Monthly Archives: December 2006

Sunday’s Sermon: A Spirituality For In-Between Times (The Boy Jesus In The Temple)

Luke 2:41-52

Introduction
The other day Debbie asked what I was going to preach on
today. I said the Lectionary suggested this story of the boy Jesus at the Temple. “It’s a pity we
don’t know more about his childhood,” she said. This account, after all, is the
only one in the Gospels. Other apocryphal Gospels contain stories of his
childhood but they are fanciful in tone and even display Jesus using miraculous
powers vindictively.

“There’s nothing very normal about Jesus the twelve-year-old
boy here, is there?” she said. “His debate with the religious leaders isn’t
exactly typical.”

“Well, it does say he went home obedient to his parents,” I
countered.

“Exactly,” she said. “That’s not normal for a twelve-year-old!”

This is an ‘in-between’ story – in between the birth stories
and Jesus’ adult ministry. It is an in-between story for an in-between Sunday.
We’re all carolled out, even though in the church calendar Christmas only
starts on Christmas Day. But secular pressures have changed us. We are in the
‘twelve days of Christmas’ until Epiphany on 6th January. But in our
minds we are between Christmas and New Year. Today is New Year’s Eve. We are
probably thinking of how we shall see in the New Year tonight. We may be
thinking that the next big spiritual event for us as Methodists is the Covenant
Service next Sunday. We are ‘in-between’.

But there are other ways in which we live ‘in-between
lives’. We have gifts and talents but may feel we are not in the place where
they can be best utilised. We have hopes and dreams but to date they are
unfulfilled. We may even have a sense of destiny or calling but it has not come
to fruition. Something we long for has not happened yet. These ‘in-between’
states are very frustrating places in which to live.

And Jesus is living an ‘in-between life’ at the age of
twelve. We see glimpses of his destiny with that wonderful reply to his parents
in verse 50,

‘Why were you searching for me? Did you
not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

But although we do not know how much he understood at this
age who he was and what his calling was (will we ever?), we do know it would be
something like another twenty years before he would go public. Might we gain
some clues from this story about how to live during the long and often
frustrating ‘in-between times’? You won’t be surprised to hear I think we can.

1. Development
When I read this familiar story this week, one part hit me
in a new way. It’s the description of what Jesus was doing in the Temple when his
worry-sick parents found him:

After three days they found him in the
temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them
questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his
answers.

(verses 46-47)

I’ve always read those words just as an account of a
youngster engaged in debate with his elders, but admittedly a bright young man
whose ‘understanding and answers’ are remarkable – and perhaps from that there
has been another hint about what lurks beneath the surface with Jesus. Up until
now it has been another of those hints about who he will turn out to be.

I still believe it is. But I saw it a new way this week.
What does Jesus do here? He listens, he asks questions and he gives answers.
What hit me was this: I’m reading here is like a microcosm of his later
ministry. Listening, asking questions and giving answers. Doesn’t that sound
like the teaching ministry of Jesus? He listened, and not just at surface
level. He asked questions, not just to hear people’s answers but to prod them
towards spiritual truth. And he gave answers – often surprising, sometimes
disturbing. So I now see here the early development of Jesus’ later gifts. He
grabs the chance with both hands.

And I see the need to do the same today. We have young
Christians who show signs of being greatly gifted. We need to give them a
chance to develop. We need to take some risks with them. They need those early
opportunities to use their talents, getting their hands dirty in Christian
service.

To do this meets with resistance in some church circles. “Don’t
let them do it, they’re so arrogant.” Maybe – I’ve seen the car sticker that
says, ‘Hire a teenager while he still thinks he knows everything.’ “But they
are rough and unsophisticated and will make mistakes.” Perhaps – but didn’t we
make mistakes once? Don’t we still? The answer isn’t to clamp down on them but
to mentor them. Let them dip their toes in the water and put an experienced
Christian alongside them who is not there just as a safety net to prevent a
mess but as one who gently encourages their skills and maturity.

One of my greatest privileges in seeing this put into
practice was during my first circuit appointment. As I have mentioned before, I
became involved in a youth ministry that ran youth worship events in the town.
We began in churches, and then used a vacant shop in town. When we lost that we
took over a church hall, and when we got too big for that we hired the local
night club. We developed our own worship band, and the tongue-in-cheek slogan
for the event was, ‘If it’s too loud you’re too old’.

The band began with competent adult musicians. But the goal
from the beginning was to phase in younger singers and musicians, putting them
alongside the experienced adults but eventually letting them take over. Others
we got to do other things. We trained some in how to pray with people, for
example. I’m not in touch with many of them now, but I do know that one is on
the five-person leadership team of a large independent church in Chichester,
and another is married to an Anglican vicar, supporting his ministry in Cheltenham. They got some early experience with us in
Hertford. We believed in a principle of development. As a church we need to
identify with those who have embryonic gifts and start developing them. It is not
only about spiritual investment for the future, it is about being church in the
here and now. And because of that it is a fatal mistake to ignore or belittle
those with nascent gifts.

2. Obedience
We see these early signs in Jesus’ life of his future
ministry, but what does he do in the meantime? After they fail to understand
his explanation about needing to be in his Father’s house, Luke says,

Then he went down with them and came to
Nazareth, and
was obedient to them.

(verse 51a)

Jesus gets on with life. He does not sit around frustrated,
like a petulant teenager, saying, ‘Nazareth
is not where I am meant to be. I am not supposed to be in obscurity; my destiny
is to teach thousands of people and perform great miracles.’ He does not allow
thinking like this to sour his spirit. He gets on with obedience to his
parents. Like Debbie said, not your average twelve-year-old!

And the point is this: we may be in an in-between time.
Destiny may not yet be fulfilled. Our calling may not yet be transparent to one
and all. But the place of obscurity is God’s appointed location for us right
now. And in that place he is forming us for our future. It is not that our
current insignificant address is a stepping-stone to something greater; it is
valid in its own right. For here God develops in us the basic disciplines that
will sustain us when he brings about the hopes and dreams he gave us some time
before.

This can be a long period of anonymity. Joseph in the Old
Testament languishes in an Egyptian prison on false charges. The apostle Paul
talks about having spent fourteen years in Arabia
between his conversion and his public ministry. For Jesus it was nearer twenty
years. But during the anonymity the call is to be faithful in the circumstances
where God has placed us. It’s no good throwing a tantrum or grabbing the ball
back so that no-one else can play: those who throw tantrums are not going to be
suitable characters for future destiny. 
The people upon whom God can rely are the faithful, obedient ones.

And is it any coincidence that the way Luke ends this
account is with these words?

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in
years, and in divine and human favour.

(verse 52)

Jesus, serving in faithful obedience in Nazareth, increases in wisdom and favour. I
cannot help thinking that the increase in wisdom and favour is because he is
committed to faithful obedience.

Some experienced Christians in Hertford looked on the youth
worship project I talked about earlier and dismissed it as froth. Maybe it was
for a few people. But I saw some impressive young Christians in that work. I
think of those who took on part-time jobs that were far from the routine: not
the usual supermarket work, but instead taking menial jobs in care homes,
cleaning up elderly incontinent residents. These were young people who knew
about faithful obedience in obscurity. These, I am sure, were teenage
Christians whom God was preparing for something but who were content to serve
humbly in the meantime.

