Friday, 23 December 2016

A Christmas day talk based on the life of St Nicholas

I’d like to tell you about someone quite obscure – although I am certain that everybody here – apart from the very smallest - will have heard of him!

He lived 1600 years ago, in an Greek town called Myra. Today Myra is in modern day Turkey, and it is in ruins.

We don’t know that much about him.

He was a Christian born to a well-off family.

We know that he was really serious about his Christian faith, and he was deeply committed to Jesus. When his parents died, he took Jesus’ command to ‘sell everything and give to the poor and come follow me’ quite literally. He gave away his wealth; he became a priest, and subsequently the bishop of Myra.

Although nothing was written down, they told stories about him: about his love for God, for God's word and his love for people; and about how God did astonishing things through him.

This is an icon of him. Around the edge are scenes from his life. In the centre, he is shown wearing a bishop’s scarf. His right hand is raised in prayer and blessing – he is praying God’s blessing on his people. In his left hand, he holds a bible and a towel.

There are stories of how he prayed for people and they got better; and, on one occasion, how three people were brought back from the dead. There are stories of how, even after he had died, people had visions of him, or they went to his tomb and were healed. I don’t know what to make of that – although I do know this: that when a person commits themselves to Jesus Christ, and when they live for him, put their trust in him and ask him to come and live in them, astonishing things happen.

But this person is inseparably connected with Christmas

And there are two reasons:
One of the most well-known stories that is told about him is of the time when he heard about a widow who had three daughters. They had no money, and the only option if they were going to survive was for the girls to sell themselves to traffickers. Nicholas, for that is the name of this Bishop of Myra, walked past their window and threw in three bags of gold: sufficient for each of the girls to have a dowry.

And since then Nicholas, who in time became St Nicholas (in some places known as Santa Niklaus), has been associated with the giving of gifts to children.

I don’t know where the sleigh or the reindeer have come from – well, I do, Lapland! – but I do know that at the heart of it all was a man who loved God and who loved people and who, as a result, gave secretly and gave generously.

But there is a second reason that he is associated with Christmas.

It is said that he travelled to Nicaea for the big council of bishops, who were meeting because of a wrong teaching that was spreading through the Church.
The wrong teaching was about who the baby in the manger really was.
It began with a man called Arius, who said that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God. He was instead a super mega angel, created by God.
The story goes that Nicholas got so angry with Arius at the meeting, that he went up to him and smacked him round the face. That shows a commendable zeal for the truth, although it is not behaviour that I would encourage when you come to talk about your Christian faith.

But there is a connection.

What we believe about the baby in the manger – about who he is – makes a big difference to how we live.

If we look at him, as Arius did, as a super mega angel sent from God to come to earth, then there is still a gap between us and God. There is us, there is the angel, and there is God. But in between us and the angel and the angel and God there is a huge gap.

And if you believe, with Arius, that God is up there and we are down here, then the only way we can begin to get to know God, or to get God on our side, is for us to climb the ladder to get to God. We need to be sufficiently religious or good enough.
We listen to Jesus’ teaching; we look at him as an example of how we should live
And we think that if we want God to like us and give us what we want, then we need to become better people, more prayerful, more loving, more giving.

There is the story told of the little boy who wanted a bike for Christmas. His mother heard him praying: ‘Dear God, if you give me a bike for Christmas, I’ll be good for a year’. His mother said to him, ‘It doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t give us things because we are good, even good for a year, because we can never be good enough’.
So on the second day, she heard him praying, ‘Dear God, my mum says that being good for a year is not enough, so what if I was good for a year and came to church every Sunday for a year? Would you please give me a bike for Christmas?’
Again, his mum said to him, ‘It doesn’t work like that. God doesn’t give us things because we go to church, because we would never be religious enough’
The next day she noticed that a small statue of Mary had gone missing from the lounge. She couldn’t find it anywhere. But when she went into her son’s room she found a note pinned to his bedroom window: ‘God, if you ever want to see your mother again …’

But if you believe with St Nicholas that the baby born in the manger is the eternal Son of God, that he is Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’, then
·         We don’t need to cut a morality deal with God in order to make him like us.
·         We don’t need to become religious enough in order to make God like us.
We don't need to get to God because God has already come to earth. God has bridged the gap.

