Wild beasts & Angels

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John looked pretty rough.  He dressed in whatever he could get, a coat made from camel hide, held in place with a leather belt.  When you saw him, it was like you were looking at a prophet who had stepped out of the old books of scripture.  It is likely that John had spent at least part of his life living in a religious community in the desert at Qumran – this community placed a lot of emphasis on baptism.  In the Jewish religion, baptism was carried out for people who were converting, but it was not a regular part of the faith.  But John offers baptism to all Jews, as a way of repenting from sin and being forgiven by God.  And in his preaching, he talks about the coming of a great spiritual leader who will connect people with God’s Holy Spirit.

 

And then along comes Jesus.  John baptizes him in the River Jordan, the river that separates the wilderness from the promised land.  Baptism was about entering the promised land spiritually.

 

We believe that Jesus was sin-less, so why was he getting baptised as a sign of repentance and the forgiveness of sins?  Right from the start, Jesus was identifying with sinful humanity.  He stood in the place of sinners at his baptism, and this points forward to the cross, when he died in the place of sinners.  He took on the sin of the world and plunged with it into the water of cleansing.  Then at the end, he takes that same sin onto the cross, where it is killed with him, and taken down to hell.  So Jesus’ baptism is very much a part of his work of redemption.

 

He identifies with us right from the start.  And when we are baptised, we are identifying with him, and we take on all that Jesus stands for: the kingdom of God, mercy, love, forgiveness, service of others.

 

So Jesus is dunked into the river, and as he comes out of the water, three things happen:  firstly, the heavens were torn apart.  When heaven opens up to earth, that’s when God’s will is perfectly fulfilled.  It is a sign that Jesus is operating in God’s way; everything he is, everything he does, everything he stands for opens the door between heaven and earth.

 

Then the Spirit of God appears in the form of a dove, hovering over him.  This picks up the prophecy of John the Baptist about the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  The dove is the sign that Jesus has the endorsement of God’s Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is with him and he brings the Holy Spirit to the people who turn to him.

 

And then there’s a voice speaking, and it’s coming from nowhere, and they realise that it’s God talking, and he’s saying to Jesus:  You are my Son, the Beloved, the only one, and I am so pleased with you!  God is confirming who Jesus is.  God is confirming Jesus’ mission – he’s doing the right thing.  God is saying: Jesus, go for it, get alongside my people, save them from their sins, show them how much I love them.

 

After the Baptism, before he starts his formal ministry, Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit into the desert.  There was wisdom in this. When you dash into action without reflection, you often end up acting without focus.  Going into the wilderness meant a time to reflect and pray.  And when you do that, you find yourself thinking through the “how” of doing things and not just the “What to do”.  It meant exploring the different ways of carrying out the job entrusted to him.  And inevitably, this led to some dead ends.  Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus was tempted by Satan.  The other gospels, Matthew and Luke, give a fuller account of three temptations, but here in Mark, the temptation just gets a brief mention.  It was certainly about Jesus’ mission and ministry, about his motivation, and the manner in which he would work.  If he was a modern leader, he would be thinking about the values he needed to live up to and encourage in others.  And Jesus had to reject the values and approaches that were not God’s way of doing things.  The way we do things matters, not just what we do.

 

But in being tempted, Jesus was also entering into solidarity with sinful humans.  It continued the work started at the Baptism.  Jesus knew what it was like to be human because he lived it through and through.  Mark tells us that Jesus was with the wild beasts – which is a very vivid image of what temptation is like, facing the wild beasts both inside us and outside us.

 

Temptation happens to us all the time – we barely even notice it.  We are tempted to cut corners, to lash out at someone when we feel they are getting at us, to show people how displeased we are, to say an unkind word.  With social media, there are more opportunities to give in to temptation and send off the angry tweet or put someone down on facebook.  And it’s no good saying, “I don’t go on Social Media, so I’m all right”, because you are surely being tempted in other ways.  Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say “lead us not into temptation”.  Lent is a time when we look at ourselves and try and understand the ways we are being tempted, so that we can build up the resilience to resist.

 

Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted, and he will help us, when we turn to him and ask for his help.

 

At the end of the story of Jesus’ temptation, Mark tells us that “the angels waited on him”.  May the angels guard us and protect us this Lent, and give us peace and refreshment when we struggle with our own wild beasts.

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The Shining

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Six days later.

Six days after that moment in Caesarea Philippi when Peter perceives who Jesus is, that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed one.

Six days after Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer and die and rise again.

Six days after peter tells him off for even thinking such a thing.

Six days after Jesus berates Peter for not recognising the truth and the necessity of accepting that crucifixion is coming.

Six days later.

 

Six days later, Jesus climbs a mountain with Peter, James and John.

The two incidents belong together.

 

The Holy Land pilgrim tourist industry take you up Mount Tabor, so for many people, that is the mount of the transfiguration.  It is more likely to be Mount Hermon, which is close to Caesarea Philippi, where Peter had recognised Jesus for who he is.

 

Now there is a mountain, a real mountain, a serious mountain, over 9,000 feet at its height, higher by far than Tabor which is no more than a hillock in comparison,.  On the border of Syria and Lebanon, Mount Hebron towers over the Golan Heights. It’s difficult to visit because it is politically sensitive, a United Nations buffer zone.

 

And why a mountain?  Because mountains were places where things happen.  Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.  Elijah experienced the still small voice of God on Mount Hebron.  Mountains are holy places, where earth meets heaven and men and women can touch the sky.  In China, all mountains are holy places, where the gods dwell and where humans visit to encounter the divine.  So in the Chinese language, all holy places, however high, however flat, are known as mountains.  Mountains are places where you go when you are ready to meet your god.

