Thursday, 24 December 2015

The light of your life: a talk for Christmas eve midnight communion

I love Christmas lights – although probably not to the extent of the Gay family in New York who in 2014 had a display of 601736 lights, which involved about 40 miles of cable.

One wonders what happens when they get tangled. My Christmas lights always get knotted up.  So I was delighted to discover that this year Tescos have employed a Christmas light untangler. The job advert said that the person appointed would be able to ‘successfully untangle customers’ Christmas lights neatly, quickly and efficiently and in an orderly fashion.’ Specifically, they must be able to untangle three metres of Christmas lights in under three minutes. Whilst that is great news for me, there is a bit of problem. To make use of the Christmas light untangler I would have to go to the store in Wrexham.

Christmas lights are special. There is something very poignant about walking in dark streets that are lit with Christmas lights.

Our reading from John speaks of Jesus, the Word of God, as the light of the world.

We sometimes say of someone, ‘She is the light of my life’ What we are saying is that she is the one who reveals who I truly am. She is the one who, when everything seems so dark, is with me, helping me know which way to turn, what decisions to make. She is the one who, when everything is really dark, gives me the hope to carry on.

So it is not that strange that Christians speak of Jesus as the light of the world.

‘His life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it ... The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’. (John 1.4-9)

I’d like to draw out three things from these verses:

1.      The world that Jesus came to is dark

The nativity story is quite dark. It begins with an emperor issuing a repressive decree. It includes the (in those days) absolute scandal of an unmarried mother, which might explain why Joseph and Mary did not stay with some of their relatives in Bethlehem when they arrived: Mary was persona-non-grata. It included naked state-sponsored violence: the massacre of the children of Bethlehem. And it ends with a family fleeing, as refugees, to Egypt.

But the darkness was not just then.

There is so much violence in our world: I think of the incident reported recently of the man who stamped on the stomach of his former pregnant girlfriend. And violence does not need to be physical. It is in the bile that can be served up on social media, or when we treat others as sub-human, as vermin, or when we laugh at individuals when they are mocked.

And there is – and this is more frightening because it is colder, more clinical, more rational – the violence committed in the name of a cause: democracy, free speech, communism, science, law and order, nationalism; and, of course, there are the appalling acts of violence that we have seen that have been committed in the name of God.

But the darkness is not just out there. It is also in here

The greed, fear, anger, hatred and desire for revenge that leads to violence is in here. It would be so much easier if there were simply evil people out there who we could take out, and the world would be fine. But actually, as Solzhenitzen wrote, the line between good and evil is not between good people and evil people, but it is a line that we each have in our own heart

The dark side is in each one of us.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course we are capable of astonishing acts of selfless love, of sacrificial goodness and gentleness and generosity. But we are also capable of thinking or doing some of the most awful of things.

We all, to use a phrase which CS Lewis used, have rats in our cellar. And some of them are big rats with very big teeth. We can praise God, and then tear someone to pieces with the teeth of our words.

2. Jesus is the light who has come into the world.

Listen again to how John begins his gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God .. In him was life and the life was the light of all people’.

Christians believe that the baby born in the cowshed on that first Christmas is the very light of God which, in the beginning, created what we know as physical light.
Someone once said, ‘I don’t believe in the sun because I see the sun. I believe in the sun because I see everything in the light of the sun’.
So Jesus is like the sun – and it is in his light that we see everything else, including physical light.

And John speaks of a cosmic battle between the light and the darkness. It is a one sided battle because the darkness has lost the moment that the light turns up.
And even when Jesus, at the age of 33, was crucified and it seemed that the darkness had finally buried the light – it hadn’t. Three days later Jesus rose from the dead. ‘The darkness did not overcome it’.

So Jesus, the Word, the eternal Son of God, is born and he confronts the darkness. He challenges greed, fear, anger, hatred and desire for revenge. He challenges pride, lies, hypocrisy and laziness. He challenges the arrogance that says, ‘There is no God, therefore I am my own god’, or the smugness that says, ‘I am alright’. He challenges the cosmic forces of violence, destruction, decay and death.

And Jesus confronts us.
He confronts us with the reality that until we have accepted him we are like people who have scuttled into the darkness; we are not sons or daughters of God in that special way.

