Monday, 23 December 2013

Rewriting the story

Matthew 2:1-12
The Visit of the Wise Men
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel. ’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Every year, at this time, I, and many of my colleagues ask: How can we tell the Christmas Story in a new way?
How can we bring it up to date and make it relevant for folk today?
And so we keep on coming up with different ideas.
Different ways of getting the Christmas message across.
Be it You Tube clips of Mr Bean and the Nativity Scene -
Or the Digital Facebook Nativity.
This year I was involved in filming a part of the Christmas story based on The Apprentice.
Our task, as apprentices, was to find a gift for a king.
We keep on trying to update the story.
But the truth is that, whatever you believe:
The story of Christmas is one that we see repeated the world over - and not just at Christmas time.
The biblical story of Christmas is the story of a child being born in difficult circumstances.
Born to an unmarried, teenage mother.
Born into poverty.
Born into a land ruled by oppressive forces.
It was a grim story.
Not the pretty version that we often portray-
With a warm stable and a tired donkey and smiling shepherds.
The bible story is much harsher than that.
The baby is no sooner born in awful conditions before his parents have to flee for their lives.
They become refugees, forced to take to the road and hide from soldiers roaming the streets.
The story is dark and depressing.
No wonder we try to dress it up.
No wonder we get little children to dress up as angels and shepherds and sing of little donkeys.
If we told the story as it really was, we'd give children nightmares.
But, in all the harshness of the story is an underlying message of love.
It was out of love that God chose to send Jesus.
Out of love for a world dark and oppressed.
Out of love for people struggling to survive.
Into that world God sent Jesus to bring love.
One of my favourite Christmas Carols is Love came down at Christmas.
The idea was that the birth of Jesus would change the world.
That people would no longer struggle with the kind of poverty and the kind of oppression that existed when Jesus was born.
No longer would families be forced to flee from unjust regimes.
No longer would they be caught up in conflict.
But just look at any news broadcast today.
And we see countless refugees.
In Syria, in Serbia - and in so many other places.
Folk forced to abandon their homes, meagre as those homes are.
Folk forced to take to the streets to avoid opposing forces surrounding their homes and villages.
And Aid workers unable to help, held back by corrupt governments and regimes.
And, in case we think that that's something that's happening far away.
Something to which we can send money, (though nothing seems to be helping at present).
There are also pressing issues right here in our own communities.
That's why Food Banks are springing up everywhere.
It's why there are more and more folk sleeping on our streets.
Here, too, poverty and injustice leaves people without food or shelter, all the things we would consider basic human rights, if we consider them at all.
Christmas is not a warm, family, sharing time for so many people for all sorts of reasons.
But it is a time when we can choose, whatever we believe, to make a difference.
To do something, however small, to share the love that is at the heart of the season.
It's a time when we can choose to update the story.
To break that cycle of injustice and oppression with the power of love.
To rewrite the story for our community.
In churches at this time of year we reflect on the themes of light, hope, peace and love in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Just imagine being the generation that manages to change the story of Christmas.
The generation that finally manages to see some real light, some real hope, some real peace and some real love being born in the world.
That WOULD be a new Christmas story.
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Sunday, 15 December 2013

Dreaming repentance

Matthew 1:18-25
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Normally, on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, we read about John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. We read about him going out into the desert and calling people to repentance.
John's message is harsh and uncompromising.
It's never a comfortable thing to hear this time of year - or any time of year.
But that's not why I've chosen to avoid it this year and read, instead, of Joseph's dream.
We've been following a theme of dreaming through Advent.
Beginning with our House of Dreams when we tiled the roof with prayers that we wanted to journey with through advent.
But, though we're not reading, today, of John the Baptist setting out his stall in the desert, our theme of dreaming nonetheless leads us to consider repentance and to re-define righteousness.
Dreams are all very well, but unless we are prepared to act on them, they remain ethereal, without substance.
When we gathered our prayers a few weeks ago, we acknowledged that all of us would be required to play our part in answering these prayers we brought, the longings of our hearts, our dreams.
What's the point in cherishing a dream if we aren't prepared to go and do something about it?
It's in the achieving of dreams that we begin the work of repentance.
Resolving to be the means by which dreams are fulfilled, by which prayer is answered, brings about the kind of turnaround of which John the Baptist spoke in the wilderness.
Repentance is not about beating ourselves up for all that we have failed to do.
It's not about regrets.
Repentance involves us taking a course of action that will make a difference to our world, to our community and to our neighbours.
Our repentance might involve us consciously setting aside more time for prayer in our daily lives.
It might involve us contributing weekly to the food parcels collection.
It might involve us taking more time to notice the people around us - here in worship and in our day to day encounters, taking the time to notice the hurt that lies behind a smile or the loneliness that wears a brave face, or even the desperation that is masked in silence,
Our repentance this morning begins in our resolving to bring the light, the hope, the peace and the love of Advent into todays world.
Our repentance begins when we resolve to find a way to bring about the peace we pray for, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to share the love of God.
The stuff of dreams - in the palm of our hands.
So we might not have read those harsh words of John the Baptist in church this morning but we are headed down the path of repentance that he bids us travel.

