‘Born of God – Born in wonder’ Christmas 1 Year C 2018

Sermon for Christmas 1

Col 3:12-21
Luke 2:41-52

Born of God

Well it is an unwritten rule in our household that we don’t use stories about our children to illustrate sermons, however, just this once, not least because its a story of parental incompetence and therefore I think allowable . . . as a family we can’t hear this story of Jesus being left in Jerusalem without recalling an incident which occurred some years ago in Keswick. We were there for the annual Bible convention and had gone to the local supermarket before departing for a campground with a large group of friends and family – well we hadn’t gone a couple of days walk but we had been about half an hour before we realised that Megan wasn’t with us.

Running as fast as I could I returned to the supermarket to find she had been found by some fellow campers and convention members – one of the lovely things about Keswick when the Convention is on is that the town is full to bursting with Christians 🙂 We were Mighty relieved . . and it must be said didn’t scold her as Jesus’ was scolded by his distraught Mother!

Although of course Jesus gently rebukes his mother . . . ‘“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (or about my Father’s business)

So, although we haven’t yet got to the 12th day of Christmas, Luke has moved forwards 12 years to this account of Jesus’ family – about the time of the Passover, and how he goes missing in Jerusalem, for about three days . . . surely an echo of years later when Jesus is three days in the tomb before being found in the garden . . . the scriptures are full of these allusions, of stories within stories – it reminds me of those Russian Dolls which I was always fascinated with as a child. dolls within dolls within dolls – and here stories within stories within stories – and so, to pick another incident of Jesus life with his mother Mary, we might hear the words, ‘my time has not yet come’, so Jesus does not remain physically within the Temple, but returns to Nazareth with Mary his Mother, and Joseph . . .
Yet the incident is not forgotten – Mary ‘treasured all these sayings in her heart’

This is a repeated note in the Gospel. Mary treasuring things that have been said about Jesus and now by Jesus, in her heart. She treasured them – you might say having as it were lost her son for a while, she held him in her heart through all that had been said about him and by him . . .

What is immensely clear in this story is that Mary and Joseph do not understand. If they are going to understand they will have to live with these words, these seeds in their hearts, until such time when with persistence and in a good soil, they take root and bear fruit . . .

‘I must be in my Father’s house’

I wonder, what is it that we treasure in our hearts? What finds a home in us? To pick up on the image of Russian dolls again, Jesus uses the idea of Abiding, or Living within us. Abide in me, as I abide in you. We live in Him as He lives in us, or will if we attend to Him, if we follow Mary, our Mother in faith, who for nine months says Yes to this Word of God growing within her, and bearing fruit. Who goes on even though she does not understand, for who truly can hope to fully understand, who goes on treasuring these words in her heart. As the child conceived in her comes to birth, so the Word in her comes to bear fruit in her life.

One of the things I find most odd about faith in these days is how readily we dismiss these stories, beach we do not understand. They do not make sense to us. You are not likely to find many even within the church who attest to truth of The Virgin Birth. ‘Why? This is nonsense!’
As if we understood. As if we stood in a place where all of existence and reality was beneath our feet . . . Anything which doesn’t readily fit our casual notions truth discarded, for ‘this saying is too hard’ . . . like Jesus’s words ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me’ . . . too hard. Thus the Word is snatched away and perhaps we see within the church the effect of that word being snatched away – where is the Life? – as our ‘Modern’ understanding dismisses anything we cannot fit into our own picture –

Yet if is something which fits into our picture, we may well ask, why bother with it in the first place? If it is something that we infinitely small creatures can readily comprehend – why do we consider it of worth? Do we think that the understanding of ants is rational, and truthful? On the scale of the Universe and all that is – It is as if we were ants and proudly thought we comprehended existence itself . . .

