Monthly Archives: December 2008
I had a bunch of great friends during my first appointment. As well as being involved in an ecumenical youth ministry, we met up socially for pizzas, video and wine on Friday nights.
We also met soon after Christmas every year. Sue, who was like the mother of the group, always insisted we each named our favourite and worst presents. It gave us a chance to celebrate the kindness of our friends and families, and to let off steam without being nasty regarding the embarrassing gifts.
I remembered that tradition this year when opening my presents. Undoubtedly my favourite present was from my wife: a DVD box set of The West Wing – all seven series on 44 discs. There’s something for my upcoming sabbatical.
The most embarrassing came from a well-meaning non-Christian friend. It was a mug. A ‘Man Of God’ mug, to be precise. On one side was the beautiful words of Isaiah 40:31, on the other the legend ‘Man of God’ next to a picture of an eagle (as referenced in the text).
My friend meant well, but I hope the reason for my embarrassment is obvious. Of course by grace alone I am a man of God, but it is never a title I would claim for myself. The Christian Church is riddled in every tradition with people who have believed their own hype.
It’s only a year or so since another friend bought me ‘holy socks‘ a.k.a. ‘faith on your feet’. They carry the text from Exodus 3, ‘Take off your shoes, for the ground where you are is holy’. Yes – take off your shoes, but not your socks, apparently. Again, a kind friend who thought that a minister might appreciate something like this, and who wouldn’t understand why some Christians don’t go in for this stuff.
So having hopefully brought a smile to your face, pray do share in the comments below: what have been your best and worst presents over the years? Is there something you might like to admit to that would make the rest of us smile, too?
Here are some of the destinations where I stopped on this week’s digital travels.
The ten worst predictions of 2008 (an American flavour, but not exclusively so).
What are they playing at? Westminster Abbey adds Hindu snowmen to Christmas displays.
In a week when we face the lousy possibility of a sickly version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ becoming the Christmas number one thanks to the X Factor, the first winner of that show, Steve Brookstein, says this:
Simon Cowell bought the rights to Christmas. From now on it’s called X-mas.
Heaven help us all.
Father Christmas has let me in on the present my parents have bought for my wife. It’s the DVD of Mamma Mia. You may have heard that this has become the fastest-selling DVD or video of all time in the UK – faster even than Titanic. Maybe it’s more than the catchy songs of Abba.
Or it might have to do with the fact that when times are hard, we look for some good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. Admittedly the current revived interest in stage musicals predates the recession, but it would be nothing new for there to be a revival of them during a recession. Certainly that was true in the nineteen thirties.
In the current climate, how many of us are spending less this Christmas? Or are we putting even more on the plastic and postponing the evil day? Could the Christmas story have a message for people whose credit is being crunched?
I think it does.
Sometimes we get the wrong image of Mary and Joseph. Some people assume that Joseph as a carpenter is some kind of self-employed businessman with a decent income – rather like the reputation of plumbers. Then we grab hold of the attempts to book into an inn and think of them trying to get into the Bethlehem Travelodge. It’s not quite what you’d expect from people on benefits.
However, the traditional English translations that say ‘there was no room at the inn’ are almost certainly mistaken. The word translated ‘inn’ from the original Greek of the New Testament is one that means a guest room. That could be a guest room in an inn, but it could also be a guest room attached to a typical single-room Palestinian peasant dwelling.
Given the Palestinian emphasis on hospitality, that is more likely. Joseph’s relatives try to do what is expected of them and take the couple in, but all they can offer is the raised area where they keep their livestock. And hence the baby is laid in a feeding trough. This is a picture of poverty.
And later on, when the infant Jesus has to be dedicated in the Jerusalem Temple according to Jewish tradition, his parents make the lowest cost offering, the offering prescribed for the poor.
What do we have, then, in the arrival of Jesus to his mother and legal father? We have the presence of God in the middle of poverty.
The recession will mean poverty for some (although not on first century Palestinian terms), and reduced standards of living for others. But Jesus promises to turn up in the middle of difficult circumstances. Focussing on his presence – rather than presents – will make Christmas a celebration, whether we have a lot of gifts to open or not.
