, God’s King, the Messiah, the Christ, the Second Adam, the Bright and Morning Star, the First and the Last, victorious in battle, Son of David, Son of Man, Word of God, Immanuel, the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Shall he be king?

The King did come. He was born in that stable 2000 years ago. He died on the cross to open that door into his kingdom. And we believe that one day King Jesus will come back in glory – and we will see him, whether we have died or are still living. 

John calls us to receive the king. He urges us, ‘Repent because you have lived as if you have no king; you have been trying to pretend that you are the ruler of your own life. Turn to him; throw yourself upon his mercy and allow him to reign over you’.

Why should you repent? Because the king has come and will come, and you are called to welcome him.

3. Because Judgement is coming.

When God’s king comes, he brings God’s judgement with him.

‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will .. gather his wheat into the barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’ (v12)

Judgement is important.

It tells us that there is something, a standard, that is bigger than us. It tells us that you and what you do really matters.

Apparently in one episode in Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman, who is a drug pusher, commits murder. He then attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to try and find some relief. After Jesse shares a thinly veiled version of his crime, the group leader counsels self-acceptance. "We're not here to sit in judgment," he says.

Jesse explodes: ‘Why not? Why not? … If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point? … So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I'm a great guy? It's all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just—what, do an inventory, and accept?’

The creator of the show, Vince Gilligan believes in hell and judgment for human sin. He said, "I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell."

Most of us, I suspect, would agree. There must be a hell for the people who do really bad things – but not for good people, or people who try hard, like me!

But if John is right, and sin is not simply about what we do, but about a wrong attitude to God, his kingdom and his king, then we are in trouble. Jesus told several stories about the judgement. Most of them tell that story of a ruler who was rejected by his servants. They tell of how he will come and bring devastating judgement on those rebellious servants.

So John urges us to repent.

c. What are the marks of repentance?

1. There is confession of sins (v6)

When we confess our sins we admit that God is right and we are wrong. That is what happens at each of our services when we use the general confession.

 But often confession needs to be more specific.

I like the story told of the preacher who stood up in the pulpit and said, ‘Someone in this congregation has stolen a goose. If you have stolen a hen .. a turkey .. a goose, stand up.’ Nobody stood up, but at the end of the service, a large man with sweat pouring off his face said as he was going out, ‘Pastor, if you had said ‘Duck’ I was a gonna!’

It is desperately hard, especially when we need to confess in front of other people. We become vulnerable. 

But it is also extremely powerful. It allows God to work in us.

The fifth century Christian spiritual leader John Cassian claimed that "as soon as a wicked thought has been revealed [to God and at least one other Christian] it loses its power." The demonic stronghold of sin is "drawn out as it were into the light from its dark and [deep] cave by the power of the confession …. For [Satan's] harmful counsels hold sway in us as they lie concealed in our heart."

2. They are baptised

I’m not going to go into much detail on this.

Most organisations require you to do something before you can become a member: you might have to meet the qualifying criteria, be voted in at a meeting, take a test, or undergo some ritual, or pay some money.

What do you need to do to become a Christian, and a member of God's organisation, the church? Pay your money; be really good; show evidence of serious repentance?

The only thing Jesus asks of you is that you have to be willing to allow someone else throw water over you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

3. They bear the fruit of repentance

Twice John challenges the Pharisees and Sadducees to live lives that bear the good fruit of repentance (v8,10).

That would have astonished those people who were watching. They would have assumed that if anybody qualified, then the Pharisees would.

But John realises that you can live a good life and still be closed to God and self-centred. This is one of the big things that I have discovered. We live ‘good’ lives from self-centred motives. Many of us live good, moral lives because we are trying to prove that we are something to ourselves, or to others or even to God. We live good lives because we have discovered that that is the way to get on and to succeed in life. But good lives, even saint-like lives, are not necessarily a sign of repentance.