Mary, although she does not know ‘how can this be, since I am a virgin?’ does not understand, she allows the words, the announcement to find a home within her. Although she is distraught at the actions of her son which have so upset her and Joseph, actions which make no sense to her and upset her greatly, she does not dismiss them, she treasures his words in her heart. She is not proud. She blows that she doesn’t understand, but believes

We have 12 days of Christmas. Days in which we can in humility allow these words of Jesus, this story of Jesus to find a home within us – even though there is so much of it which is ‘hard to understand’, much which indeed we may find dismays us.

And I wonder what might happen were we to hear the words of Jesus and ponder them and allow them to take such root in us, that they become our words? When His life becomes ours?

‘“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ What if we became the sort of people who were so given to attending to the Word in us, that perhaps our lives became lives that perplexed others, that caused them to question, that asked questions of the very way we understand our lives in the world, that had others searching us out.
If we stopped our casual denials quoting that simple convenient ‘modern science’ or something other such thing. (It is amazing how those who so readily quote ‘Modern Science, don’t know an science, and when challenged cannot explain ‘how modern science refutes all these things) It is easier not to allow the Word to take root within us. Like Mary gives birth to the Word in patience and great labour – if we allowed that existence was at once more glorious and full of wonder than we might imagine – if we became once more little children ourselves and said YEs to God’s word.

I only do what I see the Father doing . . . I must be about my Father’s business . . . if, to quote St Paul as dearly loved children, knowing we knew very little about anything, we became imitators of our big brother Jesus, the true human, and the true God, who pours out his life for us if we would beat let it take root . . .

In the beginning of John’s gospel we read ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” To all who received him . . . who allowed his Word to sink deep into their heart, to find a home in them, to bear fruit in them . . . to become those who rise to new life each morning and say as His words become ours as we abide in Him and he in us – ‘I must be about my Father’s business, I must be in my Father’s house’.

Of course, Megan wasn’t lost in the Temple, or indeed a church, she was in the Supermarket – perhaps that has become our father’s house in these days, perhaps we have become children of the consumer age, with endless options before us, or perhaps we might again attend to the One thing necessary – hear these words of Jesus ‘Did you not know that it was necessary, – we might attend to this ‘that I must be about my father’s business’ – allow it to take root, and grow us into the fulness of Children of God

Bishop does something inexplicable – in other news, yellow circle of light appears in the sky

Somewhere on a small island a long way away from here, an Archbishop will do something which seems to many, if not most, to make no sense

At this point, this blog could turn into an extended reflection on the absence of Church History from what is left of ‘theological training’ in some parts of the world. Suffice to say, ‘So?’ Anyone with the slightest grasp of the history of the last two thousand years will find little of interest in this ‘event’, an observation which only goes to reinforce my urge to write on our lack of ecclesio-historical awareness, as ‘the media’ has been full of ‘it’.

But it is the lack of another, deeper and more significant awareness, which I find  inexplicable – far more so than the actions of a Bishop, Arch or otherwise. And that is the awareness of fact that the Church is a collection of sinners, and sinners do things which make no sense – Continually.

Unfortunately it appears that we are largely ignorant of this. It seems we nowadays believe that the Church is full of machines – whom like all the machines with which we are surrounded, never go wrong . . . or if they do we only need to replace them with a better one . . . We are under the demonic [sic] conceit that ‘there is no reason why everyone shouldn’t be good’ – ‘why everything shouldn’t ‘work” – ‘why bishops shouldn’t be able to fix everything’. Why else the outpouring of moral indignation etc.??

More evidence for this is seen in our (changing) approach to clergy and episcopal training. A Church on a small island a long way away from here, has decided to cherry pick promising candidates for the episcopate and put them through an ecclesiastical version of an MBA – ‘because clearly what we need are better management skills’ (the human mirroring of those ‘Oh so dependable’ machines – as we increasingly become like that which we worship . . .). No doubt to turn out bishops who look like this.

People who wear suits – whom our upbringing has taught us to trust because ‘they are obviously very clever, and of course that is what we need in the church’. If we make clever people bishops, all will be well, they will be able to fix things . . . (Of course those who hope that the decision of the Church of the small island far away to consecrate women as bishops will ‘fix’ this – probably has failed to note how, as was pointed out to me by one of the first women to be ordained in that church, ‘they all end up looking like the men’, and b) they’re sinners also.)

