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Sermon: No Thank You, I’m C Of E (Low Sunday)

Today I preach at one of the churches in our circuit that isn’t in my pastoral charge. It gives me an opportunity in the sermon to use one or two favourite pieces of material when it comes to today’s Lectionary Gospel reading, and to make the odd point that will be familiar to long-term friends or readers. Still, whether you recognise some of the content or not, I hope you enjoy this sermon.

John 20:19-31

Pass The Peace

Pass The Peace by Vrede Van Utrecht on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A friend of mine had a book of cartoons about the different approaches Christians have to sharing The Peace at Holy Communion. In one of the cartoons, a worshipper approaches another man, only to be rebuffed from sharing The Peace with the words, “No thank you, I’m C of E.”

In our reading today, the risen Jesus says, “Peace be with you” three times to his disciples. They don’t reject the offer of peace like the “No thank you, I’m C of E” man, in fact I’m sure they need it – one of the things that has struck me repeatedly this Easter season is just how scared the disciples were. Not just at the thought of arrest by the authorities, but the genuine fear they experience when they encounter the angel, the empty tomb and finally the risen Lord himself. They need peace!

But I am also struck in this reading – and it’s one of my favourite passages in the Bible – how the repeated gift of peace is accompanied each time by another gift.

The first gift is joy. The first time Jesus appears behind locked doors, says “Peace be with you”, shows them his hands and side, and ‘then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord’ (verses 19-20).

Not only is this a favourite passage, I also have a favourite story that I love to tell. It concerns the first Christian missionaries to the Inuit people of the Arctic. They were translating the Bible into the local language, but hit a problem when they came to these verses, and in particular, ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’ Their difficulty? There was no Inuit word for ‘joy’ and its related words. What could they do?

Running huskies

Running Huskies by Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

One day, a missionary went out with the Inuit hunters and their dogs. Upon return, the hunters fed the dogs with meat, and the missionary observed the evident happiness of the dogs as they tucked into their feast. He thought, “There’s a picture of joy. I’ll ask them what their word is for that.” As a result, the first Inuit translation of John’s Gospel reads at this point, ‘Then the disciples wagged their tails when they saw the Lord’!

Jesus is alive. He brings peace. That fills us with joy. Normally you cannot miss the sense of joy at Easter, can you? We have been through the self-sacrifice of Lent and the ever darkening shadows of Holy Week, only for light to burst forth on Easter morning and fill our hearts with joy.

Why are we joyful? Biblically, it isn’t that this is the ‘happy ending’ to the story – in fact, this is more like the beginning than the end. Nor is it only the promise that there is life after death and that we shall be with him forever after death. And as someone who lost his own mother just two months ago, believe me I don’t belittle that hope.

We are joyful because the resurrection shows God’s new world. As the Father has made his Son’s body new by the Spirit, so he is making all things new. It is the first event in the work of new creation. It is the foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth. You could say it is heaven on earth. Rejoice! God is not leaving things as they are. The resurrection says otherwise.

Look at it from the disciples’ point of view, before you get to any subsequent New Testament scriptures that make this point, such as Revelation 21. Think about how those good Jewish disciples expected the resurrection of the dead to happen at the end of history as we know it, when everyone would be raised back to life, either to blessedness for the righteous or judgement for the wicked, as Daniel 12 taught them. Well, suddenly this end time event has happened in their midst – a resurrection! Therefore God is bringing heaven to earth, and this is reason for great joy.

Let us also rejoice this Easter, because the life of heaven is coming to earth. We do not have to wait until death to experience at least a foretaste of God’s kingdom.

The second gift is mission. The second ‘Peace be with you’ is a preface to Jesus saying, “As the Father sent me, so I send you” (verse 21), and is followed by his [prophetic? Proleptic?] gift of the Holy Spirit (verse 22).

San Francisco - Mission District: Mission Street

San Francisco – Mission District: Mission Street by Wally Gobetz on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Mission makes sense after joy. We cannot keep quiet about the joy of knowing that God is bringing heaven to earth. God isn’t simply doing this for us, he is doing it for the whole world. It must not only be the subject of Joy, it must also be shared. Resurrection people are good news people.

