Saturday, 20 December 2008

A Carol Service Sermon

Christmas Carols 2008

Turn away from the lights

Many of you will know that i am a biker. I do like motorbikes, and take the opportunity to ride whenever i can – and I’m not one of these fairweather bikers, oh no, I will ride wherever and whenever, whatever the weather. And today I got to ride my bike for a couple of hours, which has topped me up, fix wise, for a few days, though you will all, I am sure, be pleased to know that I am riding extra carefully due to the slippery roads at the moment!

But, and some of you may have heard me say this before, there is something you have to watch out for in the darker times of the year. Lights. You see, in a car it doesn’t matter quite so much where you look, your big metal box will keep going in the direction your steering wheel points it, but on a bike, much of your direction comes from where you are looking, because a bike is steered by the way you sit and lean, not just by the handlebars. So where the eye leads, often unconsciously, the bike follows.

Which means that in the winter months, you have to be careful not to be distracted by the lights of the traffic on the other side of the road. You have to keep your focus on the road ahead and not be constantly looking around. Which is quite difficult for someone like me who tends to be distracted very easily. My mum calls it ‘being butterfly minded’ – which is true, if I’m honest.

If you look around at this time of year you will see lots and lots of lights. We’ve got some here in the Church. You only have to drive up through the villages to see an amazing selection of lights on people’s houses, it seems to have become the thing to have more and more lights on our homes at Christmas time and whilst driving around the Mission Community you might wonder if UFO’s had landed with all the lights there are around this time of year.

But I’m not one of those who says ‘bah humbug’ at this, i love the ways that people make such an effort around Christmas to brighten things up. It is, of course, the darkest time of year and we may well feel in need of a little brightness and warmth to drive away the cold and dark nights. I am all in favour of joy, life and light at Christmas, i think it is a great celebration of hope and happiness.

And God knows we need life and light in the world in which we live. It’s easy to have a negative view of the world, seeing what comes at us through the media and some of the things we experience in out lives. We can be forgiven for thinking of the world as a dark place.

But despite this, often in the middle of it, Christmas sheds light, a time of celebrating the good things in life – and if that means plastering houses in lights, or making that extra effort then I think that’s a good thing.

But as Christians we don’t just concentrate on the obvious things at Christmas, we enjoy the festivities (or we should anyway) and we can join in with the various traditions of Christmas that have sprung up over the past few years.

But this is not the whole story, and just like me on my motorbike we shouldn’t be distracted by the lights and keep our focus there. We look beyond the obvious and we remember the reason behind our celebrations.

Whilst we say a resounding ‘yes’ to the things which are good about Christmas – the emphasis on family, on giving, on generosity, the joy and happiness of this time to year. We also realise that Christmas is about God’s resounding ‘yes’ to each one of us that comes through jesus Christ, his Son, sent to show the love of God to the world.

Again and again I am struck by the wonder of Christmas – summed up in the best known verse in the Bible, John’s Gospel Chapter 3 verse 16 – God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not die but live forever.

It was God’s love for the world that was the reason he was willing to take on human flesh – to go through everything that we go through. It was God’s love for the world that sent Jesus, vulnerable as any human baby is vulnerable, to grow up and show us how to live, and to pay the price of sin.

Jesus is the true light of the world, beyond all the glitz and glitter of Christmas, he is the the light of truth and hope and love. For those of us who know him, then he is the focus of these coming celebrations.

And the joy that comes from knowing him, the truth of his love and grace is greater than any other joy and truth. It’s the reason that we re-enact the story of Christmas every year, it is the reason that no matter how many times i find myself singing these carols and hearing these readings that the wonder is still there. It’s the old old story (to quote a hymn) which never becomes tired or boring. It’s a time of ancient truths which are relevant to each one of us here and now, no matter what we are going through.

Because knowing that Jesus came as one of us – not a pretend human being, but just like us – and felt the joys, sadness, pain, celebration, laughter and tear that all of us feel means that God isn’t out there somewhere distant but right here with us – he knows what it is like to be hungry, lonely, afraid, confused, grieving, sick.

We don’t have a God who doesn’t care about us, but the message of Christmas is that God loves us completely – even though he knows us completely!

Imagine what that is like, to be loved completely, without reservation. Think of the person you love most in the world and how that feels and multiply that by a thousand times and you won’t even touch how much God loves us.