 

Did they get that, Peter, James and John, as they scrambled up the slopes with Jesus?  I don’t think Jesus explained it or warned them about what would happen.  They were just out for a jaunt.  So they got to the top, which was an achievement in itself.

 

And then, and then, the atmosphere changed.  Jesus was different.  He shone!  His clothes dazzled.  He was lit up with the glory of God.  It was like the Exodus when God dwelt with the Israelites, in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, as they walked through the wilderness.

 

Peter, James and John are witnesses, mouths gawping, watching Jesus, all lit up.  And suddenly, he is not alone, but there are two other people with him.  They have never seen these newcomers before, but they know who they are.  They recognise them from all the stories and from reading the scriptures.  These are the spiritual heroes, Moses and Elijah, and they are chatting to Jesus.  They were the giants of the Jewish faith, who encountered God close up and shaped the nation and its relationship with God.

 

Peter wants to hold on to the moment; he wants to make it permanent, to institutionalise it.  But you can’t control a revelation.  Peter got Jesus wrong.  And we get Jesus wrong when we try to tame him, when we make out he is just like us, when we shape him to suit our own ends.

 

Then a cloud comes over.  And the voice of God booms from the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him”, which is very much what God said when Jesus was baptised – but we will come to that next week.  God’s voice is confirming what Jesus has been telling the disciples about what is to come.  This is what they must listen to.

 

And then it’s all over, no light, no cloud, no Moses or Elijah, just Jesus.  And he won’t talk about it, he doesn’t explain anything, and he tells them not to report it to anyone until after the resurrection.  Peter, James and John are left perplexed, wondering what it is all about.  And so are we.

 

We call it the Transfiguration, when Jesus was changed and shown in a new way.  It is about who Jesus is, God’s chosen one, the Messiah and it is about the journey to the cross and resurrection.  It confirms all that happened in Caesarea Philippi, and it points forward to what is going to happen.  Jesus came from the glory of heaven and he will return to the glory of heaven, and for one brief moment, we catch a glimpse of God’s glory.  Transfiguration is the moment when we see things as they really are, the past, the future, and it is gathered up in glory.

 

The story comes right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel.  From this point, Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem where he will be betrayed, rejected, arrested, put on trial, condemned, tortured and crucified, all the things that Peter said couldn’t possibly happen.  It is all going to happen, and Jesus knows it, and he walks towards it, because he has come to save the world, and that means putting his own life on the line.

 

In Jesus’ day, people prayed for the coming of the Messiah, who would throw out the Roman invaders, end the oppression of the people, and bring back God’s rule.  They wanted a super-hero who would get rid of all the bad politics make things right and good and safe.  But God’s Messiah, God’s anointed one, wasn’t going to be like that.  And Jesus is more than a super-hero – he is God’s Son.

 

Today is the Sunday immediately before Lent.  Lent begins on Wednesday.  During these next few weeks, we walk with Jesus to the cross.  I do encourage you to take that seriously, to make some change that will make a spiritual difference in your life.   It could be going without something you enjoy – fasting is an important spiritual discipline.  It doesn’t have to be food or drink – one year, I turned the car radio off during Lent.  This was when I worked in Darlington and had a 40 minute car journey to work.  It could be taking on reading a spiritual book, or praying more, or coming to the Lent Course.

 

We do these things to get a little closer to our Lord, to understand Him better, to understand ourselves better, to understand our neighbours better.  And we start on the mountain with a glimpse of glory.

Who Jesus Is

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Today’s Gospel reading from Mark comes at an early stage in Jesus’ ministry, coming in the first chapter, after Jesus has been baptised and tempted by the devil, and he has called his first disciples.  So it comes at a point when Jesus was not yet well known by the general public in Judah and Galilee at the time.   I think it raises three interesting points for us:

  • Who Jesus is;
  • The issue of exorcism;
  • The issue of mental illness.

 

We are still in Epiphany – only just – as Candlemas falls on Friday, and Epiphany is when we are looking about the revelation of Jesus, the stories that show us who Jesus is and what he is about.  And in this story, Jesus goes to the synagogue and takes part in the service, talking about the readings from scripture and what the congregation might learn from that: he’s effectively giving the sermon.  And you may well have had the experience when you have a visiting preacher or a new vicar and what they have to say and how they say it really has an impact on you.  They know what they are talking about, and they say it with confidence, and it’s like they’re on God’s wavelength, and they come across with spiritual conviction.  It’s one of those lightbulb moments – it all starts to make sense.  So the congregation in the synagogue that day heard Jesus talking, and it made a real impression on them – they remark on how he talks with authority.

 

This story tells us something about who Jesus is.  It gives us a picture of Jesus through the eyes of the congregation that day who were hearing him teach for the first time.  It shows that Jesus was the genuine article, that he knew God, that he came from God, that his teaching made spiritual sense.

 

Jesus’ preaching that day raises a reaction from a member of the congregation who starts heckling Jesus and shouting out at him.  The reading describes the man as “having un unclean spirit.”  Jesus rebukes the spirit and drives it out, and so heals the man.  This leads us to the second issue raised by the story raises – about exorcism and demon possession. This is not something that our culture is very comfortable with, because it starts from a world view that there are unfriendly negative supernatural forces out there that influence people directly.

 

But people with knowledge and experience warn us against dismissing these things too quickly.  John Woolmer was a priest and missionary with a lot of experience who encountered the real presence of evil in people and places, and learnt how to minister to these situations.  His book came out last year, so he is talking about very contemporary occurrences.  CS Lewis also taught that if we disbelieve in the devil, it gives him more space to act in our lives.