And furthermore, it makes sense to talk about mission only after having received the peace of Christ. For how many of us get nervous about mission? It is a challenge, but Jesus offers us peace so that we may exercise the gift of mission.

But – what is this mission? Is it the much-feared door-knocking and button-holing? Before we make assumptions, let’s remember how Jesus described it. ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you,’ he said. Which begs the question: how did the Father send Jesus? And for that we have to go back from John 20 to John 1, to a verse we often read at Advent or Christmas, but which we need to hear all year round: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).

In other words, Jesus’ mission was not hit and run, however much he sometimes moved from place to place. It involved being with and living in the midst of the people to whom he was called. His life was visible to them, as well as his words and mighty deeds.

Likewise, we are not called to hit and run mission. We are called to costly involvement with the people among whom we live. We are meant to be present for the long haul. We are meant to be known for the kind of people we are as a result of our faith, sharing God’s love unconditionally, so much so that people want to know what it is that makes us tick. And that gives us the opportunities to talk about Christ. Most mission, Jesus style, is among our neighbours. If we know the peace of the risen Christ, then it is a natural act of gratitude to pay it forward by pouring our lives into the communities where we are situated, demonstrating God’s love and looking for the chance to speak about the One who leads us this way.

Not only that, our peace-based mission is exercised in the same power as Jesus. Here he tells his disciples to receive the Holy Spirit. We’ll put aside this morning the question of how we relate this command to receive the Spirit with the delay until Pentecost in Luke’s writings, for which there are various explanations. But let us note that this is another case of doing mission just like Jesus himself. His public ministry did not start until he received the power of the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Similarly, we are to seek the Spirit’s power in order to engage in his mission. There will be no signs of heaven coming to earth through our ministry in our own strength. We too must rely on the Holy Spirit. Too often we look for the latest techniques in order to revitalise our churches. These are dead ends. The only revitalisation will come from the life of God himself, and that means looking to the Spirit.

The third and final gift of peace is faith. When Thomas is present a week later, again Jesus turns up suddenly in their midst out of nowhere. Again, the disciples need to hear his greeting, “Peace be with you” (verse 26). This time, what follows is the invitation to Thomas to check him out and to believe.

Love And Trust

Love And Trust by Mike Baird on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

It is of course from this story that we get the nickname ‘Doubting Thomas’. He has said that he will not believe unless he examines for himself the wounds of the crucifixion in Jesus’ body.

But why do we regard Thomas as worse than the other male disciples? Is he really so different from the other apostles who doubted the women’s initial report of the resurrection according to the other Gospels? They too wanted strong evidence. I think my father was the first person to say to me that Thomas had had a rough deal from the church over the centuries, and I am inclined to agree with that assessment. The other men had no reason for a superiority complex: they had held the same attitude.

I don’t therefore see Jesus being any more censorious with Thomas than he was with any of the other apostles. He has just offered peace, after all. Yes, he points to the greater blessedness of those who believe without seeing him, but he still gives Thomas the gift of faith. And if early church tradition is to be believed, then although we don’t read of Thomas in the Acts of the Apostles, he most likely founded Christianity in India, where to this day there is a denomination named after him – the Mar Thoma Church.

I suspect that if we compared notes among us as a congregation, we would find a wide range in our experiences of faith. Some of us may find faith quite easy and serene, and others only find deeper faith after much wrestling with deep questions. And some of us individually oscillate between serene faith and questioning faith in different phases of our lives. The good news of peace from the risen Christ is that he invites us all on the journey of faith and trust in him, whether that comes easily to us or only with much struggle. The resurrected Lord comes to all his disciples, those who find it easy and those who don’t, with the gift of his presence and the bestowal of his peace. Just because you or I may be wrestling with some deep questions about God does not preclude us from the gift of his peace.

And because Christ still offers his peace to those who think they are bumping along the bottom of belief, that very gift can make the difference which allows faith to flourish and to be exercised with boldness. If the traditions about Thomas going to India are true, then maybe that is what happened to him. Did the peace of the risen Christ invigorate his faith, not only in the Upper Room but for the rest of his life? It is certainly possible for him, and it is for us, too.