So if you are struggling this Christmas, invite Jesus in. He’s probably hanging around somewhere close already. Ask him to make his spiritual presence known in your time of difficulty. He’s used to that kind of situation. And his love transforms it.
Something else about my wife. Until she married me, she had lived all her life in the town where she was born: Lewes in East Sussex. If there is one thing for which Lewes is famous, it is the annual bonfire. Six ‘bonfire societies’ produce amazing public displays for the Fifth of November every year. You may know that historically, as a town steeped in the tradition of dissent, the Lewes Bonfire has paraded an effigy of Pope Paul V, alongside one of Guy Fawkes and of contemporary bogeymen, such as Osama bin Laden, George W Bush, Tony Blair and Ulrika Jonsson in recent years.
But you might recall the national controversy five years ago when one of the bonfire societies from the village of Firle made an effigy of gypsies in a caravan. The effigies are traditionally burned every year to the cry of ‘Burn them! Burn them!’ A group of travellers had particularly annoyed the residents of Firle that year, and hence the choice.
But several members of the bonfire society were arrested by police, and an investigation was carried out into whether criminal offences relating to racial hatred had been committed.
Why talk about Bonfire Night at Christmas? Because if you get a flavour of popular disdain for travellers and gypsies, you will get a feel for how shepherds were regarded in Palestine around the time of Jesus.
We have cuddly images of shepherds from our nativity plays, Christmas cards and perhaps from our carols, too. But the reality is that they weren’t liked that much. Oh, the Bethelehm shepherds could supply sheep for the Temple sacrifices in nearby Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t be allowed inside the Temple themselves. Popular opinion saw them as thieves.
Yet the angels show up for a group of first century pikeys. Excluded people. A group that suffered discrimination and prejudice. Were the birth of Jesus to have happened in our day, we might imagine angels showing up in a deportation centre for failed asylum seekers or an AIDS clinic.
Perhaps there is some aspect of your life that pushes you to the fringes of society. Maybe it’s a reason for people rejecting you. If so, then the Christmas message is one of Jesus coming to offer his love precisely for somebody like you.
But what about everyone else? It’s very nice to say that Jesus has come for the poor and the excluded, but didn’t he come for everyone? Yes he did, and the message of the angels to the shepherds is a message for us all. The newborn baby is a Saviour (verse 11), and the angels sing that God is bringing peace on earth among those he favours (verse 14).
Now if we’ve heard the Christmas story over and over again in our lives, these references to ‘Saviour’ and ‘peace on earth’ might become part of the words that trip off our tongues without thinking. But we need to connect them to one other detail in the story. It came right at the beginning. Who issued the decree about the census? The Emperor Augustus (verse 1). Who was described as a saviour, because he had come to bring peace and an end to all wars? Augustus. Whose birthday became the beginning of the new year for many cities in the Empire? Augustus’.
Did he bring peace on earth? What do you think?
I don’t mention all this just to give you a history lesson, two days after the school term has finished. I think it has important connections today. Having talked about the poor and the excluded, let’s talk about one person who this year has been far from poor and certainly not excluded. Barack Obama.
Remember his slogan? ‘Change we can believe in.’ As one magazine said, it sounds like Yoda from Star Wars came up with it. Change was the word he kept emphasising. So much so that even his ‘change’ slogans kept changing!
The same magazine that likened his slogan to Yoda also interviewed John Oliver, the British comedian who appears on the American satirical TV programme The Daily Show. The journalist asked him, ‘How long will we be living in an Obama Wonderland?’ Three weeks, or at most four, said Oliver.
Well, you might reasonably say that Jesus hasn’t brought peace on earth, either. Sometimes the Church has made sure of that, and we have a lot for which we need to apologise. It isn’t just the wars in the name of religion (although atheism and liberal democracy have a lot to answer for, too). It’s been our attitudes in ordinary relationships.
What we the Church have departed from has been the prescription of Jesus for peace on earth. Peace on earth means not only peace with God, because Jesus would die on the Cross to bring the forgiveness of our sins. That peace requires peaceable attitudes with one another.
The Christmas message, then, for all of us, is one not of indulgence but of sacrifice. In Jesus, God descends – even condescends – in humility to human flesh and a life of poverty, blessing the poor and the excluded. The descent continues all the way to the Cross, where he suffers for all. And having done all that, we cannot presume it’s just to receive a private blessing of forgiveness. It’s so that the peace we receive from him at great cost can be shared with one and all.