 

In the Church of England, every Diocese has a deliverance team, who support the parish clergy in matters to do with deliverance, but the clergy are the first port of call.  I do get phone calls every now and then from people who think their house might be haunted or that there are strange things going on which they think might have a supernatural cause.  I go to the house, talk to the family about their experiences and say some prayers.  I might bless the house and sprinkle it with holy water.  I might have a service of Holy Communion in the house.  What’s really going on?  I don’t always know.  People get fearful for all sorts of reasons.  One women I went to see about three times.  She liked to watch psychic programmes on the television, so it was almost as if she was looking for spirits in her home.  She lived in an older property with a blocked up fireplace, and there were all sorts of noises in the house.  I really didn’t think it was haunted.  But I have been to houses where there did seem to be something strange happening.

 

Exorcism of property is one thing; exorcism of people is another thing entirely.  Church of England clergy are not allowed to undertake exorcism of people without the knowledge and involvement of the deliverance team, the bishop, and a qualified psychiatrist.  This is because there have been situations in the past when there have been terrible and tragic results.  It takes a lot of prayer, wisdom and discernment to decide that somebody is under demonic influence.

 

Within the baptism service there is a prayer asking God to deliver the candidate from the powers of darkness – this is a gentle prayer of exorcism.  I will be saying that prayer later on for baby Alice when we baptise her.

 

When we read stories of exorcism in the Gospels, we tend to reinterpret them as stories about Jesus healing people with mental illness.  And that leads us to the third issue I want to think about today.  It is an area of illness and therapeutic care that we do not, as a society, understand very well.  It covers such a lot of different conditions which can cause great distress to people and their families.  It can make people behave in strange ways.  Because these things are not understood, it generates a lot of fear.  Society doesn’t know how to handle it.  There is a lot of stigma.

 

For us here, we need to make the church to be a safe and welcoming place for all people, where people are accepted whatever their diagnosis or condition, and we need to take opportunities to challenge the stigma.  Jesus healed people, and part of that was about engaging with them and being there for them.

 

Today’s Gospel reading is a challenge to us, a challenge to deepen our knowledge of who Jesus is and the authority with which he addresses us, a challenge to our attitudes to the supernatural, and a challenge to our attitudes to people with mental illness.  We are called to be more like Jesus in the quality of our welcome and acceptance of others.

Banquets & Blessings

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Today is the third Sunday of Epiphany.  Each week, this season opens up another picture of Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of God.  When we look at the three readings we have been given for today, the revelation is about Jesus whom we know in the Eucharist. Each week when we come here, we encounter Jesus in the bread and wine, and that’s how we know him for ourselves.

 

The Gospel reading is the story of the wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine, and very good wine at that, in great abundance.  It was a village wedding.  Jesus’ mother was a key person there.  Jesus and his disciples, probably 7 of them at this point arrive late, but probably not on the original invitation list.  They arrive at the village and the wedding is going on.  Of course they are included.  Middle Eastern hospitality is like that.  Everyone is welcome.  Gatecrashers, we would say.  No wonder they ran out of wine.  Perhaps the family couldn’t afford enough wine.

 

But then something very odd happened.  It was Jesus’ mother who organised it.  She tells Jesus to sort out the little problem of the wine.  And he sounds a bit cross, being bounced into doing something sooner than he was ready.

 

But he orders the water jars to be filled with water, the jars that would have been used for the water to wash the feet of the guests.  And when liquid is drawn out of the jar, it is wine, and jolly good wine at that.  And there was so much of it – the equivalent of perhaps 500 bottles.  That is a lot of wine.  Not many people noticed what was going on.  Jesus’ mother knew.  The servants who filled the water jars knew.  All the Master of Ceremonies knew was that suddenly someone had found a store of wine which was much much better than the stuff they had already finished off.

 

John tells us that this was the first of the signs that Jesus did which showed his glory.  The incident showed that Jesus could do things that just couldn’t happen in the normal course of things. And this was because of who he was.  Who he is.  And that’s why this story is one of the important stories of Epiphany, because it reveals something important about Jesus.

 

It is a miracle.  A miracle that discloses that a stone age vagabond is really the Son of God.  John the Evangelist is layering the picture of Jesus in the Gospel.  He has already shown to us John the Baptist pointing to Jesus and calling him the Lamb of God.  Later, he will show Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, the lamb that saves the children of Israel from the angel of death.  But in today’s story, he is the miracle worker, turning water into wine, wine that for Matthew, Mark and Luke would be the sign of his blood poured out for the salvation of humankind.  And there is so much of it!

 

And it says something important about the Eucharist, about Holy Communion, because, of course, it is a story about wine.  It tells us that the wine of the Eucharist is wine that has been transformed, changed from water into wine.  The wine of the Eucharist becomes for us the blood of Christ.  And it brings about transformation in us.  Drink this wine and expect change.  When we drink the blood of Christ and eat the bread that is His body, we take Christ into ourselves.  That changes us and empowers us, so that we can change the world around us.

 

The other readings are also given to us today to shed more light on the central story.  They give us another slant on the story.  Lets have a look.

 

The reading from the book of Revelation is about another wedding, a mystical, heavenly wedding.  Not a village wedding, but the cosmic wedding.  The wedding above all weddings.  The marriage of the lamb – yes, that little woolly beast again – to the bride, the church.  A marriage made in heaven but lived on earth.  And the bride is arrayed in righteous deeds and the death of martyrs who cling to Christ in the face of persecution.  This is the wedding that all those stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke bear witness to.  This is the wedding that Cana prefigures.  This is the wedding where the wine flows so freely, the blood of Christ and the blood of the faithful.  This is the wedding that we celebrate each week when we come to worship.  This is the wedding where we say “I will” and “Amen”, the body and blood of Christ that keep us in eternal life.