As we conclude, then, let’s come full circle back to our ‘No thank you, I’m C of E’ man. There are people in our churches who don’t like The Peace. Maybe some present today are uncomfortable. But regardless of what we think about it as a formal practice, we cannot receive and keep the peace of Christ as solitary Christians. Since his peace brings joy, that most naturally overflows to others. Since his peace leads us into mission, that leads us to share Christ’s peace in word and deed with others. And as his peace leads us to deeper faith, we observe that is something that cannot solely be exercised in isolation.

This Easter season, then, let us say ‘Yes please’ to the risen Christ’s gift of peace. And may it enable our lives as disciples to grow and flourish to the praise of his name in the church and in the world.

Sermon: Jesus Be The Centre

1 John 1:1-4
The Prologue. Say those words to Brits of a certain age and above, and they think of Frankie Howerd plying Lurcio in the TV series Up Pompeii.

But ‘the Prologue’ deserves a much more distinguished meaning for Christians. From the first eighteen verses of John’s Gospel, those famous words that begin, ‘In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and the Word was God’, to the reading we have heard this morning, which constitutes the Prologue to the First Letter of John.
We reflect this morning on the Prologue to the First Letter of John as we begin a sermon series on that Epistle. Why 1 John? Because – at the risk of sounding like John Major – it helps us get ‘back to basics’. 1 John gets back to basics in two main areas – what we believe about Jesus and how we behave as Christians. Both were under threat in the community to which John wrote. It appears that some people had come along saying that Jesus hadn’t really taken on human flesh, it only looked like it. They also seemed to be saying that you could lower your ethical standards as a Christian. These people felt superior to the ordinary Christians, and had broken away. Who knows, perhaps they were trying to persuade others to go with them?

Are there not some similarities today? Are we tempted to water down what we believe about Jesus in order to keep the peace with people? And are there not serious issues about how some of us choose to behave in the church today? In a sermon at Knaphill last week, I alluded to problems of heavy drinking in some church circles. But whether it’s drinking or some other issue, isn’t it the case that we often amend our behaviour to fit in with society? If so, then 1 John is for us.

But enough by way of general introduction. What about the Prologue itself this week? How does that set the agenda for what is to come?

You may have heard the story about the preacher who gives a children’s address and asks the children, “What is either grey or red, is furry, has a tail and climbs trees?”

A child puts up her hand and says, “I know the answer should be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”

Well, the Prologue to 1 John is one place where the answer is Jesus. John puts Jesus up front and central for our faith from the word ‘go’. In fact, not merely up front and central: Jesus is essential, says John in the Prologue, in three areas.

Firstly, Jesus is central to life. Hear again all those references to life in the first two verses: Jesus and his message are ‘the word of life’ (verse 1). ‘This life was revealed’ (verse 2) – that is, Jesus, the eternal Word of God, according to the Prologue of John’s Gospel, took on human flesh. John and co ‘declare to [their readers] the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to [them]’ (verse 2). That is to say, Jesus, who always has been and always will be, and who also gives eternal life, is the content of John’s preaching.

So Jesus is the life, and he is the life-giver. And when John says ‘life’, he does not merely mean ordinary life into which we are born. John means spiritual life, eternal life, the life of faith in God through Jesus Christ.

If Jesus is central to life, then, what we have here is the claim that you cannot contemplate any true discussion of what it means to have faith in God and find spiritual life unless it is centred on Jesus. God does not base entry into his kingdom on being good, being nice or being sincere, but on faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen, whom he gave up for us.

And so we cannot water down our commitments when it comes to faith being centred on Jesus. This doesn’t prevent us from talking courteously and lovingly with people who disagree with us, whether they be people of other faiths or of no faith. It certainly doesn’t mean we have to put on our spiritual hobnail boots. In fact, it means the opposite, because the centre of our faith is Jesus Christ crucified. It is a faith that is based not on inflicting violence upon others, like a crusade or a jihad. It is a faith grounded in suffering love.

But because it is about Jesus and the Cross, it is difficult to speak as if all roads lead to God. If we say that all roads lead to God, then we are telling Jesus that his death on the Cross was unnecessary. Why go through that if there were paths to God that didn’t involve the suffering?