May peace be with us all this Christmas. May the peace of Christ be the most precious gift we give and receive.
Wandering around St Augustine’s last Sunday morning before the service, I noticed the place where the Catholic community leave their votive candles burning after their 9 am Mass. I’m sure there is a special Catholic word for it, but I’m afraid I’m ignorant of these technicalities.
In front of the candles is a kneeler and small rail. On the rail are some cards containing the texts of prayers. Prominent among them was a prayer to Mary written by the current Pope. Of course as I read it I realised it was not addressing Mary in prayer in the way you would God. It was asking Mary’s help in approaching God, and in the ways of discipleship.
Nevertheless, my Protestant bones got nervous! And maybe a number of us still do at the mention of Mary, despite warmer relations with Christians of other traditions.
Yet whatever reservations I want to enter about traditional Catholic attitudes to Mary, it’s entirely wrong just to be negative about her, which is the Protestant error regarding her. Mary is a great example of Christian discipleship herself. Remember she was at the Cross and among the disciples praying in the lead-up to Pentecost.
And she is an example of Christian discipleship here, too, in the famous story of the Annunciation. How so? In ways that are fundamental to all followers of Jesus. Her life – even here, at the tender age of about thirteen – is a testimony to Christian basics.
‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessèd art thou among women,’ say our Catholic friends. They are quoting this very passage. To quote it from the reading, Gabriel says:
‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ (‘Blessèd are you among women’ is not in the best manuscripts.) (Verse 28)
The difference I have with Catholics is that Mary is not the giver of grace but the recipient of grace. ‘Full of grace’ means she is the ‘favoured one’. God has favoured her. There is no indication of any reason why she has deserved this. Rather, this is the sovereign choice of God in deciding to favour one of his children. There is no requirement that Mary is sinless, it is about the sovereign grace of God.
But what kind of favour is it? God has chosen her to bring his Son into the world. In one respect, that is the most enormous honour. It is an incredible decision of favour towards Mary. What could be more wonderful than to carry the presence of God in her womb for nine months? What could be more incredible than to be the one who brings God in the flesh into the midst of humanity?
So you could say that we have a similar privilege. God’s favour towards us is that – while we do not carry Jesus physically as Mary did – we carry his presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and we have the missionary privilege of bearing his love into a broken world. God honours us, too, then: he makes us what Paul calls ‘ambassadors’, but not only in representing Christ to the world. We take Christ to the world. God chooses every follower of his Son do this. It shows his favour towards us.
But it is a favour in the form of a double-edged sword. For Mary to accept the call was to risk scandal or even worse. In a society that held strongly to its morals, pregnancy outside marriage would bring shame. Adultery, of course, was punishable by stoning. It was potentially costly in the extreme for Mary to embrace the favour of God. She did so, taking a huge risk. Certainly there is ancient evidence of stories being put around that Jesus was the bastard son of Mary and a Roman soldier. Receiving and accepting the favour of God meant she could be reviled and despised.
And the favour of God is a challenge for us, too. Yes, it is a privilege to bear witness to Christ in the world, but we know that sometimes comes at a price. Snide comments, ridicule and on other occasions worse things than that. Yet the early church considered such opposition their badge of honour. Mary’s willingness to take on all that the favour of God would mean for her is an Advent reminder to us that the favour of God in Christ carries a price that is worth paying.
One of the things I most like about Mary is that she asks questions. ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ she asks (verse 34). I’ll say something more about her questions in the final point, but for now let’s notice the angel’s reply:
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ (Verses 35-37)
Mary, you don’t have to abandon your morals to accomplish this. You don’t have to worry about doing the impossible. The impossible is God’s department, says Gabriel. Mary, you cannot fulfil your calling under God except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And this too becomes an important reminder for us about the nature of Christian discipleship. There is so much we do and maintain in the church and in the world purely on the basis of our own strength. Our criteria are whether we think we can do something, rather than asking what God has called us to do, and then depending on the Holy Spirit.