He confronts us with the truth of who we truly are: a man or a woman created by God, to live in a relationship of love and trust in God, with an astonishing dignity, the potential to become a son or daughter of God – knowing God as my heavenly Father – and the potential to live like Jesus, even to the extent of sacrificing our lives so that those who are our enemies now might become our eternal brothers and sisters, and the potential to know the joy and the peace and the glory of Jesus.

Jesus also helps us to face up to and deal with the worst about ourselves: with the reality that there are rats in our cellar.  And unlike much that goes in the name of psycho-therapy, he does not tell us to live with the rats, to learn to love the rats – he tells us that the rats need to go. Of course we can’t get rid of them – but if we let him he is prepared to go down there, to shine the light on them and to deal with them.

3. We have a choice: to live as children of light or children of darkness

The light is shining. Our choice is to come to that light, or to run away into the darkness.

On a website called the “Experience Project” ​readers were asked to respond to the following statement: "I prefer darkness over light." A young woman going by the screen name "Beyond Repair" offered a particularly honest response: “I prefer darkness over light. The darkness allows me to hide who I am and what I truly feel. In the light all things have a chance to be revealed …. Darkness makes it easier to hide. In the dark you cannot see what is coming next …. The darkness is a place where you can lose yourself. Lost in the dark is a great place to be because then you are free from what you were and can be what you want. The darkness is bliss.”

I find that very sad, and I would love to meet that woman. If I did, I would say to her, “Nobody is ‘Beyond Repair’. And if you come to the light that I am speaking about, there is someone who will see you. In the film Avatar, the heroine who has only seen the hero in his avatar shape, sees him in his human shape. He is dying. She touches this strange face, and looks in his eyes, and she says, ‘I see you!’
If we allow ourselves to come to the light we allow ourselves to be seen by the one who really does see. And yes, he will see the dark stuff, but he won’t laugh at you, or say ‘urgh’ or ‘you’re too boring’ or ‘you’re nobody’. He will say, ‘Thank you for letting me see who you are. Now let me show you who you can be. Follow me.’ And you can become not what you think you want to be, but who you were really made to be – a daughter of God.”

Derek was someone I used to visit regularly when I was a vicar in London. He was going blind. I loved going to visit him because, as he lost more and more of his physical sight, he began to ‘see’ far more of God. He saw himself in a completely new light: both as someone who had so much dark deep inside him, but also as one dearly beloved by God. And the promises of Jesus became real for him: promises that God was his heavenly Father, that Jesus would never leave him, that he was forgiven, that he was being made new, transformed from the inside out, and that he had an eternal glorious destiny.  
Although Derek was losing the ability to see the physical light, he was discovering what it meant to see the true eternal light.

I love the lights of Christmas. But the true light has come. So I invite us – whoever we are - on this very special night, to step into the true light. And I pray that Jesus will be the light of your life. 

Saturday, 19 December 2015

The silence of Christmas. A talk for a carol service

Christmas is noisy. Parties. Music. And there are umpteen carol services and concerts. Christmas may be a busy time of year for vicars, but compared to music teachers and directors of choirs, it is a doddle.

And that is right. Because Christmas is a celebration.
Heavenly angelic choirs, sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth’
And earth joins in with the chorus: ‘O come let us adore him’.

But there is another response – and it is this which I wish to speak about today.
It is the response of silence.

The prophet Zechariah declared, ‘Be silent, all people, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling’.

This is not the silence of absence.
It is not the silence of the dead; the silence which mocks our dreams and our love.
The silence that will fall on our universe in multi billions of years – like a heavy damp blanket that will smother everything that is and turn it into what is not.

And this is not silence because there is nothing to say, but rather the silence because there is everything to say, and we cannot say it.

1.      It is the silence of awe

Perhaps you have been to an exceptional concert. It comes to an end. And there is no applause – not because people do not wish to applaud, but because what has happened requires more than applause. It is almost as if people have been stunned into silence. They are saying, ‘O my word! What have I heard?’ And then, after a few moments, there is the explosion of applause.

The bible tells us that there will be silence in heaven for half an hour. It is as if, when we see God’s work in all its beauty; when we meet his truth, his wisdom and his love; when we see him – we will be so stunned that there will simply be no place for words.

And as we look at that baby lying in the manger 2000 years ago, we begin to realise that what has happened here is so big that words cannot begin to express the reality.

God has come down from heaven and has become a human baby.