 

The Old Testament reading also mentions bread and wine.  King Melchizedek of Salem was a mysterious figure.  He was a king and a priest.  This is the only story in which he appears in person, when he meets Abraham returning victorious from battle and gives him bread and wine.  But Melchizedek came to represent so much more in the Jewish and then the Christian tradition, because he became regarded as a true priest, and a symbol of true priesthood.  Because there is no record of his death, he was regarded as eternal.  The name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”, and he was king of Salem, which means “king of peace”.  Abraham honoured Melchizedek by giving him one-tenth of the spoils of the battle.  It was the first example of tithing, of sharing one-tenth of what you have with the church.

 

By putting that reading alongside the story of the wedding of Cana, we are being shown that when Jesus turned water into wine, this was a priestly act.  The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us how Melchizedek prefigures Jesus, and how Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek.  That’s why we have Melchizedek in that stained glass window (south window) which shows Jesus as priest and king.

 

Epiphany gives us pictures of Jesus, so that we can see him for ourselves and get to know him better.  When we meet him here in the Eucharist, he feeds and nurtures us with himself, to strengthen us to be his body in the world.  We have seen his glory, and that brings His light into our lives.

Jesus & ethnic prejudice

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An Irish priest was driving along on country roads.  He was stopped by the Police.  The Police Officer smells alcohol on the priest, and notices a bottle lying beside him, and says to the driver, “Have you been drinking?”  The priest replies, “Only water.”  The police officer says, “Well how come I can smell wine?”  The priest looks at the bottle in amazement and says, “Good Lord!  He’s done it again!”

 

It’s an Irish joke.  And it works because of the stereotype that the Irish are not so bright and not so educated and not so sophisticated as other folks, as us.  You don’t hear Irish joke so much now because people realised that they were racist, reinforcing an image of the Irish that is untrue and unhelpful.  At one level, ethnic jokes are about telling ourselves that we are better than people from Ireland or Poland or that other country that we’re not altogether comfortable with.

 

The joke about the Irish priest was published by the Irish Mirror just before Christmas.  It is different when people tell jokes against themselves.  I laughed out loud when I read it, because it is a good religious joke, and very appropriate for epiphany because it refers to the story of Jesus changing the water into wine at the wedding at Cana, which is one of the essential stories of the revelation of Jesus in the season of epiphany.  But it stops being funny when you try to analyse it!

 

Though ethnic jokes are less common now, racism is still alive and thriving.  A woman rang me recently to ask where she could pass on some goods that her family collect take them to pass on to asylum seekers and refugees or she could contact the Community Project.  She preferred the stuff to go to the Community Project. It was clear to me that she didn’t want her stuff to go to foreigners.  The conversation left me feeling really sad because of her racism.

 

There was an appalling story of racism in the news this week.  President Trump was at a meeting of lawmakers on Thursday to talk about immigration reform.  He wondered aloud about why the United States kept taking people in from ‘shithole’ countries.  Sorry for using that word, but I am just quoting the President of the United States, the Leader of the Free World.  And if you felt offended by me saying that word, just think how offended the people of the African nations, Haiti and El Salvador feel!  The President has been roundly condemned by the United Nations, and US diplomats all over the world have been summoned to receive reproach.

 

In the Gospel reading, Nathanael comes out with a one-liner Galilee joke.  Galilee was in the north, well away from Jerusalem, the political and religious centre of the Jewish world.  People from Galilee were regarded as slower, not so connected, not so with-it.  And Nazareth in particular was a small village in the stick, a nowhere place.  When Philip goes to find Nathanael to tell him that they have found the Messiah and he comes from Nazareth, he says, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  And the implication is that nothing interesting or valuable or noteworthy could come from Nazareth, of all places!

 

Philip tells Nathanael, “Come and see!”  And Nathanael goes with Philip to meet Jesus.  When Jesus meets him, he offers a compliment, he says that Philip is a genuine guy, what you see is what you get, he doesn’t say one thing and mean another.  Nathanael is surprised and says, “how do you know me?”  He clearly accepts Jesus’ assessment of him.  Jesus says, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  In other words, he had supernatural insight – he could see beyond the normal sightline, and he could see into peoples’ hearts.  And if he knew where Philip was and what kind of a person he was, Jesus would also know about Philip’s disparaging comment.

 

Philip is impressed.  He calls Jesus “rabbi”, “Son of God”, “King of Israel”.  He started with a racist stereotype and an insult, and when he looked again, he moved on to amazement and wonder and appreciation.

 

Everybody is prejudiced to some extent.  We all make snap judgements about other people, and they are not always right, especially when our snap judgements are based on the stereotypes we carry about people from certain countries or races or whatever.  When Philip looked beyond his prejudice, he found the Son of God, he found a teacher he could trust, he found where his heart really lay.

 

Nazareth was, in Donald Trump’s terms, a “shithole” place.  200-400 people lived there in small stone houses and left their rubbish in the alley-ways between the houses.  That’s where Jesus came from.  That’s where God comes from.   And when we welcome the people who come from those places that Donald Trump despises, we welcome Jesus.  Trump doesn’t want them in his country; he wants to keep them out.  He wants to reform the immigration laws so that he can keep these people out.

