Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday 28 December 2008 - God in the Mess

I couldn't preach this morning and ignore what has happened in Gaza this weekend with over 250 people dead. The sermon is based on the Gospel reading from the Common Worship Lectionary rather than from the Revised Common Lectionary. Luke 2:15-21


The Messiah Has Come

In today's Gospel reading, we hear once again the end of Luke's story of Christmas. There have been miraculous appearances by angels, there have been shepherds and there have been hymns of praise, both earthly and celestial. Everything in Luke's narrative points to Jesus as the Messiah so that the reader is left in no doubt as to who Jesus is or what his significance is.

And, finally, when the momentous events have been accomplished and the shepherds and the angels have departed, Mary is left to ponder all of these events in her heart.

Then the next thing that happens in Luke's narrative is the circumcision of Jesus. Luke is affirming yet again the status of Jesus as the Messiah, the one through whom God's promises to the human race are to be fulfilled. Circumcision is a sign of God's covenant promise with his people.

Listen to what a modern Jewish rabbi has to say about the rite of circumcisions as an expression of God's covenant and what that means[1]:
'There will come a time when all human beings will live in full dignity and freedom....The covenant is that bond through which God and the Jewish people dream together and work together toward an alternative reality, a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest.'

Other Mothers

Over the last week or so during the season of Christmas, we have been hearing stories of shepherds and lambs and wise men and gifts and mothers and babies. And our young ones have been acting in nativity plays; and the week of Christmas has been a time for celebrations and feasting and maybe a bit too much activity as well.

And I can't help but think that against this backdrop of our celebrations, the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza has fallen apart in the last fortnight and hundreds of people in the region of the Holy Land have been killed this weekend.

I don't want to take sides or appear to take sides. The current violence has a long and complicated history and there is always more than one side to any conflict. But as I was thinking about Mary's ponderings and her hopes for her own child, I came across the stories of two other mothers in the Holy Land.

The first story is Hava's{2]. A Jewish mother of three in a town called Sderot. On the 19th of December she said:
'A rocket landed 10 metres from my house last week. The ceasefire may have officially ended today, but in reality it was over long before that. I don't feel protected here, not at all. I hope that Israel does go into Gaza even if citizens there get hurt. Because here in Sderot we are getting hurt. Life is very difficult. We have my husband's salary from the bed factory here in Sderot, but it's barely enough. I am sure there are simple citizens like me in Gaza, who want nothing but to wake up in the morning, go to work and take care of the children. But if I have to choose between my son or someone else's son, I choose my son.'

...And what mother wouldn't?

The second story is Mirvat's[3], a Palestinian mother who lives in the Gaza. Her family was caught in the crossfire of a gun-battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants. Whilst taking cover in their own living room with her five children, her oldest son and daughter, aged 18 and 17 were killed by snipers when they accidentally moved into the snipers' view.  Mirvat said:
'We feel like there is no reason to live any more....'We have to talk to the other side, we have to have peace, so that we can all - us and them - live safely.'

And what mother wouldn't want to live in safety with her children?

Christ our Saviour

So here we have the ponderings of three mothers: From Scripture, the pondering of Mary on Jesus' Messiahship and what that might ultimately mean. And from our world, the pondering of two mothers in an imperfect and dangerous world who are afraid for their children and their future.

Jesus came to the world as the Prince of Peace and yet it appears that we have no peace. In such circumstances, talk of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest can sometimes seem hollow and unreal.

The Christmas image of the baby in the manger may be a sweet picture, but ultimately the message of Christmas is not meant to be charming or bucolic. The message of Christmas is that God is in this messy world with us. And that he is here in fact as well as in Spirit.

The baby lying in that crib at Christmas will ultimately share the everyday sorrows of human life as well as all its everyday joys. But Jesus will also experience the worst that human life has to offer: betrayal, humiliation, shame and a painful, violent death. His last words will be words of forgiveness and his last act will unite us with God and with God's forgiveness forever. And his resurrection will be a sign that God is a God who is completely alive and without reference to death.

The message of Christmas is ultimately a message of hope, but is not a saccharine or unreal hope, but a gritty hope born out of the worst that humanity can do.

When human beings suffer at the hands of others and can still forgive, then we recognise the human dignity of those who hurt us and we access a dignity in ourselves that can only come from the Spirit of God. And when we we suffer randomly at the hands of life's circumstances, it is God's Spirit that gives us the strength to continue in hope.


