Seeing Beneath the Surface (a sermon for December 28th on Luke 2.22-40)

When I look at the people involved in the Christmas story I’m often struck by how ordinary most of them are. An old priest called Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, a childless couple probably on the verge of retirement, one of many such couples in Judea. Joseph, the village carpenter, and Mary his betrothed – surely not the most famous engaged couple in Israel at that time, and certainly unknown to King Herod! A group of shepherds out in the fields over Bethlehem, doing a job despised by religious Jews because it was impossible to do it without breaking the sabbath. Two old people in the temple, sitting in the quiet and praying. I don’t think this story will ever make the bestseller list, do you? We aren’t going to see it in the National Inquirer any time soon!

There were many things going on in Israel at the time. The Romans were doing their best to keep control of the province of Judea, working with the cooperation of the Jewish council, and none of them spared a thought for one more birth in Bethlehem. A group of Jewish extremists called the Zealots believed that God was calling them to set their country free by murdering Roman soldiers, stabbing in the dark and hoping that military force would lead to deliverance. They would have found it very hard to believe that God was working in his own quiet way through an insignificant couple in Bethlehem who had just had their first child. A government official writing the yearly records wouldn’t even have mentioned Mary and Joseph and the baby. But we, looking back now with the eyes of faith, can see that the birth of Jesus was the most significant event to happen in the entire Roman Empire that year. Almost everything else has been forgotten, but two thousand years later the birth of that child continues to influence the lives of over a billion people in the world.

That’s the way God works. God can’t usually be discovered by our five senses, and a pleasant tingle in your spine doesn’t necessarily mean that God’s around either. God is so huge and majestic and bright and glorious that for him to make himself obvious to us would be the death of us – our brains would fry up on overload because they just wouldn’t be able to take it in. And so God chooses to show himself to us by hiding behind ordinary events, and waiting for us to make the connections ourselves. This means that in order to see God at work, in order to hear God’s voice, we have to look very carefully and listen very patiently. What do we learn about this from the people in our Gospel today?

First, we learn that in order to see God at work, you don’t have to look for extraordinary events. Simeon went into the temple and saw a young couple with a six-week old baby. Forty days after childbirth a Jewish couple had to offer a special sacrifice for the mother’s purification. The only distinctive thing about the sacrifice Mary and Joseph offered that day was that it was the special cut-rate sacrifice for poor people. The law said that they should offer a lamb, but if they were unable to afford a lamb, a pair of doves or two young pigeons would do. No doubt such an event happened every day in the temple, but Simeon could see with the eyes of faith, and because his ear was open to the voice of God he knew that this couple was different, that this baby was special, and that his eyes were seeing the Messiah.

Spectacular and dramatic things do happen in the course of God’s plan, but the remarkable thing is that they’ve never been very effective in bringing people to faith in him. In Moses’ time, all the Israelites saw God deliver them from the Egyptians at the Red Sea crossing, but all but two of them died in the desert because they didn’t trust him to help them again. In Jesus’ day thousands of people saw his miracles, but few became his followers. And when Jesus wanted to establish a sign by which his disciples could be distinguished in the world he didn’t point to daily miracles but to a very ordinary thing: love for one another.

When one person takes time to listen to another person’s distress, God is at work. When a group of people in a community decide to set up a food bank, and when volunteers run it, raise money for it and keep it going month by month, God is at work. When a family enjoys a positive time together around a meal table, God is at work. For every extraordinary event through which he works, there are probably a million ordinary events that God uses to work out his purposes. In order to see God at work you don’t have to look for extraordinary things; just learn to look below the surface of ordinary life.

Secondly, in order to hear God speak you have to listen quietly. God was doing a lot of speaking to these people in the Christmas story. Joseph was having significant dreams, and Mary was having visits from angels. We don’t know how God spoke to Simeon and Anna; we are simply told that ‘it had been revealed to (Simeon) by the Holy Spirit’ and that he was ‘Guided by the Spirit’ (Luke 2:26-27). But we do know that Simeon was ‘righteous and devout’ and we are told of Anna that she ‘worshipped…with fasting and prayer night and day’.

In the modern world we don’t tend to be very good at listening quietly. We’ve tried as hard as we can to eliminate silence from our lives. There’s the radio, the TV, CDs and the Internet, all conspiring together to get rid of every little gap between the noisy spots in our lives. In some ways it’s harder for our generation to hear God speak than it has ever been for anyone. God’s message doesn’t usually come on heavenly loudspeakers drowning out every other sound; God’s voice is described in the Old Testament as a ‘still small voice’, and it comes in the quiet of our hearts when we make time and space to listen for it.