That is what the bible teaches. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’
It is what Jesus teaches. ‘Philip’, he says, ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’.
It is what Wesley celebrated when he wrote Hark the Herald Angels sing, with the line ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’.
Jesus was the eternal Son of God. Everything he was saying, doing and being on earth was what God was saying, doing and being in heaven.

All we need to do is to receive this simple but stunning fact: that the baby in the manger is the Son of God, that God came to us at Christmas, that he is Immanuel ‘God with us’.

There is a precious verse in John’s gospel (John 1.12): ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’.

Arius couldn’t get that. He said it wasn’t God but a super-mega angel that God had sent
Our modern secular world can’t get it. They say it wasn’t God but a baby who grew up to be someone very special.

But Nicholas did get it. He realised that we don’t need to get to God because at Christmas God came to us.

St Nicholas was quite ordinary. He didn’t write anything. He didn’t die a martyrs’ death. He even smacked someone across the face (and got into trouble for it). But, according to the stories, he lived a very special life: he was prayerful, he was good and he was generous.

So when you see Santa Claus:
Thank him for his generosity. It is good to say thank you.
Thank him also for letting God show him that the baby in the manger was the eternal Son of God, Immanuel, God with us, and for his passion in showing us that we don't need to strive to get to God, because God has come to us.

All we need to do is to receive the love of God, to trust our lives into the hands of this God of love and allow that love of God to work in us, to transform us, so taht we reach out in works of love, power and deep generosity. 

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The song of the cleaner. A talk for a carol service.

I would like you to imagine that you have gone to a concert. The auditorium is vast. The orchestra is huge. You’ve come for the full works – to be blown away.

The lights dim. Everything goes quiet.

And then the cleaner walks onto the stage. He’s in his overalls and he’s got a broom. And as he sweeps, he begins to sing: quietly, so you have to really listen if you want to know what he is singing, but loudly enough so that if anyone wants to hear, they will be able to hear.

It is not what anybody is expecting. It is embarrassing; It is awkward. People start to fidget and cough. Some begin to laugh at him. And after a few minutes they go back to doing what they were doing before. They ignore him.

But there are a few who, despite the rising noise, do try and listen.

At Christmas God opens the door of heaven and walks onto the human stage.
But it is not what we are expecting.

We were looking for the full works.
If this is God who is turning up – the creator of heaven and earth, of space and time, the ruler and judge of the multiverse - then the least we should expect is the full blast of heaven. Think of the most amazing firework display you have ever seen. Well the sun, moon and stars will do stuff that have us gaping in wonder and running for our lives. The earth will shake. And he will be accompanied by thousands upon thousands of angelic beings. Each one of them will be so dazzling, so glorious that we will not be able to look at them. And as for us - we’ll look for the biggest mountain or rock so that we can run and hide behind it. But he’ll find us and, if this really is God turning up, he will take his enemies, those who mocked his people, who opposed his rule, who lived as if there were no God and so set themselves up as god, and he will wipe the floor with them. Think of some of the stuff in the book of Revelation. And afterwards. Who can begin to imagine? He will establish his kingdom, his rule – a rule of peace, of justice, of what is good and right and true.

If this is God turning up we would have expected the full works.

But at Christmas we didn’t get the full works.

There were glimpses of them:
The predictions of the prophets that a child would be born in Bethlehem
And there was one star – but it was only noticed by some foreigners
And there were angelic beings – but they only appeared to a few shepherds, who were terrified.
And then there were the things he did: the miracles, the healings and even the three people he raised from the dead

But if we were expecting the full fireworks, then what we got was a single sparkler.

God comes as a baby, not as a ruler.

He wasn’t born in a palace, or in a mega maternity suite:
Gwyneth Paltrow chose Mount Sinai Hospital for the birth of her child. Think stunning view of Central Park and Manhattan. Think blankets made from Muslin cotton and massage therapy to relieve the pain and stress. Think bathrooms with Italian glass tiles and tea and cookies served in the afternoons. Think $4,000 a day.
Or maybe that is not quite good enough. Try the Matilda Hospital in Hong Kong. Rooms with balconies overlooking the ocean, refrigerators filled with juices and bottled water, cable TV, and WiFi. The doctor in charge of the delivery is also your personal gynaecologist/obstetrician. But you need to deposit $20,000 in down payment just to book a room.

