Monthly Archives: December 2013
I have mentioned before that the subject I disliked at secondary school was English Literature. I only developed a conscious interest in creative writing when I was an adult. Even now, I rarely read novels. If I read one novel a year, that’s quite a high rate, even for an avid reader like me.
But I have found some of the ‘literature’ aspects of the Bible fascinating. In particular, one insight about biblical poetry has stayed with me, and in a moment I aim to show you how it is important in this account of Jesus’ birth.
In the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms and large parts of Proverbs, Job, some prophets and so on rhymes. But it doesn’t rhyme like English poetry does. We rhyme the sounds at the end of each line. You can see that in the carols we are singing tonight.
Hebrew poetry rhymes differently. The Hebrew poets didn’t rhyme sounds, they rhymed ideas. So the second line rhymes the first by repeating the same idea in a different way. Or it states the opposite of the first line. Or it takes the idea of the first line and moves it on.
If you want to impress people at dinner parties, this particular kind of rhyming is called ‘Hebrew parallelism’. So now you know.
I want to suggest that the song of the angels to the shepherds can be understood this way, and that when we do, we see the power of the poetry they sing. Hear again their familiar words:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Verse 14)
In the first line God, and the second line refers to human beings. Heaven in the first line, earth in the second. Glory in the first, peace in the second.
So firstly, why does God in heaven receive glory? What has he done that is worthy of praise? Well, clearly, he has at last sent the promised Messiah, for whom his people have longed for centuries, to deliver them:
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)
At last! The prayers of the centuries are being answered. The waiting is over. To people suffering long comes good news. The angels sing praise, and if the shepherds can think straight in the middle of this strange and terrifying experience, they will, too. Hope is about to be fulfilled!
But you and I know that this child came as a very different kind of Saviour and Messiah from that which was expected. Not the mere human military ruler. And there are hints here, in that he is called ‘the Lord’. He takes on a divine description. This isn’t simply some warrior. This is God, come to command our allegiance. If he is military at all, he is the Lord of hosts, the Old Testament God of angel armies. God himself has come to save his people. This is not a human being calling Israel to rally to him.
What that will mean can only be hinted at in the barest terms in the nativity story, and even then it is easier to spot if you know how it all pans out. A humble birth to poor parents, and now lying in a manger, for example. God comes in weakness, and he will live and minister in weakness, depending entirely upon the Holy Spirit. He will die in weakness, but that weak death on the Cross will transform all things. He will not raise himself from the dead, but God the Father will do that for him by the power of the Spirit.
But for all this, God is glorified, God is praised. He has come to save his people. He has come to bring a revolution. But not a revolution that will spill the blood of enemies. A revolution of love. A revolution where the Messiah himself will spill his own blood, not that of others.
This is why God is to receive praise in heaven. Do the angels even know what is coming? Do they know the plan of God? We have no idea. But there are tiny signs now of what is to come, where God in Jesus will accomplish his purposes in the most humbling and astonishing ways. As the American Methodist minister and scholar Allan Bevere says, the God of Christmas is an embarrassment. He stoops as low as it takes. He enters the muck and the mire. He will go on to party with sinners.
So we have a choice with God this Christmas. We can be embarrassed by him – and take offence. That was what Jesus’ religious opponents would do, thirty years later, when he spelled it out in his words and actions. Or, God’s embarrassing actions can make us smile, laugh and rejoice. And then we give glory to the embarrassing God.
And secondly, what about this peace on earth? Lots of people jump on this and use it to support their favourite notion of peace. Christians with a very personal, individualist understanding of faith use the mention of peace here to buttress their claim that Jesus came to bring peace on earth between individuals and God. It’s rather like the way Billy Graham used to preach about having ‘peace with God’. It’s the peace that comes from having your sins forgiven and declared righteous by God, all because of what Jesus would do for us in dying for our sins on the Cross.
Other Christians, those with a social conscience, emphasise ‘peace on earth’ in the sense that Jesus came to bring peace instead of war to this world. They see an effect upon society, more than an individual transformation. They see the hope of the prophets that the lion would lie down with the lamb being fulfilled.
Let me suggest to you that the text requires us to see that Jesus’ coming to bring peace is both personal and social. It has to be personal, because this is not a general ‘peace on earth’, which you might be forgiven for thinking from the way this verse is popularly quoted, and from the way those who stress it purely in terms of social justice speak. For it is ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (my italics). It is peace being granted to the people of God, to his followers. Now that can still be social, as we shall see, and those good Jews who were desperate to see the end of Roman occupation could have seen it that way, but it is definitely specific. This is a gift of peace for those whose allegiance is to the God of Israel.