 

Emmanuel Mensah joined the US army a year ago and worked in the National Guard.  He was home for Christmas, when a fire broke out in the apartment block in the Bronx in New York where he lived.  Emmanuel Mensah rescued a number of people from the fire.  He went back into the burning building to bring out more people, but was overcome and died himself, one of 13 people who died in the conflagration.  He has been posthumously awarded the Soldiers Medal and the New York State Medal for Valor.  This hero had emigrated to the US from Ghana, one of Trump’s shithole African countries.

Baby Book

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In 1945, ancient texts were discovered at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, which shed considerable light on religious thought.  I thought you might like to hear from one of the unusual books that were discovered there.  It was Jesus’ baby book, compiled by his Mother Mary.  It must have been abandoned in Egypt when the family returned to Nazareth after their time as refugees in Egypt, but kept by faithful Jews until it ended up with the collection of scrolls at Nag Hammadi.  This is how it goes:

 

PREGNANCY:  I am pregnant!  Me, a virgin!  An angel said so.  I don’t think everyone believes me!  Mum is looking hurt and Dad is stony-faced.

FATHER: Joseph, a carpenter. Not best pleased at first, but he had a dream of an angel, and now he’s going with the flow.  But it will be a quiet wedding, all things considered.

FIRST HOME: We had to come to Bethlehem for the census.  Joseph’s relatives let us have the stable of their house so that we could have a bit of space for the baby.

LABOUR: I am NEVER doing that again.  It was SOOO painful.  It went on for hours! Joseph’s cousin Rebecca and Rachel the village midwife helped me.  They were so kind.

WEIGHT: 6lb 9 ozs.

FIRST VISITORS: The baby was only 3 hours old when a bunch of unwashed shepherds arrived, straight from the fields.  They were very kind, if a bit over-excited at having seen angels dancing in the sky and praising God.  Gave me a lot to think about though.

CIRCUMCISION:  Baby was circumcised on the 8th day.  We gave him the name Jesus, as the angel had instructed.  Great way to see in the New Year.  We had a party.  Roast lamb.

HOME LIFE:  Joseph got some work, and we found somewhere more permanent to stay in Bethlehem while Jesus was little.  I love being a mum, though it is exhausting sometimes.

CRAWLING: 8 ½ months.  Clear the decks – this child is mobile!

FIRST STEPS:  Jesus took a few steps at 11 months, but was so shocked by the experience, he didn’t try it again for a couple of weeks.  Now he’s into everything.

OTHER VISITORS:  Jesus was about 14 months old when a party of foreigners arrived in Bethlehem.  I heard the local kids calling and cheering before I saw the visitors themselves.  They had come a long way.  I never got my head round where they had come from, different people were saying different things, and I didn’t like to ask.  Some people said they came from Persia, but someone else said they had come from different places.  They said they were magi and they studied the stars.  Someone told me later that they were kings, but I wasn’t so sure about that.  They said they had seen a star and knew that it meant that an important person had been born, a great king.  (My baby, my Jesus – a great king!)  They had been to Jerusalem and spoken to King Herod (of all people!) who had advised them to look for Jesus in Jerusalem.  They had followed the star and it stopped over our home.  They came in, and I made them a cup of peppermint tea.  Jesus was toddling round.  He was a bit shy at first, but curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to suss out the visitors.  They took it in turns to pick him up and he played with their hats and odd things they presented from their pockets.  They stayed in the village for a few days and then they set off for home.  They decided not to go back via Jerusalem, but took another route.

GIFTS: The women of Bethlehem were so kind helping out with clothes and practical things.  The shepherds brought a lamb, which was great.  We roasted it for the circumcision feast.  But the foreign magi brought the most amazing things:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Not necessarily the most practical things – except for the gold of course.  Frankincense – they use that in the temple to burn before the altar, to take the sweet fragrance of our prayers to God.  Myrrh is used for preparing bodies for burial – not much use to a small child at the start of life.  Was it supposed to be some kind of omen?  Were they saying that Jesus would need this himself?   That was a bit creepy.  Joseph got a good price for the frankincense and myrrh – the money was more useful to us.

BIG EVENTS:  Joseph had another dream.  An angel warned him that we should go, and go quickly.  So we packed up and set off.  I was a bit annoyed, to be honest.  I didn’t want to go.

BAD NEWS:  We travelled on the back roads.  We stopped off in villages.  Sometimes we picked up a bit of news.  We heard that a troop of soldiers had gone to Bethlehem and they had killed all the baby boys.  It made me realise – that could have been Jesus.

A NEW HOME: We are in Egypt now.  Joseph has found some work – thank goodness he is so practical and can use his skills anywhere.  And we used some of the money we got from the frankincense to get somewhere to live.  But it isn’t easy.  I am trying to learn the language.  The people don’t seem to like immigrants, so we get a bit of abuse sometimes.  When I go to the market, they won’t sell me the good stuff, only the vegetables that are wilting already.  But King Herod has no power here and we are safe.  And that is worth so much.

 

And that is where the Baby Book stops.  There is so much more we would like to know about Jesus growing up, about his first words and the games he liked to play, but we shall never know.  We can only imagine what it might have been like.  There were things that were very similar to our own experiences, and some aspects that were very different.  It wasn’t easy for Mary and the family.  And life isn’t easy for many young families in our own day.  Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Responding & Rejoicing

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The angels have been and gone.  They had been singing and dancing in the skies, praising God, rejoicing in the birth of God’s own son in a stable in Bethlehem.

 

Were the shepherds the only ones to notice?  Was everyone else tucked into their beds asleep?  Maybe someone woke up and thought the town drunks are at it again, and snuggled down deeper into the blankets.  And maybe one of the drunks did hear and see the shenanigans, but put it down to too much ale.  Perhaps there was someone still outside who saw and heard, but thought something really weird and evil was going on, so they said a private prayer to ward off such devilish doings.

