Using God’s jigsaw pieces for a new beginning – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-end and John 1:6-8,19-28

Introduction with the children before they go out:

Who like’s doing puzzles?
What sort of puzzles?

Jigsaw puzzles, 3D puzzles, I’m guessing we might have some Sudoku and crossword fans in the congregation.

Our readings this morning in this part of church give us a bit of a puzzle, a puzzle about who we are. Not our names, but what our purpose is, the sort of people we are called to be. God has put us in a place or a time of confusion, and we have to puzzle out what it is that we need to do in his name.

So I want you to give out some puzzle pieces in a moment when we’ve prayed for each other, and then at the end of the service, you’re going to collect them in again, and help me put the pieces together…

 

Puzzle pieces:   (Holy) Spirit    –     Bind Up (Heal)      –      Renew    –      Good News    –      Freedom    –    Build Up   –    Justice Comfort    –    Beauty Praise/Joy   –    Baptise    –   Serve Jesus

Sermon:

The chances are, they knew who he was.

John, the son of Zechariah, the priest descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson (Luke 1:5); the priest who in his later years had been struck dumb because he didn’t believe the angel who visited him whilst on duty at the Temple (Luke 1:11-20).

John, the son of Elizabeth, who was well past child-bearing age, and that same elderly priest Zechariah whose lips, unsealed by John’s birth, then prophesied that he would be the prophet who would prepare the way for God’s mercy and love to be revealed to the world.

John, who could by line and lineage have been a priest himself and worn the fine linens of the Temple, offering the sacrifices of others, and who chose instead to wander around in the desert in rough clothing, eating locusts and honey, and saying that the Jewish people needed to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, by literally being converted back in to the Jewish faith in which they were rooted.

Oh yes, the Levites and priests who came from Jerusalem, would have known very well what his name was, whose son he was, and what the stories were that surrounded him. But that didn’t answer their question: “Who are you?”

They wanted to fit him into their ordered way of defining their history and way of life through the prophets of their past. By pigeon-holing John into what they thought they understood of Elijah and Moses, they thought they could understand him, make him fit into their traditions.

But asking the question from that blinkered point of view, was completely missing the significance of where John was, what he was saying, and what he was doing. John might have looked and sounded like an Old Testament prophet, but he was very much doing a new thing, heralding the new way that God was going to be active not just among the Jewish community, but in the whole world.

John was in the wilderness because God’s people had lost their way – a fact amply demonstrated by the Levites and priests needing to ask their question in the first place. They had all the tools, the jigsaw pieces if you like, with which to recognise and take part in this new thing that God was doing, but they’d got so lost, especially around the Temple worship of Jerusalem, that they couldn’t recognise it. They couldn’t even see that other prophets of the past had prepared them for this when Israel had previously found itself with the opportunity to start a new era, a new way of living, a new relationship with God.

The words of Isaiah 61 would have been familiar to the priests and their assistants the Levites, but perhaps they had forgotten its’ context, and failed to recognise as so often happens, that history was sort of repeating itself, but with an extra twist of significance. Isaiah 61 falls in the last part of the prophesies grouped together in that name, a series of visions that spoke into two periods of Israel’s history. The first was the point where the first Israelites returned from Exile in Babylon but had few resources to rebuild the Temple, and limited self-rule to make new beginnings as a nation in the ‘between-times’ before the rest of this scattered people returned. The second point to which Isaiah 61 prophesies is another ‘between-time’, this one standing at the cusp of the old covenant and a new one, a time again when Israel was under restricted self-rule, this time anticipating the arrival of the long-promised Messiah.

John, was doing something that was normally only offered to those outside the Jewish faith and who wished to accept that Israel’s God was the one true God of all people; he was baptising people. But he was baptising his fellow Jews, something that should not have been needed. Yet, as the priests and Levites were amply demonstrating, they had lost their purpose and the vision of Isaiah’s prophesies, and therefore their understanding of what was going on around them had become lost in a wilderness of their own creation. The sins from which John was demonstrating people needed to be washed clean, were the ones that obliterated their view of what God was doing in their immediate vicinity, stopped them from setting the right example not just to their communities, but to those gentiles among whom they lived. The people who would be among the first to recognise the Messiah who already stood among them, would be those who understood that God’s anointed Messiah would bring with him those things prophesied in Isaiah. It was the people who were already gathered around John, who saw the opportunities of a life more fully focused on what God wants to reveal in the world, rather than the wilderness that bewildered their leaders, that would become the first disciples of the Messiah.

There is a very strong sense in which we too live in a period which we might be forgiven for thinking is a wilderness, where our leaders are bewildered by what it is they see, and seem unable to recognise it as an opportunity for a new beginning, or understand what it is they should be doing with that opportunity.  What we as Christians need to do, is to show them the tools at their disposal, the jig-saw pieces that mean that we can live as God intended us to. In the scriptures of the old covenant, as in Isaiah 61, and in the example and teaching of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, as well as John the Baptist, we hold those tools, those jigsaw pieces. Quite literally.

