Well I could swear it’s only two days since we were propelled by the glory of God with a group of shepherds to a manger, where we encountered a tiny baby and recognised that this child was the Lord of the world, God made man, the Saviour of all mankind. It was his mother Mary that first made all these connections: the arrival of the shepherds and the announcement of the angel they bore witness to, confirmed for her that her child who had come into being through such extraordinary circumstances, was indeed incredibly special: destined to complete God’s purpose in ways she couldn’t fully comprehend. It was these things she turned over in her mind, cogitating on their significance, treasuring the pieces like a jigsaw made of precious stones.
Yet, here we are, twelve years on in the life of that tiny baby, encountering the Holy Family in very different circumstances. Jesus is of an age where we can assume he has had his bar mitzvah and is, in spiritual terms at least, a young man, a Son of the Law (as the Jews call it). He is also incredibly self-aware, and very sure on what he needs to start focusing. Mary adds to the treasure of his birth, through being given the fright of her life when her and Joseph’s instincts as human parents over-ride any of the logical understanding she may have gleaned in her pondering over the intervening years as to her son’s purposes in the world.
“Why were you looking for me? [asks Jesus] It was necessary that I had to be at my Father’s work.”
For someone who came into the world with (among other things) the purpose of showing that people’s proximity to God is not tied to the rituals and religiosity that had become the focus of Jewish life, Jesus seems to have spent a lot of his time at the heart of those traditions in the The Temple, and particularly at significant moments in his life. Simeon and Anna had of course recognised his purpose as the Messiah, when he was presented at the Temple as an infant – something that we shall celebrate at Candlemas. And of course, we remember that in the days leading up to his crucifixion he demonstrates most dramatically against what he has come to know of the corruption surrounding the worship of God at The Temple, throwing out the money-changers. And here he is at an important moment in his young life, sharing for days on end through questions and answers of great wisdom and understanding, in discourse with the elders of the Jewish faith, at the heart of their life of faith. It was where he needed to be so that he could return in his ministry equipped with an understanding of what the Jewish leaders were promoting and prioritising in their faith – for better, or as it turned out, for worse.
Mary and Joseph took for granted initially, that Jesus was with them, somewhere among the extended family – perfectly understandable in the culture of the time. They were simply getting on with their own lives. There were then two further days during which they had searched high and low in places so obvious that they are not detailed in scripture. They were probably the places they had stayed overnight, or among relatives who remained permanently in the city. It was only when those places prove fruitless avenues of investigation, that they turn their focus to The Temple, whether in hope or in prayer, we do not know.
There were three days we are told, between Jesus going missing, and him being found safe and well, in The Temple. Three days. Does that remind you of anything?
In his account of the resurrection, Luke will tell of two people, walking the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) sharing their anguish at the time that has elapsed since Jesus’ death, and it is only when a stranger explains that it was necessary for these things to happen, that they recognise the one for whom they search in the last place they would consider looking for him; walking with them on their desolate journey and in the breaking of bread.
I wonder if you have struggled to find Jesus this Christmas. You may have looked for him here in church, among the cribs at the festival, in the words of carols or in the sacraments that we have shared. You may have looked for him in the offering of time, money or gifts that you have provided to others, in the creativity of some craft, or in the silence of a long dark night. I hope that you have encountered him in those places, but you may not have done. That’s OK, don’t panic. You are no worse in your care of Jesus than Mary and Joseph were!
As parents, and parents of the Son of God at that, Mary and Joseph went about the task that God had charged them with. It was probably something of which they were only too well aware as they searched for him – what was God going to do to them if they lost his only Son?! It probably added its own special frisson to their sense of panic. When they find him, he makes it obvious that they should have looked for him where God was at work in his life, as the young Son of God – and at this point, that meant in the Temple. Others could see the reason why he was there, else they would not have commented on his wisdom and understanding.
It may be that as we receive that which others do for us that we find Jesus responding to the needs of our life. If we are the ones constantly busy doing things for God, we can not assume that we will automatically be able to encounter Jesus in what we are doing. It’s not that he’s not there working through us, he is. Jesus will be where he is most needed, but if he’s working through us for others, it may be that they are more likely to recognise him than us.
We may need to look elsewhere, quite possibly for the place in our lives where we see God helping us achieve something new or unexpected, or difficult. In this place there may be a seed of thoughtfulness, perhaps stimulated by scripture, or in prayer and sacrament, but perhaps by some other process of incarnation. Rather than worry and panic when we sense the lack of Jesus’ presence, we need to look for places where we can engage in a questioning of God, the sort of questioning that allows space for answers, for it is there that we may well find him afresh.