In order to hear it, we may have to stop what we’re doing, turn off the music, be quiet and still and give our full attention to God. Prayer and fasting are two activities known in all religions as ways to help us hear God’s voice. There’s an ancient wisdom about this, and in our noisy world it’s been largely forgotten. Small wonder that people rarely talk about hearing God’s voice any more. We may have to learn all over again how to listen quietly for him.

In order to see God at work, you don’t have to look for extraordinary events. In order to hear God speak, you have to listen quietly. Thirdly, in order to see God at work, we have to be patient. Zechariah and Elizabeth waited their whole lives to have a child. Simeon is described in this reading as one who ‘was looking forward to the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25). God’s agenda is rarely in step with ours and usually we’re trying to get ahead of him. After all, we figure, we’ve only got our eighty years or so – let’s get this show on the road! God, on the other hand, has eternity, and so usually he’s in less of a hurry.

This has always been a problem for people. In the Old Testament we read of how God promises seventy-five year old Abraham that his wrinkled old wife was about to have a son. At first, no doubt, the two of them were happy, but as time went by there was no sign of a baby coming. The longer they waited, the harder it got for them to believe. Eventually they decided that God obviously couldn’t do this by himself; he needed a hand. So Sarah gave her slave girl to Abraham and said ‘Here, go sleep with her and have a baby; it’ll be counted as my child and that way God’s promise will be fulfilled’. But it wasn’t to be; God had meant what he had said about Sarah having a child. Finally, when Abraham was ninety-nine, Sarah gave birth to his son and they called him Isaac. They had to wait twenty-four years for God’s promise to be fulfilled – the blink of an eyelid to God, no doubt, but an awful long time in the life of a childless couple.

We are an activist age, and we like to get things done. Getting things done is good, but when it comes to the job of saving the world we have to realise that no amount of human effort can accomplish it. We are not in the salvation business – God is. And if we want to hear him speak or see him act, it isn’t usually very effective to sit down, set your alarm clock for ten minutes and say ‘Now I’m going to wait ten minutes for you to speak, God, and if I don’t hear from you I’m out of here!’ When I do that, I often fancy that God replies ‘Fine; off you go – I’ll see you when you fall on your face!’

We’re such a busy age and we’re such a tired age too. Perhaps we need to hear Isaiah’s words again: ‘Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint’ (Isaiah 40:31). In order to see God work, you have to learn to wait patiently.

In order to see God at work, you don’t have to look for extraordinary events. In order to hear God speak, you have to listen quietly. In order to see God at work, you have to be patient. Finally, when you see God at work you have to point it out to others.

Everyone in the Christmas story passed the message on to others. When the shepherds saw the baby Jesus they ‘made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them’ (Luke 2:17-18). When Simeon saw Jesus he explained to Mary and Joseph what God had revealed to him about this child. When Anna met the little family she gave thanks to God and then she ‘began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2:38).

Notice that none of these people were pointing out anything unusual to the folk they talked to. They were simply explaining the significance of the ordinary events that everyone could see. Everyone could see the baby in the manger, but not everyone knew who he was. The shepherds knew, so they passed the message on. Everyone could see the young couple in the temple, but not everyone knew what this child was going to accomplish; Simeon knew, by God’s guidance, and so he passed it on to others.

Of course, not all of the others believed it. The baby looked no different from any other baby and it all sounded so improbable, so far-fetched. That’s the way it is when you point out what God is doing to people. Some people can see God at work, while others only see time and chance. We, the witnesses, aren’t answerable for how people respond to the message; we are only called to be faithful in passing it on.

I’m told that radio waves are passing through the air all around us all the time. However, in order to pick them up you have to have the right equipment and tune it to the right frequency. In the same way, the Bible teaches us that God is trying to communicate with us all the time; we simply have to learn to listen and respond to his voice.

All over the world today God is at work in the ordinary actions of ordinary human beings like you and me. None of us is too small or too insignificant to be the instrument God uses to accomplish his purposes in the world. We don’t have to be especially bright or gifted in order to do God’s work. We simply have to be like Simeon and Anna: able to see God at work in ordinary events, willing to listen quietly for the still small voice of God, willing to wait patiently for God to do his work, and ready to point out to others what God is doing. The kingdom of God advances through the faithfulness of ordinary human beings. God is calling you and I to be a part of that.