 

When something happens, people respond in different ways.  You have to make sense of what is happening, and then you have to do something.  We see this every time there is a major incident, and you get the stories of people who responded bravely, the people who helped themselves and others to get to a safe place.  We tend not to hear the stories of people who respond out of fear, but there are always some of them as well – very understandably.

 

And it wasn’t as if the world’s press was turning up on the doorstep to record people’s stories of the night the angels came.  All we have is the shepherd’s story.

 

The shepherds were amazed at seeing the angels and hearing their message.  And the first thing the shepherds do is to want to check out what they have been told.  They act on their amazement.  The angels had told them about a baby born in Bethlehem, lying in a manger.  So they set off to see the truth of it, and sure enough, they find the family, just as the angels said.  That is the sign for them that everything the angels had told them was true, that this baby is the Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.  This is the sign that God is doing a new thing, and if all the angels of heaven are rejoicing, then something really wonderful is happening.  They accepted the truth of what the angels had said, the whole truth of it.

 

Then the shepherds respond in worship – they glorify and praise God.  I rather suspect the shepherds hadn’t done that in a while.  When they praise God, they let God’s joy into their hearts, and that changes them from the inside.  When they praise God, they take part in God’s glory.

 

Of course, the shepherds weren’t the only ones there.  Mary herself is trying to make sense of it all.  Little more than a child herself, she has just given birth to a baby.  She has her new husband and probably the women of his family and the village midwife, but her own mother and aunts are far away, the people she has always relied on.  She has barely had time to rest when a bunch of smelly shepherds turn up from the fields wanting to see the little fella in the manger, all excited because they have seen angels in the sky telling them to come by and visit the new baby.  They have such a story to tell!

 

And Mary listens, hanging on to every word.  She maybe asks them to tell the story again.  Joseph maybe asks questions for clarification.  Mary remembers it all, committing every word to her heart.  She treasures the story she hears, because it helps her to understand that her baby really is special, that her own weird experience with the angel was real.  She goes on pondering for the rest of her life.  She puts things together, from whatever she heard when the scriptures were read, from what people said to her about the baby, from what the stories her people told her about their own experience.

 

I say Morning and Evening Prayer every day and read a portion of Old and New Testament twice a day, and it’s amazing how many times I can see my own life and the life of the church and the community reflected in what I am reading, so that scripture shines a light on life and life illustrates the Word of God.  And when I am reflecting on a particular theme, I find ideas and images coming from different directions – a newspaper article, something someone says on twitter or facebook, a verse from a psalm, and they all help to make the matter more clear, more visible, and make more sense.

 

That way of reflecting on scripture is helpful for everyone.  It’s like chewing a delicious mouthful and paying attention to it, so you appreciate the flavour and the texture and joy it brings you.  It can be a really good practice to look up the Sunday readings during the week and just hear them again in your mind and make the connections with what is going on in your life and let God speak to you.

 

Today’s Gospel invites us to take the stories of the birth of Jesus into our heart and mind and soul, to give them a place where we can go on looking at them and finding new pieces of the jigsaw that enlarge the picture and make it clearer.

 

As you have heard the stories this Christmas, how have you responded?  Remember the times when you have pondered on the truth of the story, or wondered what it might have been like to have been there.  Remember the joy in your heart when you have responded in praise and worship.  Give thanks to God that you have an open door to the birth of the Son of God, that he came because of just how much you matter to God.

Gifts with layers

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Christmas is a time of giving gifts, and later on today, you will, no doubt, be receiving and unwrapping lovely surprises and not-so-surprises from your nearest and dearest.  Tonight we hear the Christmas story, and discover that here also is a gift, all wrapped in pretty paper, glitter and tinsel, and containing something very special.  Though in some ways, it’s more like the present in pass the parcel, where there are lots of layers and wrapping, and if you are very lucky, you might find a little something tucked between the sheets of paper as an extra prize.

 

Unwrapping the multi-layered parcel of the Christmas story is also like those direction posts in tourist towns – York has a lot of them – which tell you which way the Minster is and where to go to find the Viking museum, giving you pointers about what to look for.  The Christmas story is a story in which the details matter, and often we think we know the story so well, that we miss the point.

 

The way Luke tells the story, it begins with a decree from the Emperor Augustus.  Let’s stop right there – we usually skip the Emperor Augustus.  He was born Gaius Octavian, the great-nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, and took charge of the Roman Empire from 27BC.  He was the first Roman Emperor, and he thought a lot of himself. He called himself ‘son of god’.  He took on the name ‘Imperator’, or Commander.  He also added ‘Augustus’ to his name, which means majestic.  He worked hard to maintain his world-conquering power, and changed the world by force.

 

In contrast, we come tonight to hear the story of a baby born in humble circumstances, who really was  – is – the Son of God, who didn’t claim power, but was the power; who didn’t assert majesty but was utterly majestic; who changed the world not with violence but with love.  The way Luke tells the story, he is making a point.  There may be an Emperor in Rome, but here was the real King.

 

That’s what I mean about the pointers – the little details in the story that show you something important about what is going on.