That’s why we celebrate – that’s why the lights and the decorations and the trees and the presents and the carols and the services and the parties and the lunch and everything else all mean so much – because God is in the middle of it all. God is with us – which is what the title Emmanuel means.

O Come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.

Amen and Thanks be to God.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Sermon for a cold morning

This was the sermon last week...

Preparing The World

This week I watched a movie about Father Christmas which I enjoyed very much, it was the third one in the series known as ‘The Santa Clause’ movies – called the ‘the escape clause’ and had a very positive message about love being the focus of Christmas, and that the true magic of Christmas wasn’t about toys or commercialism, but about family and friends, about giving and caring. There are many people who feel the same about Christmas time, and the Church should encourage such thoughts as Christmas approaches, but as the shops are packed, decorations are going up, turkeys are being chosen (or nut loaves depending on your preference), carols are being sung, parties are happening, presents are being wrapped, postmen (and women) are complaining, plans are being made, TV guides are being searched for all the best programmes - into the middle of all this comes a voice:
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

It’s not a very loud voice, compared to most of the noise of Christmas, in fact it’s easily missed. It seems to be the quietest voice of all in today’s Christmas - but that doesn’t mean it’s not there -
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

It’s so quiet, but it’s insistent, it keeps on calling, even when hidden it keeps calling, even covered in wrapping paper, tinsel, presents, cards and decorations it is still there. Even drowned out by carols it calls. It is the message of Christmas that we as Christians have, the original message of Christmas, the reason this whole thing exists…
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

It is easy to loose the central message of Christmas in our modern world. Though there are many positive things said about loving, giving, peace and hope in the general Christmas message that comes out from our TV screens, our movies and our media the essential message is more than that, the Christian message is that Christ has come, that Christ still comes (in those we meet every day) and that Christ will come again.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

John the Baptist, in our passage today, said more than just ‘The Lord will come’ more than just ‘at some time it will happen’ but Christ is coming. There was an immanence, an immediacy about his proclamation that made people listen. John’s message of God being close brought people from near and far to hear what he had to say. John’s message was one that got people’s attention, that made people respond, that made the reality of God come closer for them. It is the same message that we are called upon to proclaim today, the same gospel, of Immanuel, of God with us that John brought to the people all those years ago.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

But how is this message to be proclaimed? Where is John The Baptist for the 21st Century? Who’s task is it to prepare our world for the coming of Christ?

It’s our task. We who are the Church have the job of proclaiming Christ to our generation. There’s no escaping it. Part of the reason the voice is so quiet is that many of us - myself included - enjoy Christmas as it is. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there is a good message, there are plenty of positive things about the modern Christmas, plenty of enjoyable things. But it’s not enough to just let everyone get on with celebrating Christmas in the usual way -we have a message that adds to Christmas, that draws more from the celebration, that offers a greater hope to humanity. Our Christmas message is one which stretches throughout the year, which lasts forever, which can change hearts, minds and lives.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

So we prepare the world - by proclamation and by living the good news of the Gospel of Christ. Our message is one of new life, of the peace of God, of God’s love for every individual, of the need to love our neighbour. Our message is a positive one and is one to be spoken and one to be lived. It is important to remember that it is not only our words that spread the gospel, it is our lifestyle, it is the way we are God’s people, as well as those who say we are God’s people.

And so a world which tends to speak a language of self-concern and self-advancement, of oppression and injustice, of having and wanting is given a new language, one which is based on words of love and grace, of giving and caring. In this way God’s word is again living and active - and Christ once again is brought near. By our lives and our words we prepare the way for the entry of Christ into the lives of people who do not know him. In this way we prepare a world which is unprepared for a God who cares for them, who is willing to die for them, who loves them with everything he is.

In some ways, however, the world can never be ready for Christ. The message of the gospel is a surprise and always will be. The message that God comes to us in the weak, the humble, the hurting, the needy, is one that shocks, that is unexpected. Our God is a God of surprises. Our God is a God who chooses to work through us, to rely on His people to prepare the way for the working of His living, active, dynamic spirit. God puts into our hands the responsibility of preparing the way.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

If I were God I’d want to do it differently - something big, something noticeable - something in neon, perhaps, with a loud soundtrack - maybe multimedia, a few thousand angels and a really big sound system. But I am not God, and our God has chosen us to show and tell the message.