Please can all those who were given a jigsaw piece by the children hold them up please? That’s quite a lot of pieces, and there are plenty more! (Please put them down.) These few are all words or ideas within our scriptures this morning, and we can go through them briefly – please hold up the relevant jigsaw piece as I mention it:

(Holy) Spirit – The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me (Is 61:1). That’s the suffering servant, the Messiah himself speaking. That spirit would dwell in Jesus, and be offered to us through faith in him, as at Pentecost. It is the Holy Spirit of God that we must have dwelling within us if we are to find a way out from the wilderness that the nations find themselves in.

Good News ­
– The Messiah came to bring good news to the poor (Is 61:1), the poor of spirit, the financially poor, those made homeless (physically or spiritually) by the systems of the world; as those who believe in him that we are called to do likewise.

With the ideas of Binding Up (Healing) and Freedom (Is 61:1)­ we remember the healings that Jesus undertook, those he freed from physically or spiritually dark places, and we remember that this world needs us to seek the hidden darknesses of people’s lives where the light of the Messiah needs to be shone.

Vengeance/Justice (Is 61:2,8) The Messiah for whom John prepared Israel was he who challenged the corruption and structures of the time, turned over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple, released people from debt through forgiveness not extortion; if we do or enable likewise, we offer new beginnings and new opportunities for those living in the wilderness of social injustice and exclusion, the hope of Christ.

We know we need to Comfort those who mourn not just the death of a loved one, but the loss of mobility and companionship, providing practical support as well as a hug or a kind word (Is 61:2-3).

We also seek Beauty (Is 61:3) not only in God’s creation but among the ashes of people’s broken lives when they’ve become the shell of the person they once were because of the wilderness of their lives and yet are loved, as they are, by God.

God calls us to find opportunities for Praise and Joy (Is 61:3) among the ashes of our lives as well as that of others; the things for which we are thankful, friends, family, our faith in Jesus.

These are jigsaw pieces of living out our faith with which we are called to Build Up and Renew (Is 61:4) not just our church and local community, but the nations of the world. If we do not speak for freedom, justice and healing in the name of Jesus, to those in authority, how can God’s love be seen and heard?

John came and Baptised with water (John 1:26), but now through faith in Jesus, the forgiveness he offered, and the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled both the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah, we baptise people into the body of Christ, the church, the means by which we seek to Serve Jesus, in all these ways even though we are not worthy so much as untie even his laces (John 1:27).      (Thank you).

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The jigsaw pieces that take us on a journey towards Jesus.

After we have remembered, recognised and received Christ the Servant-Messiah who stands among us in our Holy Communion this morning, we will use our jigsaw pieces with the children to make a straight path. It will serve to remind us that though we may feel we live in a spiritual wilderness, we have the jigsaw pieces of our faith, ready at our disposal to create a clear path out. The key is to remember where those pieces come from, the God from whom they come, the Messiah toward whom they point, and to seek the opportunities for new beginnings, that will show the world who we are as Christians.

During the notices, before the final hymn: I got the children to collect in the jig-saw pieces and work out how to lay them, making a straight path, pointing to the Joseph and Mary journeying to Bethlehem (in the Lord’s Table).

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On being candle wax – Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-end #Advent2017

Sunday marked the Christian ‘new year’, or Advent as we prefer to call it. It was also my second trip to preach and celebrate Holy Communion at St. Barnabas Darby Green. I may have used candles in my illustrations; including tapers there were technically four of them (Two Ronnies sketch here, if you really must). The opening of the audio version of the sermon refers to the incumbent, Rev’d Lerys Campbell, who has a snazzy, home made, Advent stole with four candles, to which he can add a flame each week of Advent… I’m not jealous, honest!

It’s strange how God speaks through us; personally, on reflection, I thought this illustration poor, and the sermon disjointed, but still it appeared to speak to people. Always humbling.

 

Hopefully at some point in our lives, we’ve all held a candle. I mean the real deal (picking up one, and lighting it), not a flame of unrequited love 😉

If we’ve held a Christingle candle, taken part in a candlelit Carol or Candlemas Service, or become a Godparent and held a child’s baptism candle, the chances are we’ve watched the wax melt, and discovered that as it trickles down the candle, it can trickle through the slits of the candle holder onto the back of our hands. Very often the nature of the service means we can do little about it, except perhaps blow the candle out prematurely if it becomes too painful. We’ll also know that as the wax cools, it mounds itself to the shape of our hands, so that when we flex afterwards, it cracks and peels off.

Many of us are well used to the symbolism of a candle flame representing Jesus, ‘the light who is coming into the world’; the season of Advent at the start of the new Christian year brings that symbolism sharply into focus.

A candle flame comes from a burning wick, something that is capable of burning with little or no wax, as we find with our church tapers (light taper, let it flame); the light burns large & faster almost that wick is consumed (blow it out).

