I know, I know, it’s not even Advent until next Sunday. It’s one calendar month to Christmas Day. But this afternoon I am recording a short message for a local Talking Books service. I hope this will do.
Last December, our daughter sang in the choir at a school Christmas production based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, imaginatively called Scrooge.
My wife would claim that I have a certain affinity with Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to the Christmas season. No, it isn’t that I want to take advantage of the poor like he did with Bob Cratchet, but it is that I can seem to do a rather convincing ‘Bah, humbug’ routine at this time of year.
What? A Christian minister doing ‘Bah, humbug’ at Christmas?
Yes, really. Because I get fed up and tired out by the rush, rush, rush in the lead-up to Christmas Day. We have so much to cram in. There are all the everyday responsibilities as well as the presents to buy, the Christmas letter to finish and the cards to send. My colleagues and I are having trouble finding a date in our busy schedules to go out for a Christmas meal together.
In my case, it’s complicated by the never-ending run of church services, equalled only in intensity by Easter. At this time of year, it’s carol services followed by Christingles followed by Midnight Mass followed by special Christmas Day services. All the time, I am meant to be the personification of jollity. For you, there may be other pressures. But on my first year as a minister over twenty years ago, I got past Christmas lunch and fell asleep on the bed.
Rush, rush, rush. Bah, humbug indeed.
But I guess it was like that for Mary and Joseph. Forced off to Bethlehem by the occupying Roman power. No room for them in the guest room at their relatives’ house there (sorry to disappoint you, but ‘no room at the inn’ is a dubious translation). The baby born in less than hygienic conditions. The first visitors, shepherds (who were regarded in those days rather like people might treat gypsies and travellers today). Yes, later come the beautiful gifts of the Magi, with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. But then comes the hurried evacuation to Egypt to avoid the blood lust of Herod, whom we know from other sources to have been a violently paranoid ruler.
I think they could be forgiven a bit of ‘Bah, humbug.’ Was it worth it? Really?
And maybe that’s what we’re tempted to think, not only in the run-up to Christmas, but at other times, too. Is it worth it when I suffer from a disability? Is it worth it when I am penalised by the bedroom tax and face financial meltdown? Is it worth it when I am bullied, or when people take advantage of me?
I mean, why not just say ‘Bah, humbug’ to it all?
Except what the Christmas story brings to us in the midst of all the darkness is a chink of light. The poetic description in the beginning of John’s Gospel about the coming of Jesus says, amongst other things, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not come to terms with it.’
Jesus and indeed the whole Christian message is real about the existence of darkness in our lives, within us and surrounding us in the world. But there is also this note of hope. Light is shining in the darkness. That light is Jesus himself, entering our human frailty with all he comes to do.
A favourite singer of mine is a Canadian artist whose profile is somewhat obscure in this country (although he is fêted in his homeland). His name is Bruce Cockburn, and he put it like this in one of his songs:
‘Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.’
Happy Christmas. You can put the humbugs away.
Last Sunday evening, I got in after Richard Goldstraw’s farewell service and tea at Addlestone to find that we had a new temporary resident in the manse.
OK, it was a life-size cardboard cut-out of her, and apparently it is doing the rounds of every house in our road that will have her, ever since the Diamond Jubilee street party.
Jokingly, I put up a comment on my Facebook page, saying that this had happened, and asking any of my friends if they had any messages they would like me to relay to her. These included one friend who had recently been to a Buckingham Palace garden party asking me to give her a cheery wave and say ‘thanks’ for the tea. Another thought I could ask her to whip up a sermon for today. Somebody wanted to know if she had changed her mobile number. And another saw the opportunity for a lucrative business opening. I could advertise my services to parents who are regularly nagging their children over their manners by offering a practice Royal Garden Party. They could ‘meet the Queen’ and ‘have tea with the vicar’.
Of course, I wanted to have some fun with this, but our concept of a ruler’s majesty has declined over the years. The Psalmist, on the other hand, has a rich view of God’s majesty. Yet even then, the way in which that majesty is expressed on earth and in the heavens (verse 1) is surprising at times.
