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A Sermon For Midnight Communion On Christmas Eve

Midnight Mass

Midnight Mass by Russell Smith on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Luke 2:1-20

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.’

Sermon: Wisdom And Folly

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician...

English: Iain Duncan Smith, British politician and former leader of the Conservative Party. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20

It’s not often I would identify myself with Iain Duncan Smith MP. I certainly can’t square the recent benefit changes with his alleged support for social justice and his country house home. He went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, but the only places I have visited at Sandhurst have been Marks and Spencer and Tesco.

But I do share the odd trait with him. The politically aware among you may remember how there was a huge contrast in personality between himself as Leader of the Opposition and Tony Blair, as the charismatic Prime Minister. At the 2002 Conservative Party conference, Duncan Smith tried to make a virtue of the difference. “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man,” he said. Unfortunately for him, when he got to the House of Commons again, Labour MPs would put their fingers across their lips and say, “Shush” every time he got up to speak.

His quietness was derided, and that has sometimes been my experience in the church as well: a quiet leader can be derided. Either people want a larger than life minister or you find you have consistently made the same point in meetings, only for people at future meetings of the same committee to say that something has not been addressed.

Why tell you this? Do I want your sympathy? No. Well, not on this occasion. Our passage has a lot to do with the contrasts between wisdom and folly.  The first image of wisdom we have here is that wisdom is quiet, but folly is loud:

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good. (9:17-18)

There is no shouting, or aggression, let alone violence, that goes with true wisdom. It is quiet and gentle. It does not arrest you, it does not grab you warmly by the throat and shake you. It is the still, small voice of God.

I have told before the famous story about the former Liverpool football manager Bob Paisley, who spoke very quietly at press conferences. One day, a journalist asked him why he spoke so quietly. “I speak quietly, so that you will listen,” he replied.

Might it be that the words of wisdom are spoken quietly by God and by God’s people in order that we might listen? It would be nice and easy if wisdom were served up on a plate for us, brought to us by waiter service. But it isn’t. We have to go in search of it, tuning our ears in to its quiet sounds that frequently are drowned by the noise of sin in our world.

That means God isn’t just going to splash his wisdom everywhere. Yes, it is available to all, but it will only be found by those who have a heart to search for it. We must want his wisdom badly – badly enough to set out on a quest for it, determined not only to find it but to put it into practice when we finally discover it.

Now clearly some of this means we need to develop a dogged determination in our devotional lives to hear the voice of God. Yes, it does mean a regular commitment to a style of Bible reflection that is suitable to us. It does mean spending time in prayer. It does mean commitment to a small group as well as to Sunday worship, and so on. All these things I’ve mentioned before, and will continue to emphasise. It’s why I remain concerned at the findings of our worship questionnaire, where a number of people identified Sunday services as the only times they seriously engaged with the Bible. We just can’t do that and get away with it if wisdom is quiet. It’s no good giving up quickly on spiritual disciplines when we don’t immediately have a stunning experience of God. Like a lover, he woos us, but he also plays hard to get, because he wants us to be serious about him.

And that leads into the second image of wisdom the Preacher gives us: wisdom is rare, but folly is common. To take some representative verses:

As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.
The heart of the wise inclines to the right,
but the heart of the fool to the left.
Even as fools walk along the road,
they lack sense
and show everyone how stupid they are. (10:1-3)

A small bit of foolishness creates a big stink in society, says the Preacher, and fools parade their foolishness for all to see. It’s not hard to see that, is it? Some people seek the spotlight, but have very little of substance to offer society. Plenty of people who gain the dubious status of celebrity could fall into this category.

Or we have people who become famous and are thrust into the limelight, simply because of their abilities in one particular field, and who are then labelled ‘rôle models’ by tastemakers and cultural commentators for some questionable reason. Footballers who end up biting members of the opposition might be included here. It’s hard to know who is the more foolish: those who deem footballers to be rôle models, or fame-hungry sporting stars who lack the wherewithal to set an example.

When we live in a society like this, feeling outnumbered by a catwalk parade of idiocy, what are we to do? We bemoan the triumph of style over substance. We despair of how a little trivia becomes a major thing. Having spied the front page of a certain red-top tabloid this last week leading on the story of a boy band splitting up, because presumably they have a strong idea that is important to their readers, I share that same sense of exasperation.

But it’s never acceptable for the Christian to give up in the face of a folly-ridden society. It remains our missionary call to keep speaking the wisdom of God, whatever the odds. After all, according to the New Testament, Christ is the wisdom of God, and how can we not speak about him? How can we not see all the more clearly our society’s need of Christ when we witness the epidemic of foolishness around us, and are struggling not to become infected ourselves?