Martin Luther would counsel people, and it was only half tongue in cheek, to go and do some really big sin – because only then will they discover the true pain that sin causes, and the true overwhelming nature of the forgiveness and mercy of God.

And what is the fruit of repentance? What is the fruit of someone who knows that they are a sinner but that they have been forgiven by the mercy of God?
It is shown when we forgive others; it is shown when we have deep mercy and love for those who sin – even before they repent. That is the way of God. 'It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.' 

I know that we passionately want to stand for biblical standards in society, but when it becomes our primary message, and we end up preaching morality, then we are in danger of becoming like the Pharisees. It makes us seem so far away from the Jesus who had such mercy on us. 

d. Repentance is the first essential step to receiving the Spirit of God

John says, ‘I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who ...  will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (v11)

This is the Spirit of God that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Joel clearly talked about. They spoke of the day when God would give the Spirit who would come and live in us, so that the law of God – which was something out there that had to be obeyed, becomes something in here that we delight in with all our heart;
it is the Spirit which will change our cold frozen stone-like heart into a heart which deeply and profoundly loves God and which loves other people;
it is the Spirit who will transform us from being self-obsessed,or obsessed about what others think of us, to becoming God-obsessed.
It is the Spirit who will help us to live as citizens of the kingdom, for the king.

And when Jesus did send the Spirit on his followers for the first time, it was something very visible. Tongues of fire came down and rested on each of the disciples. You see this Spirit is the spirit of fire. He brings passion and purity. He burns up everything in us that is not of God, if we allow him, and he sets us on fire for God.

The story is told of Spurgeon who interviewed a candidate for the ministry. The candidate was telling him all the reasons why he should not be a minister. Spurgeon interrupted and said to him, ‘Young man. I don’t want to hear all about what you are weak at. What I want to know is this: if I threw you into the Thames, would it sizzle?!’

I finish with the parable of the upturned bowl. We are like this bowl. We are closed to God. Repentance is the admission that our bowls are turned the wrong way round, and the turning of the bowl to God. And then, we are ready to receive from him. And he will give us the most precious gift that he can possibly give us. He will give us Himself; he will give us his Spirit. 

Friday, 6 December 2013

A talk for a hospice 'Light up a Life' service

This is a very special time of year

But for those who have lost ones that they love, it can be an extremely cruel and painful time of year. 

It once was sweet, but it has now become bitter. 

We miss them more than ever; we feel our loneliness most acutely; the world carries on as if nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed; and Christmas time which was once so full is empty. 

So it is important to have this service at this time of year. We are coming together because they do matter, to remember them, to say thank you for them.

And it is good to hold these services in Advent.

Advent is a time of waiting. During Advent we remember how the Jewish people waited for God to send a king and a ruler. The promise was first given to a man called Abraham 6000 years ago. It was the promise that one day one of his descendants would establish God's reign of justice and peace; that he would bring God and human beings together, so that we could become friends of God, so that we would know God in the same way that we know other people; and that he would finally and completely defeat death. 

It was a great promise. 

But the experience of the people was very different. 

Isaiah, in our first reading, is speaking to a people who have been ridiculed, defeated in battle and who are about to be taken to a foreign land as captives. They have seen their sons and fathers slaughtered in battle, and their wives and daughters sold into slavery. A shadow hangs over them. They are still alive, but they would rather be dead. All that they loved, all that they lived for, all that made life worthwhile, is no more. Their things, their people, their home and their land has been stripped from them. It was sweet but it has become bitter.

But Isaiah speaks of hope. He reminds these people of what God had promised many years earlier. He speaks of the coming king, and he speaks here of the coming kingdom. 

He talks of a time of feasting, of abundance, a time when the covering or shadow of death is lifted from them, of an end to suffering. 'The Lord God will wipe away every tear'. And he urges them to believe this message, and to wait. 

As those who grieve we live in the time of Advent. 