Firstly, God shows his glory in weakness.
Recently I had to take our daughter Rebekah on a Brownies’ trip to the dry ski slope at Aldershot, where the girls had an hour of ‘donutting’ – that is, coming down the dry ski slope in a glorified large rubber tyre, while wearing helmets for safety. As we arrived at the car park, Brown Owl suddenly got very excited and shouted to everyone, “Look! A Vulcan!”
I should explain that this was not a reference to Star Trek but to a Vulcan bomber that could be seen in the sky. The Farnborough Air Show was about to start.
And maybe an air show like that is what we expect in terms of rulers showing their power and might. They use displays of military hardware or force. Think back to all those parades of the Soviet Army through Red Square that we used to see on the news.
But God goes explicitly against this in the display of his majesty:
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger. (Verse 2)
What could contradict military might much more than ‘the mouths of babes and infants’? Those who claim might and majesty by force are those God treats as enemies. He shows his glory instead in a tiny, fragile life.
The Psalmist wasn’t to know this, but several hundred years later God would show this explicitly. His majesty would be seen not in the palaces of Rome or Jerusalem, but in a manger in Bethlehem. Supremely Christians see this in the incarnation of Jesus. There is God’s upside-down majesty. Wonder at his glory in, say, the words of Charles Wesley:
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
For me, this is captured in the words of a contemporary Christian poet and singer, Bruce Cockburn, in two of his songs. One is called ‘Cry of a Tiny Babe’.
The chorus says:
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
Why does ‘redemption [rip] through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe’? Because this is how God shows the splendour of his glory – his majesty. He does so in a reversal of the world’s ways and the world’s values. In the scandal of humility, God reveals his glory.
What does that mean for us? Go to another Cockburn song, one called ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable Door’.
The stable door of the song is the stable in Bethlehem. In the lyrics of the final verse, Cockburn connects the frailty of the Incarnation with the revolutionary words of the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit –
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth –
May their gene pool increase
Cockburn took inspiration here from a wonderful spiritual writer called Brennan Manning. The final chapter of one of his books, ‘The Lion and the Lamb’, is called ‘The Shipwrecked at the Stable’. Manning makes the case that it is the poor and the weak who find hope in the infant Christ:
The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything. The shipwrecked find it not only tacky utterly absurd to be caught up either in tinsel trees or in religious experiences – “Doesn’t going to church on Christmas make you feel good?” They are not concerned with their own emotional security or any of the trinkets of creation. They have been saved, rescued, delivered from the waters of death, set free for a new shot at life. At the stable in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation they have been clinging to without knowing it!
All the time they are battered by wind and rain, buffeted by raging seas, they are being held even when they didn’t know who was holding them. Their exposure to spiritual, emotional and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought was important. The shipwrecked come to the stable seeking not to possess but to be possessed, wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ.
The God who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability can only be encountered in weakness and humility. Strutting pride and forceful power are not the entry tickets to the kingdom of God. The vulnerable God of Bethlehem meets those who are weak, who admit their need of him, and in doing so reveals his majesty.
Secondly, God shows his glory in insignificance.
I grew up as the son of an amateur astronomer. Even now, my father still belongs to the British Astronomical Association. One Saturday, Dad took me to London for a BAA lecture given by Patrick Moore. I didn’t understand it, but I noticed how he spent as much time afterwards answering the children’s questions as he did the adults’. Conversations at home were punctuated with Sirius, Orion, the Plough, the Pleiades, Aldebaran and the star I as a child called Beetlejuice. Television meant the Apollo missions, Tomorrow’s World and James Burke science shows. To learn that the nearest star outside our solar system was four light years away – that’s 23 trillion miles – was mind-blowing and awe-inspiring. Later, when I came to faith in my mid-teens, although I had not kept up the interest in astronomy, to gaze up at a clear night sky was to engender a spirit of worship:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Verses 3-4)
The Psalmist didn’t know what we know about the night sky, but what we know gives these words even greater force: our Sun is but one star among between two and four hundred billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. There are one hundred and seventy billion known galaxies in the observable universe.