3. Reflection
Have you noticed just how Mary changes in this story? In
verse 48 she is the typical anxious parent:

‘Child, why have you treated us like
this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’

It’s the same attitude writ large that we have when we are
going around the shops with our much younger children. ‘Don’t go out of our
sight, Rebekah!’ Or Friday in Sainsbury’s, as Debbie and I alternated between
who held the basket and who either held onto Mark’s hood or carried him against
his vigorous protests.

No, Mary is just what you would expect of a caring parent at
this point. Perhaps she hasn’t slept. Where is her firstborn son? What is he
doing? Who is he with? Is he safe?

But this is not the Mary of the story’s conclusion:

His mother treasured all these things
in her heart.

(verse 51b)

She has come a long way from frantic worry to treasuring
these things in her heart. This is more than the way we look back on situations
that frightened us at the time and enjoy retrospective laughter. Mary treasures these things in her heart. I
think this is more than the way in which parents collect a photo album of happy
memories. Might I suggest that she has changed from one acting from purely
human, natural instincts and concerns to one who has reflected on these events prayerfully?

Put it like this: Mary has been through panic stations and
then the joy of finding Jesus safe and well. But it is not enough for her to
take a sigh of relief. She is attentive to God. She wants to know where he is
and what he has been doing in this situation. Then she can treasure God’s
bigger picture of truth, which illuminates much more about her Son. Perhaps his
words, ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’, now take on a
fresh and deeper meaning for her.

And prayerful reflection is vital in an in-between time. It
is vital at all times, actually. But in an in-between time the one whose gifts
and calling are not yet being fulfilled needs to reflect prayerfully before God
about what is happening and where he is. Similarly the elders, the spiritual
parents, who may be sceptical about these young upstarts, also need to reflect
in the presence of God. What is God saying? What is God trying to teach us?
Where is he at work in surprising places that we never would have guessed? What
is there here to challenge us? What is God doing here that leads us to
unexpected praise?

So how do we conduct such prayerful reflection? For me, it
helps if you can have a quiet space. Begin praying by bringing your questions
and puzzles to God. Have the Bible at your side to meditate upon. Listen for
the still, small voice of the Almighty responding to you. Test what you think
he is saying against the plumb-line of those Scriptures. Get ready for possible
surprises. So often God is doing a new thing. Supremely he did that in the gift
of Jesus. What if he were doing something new in an in-between time but we had
not tuned into him?

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Sunday’s Sermon: A Spirituality For In-Between Times (The Boy Jesus In The Temple)

Luke 2:41-52

Introduction
The other day Debbie asked what I was going to preach on
today. I said the Lectionary suggested this story of the boy Jesus at the Temple. “It’s a pity we
don’t know more about his childhood,” she said. This account, after all, is the
only one in the Gospels. Other apocryphal Gospels contain stories of his
childhood but they are fanciful in tone and even display Jesus using miraculous
powers vindictively.

“There’s nothing very normal about Jesus the twelve-year-old
boy here, is there?” she said. “His debate with the religious leaders isn’t
exactly typical.”

“Well, it does say he went home obedient to his parents,” I
countered.

“Exactly,” she said. “That’s not normal for a twelve-year-old!”

This is an ‘in-between’ story – in between the birth stories
and Jesus’ adult ministry. It is an in-between story for an in-between Sunday.
We’re all carolled out, even though in the church calendar Christmas only
starts on Christmas Day. But secular pressures have changed us. We are in the
‘twelve days of Christmas’ until Epiphany on 6th January. But in our
minds we are between Christmas and New Year. Today is New Year’s Eve. We are
probably thinking of how we shall see in the New Year tonight. We may be
thinking that the next big spiritual event for us as Methodists is the Covenant
Service next Sunday. We are ‘in-between’.

But there are other ways in which we live ‘in-between
lives’. We have gifts and talents but may feel we are not in the place where
they can be best utilised. We have hopes and dreams but to date they are
unfulfilled. We may even have a sense of destiny or calling but it has not come
to fruition. Something we long for has not happened yet. These ‘in-between’
states are very frustrating places in which to live.

And Jesus is living an ‘in-between life’ at the age of
twelve. We see glimpses of his destiny with that wonderful reply to his parents
in verse 50,

‘Why were you searching for me? Did you
not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’

But although we do not know how much he understood at this
age who he was and what his calling was (will we ever?), we do know it would be
something like another twenty years before he would go public. Might we gain
some clues from this story about how to live during the long and often
frustrating ‘in-between times’? You won’t be surprised to hear I think we can.

1. Development
When I read this familiar story this week, one part hit me
in a new way. It’s the description of what Jesus was doing in the Temple when his
worry-sick parents found him:

After three days they found him in the
temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them
questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his
answers.

(verses 46-47)

I’ve always read those words just as an account of a
youngster engaged in debate with his elders, but admittedly a bright young man
whose ‘understanding and answers’ are remarkable – and perhaps from that there
has been another hint about what lurks beneath the surface with Jesus. Up until
now it has been another of those hints about who he will turn out to be.

I still believe it is. But I saw it a new way this week.
What does Jesus do here? He listens, he asks questions and he gives answers.
What hit me was this: I’m reading here is like a microcosm of his later
ministry. Listening, asking questions and giving answers. Doesn’t that sound
like the teaching ministry of Jesus? He listened, and not just at surface
level. He asked questions, not just to hear people’s answers but to prod them
towards spiritual truth. And he gave answers – often surprising, sometimes
disturbing. So I now see here the early development of Jesus’ later gifts. He
grabs the chance with both hands.

And I see the need to do the same today. We have young
Christians who show signs of being greatly gifted. We need to give them a
chance to develop. We need to take some risks with them. They need those early
opportunities to use their talents, getting their hands dirty in Christian
service.

To do this meets with resistance in some church circles. “Don’t
let them do it, they’re so arrogant.” Maybe – I’ve seen the car sticker that
says, ‘Hire a teenager while he still thinks he knows everything.’ “But they
are rough and unsophisticated and will make mistakes.” Perhaps – but didn’t we
make mistakes once? Don’t we still? The answer isn’t to clamp down on them but
to mentor them. Let them dip their toes in the water and put an experienced
Christian alongside them who is not there just as a safety net to prevent a
mess but as one who gently encourages their skills and maturity.

One of my greatest privileges in seeing this put into
practice was during my first circuit appointment. As I have mentioned before, I
became involved in a youth ministry that ran youth worship events in the town.
We began in churches, and then used a vacant shop in town. When we lost that we
took over a church hall, and when we got too big for that we hired the local
night club. We developed our own worship band, and the tongue-in-cheek slogan
for the event was, ‘If it’s too loud you’re too old’.

The band began with competent adult musicians. But the goal
from the beginning was to phase in younger singers and musicians, putting them
alongside the experienced adults but eventually letting them take over. Others
we got to do other things. We trained some in how to pray with people, for
example. I’m not in touch with many of them now, but I do know that one is on
the five-person leadership team of a large independent church in Chichester,
and another is married to an Anglican vicar, supporting his ministry in Cheltenham. They got some early experience with us in
Hertford. We believed in a principle of development. As a church we need to
identify with those who have embryonic gifts and start developing them. It is not
only about spiritual investment for the future, it is about being church in the
here and now. And because of that it is a fatal mistake to ignore or belittle
those with nascent gifts.