Jesus, we recognise that at times we are so busy with our own lives, that we do not notice that you have escaped our attention. Help us to search for you in places where you have the space to make your wisdom and understanding known to us, in the presence of God the Father, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is my Christmas sermon for the 8am BCP Holy Communion this morning. There is a strong sense of not saying anything new here, but wanting people to find their own treasure, as I hope you too will find yours to ponder this Christmas:
What is it that brings us to this place this morning, not from sheep off the hillsides, but from warm beds? Perhaps we come from families sleepily athering to the sound of excited children, perhaps we are in transit to a gathering elsewhere in the country, or even here just before returning home to our own company.
Why, on this particular morning, do we all gather in this beautiful barn of a place, connecting a meal shared the night before a man died, with the story of his birth?
Is it the peace among the cacophony of the festive season? Is it because tradition pulls us back to a place and words of comfort; can it be that we come seeking the mysterious place of the divine in our world? Or is it, that here is the space in which we are encountering the Lord of the world in the form of a tiny baby, the treasure to daily ponder in our lives?!
The message that an angel delivered on a Galilean hillside to a group of startled shepherds focused on this baby being the Lord of their very ordinary, everyday lives. There is no mention here of the specific name ‘Jesus’, but the angel is very clear that the new-born in Bethlehem has a specific role to play in all the earth, and that these shepherd outcasts are the first to have the means of recognising both the child, and his importance.
So soon after his birth, the babe lying in the manger still awaited his formal name. But the angel announces that the baby is ‘saviour, who is Christ, Lord’. The Greek name Jesus would indeed be derived from Hebrew Jeshua word used here: savior; the long preserved Jewish hope for someone who will rescue and save them, overcoming the power of the oppressor – who at this point is one who styles himself Lord: the Emperor Augustus. Before this tiny baby has done anything at all, whilst he is simply lying wrapped in traditional swaddling cloths for warmth, salvation – the process of being saved – has come. God’s visitation to earth has commenced.
Here too is the announcement of a peace greater and more powerful than anything a Roman Emperor could enforce through military might and terror. God’s visitation to earth came “through love not might, through self-sacrifice not military prowess”; for the benefit of the marginal and outcast of society, rather than for the self-aggrandisement of those who “yearned to cling to power”.
This is not a promise of something that will happen in the future, it is not a tale of something that has happened in the past, it is something that is happening now, and if they want to encounter this Lord, this love, this peace, this hope, the shepherds will find him lying in a feeding trough in Bethlehem, the city of the shepherd King in their treasured past, David.
The baby himself, is sketched in, minutely, to the story. Blink, and you could almost miss the fact that the Lord of the world is just where he was promised; in a manger. There is no question but that the angel’s words to the shepherds, as they were to Mary, are true. The promised Saviour, God’s presence in the world, lies there, the focus of so much attention, and yet only given a passing mention. For it is what must be done with this fulfilled promise, this truth, this glorious presence, that is so important.
Mary, recovering as she was from the perfectly natural and exhausting process of childbirth, already had much to ponder. It is in the nature that God has given us, that in periods of exhaustion we have the ability to consider closely, to chew over in our minds, to treasure both the difficult, the understandable and the sometimes extraordinary circumstances which have brought us to a particular point. It is this very gift of comprehension that makes us human, somehow different to other animals; made in the image of God.
When the shepherds told of an angel speaking to them, Mary could empathise with their sense of perplexity, the awe and wonder of the message from God. She could grasp like no other, that however extraordinary that message was, it was delivered with such a sense of peace and hope in God’s very presence, that it was perfectly acceptable to respond with obedience and a commitment to follow through to its fulfilment. Mary could relate to the excitement that propelled the shepherds on a journey that defied common sense, risked their livelihood and their security, and what little position in society they held. It mirrored the original annunciation – a pregnancy bracketed by angels.
Just as the shepherds left so full of the glory they had encountered – the angel and hosts of heaven, their encounter with the message of the tiny baby – so Mary too had much to consider and praise God for.
Here, because of God’s desire to be physically present in the world, and because of Mary’s willingness to be open to that very idea, was the Lord of the world, a tiny baby born from her. Now, through the visit of shepherds, the story they told of God’s glorious presence and the announcement of an angel, she knew even more certainly than perhaps the guesses she had made in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, that her child was like no other, destined to demonstrate beyond all doubt God’s presence in, and love for, the world. He was ‘Emmanuel’, God with us; the culmination of ancient prophesies and present angels.