Yet it feels difficult to hang on and to remain consistently faithful when so much of what surrounds us makes it feel like we are paradoxically drowning in an ocean of shallowness. To that end, I find something that Graham Kendrick said over thirty years ago. He said,

“When the odds get too big, I just remember that Jesus plus me equals an invincible minority.”

Yes, we may be up against the odds, and things may not always be going our way, but as the First Letter of John puts it,

‘Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.’

Ultimate victory belongs to Jesus. God raised him from the dead and made him king of the universe. Whatever direction things are going at present, that direction is only the short term. We know the long term outcome for all creation. We are on the victory side when we witness faithfully to Jesus Christ, the wisdom of God.

The third and final picture of wisdom I want to share with you is this: wisdom is gracious, folly is wicked.

That sounds harsh on foolishness, doesn’t it? When someone is a fool, we either laugh at their idiocy or sympathise with their ignorance. But wisdom and folly are moral qualities in Scripture. Wisdom is not merely about intellect, and so in a week when the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins has topped a magazine poll as the world’s top thinker of the last twelve months, the Christian may accept the man’s intellectual abilities, but would never call him wise. After all, as one American theologian I know put it on Facebook this week,

his views on religion … are simplistic, ill-informed, and simply wrong.

Here is the part of the reading that makes this point:

Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious,
but fools are consumed by their own lips.
13 At the beginning their words are folly;
at the end they are wicked madness –
14     and fools multiply words. (10:12-14)

We are equally not exercising wisdom in the church when we use our knowledge or cleverness to put someone else down. We are using wisdom – the wisdom which ultimately is Jesus Christ himself – when grace is our theme and our motive. We show wisdom when we speak with grace about grace.

It is surprising how often grace is excluded from Christian conversation. After the recent convictions of Mick and Mairead Philpott for the killing of six of their children, I saw within a short time on the Internet Christians putting messages that they longed for them to burn in Hell. Where is the grace there? It is as if what we really think goes something like this: we are good, other people are bad, and we will get to Heaven because we are good. Nothing could be further from the Gospel, yet this lie goes round in church circles.

None of us would be here but for grace. The people we look down on in the church family are recipients of the same grace. The people in our society who commit terrible, yes, wicked acts, are in need of that grace. That grace is centred on the Cross of Christ. And the Cross is a divine foolishness that outranks human wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 1. It is indeed the wisdom of God.

We have said already that wisdom is a quiet voice and a minority voice. Well, nowhere more than here, where wisdom is characterised by grace is it a quiet, minority voice, even sometimes in the church. It is time to come back to the Cross, if we have strayed away. It is time to remember our experience of being humbled by love at the Cross. And when we recall our own humbling at the feet of divine love, then would it not be normal for us to begin extending that same grace to others within the church and beyond?

In a few minutes, we shall come to the climax of this service in the central act of gathered Christian worship, when we take Holy Communion together. Let our eating of the bread and our drinking of the wine this evening remind us of the grace and love God poured out for us in his Son.

Along with that, can we also recall that every Sunday is an Easter Day? Every week, the fact that the Christian church moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday reminds us of the history-changing events we mark on Easter Sunday. God calls us back to that empty tomb constantly. For there we see the grace of God every bit as much as we do at the Cross itself. At the empty tomb, God by his grace and power transforms hope-drained people into hope-filled people.

This is the source of our life, our life in Christ. I pray that it will feed us, and – through us – feed others, too.

Sabbatical, Day 91: ENFPs Come A Cropper

Thank you to everyone who has joined in the comments on the last two days’ posts, as I have begun to share the results of my surveys. This may be only a briefer third episode tonight, due to other circumstances: we took in two new cats yesterday and are busy reassuring them about their new home. Then this morning, the frames on my distance glasses disintegrated! However, more will follow on the surveys in the next couple of days.

For tonight, new readers join here: in my first two parts, I shared tentative evidence that the preferred Myers Briggs personality type for a minister seemed to be ENFP. However, not all the evidence points that way.

This may be due to the brevity of the survey again, but I asked a question where respondents ranked four qualities in order of preference. I asked ministers to rank them in order of strength in their ministries. I asked church members to rank them twice: first in order of preference for their imagined ‘ideal’ minister, and second for their actual minister. What were the results?

The ministers ranked ‘responsibility’ and ‘responsiveness’ equal first, ‘competence’ third and ‘charismatic personality’ fourth. 

Members of congregations did not differ significantly in the order they placed their ideal minister and their actual minister. (Are there happier relationships between clergy and churches than we sometimes imagine?) Both times they ranked ‘responsiveness’ first. ‘Responsibility’ came second in their ideal list, with ‘competence’ third, whereas those two qualities were equal second in their evaluations of their real-world minister. ‘Charismatic personality’ was ranked fourth.