Yet more evidence of our ludicrous hope that somehow we can ‘fix’ the church is the inexplicable habit in some quarters of asking people to put their names forward to be bishop. Each then explains why under their ‘just and gentle rule’ the world will be a better place . . . and, ignoring the fact that they’re all sinners we tend to believe at least one of them (because we are also sinners). We pray about it, because we ought to, all the while ignoring the fact that we are sinners, and then we elect one of their number. A majority of folk say ‘Now everything will be better! Bishop John ‘is a wonderful person’ or Bishop Susan ‘has a Great plan!’ (All the while quietly complimenting ourselves on our ‘discernment’) A minority are disappointed. Some of those passed over leave in high dudgeon, because the Diocese has made ‘such an ‘inexplicable’ choice, ‘my plan for fixing everything was far better’. There is a big service at the Cathedral where words like ‘hope’, ‘future’ and ‘confidence’ are bandied around, and sooner or later the new Bishop does something ‘inexplicable’ . . .

Of course if we knew our church history we’d not be surprised, but like sheep who are disturbed every morning by that yellow ball in the sky . . .

 

Some years ago one of my former tutors at college gave a wonderful talk on false understandings of our Life in Christ. In it he compared Thomas the Tank Engine – a tale of a railway on a small fictional island, off the coast of a small island a long way away from here – to that rather wonderful and scary book ‘Where the Wild things are’. At the time I heard it as a gentle ribbing of those who understood the bible in that good old Deuteronomistic way – “Be Good! everything will be well”. A world where ‘everything works’, and when it doesn’t we say we’re sorry and everything is working properly again. (Thomas the Tank Engine was after all written by a nice middle class English Vicar in the 1950s) His point was that ‘faith in its glory’ wasn’t really like that, it was much more like the exuberant, unpredictable world conjoured up by Maurice Sendak.

Yet I cannot fail to surmise that at root so many in the Church think along Thomas the Tank Engine lines, not in terms of ‘Being Good and it will all work out’  – but because they have forgotten that we are sinners, (except in a rather nice 1950s middle class sort of way – ‘we occasionally do something naughty, or indeed ‘inexplicable”) We think that we know how it should be fixed, we think we know the faults of others, we can see how it would be better if only they listened to us, read our blogs . . . We are all busy playing The Fat Controller . . .

The Church is messy, very very messy, of course, because it is full of sinners, and no piece of legislation (think Microsoft patch), no ‘new bishop’, nothing is going to change that, except people who wake up to the reality deep in their hearts that we are all ‘under the same condemnation’, and put down their stones, and their spanners . . . that is how the true healing of the Church, and thus the World comes about

 

This run of blogs etc. on the actions of an Archbishop on a small island a long way away from here, puts me in mind of a series of articles run by ‘The Times of London’, in the days when it went under that moniker. It was entitled ‘What’s wrong with the World?’ Perhaps unsurprisingly the editor was not scratching around to find someone to opine, and numerous luminaries, men in suits, perhaps even bankers . . . wrote lengthy articles explaining EXACTLY what was wrong with the world.

Eventually it all became too much for one reader, who responded with ‘a letter to the editor’, thus

 

Sir,

‘What is wrong with the world?’

I am

Sincerely yours

GK Chesterton

 

It also put me in mind of a recent saying of Pope Francis, pointed out to me by a friend

‘We should all become islands of mercy’

 

As Someone once said

“How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

 

It is rumoured that he was Not a sinner, yet we crucified him

And there are even wilder stories going about that he was raised from the dead

 

Now THAT is inexplicable . . .

 

 

‘The moon will turn to blood . . .’ – of signs and inheritances, amongst other things

Last night both sides of the Pacific Ocean saw one of the great astronomical wonders,

a lunar eclipse

 

I was dragged from my slumbers by one of my daughters at around midnight to share (be it briefly) a moment of wonder as the incredible brightness of the directly reflected sunlight disappeared and all the moon was red-orange, with accompanying improved 3D perspective.