Of course at home, we quite possibly use fat pillar candles to create a romantic or relaxing effect (light a pillar candle, leave it to burn), and with them the quantity of wax and the time it takes to melt, slows the rate of burn, helping the candle to last longer. Indeed there is often spare wax that isn’t burnt away, and the flame sinks to be hidden in a tunnel, until we come along with a sharp knife to carve it away, a job done most easily when the candle has just been extinguished and the wax is soft.

We focus so much on the light, and give little thought to the wax, it’s role or purpose, the symbolism we can usefully assign to it. So this morning I want to suggest that WE are the wax that is being melted by the candle flame of Christ ‘the light of the world’, when we let the Holy Spirit burn through us, melting us, moulding and changing us.

This first Sunday in Advent we are focusing on hope, the light of hope that exists in the darkness of our lives, the things we do wrong, the mistakes we make, the ‘hopeless’ scenarios of our existence that pertain to the terminal illness of a loved one, or uncertainty over a job, or welfare payments. What we are looking for is hope in a God of new beginnings, who is faithful to his promise that he will be with us in such darkness, and in his ultimate desire to create a new heaven and a new earth, in which are right with him, or as we might say, righteous.

Our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning, are full of reminders of the mistakes the world, and often we God’s people, have made or are in danger of making.

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    “Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?”
  • In Is 64:6, Israel, was recognised by God’s prophets as being like a soiled and dirty cloth that has hardened dry, and which can no longer be used. And it is likened to a faded autumn leaf that is easily blown away. Both the cloth and the leaf have become brittle, hard and useless, like the dribbles of wax we pick off a candle, or our hand, when they’ve gone cold (pick some off a ‘pre-dribbled’ candle). Are we so soiled by the world we’ve become brittle and useless?
  • In Mark 13:35-36, Jesus’ hearers are reminded that as servants of God, they need to stay awake, to recognise when it is that their master is coming. In both passages there is a sense of distance between God’s people and his eternal presence, a hidden-ness that Israel saw as God turning his face from them. If we keep the wax base of a candle away from the taper’s flame, it remains hard, and cannot be melted to mold itself to a candle holder (demonstrate – see above). Are we so far from the light of Christ, that he can’t mold us and form us so we stand firm in his love and faithfulness?
  • Even when Jesus quotes from Daniel 7 in reference to himself as the ‘Son of Man coming in the clouds’, it is a reference not so much to the hoped-for Second Coming when God will draw heaven and earth together as one in his presence, but to Jesus’s own ‘coming’ to God after his suffering, in his resurrection and ascension. It is also about God’s judgement on the spiritual system that had corrupted Israel’s worship both in the Temple and the voices of it’s religious leaders. The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, is in large part the consequence of these things that Jesus is anticipating in Mark 13. Like the extraneous wax in a pillar candle too large for the wick around which it is built, have we or the organisations of our world, built a pride and arrogance into our lifestyles, businesses and political structures such that they hide the Christ-light of the Christians within them, and thus need tearing down? (Carve a lump out the pillar candle.)

These illustrations are a reminder instead that God’s people down the ages have had an uncanny habit of making themselves blind to God’s presence, to God’s will for their lives, to God’s purposes in the world. It was not God that turned away, despite his judgement on Israel’s sins, but their sin, and the sin of their leaders that created a barrier between them and God. If we’re honest, we do it too; hopelessness is not an absence of God, but an absence of our ability to see God. That’s why we need the light; it’s why the world needed, and still needs, Jesus.

As Isaiah explains, the hope we crave is in God’s faithfulness despite we continue to do to make him feel distant, and blame him for the wrongs we encounter in the world. The prophet’s petition is ‘Do not be exceedingly angry with us Lord, do not remember our sins, our iniquities” (Is 64:9).

  • Instead we are to remember, that the God of Israel did awesome deeds throughout their history that they didn’t expect (Is 42:3), not least in their Exodus out of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, their coming to the promised land. It is important to recount what God has already done in our lives too, for there in his faithfulness is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember that our creator God who brought Jesus into the world to release us from our sins, is the same creator God who brings new life to the fig (Mark 13:28) and other trees each spring. It is important to see the new beginnings of God in creation and in our lives and treasure them, for there is the light of hope.
  • Instead we are to remember, that God meets with each of us who seeks to do right, and who remembers that God’s ways (Is 64:5) are frequently not the ways of the world. It is important that we are obedient to God’s teachings, his healing touch, his justice, which we recognise in Jesus; for in them is the light of hope.

As we go though Advent, perhaps with a candle burning at home each day (show and light our Advent candle from home), as well as on our wreath here each Sunday (point to the church Advent candle), let us consider that if we are the wax of a candle, we need to be in the right proximity to the light of Christ, so that we are heated, molded, melted and changed in such a positive way that in his name, we become clear beacons of light and hope in the world.