As with yesterday, we are here in the field of leadership and management competencies. ‘Responsiveness’ is SP, ‘responsibility’ is SJ, ‘competence’ is NT, and ‘charismatic personality’ is NF. We might have expected on the other evidence for the NF management style to come top, but it came bottom. Why might this be?

Again, we are dealing with a necessarily abbreviated questionnaire. ‘Responsiveness’ sounds, and is, deeply pastoral. ‘Responsibility’ is important for a minister – without it, integrity collapses and there is discredit. ‘Competence’ is necessary, but is perhaps the kind of quality more often noticed when it is absent. Most of the time it is like some of the best referees in football – conspicuous by invisibility, unless there is a crisis.

But ‘charismatic personality’ can be a loaded term in our culture, for good or for ill. Many church people are understandably wary of the celebrity culture we live in, and want to see substance. Charismatic personality may sound like personality coming ahead of genuine ability. 

Moreover, some areas of the Christian Church have gone overboard on the elevation of leaders with charismatic personalities, and have then seen them fall spectacularly. It is a more than reasonable claim to say, “I am willing to sacrifice the importance of a magnetic personality in the Church for the less glamorous but more important priority of getting the job done with Christian love. If that makes things less spectacular, so be it.” We may bemoan the lack of big name preachers, but we will trade that for faithfulness, if that is the choice.

It is interesting, therefore, to compare this with the long description of ENFPs I linked to above from the Personality Page website. They are warm and enthusiastic, and can talk themselves into or out of anything. They have a broad range of talents and show great warmth in their interest in other people. However, their weaknesses include a failure to follow through on projects they start (something I mentioned yesterday), a strong need to be liked and when they ‘go wrong’ they can be manipulative, using their way with words to get what they want.

I suspect we have had such an overload of ENFPs ‘going wrong’ in the public sphere that this has made people nervous of the dark side of an ENFP’s personality. Their strengths are wonderful in pastoral ministry, but their weaknesses can be fatal. So I think I take this result in the survey as a reaction to the weaker sides of ENFP leaders. Every personality type has its weakness, but if ENFPs often end up in church leadership, then the manipulative side of the charismatic personality is what needs guarding against.

Thoughts, anyone? As always, I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below. 

…………

Finally, thanks to Allan Bevere for recognising my post three days ago on body image, self-esteem and the Gospel as one of this week’s ‘Best of the Methoblogosphere‘. I’m honoured. Allan presents a fascinating choice of blog posts from Methodism around the world every Saturday, and you will always find something worth reading that you probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Well, plus my stuff. 🙂

Sabbatical, Day 44: Link Love

What a beautiful day! Undoubtedly the warmest of the year so far, around 15°C or more here today. I’ve been walking without a coat for the first time this year, even without a jumper. (Don’t worry. It didn’t get worse than that.) So what better day for sitting in front of the computer and garnering a few choice links?

Allan Bevere is celebrating Lent with some jokes. Here is The Man Who Orders Three Beers and here is You’re Not A Monk. Special words for Allan – not only does he produce the weekly Methodist blogs round-up on a Saturday, he was also the first person to join my Facebook group, Christian Ministry And Personality Type. Thank you, Allan.

Some atheists want to rewrite history. Makes you wonder if they understand the baptism they’re decrying. Their point might make sense if baptism works automatically (‘ex opere operato’), without the consent of the one baptised, but for those of us who don’t believe that’s what baptism is about, this is more ludicrous atheist posturing.

If this doesn’t move, you nothing will: The 7 Life Lessons Of Craig Wong, 1972-2009.

Ben Witherington interviews Tom Wright.

Other than that, not an exciting day on the sabbatical front. More a time for some domestic jobs, like taking some old toys to a council centre to see whether they could be recycled. Buying a roasting chicken and some accompaniments before a church friend comes to dinner tomorrow: she’s going to babysit while we go to parents’ evenings for both children. Getting a repeat prescription from the surgery. Mark throwing a supersized wobbly, accusing me of stressing him (yes, he is really only four) when he wouldn’t change out of school  uniform to play in the garden.

So it was good to discover Graham’s blog Digging A Lot with his Lenten series on finding grace in the smallest and most ordinary of things. Without his comment today on yesterday’s post, I wouldn’t have known about this blog. What a joy it is. Recommended to all my readers.

I’ve been dilatory in ordering the books I need for the rest of the sabbatical, but I have three vouchers from W H Smith, not my usual first choice for literature. Each offers £5 off books costing £10 or more if ordered by the 29th. They might just make the difference. So I’m off to surf there now; I’ll see you tomorrow, I hope.