It will be tempting to compromise on the uniqueness of Jesus in our witness to faith today. To many, it seems that the different religions are just trying to claim that they are right, everybody else is wrong and using coercion or fear to persuade. However, as I said, the Cross is not about force. It is about the opposite. And what we know as Christians is that there is nothing else to compare with the transforming power of Christ and his Cross. It means the forgiveness of sins. It means the defeat of evil. It means there is a God who loves us so much he will stop at nothing to bring us back from the disastrous mess we have made of life and creation. How many of us know that it is Christ crucified who has changed our lives beyond recognition?

However tempting it may seem, let us not shrink back from humbly but clearly holding onto Jesus and his Cross as the centre of life and faith.

Secondly, Jesus is central to fellowship. Listen to verse 3 again:

we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

All true Christian fellowship is based on Jesus and his Father. It starts with them, it extends to us and all that we truly share as Christians is in Christ. I want us to get away from that notion that fellowship is just a warm, fuzzy feeling of friends being together, perhaps induced by a caffeine buzz we get from the coffee we drink. I heard one minister say he was in favour of church bazaars, because they promoted fellowship. I suppose he was getting at the camaraderie that comes from working together, but it seems to me that he – and many of us – have sold the New Testament notion of fellowship short.

The word translated ‘fellowship’ has to do with what we share, with what we have in common. At the heart of the life of the Father and Son is that they share the divine nature and love. What Jesus shares with us is that love of God. What we share together is the love of God in Christ.

Is it not strange, then, that for many Christians we can’t get our conversation past the weather and our aching limbs to talking together about our faith in Jesus? How sad! Of course it happens in home groups and the Discovery Group, but might we not also strengthen each other more on a Sunday if we were able to encourage one another in the faith, and not merely listen to the preacher? (Not that I’m against you listening to the sermon!)

And does not our sharing in Christ go further than that? Remember, 1 John is about both belief and behaviour. You could say our belief leads to our behaviour. When it is Christ that we share in fellowship, then not only do we have that knowledge and experience in common, we also share together the call to walk in his ways. You’ll remember that the early church shared money, possessions and even land together. Why? Because they understood fellowship in Christ. Following Jesus doesn’t just commit each one of us to him: it commits all who follow him to each other.

You’ll often hear me say that the church is a sign of God’s kingdom, a witness to his kingdom. Surely when we share fellowship in these ways we are witnessing to the world that God is building a new community. It isn’t based on greed, it isn’t based on grabbing power and it certainly isn’t based on celebrity. True fellowship – sharing all that we are and all that we have in Christ – is a powerful witness.

Thirdly and finally, Jesus is central to our joy. Verse 4:

We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

Why would writing a long tract about belief in Jesus and the behaviour that follows make John’s joy complete? The great New Testament scholar Howard Marshall puts it as simply as this:

He has the heart of a pastor which cannot be completely happy so long as some of those for whom he feels responsible are not experiencing the full blessings of the gospel.[1]

Who or what makes us happy in the church? A good sing? Enough money in the accounts? Increased numbers? None of these is a bad thing, but they are secondary. When we focus on them, we are looking in the wrong places. If they flow from concentrating on the main thing – Jesus himself – then they are good and healthy consequences of that.

As the saying goes, we need ‘to keep the main thing the main thing’. And Jesus is ‘the main thing’. He is our joy. He is the one who brings the blessings of the gospel. When we concentrate on the gifts rather than the giver, the blessings rather than the blesser (to coin a word), we get it all wrong. We worship idols instead of Christ.

And what if we accept the poor substitutes the world offers us for joy. Money? Possessions? A good job? Food? Drugs or drunkenness? Sporting success? All can be idols, and all are pathetic substitutes for the joy that comes from Jesus Christ.

Why? Because in Jesus God gives us the way to himself. In Jesus we have fellowship with the Creator, and so we enjoy his creation, but not for its own sake: we enjoy it with thankfulness to him. In Jesus we see the Father. In Jesus we see and experience the sacrificial love of God. In Jesus we have the forgiveness of sins. In Jesus we have the call to join the cause of God’s transforming kingdom. In Jesus, all we do for him will prove to be worthwhile. Why would we look anywhere else on earth or in heaven for the foundation of joy, happiness and fulfilment?