2. Obedience
We see these early signs in Jesus’ life of his future
ministry, but what does he do in the meantime? After they fail to understand
his explanation about needing to be in his Father’s house, Luke says,

Then he went down with them and came to
Nazareth, and
was obedient to them.

(verse 51a)

Jesus gets on with life. He does not sit around frustrated,
like a petulant teenager, saying, ‘Nazareth
is not where I am meant to be. I am not supposed to be in obscurity; my destiny
is to teach thousands of people and perform great miracles.’ He does not allow
thinking like this to sour his spirit. He gets on with obedience to his
parents. Like Debbie said, not your average twelve-year-old!

And the point is this: we may be in an in-between time.
Destiny may not yet be fulfilled. Our calling may not yet be transparent to one
and all. But the place of obscurity is God’s appointed location for us right
now. And in that place he is forming us for our future. It is not that our
current insignificant address is a stepping-stone to something greater; it is
valid in its own right. For here God develops in us the basic disciplines that
will sustain us when he brings about the hopes and dreams he gave us some time
before.

This can be a long period of anonymity. Joseph in the Old
Testament languishes in an Egyptian prison on false charges. The apostle Paul
talks about having spent fourteen years in Arabia
between his conversion and his public ministry. For Jesus it was nearer twenty
years. But during the anonymity the call is to be faithful in the circumstances
where God has placed us. It’s no good throwing a tantrum or grabbing the ball
back so that no-one else can play: those who throw tantrums are not going to be
suitable characters for future destiny. 
The people upon whom God can rely are the faithful, obedient ones.

And is it any coincidence that the way Luke ends this
account is with these words?

And Jesus increased in wisdom and in
years, and in divine and human favour.

(verse 52)

Jesus, serving in faithful obedience in Nazareth, increases in wisdom and favour. I
cannot help thinking that the increase in wisdom and favour is because he is
committed to faithful obedience.

Some experienced Christians in Hertford looked on the youth
worship project I talked about earlier and dismissed it as froth. Maybe it was
for a few people. But I saw some impressive young Christians in that work. I
think of those who took on part-time jobs that were far from the routine: not
the usual supermarket work, but instead taking menial jobs in care homes,
cleaning up elderly incontinent residents. These were young people who knew
about faithful obedience in obscurity. These, I am sure, were teenage
Christians whom God was preparing for something but who were content to serve
humbly in the meantime.

3. Reflection
Have you noticed just how Mary changes in this story? In
verse 48 she is the typical anxious parent:

‘Child, why have you treated us like
this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’

It’s the same attitude writ large that we have when we are
going around the shops with our much younger children. ‘Don’t go out of our
sight, Rebekah!’ Or Friday in Sainsbury’s, as Debbie and I alternated between
who held the basket and who either held onto Mark’s hood or carried him against
his vigorous protests.

No, Mary is just what you would expect of a caring parent at
this point. Perhaps she hasn’t slept. Where is her firstborn son? What is he
doing? Who is he with? Is he safe?

But this is not the Mary of the story’s conclusion:

His mother treasured all these things
in her heart.

(verse 51b)

She has come a long way from frantic worry to treasuring
these things in her heart. This is more than the way we look back on situations
that frightened us at the time and enjoy retrospective laughter. Mary treasures these things in her heart. I
think this is more than the way in which parents collect a photo album of happy
memories. Might I suggest that she has changed from one acting from purely
human, natural instincts and concerns to one who has reflected on these events prayerfully?

Put it like this: Mary has been through panic stations and
then the joy of finding Jesus safe and well. But it is not enough for her to
take a sigh of relief. She is attentive to God. She wants to know where he is
and what he has been doing in this situation. Then she can treasure God’s
bigger picture of truth, which illuminates much more about her Son. Perhaps his
words, ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’, now take on a
fresh and deeper meaning for her.

And prayerful reflection is vital in an in-between time. It
is vital at all times, actually. But in an in-between time the one whose gifts
and calling are not yet being fulfilled needs to reflect prayerfully before God
about what is happening and where he is. Similarly the elders, the spiritual
parents, who may be sceptical about these young upstarts, also need to reflect
in the presence of God. What is God saying? What is God trying to teach us?
Where is he at work in surprising places that we never would have guessed? What
is there here to challenge us? What is God doing here that leads us to
unexpected praise?

So how do we conduct such prayerful reflection? For me, it
helps if you can have a quiet space. Begin praying by bringing your questions
and puzzles to God. Have the Bible at your side to meditate upon. Listen for
the still, small voice of the Almighty responding to you. Test what you think
he is saying against the plumb-line of those Scriptures. Get ready for possible
surprises. So often God is doing a new thing. Supremely he did that in the gift
of Jesus. What if he were doing something new in an in-between time but we had
not tuned into him?

links for 2006-12-28

links for 2006-12-24

Sermon, 4th Sunday In Advent: The Magnificat – Mary’s God

Luke 1:39-55

Introduction
When I was at Trinity
College, Bristol
we had to go out on ‘preaching teams’, mostly to parish
churches. One member of the team would preach, the others would evaluate the
sermon and perhaps also take part in the service.

One Sunday we went to a very high Anglican church in Swindon. My friend John was to preach and we could just
about make him out at the front through the clouds of incense. I led the
intercessions and apparently later one of the church wardens complained about
me, because I didn’t pray for the Pope.

At the end of the service the leaders and the choir
processed out. The service was over, and we sat down. Or – we thought the
service had ended. Because just as we got settled, back came the vicar and a
few others. They stood in front of a plaster cast statue of Mary and began
singing to her. SingalongaMary, I irreverently called it.

And we have many reasons to be sceptical about the
specifically Catholic doctrines of Mary. The Immaculate Conception – that not
only was Mary a virgin she was also sinless has no warrant in Scripture.
Neither does the doctrine of her Assumption into Heaven. And nor does the
doctrine of her Perpetual Virginity, which makes it difficult to explain the
Gospel references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters without special pleading that they
weren’t siblings, they were cousins.

In Catholic worship we hear ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the
Lord is with thee’ – the words of Gabriel when he came to announce her
miraculous pregnancy. They are coupled with the words by which Elizabeth addresses her in
today’s passage – ‘Blessèd art thou among women and blessèd is the fruit of thy
womb’. These seem to be used to elevate Mary, perhaps even to make her the
dispenser of grace rather than the recipient of grace.

Worse, she is even referred to as ‘co-redemptrix’ with
Christ, making her prayers efficacious for salvation alongside Jesus and his
Cross. Anything that says you need to add to the work of Christ on the Cross
needs to be treated with huge suspicion.

Have I got it in for Catholics today? Yet even if I am
extremely unhappy with their approach to Mary I have also to say that
Protestants have been guilty of underplaying her importance in reaction. On
more than one occasion in the New Testament Mary is the model disciple of her
Son.

Here as she sings the Magnificat (even if the text is a
later development from what she originally said) she is the model for praise
and worship. Why? Because her praise of God is not marked by the ups and downs
of her feelings, but by rendering praise based on the character of God, as
shown in his actions. Mary’s song is one that tells us about the God she adores
and serves. Who is Mary’s God, then?