In a world like that, don’t you feel tiny and insignificant? No wonder some people say our own planet Earth is just ‘the third stone from the Sun’.
No wonder others say that humans are just ‘dust in the wind’.
The contemporary atheist movement makes a lot of this. It says that the scale of things are such that it is ludicrous to see human beings as in any way special. We are just an impersonal consequence of the Big Bang and evolution.
What is difficult for these arguments is the evidence for the fine-tuning of the universe. An apologist for the Christian faith called Andrew Wilson lays out some of these in his recent book ‘If God, Then What?’ According to Wilson, there are fifteen different mathematical constant numbers that all have to be right to one part in a million (or even more precisely) for life to exist. If the ratio between the strong nuclear constant and the electromagnetic constant were different by one part in ten million billion, we would have no stars. If the balance between the gravity constant and the electromagnetic constant altered by one part in 1040, the stars would not be able to sustain life. And there are many others. Wilson quotes scientists who say that it is like ‘the universe knew we were coming’ and laid out a ‘cosmic welcome mat’.
But more than this, the Psalmist sees human beings as having a specific status and dignity in creation:
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour. (Verse 5)
And not only that, this special status comes with a particular function on God’s behalf:
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Instead of being meaningless, human beings have dignity and responsibility in creation. In the face of feeling insignificant amidst the vastness and power of creation, God grants to the human race the moral management of creation on earth. This is our calling as a race, and it has huge implications.
For one, this is a restatement of Genesis chapter one, where the function of human beings made in God’s image was to look after this planet. That is far from insignificant. It is humans who feel insignificant. That is not how God regards us.
‘Looking after this planet’ implies our daily work. One sadness I encounter in pastoral conversations is with Christians who think that because they are not ordained or do not work for the church, what they do is of little value to God. I think this is a legacy of our past. The Catholic understanding of vocation was indeed something like this. You had vocations into the priesthood, or into a religious order as a nun or a monk. The Protestant Reformation widened this, and so we began praying for people in the healing, caring and education professions.
But there are all sorts of opportunities for Christian vocation if our calling as people made in God’s image is to look after his world. Graham Dow, who was Bishop of Carlisle until three years ago, wrote a booklet on ‘A Christian Understanding of Daily Work’. He argued that there were three purposes of work for Christians:
- Creative management of God’s world.
- Moral management for the good of all.
- A community of good relationships.
While he didn’t go as far as Martin Luther, who once said that if the job of village hangman fell vacant, the conscientious Christian should apply, we can see from these three purposes of work that we have many opportunities to give glory to God in everyday life and work.
Although it would take a whole sermon to explore the three purposes of work, I want you to see that tomorrow morning, you have an opportunity to give glory to our majestic God in your work. Whether you are in paid employment, doing unpaid work, unemployed or retired, God has set us in a world where we may work to his praise and glory, whether what we do is overtly religious or not.
Yes, in weakness and in work, we can live our lives in ways that reflect the words with which the Psalmist both begins and ends here:
O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Verses 1 and 9)
A plague on the X-Factor, with its manufactured music and manufactured hype to get the Christmas Number One. (Not that any of these things are new.) So a campaign to usurp it, like the previous one to get Jeff Buckley‘s version of Leonard Cohen‘s ‘Hallelujah‘
up the charts, rather than Alexandra Burke‘s, is something I would welcome.
But more positively, it set me thinking about what would be on my personal Christmas playlist.
For fun, you have to have Dylan. Yes, really: the old goat is laugh-a-minute. The recent ‘Must be Santa’ has to be in there:
Bruce Cockburn‘s ‘Christmas‘ CD from the 1990s was pretty stunning. ‘Joy to the world’ is but one of the gems – unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to add the video into WordPress either directly or indirectly, so click here or possibly here to see it. Anyway, you won’t be surprised to find Cockburn in this list, since this blog’s name is inspired by him!
Back to the daft, and I have an irrational affection for ‘I Want An Alien For Christmas’ by the Fountains Of Wayne:
And for real Christmas kitsch, there’s nothing like a pseudo-Phil Spector sound, so over to Bruce Springsteen for ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’:
Or for the real thing, Darlene Love and ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’:
I mean, you just don’t need Mariah Carey, do you?
