Getting out from under the fig tree – John 1:43-51 and Rev 5:1-10

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I was grateful when after several attempts I located some figs late Saturday afternoon – else my introduction was going to have to be changed!

 

Service intro:

I’ve got a puzzle… I’m going to describe something to you, and I want you to tell me if you think you know what it might be.

It’s a bit bigger than a ping-pong ball, but a shape that is something of a cross between a football and a rugby ball, so one end is round-ish, and one end is oval-ish. The oval-ish end has a small stick in it. The round-ish end possibly has a slight hole in the middle, like a miniature cave disappearing inside. The whole thing is a green-ish, purple-ish, brown-ish colour.

Any ideas? (Hopefully blank looks.) Even vague ideas?

Get out a fig. Shhhhh, if you know what it is! Go through the description again.

Do the words make any more sense when you can see what I’m talking about? Yes, great. No, take the blame for poor description.

Any ideas now what it is? Hopefully someone, child or adult, might know it’s a fig.

There’s a big difference between just hearing something said, and actually seeing it. There’s a bigger difference still when we can eat and taste the thing… but that will have to wait until after the service. [Pray for us all to both hear and see Jesus this morning.]

Sermon:

Nathaniel had been watched.

It was perfectly sensible to sit in the shade of a spreading fig tree. You might sit there on your own, making the most of the peace and quiet for meditation and prayer. You might sit there with friends or a teacher, for a quiet discussion. It was perfectly normal in the climate and culture of the time, and would have excited no comment at all.

Yet, Nathaniel, under a fig tree, was being watched.

The story of the law and the prophets that he had heard read from the scroll in the Temple or Synagogue, might well have been explained to Nathaniel under a fig tree by the rabbi of his community. It was also quite possibly a place where he’d have learnt the prejudices of his elders, listening to their stories of the rivalry that existed between villages. Nathaniel had heard, and learnt, many things, about God, about his religion, and about his community, whilst sat under a fig tree.

But whilst he was sat under a fig tree listening to others, he was being watched… By Jesus.

Of course, Nathaniel didn’t know that. All he knew was that today his friend Philip was full to bursting with a bit of news. Philip and his friends thought they’d found the person who would fulfil the prophesies of Isaiah, the promised ruler for King David’s throne, the Messiah (Is 9:6-7 and Is 11:1-5) But it was just that, news. Something else to listen to.  And the fact that Philip said this person came from Nazareth fed all the prejudices that Nathaniel had learnt; Philip’s excitement was just words, easily dismissed,… until Philip said “Come and see”.

Sitting under a fig tree listening to others was no help. Getting up and discovering that the man Philip spoke of had been watching and listening to him without him being aware, made a significant difference.

It was only when Nathaniel had been drawn away from his place of safety under the fig tree, the place where his hearing senses dominated, that he is able to actually see the truth of Philip’s words, and use his natural abilities as a down-to-earth Israelite to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah. There was no point just using words with Nathaniel, he had to see for himself.

In some senses Jesus was just like him, a down-to-earth, blunt-talking Israelite who knew his scriptures. But Israel’s purpose as God’s people had been to provide the means of bridging the gap between heaven and earth, repairing God’s broken creation, initiating God’s rescue plan among people’s who were intent on destroying God’s handiwork. Unfortunately Israel was a little too hung-up in it’s old prejudices, rather more intent on reciting scripture than getting out and looking to be it’s fulfilment. Until he got out from under the fig-tree, Nathaniel was a good representation of an Israel too fractured and hidebound by tradition to be able to break the seals on God’s rescue plan.

Jesus was the image of what Israel should have been, had indeed been created for. What Nathaniel saw in Jesus in those first moments of personal engagement, and the realisation that Jesus had been watching over and listening to him for a significant period, was the power of Israel’s royalty, combined with a gentle vulnerability that enabled people to encounter him on their own terms. Jesus: the lion and the lamb, something to be spoken about, and something to be seen for yourself; a true Israelite of the house of David and the ‘lion-cub’ tribe of Judah (Gen 29:9), and the slaughtered sacrificial lamb of Passover, through whom Israel was saved, and by whom all the people’s of the world would now be bought the opportunity of new life. Jesus was a piece of news worth getting out of the shade of a fig tree for.

  • Only Jesus could show Nathaniel that he was visible and listened to by God.
  • Only Jesus could be both the lion and the lamb of Israel’s people.
  • Only Jesus could provide from Israel the fulfilment of God’s original creative intention to heal the world and it’s people of the broken-ness which had become endemic.
  • Only Jesus could bring about a new covenant and a new kingdom that would start to bring earth and heaven together.
  • Only Jesus could enable us to sing a new song to God as the priesthood of all believers.