The beauty of the incarnation does not lie in the sweetness of one newborn child. The beauty of the incarnation lies in the fact that God's salvation came through the reality of this world and through the reality of Jesus' humanity. Salvation does not come because human beings are removed from the world but because God has come into the world.

As we come to The Lord's Table in a few minutes, I pray that we, like Mary, will ponder the mystery of the incarnation in our hearts. And I pray that we will not only ponder this mystery but that we will trust in God's promises and that we will and pray and work for a world where all mothers dare to hope for a future of peace on earth for their children. Amen


[1] Rabbi Shai Held at: Accessed 27 December 2008
[2] BBC Website, 15:13 GMT, Friday 19 December 2008. Accessed 27 December 2008.
[3} BBC Website 15:54 GMT, Thursday 18 December 2008. Accessed 27 December 2008.

Sunday 21 December 2008 - Making Room for God

This sermon is based on 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38



For at least the last fortnight, every time I've gone to the Supermarket and I'm making polite conversation with the person behind the till, the conversational opener has been 'So are you ready for Christmas'?

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and hopefully that means that we are now almost ready for Christmas. Not just in terms of decorations and Christmas cards and arrangements for Christmas dinner but that we've prepared room in lives for the coming of the Messiah.

That's the question that I'd like to think about this morning: How do we make room for God in our lives? It strikes me that both the stories we read from Scripture this morning are about making room for God.

Building a Temple

In the first reading we heard this morning from 2 Samuel, King David wanted to build a permanent Temple for God.
And at first God says 'yes' but then he changes his mind and sends the prophet Nathan to tell David about the change of plans.

Now, building a Temple for the God of Israel might sound like a pious thing to do, but it wasn't entirely without an ulterior motive. In the Ancient world, 'building a temple for the god of our nation' was rather like building a magnificent town hall might be in our culture. It would have brought King David status both with his people and with the nations around him.

David had his own ideas about how to 'make space for God' in his world and in his life. And God had quite another idea.

At the end of the day, King David 'made space for God' by obeying God's commandment, even though it might have seemed to David that he was forsaking the kind of show of power that a King needed in order to rule successfully.

The next thing that happens in the story is that God blesses David and guarantees him that he will be the founder of an enduring dynasty blessed by God. What seemed at first like bad news turned out to be a blessing and God makes a place for David and his descendants in the history of God's saving purposes.

Building a Messiah

And then, of course, there is Mary's story. Mary is asked to make space for God in a most extraordinary way.

In fact, the word 'extraordinary' probably doesn't do her experience justice, just like the term 'greatly troubled' (used in the NIV) doesn't either. The word used in Greek means something more like 'terrified'. Mary is terrified by the angel. And terrified of what is being asked of her.

But the Angel tells Mary not to be afraid. In Scripture, this is always the instruction when an Angel of God appears: 'Do not be afraid of God's messenger. Do not be afraid of God's message'.

Mary is told that she will be given the power of the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill what is being asked of her. And she responds with a most extraordinary and revolutionary hymn. The Magnificat comes from the mouth of a servant-girl but it does not seem to come from the mouth of a scullery-maid but rather from someone more like the Matron of the House.

Mary too made room for God and what seemed at first like bad news turned into a blessing.

This is not a woman overcome against her will by the Spirit of God, but a woman who is empowered from within by the Spirit.

But what if neither King David nor Mary had been willing to make room for God in their lives? What if they had not been willing to listen to the voice of God? What if they had not been willing to obey it?

What if David had seen Nathan's prophecy as a political plot to stand in the way of his glory and political ambitions? What if David thought he knew better than God how to make room for God?

And what if Mary had been unwilling to be the mother of the Messiah because the task was just too difficult? What if Mary had protested that she was unworthy of such a task? Or indeed that she was unprepared for it? What if Mary had simply been unwilling to make room for God?

Making Room in our Lives

The question I asked earlier was: How do we make room for God in our lives? And, in a minute, I'm going to leave you with that question to answer for yourself.

I just want to offer a few observations.

1) Sometimes it's hard to make room for God in our lives because we fail to hear God's authentic voice and we let the voice of our culture's prevailing values drown it out. That would have been a very easy thing for David to do: 'Of course God wants me to build him a Temple. Nathan is a fake.' For example, I think we get seduced by this sort of thinking when we apply our cultural model of 'success' on to church or our cultural model of 'popularity' on to being a Christian disciple.