A couple of weeks ago some children from the Guildhall Feoffment school came to find out about Advent. One 7 year said quietly to me, ‘I don’t believe in God, because my dad says that God is not up there’. I found myself completely floored. Not, of course, because I believe that God is literally up there. If he was, Tim Peake would be able to tell us. But I was silenced because I couldn't think how to explain to a 7-year-old the fact that we can only speak and think in categories of space and time, and that God is far bigger, beyond space and time. I tried to say that but realised I had completely lost him.

It was one of our stewards who suggested that I should have used the language of multiple dimensions – because any self-respecting 7-year-old who watches Dr Who will understand that.

The reality of Christmas is that the eternal Son of God becomes a human being. He steps out of his infinite dimensional world into our 3 or 4 or even 11 dimensional world.

God is out there. All we need to do is to cut through the fabric of space and time to see him.

We can’t do that. But he can. And the God who is life, but bigger than life, who is without beginning and end, absolutely other, who created us and all things, who created space and time, becomes one of us. He becomes part of the very reality that he created.
It is like us painting a picture – and in that picture there are characters. And we wish to communicate with those characters, so we step into that picture, and we become one of those characters. We leave our three dimensional world, we limit ourselves, in order to enter the two dimensional world.

So God breaks into our universe or multiverse, he implants himself in the womb of Mary, and becomes one of us. He shares our nature, our frailties, our mortality. He is born as a human baby, he grows as a human child, and he dies an awful human death.

Or to use slightly different language.
The one who is up there comes down here.
The one who is robed in glory strips off his robes and wraps himself in swaddling clothes.
He exchanges the unimaginable wealth of heaven for a cattle feeding trough.
He swaps the worship of angels in angelic tongues for the stuttering praises of shepherds. 

And he does it all because he loves us.

No wonder we are called to silence. This is the performance which blows all other performances out of the water.

2.      This is the silence of speechlessness

Zechariah is saying, ‘When God gets off his throne, when he comes to earth, human boasting will be silenced. God will expose all that is not right.'

Zechariah identifies what some of what those things might be: injustice, lies, the exploitation of those who have less power than ourselves, of those who are – in some way – dependent on us. And Zechariah continues, people steal from each other, they do not keep their word, they show no mercy and they plot evil against one another.

The problem is that we like to make ourselves look very good. We justify ourselves and our actions to ourselves and to others. We talk about others in a way that makes them look bad and us good. But, says Zechariah, when God comes we will be silenced.  

I really felt for Richard on the Apprentice this week. He has been so good throughout the process; and he appeared confident, sure of himself, certain that he would win. And then in the interviews, as his business plan was shown to have fatal flaws, at first he pretended to his competitors that it was all going so well, and then suddenly - it was as if the balloon had been burst. He became very real, very vulnerable. He was silenced, he had nothing to say.

As we look at our Father in heaven, who gives up his Son, Jesus, who has been with him since the beginning of eternity; and as we look at the eternal Son of God, who gives up his life for us – we begin to see what love is all about.
Love is sacrificing ourself now in order that others might grow to become what God created them to be.
And in the burning light of that love, we see the overwhelming darkness of our self-centredness, pride, judgementalism and fear. And we are silenced.

I recall days when I was in the 6th form and it became the cool thing to do to mock one of the girls who was not physically attractive. I don’t think I joined in – as a gawky teenager I at least had the integrity to realise that I didn’t have much of a leg to stand on – but rather than provoke the wrath of the in-crowd, I allowed that mockery to continue. I remember with deep shame the time that I saw a young man start a completely unprovoked violent attack on one of the drunk older men who sat outside our church in Holloway, and I simply walked away. I was too afraid to get involved. I think of how, in my arrogance, I judged and condemned people for doing the very things that I do now. And before God, before his example of self-sacrificial love, I am silenced.   

3.      This is the silence of trust

It is the silence of the one who has stopped trying to justify themselves and has put her or his trust in the God who gave himself to us on that first Christmas.

David declares in one of the Psalms, ‘I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother .. ’

Most people think that the Christian faith is about doing: doing good or religious.
But actually the Christian faith does not begin with doing. It begins with receiving.

It is all gift.
The reason the baby was born was because God was giving us himself: All we need to do is to trust him and receive him.
And we can come into this most wonderful of relationships with God.