Thanks to Grahart who’s blogging his way through Advent with the AdventBookClub2017 and Magdalen Smith’s ‘Unearthly Beauty’ for the photos, and to Liz our lovely prayerful local florist who is selling up to retire at Christmas, and from whom I got the instant prop-table!

 

Does God want to change your mind? Matthew 1:18-end and Isaiah 7:10-16

 

Here’s my sermon for the BCP services I led or contributed to at All Saints, Odiham on Sunday. The voice just about held out, and hopefully the 8am congregation weren’t too upset that I stopped the service briefly to check out the source of the noise of running water that some of us could hear… it turned out to be a radiator behind the high altar gurgling air, but then they have just have just had their heating overhauled massively!

Have you ever changed your mind?

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Stop and think. Is God trying to get you to stop and think about something?  Does he want you to change your mind?  (This is one of the wonderful range of Christmas Trees on display in All Saints Church, Odiham last weekend. Thanks to Graham for the photograph, and acting as chauffeur to help me through the day.)

Or had it changed for you?

That ‘still small voice’ might sometimes be of calm, but God has a habit changing our plans, and whilst it might be accompanied by a sense of peace that he’s in control, it won’t necessarily make life easier.

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about: 10 years ago, Peter (the LLM taking the Matins service I preached at) was my Old Testament tutor and I was in my first year studying to be a Reader! God you see had other ideas [point to clerical collar]… it just took me another five years to listen properly, give in to them and do as God wanted!!

Mary’s fiancé Joseph, bless him, didn’t have five years. God had to make the message clear and change Joseph’s mind; overnight.

Ahaz? Well God tried to make him listen through the prophet Isaiah, but with less success. The importance of Ahaz’s story is the battle between faith and unbelief, and whilst there would be a faithful remnant in Israel with whom God would dwell and become incarnate in Jesus, it would be no thanks to Ahaz.

As Christians, we would like to think, or perhaps we would like others to think, that we are aware enough of God being with us, that we can hear his promptings, and respond to them. We’d possibly prefer it if God hadn’t got some unforeseen and imminent parenting role in mind, though for some it would be a welcome miracle. But it’s not always easy either to listen, or believe that God is talking to us, especially when the circumstances or instructions seem impossibly bizarre or difficult.

Ahaz is threatened and afraid of an invading Assyrian army when we meet him in Isaiah 7. If he remains neutral he protects God’s people, if he doesn’t, he won’t. Indecision is worse still. After the failure of one encounter between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz, God is now metaphorically jumping up and down, waving his arms around and shouting, “pick me, pick me… ask me, I’ll show you what to do!”. But in the feigned piety of his unwillingness to test the Lord, Ahaz puts the lie to any sense of faith-filled readiness to be guided out of the situation by God. He’d rather seek mortals who will make his problem their own.

Joseph is likewise a troubled man, and has given much thought to how he should respond to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. She has obviously explained to him the story of Gabriel’s visit, for Joseph sees no question of any unfaithfulness. Instead he sees this work of the Holy Spirit as none of his concern, and has resolved out of kindness not to open Mary to inaccurate ridicule and disgrace but leave her quietly to her own and God’s, devices.

Yet, Jesus was to be Joseph’s concern, to be welcomed into Joseph’s lineage, life and home. This was not someone else’s problem, a buck to be passed, but it takes a direct message from God to get the point across to Joseph. God is making himself present in humanity in a similar way to that which he has throughout Israel’s history; by acting unexpectedly to make tangible his powerful love and grace. The name Emmanuel, does not denote a quiet and unassuming presence, and thus, just for starters, God requires both Mary AND Joseph to have their lives turned upside down!

We are not Ahaz, or Joseph. But we do have battles of our own, or encounter unexpected situations among our families and friends. We do have to make difficult decisions about what we should do, whether that be to respond to a call to ministry [smile], or about the ongoing care of a loved one, or anything else. We do look at the decisions made by organisations in which we have an interest, and sometimes think we know better. We do forget to listen for God, not realising that he is leaping up and down trying to attract our attention, or speaking to us in our dreams, trying to show us the way forward.

In Joseph’s dream the angel says the child that Joseph will have joint responsibility for raising is to have a further, more common name than the overtly explanatory Emmanuel ‘God with us’. Jesus is a shortened form of the Hebrew name Joshua, common in that era because the Jews were hoping for a national liberator. But this Jesus was not being born to liberate Israel from the oppression of others, but from their own unfaithfulness to God, their ability to limit his power in their own lives. “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” Joseph is told. For as we will be reminded in the coming days from Isaiah 53:5 he will be pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. Theirs, and ours.

If we want to find our way out of a tricky situation, or find our thoughts invaded by an unwelcome army of concerns, how often do we seek other people who we can persuade to agree with us, buy us time, or get us out of trouble? Or how much do we rely on our own judgement of what we are capable of coping with, and leave others to go it alone with the difficult situations they find themselves in? Perhaps it’s not about changing other people’s minds… but about changing ours?