I said just before I launched into the first of these three points that ‘John puts Jesus up front and central’. At the beginning of this sermon series, and indeed at the beginning of a new Methodist year, may we too put Jesus up front and central in our lives. May we renew our devotion to him in our commitment to worship, reading his Word and prayer. May we allow all that we learn of him to shape our lives so that we don’t just believe things about him, he affects our behaviour too.

May we hold onto him as the centre of our lives and the centre the universe, humbly but without compromise. May he so shape our fellowship that the life of the church is a powerful witness in the world to God’s redeeming love. And as we devote ourselves to him, may we be filled with ‘joy unspeakable’, joy that the world cannot match, joy that the world will envy.

In the words of one modern worship song, ‘Jesus, be the centre.’

[1] I Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, p 105.

Laugh-A-Minute Faulkner

(Next in my series of old articles is one about joy and personal integration.)

Laugh-a-minute Faulkner, she called me. She had not worshipped at the church where I was the minister during my time, but she had heard the stories. David Faulkner told jokes in his sermons, and it was not the done thing.

It was her misfortune, then, to attend a united service for all the churches in the town one Easter Sunday evening, where I was the speaker. Having read that on Easter Day in Russia the Orthodox priests gathered in the afternoon to tell one another jokes as a sign of their joy, and having also read a line of a poet who called the resurrection of Jesus ‘a laugh freed for ever’, I felt I had adequate theological precedent to begin my talk with a joke.

One person conspicuously avoided me afterwards.

I thought of that occasion again recently, when someone said that I had matured: I had gone from ‘flippant’ to ‘serious’ sermons. I would take great issue with the idea that I was flippant, but I am concerned for those who feel you can’t have a belly-laugh in a service.

My concerns are twofold. Firstly, I think they’ve misread Jesus and the Bible. Yes, Jesus in his sufferings was a ‘man of sorrows, acquainted with grief’. But he was more. He was the one who turned water into wine. Wouldn’t you invite him to your parties? (By the way, Lord, if it’s not too much to ask, mine is a Californian Zinfandel or an Aussie Semillon.) He said he had come to bring ‘life in all its fullness’ – was he bringing a misery package? And he told his petty critics that they were ‘straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel’ – sounds like satire to me.

Jesus wasn’t unique in the Bible. Laughter among the spiritual didn’t begin with him. When Elijah had a ding-dong with the prophets of the idol Baal at Mount Carmel, Baal’s gang got so desperate that their god wasn’t answering their prayers that they even resorted to self-harm. Elijah mocked them, saying, “Perhaps your god has gone to the loo”. Yes, really.

If my first concern is for a lack of wholeness in appreciating the spiritual life, my second concern is that the criticism of laughter in worship implies another lack of wholeness: a lack of inner wholeness as a person, a lack of integration. It manifests itself in other ways: the same person may listen to secular pop music for entertainment, but insist on traditional hymns in a church service. There doesn’t seem to be enough sauce goose to cover the gander.

Such a lack of personal wholeness is often allied with an approach to Christian worship that regards it as an escape from the world. Yet Jesus didn’t come to set up a ghetto of escapists. He came to transform people who would engage with a broken world, people who would bring the whole of themselves to worship and service, not just a religious segment.

It seems to me that these symptoms indicate a number of problems: a inner dualism, a lack of sensing that all of life is lived in relation to Jesus, an unacknowledged inner brokenness. It suggests that life is something to run away from, rather than to look in the eye. Given the healthy postmodern desire for wholeness, is it any surprise that so few people are persuaded by we Christians about our faith when this is often what we are like?

Sermon: Elizabeth And Mary – Gospel Women

Luke 1:39-56

For weeks now, the shops have had a soundtrack of Christmas carols and Christmas songs. (Or is it months? It feels like it.) Slade with ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, Wizzard singing ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, Elton John inviting us to ‘Step Into Christmas’, Wham recalling ‘Last Christmas’, and Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ now soundtracking mass consumption rather than relief for the poor.