1. He Is The God Of Blessing
Elizabeth
has called Mary ‘blessed’, because of the child she carries (verse 42) and
because she believed in the word spoken to her (verse 45). Mary agrees she is
blessed – but will not accept praise for herself. She turns the praise towards
the God who has blessed her:

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call
me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me

  
and holy is his name.’
(verses 46-49)

She is a lowly
servant – as a betrothed young Jewish woman she is between twelve and thirteen
years old. How remarkable it would have been then and is now that God should
use such a person. She has had questions when Gabriel appeared with the news,
but she has accepted it – even though she risked disgrace and possibly worse
when it would be known that she had become pregnant before marrying Joseph.
Whatever the cost, she knows she is blessed to be chosen by God for his
magnificent purposes.

Other translations say ‘afflicted’ rather than ‘lowliness’,
but it is hard to see how Mary is ‘afflicted’. Except in this sense. Mary is
not just speaking for herself, she is identifying with her people, God’s
people. They truly are ‘afflicted’. They, if you like, ‘lack a child’, the
Messiah. But now God is dealing with that affliction. The promised child is
coming. God is blessing Mary and his people.

It is said sometimes that with the suffering of the Jewish
people down the centuries some Jews have prayed something like this: ‘O Lord, I
know we are supposed to be your chosen people, but couldn’t you choose some
other people just once in a while?’

And perhaps we too lose sight of that privilege of being
chosen – chosen by God for wonderful purposes. When we find those purposes set
us down in a place we would rather not live, alongside people with whom we
would not naturally want to associate, in work we do not find congenial, we do
not tend to think of ourselves as blessed. But if the calling is to such
restricted or unappealing circumstances then that is where the blessing will
come. Jonah didn’t like the thought of going to Nineveh. He thought he knew better than God
and headed for Tarshish. But Nineveh
was his destiny. Nineveh
was where God used his preaching, even if Jonah didn’t enjoy the results as he
should have done.

So I am not merely talking about the sort of blessing that
consists in listing the material benefits God has given us (just as he has done
to many who do not acknowledge him). I am talking about the blessing of
following in his calling, the blessing of knowing you are chosen. If you know
that it can be turned into praise, just as Mary did, even though accepting her
call was a dangerous challenge.

2. He Is The God Of Mercy
Verse 50:

His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.

Afflicted and lowly people need mercy. That is what God is
giving me and my people through the child I am to bear, says Mary: mercy. It
might not have been what they first thought they needed: mercy is a gift to
those who are in the wrong. The convicted and condemned plead for mercy. That
is certainly not how the People of God saw themselves at this time.

But Mary brings us back to the age-old theme of God’s mercy.
It is ‘for those who fear him from generation to generation’. And it is the
reminder we need. We can forget our need of mercy. We can become self-righteous
– and with it, rather ugly people. Mary brings us back to our roots: mercy is
what brings us into the presence of God, nothing less. We do not swan into his
presence because we are decent people, we can only come because he has brought
us here.

On one occasion when I was in hospital there was another
Christian on the ward with me. Naturally we had a number of conversations. Just
before whichever one of us was going to be discharged first (I don’t remember
which of us it was) he gave me his card. After his name were the letters
‘SSBG’. I couldn’t think what university degree of professional qualification
that could be, so I asked him. ‘Sinner Saved By Grace’, he replied. It was his
constant reminder of who he was and where he had come from.

Similarly, another story from my time at Trinity College,
Bristol: I once
asked one of the lecturers about something that seemed to be an anomaly in the
Anglican Holy Communion service. The confession of sins was followed by the
‘absolution’ (assurance of God’s forgiveness) but then the next part of the
liturgy was the Gloria. That seemed fine at first – burst into praise after being
assured of forgiveness. But the Gloria asks Jesus to ‘have mercy on us’. So my
question was, why were we asking for mercy again immediately after we had been
assured of forgiveness? The lecturer replied, ‘Because we always need mercy.’

Mary reminds us that we should always be conscious of God’s
mercy. When we do, we praise him more fittingly – more humbly.

3. He Is The God Of Holy Power
Verses 51 to 55:

He has shown strength with
his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

Ah, Christmas! Warm, gooey feelings, a newborn baby to cluck
over, a proud young mother and her loyal husband. Cute, isn’t it?

But what if that expectant mother says that the event is political?
Knowing that she is bringing the Messiah into the world she looks back at God’s
previous deeds of holy power. He has raised up his lowly and hungry servant
people and overthrown the rich and powerful. And why would she reflect on this
unless she had a prophetic expectation that her son would do the same and more?

In Mary’s day that would have been easy to interpret in
terms of Israel’s
national hopes under the oppression of the Romans. But by the time Luke wrote
his Gospel these hopes had been crushed. Instead I think he wants us to see
Mary’s worship of this God of holy power, this God who works in history on
behalf of the poor and oppressed, in terms of Jesus’ adult ministry.

The Christmas message, then, is one about a God of justice
who has not ignored the evil in the world. He does not remain aloof and
unconcerned in heaven. He has done something about it. The difference is, he
does not fight wickedness with the conventional weapons of force and
destruction. It is holy power, not
unholy power.  He knows that only a more
costly and sacrificial way will conquer sin. It is the way of humility and
suffering. In God’s kingdom, evil is toppled in the most surprising ways. Let
us remember that as we pray, campaign and act.

4. He Is The God Of Salvation
This is the reverse side of what I have just said. Not only
does God act in holy power to bring down wickedness, he also acts to save his
downtrodden people. He hears the cries of his faithful followers down the ages
as they join in the chorus, ‘How long, O Lord?’ In response to prayer he brings
down empires and dismantles Iron Curtains.

During the hard times he gives his suffering people
sustenance as they wait for their day of salvation. It may be through biblical
books like Revelation, which was written for persecuted Christians, through
courageous leaders and through support from brother and sister believers living
under less restricted circumstances.

Today, I believe, he hears the cries of Christians in the
Middle East who are suffering
persecution because of the US and UK policy in Iraq
. They are being
targeted by Muslim extremists as supporters of Western policies. Right now it
is happening in Iraq and in Bethlehem.

Within Chelmsford,
talk to my old college friend the Revd Mones Farah, the Anglican priest in
charge at the Meadgate Church
Centre
in Great Baddow. I first met Mones twenty years ago. He is a
Palestinian Christian from a small town you may just have heard of – Nazareth. He talked about
his experiences in college chapel once. He said that to be a Palestinian
Christian in Israel
was to be a third class citizen: as an Arab you were second class compared with
Jewish citizens, and within the Arab community you were inferior to the
Muslims. That was how he felt in the 1980s; just imagine how it must be now
with an Israeli wall, the election of Hamas and naïve Western imperial
assumptions that Arab culture will welcome liberal democracy with open arms
when soldiers land. No wonder there has been a Christian exodus from the Holy Land
and Iraq.

But even if Bush and Blair are not listening, Mary’s God is.
He hears the cries of Arab Christians, just as he saw the tears of Christians
under Soviet communism. And he is the God of salvation. He will act. But he
calls us into partnership with him in prayer, lobbying, advocacy, support and
action. If we believe in the God whom Mary praised, then surely such
partnership with the God of salvation will be part of our worship.

Why is why, after the next hymn, we shall turn to prayer.

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Sermon, 4th Sunday In Advent: The Magnificat – Mary’s God

Luke 1:39-55

Introduction
When I was at Trinity
College, Bristol
we had to go out on ‘preaching teams’, mostly to parish
churches. One member of the team would preach, the others would evaluate the
sermon and perhaps also take part in the service.