As a physicist and also as someone of relatively advancing years, this was nothing ‘out of the ordinary’. In physical terms, the moons orbit took it briefly into the full shadow of the earth, directly opposite the sun. So whilst not in shadow the radiance of the moon was at its highest, sunlight being almost directly reflected of it to the eye of this sleepy observer.  Then, the moon being at a fairly average distance from the earth, a fairly broad spectrum of longer wavelength light was refracted through the earth’s atmosphere, making the moon more orange than the deep red associated with the biblical image of ‘the moon turning to blood’, which would require the moon to be closer to the earth allowing only the longest visible wavlengths, red, to curve round the earth. Just another lunar eclipse . . .

Of course given this ‘explanation’ – the apocalyptic biblical account – Acts 2:20, drawing on Joel 2:31 expanded in Revelation 6:12, seem at best silly, to our way of thinking. Even though some seem to continue to think otherwise. It’s ‘just another lunar eclipse . . .’ after all. Yet, immediately one may well ask – what happened to ‘Wonder’? Put another way, our faith actually teaches us that Creation is ablaze with the Glory of God, ‘every common bush afire . . .’ so indeed it is not that these things do not signify, but rather that everything signifies. Literally everything is freighted with significance . . . a view which since the unravelling of the sacramental understanding of the world, begun about a thousand years ago, has gradually become more and more elusive, and those seeing things in ‘the mundane’ are readily dismissed as ‘lunatics’.

One of the aspects of Christian faith which most disturbs is precisely that which is meant to, its apocalyptic or revelatory nature – a tearing back of the veil from our eyes that we might see things as they are in their essence, rather than as they have been translated to us through the dulling lens of culture, in our case one which keeps the spiritual and the ‘real world’ poles apart. And it is disturbing for these aspects find their focus, not in the outer reaches of biblical strangeness, Revelation and the latter part of Daniel, but in Jesus himself. [Those struggling with the end of this coming Sunday’s gospel, might do well to read Revelation Chapter 19:6-9 for a clear interpretation ] It is after all Jesus who speaks most of uncomfortable realities which we would rather not see. Jesus who speaks of Hell – Jesus who declares woe to the Rich. And Jesus who speaks of signs . . .

I remember as a young Christian – not yet fully conversant with Jesus’ words regarding signs, that they were for those who were barely believing, not the provenance of those who had fully cast in their lot with the man from Galilee – asking for a sign and getting one. The small, but faithful and lively Anglican church of which we were part in the English city of Bradford had several home groups and also wanted to tell people about Jesus through the Alpha Course. The then Vicar, I am sure more than aware of the juvenility of my faith, all the same asked me to either co-ordinate the groups, or set up Alpha. I duly agonised over this for several weeks. They both seemed good to me, and I hadn’t the faith just to cast lots, so on the way to work on the bus I asked the Lord to give me a sign . . . I stepped off the bus and setting off to walk up to my workplace, lifted my gaze to see a car pass by, registration A1PHA . . . which pretty much sealed the deal 🙂

I had cause to remember that this morning when, crawling from my bed after a disturbed night, I went off to do what is necessary at that hour, drink a huge coffee and go for a walk to pray in the new days light. As I walked along, I was thinking about the point in life of the church of which I am privileged to be the Priest. The sense that we are being called to learn more deeply what it is for the Lord to provide for our needs. And so my thoughts turned to my dad, who died more than 20 years ago, and his constant testimony ‘we have never had much, and there were moments where I had no choice but to leave my job and didn’t know how I might continue to provide for you all [business life was often desperately hard on his good and gentle soul] , but God always provided’ And I was caused to give great thanks for that inheritance of faith, that had caused us to live with little thought to our own needs over the years and rather be available for what God was calling us to . . . however hard at times those choices had and have been. But that was not all . . .