Rorate Coeli Desuper

My blogging friend Jonathan Hagger has pointed me in the direction of this excellent poem by William Dunbar (c. 1449 – c. 1514). I love the Scots dialect, close enough to English that you can guess at its meaning, but far enough away to make it interesting. The opening line, ‘Rorate coeli desuper’, means ‘Drop down ye heavens, from above’; it comes from the Latin Vulgate translation of Isaiah 45:8. ‘Nobis Puer natus est’ means ‘and the child is born to us’.

Rorate coeli desuper!
Hevins, distil your balmy schouris!
For now is risen the bricht day-ster,
Fro the rose Mary, flour of flouris:
The cleir Sone, quhom no cloud devouris,
Surmounting Phebus in the Est,
Is cumin of his hevinly touris:
Et nobis Puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,
Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,
And all ye hevinly operationis,
Ster, planeit, firmament, and spheir,
Fire, erd, air, and water cleir,
To Him gife loving, most and lest,
That come in to so meik maneir;
Et nobis Puer natus est.

Synnaris be glad, and penance do,
And thank your Maker hairtfully;
For he that ye micht nocht come to
To you is cumin full humbly
Your soulis with his blood to buy
And loose you of the fiendis arrest—
And only of his own mercy;
Pro nobis Puer natus est.

All clergy do to him inclyne,
And bow unto that bairn benyng,
And do your observance divyne
To him that is of kingis King:
Encense his altar, read and sing
In holy kirk, with mind degest,
Him honouring attour all thing
Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Celestial foulis in the air,
Sing with your nottis upon hicht,
In firthis and in forrestis fair
Be myrthful now at all your mycht;
For passit is your dully nicht,
Aurora has the cloudis perst,
The Sone is risen with glaidsum licht,
Et nobis Puer natus est.

Now spring up flouris fra the rute,
Revert you upward naturaly,
In honour of the blissit frute
That raiss up fro the rose Mary;
Lay out your levis lustily,
Fro deid take life now at the lest
In wirschip of that Prince worthy
Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Sing, hevin imperial, most of hicht!
Regions of air mak armony!
All fish in flud and fowl of flicht
Be mirthful and mak melody!
All Gloria in excelsis cry!
Heaven, erd, se, man, bird, and best,—
He that is crownit abone the sky
Pro nobis Puer natus est!

Jonathan has a sound file on his post that gives a lovely sung version of this poem. Enjoy!

For more information about Dunbar, see this Wikipedia post.

A Different Kind of King (a sermon for Christmas Day on Isaiah 9.2-7 and Luke 2.1-20)

In our Old Testament reading for this morning, from the book of Isaiah, we heard these words:

‘For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders’ (Isaiah 9:6).

Or, in the more familiar language of the King James Version,

‘and the government shall be upon his shoulders’.

When we hear these words, we really ought to breathe a sigh of relief, because what we really need right now is someone with integrity who will shoulder the burden of government for us, someone who can deal with our problems and find solutions for them. It seems like most of our current crop of leaders just aren’t up to the job. They’re faced with global terrorism, ongoing troubles in the global financial system, the approaching crisis of climate change, and so many other problems. Our leaders tell us they’re doing the best they can, but in the long run, due to ‘forces beyond their control’, not much seems to change. The world is just as violent now as it was when I was born fifty-six years ago. Israel and Palestine are still fighting, Russia and the West still don’t trust each other, emissions are going up, not down, and more and more species of animals and plants are being driven to extinction. One thing that is changing is the gap between rich and poor: it’s getting bigger.

Of course, everyone loves to blame the politicians for all of this, when the truth is that we’re all implicated, in one way or another. The burden is too much for these people to bear. Quite frankly, they’re not up to the task. No one is.

And so it comes as a great relief for us to hear that God has a plan. According to Isaiah, God has sent us a leader who will be up to the task. After all, look at the names given to him:

‘…and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’.

It sounds as if God himself is about to stride onto the stage of human history and take charge; surely he should be up to the task, shouldn’t he? And what will be the result of his rule? Look a little further on:

‘His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and righteousness
from this time forward and for evermore’ (v.7).

It sounds like God is finally going to sort things out! And about time, too!