It begins with receiving the astonishing gift of forgiveness.
Yes, we do have to be aware that we need forgiveness and that we can’t earn it. Whatever you do now, will never put right what you have done. People were hurt and lives were scarred. But that doesn’t mean God has written us off. Jesus died on the cross in our place – that shows us just how awful our sin is (the cross was the suitable penalty) – but it also means that the price has been paid.

Because Jesus came and died on the cross, there is a country called forgiveness. You don’t need a passport or a ticket to travel there. It is right here, right now. All you need to do is to stop trying to prove yourself and trust God that he has done everything necessary.

And living the Christian life is about receiving the amazing life that God would give us.
Our last reading spoke of how, ‘Those who received Jesus, who believed in his name, God gave them the power to be, to live as sons and daughters of God.

The archbishop wrote recently
“People often ask me why I'm a Christian. Here's what I tell them.
I’m a Christian because Jesus Christ found me and called me, around 40 years ago. I’m a Christian because it makes sense to me, because Jesus rose from the dead - he conquered death and sin and suffering.
I'm a Christian because in Jesus I see the God who didn’t say, "This is how you lot have got to behave, and I’m going to watch you and judge you." Instead he came alongside us and lived in the middle of the absolute foulest mess, and died unjustly young in great agony, and bore all that was wrong in this world on his shoulders.
I'm a Christian because in my own experience I’ve run away and God has met me and yet not been angry with me. When I’ve failed he’s picked me up and healed and strengthened me.
That’s why I’m a Christian. And that’s why, whatever happens, whatever stupid mistakes, I know that even at the end of it all, even if everything else fails, God doesn’t — and he will not fail even to the end of my life.”

On one occasion, we were all round the table and everybody was speaking. One of our children (who was very little at the time) couldn’t get a word in. He was getting more and more frustrated. so he suddenly stood up on his chair and shouted, ‘Everybody, Listen to me!’

So much of our noise, our chatter (and I include our chatter on social media) is saying, ‘Listen to me. I’m somebody. My views count. I matter’.
But the silence that we are invited to enter this Christmas is the silence of knowing that we do not need to make that noise. God loves us, we are forgiven and we do matter – eternally. And we don’t need to say a word. All we need to do is to receive Jesus and put our trust in him.

4.      This is the silence of expectation.

The insomniacs among us will be aware that there is the pre-dawn chorus and then, just before the dawn, everything goes quiet. It is almost as if the birds are waiting in silent expectation for the rising of the sun.

Zechariah calls us to this silence of expectation: of waiting in breathless anticipation for what is going to happen.

There is a very early legend that Joseph had gone off to find a midwife; Mary is still in the cave. And as Joseph is walking into the village, suddenly everything stops. Joseph sees a shepherd in the field dipping his bread into the pot and his hand arrested halfway to his mouth; a bird in mid-heaven halts as it flies. For a moment everything stands still, then movement begins again and Joseph knows that the birth has happened in that moment of absolute stillness.

Time probably did not stop on earth when Christ was born, but heaven held its breath. God was doing something astonishingly new, stepping into his creation, becoming human. It was the miracle of divine new birth.  Nothing was fixed, all bets were off, anything could happen.

The miracle of that new birth is a miracle that is repeated whenever a man, woman, girl or boy puts their trust in Jesus and receives his gift of forgiveness and new life. The bible tells us that in some way, that words cannot fully explain, Christ is born in our hearts and takes up residence in our lives.
‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in.
Be born in us today’.

That is why we do talk about becoming a Christian as being born again, not physically, but spiritually. Don’t knock that language because of stereotypes. It is about becoming a new person – and when that happens the past has gone, we are forgiven, nothing is fixed, all bets are off and anything can happen. People who have no future discover a hope.

My prayer this year is that you will discover the silence of Christmas.

The silence of awe, that something is happening here which is beyond words.
The silence of realising that we have been found out, and we do not have anything to say
The silence of trust. We stop trying to justify ourselves, and we simply come to him, place our hand into the hand of Jesus, and receive the gift of forgiveness and new life.
The silence of expectation: for with God all things are possible, and who knows what he can do in you and through you.

The silence, of course, is just the beginning.
It does not have the last word.
It is a silence that gives way to praise.