Of the mainstream big Christmas hits, there’s something I like about the guitar sound on Chris Rea‘s ‘Driving Home For Christmas’:
But where’s the Christian stuff? Randy Stonehill has written a couple. I can’t find a video online of ‘Christmas Song For All Year Round’, but someone has put pictures to the poignant ‘Christmas At Denny’s’:
For Christian cynicism about the commercial season, I can’t trace a video by Larry Norman himself of his song ‘Christmastime’, but here is Stonehill’s version, complete with the immortal lines
Christmastime is coming and the kids are getting greedy
They know it’s in the store because they’ve seen it on the TV
Well, that’s just some random stuff from me. What do you love at this time of year? What can’t you stand?
This week, I bought a new toy. Actually, you might say I’m treating it less like a toy and more like a pet, given how regularly I am feeding it and taking it for walks.
I bought an iPod.
I’ve wanted one for aeons. I love music. I have a large CD collection. The thought of portable, available music is bliss. Yet I’ve never bought an iPod before.
Sure, the last time I had to buy a mobile phone, I bought one that came with an MP3 player. But despite good reviews, the Sony Ericsson W810i proved to be unrecyclable rubbish. As a phone it’s good, but the MP3 is terrible. The software provided is the most unreliable I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve become quite acquainted with Sony Ericsson‘s technical support people, who could only blame it on an unspecified clash with other programs on our PC. What are the problems? When I do get tracks on it, either because the software got out of the bed the right side just for once, or because I resort to a conventional copy and paste in Windows, it has a sneaky trick for me. It mangles the order of the tracks. Usually, they are completely reversed. Occasionally, just the first track is moved to the end. Imagine that when you’re listening to a live recording, such as Bruce Cockburn‘s brilliant recent release Slice O Life.
Then it has another trick. It calls this ‘Playback failed’. At the end of a track (and lately in the middle, too) it goes on strike. The only solution is to reboot the phone.
In short, it’s about as productive as a nineteen seventies British Leyland shop steward. I swear I have a Friday afternoon phone, much as we used to speak of being saddled with Friday afternoon cars.
So I’ve been Googling around forums, seeking advice. You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have reported the same faults with this phone. (So maybe it’s not a Friday afternoon one, but Sony Ericsson’s regular standard. Do they supply specially tweaked ones to reviewers and then ship piles of manure to the shops?) I’ve tried all the suggestions I could find. Nothing has improved the phone.
Now my ideal iPod would be an iPod Classic. The 120Gb version. No, actually, the short-lived 160GB model. I would need all that capacity and more to fit in what I want. But the price was not right. Money for treats is not plentiful chez Faulkner. I could pray for the Lord to provide, but what had he provided? I had £25 in Amazon vouchers, and someone had also recently given me £20. The new bottom of the range 4GB iPod Shuffle was £56.60 on Amazon, whereas everybody else was charging the full £59.00. Whoo and indeed hoo, a £2.40 discount. I would only need to find £11.60 of my own money.
That was manageable, but was it right? I’ve always made a point of praying about financial decisions, especially big ones. I know this isn’t the biggest, but much as I wanted an iPod, I knew I could be giving in to self-indulgence here. There have been various occasions when God’s answer has been dramatically clear in my life. One was about getting to theological college the first time, when I was turned down for a student grant. There is a long and wonderful story I can tell about how God provided the finances.
And in 1998, I had another example. I was praying about buying a new computer. I wanted one. The old one was crawling and there was little more that could be done to cure its arthritis. I had an ongoing prayer, asking God to show me whether it was right to buy a new one or whether I was merely justifying my love of PCs.
I had a woman in one of my churches who had received the most remarkable gift of prophecy. One Saturday, she went down to the church building to pray on her own. While she was at the front of the worship area near the pulpit and communion table, she prayed for me. She told me soon afterwards that the Lord had told her to tell me I could have what I wanted. She had no idea that I was praying about buying a new PC.