But when we turn from Isaiah to the gospels, we get a surprise. It’s a surprise that had been hinted at by some of the Old Testament prophets, but most people in the time of Jesus hadn’t noticed it. It looks very much like a change of plan on God’s part, although when we look at the whole story, we can see that it’s very much in line with God’s original purposes. And the surprise is this: God sends a king, but the king refuses to rule – or at least, he refuses to rule in the way that kings and politicians usually rule: by force of law, with all the trappings of pomp and ceremony, and with the backing of a powerful military.

In our gospel reading for this morning we come face to face with two different kinds of power. In the first few verses we read about the power of big government:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David (Luke 2:1-4).

Now this is the sort of power that can get things done! The Emperor Augustus sits on his throne in Rome, gives an order, and the whole empire starts to move. People’s lives are impacted, trade is disrupted, while all over the world officials start to register people – all so that Rome can be more efficient in the collection of taxes. Just imagine the power that can cause this to happen! If you want to make an impact on the world, this is the sort of power that you need.

In those days the Roman emperor was the most powerful ruler the world had ever known. Like many absolute rulers, he claimed some pretty amazing titles for himself. Two of those titles were ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’: the emperor was Lord of the entire known world – or so he said – and he had the power to save or to destroy anyone he wanted.

And yet, later on in our gospel reading, these same titles are taken by an angel and applied to the adopted son of a Galilean carpenter – one who had been caught up in Augustus’ registration and forced to take a journey far from home at the worst possible time in his wife’s pregnancy:

To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (v.11).

This must have seemed a very strange thing to the early Christians who first heard Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus – the idea that that the angel would take the titles of great Caesar Augustus, and apply them to this powerless and defenceless man from Galilee. Evidently God’s idea of power is very different from ours.

So on the one hand we have the enormous power of Rome – and of governments since then, whether totalitarian or democratic. On the other hand, we have a child who was born far from home, a child who very quickly had to flee from his own country as a refugee from King Herod’s death squads, and who was raised as the son of a carpenter in Galilee. He spent most of his life in obscurity before he strode onto the stage for a brief three years of teaching and healing, until Rome decided it was time to put him in his place by nailing him to a cross. Isaiah may have said that ‘authority rests upon his shoulders’, but the only sort of authority that ever rested on Jesus’ shoulders was the authority of Rome, symbolized by that cross they made him carry to his place of execution.

But things aren’t always as they seem, are they? Today the Roman Empire is long gone, but strangely enough, the movement Jesus started is still here. In the earliest days it had no power to compel people to follow it. It had no budget, no strategic plan or anything of the kind – but in a couple of hundred years it transformed the Mediterranean world, and it’s still going strong today, two thousand years later. It’s true that at times it has been seduced by the love of power, but those times have always been looked back on as times of failure. The times when the Jesus movement has been most effective in transforming the world have been the times when it has looked most like its Master – the one who worked only by the power of love, and who allowed himself to be crucified rather than destroying his enemies and imposing his will on others.

So Luke’s story introduces us to a different empire and a different emperor – in fact, a different kind of emperor. Jesus isn’t simply another politician on whom everyone can pin their hopes, but who will then let them down. His way of establishing peace and justice on earth was totally different from the usual games about power and money. Today we’re hungry for just that difference, and Christmas is a good time to think about it.

How do you change the world? Not from the top down, says Luke – not by seizing control of the government and imposing your will on others. Even when that’s done with the best of motives, in the end it just seems to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths, and the results are usually disappointing in the end.

No; Luke wants us to know that God is changing the world from the bottom up – by transforming people’s lives, by giving them a vision of life as God intended it, and by giving them the power to live that life. God is changing the world through the lives of ordinary people, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, and like the family of a Galilean construction worker – people who meet God, and are forever changed by the meeting. God apparently isn’t interested in trying to change the world by having the sort of authority that makes people bow before you and serve you as slaves – washing your feet when you come in from walking on the dirty roads. No, God is changing the world by being the one who does the foot washing, the one who serves other people in love. In the mind of Jesus there’s no contradiction between absolute authority and humble service: he says, ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (John 13:14-15).

I sometimes refer to this as ‘the slow and messy way of changing the world’, because on the surface it looks weak and inefficient compared to the usual power-grab. But centuries of experience should have taught us by now that the usual power grab may look effective, but it’s really not. One of my Bible teachers used to say that ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still’. Forcing people to do something, when their hearts and lives are not really changed, will not accomplish much in the long run. It may succeed in restraining evil for a while, but it can’t establish lasting goodness. For that, you need inner transformation.