There is a story of a statue of Christ found in a ruined Church. The hands and feet of the statue had broken off in the devastation that had destroyed the Church. That statue was never repaired, though, those who found it said that it reminded them that we are the hands and feet of Christ in our world.

We are the ones responsible for bringing the message of Christmas to the people around us. This may not involve saying anything to them about faith, but by the way we act towards them, as we seek to do what Christ claimed he was here to do:
“…to bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…recovery of sight to the blind…to let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”

In our own way, then, we are the ones who make straight the way of the Lord, who create a path through the barriers in the hearts of women and men who do not know, or want to know, Christ. We are the ones who bring Christ into the wilderness of lives that long for the love of God to come in.
“Prepare the way of the Lord…”

So let’s prepare ourselves and our world for Christmas. In preparing for it let us open ourselves to what God, by the Holy Spirit, would do in us and through us. Let us celebrate the fact that Christ has come near, and that Christ wants to be a part of our world and our lives today. Let us celebrate Christmas because we have good reason to celebrate and because the Kingdom of Heaven is among us, the same Kingdom that can be likened to a banquet or a wedding feast. The same Kingdom of Heaven that is echoed in our celebration of the Eucharist. The same Kingdom we can celebrate in our parties and our Christmas dinners. Let us proclaim a message of good news, the gospel of Christ as we enjoy Christmas and as we Prepare the way of the Lord.

Now to God alone be all majesty, might, power and dominion, in the Church and throughout the world now and evermore. Amen.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

A sermon for Advent Sunday

Advent 1 2008 Year B RCL

Looking for the Light

Have you started dreaming about what presents you hope to get for Christmas yet? Have you started thinking of the wonderful reaction hope to see on the faces of friends and family as they open up the gifts you bought them. Are your expectations high? Us human beings are pretty good at building up our expectations - a theme that is particularly pertinent as we dream of the wonderful gifts we hope to receive and as we tell ourselves that we’ve finally found the perfect present for the person who has everything.

Unfortunately most of these expectations seem to be dashed as we find our new video game, gardening equipment and expensive jewellery have become badly knitted jumpers, funny coloured ties and an abundance of hankies with your initial on the corner - and that the inventive and original gift you gave is exactly the same as that which three other people gave as well. Our expectations never really seem to be live up to.

God never seems to live up to our expectations either. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, though. If I were to turn to Isaiah 64, one of the readings set for today, but not one of this readings we are using for today’s theme of looking for light, we would read a prayer that begins:
“Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil...”
This was how the Israelite prophet Isaiah hoped that the Messiah would appear, in glory, bursting through the gates of the sky to reveal the power of God to all the nations and to exalt his chosen nation Israel. This was the hope of the people who heard the prophet Isaiah, or the third prophet called Isaiah as we believe this part of the book comes from. These were those who pictured the light of God as a blinding light, an overwhelming and challenging light, those who thought that the messiah was to be the Messiah of the Jews, a warrior Messiah who would rid Israel of its oppressors and make it a nation to rule over the Gentile, a powerful force who would show Yahweh’s power to the world. In this picture the Messiah will be "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."- a strong leader, one who would carry the power of God to put down the rebellion of human hearts against God.

Israel had good reason to hold these expectations, they were the chosen people of God, connected to him by a covenant that bound them together. Yet by the time of Jesus they had been exiled not only once, but twice and were under occupation by Rome and under Roman rule. What had happened to the land that God had promised them? Where was the light in their darkness?

It was perhaps natural to expect God to redeem them, to send a Messiah who would be the Saviour of the Jews, to restore them to their land - to fulfil the promise that God would save and redeem His people. This was the hope that had been built up over hundreds of years, it had become a longing - a longing for a redeemer who would liberate the Jewish people and exalt them so that they could take up their rightful place as the chosen people of God. They understood the writings of the prophets to point to the one who would, as Isaiah wrote “rend the heavens and come down”, they believed they were waiting for a political Messiah, a mighty Messiah of power to meet their need for freedom from their Roman oppressors.