One Sunday we went to a very high Anglican church in Swindon. My friend John was to preach and we could just
about make him out at the front through the clouds of incense. I led the
intercessions and apparently later one of the church wardens complained about
me, because I didn’t pray for the Pope.

At the end of the service the leaders and the choir
processed out. The service was over, and we sat down. Or – we thought the
service had ended. Because just as we got settled, back came the vicar and a
few others. They stood in front of a plaster cast statue of Mary and began
singing to her. SingalongaMary, I irreverently called it.

And we have many reasons to be sceptical about the
specifically Catholic doctrines of Mary. The Immaculate Conception – that not
only was Mary a virgin she was also sinless has no warrant in Scripture.
Neither does the doctrine of her Assumption into Heaven. And nor does the
doctrine of her Perpetual Virginity, which makes it difficult to explain the
Gospel references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters without special pleading that they
weren’t siblings, they were cousins.

In Catholic worship we hear ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the
Lord is with thee’ – the words of Gabriel when he came to announce her
miraculous pregnancy. They are coupled with the words by which Elizabeth addresses her in
today’s passage – ‘Blessèd art thou among women and blessèd is the fruit of thy
womb’. These seem to be used to elevate Mary, perhaps even to make her the
dispenser of grace rather than the recipient of grace.

Worse, she is even referred to as ‘co-redemptrix’ with
Christ, making her prayers efficacious for salvation alongside Jesus and his
Cross. Anything that says you need to add to the work of Christ on the Cross
needs to be treated with huge suspicion.

Have I got it in for Catholics today? Yet even if I am
extremely unhappy with their approach to Mary I have also to say that
Protestants have been guilty of underplaying her importance in reaction. On
more than one occasion in the New Testament Mary is the model disciple of her
Son.

Here as she sings the Magnificat (even if the text is a
later development from what she originally said) she is the model for praise
and worship. Why? Because her praise of God is not marked by the ups and downs
of her feelings, but by rendering praise based on the character of God, as
shown in his actions. Mary’s song is one that tells us about the God she adores
and serves. Who is Mary’s God, then?

1. He Is The God Of Blessing
Elizabeth
has called Mary ‘blessed’, because of the child she carries (verse 42) and
because she believed in the word spoken to her (verse 45). Mary agrees she is
blessed – but will not accept praise for herself. She turns the praise towards
the God who has blessed her:

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call
me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me

  
and holy is his name.’
(verses 46-49)

She is a lowly
servant – as a betrothed young Jewish woman she is between twelve and thirteen
years old. How remarkable it would have been then and is now that God should
use such a person. She has had questions when Gabriel appeared with the news,
but she has accepted it – even though she risked disgrace and possibly worse
when it would be known that she had become pregnant before marrying Joseph.
Whatever the cost, she knows she is blessed to be chosen by God for his
magnificent purposes.

Other translations say ‘afflicted’ rather than ‘lowliness’,
but it is hard to see how Mary is ‘afflicted’. Except in this sense. Mary is
not just speaking for herself, she is identifying with her people, God’s
people. They truly are ‘afflicted’. They, if you like, ‘lack a child’, the
Messiah. But now God is dealing with that affliction. The promised child is
coming. God is blessing Mary and his people.

It is said sometimes that with the suffering of the Jewish
people down the centuries some Jews have prayed something like this: ‘O Lord, I
know we are supposed to be your chosen people, but couldn’t you choose some
other people just once in a while?’

And perhaps we too lose sight of that privilege of being
chosen – chosen by God for wonderful purposes. When we find those purposes set
us down in a place we would rather not live, alongside people with whom we
would not naturally want to associate, in work we do not find congenial, we do
not tend to think of ourselves as blessed. But if the calling is to such
restricted or unappealing circumstances then that is where the blessing will
come. Jonah didn’t like the thought of going to Nineveh. He thought he knew better than God
and headed for Tarshish. But Nineveh
was his destiny. Nineveh
was where God used his preaching, even if Jonah didn’t enjoy the results as he
should have done.

So I am not merely talking about the sort of blessing that
consists in listing the material benefits God has given us (just as he has done
to many who do not acknowledge him). I am talking about the blessing of
following in his calling, the blessing of knowing you are chosen. If you know
that it can be turned into praise, just as Mary did, even though accepting her
call was a dangerous challenge.

2. He Is The God Of Mercy
Verse 50:

His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.

Afflicted and lowly people need mercy. That is what God is
giving me and my people through the child I am to bear, says Mary: mercy. It
might not have been what they first thought they needed: mercy is a gift to
those who are in the wrong. The convicted and condemned plead for mercy. That
is certainly not how the People of God saw themselves at this time.

But Mary brings us back to the age-old theme of God’s mercy.
It is ‘for those who fear him from generation to generation’. And it is the
reminder we need. We can forget our need of mercy. We can become self-righteous
– and with it, rather ugly people. Mary brings us back to our roots: mercy is
what brings us into the presence of God, nothing less. We do not swan into his
presence because we are decent people, we can only come because he has brought
us here.

On one occasion when I was in hospital there was another
Christian on the ward with me. Naturally we had a number of conversations. Just
before whichever one of us was going to be discharged first (I don’t remember
which of us it was) he gave me his card. After his name were the letters
‘SSBG’. I couldn’t think what university degree of professional qualification
that could be, so I asked him. ‘Sinner Saved By Grace’, he replied. It was his
constant reminder of who he was and where he had come from.

Similarly, another story from my time at Trinity College,
Bristol: I once
asked one of the lecturers about something that seemed to be an anomaly in the
Anglican Holy Communion service. The confession of sins was followed by the
‘absolution’ (assurance of God’s forgiveness) but then the next part of the
liturgy was the Gloria. That seemed fine at first – burst into praise after being
assured of forgiveness. But the Gloria asks Jesus to ‘have mercy on us’. So my
question was, why were we asking for mercy again immediately after we had been
assured of forgiveness? The lecturer replied, ‘Because we always need mercy.’

Mary reminds us that we should always be conscious of God’s
mercy. When we do, we praise him more fittingly – more humbly.

3. He Is The God Of Holy Power
Verses 51 to 55:

He has shown strength with
his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

Ah, Christmas! Warm, gooey feelings, a newborn baby to cluck
over, a proud young mother and her loyal husband. Cute, isn’t it?

But what if that expectant mother says that the event is political?
Knowing that she is bringing the Messiah into the world she looks back at God’s
previous deeds of holy power. He has raised up his lowly and hungry servant
people and overthrown the rich and powerful. And why would she reflect on this
unless she had a prophetic expectation that her son would do the same and more?

In Mary’s day that would have been easy to interpret in
terms of Israel’s
national hopes under the oppression of the Romans. But by the time Luke wrote
his Gospel these hopes had been crushed. Instead I think he wants us to see
Mary’s worship of this God of holy power, this God who works in history on
behalf of the poor and oppressed, in terms of Jesus’ adult ministry.

The Christmas message, then, is one about a God of justice
who has not ignored the evil in the world. He does not remain aloof and
unconcerned in heaven. He has done something about it. The difference is, he
does not fight wickedness with the conventional weapons of force and
destruction. It is holy power, not
unholy power.  He knows that only a more
costly and sacrificial way will conquer sin. It is the way of humility and
suffering. In God’s kingdom, evil is toppled in the most surprising ways. Let
us remember that as we pray, campaign and act.