And so the gospels tell us that God doesn’t force himself on people – he knocks, and waits for them to respond. As the well-known verse from Revelation says, ‘Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me’ (3:20). There’s a risk in operating this way, of course – the risk that there will be ‘no room at the inn’ – that we will refuse to find room in our lives for God and for God’s way of transforming the world. Apparently God thinks the risk is worth taking.

So this morning, as we remember the birth of our King, let’s embrace his way of being king, his way of changing the world – the way of seemingly small actions in the lives of ordinary people, acting, as Jesus said, like yeast gradually working its way through the whole lump of flour, or like a tiny seed being planted in the ground and gradually growing into the largest of plants. Our acts of love, in obedience to Jesus, are the most potent force to change the world. So let’s leave this place this morning as followers of Jesus, doing those acts of love in the name of Jesus and by the power of Jesus, and let’s trust the results to him.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christmas in the Blogosphere

Jesus-birth2

There are some outstanding blog posts out there this year, celebrating the meaning of Christmas in many different ways.

Archbishop Cranmer has a glorious little meditation called ‘Behold Your God’. Here’s an excerpt:

God became flesh.

What a wonder!

And His parents weren’t invited to the palace in a chauffeur-driven chariot to dine with the great and the good. They weren’t lauded by the media, honoured by the local synagogue or awarded the OBE for services to messianic propagation. She carried on cooking and cleaning and he banged nails into wood, while the Son of God did what little boys do in space and time: they eat, grow, learn, laugh and cry. The Word became flesh and played with his mates. He got things wrong and grazed his knees, like all little boys. He made things and broke them; He built things and knocked them down; He changed things, because things had to change.

Please do read the rest here. Oh, and I stole the picture from him too.

The good archbishop is on a roll, by the way. His previous post was called ‘Christmas means anything but peace on earth’. Again, here’s an excerpt:

In the Hebrew, Isaiah’s ‘Prince of Peace’ is sar shalom. Sar is better translated as ruler or leader, and shalom means far more than just peace of mind or a cease-fire between enemies. It is the binding together of God, humans, and all creation in justice, fulfillment, and delight. For mankind, shalom means a deep flourishing and wholeness wrapped in the love of God.

Prince of Peace works nicely as a piece of alliteration, but fails to convey the full meaning. Jesus is not the ‘peaceful ruler’. Instead he is the ruler of shalom, restoring and making good the relationship between us and God. Charles Wesley understood this when he wrote ‘Peace on earth and mercy mild (which results in) God and sinners reconciled’. For it is in God’s mercy through Christ that we find our salvation and purpose.

Read the rest here.

Over at Psephizo, Ian Paul has been running an excellent series of posts examining traditional details of the Christmas story in light of what the texts actually say. Check out ‘Did Luke Get the Date of Jesus’ Birth Wrong?‘, ‘Challenging Christmas Traditions (i)‘, ‘Challenging Christmas Traditions (ii)‘, and ‘Jesus Really Wasn’t Born in a Stable‘. Note that Ian is not challenging the truth of the biblical narratives; he’s just giving a close examination to what they actually say, as compared with the way the story is often told.

Over at ‘Anglican Down Under’, Peter Carrell (who is not preaching this Christmas) gives us some thoughts on what he might say if he was, in ‘What I Would Preach This Christmas’.

Somewhere in my hypothetical sermon I think I would be mentioning that this Christmas the message of Jesus Christ is a little, perhaps even a lot harder to preach because this past year has been a very, very bad year for religion.

The violence and hatred expressed murderously in the name of one or two religions makes it harder for all religions to communicate their message. That some atheists in the 20th century murdered millions in the name of atheistic anti-religions such as Marxist-Leninism is a pretty bleak counter to those who wonder why any religion should be taken seriously when in the name of religion children are being beheaded in front of their parents, girls are being kidnapped, both girls and adult women are being sold into slavery and forced marriage. The list goes on and in 2014 has been viciously horrible.

There is something deeply wrong with religion in general when religious reasons are proffered for ill-treatment of fellow human beings, especially the most powerless in the face of men with guns: children and women. Could 2015 be a year when religious leaders start talking to one another and uniting in condemnation of humanity’s inhumanity to one another?

Yet the dark religious clouds hovering over Christmas this year highlight the beacon of light which shines from the manger in the stable. That light is the light of the world, born in miserable circumstances to bring light and life to the whole world, to every man, woman, and child.