And one day, when the concert is over, and all dissonances are resolved in stunning harmony, the vast congregation that includes people from all nations and all times, will sit in stunned silence.  And then, as one – all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible – will rise, and there will be an explosion of praise: O come let us adore Him!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Meeting God in the wilderness

There are many reasons why we might feel that we are in the wilderness

Life has become a barren landscape. There is no hope.
We have lost someone and we don’t know which way to turn
Our hopes have been dashed – whether for ourselves, our children, our business or our church.
We are worried sick about our family, or our finances, about our health, about our work load.
A relationship is going pear shaped.
We are stressed and we are tired
Maybe some here are conscious of growing older, of having to let go of many of the things that we have, in the past, taken for granted – things that have defined us and given us a sense of purpose.
Maybe it is a particular besetting sin that we have been battling, possibly for years, and there appears to be no breakthrough. Being a Christian can feel at times as if we are pushing a heavy ball up a hill, and we are not sure whether we are pushing the ball up, or if the ball is pushing us down.
Or we are in the wilderness because God simply seems distant – like that man on the moon. We have lost (or maybe we have never known) any sense of intimacy or joy in our faith.

Isaiah 40 is a message to the people of Jerusalem who are in the wilderness, in exile in Babylon, 500 miles away. The Proclaimers might be able to walk that distance, but the exiles were not. Jerusalem has been virtually destroyed, and they are now the captive migrant workers in a foreign land forced to do the dirty work.

That is why they sang sad songs: ‘By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion’. (Ps 137.1).

They remembered what Zion, Jerusalem had been and what it was now.
They remembered murdered children, sons and daughters who were never to grow up to become men and women. They remembered the glory of the temple, the dwelling place of God, now in ruins.
And they weep. Some on the inside and some on the outside.

The message of Isaiah is a message of hope to people who are in the wilderness. It is the declaration that God is going to do something very special.

‘Comfort, comfort my people … in the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’.

And what Isaiah seems to be saying here is that:

  1. The wilderness has been their place of testing.
The people of Israel rebelled against God. In their pride, they chose to reject him and serve other gods, gods that they had created: gods of fertility, of political and military power, of wealth and material prosperity.

God could just have walked away. But he didn’t. He sent them prophets, people like Isaiah. They spoke of the living God, who loved them, who had blessed them with the land and with the law, with the temple and his presence; but they also declared that if the people persisted in walking away from God, in putting their trust in false gods, then in his wrath he would bring them to their senses. He would strip them of that which was most precious to them: their wealth, their freedom, their land and their temple.

And sadly the people did not listen and that is exactly what happened.

But sending the people into exile, into the wilderness, was not God having a strop.
When I am angry I think: ‘They’ve hurt me. I’ll hurt them’.
But God doesn’t think like that. He is not vindictive. His anger is to discipline us, in order to draw us back to himself.

When life goes well, it is easy to forget God; to think that we are in control and determine our own destiny, that we deserve the good that we get.
But when it goes bad, and when things are stripped away from us, we begin to realise how small and dependent we are, how fragile our dreams are, and we begin to realise that we need God.

There are many reasons why we find ourselves in the wilderness.

It might be because we have walked away from God – as it was for Israel. 
It might be because we are being faithful to God. The Psalmist says ‘Because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter’. (Psalm 44.22)
It might be because we are simply men and women living in a fallen world
It might be because we have chosen to go into the wilderness: I think of Jesus choosing to go into the desert for 40 days.

Whatever the reason, the wilderness can be a time of testing:
It can be the time when we completely turn our back on God: if he exists and he loves me, how can he allow this to happen to me?
Or it can be the time when we cry out in desperation to him – because we realise we have nobody else to go to.
And then the wilderness becomes that incredibly precious place of dependence on him.

When I was preparing this I thought of Matt in hospital, who is having some severe treatment. He is in isolation, and last weekend was pretty grim for him. He emailed me, and I have his permission to quote this,

Interesting perspective on The Exile. I guess my experience has been that I thought that it was going to be rough, but no matter how much I prepared myself mentally for it, actually going through the few days last weekend was worse that I had imagined, and showed how little I could have actually prepared myself for it. It didn’t matter what I’d done before, all I could do was endure through the time and have faith that the discomfort, pain and extreme fatigue would pass. It didn’t pass the first day, or the second, or even the third, but it did pass.
Now I’m on the other side, I can look back, and part of me has blocked out how bad it was already, but I know that during that time I felt nearly hopeless, and certainly felt helpless, with the only thing that sustained me was the knowledge that this was expected, it was almost even necessary, and that once I got through the other side I wouldn’t be healed, I wouldn’t be stronger, but I would be through the darkest place in my treatment.