We have nothing left apart from a word spoken by God.
We hold on to the message that Jesus has defeated sin and death, and that those who die touching him may physically die, but do not really die. 
We hold on to the hope, and we wait for that day when Jesus will return and will establish his kingdom and will finally destroy death. 

I doubt that Christmas will ever quite be the same for you again. It was sweet; and even if you play the game, and put out the decorations, it is for others and not for yourself. Because for you it is now bitter. 

Konstantin Makovsky, a prominent Russian painter of the 19th century, once painted an enormous picture, depicting a wedding feast. The bride is standing, and the guests are holding out their cups toward her. The explanation with the painting says they are shouting, "Gor'ko! Gor'ko!" meaning, "Bitter! Bitter!" They are shouting about the wine, which - they are saying - has become bitter. And the reason that they are shouting is because the wine, according to tradition, only beomes sweet when the bride and the groom kiss.

My prayer for you is that during this time of Advent, this time of waiting, you will know the kiss of God. It may come through the care of those remarkable people in the hospice, or the love of family or friends. It may come through something someone says to you, something you hear or something you read. Or it may come completely unexpectedly: a dream, a touch, a quiet conviction, a deep assurance.  

It is the kiss which says that you are beloved; that death is not the end; that this life is not what it is all about, and that the best really is yet to come. 

It is the kiss which turns that which is bitter into that which is sweet. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

An order of service for an Advent carol service

An Advent carol service 

Leader           The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
Choir             Those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shone

Choir             O nata lux de lumine – Tallis (O light, born of light)

Leader           In this service, we join with brothers and sisters around the world, and light candles to mark the signs that God has given to his people as we journey through Advent.

FIRST CANDLE: Abraham and Sarah, to whom the promise was first given.

We light our first candle to recall the men and women of faith in the Old Testament, to whom the promise would be given. 4000 years before the birth of Christ, God told Abraham and Sarah that one of their descendants would destroy sin and death, rule the world and bless all nations.  

(A person lights the First Candle)

Leader           Let us pray
All                 God of Abraham and Sarah and all the Patriarchs of old, we 
thank you for the promise that you have given us. Help us, like Abraham, to listen to your word and put our trust in your promises. We ask this in the name of the one born in Bethlehem as our Saviour and King, and who will return in his glory, Jesus Christ, your Son. Amen.


 All         O come, O come, Emmanuel,
             and ransom captive Israel,
             that mourns in lonely exile here,
             until the Son of God appear:
                   Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
                   shall come to thee, O Israel.

             O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
             thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
             from depths of hell thy people save,
             and give them victory o’er the grave:

             O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
             our spirits by thine advent here;
             disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
             and death’s dark shadows put to flight:

             O come, thou Key of David, come,
             and open wide our heavenly home;
             make safe the way that leads on high,
             and close the path to misery:

             O come, O come, thou Lord of Might,
             who to thy tribes, on Sinai’s height,
             in ancient times didst give the law
             in cloud and majesty and awe:
                   Rejoice! rejoice! Emmanuel
                   shall come to thee, O Israel.

SECOND CANDLE: The prophets foretell the birth of Jesus

READING    Isaiah 2:1-5

Leader           The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
All                 those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has 

Choir             Jesus Christ the apple tree – Poston

Leader           As we light our second candle we remember the prophets, who spoke of the coming of Christ, of a Saviour who would be born, a king in the line of King David. They told us he would rule the world with wisdom and establish his kingdom of righteousness, justice and peace.

(A person lights the Second Candle)

Leader           Let us pray
Father God, we thank you for speaking to us through the prophets. Help us to listen to your word and to seek your kingdom above all things. We ask this in the name of the one to whom they pointed us, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


 All                  Hills of the North, rejoice,
river and mountain-spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing.
Christ comes in righteousness and love,
he brings salvation from above.

Isles of the Southern seas,
sing to the listening earth,
carry on every breeze
hope of a world’s new birth:
In Christ shall all be made anew,
his word is sure, his promise true.