2) Sometimes it's difficult to make room for God in our lives because a task seems daunting or because we are afraid.
I'm sure many of us can think of examples from our own lives where were failed to follow God's leading because we felt afraid and unprepared. I suspect that churches do it too, when we work to an unspoken agenda that everything we do needs to be 'successful'. (And I'm preaching to myself here...) Perhaps there are times when we need to be less afraid of failure and ready to try things that might not work out.

3) Sometimes it's difficult to make room for God in our lives because we feel unworthy. At times like this, we forget that no one is worthy in and of themselves. But it is through the power of God's Holy Spirit, that he uses flawed human beings to do his will. Friends or family sometimes ask us to do things that we don't feel 'worthy' of doing: be a best man, stay with an expectant mother in labour, give a tribute at a funeral, but we often do these things out of friendship and love, even if we don't feel worthy. If God calls us to a task, he won't force us to do it, but he will equip us for the task if we say 'yes' just as he equipped the young girl Mary for a most daunting task.


So I leave us all with that question this morning: 'How do we make room for God in our lives?'

David and Mary made room for God in ways that they did not expect to do and both were blessed in ways they didn't expect.  

I pray that we may be given the grace to make room for God in our own lives and may we be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be agents of God's blessings.

In these last three days of Advent, may our souls magnify the Lord and our spirits rejoice in God our Saviour. Amen

Sunday 14 December 2008 - Pointing to Good News

This is a bit different. Sometimes rather than having a sermon, we do discussions and I don't post these as they are just notes. In this particular case, I was preaching in a church that's not my own so I didn't have the confidence to go with a full-fledged discussion in case the congregation didn't talk enough! 

This church has no children on a Sunday morning, so the Discussion happened in the 'children's slot' early in the service and the sermon came in the usual slot. The texts are: Isaiah 61:1-11 and John 1:6-8, 19-28.



Today is the third Sunday of Advent and it is traditionally the Sunday that focuses on the work and mission of John the Baptist.

And this morning we have two scripture verses. One from John about John the Baptist himself and one from Isaiah. The emergence of John the Baptist into the life and times of the Jewish people signalled the end of prophetic silence. In John, God began to speak to the Jewish people again through prophets.

This morning, I wanted to begin with a discussion about prophecy. What does prophecy mean to you? Who is a prophet? What does a prophetic message sound like? Are there prophets in the church today?

OT prophets were rooted in the history of Israel. Came from different traditions and had some different understandings of that history. All of the prophets believed in the election of the people of Israel by God as his people. Covenant - spelled out mutual obligations. Their concerns were all about the breeches in the covenant.

One of the big prophetic disagreements was whether God would remain faithful to his covenant if the people of Israel broke their covenant (Isaiah & Ezekiel - yes; Jeremiah - possibility that God would dessert)

Christians believe that God's final word through the prophets was one of hope and promise. No matter what the people did, God would remain faithful. For Christians, John the Baptist is part of the beginning of this new era of God's faithfulness.



Today's Gospel reading points us to John the Baptist and it is something of a remarkable reading. The reading is remarkable in that it is really the only passage in Scripture that tries to deal theologically with John's mission and identity. But the passage seems to be a lot more concerned with telling us who John is not rather than telling us who John is. It's not so much concerned with exalting John as an important prophet but with saying emphatically that John is not the Messiah.

I think that this possibly because the function of a prophet is to point away from himself or herself and to point to toward God. And John's function, as the first prophet the Jewish people had in a number of centuries, was to point to Jesus as the fulfillment of God's promise to all of humankind - a promise that he was going to keep through the Jewish people.

Pointing Toward God

All of this reminded me of another sign pointing to God, although I'm fairly certain that's not what its sponsors intended.

The sign - or rather signs - that I'm thinking of were the ones that the British Humanist Association put on the side of London busses in October. You probably read about them because they received the endorsement of Richard Dawkins, the scientist and high-profile atheist. The signs read: 'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'

I wonder if you'll think I'm off my trolley for saying that these signs point to God? Perhaps you think that they point away from God, and not to God.

But I think that they do point to God - or rather to 'A' god. And I'd venture to say that this god is the god that many people who don't have a faith believe in (if that makes any sense!) But even worse, it's the god that they think
we believe in.

'There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'

Implicit in this statement is the idea that if there is a God, then my friend, you'd better be worried and you better not be enjoying yourself! This is the picture of God as the Great Referee in the sky. An all-powerful being whose job isn't to teach us, to nurture us or even to sympathise with us. God is the Great Referee whose job is simply to watch us playing out our lives and to blow the whistle and impose a penalty whenever we set a foot wrong. If we receive too many penalties then eventually we will be out of the game: plenty of things to worry about, then.