4. He Is The God Of Salvation
This is the reverse side of what I have just said. Not only
does God act in holy power to bring down wickedness, he also acts to save his
downtrodden people. He hears the cries of his faithful followers down the ages
as they join in the chorus, ‘How long, O Lord?’ In response to prayer he brings
down empires and dismantles Iron Curtains.

During the hard times he gives his suffering people
sustenance as they wait for their day of salvation. It may be through biblical
books like Revelation, which was written for persecuted Christians, through
courageous leaders and through support from brother and sister believers living
under less restricted circumstances.

Today, I believe, he hears the cries of Christians in the
Middle East who are suffering
persecution because of the US and UK policy in Iraq
. They are being
targeted by Muslim extremists as supporters of Western policies. Right now it
is happening in Iraq and in Bethlehem.

Within Chelmsford,
talk to my old college friend the Revd Mones Farah, the Anglican priest in
charge at the Meadgate Church
Centre
in Great Baddow. I first met Mones twenty years ago. He is a
Palestinian Christian from a small town you may just have heard of – Nazareth. He talked about
his experiences in college chapel once. He said that to be a Palestinian
Christian in Israel
was to be a third class citizen: as an Arab you were second class compared with
Jewish citizens, and within the Arab community you were inferior to the
Muslims. That was how he felt in the 1980s; just imagine how it must be now
with an Israeli wall, the election of Hamas and naïve Western imperial
assumptions that Arab culture will welcome liberal democracy with open arms
when soldiers land. No wonder there has been a Christian exodus from the Holy Land
and Iraq.

But even if Bush and Blair are not listening, Mary’s God is.
He hears the cries of Arab Christians, just as he saw the tears of Christians
under Soviet communism. And he is the God of salvation. He will act. But he
calls us into partnership with him in prayer, lobbying, advocacy, support and
action. If we believe in the God whom Mary praised, then surely such
partnership with the God of salvation will be part of our worship.

Why is why, after the next hymn, we shall turn to prayer.

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links for 2006-12-22

Evening Sermon For Christmas Eve: The Supremacy Of Christ

Well, I still don’t quite have myself together health-wise. I’ve gone from one virus to a cold, but I am still getting the headaches that wake me in the night. Both my GP and my osteopath think they are stress-related. I have some things to examine in my life as a result. In particular it seems that spiritually there is a lot of giving out and very little opportunity to receive, and this has depleted my adrenal glands.

So – sob story over – I’ve decided to cut some corners in preparation for my remaining Christmas services. (I have three on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day.) For the evening one (NB not a midnight one, thankfully) I’ve dusted down and adapted a sermon from three years ago on the same Lectionary passage,a nd redaction critics will see clear evidence of this in the Introduction. There is some virtue in keeping your old sermons. In fact one old minister of mine only ever got out old sermons and worked them over, because he felt that if he couldn’t improve an old sermon there was something wrong with him.

This, then, is what I have come up with. It’s an attempt to show how unique and supreme Jesus Christ seen in the Incarnation is when compared with other faiths. But I hope I have not done it in too much of a triumphalist tone.

Hebrews 1:1-4 NRSV
NIV

Introduction
At this time of year we hear more and more stories of
‘politically correct’ attempts to excise Jesus from Christmas. Three years ago Buckinghamshire County Council banned
Christian Christmas cards and in the same year the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s
official Christmas card contained Muslim and Hindu images but no Christian
ones.

How refreshing, then, this year, to hear that in the United
States, Wal-Mart (not a company for which
I usually have any great affection) is allowing its staff to greet customers
with the words ‘Merry Christmas’ rather than the usual ‘Happy Holidays’.

Without in any way wishing to be one of those miserable
Christians who want to condemn everything about the way Christmas is
celebrated, I nevertheless want to say that this season is one particular time
for affirming the supremacy of Jesus Christ. It’s something the writer to the
Hebrews lays out clearly in the first four verses of his epistle.

He is writing to a group of early Christians who are under
pressure to renounce or dilute their faith. They come from a Jewish background
and are being pressed to return purely to Judaism. So the writer sets out to
show them why he believes they shouldn’t retract their confession of Christ.
And in a nutshell his big reason for doing so is – Jesus. There is no-one else
like him. No-one can compare, no other faith can compare.

And in that respect his writings become particularly
relevant to us. We live in a multi-cultural society – that is simply a
description of fact – but the pressure is on us to see all faiths as more or
less the same. And without resorting to the ‘crusade’ mentality of previous
generations of Christians it is still our call to maintain our loyalty to
Christ, because there truly is no-one like him. Let me set out for you four
ways in these four verses from Hebrews that we see the supremacy of Christ. I
pray they may they be reasons that inspire our worship as we celebrate his
coming, and give firmer foundations to our faith in challenging days.

1. The Supremacy Of
The Son In Revelation

Verses 1 – 2a:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in
many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to
us by a Son

These few words distinguish the Christian faith from several
others today. They make us different from the Mormon faith, which requires its
believers to follow the Book of Mormon which Joseph Smith claimed to have
received from an angel called Moroni.
But God has spoken to us by his Son: there is a finality about Jesus Christ
because of who he is. And one thing it means is we close the canon of
Scripture. The New Testament writings, being either from apostles or close
associates, are where Holy Writ ends. God still speaks – of course – but all is
to be tested by Scripture, because Jesus has brought a climax to the Bible.

These words also distinguish us from our Muslim friends,
because the Son is clearly greater than the prophets. Muslims claim that Jesus
is a prophet but not the Son of God. And even then their basic creed is to say,
‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet’. Islam explicitly says,
‘God has no son’, but the Gospel contradicts this. God has a Son, and he is the
climax of revelation.

Then these words show that the Christian faith is in
continuity with the Old Testament, but Christ is its fulfilment. That
differentiates us from the Jewish faith, which is the foundation of
Christianity. But our confession is that the coming of Christ fulfils all the
messianic hopes, even if they are in a very different shape from original
expectations.

At Christmas we celebrate the fact that a helpless, crying
baby is God’s ultimate word to us.

2. The Supremacy Of
The Son Over Creation

Verses 2b-3a:

whom he appointed heir of all things,
through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory
and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his
powerful word.

If Jesus is the ‘heir of all things’, then creation belongs
to him. It’s his inheritance. And therefore creation is not a part of God, nor
is God a part of creation, as our Hindu neighbours would believe. Rather, Jesus
Christ is the Lord of creation.

And if God ‘also created the worlds’ through him, then this
supports other New Testament texts in John and Colossians that teach that Jesus
pre-existed creation with the Father. So the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who follow an
ancient heretic called Arius, in affirming ‘there was a time when he was not’,
are also wrong. The Jehovah’s Witnesses think that biblical descriptions of
Jesus such as ‘Son’ and ‘first-born’ mean he is a created being. But this is
never the meaning in the context: they are terms that teach his supremacy.

‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint
of God’s very being’: hence Jesus in adult life was to tell his disciples, ‘If
you have seen me, you have seen the Father’. So our Christmas confession is
that at this season we do indeed see God – lying in a manger.