I offer to you the approach, then, that the song of the angels promises peace between people and God, and then the people of God as a people of peace. We have a world that longs for peace, and as the people of God we are meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. The church is not the kingdom of God, but we are meant to be the community of the King. Our common life as well as our individual life is to be a witness to the coming of God’s reign. Our life together is to show people what life under the rule of God looks like. That is why the bickering, the jealousy and the petty feuds we experience in the church at times have no place in our midst.
And where does it start? It begins with the personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. It means accepting his assessment of us as sinners, and his offer to make a new start, based on the Cross. He cures our alienation from God and gives us peace.
But it cannot stop there. The one who names Jesus as Lord and Saviour does so as an individual, but never in a private capacity. It is public and communal. God is building a people for his praise. He is doing it in his uniquely embarrassing way, as I said. The God who comes in all humility at Christmas offers us peace with him that we might build a community of peace in his name, a colony of heaven on earth.
If we as Christians are serious about celebrating Christmas, then we embrace a personal relationship with Christ and all that means – prayer, witness, discipleship and so on. And we also commit to one another in the church as we embrace our calling to show the world what the forgiven and forgiving life looks like. That would be a fitting way to sing the angels’ song:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
Here is a Christingle talk I prepared. It isn’t going to be used this year, but filed away for now.
Let me tell you a story about when I was a child.
I grew up in London, and one year our family decided to have a summer holiday in Scotland. It would be a long distance away, and my Dad didn’t want to drive all the way there and back.
So he booked us on a special overnight train from London to Perth in Scotland. It carried the cars at the back, and we went to special bedrooms in the main part of the train. We were to sleep in bunk beds while the train sped through the night to Scotland. My Dad and my sister shared one bedroom, my Mum and I shared another.
There was one problem: as a child, I was afraid of the dark. At home, we used to leave the landing light on at night, so that I wouldn’t be worried at night. But you couldn’t do that on the overnight train. So I insisted that Mum and I kept the main light on in the room all night.
I don’t think we slept much.
Is anyone else here afraid of the dark? I wonder why we are scared of the dark. Sometimes we think there are monsters at the end of our bed. Other times we hear the house creak and we think it’s going to collapse. In other words, we connect the darkness with bad things, scary things, horrible things.
So if we think about the darkness as something bad, we think about the light as something good. And when we call Jesus ‘the light of the world’ or ‘the light that shines in the darkness’, we are saying there is something good about him. He shines light – goodness – into the darkness. The Bible says, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’
And that’s what we’re celebrating at Christingle and at Christmas. We know there is a lot of darkness in the world. That is, we know there is a lot of bad in the world: people are selfish, greedy, angry, they hurt people and so on. But we believe that light has come. Jesus is the light and the darkness cannot win in the end.
How is Jesus the light in the darkness? He starts with us. He wants to forgive the darkness in us. He took that darkness upon himself. That’s why when he died on the Cross, the sky went dark. Then he wants to change us, to live more like him. He shows us the way to live a good life, full of light, and he offers us his power to live that way. He also promises that one day he will judge the world, and the evil darkness will be gone.
This Christmas, as you take your Christingles away with you, look at the candle. Remember Jesus, the light of the world, who can shine his light into your world when the dark things worry you. Remember Jesus the light of the world, whose light can change the darkness of our own bad things. Remember Jesus the light of the world, who promises one day to chase all the darkness away.
Here is the address I gave at yesterday’s carol service.
There are two groups of people I would like us to think about for a few minutes this evening.
Group number one: cast your mind back to July this year, and the birth of the royal baby. Crowds gathering at Buckingham Palace awaiting the posting of the official announcement; other crowds at St Mary’s Hospital, camera phones poised behind the barricades for that first glimpse, and then an outburst of applause and flash as the proud parents came out.
Follow that with the speculation as we awaited the announcement of his name. And sure enough, he was given conventional royal names: George Alexander Louis. Kevin and Tyler weren’t in the running.
Then we had the christening, where there was more media coverage about the gown the young prince would wear than the meaning of the ceremony. Do only the royals dress up their little boys in frilly clothes, or is it just preparation for a public school uniform when he is older?
Trappings, ceremony, accoutrements – and enough coverage in Hello magazine to destroy all the rain forests. We expect that with a royal birth. Facebook and Twitter going crazy, you know the deal.