Eldest sons traditionally have a difficult time with their dads. I was no exception. He was frequently out of the country on business, leaving me as the Alpha male ( 🙂 ) until his return, when the territory had once more to be disputed. One of the losses of this was that I had difficulty seeing him for who he was – and thus I missed Signifiers . . .

As I gave thanks I continued to pray and walk and the Lord reminded me of something to which I hadn’t attended, another burning bush. On the evening he had died, he had gone out for a walk with my mother, and then come home, retiring to bed at about 10 as was his custom, and as he did every night, kneeling down beside the bed in prayer. He then got into bed and died.

I knew this but didn’t SEE. This morning I saw. And my heart was filled with Deep gratitude and I know I have a long journey ahead of me to mine this treasure, this Gift . . .

Setting off to walk home, I lifted up my eyes to see a car coming towards me, registration THXDAD . . .

So I walked on, pondering Inheritance. On the one hand a financial gift which had been converted into a car, which was already showing signs of dilapidation and like all things will turn to dust – and then this miracle of Life . . . and I thought of all those years of kneeling at the bed to pray, and Wondered at the Inheritance beyond my finding out my dad had bequeathed me in and through that . . .

Jesus told a story about inheritance

One day he was out and about when someone came up to him and demanded ‘Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me’ Jesus, the one who embodies the Mishpat, the Justice of God, seems less than enamoured at this request – his response a rebuke to the one who seeks ‘fair shares’

‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’

He then goes on to use the occasion for a parable, one the power of which may elude us, as we do not often read the Scriptures with the story of the people of God as narrated to us thus far, in view.

It is a familiar tale, uncomfortably so for we who are wealthy . . . ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” So far, so familiar. He has a good year – made good profits we might say – the odd thing in our ears is his question ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ If we do well, we seldom ponder what we will do – the answer our culture gives us is clear – store it up against unknown futures . . . but to Jesus listeners, his response is scandalous. For the righteous, the question does not even enter their head – your barns are full? You have excess?? Everyone knows the answer – Love your neighbour as yourself! You have done well, feed those who have not, your Life is with your neighbour. This was written DEEP into Israel’s story, and everyone knew it. When John the Baptist comes, his message of repentance is simple. Your brother has nothing, you have more than you need – it is a no brainer for anyone who loves God, or claims to love his fellow man. No one argued with John. He was only setting forth what the people of God had ALWAYS been called to.

With that in mind, as Jesus goes on, the crowd must have gasped ‘Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” How is it I ask that we do not see ourselves in this response?? I’ve had a good year, I am going to enjoy the fruit of my labours for many years to come . . . We do not gasp in horror at the man’s response, for it is our response . . . our culture has not only disconnected the physical from the spiritual, that disconnection has bored deeply into our souls so that we see no problem with the fact that some starve whilst we ‘eat, drink and are merry’ The disconnection means we no longer see our life is with our neighbour, and like the Pharisees with their interpretations of the Law, we have developed ways of interpreting Jesus’ words to make sure we don’t have to take them literally. Physical and Spiritual cast asunder . . .

. . . as we see when we interpret Jesus’ final line . . . But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ We ‘spiritualise’ the last response – for those of Jesus’ time, this was impossible. Jesus’ hearers knew his meaning – to live with an open hand towards those in need – to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked etc. was to be rich towards God. Jesus makes this utterly explicit in the parable of the sheep and the goats . . . this night your life is being demanded of you.

Jesus’ message is clear. Terrifyingly so.

This message remained the teaching of the church long after the Resurrection, indeed it was a signifier of the Risen one amongst his people. That the teaching of Jesus was continued, whereas now it is abused and ignored. To have faith is to liv in obedience to Jesus words.

If we have so little faith we need a sign (John 14:11)??

Well, last night the moon turned to blood . . .

Everything signifies

Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison

On the Feast of the Nativity

Reading for Vigils upon the Feast of the Nativity

‘Beloved borthers and sisters: Unto us is born this day a Saviour. Let us Rejoice!