Our sins, those that Jesus came to save us from, are often not the obvious crimes which we might well associate with the Ten Commandments and think ourselves well distanced from, but perhaps more closely linked to an inability to listen to God, who in Jesus the sin bearer is also the guide actively seeking to show us our way forward. Ours, not anyone else’s.

If we believe in the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ, we have to believe in his sovereign power to speak to us. If we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Emmanuel is still with us seeking to liberate us from our sin, it may be necessary to change OUR minds, OUR thoughts on the best way forward, OUR plans, so that they are in line with GOD’s mind, GOD’s way forward, and GOD’s plans.

 

 

Praying in Advent through five festivals

5-candlesRegular readers will be aware that I’m currently on placement in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice. One of the mini-projects that I’ve been focusing on is leading the prayer element of a couple of Prayer Suppers in the Parish of Odiham.

Alongside the re-ordering of the physical church, the people of All Saints Odiham have also been focusing on prayer as part of their own re-ordering as a community of Christians. The ‘bring-and-share’ style suppers (an hour for fellowship and food, followed by an hour for prayer) are a part of this process, and the vicar and I will be reflecting on how they have gone before I complete my placement.

This particular hour of prayer was inspired by the Service of Five Candles celebrated each Advent Sunday in All Saints Church, Minstead in the New Forest (where I grew up). That service involves children processing five large ‘pascal’ sized candles with appropriate motifs, readings and collects, one for each of the five main Christian festivals. It was brought to the parish in the 1960s by the then Rector, Rev’d Clifford Rham.

This pattern of prayer involves ordinary-sized candles, shorter but appropriate readings and collects, and uses them as an inspiration for prayer, which need not be restricted to the bullet point suggestions provided.

The attached document forms a folded A4 sheet that anyone could use for a an Advent reflective service or similar. The illustration above shows how the five candles can be used and decorated.  advent-hour-of-prayer-through-five-festivals

If Jesus chose to return today? An Advent reflection

p1090449cwI’ve been preparing some Advent materials, and in doing so found this old reflection, dated November 2006, so as I started Reader Training and before this blog was started!

It is by way of a response to the following questions:

If Jesus chose to return today, how would you react?
What might you say? How would you feel?

 

Why did you not come sooner?

Don’t get me wrong Jesus,
it is good to have faith rewarded.
But if you’d come last week those
four soldiers would not have died;
If you’d come last year those
bombs would not have shattered lives;
If you’d come twenty years ago
millions of children would not have suffered.

So why now Lord? Why here?
Why this room, these friends?

Is our pride, our business,
our self sufficiency and security,
really part of the pain you’ve come to relieve?
How can we be worthy of your interest?

Come to the kids loitering in our street,
our friend who lies in a hospice;
Relieve the bereaved, the prisoner
or hassled mother coping on her own.

Relive their pain, forgive their sin,
remove the evil from their lives.

And then, perhaps then…

consider me.

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I’ve missed the point:
I see it in your eyes and feel it in your touch.
You are there too, aren’t you Lord!

If you’ve come back, you’re here for all;
Each house, each home;
each hospital and prison;
Each tank, and battlefield;
each parliament and throne.

Your Majesty, now considers …
me;
Replays the video of my life,
freeze-framing those moments in the journey,
When I forgot to phone a friend,
to say a prayer, to comfort a relative,
To leave a space,

for you.

And now Lord,
on my knees,
At your feet
surrounded by your glory…

I wait upon you.

Photos by Graham taken at St. Mary’s Old Basing, December 2014

Cutting out the canker – Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12 #Advent2

 

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The remaining, canker free, fruit trees in my garden – from which the birds are largely benefiting at present!

I’m still on placement in the North Hampshire Downs, and was blessed today by a stunning run between the villages, scattering Redwings and other thrushes to the four winds, and narrowly avoiding a flock of Partridge who had less concept of what wings are for! The less said about People In Lycra On Cycles the better.

On the liturgical front, celebrating Holy Communion in a rural church (Tunworth) lit largely by candles was lovely, though with no heating I breathed ‘smoke’ through the whole service and found my hands frozen by the silverware at the altar – all of which made the warm cup of tea provided from an urn in the open church porch much appreciated! At least at the second service (in Greywell), the Eucharistic Prayer was not accompanied by a loud quacking from the river that runs past the churchyard… this time 😉

Some might say as a trainee on secondment I should have pulled the punch that this week’s Advent Gospel packed, but there has to be an integrity with the season, and why should those living among parishes in vacancy not be challenged to consider how they may be being called to consider how God might be calling them to change their ways, just as he calls me to change mine as I write?

 

When we moved to Yateley about 18 years ago, there were 4 fruit trees in the garden. An apple, a Conference pear, a plum tree and a cherry. It is a small garden, but the intention was to keep them all; we are big fans of fresh, home-grown produce.