Waiting for God

So, here we are in Advent, and the Church is waiting for God to come down to earth, to come and mingle with us, to walk with us, talk with us, and participate in our life. But if the British Humanist Society's view of God is right then we'd all better duck and cover.

I'm sure we all know - or know of - at least one individual in our lives who is always critical. Someone with an uncanny knack to see the flaws and mistakes of others and who is not willing to overlook them, but who is more than happy to point out those shortcomings to anyone and everyone who will listen. If God is like that, then who would want to have anything to do with God?

If our message is 'There probably is a God. So be very worried and stop enjoying yourself!' then who in their right mind would want this God to arrive? Who in their right mind would want to have Advent - a season of four weeks eagerly anticipating the arrival of this disapproving kill-joy?

Insiders or Outsiders?

But my question is: what are we doing as the Christian church that puts forward a different image of God? Not what are we preaching, but what are we doing? How are we behaving as Christians? How do we treat others?

Do we wholeheartedly communicate the message that God loves people who are not like us? Or do we communicate the message that God will love you if - and only if - you become like us?

One of the most frequent criticisms people outside the church tell me is that church people are hypocrites. When I ask people what they mean, they often can't answer or they respond with a story about how they have been disappointed by the church in some way. But I wonder if they mean something like: 'You tell me that God loves me just as I am, but you act like he'll only love me if I'm like you'.

Do we really treat people outside the church or of other religions as individuals who are created in the image of God? Do we treat them as individuals who God knows and loves just as he knows and loves us? Or do we assume that we have all the answers about God or about 'religion' because we are Christians and they are not?

Here are just two examples of the sort of thing that I mean:

First Example. When we complain that the world is going to hell in a handbasket because this is no longer a Christian country, what do we mean by that? That we are moral and that others are not? At a recent bible study, someone noticed that the author of a book we were using actually made the claim that since morality comes from God, only Christians can be moral people.

Second Example. The President of Conference recently told a story of a Methodist congregation in what is now a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. The congregation had sold its church hall about 30 years ago and the hall has been resold twice and was now home to a Muslim school where children are taught the Koran. The Methodists have no idea how to engage with their Muslim neighbours because they believe that their reason for relating to this Muslim school would be to convert them to Christianity. So their message is 'You're not worth getting to know unless you become like us.' Now I'm quite sure that this isn't the message that this congregation
wants to communicate, but that's what's happening.

I think it's things like this that communicate to others the message that 'God will only love you if you're like us'. Or to use the Referee metaphor: 'God will only love you if you're part of the team.'

However, in today's reading from Isaiah it is not those with the power and status of the established Babylonian order who receive God's loving care but rather those who are outside.

With Human Dignity

I guess I'm asking the question, 'Do we treat other people - people of different faiths and people of no faith - as dignified human beings who are as loved by God as we are?'

When the Christian church is being all that she can be, it is one of the few places in our society where an individual can go and be himself or herself without a mask and without playing a role. Church is one of the few places where we can be just ourselves without being a client, a patient, an advertising target, an employee, a charity case or an expert.

If you want to know my answer to the question: What is our purpose if it is not to increase our numbers, if it is not to promote revival, if it is not to get other people to join us? My answer is: Our purpose is to love other people unconditionally, to really believe and to treat each person as if he or she was a precious child of God for whom God earnestly desires healing, freedom and wholeness. In this way, the church can be truly prophetic and the church can truly point to God.


My prayer is that each of us will truly take on board the extent of God's amazing unconditional desire for healing and wholeness as expressed in the reading from Isaiah. I pray that each of us may be able to own it for ourselves and that, in our joy and gratitude, we will be able pass on that love to others.

God probably
does exist. So rejoice and celebrate his amazing love. Amen

Sunday 7 December 2008 - Zechariah's Meditation

This is a partly-narrative sermon based on Luke 1:5-20 for Advent 1.   There is a great deal of influence here from Trevor Dennis' book The Christmas Stories.


God Will Come Out of Hiding

'We are on the brink of a new era and God will come out of hiding.' I'll never forget those words. A brother priest said them to me just before I was one of the five chosen to enter the Temple sanctuary.

We were talking about the Empire - the Roman Empire - and about our hopes for the future of the Jewish people.  Hopes that seemed rather far-fetched given the rule of Herod-the-Great and his son over the last 35 years or so.

Oh the two Herods were Jews alright. But they were in bed with the occupying Roman Empire, doing the will of Rome rather than of God. It was hard to see how God would have anything to do with the Jewish people when our leaders were colluding with the enemy. After all, as priests we knew that the prophets taught that we needed to be pure as a people before the Messiah would come to us.