I am talking about the theory of the wilderness. He is doing the practical. Please pray for him.

2.    The wilderness can be a place of comfort.

God says through Isaiah, ‘Comfort, O comfort my people … Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’

When I first read this I thought that God was saying to the people of Israel, ‘You have suffered enough. I’ve punished you enough. In fact, I’ve punished you twice as much as I should have done. So now you are now forgiven’.

But as we read through Isaiah, I do not think that is what he is saying.
In chapter 53, he speaks of one who will be completely innocent, but who will come and take all the sin of Israel onto his shoulders. He will suffer. But he will not suffer for his own sin, but for the sins of others. He will be pierced and crushed for our sin.
So it is not Israel’s suffering in the wilderness which cancels out their sin, but the suffering of the innocent one. And his self-sacrifice is so great that it doesn’t wipe out our sins once, but twice!!

Of course we are talking here of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is a mystery that is so deep that it cannot really be expressed in words. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that we are forgiven not because of anything that we do, but because of what he did.

And that is really good news, because if our forgiveness was dependent on us serving a sentence for our sin, how severe should that sentence be? How much do we need to suffer to merit God’s forgiveness?

I read the story of a man, Felix Bush, who in the 1930’s had an affair with a married woman. Her husband found out and murdered her. Felix felt guilty for his lover’s death. For 40 years he chose to go into the wilderness. He lived alone, with nothing, in the harshest of circumstances. At the end of those 40 years he comes back to the town. He was talking with the minister about his own funeral, and the minister asked him if he was right with God. He said, ‘Yes I am. I have paid’. But the minister very wisely said, "Mr. Bush, you can't buy forgiveness. It's free, but you do have to ask for it."

We have sung a song which asked God to forgive us because we are really really sorry. But that is not right. How sorry do we need to be to get God to forgive us?  This sorry. This sorry. This sorry. And how do we measure our sorry-ness? By how much we beat ourselves up?

If forgiveness is dependent on us, we will never be completely sure if we are sorry enough or if we have suffered enough or if we have done sufficient good works to cancel out our bad works!

The wilderness can be the place of great comfort, because when everything is taken from us, we realise that we cannot earn our forgiveness. We cannot earn it by cancelling out the bad stuff with good stuff; we cannot earn it by being religious; we cannot earn it by suffering; we cannot even earn it by serious sorrowful repentance.

The wilderness is the place where we are stripped of everything. We are stripped of our self-reliance. It is the place where all we can rely on is the work of Jesus on the cross and the promise of God that because he died on the cross, our sins are forgiven.

That is why John the Baptist calls people out into the wilderness to be baptized. To go to him they have to leave behind all the things they put their trust in. It is why people in the early church would be baptized, enter the water, virtually naked – they have nothing to bring with them, nothing to hide behind, nothing to rely on.

And it is why when they come out of the water, they were dressed in white. It was a picture to show them that forgiveness and this new life was nothing that they had done – and everything that Jesus has done.

3.    The wilderness is the place where we prepare to meet the coming God

Isaiah speaks of how a road will be built in the wilderness.

The commentators are not completely agreed on this.
Some say that it is the road that the exiles in Babylon will take as they walk to Jerusalem. Others say that it is the road that God will take in order to come to the exiles, to bring his comfort to them. 

My own reflection is that it is talking about the road that God will take, but it is the road that he takes as he leads his people out of Babylon to Jerusalem.

But as Christians we understand that the royal road points to something more. For God has come to his people (that is what Christmas is about) in order to lead his people out of captivity, in a world ruled by sin and death, into the new creation ruled by life and love. And as God comes into the new Jerusalem, the heavenly Jerusalem with his people, ‘the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together’ (Is 40.5)

Nothing will stop this. God’s triumphal procession is certain. And yet we also need to prepare this road.

That is what the New Testament teaches. John the Baptist is described as the voice of one calling, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’ (Matt 3.3).
He is the messenger who has come to prepare people for the coming of God, for the coming of Jesus.  

And he does that by calling people into the wilderness, calling us to strip away our false gods, our pride, the things that we depend on to give us our sense of identity or purpose or value. He calls us to trust in the promise of God – the promise of forgiveness and of comfort and of a final home.