But within the first 12 months, it became abundantly clear that the plum and the cherry had canker; areas of damage to the bark that at times oozed a nasty brown slime. They were the two smaller, weaker trees, and unsurprisingly they produced no fruit. Since the canker was in the main stem, we couldn’t simply remove an infected branch, as the fungal infection that causes canker would have remained.

We cut them down to ground level, treated the stumps with something so that we didn’t get sucker growth from the roots, and took the stems away to the tip, since bonfires aren’t allowed in our neighbourhood. We didn’t want the infection getting into our compost heaps or otherwise spreading through the garden. The apple and pear have survived, and after a good frost-free flowering period, bear a good crop of fruit.

In our Gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist is effectively likening the Pharisees and Sadducees, the spiritual leaders of their community, to a canker infection in a tree that needs to be cut out and thrown on the fire. The canker itself is the overwhelming arrogance and pride that the Jewish elite took in their inherited relationship with God, forgetting that their God is the maker, creator and hope of all things and all people, the Gentiles included as our Epistle highlights.

Ordinary people were flocking to John the Baptist in their hundreds to receive baptism in the river Jordan. They knew from their scriptures that the Prophets had said that God would come back to his people, when they repented. So people came in droves to repent. Confessing their sins, they were baptised with water in Jordon; not just a symbolic cleansing of individuals, but God doing a new thing in history as they went through the Jordan a second time, 1000 years after the Exodus.

God’s defeat of all evil and the establishment of his kingdom on earth as in heaven, is proclaimed by their actions as imminent. It was the beginning of a true repentance at the heart of ordinary people, that wasn’t just sorry for the day-to-day things they had done wrong, but would be life changing for those who recognised the one who would come immediately after John: the Messiah, the new King of the Jews, the inaugurator of God’s new Kingdom. His roots might be in the House of David of whom Jesse was the father, but this new Kingdom wasn’t just for Israel but for the whole world.

Of course, when the spiritual leaders of Israel sussed what was happening, they didn’t want to miss out on the excitement and anticipation that ordinary Jews were experiencing; but they were met with a very different reception. Not for them the immediate new life and forgiveness symbolised in the waters of baptism. John you see knew that at the heart of their presence was pride in their own status, and the ancestry of the Jewish people as a whole; a purity which they sought to protect.

John prepared the way for Jesus coming, knowing that God really is God; God isn’t simply a kind, indulgent parent who seeks to gently correct his children. Jesus would balance his mission of forgiveness, healing and comfort, with the solemn and stern news that when the Kingdom of God is completely fulfilled, God will demand complete allegiance. In Gospel of St. John we hear Jesus say, “I am the Real Vine and my Father… cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes…” (John 15:1-2 MSG). The vine does not even need to be suffering from canker to find itself pruned hard so that it bears fruit!

The spiritual leaders needed to have that made very clear to them, right from the start, and that was part of John’s role. They would find that the easy way to avoid being cut out and thrown on the fire would be to show they were fruitful trees, not hidebound by pride to their traditional rules, regulations and arguments around those bits of scripture they found convenient. In urging harmony between early Christians rooted in both Jewish and Gentile cultures and spiritualities, St. Paul uses our Epistle this morning to takes us back with them to the Old Testament prophesies that not only Israel, but all nations are summonsed to worship, submit to and praise God.

In this Advent season of preparation, we remember today that John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets even though we encounter him in the New Testament. We also anticipate both our remembrance of God’s incarnation as an ordinary baby in a manger, and the completion of the Kingdom of God at Jesus’ coming again. Binding those ideas together today is John’s challenge to the traditional spiritual leaders of his time echoing forward into our own church congregations who are called to be the spiritual leaders of our own generation, taking our part in the coming of God’s Kingdom. It is a call to take a long hard look at ourselves, individually and collectively, and identify where there might be a certain unhealthy pride in our lifestyle, our roots in and attitudes toward others in the community in which we live, or the practices with which we prefer to manifest our faith.

Before we flock to Jesus for the annual ‘love-in’ at the manger this Christmas, we need to look at where we need to accept God’s challenge and judgement in our own lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:13). Where is there canker in our lives that needs to be cut out? What in our lives are we being summoned to repent of? It’s not just about being sorry because we can’t seem to help ourselves from making mistakes, but consciously setting aside that which inhibits our ability to share the love of God with others.

The collect that accompanies our Advent wreath today says that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s ‘power’ and ‘love’. Peace should flow from the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ out through those of us who believe not just in his birth, but the truth of his crucifixion and resurrection too. But it will only come from us understanding that this peace with God and with our neighbour, stems from accepting and responding to both the ‘love’ and the ‘power’ of God visible in that incarnation; the balance between healing from God and obedient allegiance to God. The peace of God, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5) in our lives, will only be seen when the canker of pride and arrogance that makes us think we don’t need to change anything, has been well and truly cut out, and placed on the fire for God’s disposal.

Collect for the Advent Wreath: Advent 2

God our Father,
you spoke to the prophets of old
of a Saviour who would bring peace.
You helped them to spread the joyful message
of his coming kingdom.
Help us, as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
to share with those around us
the good news of your power and love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the light who is coming into the world.
Amen.