 

Bethlehem was a little village not far from Jerusalem.  People lived simply in two or three roomed houses, with one of the spaces kept for the animals in winter – the animals helped to keep the whole house warm, they were protected from the elements and protected from thieves.  That is the area we generally call the stable.  We often think that the baby was born as soon as Mary arrives in Bethlehem, but the story says “while they were there” – in other words, they got there and got settled in and were able to make preparations.  Joseph was descended from King David, and a lot of the family lived in Bethlehem.  That’s why he and Mary had to travel there for the census.    The extended family would never turn away a family member, especially when his wife was near to term.  That would have been so shameful!  In the culture of the Middle East, you show honour to guests, because that honour reflects well on you.  Bethlehem was too small to have a hotel.  The word translated as ‘inn’ means a space for visitors, or guest room.  But if the space allocated for guests was full with other visitors, you needed to find somewhere suitable for the woman to have her baby.  It wasn’t winter – the scholars say it was either autumn or spring, and the animals were outside.  So Mary was given this space, the stable, to have her baby.  The men would have been sent away and the women and the local midwife would have helped her deliver the baby.  And when the child was born, he was all wrapped up and placed in the manger.

 

But there are other layers in the packaging of this story.  Luke uses a number of puns – words that sound like other words, and these are pointers to the real meaning.  The word often translated as ‘inn’ sounds like a technical word often used for the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple, the really sacred, special place where God dwelt.  The Hebrew version of the word we know as manger sounds like an ancient word for Jerusalem, and recalls a line in Psalm 2: ‘I have set my king in Zion’.   And the manger is also important because it is comes into the next stage of the story, because the angels tell the shepherds that’s the sign for finding the special baby – lying in the manger.

 

The first people to visit the new born baby are shepherds.  Shepherds were poor people, unimportant and uneducated.  They were very ordinary folk, nothing special.  In the eyes of the religious authorities, they were even regarded as unclean.  Now there’s a bit of unpacking the parcel to be done here.  You know it really, but did you ever make the connection?  ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ – Psalm 23 – we often read it at funerals, one of the most loved and comforting psalms.  And it’s a theme picked up by the prophets who talk about the leaders of Israel as shepherds.  When this baby grows up, Jesus tells a lot of stories about finding lost sheep and how he is the good shepherd.  Sheep and shepherds are really important in the whole story. And it starts right at the beginning.  The shepherds come to visit the Good Shepherd.

 

So it is these people, guarding their sheep, who are given the privilege of a vision of angels dancing in the sky and praising God.  A baby is born and all the angels of heaven rejoice!  The angels tell them about the baby that has just been born in Bethlehem, the City of David, and is lying in a manger.  Sure enough, they find the baby, and then they have such a story to tell about what they have seen and heard.

 

And another layer of the story is that Jesus comes first to ordinary people.  They see the glory of the angels and hear the good news they bring from God.

 

Christ is born in Bethlehem!  And we come here, year by year, to worship with the shepherds at the manger.  Christ has come to us, to ordinary people.  And when we look more deeply at the simple story about a baby being born, we see more clearly how God was giving us so many signs that this special baby is God’s Son, and that he has come because God cares.

Safe & Welcome

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This is the text of a Christmas service for people – especially children – who experience the world differently, and their families.  Thank you very much to those who helped me.  I am posting it so that the families and individuals who are planning to come along can prepare themselves, so that they can be comfortable that they know what is going to happen.

Here goes:

Meg welcomes everyone to church and explains the service.

  • During this service, you will need the service booklet that explains what we are going to do and has the words of the songs;
  • It is OK to move around the church during this service;
  • If you need some time out, that is fine. The hall at the back of church is open with things to do;
  • There are toilets in the lobby area if you need to find them.

 

We sing a Carol.  Carols are special songs we sing at Christmas when we are remembering Jesus being born.

 

Carol:  O little town of Bethlehem

 

Story:

Bethlehem is a little village near Jerusalem in Israel.

A long time ago, two thousand years ago, a woman called Mary was expecting a baby.

She and her husband Joseph had to walk a long way to get to Bethlehem.

They had to go there because the Romans wanted to count everyone by family.

When they got to Bethlehem, the baby was just about to be born.

They needed a safe place to go.

There were so many people that the family guest room was full of people and noisy.

So the family made room for them in the animal shelter, which was quieter.

The animals were all outside.

The baby was born and Mary wrapped him up in cloths to keep him warm.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have all the things you need to look after a new baby, so they made a bed for the baby in the feeding trough or manger.

 

Carol:  Little donkey

 

Someone will bring you a piece of fleecy fabric.

 

Activity and Prayer:

Now we are going to do an activity to help us think about the prayer I am going to say.

Our activity is about getting ready for a new baby and our prayer is about asking God to help all mams and new babies.

This orange box is our manger and we are going to use it to make a cradle ready for the baby Jesus.  Take the piece of warm fabric you have just been given and lay it in the manger to make a warm, safe, comfortable place for the baby.  Today we are using a doll to represent the baby Jesus.  Mary and Joseph didn’t have a cradle for their baby, so they had to use what was there, so they used the manger.

As we make the cradle ready for the baby Jesus, think about all the families who find it difficult to get ready for their babies coming.

 

I will now say a prayer for babies, mams and families:

Father in Heaven, thank you for the birth of Jesus your Son.

Please look after all mothers with new babies,

and all those who are waiting for babies to be born.

Look after all the babies and help them grow well and happy.

Be with all our families.  Amen

 

Someone will place baby Jesus in the cradle we have made.

 

Carol:  Away in a manger

 

Someone will bring you a battery candle.

 

Activity and Prayer:

It was night time when Jesus was born, and it was dark outside.

We sometimes talk about Jesus being the light of the world, the light that shines for us when our lives seem dark and difficult.

So I invite you now to think about someone who finds life dark and difficult.

Switch on the battery candle you have just been given and put it on the ground near the cradle we made.  Then I will say prayer for people who are finding life difficult.