Yet we celebrate a royal birth at Christmas that looks so different. No privilege, no wealth, no ease. Mary is a teenage girl who may popularly be suspected of a scandal. She doesn’t come from an upwardly mobile family, and she had no chance of an education, let alone one at a prestigious historic university. Joseph wasn’t born licking a silver spoon, and he merely grew up to become an artisan, working as some kind of carpenter, builder or stonemason. You want that extension on your house or that new fitted kitchen? Call Joseph, and he’ll turn up in his old Transit van, with his plaid shirt, beer belly, and a copy of the Daily Mirror.
Royalty? Well, the only connection they got with royal circles was when the local despot Herod felt threatened and sent his death squads into Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus have to leave everything behind and become refugees. No palace for them.
All of which leads me to believe that the Christmas story is especially for the poor, the forgotten, the obscure and those who think they are nothing or worthless. Do you feel insignificant? Jesus came for you. Do you feel like you don’t count? Jesus came for you, too. Or do you feel like you are on the margins, or rejected, or that you will never be popular? Do you believe that you are the sort of person who, when fame and fortune come along the road, take a detour to avoid you? The Jesus who came in the Christmas story is for you.
Perhaps, though, you are not like that. You may be one of those Surrey residents who has wealth or power or position or influence. If so, then the story of Christ’s coming at Christmas is one that holds dangers for you – or at least warnings. It is no good relying on our social position or our prestige with Jesus. Why would the King of Kings and Lord of Lords be impressed by that? Doesn’t your power or property seem puny in the light of who Jesus is?
Christmas – the time when we celebrate the coming of the humble king – is the time when we can only come to that king in humility ourselves. We don’t get into heaven on the basis of our contacts or whose number is on speed dial in our phone. But if we do come in humility, then we discover the amazing truth that Jesus is for us.
Group number two: they were a gang of heavy drinkers who lived on the outskirts of town. They carried weapons, which they were ready to use and they were known to conduct burglary raids together. Better not get in their way, or they might use a knife. They weren’t unemployed, they had a trade, but people were happy to do business with them, just so long as they stayed out of harm’s way. Although they tended to use other people’s land for their work, and if they came over your boundary, then you’d better not argue. At least, not if you wanted to keep good health.
If you had a gang like that living in your town, what would your attitude be? Would you call the police? Would you band together to hold a public meeting and demand that civic officials took action? Would you lobby your councillors or MP?
And what would you call for? ASBOs? Have them locked up? Perhaps they’re really illegal immigrants and should be deported.
Do you know what you’ve just done? You’ve just kicked the shepherds out of the Christmas story. The shepherds were the rogues, the chavs, the petty criminals of first century Palestine. Not respectable. The Daily Mail would have run front page campaigns against them and their type.
And yet, and yet … these people, these crooks, these bandits, these ne’er-do’wells, these scum of the earth are the first to hear the announcement that the Messiah has been born. If you think that Jesus came just to hang out with the ‘good’ people, forget it. He came for the bad and for the misfits.
If you doubt me, think about some of the crowd Jesus hob-nobbed with during his adult life. They weren’t all scallywags, but plenty of them were. Simon the Zealot was a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on your political views. The brothers James and John had a nickname – they were called ‘the Sons of Thunder – well, what kind of guys get that for a nickname? Early Hell’s Angels, perhaps? Matthew was a collaborator with the occupying Roman army.
So Christmas is a time to put to bed once and for all the idea that Jesus came for good people. Right from his birth, throughout his life even to his death on the Cross , when he was crucified with two common criminals, Jesus came to offer forgiveness and a new life to people who knew they were bad.
If you think you are a failure, this is good news for you. if you think you could never possibly be accepted, this is good news for you, too. Jesus wants you to say ‘yes’ to him and follow him.
But others here might be thinking, I don’t see myself like that. I’m a good, decent, hard-working member of society who is trying to be respectable. I put things into society, I’m not a taker. Why should Jesus favour the scroungers and the hoodlums? It’s unfair.
Do you know what the basic problem with that argument is? When we try to argue that we are fundamentally good, we manipulate our image. Like a photo of a plump person with acne being made to look clear-skinned and slim in Photoshop, so we tell the good story about ourselves and we mask the ugly truth about our own selfishness.
And Jesus won’t let us get away with that. Following him can only begin and continue with an acknowledgement of our selfishness, our thoughtlessness, our unjust behaviour. Without that humility he can’t clean us up, much as he wants to.