‘And he sustains all things by his powerful word’ – this is
far from the ancient myth of Atlas with the world on his shoulders: this is an
active, ongoing and dynamic. There are those around who would say with the
Australian singer Nick
Cave, ‘I don’t believe in
an interventionist God’. They believe there is a God but not that he is at work
in the world. In the eighteenth century some of these opposed Wesley: they were
called Deists. But we believe in a Christ who is involved in his world. And
never more so than in the humility of the Incarnation.

There is a beautiful irony in the birth of Jesus: he is
dependent upon Mary for his nurture and well-being, but she, like everyone, is
dependent upon him for existence. This is a Lord to worship.

3. The Supremacy Of
The Son In Redemption

Verse 3b:

When he had made purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high

‘When he had made purification for sins’ – sin is the human
predicament. This is why Jesus came. It is why he came as fully divine and
fully human, to reconcile God and humankind. Only he can resolve it. Any
philosophy or faith that says we need to put it all right ourselves is doomed
to failure. And so you get eastern faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism looking
for people to behave better in each successive incarnation, only to be plunged
into a hopeless ongoing cycle of rebirths as one creature or another. It is a
counsel of despair. The Good News of Christmas is that Christ came to deal with
this problem. The weight is off us. He came to take it, to bear our burdens in
his life and supremely on the Cross. That is why we joyfully sing,

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,

            He
sets the prisoner free.

His blood can make the foulest clean,

            His
blood availed for me.

(Charles Wesley, 1707-1788)

And ‘when he had made purification for sins,’ our writer
adds, ‘he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high’. He sat down.
Don’t you get a sense of satisfaction and completeness when you have finished a
job and sit down? So it is with Jesus. It is all done, there is nothing to add,
nothing has been missed out and salvation is complete. Now Heaven and God’s
Kingdom awaits his people, with the resurrection of the dead to a transformed
physical existence in the presence of God. It is nothing like the Buddhist
belief in nirvana, where all our cravings end, there are no more rebirths and
we become absorbed into the great nothingness. There is no great nothingness
for the followers of Jesus. Instead there is the new heaven and the new earth,
all secured for us by Christ who came for us, died for us, rose for us and is
ascended for us.

Truly in the Incarnation Jesus was born not only to live but
also to die. Mary was told that a sword would pierce her own heart and she
would watch her Son be crucified – but she would become one of his followers. The
road to Bethlehem leads inexorably for the
Christian to Calvary. We cannot look at the
crib without looking at the Cross. Jesus embraced this in the Incarnation.

4. The Supremacy Of
Christ Over History

Verse 4:

having become as much superior to
angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Go away from the great classic religions to some of the new
religious movements and you will find a burgeoning interest in angels. The old
notion of ‘guardian angel’, which as far as I can tell is nowhere to be found
in Scripture, has been souped up. People believe that everyone has their
personal angel. Some believe they have been assured of the presence of an angel
with them by a feather having been left behind. Many expect to have visions of
angels, but rather than the biblical visions of angels where these messengers
of God point people Godwards, they just get a little bit of comfort and
spiritual mollycoddling.

Sometimes we find similar beliefs in the church. I had a
church member once who believed that your guardian angel accompanied you in or
on your car, but if you exceeded the speed limit the angel deserted you to any
consequences.

The writer to the Hebrews also faced a contemporary interest
in angels, but in a different way. And like him we can say, why go to the
angels when you can go to someone superior? Not to be dismissive of angels,
especially at Christmas when they feature so significantly in the birth
stories, but why get obsessed with them when Jesus is superior? The angels are
not divine: Jesus is. No angel took on human flesh for the salvation of the
world: Jesus did. No angel received the Father’s vindication of their mission
in the way that Jesus did for his: ‘the name he has inherited is more excellent
than theirs.’

In Jesus, God has done something greater than anything else
in history. His work in Jesus is unique. The incarnation and redemption are
unrepeatable. Here is where history turns. However we look at the problem of
evil in creation, this is the point of God’s decisive world-changing act.

Conclusion
So why go through all this? Hasn’t the world had enough of
Christians (or people of other faiths, for that matter) who have a smug
superiority and who use that feeling to tread other people down? Shouldn’t we
be listening to those who call for peace, tolerance and dialogue among the
religions? Shouldn’t we just live and let live?

Certainly there is much to be ashamed of in the history of
religion and of Christianity. But the Incarnation gives us the clue as to how
we should respond. Did Jesus come with violence and coercion to force people to
follow him? Quite the opposite. He came in weakness and in humility. That same
Incarnation which shows us the uniqueness and superiority of Jesus Christ which
we cannot negotiate away without betraying him also shows us the gentle and
gracious way in which we firmly, lovingly and winsomely hold to our faith in
him as we swim against the tide in our culture.

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Evening Sermon For Christmas Eve: The Supremacy Of Christ

Well, I still don’t quite have myself together health-wise. I’ve gone from one virus to a cold, but I am still getting the headaches that wake me in the night. Both my GP and my osteopath think they are stress-related. I have some things to examine in my life as a result. In particular it seems that spiritually there is a lot of giving out and very little opportunity to receive, and this has depleted my adrenal glands.

So – sob story over – I’ve decided to cut some corners in preparation for my remaining Christmas services. (I have three on Christmas Eve and two on Christmas Day.) For the evening one (NB not a midnight one, thankfully) I’ve dusted down and adapted a sermon from three years ago on the same Lectionary passage,a nd redaction critics will see clear evidence of this in the Introduction. There is some virtue in keeping your old sermons. In fact one old minister of mine only ever got out old sermons and worked them over, because he felt that if he couldn’t improve an old sermon there was something wrong with him.

This, then, is what I have come up with. It’s an attempt to show how unique and supreme Jesus Christ seen in the Incarnation is when compared with other faiths. But I hope I have not done it in too much of a triumphalist tone.

Hebrews 1:1-4 NRSV
NIV

Introduction
At this time of year we hear more and more stories of
‘politically correct’ attempts to excise Jesus from Christmas. Three years ago Buckinghamshire County Council banned
Christian Christmas cards and in the same year the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s
official Christmas card contained Muslim and Hindu images but no Christian
ones.

How refreshing, then, this year, to hear that in the United
States, Wal-Mart (not a company for which
I usually have any great affection) is allowing its staff to greet customers
with the words ‘Merry Christmas’ rather than the usual ‘Happy Holidays’.

Without in any way wishing to be one of those miserable
Christians who want to condemn everything about the way Christmas is
celebrated, I nevertheless want to say that this season is one particular time
for affirming the supremacy of Jesus Christ. It’s something the writer to the
Hebrews lays out clearly in the first four verses of his epistle.

He is writing to a group of early Christians who are under
pressure to renounce or dilute their faith. They come from a Jewish background
and are being pressed to return purely to Judaism. So the writer sets out to
show them why he believes they shouldn’t retract their confession of Christ.
And in a nutshell his big reason for doing so is – Jesus. There is no-one else
like him. No-one can compare, no other faith can compare.

And in that respect his writings become particularly
relevant to us. We live in a multi-cultural society – that is simply a
description of fact – but the pressure is on us to see all faiths as more or
less the same. And without resorting to the ‘crusade’ mentality of previous
generations of Christians it is still our call to maintain our loyalty to
Christ, because there truly is no-one like him. Let me set out for you four
ways in these four verses from Hebrews that we see the supremacy of Christ. I
pray they may they be reasons that inspire our worship as we celebrate his
coming, and give firmer foundations to our faith in challenging days.