We are being watched.

It’s perfectly appropriate to have places of meditation and prayer where we feel at peace. It’s perfectly reasonable to sit in the shade of a metaphorical fig-tree, listening to and discussing what it is that scripture says about the future. It’s indeed not uncommon for those discussions to wander off and feed our own prejudices about different elements of the community we live in.

But it’s worth remembering that we are being watched, and listened to, by Jesus.

If we haven’t already, soon we’re going to have to leave listening and talking behind, get out from under our fig-tree, and go and meet the Jesus who has been watching and listening to us, and knows us through and through, prejudices and all. Are we ready to see more? Are we ready to encounter the power of the lion and the sacrifice of the lamb?

Some of us have got out from under the fig tree before. We’ve recognised that through those that come and talk to us, we hear news about what God is doing that is worth going out and seeing for ourselves. But when the fig tree provides plenty of shade from the heat of the sun, and life wears us to a frazzle, a little comfort and company can do wonders for our energy levels. However, then we have to remember it’s not necessarily where we’re going to encounter Jesus. We have to get up and go meet the next piece of good news.

I can’t necessarily tell you where we must go to find Jesus, but it means knowing we are being listened to and seen by Jesus as we work out where we go, and will involve listening to and seeing others. Part of that starts over the next ten days as our two PCCs coming together to listen to each other and God as to the direction we go in making sure Jesus is seen in our communities, our mission and our worship. A small group of us are also going to listen and help Jesus and this church be seen at the wedding fair at Warbrook House next Sunday.

There will be other things. It might be sitting and listening to children read in school, seeing whether the school want people to return to gardening for them, or joining the Open The Book team so that the children meet Jesus. It may be that we have to spend time finding a non-threatening way to tell the people who come and sit under the local trees about Jesus, like the horse-riders who frequent Church Green, or the families who use the play area. It could be that in encouraging the community to recycle things the council won’t accept, and finding a site and a mechanism for doing so, we might be more like Jesus himself, bringing healing to God’s creation. Whatever the things are that we do, they will be a new song, a song that lives and celebrates the power and the sacrifice of Jesus, if we not only listen to what people say, but also go out and meet Jesus, the lion and the lamb.

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Light of the World – Creator God helping us shine our lights

I’ve got a new, warm, long, black coat, and today, much to our local headteacher’s amusement, I hid a set of Christmas lights wrapped round myself under it! Why? Because at school the long run in to Christmas is starting. Gently you understand, not too Christmas, just a little creation orientated ‘light of the world’ stuff.

I also thought I was going to end up teaching the kids a song, but they already knew the chorus, and we had great fun singing it acapella, lustily, and with much clapping, and without a tape or an instrument in sight!

In case this might help anyone else, here’s what I did:

NB: I checked first with the head for epileptic students who are flashing light sensitive, and set the light sequence on my lights accordingly under my coat.

 

Ask the children to use their imaginations (eyes closed) to think about what they feel like when it’s very dark? Have they ever experienced a power cut? Have they ever woken up in the night and felt frightened of the dark?

When God made the world, the Bible says that the very first thing that God did was to create light:

Genesis 1:1-5

So when we think of light, we can think of our creator God, and all the good things that he created, starting with light. God switched the lights on!

Why is that light so important? e.g. we can see more clearly, so it keeps us safe, guides us, plants to grow etc.

God came to the world as Jesus, human like you and me, and Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world”, and suggested people who follow him always have the light of life with them, and are never in darkness. (John 8:12)

Jesus was God’s Son, so, God is both the creator of light and light itself!

We’ll think more about Jesus as the light of the world as we move close to Christmas.

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Practising ‘dress-up’ the night before – I wore my loudest flame-coloured clerical shirt for the actual Act of Worship!

Is there anything slightly different about the way I look this morning? (Have my big black coat on done up tight, over battery powered Christmas lights.)

I’m dressed in black, and still got my coat on. BUT I’m meant to be a follower of Jesus, I’m meant to be living in the light, in fact Jesus says to all of us:

Matthew 5:14-16

That means I’m meant to have Jesus light with me, to be lit up, a light to shine before you! A light that reflects God’s light out into the world. What could I do?
I think I need to take my coat off! (Reveal Christmas lights.)

But it can’t be just me who shine’s God’s light. (Ask teachers for a volunteer to be lit up.  Ask their name. Wrap them in a set of lights, and switch on.)

Now, do you think we can walk round like this all the time? No?!