No. When God turned up in history, he wasn’t born in a maternity unit, let alone a maternity suite. He was born in a cowshed.

And then there was the flight into Egypt, the first few years lived as a refugee, they three years as an itinerant homeless teacher and at the end, the hammer and the nails.

When God turned up in history, he did not come as the owner but as the Cleaner.

We thought it was a joke. We laughed at him. Then we ignored him.

But there are some who do try to listen to the song that the cleaner is singing.

It is a song that is very simple, at times discordant but also astonishingly beautiful.
It comes from deep within him and touches something deep within us.

It is disturbing. It is a song that tells of a God who becomes a baby in order to live among us as one of us. And he suffers and he dies for us. It tells of a God who strips himself of power in order to show us his love.

And the song exposes the dirt that is deep within us: we look at the love and humility of God in a manger, and then we look at ourselves: the shallow attempts to prove we are someone and that we matter, the fears that control us, the hurts that have been done to us that make us feel like filth and the hurts that we have done to others that make them feel like filth. It reveals our self-centeredness and pride; and it strips bare our utter brokenness.

But this is a song of hope. It is the song of the cleaner, of one who cleans up a mess. This cleaner doesn’t sweep up our rubbish and throw it into the black bin bag for someone else to deal with. This cleaner takes our rubbish into himself, and as he dies on the cross he deals with it once and for all.

So this song speaks of forgiveness, of the possibility of change, of new birth and new life, of freedom from habits that we know are destroying us, of our true identity as children of God and an astonishing destiny with God.

And it is a song which plunges us into the abyss of separation, abandonment and death. Some of you will have known that this year.

But it is a song that declares to us a light and a love that is far greater than death. That the one born in a cowshed, crucified on a cross, rose from the dead and is alive for evermore. And this is a song which tells us that we are not alone, abandoned or rejected. God created us in love to have a relationship of intimacy with us; even though we have rejected him, he longs for us to know him.

And this is a song which, if you allow it, can come and live in you. It doesn’t just get into your head. It gets into your heart and your bones. It becomes the song that lives in you, that begins to shape all that you are and do. It becomes the song that you sing and the song that you live.

Don't ignore the song of the cleaner
I know that many people ignore the cleaner. I know that it can be hard to hear the cleaner because there is so much other noise: out there and in here.

Oddly, there is a great deal of noise at Christmas: We can be like little children who are more excited about the colourful wrappings of Christmas than we are about the infinitely precious gift that is inside the present. We are like people who love the Christmas tunes but who are deaf to the words of the carols

So please listen to the song of the cleaner.

It is the song that will give you true freedom, lasting happiness and deep peace.

Some of you may wish to do that by taking a free copy of the New Testament which is at the back of church – although there is a condition if you take one. You must commit yourself to reading through at least one of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) over the next four weeks!

And for those who wish to take this further, in your order of service there is an invitation to a course that Laurence and myself are running at Edmundo Lounge in the new year. It is called Life Explored, and gives us an opportunity to ask questions and to think these things through. We give ourselves so little time to think. And it so important that every single person gives themselves time to listen to the song of the cleaner.

And there will come a time, when nobody is expecting it, when he, the cleaner – still singing his song - will take off his overall, he will pick up his baton, and now the orchestra will begin to play the tune.

Because the cleaner is the eternal Son of God and one day, having shown us his love he will show us his power. And then we will get the full works.  And he will turn round and face us, the audience, and he will invite each one of us to sing the song. And those who have heard the song, who have received the song, who have allowed the song to come and live in them, will  join in with him in the final eternal performance of the song of the cleaner. 