So I finish by speaking to those of you who feel, for whatever reason, that you are in the wilderness.  
Please don’t despair, and please don’t give up: even if that ball is so heavy and it seems to be pushing you down the hill.
Use your experience as a time of testing; allow some of those things that you have put your trust in to go – so that you reach out more for him. Use it as a time to stop trying to earn forgiveness, to stop trying to make yourself acceptable to him, and learn to simply receive his forgiveness and love as a gift.
And see the wilderness not as a place where you are 500 miles away from God, but as the place where you can meet with God, and where you can be led by him, through those deserted and dry places, to your final home and your ultimate glory.

[Appendix: Many men and women of God met with him in the literal or the metaphorical wilderness. They had everything stripped away from them; they were tested; but they continued to trust God 
  • Joseph – innocent and forgotten in a foreign prison
  • Moses – looked after Jethro’s flocks for about 50 years or so in the wilderness
  • The people of Israel - brought out into the wilderness for 40 years
  • Ruth – who chose to leave her home in order to travel with Naomi to a foreign land
  • David – hiding from Saul in caves in the wilderness; later forced into exile by his own son.
  • Elijah – who is taken by God into the heart of the wilderness
  • Jesus – who chooses to go for 40 days into the desert
  • Paul – who, having met with Jesus, goes into the wilderness for 3 years – before he began the mission which was going to, quite literally, change the world.]

Saturday, 5 December 2015

On our face before Jesus

Of all the mosaics in St Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, this is the one that got to me the most.

It shows a woman fully covered at the foot of a man. Apart from the man in blue, none of the other figures are paying her any attention. Indeed one seems to be saying, with the gesture of his hand, ‘walk on by’. The man in blue (no prizes for realising it is Jesus – the halo is a bit of a give-away) is, however, bending toward her and appears to be reaching out his hand to her.

It is an image which today is quite shocking. That is because we have learnt to see individuals not as individuals but as representatives of groups, especially groups that can make some claim to be victims. So this woman could be seen as a representative of oppressed and crushed women everywhere. It reminds us of women compelled to wear hijabs, and of the utter disregard for human rights that are shown women in some countries. But lest we think that is all ‘their’ problem, the reality is that even in our own society women over the age of 21 only received the vote in 1928. And those of you who are Archers fans only need to think of Rob and Helen, and the control that he is exercising over her.

I guess on this reading, then Jesus is the one who is not ignoring the woman. He is blessing her (in the shape of his hands) and he is reaching out to her to lift her up.

But this mosaic is based on a particular incident in the gospel and, as such, this woman is not a representative of oppressed women as a whole, but is an individual with her own story to tell.

We read it in Luke 8. She is crushed. She has suffered from haemorrhaging for 12 years. And because of that she is an outcast, considered unclean, cut off from God. That is why she comes to touch Jesus secretly from the back. An unclean woman should not have come anywhere close to a rabbi. She was also poor. She had spent all her money on doctors, who had taken her money but had not healed her. Interestingly, Luke, who wrote this gospel, was a doctor and he doesn’t tell us that. We learn it from Matthew and Mark!

Our passage actually speaks of two miracles that Jesus performs. They are connected by time. It was while Jesus was on his way to Jairus’ house that the woman touches him. The woman has suffered bleeding for 12 years and Jairus’ daughter is 12 years old. Jairus appeals to Jesus for his sick daughter. Jesus calls this woman ‘daughter’. And both of them exercise faith.

But I want to concentrate on this woman. She touches Jesus, and her faith is confirmed. She is immediately healed. The bleeding stops. But Jesus knows that power has gone out from him, and he asks ‘Who touched me?’ The woman, who realises that nothing is hidden from Jesus steps forward and falls at his feet. She confesses, in front of all, that she has been healed.

I want to suggest that far from being a shocking place for her to be – on the ground in front of Jesus – it is in fact the place that she has freely chosen to be, and it is the right place for her to be and for each one of us to be.

1. She has a right fear of God

She recognises Jesus’ authority and power. That is why she touched him in the first place. She may not have expressed it in these terms at that time, but she was coming to realise that he is the eternal Son of God.
And she realises now that nothing can be hidden from him. Many people were crowding in on Jesus. What difference was her touch going to make? But he knew.