John the Baptist is not the focus of our musings this morning, but Joseph is.
Joseph, who plays a bit part in the Nativity.
At least, that's how it often seems.
We portray Joseph as a benign, insignificant character in the Nativity.
A character who was obedient and faithful.
And he was.
But, in portraying Joseph in such an insipid light, we totally underestimate the subversiveness of Joseph's actions in his time and culture.
It was the law that Joseph should separate himself from Mary on discovering her pregnancy.
Not only should he remove himself, according to the law, he should also publicly disgrace Mary, bringing to attention her unfaithfulness.
In choosing compassion over the law, Joseph risks bringing shame and scandal on himself.
And isn't that a foretaste of all that is to come in Jesus?
How often, through the gospels, do we see Jesus choosing the way of compassion rather than fulfilling the law?
How often do we see Jesus pronouncing forgiveness rather than condemnation?
When he touched a leper to bring healing.
When he rescued a woman about to be stoned for adultery.
When he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Every time, Jesus chose the way of compassion rather than the way that the law would prescribe.
And, often, he was ridiculed and condemned for going against the law and practising love.
Joseph's actions are mirrored in the actions of Jesus as he transcends the law and brings about grace.
So, perhaps instead of seeing Joseph as having a bit part in the story, we might be more influenced this advent by his redefining faithfulness and righteousness.
We might be more influenced by the difficult choices he makes to do the will of God.
His actions wouldn't have gone unnoticed by his contemporaries.
Rather, he was prepared to endure ridicule and shame in order to demonstrate love.
It might be useful for us to ask ourselves today:
What ways might it be time for us to subvert in order to practice compassion?
What traditions or rules do we uphold that no longer serve the purposes of God?
What things do we indulge in that prevent folk from experiencing the amazing love of God?
Are there things that we do, that we have done forever, that we could let go in order to serve God better today?
Where might God be calling us to travel unfamiliar paths, ways that cause us discomfort, so that this community might know that God took on flesh for them?
And are we prepared for the hostility that might be directed our way when we reach out to those God calls us to love?

Joseph's dream, in which God revealed how prophecy would be fulfilled was the culmination of centuries of dreams of the people of God.
All through the ages, God's people dreamed of the day when God would send the Messiah to rescue God's people.
The prophets pointed to that day.
It seems that all of history was heading to the fulfilment of those dreams.
The verses in Matthew's gospel immediately before those we read today, trace Joseph's lineage right back to David.
David, to whom God made some astounding promises, promising to bless David's descendants, promising to always be with the people of God.
Here, in Joseph, a descendant of David, we see that promise coming to fruition, not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.
Because Joseph was faithful, because he was willing to go beyond the law of the day, redefining righteousness and compassion, the promise of God through the ages was able to be fulfilled.
And Gods son was born.
Immanuel - God with us.
And so dreams are fulfilled.
And our House of Dreams becomes a stable in which the prayers of the world are answered in the birth of a baby - God with us today.
And so, as we enter this 3rd week in Advent, our task is to make our repentance joyful.
To find ways to strengthen our resolve to journey on, making a difference in our neighbourhood and throughout the world by finding ever new ways to reveal the love of God who keeps promises.
It won't be easy.
But it's God's gift to us - to be the means by which hopes and dreams are fulfilled for all Gods people.
God's gift to us to throw off the restraint of years of tradition, to redefine repentance and righteousness, to escape the mould and, with compassion to bring light, love, hope and peace to the world.
God's gift to you and me.
Thanks be to God.

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Sunday, 1 December 2013

A promise, not a threat!

Matthew 24:36-44
The Necessity for Watchfulness
“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this:if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

My early upbringing in Christian faith was accompanied by the soundtrack of tonight's gospel reading.
The teaching I heard, the music I listened to, even movies I watched all described this "leaving behind" that we read of in Matthews gospel.
Perhaps it was a familiar theme for you too.
Cliff Richard sang : I wish we'd all been ready.