Lands of the East, arise,
he is your brightest morn,
greet him with joyous eyes,
praise shall his path adorn:
your seers have longed to know their Lord;
to you he comes, the final word.

Shores of the utmost West,
lands of the setting sun,
welcome the heavenly guest
in whom the dawn has come:
he brings a never-ending light
who triumphed o’er our darkest night.

Shout, as you journey home,
songs be in every mouth,
lo, from the North they come,
from East and West and South:
in Jesus all shall find their rest,
in him the universe be blest.


THIRD CANDLE: John the Baptist

READING    John 1:5-9
Leader           The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
All                 those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has 

Choir             This is the record of John - Gibbons

Leader           As we light our third candle, we recall that God called John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming Saviour and King. John denied his own comforts and gave up his life in obedience to his call. John preached that because God’s ruler is coming, we should repent, turn back to God and show God’s love to others.

 (A person lights the Third Candle)

Leader           Let us pray
Lord God, Your witness John the Baptist prepared the way for your Son by calling people to turn to you. Help us to prepare ourselves to receive you again. Forgive us our love of things more than people, our wilful self-centredness, and our rebellion against you; and help us to live by putting our trust in you, today, tomorrow and always. Amen


All         On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
             announces that the Lord is nigh;
             awake and hearken, for he brings
             glad tidings from the King of kings.

             Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
             make straight the way for God within;
             prepare we in our hearts a home,
             where such a mighty guest may come.

             For thou art our salvation, Lord,
             our refuge and our great reward;
             without thy grace we waste away,
             like flowers that wither and decay.

             To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
             and bid the fallen sinner stand;
             shine forth, and let thy light restore
             earth’s own true loveliness once more.

             All praise, eternal Son, to thee
             whose advent doth thy people free,
             whom with the Father we adore,
             and Holy Ghost for evermore.

FOURTH CANDLE: Mary the Mother of Jesus

READING    Revelation 21:22-27

Leader           The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
All                 those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shone.

Choir             Mary had a baby – spiritual arr. Archer

Leader           As we light the fourth candle we remember Mary. When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of the Saviour and King, she said ‘Yes’. And so Christ was born in her, and she declared your praise with joy.

(A person lights the Fourth Candle)

Leader           Let us pray 
All                 Thank you, Father God, for the gift of your Saviour and King. Help us to be like Mary and to say ‘yes’ to you. We ask that through your Holy Spirit, Christ would live in us, so that we might be filled with your peace, love and joy, and declare your praises. We ask this in the name of the one born in Bethlehem. Amen.


Leader           The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
All                 those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has

Choir             Masters in the hall – Trad English

Leader           We leave the final candle unlit. It is the sign that although, when Christ was born in a stable 2000 years ago, he did bring God’s light into our dark world, and although he comes into hearts and minds that are open to receive him today, yet we still wait for him to come again. So let us pray.

All                Thank you, Father God, for the gift of our Saviour and King. Help us as we wait this Advent for Christmas to mark the people that you put on our way. We thank you for Abraham and Sarah, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary. Help us, like them, to believe your promises, to seek your kingdom, to repent of our sins, and to be so filled with your love that we rejoice in the life transforming hope of the return of the King. Amen.

HYMN (the collection will be taken during this hymn)

All         Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
             once for favoured sinners slain;
             thousand thousand saints attending
             swell the triumph of his train:
             God appears on earth to reign.

             Every eye shall now behold him
             robed in dreadful majesty;
             those who set at naught and sold him,
             pierced and nailed him to the tree,
             deeply wailing,
             shall the true Messiah see.

             Those dear tokens of his passion
             still his dazzling body bears;
             cause of endless exultation
             to his ransomed worshippers:
             with what rapture
             gaze we on those glorious scars.

             Yea, amen, let all adore Thee,
             high on Thine eternal throne;
             Saviour, take the power and glory,
             claim the kingdom for Thine own:
             Thou shalt reign, and Thou alone.