Oh – and Johnny Mathis crooning ‘When A Child Is Born’. Musically it’s not my taste, but he sings of the hope that a child’s birth will bring. And as Christians we think of the particular hope brought by the infant Jesus.

Not that the announcement of a pregnancy or a birth is joy for everyone. Debbie and I know how carefully we had to release the news of her pregnancies for the sake of dear friends who had been unable to have children, and it was only right we tried to be sensitive about that.

However, when Mary and Elizabeth get together for their first-century NCT ante-natal meeting, the vibes are all positive. Not because both pregnant women are merely excited about the prospects of motherhood, but because both prophetically know something about the significance of their forthcoming arrivals. It is those responses I want us to think about this morning.

The first response is joy. Being six years older than my sister, I have a few memories of when my mother was expecting her. One is of how Mum invited me to put my ear to her tummy to hear the baby. Unfortunately, all my ear got was a kick from the womb!

Elizabeth feels John not kick but leap in her womb when Mary arrived and greeted her (verse 44). Elizabeth herself is filled with joy in her own response to Mary. She is filled with the Holy Spirit (verse 41) and says, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (verse 42). None of this is to give Mary some unique status, for Mary only sees herself as a humble servant of the Lord. But it is to illustrate the great joy that surrounds the forthcoming arrival of God’s Son in the world.

Joy, however, is not always our instant reaction to Christmas. Either we witness alcohol-powered celebrations, or our to-do list becomes so crowded with writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, getting decorations down from the loft and a hundred other things that the simple joy of Christ’s coming is squeezed out of us. For me, if it’s a Christmas with a lot of church services, I can just get to Christmas afternoon and collapse. Not that two young children, and one big kid of a wife want me to!

However, in this story, Elizabeth and her unborn son bring us back to the source of true joy:

The attitude of Elizabeth is representative of what Luke desires in any believer. What a joy to share in the events associated with Jesus. What a joy to share life with him.[1]

We too ‘share in the events associated with Jesus’ and ‘share life with him’. For although we do not feature on the pages of Holy Writ with him, we are part of his ongoing story. The invitation to faith is an invitation to share in the story of God through Jesus Christ. We have the privilege of sharing life with him, because he came, because he called us and because he sent the Spirit.

So perhaps the Christmas story is a time to recover the joy at the heart of faith in Jesus. it’s a fair criticism that many churches seem devoid of joy, even when you account for the fact that not everybody expresses joy in a loud, exuberant way.

Now I can’t somehow command people to be joyful – although in various places Scripture certainly exhorts us to have joy. But what I can suggest is that we take time this Christmas simply to meditate on the great story of Christ’s coming again. As we dwell on it, unwrapped from the paper and the tinsel, we shall find our sense of wonder being renewed, and with it the joy that the coming Christ has made us part of God’s story of salvation. How astonishing is it that God took on human flesh?

Martin Freeman, the actor best known for his portrayal of Tim in ‘The Office’, has recently appeared in a film called ‘Nativity!’ It’s a comedy based on a nativity play at a primary school. In an interview to promote the movie, Freeman said he couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that in the Christmas story greatness is expressed in humility. He couldn’t think of a better story. To my knowledge Martin Freeman is not a Christian, but if he can get excited by the nativity, surely we can recover a spirit of joy, too?

The second response is faith. In her final words attributed to her in the story, Elizabeth praises Mary’s faith:

‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Verse 45)

Mary is blessed in this sense: she is

‘happy because God has touched [her] life. Such divine benefit rains down on those who trust him and his promises. Blessing emerges from God’s ability to bring his promises to completion, but to share the benefits, we must be confident that God does what he says. The first sign of such faith in Mary was her willingness to let God use her (v 38). The second was her immediate (hurried) visit to Elizabeth, who herself served as a sign that God keeps his word and can give life (vv 36, 39).’[2]

Elizabeth and Mary are both examples of faith because they trust God’s word. He will fulfil his promises. They act accordingly, and such is Christmas faith. Our faith is not merely to ‘ooh and aah’ at a newborn baby. It is to stake our lives on God’s promises.