And while there is a place for speaking with Jesus as a friend (after all Jesus does say in John, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends’ [John 15.15]), and there is a place for speaking with him as if he is sitting in the chair opposite us, we must not forget with whom we speak. We need to recognise the difference that there is between him and myself.
We need to recognise that he does know what is going on deep down in our heart.

That is why, in a service like this, and it might seem odd, we stand when we say the doxology: ‘Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit’. There is someone who is here who is bigger than us, and he does not exist to make our lives more comfortable; he does not exist to serve us. We are first here to serve and honour him.

In the Orthodox tradition, when a man or woman chooses to become a monastic profession, they are brought into the church and they prostrate themselves with arms spread apart in the shape of a cross. Some of their hair is cut off, and they are given a new monastic name. Whatever we make of monasticism, there is no questioning the commitment of these men and women: they are – like this woman here – giving their all to him and throwing themselves on his mercy.

At the funeral of Greg Webb we were told that before he died he had a vision. He found himself being led up the aisle of a church (it was probably, he said, St Gregory’s in Sudbury) and he found himself prostrate in front of the altar (and although that is not a word I would usually use for the Lord’s table, I’m using it deliberately). He said afterwards, ‘It felt right and it felt good’.

2. This woman, as she is here, confesses to undeserved mercy.

She tells of what she has done and how she has been healed.

I like that. She is there not in order to beg Jesus for a great work of mercy. She is there because of a great work of mercy. She is already healed. Now she tells everyone how she has been healed.

It is a very alternative way of giving our testimony. Not standing in front of people, but lying prostrate before God. Not as an act of fear before one who is immeasurably bigger than us, but as an act of worship before one who has done so much for us. When we truly worship God, we declare his glory.

And even if we have not experienced such a remarkable act of healing, we have still received so much from him.  Everything we have, including life, is a gift. And more than that, even though we have walked away from God, have rebelled against him, have messed up other people in incalculable ways, and have screwed up ourselves, he still pours out his mercy and healing on us. We are forgiven, allowed to come into the presence of God; we now have a purpose, a way to live, a power for living and an eternal hope. We look at the cross and we see such staggering love. The Lord Jesus was prepared to take onto himself all our rebellion against God, all our hatred and self-centredness and pride and unforgiveness and fear and laziness. He took onto himself, before his Father, the many times that we have used our position or strength or verbal ability or wealth to crush others. We thought we were crushing them, but in fact we were crushing him. And in his love, he took it. He has been there – prostrate – and allowed us to not just ignore him, to walk on by, but to walk over him, to trample him into the ground.

And because he has done that, we are forgiven, and we are given the chance to live new lives. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’ (Isaiah 53.5)

It is the realisation of what Jesus has done for us, of the undeserved mercy that we have been shown, that should make us, like this woman, fall at his feet. Not just in recognition of who he is, but in adoration and worship.

FW Faber gets this when he says in his hymn, ‘My God how wonderful thou art’.
‘Father of Jesus, love’s reward,
what rapture will it be,
prostrate before thy throne to lie
and gaze and gaze on thee!’

3. This woman lies here open to receive what Jesus would give her.

Her hands hold the garment open as if she were ready to receive.

Jesus has healed her. But he has so much more for her. ‘Daughter’, he says (and it is the only time in the gospels that he uses the word to address an individual), ‘your faith in me has (literally) saved you. Go in peace’.

The healing was significant and important.
But what is far more important is that this woman knows, after 12 years of having been told that she is unclean, that she is accepted by God as a child of God, and that she can go in peace. Jesus is the one who has come to bring ‘Glory to God and peace on earth’.

When I go on retreat, I go to an Orthodox monastery where they pray the Jesus prayer in the morning and evening. The prayer goes as follows: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’. There are moments when both men and women choose, while they are praying that prayer, to prostrate themselves like this woman. I suspect the artist had probably seen that in the monasteries of his time. The church is in almost total darkness, so it is quite dangerous if you want to move around, especially as they wear black! While I can’t really see it working in our services, it does seem to me that they have got something very precious.

Lying prostrate before Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the best place to be, if it is done in the spirit of this woman: stripped of our pride and our pretences, recognising the reality of the one from whom nothing can be hidden, in gratitude for undeserved mercy, for all that he has given, and ready to receive all that he will give.

And he will see us, and he will bend towards us, and he will bless us and lift us up.