It wasn’t that their expectations were wrong, they were the result of a certain way of seeing the promises of God, they were expectations of a certain kind held because of a certain situation. It wasn’t that these were bad expectations, or false ones - but that God often doesn’t live up to our expectations - in fact God holds to a very different way of doing thing than we do, a way we do not easily understand and which we often find difficult to grasp, a way that is often surprising and confusing, and often the opposite of what we would expect or hope for.

And it is because of this thwarting of expectations that we celebrate the birth of Christ every year. In fact, we celebrate a God who came in human form, who was born vulnerable and lowly, who lived the life of an itinerant preacher, teacher and healer and who died, almost in obscurity, an agonising and dishonourable death. It is this God that we think of at this time of year as we move towards Christmas, and this Christ, this Messiah, who rose again and whom we long to see and who we long to come and live with us, we think of in this season of Advent.

Jesus wasn’t anyone’s idea of a Messiah, he turned things upside-down, Jesus shows that he has a different understanding of God, different expectations. He brings out a meaning other than that which had been expected He talks of justice, freedom, salvation for all - not just the Jews, God has redeemed and saved his people, but his people are all of the inhabitants of the world he created. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the light, not just for God’s original chosen people, but for the whole world.

And this theme of expectations goes on throughout scripture. These expectations comprise new values, new hopes - they are about love, wholeness, self-sacrifice, servanthood and justice, they aren’t about political power or favouritism but about God’s love poured out on to all humanity, God’s free gift of grace. This is the light of the world, the light which we are all called to live by and the light we are called to shed throughout all the world. And all of this is unexpected, undeserved, the result of a God who takes our expectations and goes further than we could ever expect, it isn’t that God doesn’t live up to our expectations but that our expectations could never live up to what God has in store for us.

God can do more than we ever ask or imagine, God is a God of surprises who bursts out of our unimaginative bonds and can bring us to new life in him. God calls us to dream and to set our hopes high and to seek Christ in one another and the world in which we live. These are the expectations to aspire to, to let ourselves be gripped by God and to be set free to serve Him in love and to dream dreams of the kingdom of God, and of the return of Christ into our lives - this is the advent hope and we start by expecting it today.

But what are our expectations this Advent-time as we lead up to another Christmas? Do we expect the same routine of TV, Carols, Mince pies, Shopping and all the paraphernalia that goes with modern Christmases? How low are our expectations? Low expectations are the kind God must find it hard to break out of, ones that not only have missed the point but that give Him nothing to work with.

It is easy for us to look back with the benefit of hindsight and say that the Jews were wrong, that they had false expectations, that they were misguided, and many Christians do make such negative assumptions - but those we read of in scripture were seeking God and the fulfilment of His promises, faithfully searching for the end of God’s plan - today many in our world seem to have given up looking. Have we lost the vision of God’s upside-down kingdom, have we let go of the hope of a Messiah, Yeshua, the Christ who redeems our world and longs to draw all people to Himself?

This advent season I hope we can all take the time to examine yourself and look at your expectations - be prepared to have them dashed, but try and give God something to work on to start with – let us together long for the life and light of Christ be shed abroad. And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen

First sermon in new parishes!

2 before Advent (2008) Year A RCL Principal

Risking our Talents

It’s somewhat nerve racking to be preaching a first sermon anywhere – but especially in one’s new parishes. This is the point where people could start thinking ‘oh my goodness, what kind of Vicar do we have?’ – Which may or may not be a good thing!

And it doesn’t help that the reading set for today, the Parable of the Talents, is one of the more difficult parables we could encounter! It’s not difficult to understand, the two servants who were willing to take a risk with the talents they were left with are rewarded, the one who lost his bottle and buried his talent in the back garden is punished. That’s clear enough, it’s what it might mean for us that might make it more of a difficult parable to deal with!

The Revd Ian Paisley is reputed to have preached on this particular parable once, and to have been interrupted as he talked about the place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. One older woman in the group who were listening responded with ‘what about us who don’t have any teeth’ to which Paisley responded ‘Madam, teeth will be provided!’ I’m not sure how much truth there is in that story, but it does seem to illustrate how literally some take these stories, and actually how powerful they can be in shaking us up! If we allow them to, that is…

Jesus has a habit of shaking people up with his parables. He doesn’t tell nice, easy, comfortable stories that allow us to settle back with a warm glow and think ‘it’s alright, I am saved, a happy Christian with nothing to worry about’. Pretty much every parable Jesus tells has something of a sting in the tail, a challenge for us to take away with us, and something to make us consider what it means to be a Christian and how we live our lives of faith.