Refiners Fire – burning away the ‘slag’ (Zeph 3:14-end, Phil 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18)

DSC_7906w
All Saints, Minstead (viewed from the south near the final resting place of Conan Doyle) – yes, there are 5 bells in that little tower!

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.

Hilltop banquets – an Advent Sermon (Isaiah 25:6-10a and Matthew 15: 29-37)

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.

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St. Mary’s Old Basing is hosting it’s first Crib Festival on 12th and 13th of December where many locals will be displaying treasured crib figures and new creations. The event also features music from our local schools, craft stalls, and our popular book stall and coffee shop.

 

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!

 

Preparing for the Coming One – Advent Sunday 2014

Are we looking toward Christmas too fast?
Are we getting ready for Christmas without preparing for it?

I wonder how much we really look forward to Christmas?
Honestly now?! I can see some wry grins… I didn’t think so. You’re possibly not the only ones!

Preparations. Hard work.
A mad gallop of events to cram into the diary, shop for, cook for, and stand, or sit, around at, listening politely, trying to take in something that will actually make us feel as jolly as the coming season of Christmas seems to think we should be.

Church doesn’t make things any easier, does it?!
We can’t really let the vicar down at this, of all, seasons, especially after we’ve said we’ll organise this,
or that, or the other.
And, he can’t really welcome every extra person who wants to come and celebrate the coming of Christ all by himself, can he?!
Or, perhaps, after all, that could be what curates are for?! 😉

But it would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if, before Jesus is born in a stable, all over again, we could have a little bit of a rest from the preparations that have to come first?!
Pleeeeaaaase, God?!

This Advent Sunday, we start to connect afresh with St. Mark’s Gospel; what I call the galloping gospel. There’s no time to draw breath, or unpack the detail, as layers of images pile quickly one on top of each other – a bit like the sliding tower of assorted Christmas cards, each waiting to be addressed appropriately!

Whilst we prepare for a Christmas neatly defined by a date looming in the calendar, the lectionary starts its year balanced delicately between past prophesies, and some distant future that can’t be defined on anyone’s calendar. Poised somewhere in between these two, is the present moment of our Christmas preparations, for the Coming One; the One who was, and is, and is to come (Rev 1:8).

In today’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah’s pleading prayer that God should reveal himself in power is not simply for his own spiritually weak generation, blown away on the breeze of the outside influences of their exile. The events it directly foretold were fulfilled in the restoration of Jerusalem. But, by Jesus’ time, God’s people are once again mired in the spiritual blindness and gloom that blunders forward through momentous events, largely oblivious of their significance.

Our Gospel this morning, collects into a passage of urgent teaching in tones almost of desperation, a couple of short parables and some sayings of Jesus, that actually refer forward again, at least in part, to the siege of Jerusalem that will occur in AD69, and the final destruction of the Temple the following year. The last of the great prophets, Jesus knew only too well that his mission on earth drew to a close the need for a Temple as a holy place that contained God; something which would be symbolised in the tearing of the Temple curtain at his death. Jesus’s freely given sacrifice would mean his resurrected presence in Word and Sacrament would ‘not pass away’, for it was to be enough for the whole world. He was Christ, the Coming One, who was the awaited Messiah of what is now history; he who changed the world, and our lives.

Yet, as we take on our Christmas lists, there are those for whom the tiny excerpts from Isaiah that open our Gospel passage from Mark are a present reality. The Son of Man, the Coming one who is, wants to come in power into the lives of those for whom the natural light of the sun is darkened by more than simply gloomy weather. For some, the moon expresses the sense that they can’t exist without the brightness of others to light up their lives, and stars are simply a set of glamorous or over-paid figures on whom is placed too great an expectation, and who all too easily fall to earth in tabloid disgrace.

And yet, the one who is, who should be the present reality of the coming Christmas season (if you’ll excuse the pun), the one who is, needs us to be his messenger angels, to go into all the events of the festive season showing visible signs of joyful expectation at his coming, not a sense of distracted and total exhaustion. Whilst our time-line is in danger of being a linear movement from one stressful task to the next, God’s time line is radically different and he seeks a new beginning in the lives of those who are attracted to the light of Christ only at this time of year. Our role is far more important than that of being Santa’s little helpers! It is to make Jesus, the Coming One, visible not just in the services, decorations, music and poetry of the season, but in our own lives – the invitations we offer, the time we take to do things for others, and yes, the welcome we give to strangers.

What Jesus is asking for, the alertness of watchful doorkeepers to who and what is coming, isn’t just a reminder to recognise at the door of the church those for whom Christ’s first coming is a new experience. Christ, the Coming One, who is to come again, is also expected, and this time he will come in judgement. What Jesus is making clear above all in this Gospel passage, is that judgement is just as much part of his earthly mission in the lives of all who encounter him, as their encounter with his birth, death and resurrection.