It wasn’t so dramatic with the iPod. It clicked in a simple way. What was the reason I’d gone for a phone with an MP3 player? Answer: because I need to exercise more., and I needed a motivation to get out walking. Listening to music and podcasts became my incentive. All I can say is that still just felt ‘right’, and hence I welcomed my new silver arrival on Thursday morning.
And this experience prompts me to ask: what are the criteria you use as a Christian in making a serious financial decision? One or two of mine have poked their heads above the parapet in this story, not least the importance of prayer in the discernment of motives. Let’s have a conversation below in the Comments where we can encourage one another. And if you have some good stories, please share them. I for one would love to read them.
I don’t do well on first nights in new locations. Not on the evidence of this sabbatical, anyway. Having barely slept before 4 am on my first night at Cliff College a fortnight ago, I didn’t sleep before 1:30 here, then woke at 5:30 with a vile headache. (Not that I know what a nice headache would be, you understand.) At 7 am, I decided I needed a large dose of tannin, so I took the pint-sized mug I’d brought from home and made my first tea of the day. The pain slowly subsided over a period of several hours, until it was gone by late afternoon.
Trinity does worship differently from my time. Twenty years ago, nearly everything was Alternative Service Book. Except when Paul Roberts inflicted chanted Book of Common Prayer services, that is. Though the ASB has been replaced in the C of E by Common Worship, the college seems to have themes for particular weeks. This week it’s Iona Community worship, widely popular in many parts of the British church but something that drives me nuts. I have no problem with a liturgy that emphasises social justice and makes no division between work and worship. However, I have found several of their liturgies and some of their songs hectoring and lecturing. Not only that, the confession used this morning was fundamentally inadequate. I like the mutual confession approach of Iona (service leader confesses and congregation pronounces forgiveness, then the process is reversed), so I’m not critical of everything. But this confession started from the point that we had hurt ourselves, then others, then the world. Absolutely no reference to the rupture between humans and God that is central to confession. Remind me never to use it in worship.
There were good things – not least the brief testimony of a student as to what God did in a prolonged experience of a spiritual desert. And the guy who read the Gospel reading did so with great feeling. Those were highlights.
Lectures were more relevant this morning. The operating paradigm (I’m at a theological college – out come the long words!) was still that of the large church, but I felt that more of today’s material was translatable or adaptable. We began with a session on team leadership and issues around teams. We then looked at how to run a meeting, largely taken from the old John Cleese video ‘Meetings, Bl**dy Meetings‘. Finally, a few thoughts about some common mistakes made by leaders.
This afternoon had an optional session. I opted out. It comprised some BBC videos on assertiveness training. While that’s an area I could do with improving in, I needed some air and some exercise to counter the effects of the much improved food. I decided I would try to find some old haunts. Off I went across the Clifton Downs, down two roads whose names may just betray Bristol’s slave trade past – Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road – and on down, eventually to Park Street, where I used to frequent three shops. I knew that SPCK would have been long gone after the business atrocities that have been inflicted on that chain of bookshops. Sadly, Rival Records is no longer around – I remember buying Bruce Cockburn‘s World Of Wonders in there during my first year. And the Evangelical Christian Literature bookshop is now a branch of Wesley Owen, stocking everything from N T Wright to Joel Osteen. Insert words such as ‘sublime’ and ‘ridiculous’ as you see fit. I think I’m right in remembering that ECL had been founded by George Mueller.
Not being home today means I’ve missed Shrove Tuesday with the family, but Debbie told me tonight she and the children had decided to postpone pancakes until Saturday. I’m glad they have. Pancakes and their toppings are one of those simple pleasures where it is a joy to see the fun Rebekah and Mark have. Two small pancakes with toffee ice cream here at lunch time were delicious, but no replacement for being with the children. As to toppings generally, I’m a fan of those English Provender jars – no, not the garlic, ginger or horseradish, rather the raspberry coulis or the Belgian chocolate sauce. The latter has been harder to find in the supermarkets recently, though.Looking at the website tonight, I’ve noticed they now do a Fairtrade chocolate sauce, though.