In which case what sort of things can all of us do that will help shine God’s light in this school, in our families and in our community? How can we shine with God’s light?

Listen to the children’s answers, and value them.

Unwrap volunteer, and invite them to sit down.

We’re now going to ask God to help us be light’s in the world, that shine good things out that other people can see. If you want to agree with what I’m praying you can say ‘Amen.’

Thank you God that the first thing you created was light.
Thank you God that the light you made helps plants to grow, and animals to live, and us to feel safe.
Thank you God that you came to us as light in Jesus, the light of the world.
Jesus, help us to follow you, so that we can shine as God’s light to the people around us.
Amen.

 

Song: This little light of mine – inspired by this YouTube version but without the instrumental back-up

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. (x2)

The light that shines is the light of love,
Hides the darkness from above,
Shines on me, and it shines on you,
Shows you what the power of love can do.
Shine my light both bright and clear,
Shine my light both far and near,
In every dark corner that I find,
Gonna let my little light shine.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. (x2)

Let it shine…
Let it shine…
Let it shine.

Additional verse that I didn’t teach this time:

Monday, he gave me the gift of love;
Tuesday, peace came from above.
Wednesday, he told me to have more faith;
Thursday, he gave me a little more grace.
Friday, he told me to watch and pray;
Saturday, he told me just what to say,
Sunday, he gave me the power divine,
To let my little light shine.

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

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.

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.

The joy of… ordinand?! How being an ordinand is like being pregnant – Luke1:39-45

Nativity detail from altar window, All Saints Church, Cuddesdon
Nativity detail from altar window, All Saints Church, Cuddesdon

I mentioned yesterday that amid the grief (and other Christmas aggravations like the alternator going on the car) there have only been will-o’-the-wisp moments when I have connected with the Christ-child this Christmas.

As I prepare to write a 5000 word essay this week, and re-start my hospital placement (grotty cough permitting) I wanted to reflect briefly on what those glimpses have said been, and what I’ve allowed the Christ-child to give me. They are what I have been given to build-up my sense of Christ’s presence with me as I return to my Benedictine studies.

I didn’t make church on 23rd December (Advent 4) because I was simply feeling too rough. Instead I sought out the sermons of clergy friends on Twitter, to feed what little brain I had. I lit upon this sermon from Reverend Ally. She reminds us of the questions Mary asked of Gabriel at the annunciation, which reflect quite closely those that many ordinands ask themselves, including “Why me!?”.  She goes on to talk about what happens after Mary declares her obedience to God’s will, and specifically about the joy of Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45). “Mary realises that God has not just asked a great thing of her, he has also given her a great thing” and that part of this gift is her common calling with Elizabeth, to which their miraculous pregnancies testify.

Being an ordinand isn’t so very different to being pregnant. You’re carrying something precious (your calling to serve Christ as a priest), can at times be very uncomfortable (there’s stuff asked of you that makes life painful), can feel incredibly lonely (not even a long-suffering spouse can really share the load, and they’re probably as worried as you), and you must be obedient to a detailed process you may not completely understand (portfolios require all sorts of detailed analysis that is almost beyond understanding, and then someone else arranges a curacy for you)!

For me this last term, it’s been a lonely journey. Cut off from parish life by the request that I focus on my studies, I’ve felt isolated at college by being the ‘odd one out’ (as the only one currently attempting a ‘mixed-mode MA’) and a strange unwillingness to take part in the regular and extra-curricular activities that would draw me into relationship with fellow ordinands. It’s like I’ve got too good at saying ‘no’ I’ve forgotten to say ‘yes’ occasionally, and the cost has been a painful isolation from those I’m journeying with.

Revd Ally goes on to say

One of the greatest gifts that God gives to us is each other. And it is so often the case that we can only truly find joy, or at least, fulfillment, in our responsibilities when we share those burdens that weigh heavily on us.

She’s right, I’ve been missing out on the joy of being an ordinand, focusing purely on ‘obeying the call’ and the sense I can’t possibly do the really scary bits of what is expected of me, and this is something I need to rectify in 2013.  Just as Christ was incarnate through Mary’s pregnancy, so I need to hold Christ incarnate within me, ’embracing and enjoying’ with others what Jesus is doing within my life and obedience to his call, so that that it might live joyfully now (like a squirming foetus eager for the world), and be incarnate in my future ministry seeking to recognise Christ in others, and make him recognisable to others.

Families First in Winchester for Mothers’ Union

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I’m thawing out in the car after an excellent start to the Mothers Union charity stall at Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market.