The light that shines from the stable is not the light of truth, if truth means we may maim and kill those who do not agree with us, and it is not the light of goodness and purity, if goodness and purity means that we may torture and destroy those we perceive to be bad and impure. It is the light of life, the light of love, the light of God who so loved every man, woman, child (i.e. ‘the world’) that he sent his own Son to all humanity to rescue us from precisely the darkness which threatens to engulf the world today.

The challenge of Christmas (if we may put it that way – it does sound serious and heavy in the midst of celebration) is to move beyond religion (if that means ‘my religion’ versus ‘your religion’) to the heart of God which is love. If religion does not serve this God, it is nothing. If the religion known as ‘Christianity’ does not serve this God, it has misunderstood the announcement God’s heart makes to our hearts in Jesus Christ.

It’s worth reading the whole thing here.

At ‘Gathering Coals’, my colleague Scott Sharman has a post comparing and contrasting the peace of Jesus with the ‘peace’ of the Roman (or any other) Empire. Here’s an excerpt from the end:

Both Sol Invictus and Jesus of Nazareth promised the world the exact same thing: peace. But the ways in which they proposed to bring about this peace were most certainly polar opposite. (Admittedly, the Church, or at least Christendom, with its Imperial history, has not always remembered this, nor lived out of it).

The way of the empire, the Roman peace (Pax Romana), is the imposition of control and the suppression of rebellion through conquest and violence. It is a peace of a kind, but the kind that is for some and not others, that is won at the end of a sword, and that remains effective only until the next uprising must be quelled.

The way of the cross, the peace of Christ (Pax Christi), is throwing a wrench (i.e. Christ’s own body) into the machinery of the so-called ‘peacemaking’ that relies on an endless cycle of violence. It shows that true power is found in humility, vulnerability, and self-sacrificial love. It is won by absorbing all the evil that can be thrown its way and refusing to strike back in retaliation, instead swallowing it up to end it once and for all.

Sun or Son? Empire or cross? Bread and circuses or bread and wine? In the midst of the celebration of hope, expectation, joy, and love, may we also remember that Christmas is about being called out of the empire, and called in to Christ’s way of making peace; not as the world gives peace, but peace beyond our understanding.

Read the whole thing here. Scott also gets an honourable mention for bringing an old Star Trek episode into his Christmas meditation!

And a few shorts. David Keen has a lovely little Christmas poem here. Richard Hall, as is his custom, gives us the texts of two lesser-known Christmas hymns by Charles Wesley (both of them excellent, IMHO), here and here. ‘The Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley’ give us a meditation on how the gospel was cradled in the arms of its Jewish background in ‘The New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms‘, and the earlier post ‘The One Who Held the Hopes of the World‘ is also worth reading.

As is his custom, over at ‘Of Course, I Could Be Wrong’ internet priest Jonathan Hagger gives us a massive podcast for Christmas, including a folk carol service, a Christmas communion and a fantastic collection of Christmassy tunes. The podcast is available as a free download, but if you do download it, do the decent thing and drop a couple of shekels into Jonathan’s collection plate; he works hard on this stuff and it’s fantastic quality.

Finally, the first ever ‘Faith, Folk and Charity’ Christmas grinch award (if there was such a thing) goes to the serious-minded folks at ‘Thinking Anglicans‘. In times past, they’ve sometimes given us some (appropriately thoughtful) Christmas meditations, but this year they’ve managed to almost entirely ignore the Advent and Christmas seasons altogether, preferring to focus on sex, women bishops, and other items of church politics. It’s tough work, but someone has to do it…

The Great Miracle (a sermon for Christmas Eve)

Tonight we come here to celebrate a great miracle – the Great Miracle, actually: the greatest miracle that has ever happened in the history of planet earth.

John the Evangelist describes this miracle for us in the introduction to his Gospel. He talks about someone called ‘the Word’; the Word was in the beginning with God, he says, and in fact, in a mysterious way, the Word was God (John 1:1). You see he’s trying to describe something that doesn’t make sense when we try to understand it with our rational brains: how can something be with God, and also be God? That doesn’t make sense to me, but then, this is God we’re talking about. The universe is a vast and complicated place, far too big for me to understand, and yet God made it and is apparently still making it, and God understands it perfectly. So it’s not surprising that there are things about God that my tiny little brain can’t understand.

So, John tells us, this ‘Word’ was with God, and the Word was God. God used this ‘Word’ to create everything, he says. This is what the Book of Genesis tells us in its poem about creation: God spoke words, and the words had power to create things. “Let there be light”, he said, and there was light. God’s words aren’t empty; they are full of power. He speaks, and things happen.