More seriously, I had to miss a hospital out-patient’s appointment Rebekah had this afternoon. Eighteen months ago she had grommets inserted in her ears after protracted episodes of glue ear and consequent poor hearing. They still haven’t solved the problem. One grommet fell out a few months ago, and today they could see congestion in it. She may have to have more grommets fitted, poor lass. Recently, we’ve let her start answering the telephone, but conversations with her are punctuated with “What did you say?”
Tonight, I’ve just spent the time quietly reading. Next stop a spot of supper then an early night, I hope, to catch up on last night.
Hope is in short supply right now. Increased unemployment. Home repossessions threatening to hit 1991 records. Banks, the backbone of our economy, in turmoil. Many suffering fuel poverty as gas and electricity prices stay high, even when petrol prices have reduced. You know the rest. We could do with some hope.
In the time of John the Baptist, Israel could have done with some hope. You’ve heard it enough times. In their own land, yet feeling like exiles, because they were occupied by Rome. Every now and again, someone popped up to offer hope in terms of an uprising. Every time, Roman legions quelled the rebels and executed them publicly.
Well, you root yourself in another time when the people of God needed hope. The time addressed in Isaiah 40. Most of God’s people had been deported to Babylon, and had been there a few decades by this point. A handful had been left in Jerusalem.
Then, a prophet in the Isaiah tradition turns up in Babylon, addressing the dispirited exiles and the desolate residents of Jerusalem. Using three metaphors from the physical world around him – wilderness, grass and mountains – he offers God’s hope to those lacking it and most needing it.
And this theme of hope complements what we thought about last week, on the first Sunday of Advent. Then, our theme was waiting. Today, it is hope, which is the content of Christian waiting. Had we read to the end of Isaiah 40, we would have heard – depending on which Bible translation we used – about those who will renew their strength by either ‘waiting’ or ‘hoping’.
So – without more ado – how does the Isaiah prophet help us to hope, using these images of wilderness, grass and mountains?
Last week, as we considered the theme of waiting, we wondered how we live when it feels like God is absent. Isaiah 40 is bold in response to this: you may feel that God is not here, but God is coming! He gives us a picture that is a bit like the building of a new road (hopefully without the environmental concerns we have about such a project in our society). Prepare God’s way in the wilderness, make a straight highway in the desert, raise the valleys, lower the mountains, and smooth out the rough terrain, and you will see God’s glory (verses 3-5).
So – in a time of God’s apparent absence, the good news is that God is coming. In a time of spiritual darkness, the good news is that you will see God’s glory. Music, surely, to the ears of disillusioned exiles in Babylon, and beaten-down people in Jerusalem. This is a message of comfort. Your punishment is over. Enough is enough (verses 1-2).
We may not know when things will change for the better for Christian witness in our culture, but we can hear similar echoes of hope in Advent. Our waiting and hoping is for Jesus who is called Immanuel, God with us. God is coming. We are not alone. Christ is coming. Christ came. The Father sent the Spirit of Christ. Our sense of aloneness is only apparent. It is not actual.
Of course, we must be careful: proclaiming that in Christ, God is with us, can make us sound like we have a religious superiority complex. This is not a matter of our deserving special rank. It is a matter of grace, God’s undeserved favour to sinners. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Jesus, God with us, came for lost and sick people – including us. Yes, God is with us in Christ. But we hold that knowledge humbly. And as we share it, we do so as one beggar telling another where to find bread.
And the wilderness was specifically to be a place where God’s glory would be seen. Would God’s glory be seen in raining down fire and brimstone? No. It would be seen as he led a raggle-taggle bag of exiles back home.
Similarly, Advent is a time when we wait in hope for the glory of God. His glory will be seen and sung about in skies over Bethlehem. His glory will be seen, in the words of Bruce Cockburn,
Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
It’s a different kind of glory. It’s wilderness glory, a manger at the back of a house in Bethlehem, not a palace in Jerusalem. It’s the glory of God humbling himself into human flesh, one who later as an adult would not grant the wish of two disciples known colloquially as the Sons of Thunder, who wanted to unleash damnation on enemies.