Our chief task this Advent, the focus of our spiritual preparations, should be a rededication of ourselves to holiness. It is not something else to be done, another thing to add to the Christmas lists in our busy lives, but the desire to take stock of our how our faith influences our life. Followed through, we should be able to see what in our lives look like in the eyes of the Coming one. If we truly believe that Jesus will come again, we have to have our senses alert to those areas of our lives that cause our faith to fade, and the wrong-doings and wrong-thinkings that take us away from God, like a swirling wind. If Christ was to come again today, what would he notice most about our lives, and would he judge that as being for better, or for worse?!

In today’s Old Testament passage, Isaiah speaks of the mountains and nations that tremble in the presence of God. If we stood in the presence of Jesus today, we might tremble for one of two reasons: either we will shake with thankful tears for his grace and sacrifice to which we have responded with a desire to ‘be blameless on that day of the Lord’ (1 Cor 1:8) as St. Paul desires in our Epistle; or we will tremble with fear that whilst we might have made the attempt, our lives will be found seriously wanting as far as living up to his example and teaching is concerned.

As we wait for ‘the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor 1:7) in the presence of the Coming One this Christmas, the one who was, and is, and is to come, we need to make our own preparations, ones that are truly appropriate not just to the modern context of the season, but to the spiritual context of it. It might be in prayer – the sort of prayer that gives space for God to answer. It may be in an Advent retreat or study book (with or without an online bookclub discussion), or in our willingness to do a new thing, or even in deciding that actually Christmas can still be celebrated without all the trimmings we’ve used in the past, to enable us to have space to be spiritually prepared as well. These are the activities in which we will encounter the ‘grace and peace of God our Father and our Lord Jesus’, and will mean we are truly “looking forward” to entering into Christ’s Mass, our joining in with his ongoing mission in the world.

More stoles and stories: red Ordination stole – and purple too!

My red, ordination, stole.
My red, ordination, stole.

Some while back I took delivery of what I thought would be my ordination (white – Christmas/Easter/Weddings) stole and the green (‘ordinary time’) stole, and now my stole maker has completed the red (Pentecost and Saints Days) and Purple (Advent and Lent) ones. During the intervening time the red one has in fact become my ordination stole after the new Precentor and our Bishop came up with the change of plan in the middle of our Deacon’s Day!

Once again I am totally thrilled with the way that Deborah Ireland has turned my scribbled notes and photographs, along with snippets of significant material including more bits of my wedding dress, into the most amazing creations which will mean I carry the stories of my faith journey and some special people into my ordained ministry.

P1080475cwThe red stole is all about the Holy Spirit – Pentecost being a deeply significant time for me, and if it wasn’t for the prompting of the Holy Spirit (both in my life, and in the lives of others who nudged me into getting my head round the possibility of a calling to ordination) I wouldn’t be just over two weeks from ordination  – interview with my Bishop next week permitting! Hidden in the stitchwork is the music for a favourite chorus that will make some cringe, but is one that can move me to tears and remind me of my baptism in the Spirit at St. Mike’s in Aberystwyth (Pentecost 1988) as well as many years of leading or singing in worship bands. I’ll let you guess what it might be!

P1080474cwPentecost was also about the people of God being enabled to do more than they could possibly imagine through the power of the Spirit at work in them – so there’s people there too, and though I didn’t design it with this in mind, everytime I look at one of the characters I think of my mother. The dove of peace is a bit of wedding dress, with one of the beads off the same to make it’s eye!

P1080468cwMy purple stole is double sided and it’s probably easy to spot the bits of wedding dress; losely speaking Advent and Lent. From an early age flower arranging was part of life (or at least sweep up after my Mothers’ church flower arrangements was), so as well as the symbolism of anticipating the light of Christ coming into the world, there’s a slight nod in that direction on the Advent side. There are also stars – something are both a significant interest of my husband and some very long-standing friends as well as being a reminder of the need to follow Christ faithfully even when we can’t really see where he’s leading us!

P1080464cwThe Lenten side used as its inspiration not only the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head at the crucifixion but also the nails themselves – designed from a photo of some hand-made ‘crucifixion’ nails my Dad had made by a New Forest blacksmith a couple of years ago. Those familiar with the “Water Bugs and Dragonflies” book for explaining death to young people will understand why I wanted one on a stole I might well wear to take funerals – over and above the fact that they’re a big photographic passion of my husband and I. We are really impressed at the lifelike markings Deborah has created on this Common Darter that we photographed together with my Dad in a favourite place in the New Forest a couple of years ago (see below). The dragonfly’s wings are made of net from the petticoat of my wedding dress, and some of the material is taken from a gift received many years ago from a Nigerian Catholic nun aquaintance… I hope she appreciates the use I’ve put it too.

 

That’s me all set up with vestments then. I look forward to wearing them as reminders of so much of the past, but also the importance of making best use of past experiences and interests in my future ministry, such that God is glorified.