So I invite you to be like the shepherds this Christmas. Come dirty to the manger, and find the One who accepts your praise, makes you new, and calls you to follow him.
The language ‘kingdom of God’ is a problem today. Most obviously it’s a problem if you live in a republic. How do you relate to the image? One American Christian writer faced that difficulty and decided to paraphrase it in a way that he thought maintained the impact of the expression. He called it ‘the revolution of God’.
And even in a monarchy like the United Kingdom, we have trouble relating to the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. In our nation, the Queen acts on the advice of her ministers. The sovereign’s powers have been circumscribed over history. We, too, need to understand that when John the Baptist comes proclaiming the kingdom of God – the very theme that will be central to the ministry of Jesus – we are talking about a revolution. The revolution of God.
Indeed, ‘kingdom of God’ was revolutionary language in New Testament times. And our mission this morning is to consider what kind of revolution John was heralding, and which would arrive in Jesus.
Because make no mistake, if our Advent preparations consist merely of tinsel, presents and mince pies we have missed its true meaning. This is the season when we prepare for revolution.
And that is essential for us to grasp. We have taken it as a truism for so long that the kingdom Jesus came to preach was not the one that good Jews of his day longed for. That’s a truism because it’s true! But if we Christians aren’t careful, we become smug or complacent about that, and we miss the fact that the kingdom of God is still revolutionary for us. Why? How?
Firstly, the revolution of God is an outsider revolution. John is not part of the establishment. No priest or scribe he, even though he was the son of Zechariah who ministered in the Jerusalem Temple. John puts all that behind him and goes to the wilderness. No flowing priestly robes for him, he goes for true shabby chic (without having it professionally distressed) in his choice of camel hair and a leather belt. I have joked in past years that he might have been the inventor of the ‘Bush tucker trial’ on ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ with his diet of locusts and honey, but actually he wouldn’t have been impressed at all by celebrities. In fact, given the scathing words he addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees here I can’t see him getting on the phone voting to save them.
Here’s the way God’s revolution often works. It comes from the margins, not the centre. It is rare for God to renew his church and reform society in a movement that comes through the structures of power in the church itself. He tends to be at work on the outer boundaries. He tends to be stirring things up among those who do not have access to traditional sources of power or authority. He takes delight in using nobodies. It’s not just the aims of God’s kingdom that are revolutionary, it is the methods, too.
And if that is true, then it is time for hope to spring up in the pews of the church. Hope – and perspective. Do not wait around, expecting the ministers and Local Preachers necessarily to be the standard bearers of God’s revolution. I would love to be such a person, but God may not choose me. Do not assume that because of my office God will somehow automatically choose me. That is by no means necessarily God’s way. He may come in power upon and through those of you who think you are nothing in the eyes of the church, let alone the eyes of God. It’s what he did, using John the Baptist in the wilderness. It’s what he did, having his son born in poverty and laid in a manger.
So I invite you this Advent to consider the thought that you are as likely as anyone to be the kind of disciple that Jesus would enlist to do something significant in the revolution that we call his kingdom. Do not let the disappointments of everyday life blind you to the possibility that God may choose to use people who are among those who are unexpected, the ones who would never pass the selection criteria for the ministry, the ones who never pass exams, the ones who have never been in the limelight or held a significant rôle in society.
Secondly, it’s a homecoming revolution. Listen to the language of homecoming:
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.” (Verse 3)
The Lord is coming home, is the message. He is coming to take his rightful place on his throne. That is why we can say the kingdom is coming.
And it was relevant to John’s audience. These words are quoted from Isaiah 40, where the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon begin. It is no accident that scriptures with that theme were relevant to John and Jesus. For in their day, the Jews believed they were still in exile. Not geographically, for they were in the Promised Land, but because they did not rule it themselves on behalf of God, but living under a foreign power, Rome, they felt they were still effectively in exile. Many felt God had deserted them. Some rabbis had said that after the final prophet in the Old Testament had spoken, the Holy Spirit had left Israel.
So imagine what it is like for them to hear that God is making a homecoming. He will reign – and the Romans will not. He will be present in his kingly power, not absent. This is good news. In fact, it really is good news in their terms, because the word ‘gospel’, which we translate as good news, comes from an ancient practice of proclaiming the great things the king had done. God’s return to Judah and especially to Zion is a Jewish form of gospel.