Anyway, we were talking about these things, my brothers and I. Our section had been called to Temple duty. But you have to understand that there were so many priests that each section served the Temple for one week at a time twice a year. And most of us had a lot of waiting around to do. The chances of actually serving in the sanctuary were pretty low. There were so many of us in the section and we were chosen by lot so that God could make the decision himself.

I myself had never been chosen before. That was somewhat unusual, but not completely. There were others who had never been chosen. Some had been chosen two, or even three times.

Anyway, we were sitting there talking about the fate of the Jewish people and my brother priest had just uttered those words: 'We are on the brink of a new era and God will come out of hiding.' I confess that part of me thought 'As if!' and the other part of me thought 'Please, God!' And then we drew lots.

To my utter astonishment, amazement and complete disbelief, God chose me to serve in the sanctuary that day.

It all seems rather understated now, that statement: 'God will come out of hiding'. Neither one of us knew that God was going to come out of hiding that very day. And my wildest dreams could not have imagined what waited for me in the Sanctuary.

You know all about the events that happened next. You just heard the story.

Is it any wonder that I was struck dumb after seeing Gabriel and hearing everything that he said? I mean, I went into the Sanctuary expecting to offer incense to God. I didn't expect a messenger of God to come out from behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies and talk to me!

And I certainly didn't expect to be told that my wife and I would have a son in our old age who would be a prophet - 'great in the spirit of God'. Like Sarah in the Torah, I laughed in my heart and I doubted a great deal. I mean, wouldn't you? I'd not exactly had any time to get used to such a preposterous idea.

My great regret was that, when I left the sanctuary and came out into the Court of Israel, I was not able to bless the people with the other priests. This was a duty that I could not perform and a privilege that I had looked forward to all my life. As far as I knew, this would be my only opportunity to exercise my priestly office, and the opportunity was denied me.

A Son is Born

To tell you the truth, at the beginning of the whole thing, I expected to get my voice back in a couple of days. I thought it was just shock. Then, as the days and weeks drew on, I became more and more resigned to the fact that I might never speak again. I prayed that I might one day regain my speech, but I wondered if my dumbness was the payment exacted by God for lifting his curse of barrenness upon Elizabeth.

Despite the sadness of losing my voice, Elizabeth's pregnancy was a time of great rejoicing. We both come from the priestly clan and all through our lives we had been blameless in keeping all of God's commandments. For many years, we suffered from the belief that God was displeased with Elizabeth; why else would he not bless her with sons and daughters? And, of course, there had to be a son to carry on the priestly tradition of our family.

Sometimes it seemed to us that our condition mirrored that of the Jewish people: God was silent and his blessing was withheld. But now, Elizabeth was able to hold her head high: her righteousness was vindicated. God had blessed her and was working his purposes through her. And the proof was there for all to see.

Family and neighbours all rejoiced with us. Elizabeth and I were chosen by God to be the parents of the first prophet that Israel has seen for generations. Some say that he is the reincarnation of Elijah.

We named him John, just like the angel Gabriel told us to do. That went against tradition, of course. But it seemed to us that God is about to do a new thing. We are on the brink of a new era and it seems that God has finally come out of hiding.


Zechariah and Elizabeth were unique people.  Not only were they the parents of John the Baptist, but their story of childlessness and subsequent fruitfulness is one of a handful in the bible.  In Scripture, every time a child (a son!) is born of a barren woman, the child is a child of very special significance in the purposes of God.

The birth of John the Baptist ends a period of many centuries when God did not speak to his people.  John the Baptist will be the prophet of a new era, the prophet a new testament. Although he began a new prophetic age, there was nonetheless continuity with the former prophetic age.  

Zechariah and Elizabeth were undoubtedly unique but they embodied many human concerns about God:  Where is God in all of this? Where is God in my life? Where is God in history?
God did not act in their lives as they expected him to act, and possibly not as they thought he 'ought' to have acted.  However, they remained faithful and the were used by God in a most unexpected way.

God has promised to his faithful people that he will remain faithful to us.  And the security of that promise rests in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one we await during Advent.  We are living in a new era, and God has come out of hiding.

I pray that we may we be given the grace and fortitude to persist in our faith even when we cannot see God working as we might want him to do.  May we be given a change of perspective so that we can see God's activity in the world where we least expected it.  And may we have the wisdom and courage to follow in the direction of God's leading, even if it means changing our expectations. Amen