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A talk for St Nicholas' Day

Yesterday I was on retreat at an Orthodox monastery, and I was speaking with one of the monks. I told him I was struggling with a talk for St Nicholas’ Day, trying to put together his story and the passage for the day. But I then said that I had noticed that I had been put in a room with not one but two icons of St Nicholas. He said – slightly mischievously because he knows the tradition I come from - that perhaps I should pray to St Nicholas. Well I did pray: to the one to whom St Nicholas prays.

We know very little about St Nicholas. He was bishop of Myra around the beginning of the C4th. But over time stories have been told about him.

The stories speak of a passionate defender of the faith of scripture. It is said that he went to the Council of Nicaea and that he got so annoyed with Arius who was denying the full divinity of Christ, that he smacked him around the face. Well he gets full marks for zeal for the truth, but it is not the sort of behaviour I encourage in the PCC. Sadly, there is no record in the official documents that Nicholas did ever attend the Council of Nicaea.

And the stories tell of his deep devotion to Christ, from an early age. He was brought up in a wealthy home, but on the death of his parents, he heard Jesus’ call to sell everything and give to the poor.

And they tell of his deep love for his people. Probably the most well known story is of the widow with three daughters. There was no money and the girls were about to be sold to traffickers. It was the only future that they could see. So Nicholas walked past their home and he threw three bags through an open window – with enough money for a dowry for each of the girls. And that is how he has come to be associated with the giving of gifts to children.

And there are the stories of the things that happened around him. In the Orthodox church he is known as St Nicholas the wonder worker. There are the healings, people saved from drowning (many naval churches are dedicated to St Nicholas) and even stories of how the dead were raised. I don’t know what to make of the stories, but I do know that when a person is devoted to Jesus and when they sacrificially love, quite remarkable things happen.

Our reading from 1 John 4 speaks of how we are to love one another. Three times we are told that. And John is speaking here not of love for everyone – the bible very clearly tells us that we are to love our neighbour (to do them good and seek their welfare) irrespective of who they are – but here he is specifically speaking of love for those who are our Christian brothers and sisters.

And he gives us three reasons.

1.      We’ll love them because of the Spirit of God in us. If we are born again, if the Spirit of God has come into us and given us life, then like John the Baptist in the womb of Elizabeth, our hearts will leap when we meet Christ in another person. So John writes, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (v7). We will delight in them, we will long that they might become the people who God called them to be, and we will be drawn to them. And if we don’t, he says, we need to question whether we have been born of God and we need to ask him for his Spirit to come and give us life.

2.      We will love our Christian brothers and sisters because we have begun to grasp just how much God loves them.
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (v11). The key word here is ‘us’.
Because God so loved us, he sent his one and only Son into this world, to live with us and to die for us.
That is why it is so important that – with St Nicholas - we confess that Jesus is fully the eternal Son of God. At Christmas, God did not create a super charged special angel and send him down here. God sent part of his very self, who had been with him before time began, to come and live among us. Jesus was Immanuel, God with us.
And at Easter, when Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, it was not one created being taking onto itself the wrath of God on behalf of another created being. It was God himself in his Son, taking onto himself the penalty for and the consequences of our sin, so that we might have life. Listen, says John, and this is the point of what he is saying, if that is the extent that God will go in his love for us, who am I to reject you.

3.      We love our brothers and sisters because when we do, we all become complete. “If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (v12).
We were made for each other! If I am to become the person who God means me to become, I need my Christian brothers and sisters. And if you are to become the person who God means you to be, you need your Christian brothers and sisters.

I think that is one of the reasons that St Nicholas is so attractive. He was very ordinary. He didn’t write anything. He didn’t die a martyrs’ death. But he lived these verses. And the stories portray one who is very complete. He was a leader of God’s people who was sold out for Jesus Christ the Son of God, who sacrificially loved God’s people and who saw God do great stuff.

So returning to the monastery! The icon of St Nicholas that was in my room shows him standing surrounded by scenes depicting events in his life. With his right hand he blesses. But what is unusual is that in his left hand he holds a bible, the Word of God, and together with it he holds a towel, the symbol of service.

My prayer for each of us is that we will be like St Nicholas: people who bless others in the name of Jesus, wherever we find ourselves to be, and that we will do that by being a people who hold in one hand the bible and in the other hand the towel.