Life was filled with guns and war
And everyone got trampled on the floor
I wish we'd all been ready

Children died the day grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we'd all been ready

There's no time to change your mind
The son has come and you've been left behind

A man and wife sleep in bed she hears a noise
And turns her head he's gone
I wish we'd all been ready

Two men walking up a hill one disappears and
One's left standing still
I wish we'd all been ready

There's no time to change your mind
The son has come and you've been left behind

Perhaps some of you shared similar experiences.
But, for a time, I lived almost in a state of readiness for the rapture - that time when Christ would come and take people away.
It didn't stop me doing the usual teenage things- but I do remember occasionally being at the pictures, or at a disco, surrounded by friends and noise and thinking: "What if Jesus returned now? How would he find me?"
In the ensuing years I think it's fair to say that my Theology of the Rapture has changed.
The wonderful thing about theology is that it is not something fixed or static - or, at least, it shouldn't be - It is always something evolving in response to life and our experience of God in life.
God is constantly revealed in new and surprising ways.
And, as long as we are prepared to keep on searching and keep on working, not at understanding God but at building our relationship with God, that is what's important.
And as we build our relationship with God, we learn to view the people of God in a different light.
Our view stretches and expands and we begin to see God in places and in people we would never have expected.

And so to this Left Behind Puzzle.
I'm not sure that its so much about folk being left behind but more about folk having already left.
Folk choosing to move away from God.
Our gospel reading points to the flood and the folk who were swept away - those who didn't stay with Noah in the safety of the ark, those who were oblivious to the warnings.
The story of the wise and foolish virgins - another apocalyptic story that we often read in this Advent season is a story of those who left being caught out. The foolish virgins left to find some oil for their lamps. They weren't there when the bridegroom returned.
So, perhaps the rapture is in fact the opposite of how we often imagine it.
Folk aren't snatched away - they have already left - and the party begins with those who remain.
The folk on the streets.
The folk at the Food Bank.
The folk trying to pick up the pieces after devastating loss.
The left behind folk with whom God dines.
The great reversal.
That's how my Theology has evolved on the Rapture.
But, does it really matter whether or how we understand it?
At the end of the day, does it really make any difference?

Jesus exhorts his listeners to "wake up!"
Every day I hear folk saying "you never know what's around the corner - and it's just as well"
I know lots of you have experienced those times when you'd rather not know what comes next - it's too scary to contemplate.
And we've seen it demonstrated in spades this weekend.
Who would ever have imagined that popping in for a quick drink, or going to hear a band would end up with the kind of nightmare scenario that unfolded this weekend in the helicopter crash in Glasgow?
All the health and safety that we get so caught up in today, all the risk assessments in the universe cannot legislate for events such as happened in a busy bar on Friday night.
But I'm not convinced that its that sort of unpredictable tragedy for which Jesus asks us to be ready.
Although if the news headlines, even in all their inaccuracies and sordidness encourage us to care more for our loved ones, encourage us to do more to express our love, that can only be a good thing.
But that's not what Jesus was getting at.
Rather, it's the everyday opportunities that life presents to us that we so easily overlook and take for granted.
It's those that we are exhorted to Wake up to.
The themes we normally contemplate as we move through Advent are Hope, Peace, Love and Light.
But we also contemplate a God who surprises us.
A God who intersects with our lives every day in all sorts of ways.
Who knows how many encounters we miss because of our inattention?
Who knows the opportunities we have missed when we are distracted by issues that are unimportant?
Here in the church we get caught up in distractions.
We worry about minutiae that doesn't really matter, things that have so little to do with the kingdom of God but that keep us from being about the business of Hope and Peace and Love and Light.

Jesus return is not a threat - it is a promise.
Not something to fear but something to hope for.
An acknowledgment that what we know is not all that there is.
As we come to share in the sacrament of Holy Communion, we touch and taste that promise.
We touch and taste the hope and the joy and the love and the light that Gods promise brings, a promise shared by saints through the ages.
But as we taste that promise, might we also be surprised by God in this place?
What are the chances that, sharing in this sacrament in which you have shared so many times before, that today, you might be surprised by the God who meets us here?
Jesus exhorts us to be ready for such an encounter - be it in bread and wine or on our journey into work, at the coffee shop, in the supermarket queue.
May we be surprised by God in communion today by the God who dines with us.
For the glory of God.

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