It’s the latter which is true discipleship, not the former. We are the agents of God’s impossible ministry, and it is accomplished not on the basis of our abilities (however important it is to dedicate them to God). Nor is it achieved by force of strong personalities. God’s work is achieved by our co-operation with the Holy Spirit.
So when Gabriel tells Mary, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you’, he doesn’t just tell her the mechanics of what is to happen in the near future: he foreshadows the way in which God will send the Holy Spirit on all the followers of Christ.
A wag once said that if the Holy Spirit were withdrawn from the church, then ninety five per cent of all church activity would continue just the same. That may be a trifle unfair, but the point is probably a sound one. We have got so used to running the institution of the church that somewhere along the line many of us have just assumed the presence of the Holy Spirit, rather than lived in active dependence upon him [her?].
So let’s not confine the Holy Spirit to an annual remembrance on the Day of Pentecost. Advent is a time for remembering that the work of the Holy Spirit is three hundred and sixty five days a year, twenty four hours a day. As we celebrate the Annunciation to Mary today, will we recommit ourselves to seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to do the will of God, rather than confining God to the limits of our abilities?
Yes, today is a day to say, ‘God, we give you permission to stretch us. Challenge us to something beyond our capabilities, and we shall rely on your Spirit to accomplish your work.’
Now here’s the point where I want to bring back the fact that Mary asks questions. That might not be what you expected me to highlight when talking about her faith. You might have thought I would have gravitated to those wonderful words of hers, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (verse 38). Certainly those are words of faith. Taken on their own, they might depict a serenity of faith to which many of us aspire.
And in contrast to that, some might think that when she questions the angel, saying, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ (verse 34), that those words reflect doubt, lack of faith, or even unbelief.
But I submit to you that Mary’s question is not an act of doubt or unbelief. If you had read Luke’s Gospel from the beginning, you would have come across an example of that, where Zechariah hears the angelic announcement that his wife Elizabeth is to bear a son, John the Baptist. Zechariah’s unbelief leads to his being struck dumb until the child is born.
Gabriel doesn’t react that way here. He gives an explanation in response to Mary’s question. I suggest the difference is because Mary feels secure enough to ask questions from within the framework of faith. Having faith need not mean we don’t have questions. The Old Testament is full of such faith. Read the Psalms, where so many of the Psalmists complain to God from a standpoint of faith. Mary isn’t even complaining, she’s just asking ‘how?’.
What’s the difference between faith with questions and unbelief? That’s in Mary’s willingness to obey. You can question but still obey, and that’s what Mary does.
One hymn I hate and will not choose (not that it’s in any Methodist books any more) is ‘I vow to thee my country‘. I take particular exception to the line, ‘The love that asks no question.’ Not only does the hymn require a devotion to country that outstrips our loyalty to God (whatever the final verse says), I’m not sure I even offer God a ‘love that asks no question’. Certainly Mary didn’t. And there’s no reason why we should, either, just so long as we are willing to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
When I began my career in the Civil Service, I had to spend four weeks away on a training course. I shared accommodation with someone who had a Philosophy degree, and whose dissertation had been written on the subject, ‘Logical disproofs of the existence of God’. Knowing I was a Christian, he asked why I believed in God. But at the end, he made it clear he had no intention of taking it seriously and only did it for a joke. His questions were those of unbelief, not of faith.
Similarly, there are some within the church whose questions can be little more than scorn, rather than honest exploration in the service of Christ. That is hardly a questioning faith.
The key point is that faith has legs. Questions and concerns are fine, just so long as we retain a basic commitment to say ‘yes’ to Christ. Because that’s what a disciple is. Someone who imitates him. That’s going to require a faith that isn’t merely theoretical, but shows itself to be real in obedience. Provided that is at the heart of our faith, we can ask all the questions we need. God is not threatened by them.
Mary, then, is not some unattainable, semi-divine figure. She is a human, vulnerable follower of her Lord. As such, she can be an inspiration to us as we seek to walk in the way of faith.
Like her, let us accept the gracious favour of God to share Christ with the world, and accept the cost we may have to pay.
Like her, let us depend on the Holy Spirit for the accomplishment of all that God wants to do in and through us, rather than continuing to go through the motions.
And like her, let us bring our questions to God and yet press on in the obedience of faith.
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Verse 38)