1. The Supremacy Of
The Son In Revelation

Verses 1 – 2a:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in
many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to
us by a Son

These few words distinguish the Christian faith from several
others today. They make us different from the Mormon faith, which requires its
believers to follow the Book of Mormon which Joseph Smith claimed to have
received from an angel called Moroni.
But God has spoken to us by his Son: there is a finality about Jesus Christ
because of who he is. And one thing it means is we close the canon of
Scripture. The New Testament writings, being either from apostles or close
associates, are where Holy Writ ends. God still speaks – of course – but all is
to be tested by Scripture, because Jesus has brought a climax to the Bible.

These words also distinguish us from our Muslim friends,
because the Son is clearly greater than the prophets. Muslims claim that Jesus
is a prophet but not the Son of God. And even then their basic creed is to say,
‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet’. Islam explicitly says,
‘God has no son’, but the Gospel contradicts this. God has a Son, and he is the
climax of revelation.

Then these words show that the Christian faith is in
continuity with the Old Testament, but Christ is its fulfilment. That
differentiates us from the Jewish faith, which is the foundation of
Christianity. But our confession is that the coming of Christ fulfils all the
messianic hopes, even if they are in a very different shape from original
expectations.

At Christmas we celebrate the fact that a helpless, crying
baby is God’s ultimate word to us.

2. The Supremacy Of
The Son Over Creation

Verses 2b-3a:

whom he appointed heir of all things,
through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory
and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his
powerful word.

If Jesus is the ‘heir of all things’, then creation belongs
to him. It’s his inheritance. And therefore creation is not a part of God, nor
is God a part of creation, as our Hindu neighbours would believe. Rather, Jesus
Christ is the Lord of creation.

And if God ‘also created the worlds’ through him, then this
supports other New Testament texts in John and Colossians that teach that Jesus
pre-existed creation with the Father. So the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who follow an
ancient heretic called Arius, in affirming ‘there was a time when he was not’,
are also wrong. The Jehovah’s Witnesses think that biblical descriptions of
Jesus such as ‘Son’ and ‘first-born’ mean he is a created being. But this is
never the meaning in the context: they are terms that teach his supremacy.

‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint
of God’s very being’: hence Jesus in adult life was to tell his disciples, ‘If
you have seen me, you have seen the Father’. So our Christmas confession is
that at this season we do indeed see God – lying in a manger.

‘And he sustains all things by his powerful word’ – this is
far from the ancient myth of Atlas with the world on his shoulders: this is an
active, ongoing and dynamic. There are those around who would say with the
Australian singer Nick
Cave, ‘I don’t believe in
an interventionist God’. They believe there is a God but not that he is at work
in the world. In the eighteenth century some of these opposed Wesley: they were
called Deists. But we believe in a Christ who is involved in his world. And
never more so than in the humility of the Incarnation.

There is a beautiful irony in the birth of Jesus: he is
dependent upon Mary for his nurture and well-being, but she, like everyone, is
dependent upon him for existence. This is a Lord to worship.

3. The Supremacy Of
The Son In Redemption

Verse 3b:

When he had made purification for sins,
he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high

‘When he had made purification for sins’ – sin is the human
predicament. This is why Jesus came. It is why he came as fully divine and
fully human, to reconcile God and humankind. Only he can resolve it. Any
philosophy or faith that says we need to put it all right ourselves is doomed
to failure. And so you get eastern faiths like Buddhism and Hinduism looking
for people to behave better in each successive incarnation, only to be plunged
into a hopeless ongoing cycle of rebirths as one creature or another. It is a
counsel of despair. The Good News of Christmas is that Christ came to deal with
this problem. The weight is off us. He came to take it, to bear our burdens in
his life and supremely on the Cross. That is why we joyfully sing,

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,

            He
sets the prisoner free.

His blood can make the foulest clean,

            His
blood availed for me.

(Charles Wesley, 1707-1788)

And ‘when he had made purification for sins,’ our writer
adds, ‘he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high’. He sat down.
Don’t you get a sense of satisfaction and completeness when you have finished a
job and sit down? So it is with Jesus. It is all done, there is nothing to add,
nothing has been missed out and salvation is complete. Now Heaven and God’s
Kingdom awaits his people, with the resurrection of the dead to a transformed
physical existence in the presence of God. It is nothing like the Buddhist
belief in nirvana, where all our cravings end, there are no more rebirths and
we become absorbed into the great nothingness. There is no great nothingness
for the followers of Jesus. Instead there is the new heaven and the new earth,
all secured for us by Christ who came for us, died for us, rose for us and is
ascended for us.

Truly in the Incarnation Jesus was born not only to live but
also to die. Mary was told that a sword would pierce her own heart and she
would watch her Son be crucified – but she would become one of his followers. The
road to Bethlehem leads inexorably for the
Christian to Calvary. We cannot look at the
crib without looking at the Cross. Jesus embraced this in the Incarnation.

4. The Supremacy Of
Christ Over History

Verse 4:

having become as much superior to
angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Go away from the great classic religions to some of the new
religious movements and you will find a burgeoning interest in angels. The old
notion of ‘guardian angel’, which as far as I can tell is nowhere to be found
in Scripture, has been souped up. People believe that everyone has their
personal angel. Some believe they have been assured of the presence of an angel
with them by a feather having been left behind. Many expect to have visions of
angels, but rather than the biblical visions of angels where these messengers
of God point people Godwards, they just get a little bit of comfort and
spiritual mollycoddling.

Sometimes we find similar beliefs in the church. I had a
church member once who believed that your guardian angel accompanied you in or
on your car, but if you exceeded the speed limit the angel deserted you to any
consequences.

The writer to the Hebrews also faced a contemporary interest
in angels, but in a different way. And like him we can say, why go to the
angels when you can go to someone superior? Not to be dismissive of angels,
especially at Christmas when they feature so significantly in the birth
stories, but why get obsessed with them when Jesus is superior? The angels are
not divine: Jesus is. No angel took on human flesh for the salvation of the
world: Jesus did. No angel received the Father’s vindication of their mission
in the way that Jesus did for his: ‘the name he has inherited is more excellent
than theirs.’

In Jesus, God has done something greater than anything else
in history. His work in Jesus is unique. The incarnation and redemption are
unrepeatable. Here is where history turns. However we look at the problem of
evil in creation, this is the point of God’s decisive world-changing act.

Conclusion
So why go through all this? Hasn’t the world had enough of
Christians (or people of other faiths, for that matter) who have a smug
superiority and who use that feeling to tread other people down? Shouldn’t we
be listening to those who call for peace, tolerance and dialogue among the
religions? Shouldn’t we just live and let live?

Certainly there is much to be ashamed of in the history of
religion and of Christianity. But the Incarnation gives us the clue as to how
we should respond. Did Jesus come with violence and coercion to force people to
follow him? Quite the opposite. He came in weakness and in humility. That same
Incarnation which shows us the uniqueness and superiority of Jesus Christ which
we cannot negotiate away without betraying him also shows us the gentle and
gracious way in which we firmly, lovingly and winsomely hold to our faith in
him as we swim against the tide in our culture.

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