The team of volunteers are keeping warm chatting to the many folk who are passing by. We are giving away FREE ‘Families First’ the great magazine that supports family life, and this issue features The Nativity series to be seen on TV next week. Other free gifts include post-it notes, and notepads that we have been donated.

Every ‘Families First’ also comes stuffed with our local magazine ‘Archway’ and information cards about the Bye Buy Childhood Campaign.

If you are in Winchester over the next two days please come and visit us – you might even get a chocolate or a Christmas cracker!

Christmas isn’t coming! Matthew 24:36-44 – Advent 1

This week’s sermon task was a tricky one: I was leading an preaching at our formal, said, 8am Morning Prayer, which requires a short talk because the service needs to be completed in half an hour AND I was preaching at our 10am charismatic service in our ‘plant’ in the local comprehensive school hall, where sermons can be the long or the short of it!

I ended up writing a sermon for the 10am service, and then doing a bit of a hatchet job on it for the 8am. I also ended up preaching both in a rather husky voice having gone down with a streaming cold. Not the best way to start the busy season…. but then Christmas isn’t coming so perhaps it doesn’t matter?!

The reason I suggest that Christmas isn’t coming, is because it only really came once, and at the beginning of Advent we need to focus on God’s coming, both continual and finally in glory, and I believe this needs to be reflected in how we approach our Christmas activities.

And it all starts, with the story from the New Year as I turned 21…

Just before my 21st birthday, I spent New Year on my way back to Uni, staying at a friends house near Pershore. It was a old farmhouse – like about 17th Century – just beginning to be done up, and it was in a very small, rural hamlet. I like old houses, I’m a country girl, the local pub was just the right sort of place for a rustic New Year, so this was a good place to be…

Until I woke up in the middle of the night…

If you want to read the whole thing, then it’s here Sermon Matthew 24v36-44

What’s so special?

Today I found myself needing to write what would normally be the “vicar’s letter” for a local magazine, except that we don’t currently have a vicar, and I’m not even ordained! However, it has felt important to maintain these slots in the printed material that falls through people’s doors and sits on pub counters, despite our state of ‘vacancy’, and December seemed to be my turn. It’s not like we’ve stopped our mission and ministry as a church just because we haven’t got a priest – far from it!

If any of you have read Bishop Nick’s post on the coverage this week of the forthcoming royal wedding (should that be capitalised?), you may have spotted in the comments that though I am all in favour of marriage, weddings and our monarchy, and wish Prince William and Kate all the very best for their future together, I really can’t face the endless news coverage, and am glad that I don’t read a daily newspaper (and haven’t yet opened this weeks Church Times where I bet it get’s at least one column!)

So I feel a little ill-at-ease with myself because when writing my “not the vicar’s” slot today, I found myself mentioning… yep, the royal wedding! It was simply that it sprang to mind as something special that people would know about, whether they react positively to it, or negatively. However, I’m still not convinced as to whether it helps or hinders the point I’m making – so I’ll let you decide, and perhaps I’ll even see you at Christmas!

What’s so special?

If something is ‘special’ it has some distinguishing qualities that makes it unusual or important, or it is held in high regard. A royal wedding for example could be described as a ‘special occasion’ because it doesn’t happen that often and involves people who we admire or find interesting or inspiring. This is what encourages people to focus their attention on it.

When an event happens annually, like a birthday or anniversary, which perhaps we celebrate in roughly similar ways each year, the ‘specialness’ of the occasion can start to fade, especially when tight budgets or a lack of imagination means the occasion can almost slip by, un-noticed.

The lights, tinsel and music in our shops and streets make it hard not to notice it will soon be Christmas. But possibly we can’t afford as many presents this year, and the electricity may be too expensive to run the outdoor lights, so how are we going to make the annual event of Christmas special in 2010?

I’d like to suggest you make Christmas special this year by finding out about the people involved. Find out why Christians are inspired by Jesus’ birth to celebrate it every year. Discover the distinguishing qualities of the baby in the manger that brings shepherds, wise men and millions of Christians together each year to worship him.

If you want to make Christmas 2010 special by encountering the real story of Jesus, please join us for one of these popular services!

Outdoor Nativity – Saturday 18th December 5.00pm Meet between the “White Lion” and the “Dog and Partridge” to encounter our “live” nativity

Christmas Eve Crib Services at 3:00 pm, 4:15pm, and 5:30 pm in St. Peter’s Church

Midnight Communion Service 11.30pm Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s Church with the Bishop of Basingstoke

Christmas Day Family Celebration with Communion 10.00am in St. Peter’s Church