 

Someone will say this prayer:

Dear God, please help everyone who finds life dark and difficult at the moment.

Let Jesus be a light for them in the darkness, so that they can see the way to being safe.

Help them not to be sad or worried.

Help them to trust in you.

And help us when things are confusing and difficult.

Be with us always.  Amen

 

Carol:  Silent night

 

Story:

In the fields near Bethlehem there were shepherds minding their sheep.

It was night, and they sat round the fire together and talked about the day.

Then something amazing happened.

The dark sky suddenly became bright, and the shepherds could see that there were angels singing and dancing in the sky.

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven!’ they sang.

One angel told the shepherds that a special baby had been born in Bethlehem.

The angel told the shepherds how to find the baby.

So the shepherds went into the village of Bethlehem, and they found baby Jesus lying in the manger, with Mary and Joseph.

The shepherds went and told everyone they met about the special baby.

 

Carol:  While shepherds watched their flocks by nigh

 

Story:

The shepherds weren’t the only visitors.

Far away, in another country, which may have been Persia, there were wise men who studied the stars and the patterns the stars made in the sky.

Some people think the wise men were kings, but we don’t really know that.

Some people think there were three of them, but we don’t really know that.

A new star appeared in the sky, which was especially bright.

They decided that the new star meant that a really important king had been born.

They wanted to visit the king.

They travelled a long way, following the star all the way.

When they got to Jerusalem, they asked King Herod where the new king had been born.

King Herod thought that Bethlehem was a good place to look, so the wise men went there.

Sure enough, the wise men found the baby Jesus and they gave him presents: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

 

Carol:  We three kings of Orient are

 

Someone will bring you a yellow star shape and a pen so you can use to write or draw on the star

 

Activity and Prayer:

Stars are important at Christmas because the star led the wise men to Jesus.

We also say that some people are ‘stars’, because they are special people who make us feel good and happy.

Think about the ‘stars’ in your life, the people who make you feel good and happy.

Write their names on the yellow star.  Or draw them.

Hang your star on the special Christmas tree.

 

Someone will say this prayer:

Thank you God for all the people who are good and kind and helpful.

Thank you for the people we love and the ones who love us.

Thank you for Jesus, who loved us all so much.

Help us all to be stars that shine in our world.  Amen

 

Story:

The story of Jesus has inspired lots of people to do good and kind things.

Once upon a time there was a king in Bohemia called Wenceslas.

It was the day after Christmas and the weather was really bad.

Wenceslas went out into the snow and ice to take some food to a poor peasant.

His page could hardly keep up with him in the bad weather, and had to follow his footsteps.

The next carol tells that story.

 

Carol:  Good King Wenceslas

 

Ssomeone says a prayer and a blessing prayer:

 

When the waiting is over and the child is born

When the shepherds have gone back to the fields

When the Magi have left their gifts and returned to distant lands

When Mary and Joseph have fled Herod’s wrath –

Keep our hearts open, O God, to the call of your Kingdom.  Amen

Dear God,

Let your light shine for us so we can follow you

Let your light shine around us so we know that you are with us

Let your light shine in us so we can light up the world.

Go with us and bless us in all that we do,

Now and always.  Amen

 

Carol:  We wish you a merry Christmas

Compassion Attraction

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Today in the church calendar we reach the end of the year.  In the church’s pattern of readings, called the lectionary, this has been Year A, and the focus of the readings has been on the Gospel of Matthew.

 

And the last reading from the Gospel of Matthew is a picture of judgement.  Jesus tells a story about the end of time when Christ returns in glory and there is a great judgement, when everyone is measured by their deeds.  And what makes the difference in separating one from another is compassion.  Those who are given in place in the kingdom are those who welcome strangers, who provide for those who are in need, who care for those who are suffering, who visit those who are imprisoned by their circumstances.  All those who serve people in the community in this way are serving Christ.  And the converse applies:  all those who fail to help people in need are failing Christ.

 

In a few minutes, we are going to baptise F.

 

F told me that what attracted him to Christianity was what he had observed for himself, the way that Christians reached out to people of whatever creed or colour and gave them assistance.  So it is a wonderful and amazing coincidence that the Gospel Reading set for today encourages that compassion and care.

 

And now F wants to make his commitment to following Christ.  It is a very important step.  Today, he becomes a Christian and a member of the church, the body of Christ.  Today he is washed clean of sin and refreshed in the water of life.

 

I will be asking all of you to give your support to F as he is baptised.  So pray for him, now and in the coming weeks.  He will continue to study and learn about the Christian faith as he prepares for Confirmation by the Bishop.  Help him with that.  Get to know him.

 

Today, F will start to receive Holy Communion because he is “desirous of being Confirmed”, as the Canons put it.  That is another big step.  He will receive the body and blood of Christ; he will be united with Christ and nurtured by Christ.  God is no longer separate, out there, but within him, part of him.

 

And part of us.  And because we are committed to Christ, part of the Body of Christ, nurtured by the body and blood of Christ, we are called to be compassionate in the way that Jesus describes.

 

Today’s reading is a reminder to us about the way we treat other people.  How can we as a church be more compassionate?  How can we welcome other people with generosity and hospitality?  How can we make the church a place where people feel safe, welcome and at home?  We were looking at that in the Advent Course that began on Tuesday.

 

Next week, Advent begins.  We turn to face the Coming of Christ, born as a baby in Bethlehem, and the Coming of Christ at the end of the age, whenever that may be.  Next week, Year B begins with its focus on the Gospel of Mark.

 

F is taking a new step in baptism, and we are encouraged to go a little deeper into living out our baptismal promises.  We do this together, in the name of Christ.