We’re getting a sense that this ‘Word’ of God, who was with God and who was God, is something or someone very powerful indeed, someone who has always existed. John also tells us that this ‘Word’ of God is like a light. ‘In him was life’, John says, ‘and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’ (John 1:4-5). In fact, it can’t put it out: no matter how hard the darkness tries – no matter how the forces of evil try to destroy the light – they are doomed to failure. The light of God’s Word still shines on, and it guides us all through our lives.

But now comes the great miracle – the greatest miracle that has ever happened in the history of this planet. This Word – this incredibly powerful Word, who has been with God from the beginning, and in fact who is God in some sense – at a certain point in history, John says, ‘the Word became a human being and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). It was through the Word that God created this earth in the first place; now, the Word became a part of his creation. He became something very small and powerless – we call it a ‘zygote’ – the very tiniest seed of life in the womb of his mother Mary. Gradually he grew into a human fetus, and then, on that night in Bethlehem, he was born as a helpless baby and laid in a manger.

What an amazing thing! A Word that existed in the mind of God, and was spoken and formed all of creation, now takes flesh and blood and becomes a human baby, totally dependant on the care of his mother and father, totally vulnerable to all the dangers that can befall us as humans! This is the miracle that Christians have called ‘the Incarnation’: God comes and lives among us in the person of his Son Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of the whole world. This is the grand miracle; you and I live on the Visited Planet.

Why? Why would God do this? Well, the ultimate answer has to be, he did it out of love. The most famous verse in the Bible says, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die, but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). There are many reasons why we human beings can die. Old age is one of them, or course, but another is because of deadly disease; germs come and infect our bodies, and our immune systems are not strong enough to fight the infection, and eventually it overwhelms us and we die. Evil is like that; it’s a deadly infection, introduced into God’s good creation, trying to destroy all the good things that God has made. We don’t know how it happened, but this infection has been spreading in this world for a very long time.

So what did God do about it? He introduced a good infection to fight it. When the Word became a human being and lived among us, that good infection was introduced into the human race. We humans are all connected to each other, of course, like a huge family tree, and now God introduced his own life into our family tree, to fight the infection of evil with the power of goodness and love. And so Jesus ‘went about doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil’ (Acts 10:38), as one of his early missionaries put it. He spread God’s message, he told us what God is like, he healed the sick and reached out in love to every single person he met, even the ones no one else had time for. Not everyone who saw him and heard him believed in him; just like today, some rejected him, and some were apathetic. But some did believe in him, and when they did, it was like the great miracle happened in them, too – a new life sprang up inside them, as the Holy Spirit came to live in them and spread the good infection.

All through the years since the Son of God came to live among us as one of us, that good infection has been spreading from person to person, as the message of Jesus is passed on, as people believe it and commit their lives to Christ, and as they learn to put his message into practice day by day. It has come to all of us, and now we go about spreading it to others by the things we do and the words we say. Even today, people hear about Jesus, and they choose how they respond. Even today, just like in the time of Jesus, not everyone welcomes him. But some do welcome him, and then he gives them – us – the power to live as God’s children, born not just because of human actions, but born again by the power of God.

Let me tell you three ways in which we welcome him, even today.

The first is the miracle of conversion. It’s described so well in one of our most famous Christmas carols, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. Phillips Brookes, the author, says,

‘No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in’.

And in the next verse he puts a prayer on our lips as we sing the carol:

‘O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today’.

This is the miracle of conversion. Our life is like a house, and the Lord comes knocking on the door. Maybe it’s the front door – maybe it’s the first time he’s ever been to our house and so we open the door and invite him into the front room, the one almost everyone sees when they come to visit us. Or maybe it’s another door, further in, a door to a room that’s not so neat and tidy, a room we prefer that other people not see. Maybe we don’t mind him being in the living room, but we’d really prefer he not see some of the things we’re keeping in this secret room. But he knocks on that door too, and then we have to choose once again: will we let him in, or will we keep him standing there? He won’t force his way in; we have to choose to welcome him, even though we know that when he gets into that room, he’s going to want to make some changes.

Is Jesus knocking on your door tonight? Maybe you’ve never opened the door of your life to him. Or maybe you’ve let him in a limited way, but kept that secret place to yourself. Have the courage tonight to open the door he’s knocking on, and let him in. Trust in his love for you: everything he wants to do as he remodels the house will be done out of love for you, a love greater than anything you can possibly imagine. So will you let him in?