Yes, come to unexpected dry places like a wilderness – like a manger – and find that God is present in strange glory. Come to Broomfield and find him? Why not?
When the prophet speaks about the people being like grass, I think he has wilderness grass in mind. It withers and fades in the heat of the wilderness, so when we hear about that happening when the breath of the Lord blows on it (verse 7), I think we’re meant to imagine that the Lord’s breath is hot and intense. The breath of the Lord, the Spirit of God, is not here life-giving but life-taking. The judgment of God had fallen upon the people with the Babylonian invasion and exile; now, like grass in the hot sun, they are withering and fading.
It’s not difficult to find similarities in later generations. In the days before Jesus was born, Israel was withering under oppression from Rome. In our day, we in the western church (especially in Europe) feel like we are withering and fading. What word of hope do we find here? It comes in verse 8:
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Whatever happens to us, the purposes of God are not thwarted. Whether we wither due to divine judgment on our faithlessness or whether it is general oppression or persecution, hear the promise that ‘the word of our God will stand forever’.
A story was told during the time when Russian communism ruled Eastern Europe. Soldiers raided the home of a Christian family and made some arrests. To humiliate them, they threw the family Bible on the floor. But a soldier noticed that one page didn’t burn. It contained the words of Jesus: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.’ That incident was key in the soldier’s conversion to Christ.
There will be many attempts to destroy God’s word from its place in our society, and some of those attacks will focus on the church. But we are in Advent, the season of hope. The word of the Lord stands forever, and the gates of hell will never prevail against the church of Jesus Christ.
None of this is a reason for complacency, but it is a reason for hope. Therefore, it’s here to boost our faith and fuel our prayers for God to renew his wonders in our day.
So God is present in his strange glory, and he is speaking and will not be silenced. Those are grounds for hope, but they are not very specific. We need a vantage point. The herald, the preacher (who by the way is female in the text), needs to ‘get up to a high mountain’ to see things as they are and be several hundred feet above contradiction in preaching good news to discouraged people (verse 9).
What good news? That God is victorious over the enemies of his people, that he comes in conquest, with his people as his booty, and with the gentleness of a shepherd caring for ewes and lambs (verses 10-11).
Israel’s hope was the end of captivity in Babylon. The hope in Jesus’ coming was in his resurrection from the dead. Our hope, based on that resurrection, is that of God’s final victory when he appears again, not only to claim his own, but to renew all of creation, with a new heaven and a new earth.
There are always reasons in the world to make us gloomy. At present there is a plethora of reasons. There are also reasons to be pessimistic about the western church. You would think there were few grounds for hope. But when you get up the mountain to see things from God’s perspective, the situation looks different. You see hope in the promises of God, who has acted decisively in the past, who will do so again, and who one day will make all things new.
It’s rather like the old story told by Tony Campolo. People give him all sorts of reasons to be negative about the state of the world and the church. But his standard reply is, “I’ve been reading the Bible. And I’ve peeked to see how it ends. Jesus wins!”
So let the world write us off. Let our friends regard our faith as irrelevant. Let Richard Dawkins describe religion as a virus. But see God’s view from the mountain: Jesus wins. Let that fill us with Advent hope.
And while we’re on the mountain, let us – like the female herald in Isaiah 40 – proclaim it to all who will hear. Let us encourage one another in the church. Don’t be dragged down by the lies and limited perspectives of the world: Jesus wins.
And let us also proclaim it to a world sorely in need of hope. To people who thought they could trust in money, until the banks blew up. To people who gained their sense of identity from their job, until redundancy hit. To people struck down with disability or chronic or terminal illness, whose lives had been based on the vigour of their bodies. To all these people and many others, proclaim that Jesus wins. It is promised in the actions of God and especially in the Resurrection. We have a hope worth trusting in. Why be afraid? Why be dismayed?
You may recall I’ve said that my first circuit appointment was in the town of Hertford. There, the Methodists regularly quoted John Wesley’s Journal regarding several of the visits the great man made to the town on his preaching travels. They were fond of quoting one entry in particular, where Wesley was utterly discouraged. It said, ‘Poor desolate Hertford.’ Those words hung like a curse over them.