She could not have known then, the shocking circumstances in which he would die to make that love fully known, how God’s desire to remain present with each and every person who encounters him would break the very bonds of death itself. But Mary now knew for certain that what she was experiencing was a treasure to be continually turned over in her heart and mind as Jesus grew up and acted to fulfil the promise made to her: that his kingdom will have no end.
We are here because of that promise. That treasure Mary stored must have been shared at some point for it to be made known to us today, so that we too can encounter the Lord of our lives in the baby in the manger and not purely as a crucified man. God desired beyond all else to be present not simply as Lord OF the world, but IN the world. Having arrived here at the manger, let us therefore this morning glorify and praise God for his love to US, and consider carefully the importance of that fact for our lives, and for the world around us.
Once upon a time I was the youngest campanologist in the county. We had three bells in All Saints Church, Minstead, but there’s not much that you can do with three – the mathematical patterns that make up a peel of bells, are a little on the short side with three. Five is a much more interesting number, and research showed that we could fit five in the bell frame without the tower itself being shaken to pieces. So two new bells were commissioned, the old ones removed to be retuned, then all five re-hung – all done with one expert and parish people power, including a nine year old ‘doing as she was told, and staying out the way for the dangerous bits’!
As part of all this activity I had the opportunity to watch bells being cast in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It was a hot summer’s day, but I was clothed in good 1970s tweed trousers for protection and stood in the corner of the foundry floor as the metal was heated, and the impurities scrapped off the top so that the hot copper alloy could be poured into a hand-crafted bell mould. It was amazing to watch, and a privilege to ring the precisely tuned finished articles; the bells proclaiming peace and thanksgiving in worship, a community rejoicing in fine craftsmanship and singing out a song of praise to God.
“Rejoice”, in Latin “Gaudete”, the opening word of our reading from Philippians, a connection to this week’s lightening of the Advent mood of preparation, our rose candle and our robes. “Rejoice”, in modern parlance is about a sense of joy welling up inside people, fairly private except for the smile to the face; the sort of blooming look that comes with news of a long awaited pregnancy. In St. Paul’s day, “rejoice” was a word used to describe a public celebration, exuberance tempered with the need to be gentle and gracious toward less extrovert souls – more like change ringing when the pattern of notes moves only on command, rather than with every beat of a full peal.
There is a tension here that sits well with this mid-point in our preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ, sat here as we are, surrounded by scenes of his nativity in our Crib Festival. At the time of John the Baptist’s prophetic ministry that we focus on through today’s Gospel, devout Jews were waiting for a “new word from God”, and eager to place their hope in the presence of a fiery young prophet going about the Galilean villages! Might he be the long awaited Messiah?
But John was only tolling a single bell, proclaiming the steady sound of justice and the need for repentance, a wake-up call for those who would go on to hear the message of his cousin Jesus, the thongs of whose sandals he felt unworthy to untie. John would have grown up with the story of his cousin’s nativity just like we have, but as perfectly-tuned to God’s message for his people as any Old Testament prophet, he was well aware that when the Messiah’s mission on earth was made fully known, it would come with the sound of the axe felling the trees that bore no fruit, burning the resulting timber as waste.
John offered on the banks of the Jordon, the baptism of repentance, God’s power like water washing people clean. Yet, here he is proclaiming the baptism of burning fire that the Messiah would bring, drawing out through the power of the Holy Spirit, the impurities hidden within people’s lives. We may struggle to understand the difference, but if we consider for a moment, we’ll recognise that there is a vast difference between wanting to change the destructive habits of our lives and, dare I say it, make sensible New Year’s resolutions, and actually being changed inside of ourselves, so that it is impossible to return to old habits. It is a painful process.
The image of the bell foundry can help us understand what God wants to do here. As the copper and tin is melted in the furnace to temperatures resembling that to be found in a volcano, the impurities known as ‘slag’ rise to the surface – blackened waste material that is scrapped away, the last remnants of which are held back as the bell is cast. Here is a picture of the process of fire and the Holy Spirit at work in our lives that should be as much a part of the work of Christ in our lives as is the baby in the manger. If we are to ring true to his Gospel in our own lives, there will be ‘slag’ in each of us that needs burning to the surface and scraping away. Our hope of a Saviour for the world must come with the realistic expectation that we ourselves may need to be radically changed into what God wants us to be.