It would be unlawful to be sad today, for today is Life’s birthday, the birthday of that Life which, for us mortal creatures, takes away the sting of death and brings the bright promise of an eternal hereafter. It would be unlawful for anyone to refuse sharing in our rejoicing. All have an equal part in the great reason why we are joyful, for our Lord, who is the destroyer of sin and death, finding that all are bound under condemnation, is come to make all free.

For when the fulness of time was come, the Son of God took upon himself human nature so that he might reconcile that nature to him who made it; hence the devil, the inventor of death, is met and conquered in that very flesh which had been the field of his victory.

Let us give thanks to God the Father through his Son in the Holy Spirit, who for his great love wherewith he loves us has had mercy on us and has quickened us together with Christ even when we were dead in sins, that in Him we might be a new creature and a new handiwork.

Let us then put off the old nature with its deeds, and having obtained a share in the sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh.

Be conscious, O Christian, of your dignity! You have been made a partaker of the divine nature; do not fall again by a corrupt manner of life into the beggarly elements above which you were lifted.

Remember whose Body it is of which you are a member, and who is its Head.

Remember that it is he who has delivered you from the power of darkness and has transferred you into God’s light and God’s kingdom. By the sacrament of baptism, you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not cast away this guest by evil living and become again a servant of the devil. For your freedom was bought with Christ’s own blood.

From the ‘Sermons on the Lord’s Birth’, St Leo the Great

Life Together 1 – Remember the Sabbath . . .

Recently as my health has forced me to rest I have, perhaps unsurprisingly been considering The Sabbath. The Command to rest from our labours one day in seven.
Then as I was reading and studying, out of the blue someone sent me a book about the Sabbath, and then I was listening to a lecture which without my realising focussed on the significance of the Sabbath – so I thought I’d better write a few words about it!! 🙂

One of the odd things I’ve noticed as I’ve been reading is how most if not all contemporary books on the Sabbath take it as read that ‘this is not something which it is possible to do together in the modern world, but we can still find ways to observe some form of Sabbath on our own’. And the more I have thought and pondered and prayed, the more this has disturbed me, for many reasons, but two of particular importance to us as the people of God.

Firstly, the command is put in such a way that ‘doing it together’ is a requirement, and as we read it we see why. ‘You shall not do any work, you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or strangers resident in your town.’  The command is given to those at the top of the pile, those who have power over the lives of others [as indeed the books are 🙂 those who have the money and the leisure for reading . . .]. ‘you are responsible for the rest of others’
The idea that we can do our own private Sabbath as is convenient to us makes the demonic assumption that we are all individuals. Perhaps we wish to shop on our rest day? Someone else has to work so that we can do that. Or drive? Who will be at the fuel stations? All too often our restless rest requires others to be working. It assumes that we are not our brothers keeper – that we have a life of our own . . .
Indeed now as a society we have become ‘secularised’, we have adapted to an economic model which doesn’t allow rest – most especially for those at the bottom of the pile. Recently the Diocese has backed the ‘Living Wage’ Campaign. Well that is a good thing, but a Life without Rest is no life at all. If a person cannot earn a living wage in six days, it is not a living wage. We Sabbath together for the sake of the weak.

Secondly, this command is woven into the very nature of Creation – ‘For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day’. Did you notice that the non human creation is also involved in Sabbath?? ‘your livestock’ In my parish back in England, one local farmer was a Quaker. He never milked his cows on the Sabbath – and they did not suffer for it, indeed one might guess they thrived. They too rested from their labours.
Failure to observe a Sabbath for the Land and the Livestock now faces us with what look like catastrophic consequences as industrialised 7 day a week farming and Climate change look set to rebuke our restlessness. [You can read of such things in the Scripture – of how in sobering terms, the Creation is given its Sabbath. See 2 Chronicles 36 vs 17-21]

Sabbath keeping is not so much dry legalism as a matter of economic and ecological justice – a recognition that our lives are with each other and the Good Earth. This command is given to the people of God, that they might be a Light to the Nations, revealing the One in whom all things hold together, who rested from his labours. Perhaps we would do well to think, talk and pray together about how we might shape our Life Together in this regard?