The first way we welcome him in is the miracle of conversion. The second is the miracle of communion.

We Anglicans, like most other Christians around the world, have always believed that one of the best ways to celebrate Christmas is by having a communion service. This might seem a little strange when you think of it. After all, Holy Communion is about the death of Jesus, not his birth. ‘This is my body, broken for you’; ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins’. This seems very appropriate for Good Friday, or even Easter Sunday, but Christmas?

Yes, Christmas too. In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that if we eat this bread and drink from this cup – this bread and wine that have become for us the very presence of Jesus, his body and his blood – then we ‘abide’ in him, and he in us. ‘Abide’ is an old word meaning ‘to live permanently’. In other words, Jesus has given us this sacrament of Holy Communion as another way of welcoming him into our hearts and lives, so that he lives in us, and we live in him.

We watch and listen as the bread and wine are taken; we pray the prayer of thanksgiving, remembering how Jesus gave his life for the sins of the whole world, including our sins. And then, when the time comes, we come to the front of the church. We stand at the Lord’s Table, and we hold out our hands and make a little cradle, just like the manger in Bethlehem where the baby was laid. And then, as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we put our faith in Jesus and ask him once again to come and live in us. And when we leave, the good infection of God’s life in us is a little bit stronger, and we can go out in that strength and do the things he asked us to do.

So the first way we welcome him is the miracle of conversion, and the second is the miracle of communion. The third is the miracle of compassion.

Years ago, an old friend of mine was the parish priest in a small church in northern Ontario. It was Christmas Eve, and the furnace at the church had stopped working. There was no repair man anywhere near, so the priest had to take off his vestments, get out his tools, and try to fix the furnace himself – which, you know, they didn’t teach us at seminary! He was getting frustrated, because he didn’t really know what he was doing, and in the middle of it all, there was a knock at the door of the church, and there was a person in shabby clothes, asking for help. And my friend said, “Sorry, I can’t help you right now; I’ve got to get this furnace fixed for the service tonight”.

Afterwards my friend’s conscience accused him, and when the service was over, he went out in his car on that cold and stormy night and searched for over an hour, but he never found that person. Years later he said to me, “I think I might have turned Jesus away that night”.

The miracle of compassion happens when we realize that although we meet God in the miracle of conversion, and in the miracle of communion, God spends his working week among the poor and needy, so if we want to meet him, that’s where we have to go to find him. So Christ comes to us in the refugee, the homeless person, the alcoholic on the street, the person dying of Ebola, the AIDS orphan, the prisoner who society has locked up in a cell and thrown away the key. ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these’, Jesus said, ‘you did it for me’.

Is my heart open to the poor and needy tonight? All the care I’ve taken to choose presents for the people I love – have I taken equal care to give generously to reputable organizations that care for the last, the least, and the lost? The time I will give to loved ones over this Christmas season – am I also willing to give time to people I don’t know and am not connected to – people who need a little help, maybe just a listening ear and a kind word?

By the miracle of the Incarnation God became a human being and lived among us, spreading the good infection of his love to fight the power of evil. By the miracle of conversion that life is spread to each of us, as we open the door of our lives and welcome Jesus in. By the miracle of communion that life is strengthened in us, as we hold out our hands to receive the bread and wine, and welcome him into our hearts again by faith. And by the miracle of compassion we spread that life to others, sharing Christ’s love in our words and our actions, so that the good infection is spread and the light of Christ grows stronger in our neighbourhood and around the world.

Sisters and brothers, that’s the blessing of Christmas. That’s the Great Miracle. May it be real to you and me, tonight and every night. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Bruce Cockburn – It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

This is another one from Bruce’s 2003 album ‘Christmas‘.

On the album booklet Bruce says, “The first of what seems to be becoming a series of Christmas radio concerts had me playing Woodstock, NY, in December of ’91. It happened that I was on tour at the time, and it happened that Sam Phillips was the opening act on most of that tour, so it was natural she should be a guest on the radio show. One of her contributions, performed with T-Bone Burnett and David Mansfield, was this arrangement of “Midnight Clear” which she had recorded for a film of that name. Her clever and simple device of shifting the song to a minor key enhanced the poignantly thoughtful words in a way that made me wish I’d thought of it. The next best thing was to sing it that way — so here it is.”

A prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

I have often been impressed with the prayers in the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer. This Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is very good, I think:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.