But you may also remember how I have talked of being involved in ecumenical youth ministry in the town. Somebody gave me the complete set of Wesley’s Journal, and I looked up all the entries on Hertford. They weren’t all doom and gloom. Some were, but one in particular wasn’t. In it, Wesley recounted coming to preach at a school in the town. To cut a long story short, he saw a revival break out among the children.
You can imagine the impact that story had on us as we gathered to pray about youth ministry. Never mind ‘poor desolate Hertford’. There was a heritage of Holy Spirit work among young people in the area. God had not been absent or silent. He had been gloriously present, proclaiming Good News.
So I want to say that the Advent hope is like that. It is time to cast off the darkness. The great Advent text in Isaiah 60 says, ‘Arise, shine, your light has come’. This Advent, might we just dare to believe and to hope in our God?
And might we find that in this hope we have something beyond riches to share with a world, whose own versions of hope have plummeted in value?
Having just quoted in the last post from An Hour On Sunday by Nancy Beach, there is a quote from that book I have been meaning to post for reflection for ages. She includes it in her chapter on authenticity. It would also fit with what she says about creativity.
She tells on page 186 of how a friend had drawn her attention to an article in GQ magazine that was painful reading for Christians. Walter Kim, not a Christian disciple, had chosen to immerse himself in the evangelical subculture for a week – music, videos, even an exercise régime. His words were damning:
‘[Evangelical Christianity] is mall Christianity. It’s been malled. It’s the upshot of some decision that to compete with them – to compete with ‘N Sync and Friends and Stephen King and Matt and Katie and Abercrombie and Fitch and Jackie Chan and AOL and Sesame Street – the faithful should turn from their centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music … and head down to Tower or Blockbuster and check out what’s selling, then try to rip it off, on a budget if possible and by employing artists who are either so devout or so plain desperate that they’ll work for scale. What makes the stuff so half-assed, so thin, so weak and cumulatively so demoralizing … has nothing to do with faith. The problem is lack of faith.’
(Walter Kim, “What Would Jesus Do?”, GQ magazine, September 2002, p 496.)
Well, where to begin? Mall Christianity? (Love that ‘It’s been malled’ pun, by the way.) Yes: so much evangelical Christianity is consumerist, and thus in denial of the Gospel. What a tragedy when you think where the contemporary Christian music scene started out from: the revolutionaries of the Jesus Movement around the late 1960s and early 1970s who were committed to a radical lifestyle. Now it only matters if it sells. No wonder the likes of Larry Norman never fitted in with it.
The quote is also the best piece of writing for making me reflect on why the wider world has despised contemporary Christian music. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t get played on grounds of prejudice, and I don’t doubt that is partly true – the deliberate snubbing by the media of bands like Delirious? is a case in point. But what Kim makes us forcefully see here is the sheer problem of a lack of originality. You can read reviews of Christian music and there is a need to compare the sound with something on the ‘secular’ scene that readers may be familiar with (I know that, I write reviews myself for Cross Rhythms) but sometimes it’s a sad expression of the paucity of artistry. Although too many of the American artists are certainly not working ‘for scale’: some command enormous fees. Material poverty isn’t absent from the US scene, but it’s far more common this side of the pond.
But what has stuck with me most since I first read this a few weeks ago is the way Kim latches on to the positive regard he and others have for our ‘centuries-old tradition of fashioning transcendent art and literature and passionate folk forms such as gospel music’. I knew ‘the world’ liked our ancient paintings, sculpture, stained glass windows and classical music, but I had assumed that was a spot of traditionalism. I knew there was a fondness for gospel music, but had assumed there was a certain stereotyping going on. (Think Kenny Everett and the large hands.) What Kim is saying here is that these art forms were original. Perhaps that’s why there is an innate respect today for U2, T-Bone Burnett, Bruce Cockburn, et al. Integrity and authenticity require honest creativity.
Kim’s writing leaves me wondering whether to label him what I have called elsewhere in a sermon on the arts and culture one of God’s unwitting prophets. We certainly need to hear his voice.