Of course, there is more to each parable than we could ever explore in one sermon. It seems that every time I read one of Jesus’ parables I find myself considering another aspect of my faith and my life. These amazing stories consist of layer upon layer, meaning within meaning. Jesus’ storytelling ability is exceptional, drawing his hearers in with familiar images – sheep, seeds, bread, sons and fathers, servants and masters etc etc – then turning expectations upon their heads as he brings a new twist to these familiar situations and creates stories that serve to highlight the nature of the kingdom of God and of God’s relationship to us and our relationship to him and to one another.

So any reflection I give on this parable is bound to tell only part of the story, and I don’t claim to have any definitive explanation, or to have the only meaning or the only way of interpreting the parable.

But let’s return to the text in hand…

I must admit to feeling a fair amount of sympathy with our single talent fella in today’s parable. The text (certainly in the words of that unfortunate servant) suggests that the Master is a hard man, and someone who might not take kindly to the loss of a talent . Here is this servant entrusted with a significant amount of money, enough that if it were lost he couldn’t afford to pay it back! So he plays it safe, it is buried so that it can’t be stolen or, maybe, lost in a sudden economic downturn. Perhaps this servant was more canny than we think, and resisted putting the money into Northern Rock or Leeman brothers… But I’m straying off the point. Essentially, this servant’s fear is what motivates him, or rather de-motivates him. The other servants take risks and their risks are rewarded, first by the return on their speculation and then by the master on his return. This servant, though, is told that he is wicked and lazy and is cast out to, and as I quoted earlier ‘outer darkness, where is will be wailing and gnashing of teeth’.

Such a powerful story should stir up in us questions of our commitment, and what we do with that which is entrusted to us. Yes, to use the pun, whether we believe it or not we all have talents, we all have gifts which God has given us. These talents might be something we have never considered as a particular gift – and there are a huge number of people who tell me ‘it’s just what I do’ without realising that their ministry and their talents enhance the worship and the life of the Church. Flower arrangers, cleaners, those who set up for worship, those who read or lead prayers in services, our musicians and choir, those who help on committees, those who care for the children in our churches, those who care for their neighbours, those who pray at home for the Mission and Ministry of the Church, and for the needs of their communities and the world, those who do administration, those who collect for Christian Aid, or the poppy appeal, or children in need, those who offer hospitality, those who listen to friends, family, neighbours, those who offer lifts, those who encourage, those who support village and church events, those who write to prisoners via Amnesty International or to MPs or who give their time, money, or energy to the church and local community, the list goes on and on, and I’ve only just scratched the surface in that list – apologies if I’ve missed you out! All of these things and more involve putting our talents to use, and no matter how small you may feel your contribution is, it is a contribution, and it has an effect.

It’s those who take no risks, those who don’t reach out even to friends and neighbours, those who cut themselves off from the world and from God, its these people that Jesus seems to be criticising so harshly. It’s these for whom teeth may need to be provided!

For those of us who call ourselves Christians, who seek to live by the principles and standards that Jesus Christ calls us to, we have a responsibility towards one another in the body of the Church, and beyond that to the world which God sends us out to heal, to love, to serve, and to share the Good News of faith in. Each one of us has a part, for some of us it will be a quiet, perhaps even unnoticed contribution, but if we are involved in building up the Church and in building up God’s people in any way whatsoever, we have a part in the Mission of God. If we are engaging with the world around us in any way at all, we are serving the purpose of the God who reaches out to the world.

So, in my first Sunday as your Vicar I want to offer you an encouragement – not to undervalue yourself and your talents in the service of God and of God’s Church and God’s world. But as this parable does, I want to offer a challenge too – to consider whether you are using your talents as you perhaps should be. Or whether fear has you burying them away and preventing God from using them, and indeed you, for his work. We, as a church and Mission Community, are going to have to take risks, to look at what we do and whether there are things we should and shouldn’t be doing if we are to grow and gain a return on our talents. I don’t know yet what that might mean, but when the time comes may God find us faithful in offering again to him our talents, our time, our prayers and our faith. Amen.