Yet now see these things not merely as Jewish gospel two thousand years ago, but in the light of the One who did come to Zion, Jesus the Messiah. He comes to reign. He comes and has the title ‘Lord’. He is Lord, and by implication, Caesar is not Lord. The Romans would not have the final say in this world, and nor will the powers that be today, be they political, military, economic or media. Like Jesus was to say to Pilate, they only have power because it has been granted to them from above. The true Lord of our lives and of the whole cosmos is Jesus himself.
So we rejoice that the powers of our day will one day have had their day, while Jesus reigns – not from Zion but from a hill outside where he was lifted up; not in a temple made by human hands but in the midst of a temple made of humans; not in the precincts of Jerusalem but at the Mount of Olives, from where he ascended and where he will appear again.
The authorities of today are put in their place. They can posture and pout as much as they like, but it is all vanity and we can laugh at it, because Jesus is the true Lord.
We can also resist their seductions, in the name of Jesus the coming Lord. It will anger them, and it will cost us, but their days are numbered.
And furthermore, if Jesus is the presence of God coming to us – Emmanuel, God with us, as we remember at this time of year – then we are no longer alone. God has no longer deserted his people. By sheer grace, God is with us. Yes, granted, God hides himself from us for seasons, but he has come to be with us and never to forsake us.
Thirdly and finally, it’s a revolution of repentance. Those who flood out from the big towns to John’s outsider location (verse 5) confess their sins and are baptised (verse 6). John says he baptises for repentance (verse 11). And when the religious élite come to seek baptism too – are they like modern politicians jumping on the coat-tails of a popular phenomenon? – he reserves his choicest insults for them:
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Verses 7b-10)
This is a kingdom where status counts for nothing. All that matters is the opposite of clinging to status: humility; the humility that leads to repentance. A repentance that does more than say sorry; a repentance that makes straight our crooked paths to be fit for the coming of the Lord.
This is a kingdom where no-one can rest on religious laurels. What could have been truer for good Jews than to trace their spiritual heritage back to Abraham? Yes, that strictly was where God began to form a pilgrim people for himself, but it could not be claimed as a badge. You could not hold up your ‘child of Abraham’ laminate on your lanyard and automatically be granted entry into God’s kingdom. There had to be substance, and that was shown by a willingness to change.
There has to be the substance of repentance for us, too, and it needs to be on-going. John could come to us and say, ‘do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Wesley as our father’”’ We are not a heritage site designed for spiritual tourists, we are a colony of God’s kingdom.
Let us beware what we are building on. In one previous church, a group of people objected to the use of modern worship songs alongside traditional hymns. (Those who enjoyed the contemporary songs were more generous in their attitude to the tried and tested gems from the past.) The final straw for one of this group came after I had left that church, when they decided to replace the pews with chairs. She and her husband resigned their membership. Her understanding of faith was based on the style of her heritage, and certainly not on the spiritual substance of what Wesley wrote about in his hymns.
So let us ask ourselves this question: when was the last time we allowed God to challenge our actions, our thoughts, our words or our lifestyles? Have we permitted God to effect a revolution in our own lives, such that he may use as agents of his revolution in the world?
There are many popular images of the church. It is common to say that it is a hospital for the sick and the sinners, and I certainly understand the church like that. But I think we also ought to ask what kind of church we are. Would it not also be reasonable to conclude that the church is a field hospital, healing its wounded so that they may be strong for the battle with those forces that foolishly resist the coming revolution? Here God binds up the injured nobodies and sends them to herald his kingdom from the outside, not the centre. Here in the church, his revolutionaries know the presence of Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord, following his instructions in his presence.
Have we signed up for the revolution? Because that is what John – and later Jesus – called us to embrace.
I have documented before how schools fail left-handed children and the experience of our own children at one school. (They later had worse trouble at another school where the Head said they should just adapt to a right-handed world and didn’t even believe you could use computers left-handed.)
This followed my own experiences in the Seventies when my secondary school failed to be supportive, not least in the use of fountain pens and also the enforced use of chairs with hinged desks that were only suitable for the right-handed. Some of that probably contributed to a chronic neck pain problem.
I might have hoped things would have changed. Not if my children’s schooling is anything to go by. And I now read of a school that forces left-handers to eat right-handed on the grounds of it being part of a social development programme, even though this caused one child to have tics and a stammer.
I would dearly like to hear some comments from educators on this issue. It’s outrageous. If schools think that simply providing left-handed scissors in the classroom is sufficient provision, they are deluded and complacent.