Zephaniah’s prophetic psalm of salvation that is this morning’s Old Testament reading [and I do encourage you to read it], is summoning God’s people to sing, shout and joyfully exult because of God’s presence in the midst of them, rejoicing like the clarion call of bells. It was the sort of prophesy that led to the expectation of a heroic Saviour from oppression and suffering. Yet its’ fulfilment came as the baby we now place in our crib scenes, the saving power of whom would be the refiners fire of judgement and justice, drawing us into a greater awareness of his presence, a sense of the calling to what we call holiness.
Church bells gather God’s people into the holiness of our worship of him, whether that is in the form of a peal of bells, the tempered rejoicing of a slowly changing pattern of life, or a single tolled clarion call to hasten into our place before him. They only do so after the refining process of the furnace has removed the impurities so that their call can be clear and true to the tuned pitch required by the master craftsman. God is our master craftsman. If we are to ring out a tuneful call for others to share in our rejoicing this Christmas and on into the future, we must first come into his presence in humility, seeking to understand what it is in our lives that needs to be burnt away.
Our OT reading this morning, sees all the peoples of the world gathered on a mountain top for a great celebratory feast, one at which only the very finest food is served. This abundance of the best is an image of the grace of God who wants to gather everyone to himself, so that they can feast together and with him.
The mountain in question is Jerusalem, Zion, the place that at the time of these prophesies was the ultimate image of God’s peace and presence with his people. Yet, it was also under frequent constant attack due to the disobedience of God’s people, and in a few short years the people of Israel would be in exile in Babylon. The prophesy looks forward to a time when the shroud of death and destruction that must at the time have seemed all-enveloping, would be torn apart so that people could encounter the sort of healing that overcomes the worst that sin and disgrace can do to distance lives and communities from their need for God’s presence. It is a prophesy of hope for which God’s people must wait patiently, and which they must be willing to share – for a mountain-top banquet with God is to be offered to everyone, not simply the Jews; all are called to the feast.
On a mountain top adjacent to the sea of Galilee, an area where both Jew and Gentile lived, we can assume perhaps that representatives of several ethnic and religious groups are gathered at Jesus’ feet in our Gospel reading. Their tears were being wiped away by the power of his healing touch in the lives of those who were brought to him injured, ill or distressed.
But, beyond these miracles, there is something about Jesus that holds thousands with him for three days without a reliable source of food. They may have been attracted to the area for the headline grabbing spectacle of a miracle man, but they seem to recognise in Jesus the possible fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesy for which at least some of them will be aware they have waited for generations; the presence of the God of Israel. The banquet he offers on this occasion may only be a few loaves and fishes gleaned from those that had had the foresight to bring sustenance, but as he gives thanks to God and asks his disciples to share it out among the throng, it seems that a little goes a very long way. Yet this initial vision of God’s abundant love, will become a reality only too soon when Jesus is crucified, the temple curtain torn in two and the stone is rolled away; only then will the abundant love of Christ be truly shared among all people by his disciples.
Each year, we are reminded in our Advent preparations of who God’s world is still waiting for. The point of Isaiah’s prophesy, God’s extraordinary birth as an ordinary baby, and Jesus mission of healing and sacrifice, was that God longs to be sat at a banquet with all people. Whilst it is perfectly possible to get the attention of a few through miraculous healings, there are many for whom the needs are more basic: they need to be reminded that they are hungry before they feel faint, and they need to be fed; people live not just by bread and fish, but by their spiritual hunger being met in Christ before they reach crisis point. And it is we, his disciples that are responsible for distributing the nourishment that he provides, in the sure knowledge that there is more than enough to go round.
It is tempting to think of the mountain-top of busyness and banquets that we call Christmas as being a special time for us, God’s faithful disciples, to come close to Jesus, and despair of having enough time and effort in the festivities to share with others who seem to only join us for the spectacle. We need to recognise that Jesus came with compassion for those who are not yet his disciples, seeking to meet their hunger and needs, and asks us to prioritise those over our own. If people are going to be fed spiritually this Christmas they need to be sat at Jesus feet and receive in simple ways the very finest nourishment, so that they do not go away empty. Our role, is make sure that we are aware of the resources both practical and prayerful that we can place at Christ’s disposal, and then be prepared to allow his grace and his blessing to make that a banquet through which all who are gathered can receive their fill.
For a different take on the same Gospel passage, here’s what Rev’d Ally said to the students of Westcott: it’s all about the crumbs!