If that is the case, then how crazy it is to celebrate Christmas with schmaltz and sentimentality. If a true Christmas response is about faith in the promises of God, then our celebration should surely be marked with acts of daring belief in our God, because he has spoken and he will deliver on what he has said. Here, there and everywhere in the Christian Church we seem to have contracted a disease which makes us play safe all the time. We are like the man with the one talent who buried, rather than those with more who risked all in the name of serving their master.

For if with joy we have been incorporated into the story of God by the gift of Christ, then one consequence is surely to start going out on the edge for him. Not just for the sake of it, I mean, but because that is what God did for us in the Incarnation: he went out on the edge.

Many of our churches are dying of good taste, where everything has to be ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We’re doomed by a combination of Einstein’s definition of insanity – ‘Insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result’ – and ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – except it is broke. Isn’t it time for daring faith in Christ who took the risk of human flesh?

So perhaps we could give Jesus a Christmas present. We could be willing to go out on a limb for him. Not just for the sake of it – otherwise it’s like the temptation he faced in the wilderness to thrown himself from the Temple – but actually to get on with listening to the promises of God and then get on with risky faith.

The third and final response is one of praise. Mary’s great response is praise, and it comes to us in the form of the song we call ‘The Magnificat’. But what kind of praise does she offer?

Put simply, Mary praises God for his works of salvation, and she does so comprehensively. She covers his salvation in the past, present and future – in the past with God’s people, in the present as he is at work in her, in the future as people recall what he has done in her and with all who revere him. She celebrates God’s grace and mercy to those who humbly trust him, and his justice against the rich and proud.

There is so much we could draw from Mary’s song of praise, and I, like many other preachers, have preached whole sermons just on the Magnificat in the past. But for this morning, let me just be content to say that a key aspect of Mary’s praise is that she praises God for his mighty deeds.

Maybe you think that’s unremarkable. So what? Let me suggest that sometimes we base our praise of God on other criteria. How often is our praised based on our feelings? We praise, depending on whether we feel up or down about God, faith or life in general. If our circumstances are good, we feel inclined to worship. If we are down in the dumps, we may not think about praising God.

But what Mary shows us is that God is worthy of praise purely on the basis of his deeds – what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do. Worship may be emotional, or it may not. But regardless of our feelings, God is worthy of praise. ‘I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,’ said the Psalmist. It’s why we rehearse the story of salvation from creation to the Cross and on to the return of Christ when we say the Thanksgiving Prayer in Holy Communion.

God has done great things. He is still doing great things. He will continue to do great things. Sometimes the thought of this will stir our hearts and we will be lifted to raptures. Other times we won’t, but our praise will be no less genuine, because we are giving God the praise due to his name as an act of obedient faith. It may well be a ‘sacrifice of praise’ on those occasions, but it is true praise when we choose to acknowledge the truth of God’s mighty deeds in Christ.

So if this Christmas you are feeling disheartened about your faith, it may be an act of faith to choose to praise God. Meditate on his creation, his persistent wooing of a wayward humanity, leading to him sending his Son, who one day will rule the created order unchallenged. You may or may not feel any different for doing so. But you will find your perspective on life more truly aligned with God’s.

And that is good. It’s what the Christmas message and the entire Gospel does.

[1] Darrell Bock, Luke (IVP New Testament Commentary), p44.

[2] Ibid.

Chris Moyles And Church

Radio 1’s loud-mouth breakfast DJ Chris Moyles is not the sort of person you would expect to be extolling the virtues of the church. But, this YouTube clip is doing the rounds of Christian blogs, and understandably so:

(HT David Keenand Phil Ritchie)

I nerver thought I’d type these words: you can only applaud Moyles for his honesty.

But it’s true. He’s frank about how his Catholic upbringing led him to expect that church would be boring. He’s honest about how blown away he was by the service from Kingsgate Community Church in Peterborough.

I’ve only seen the YouTube clip, not the rest of the broadcast. I know nothing about the church, apart from a quick surf around their website. One thing that struck me – and didn’t surprise me from the TV clip – was that they clearly have megachurch aspirations. They speak

of building a church that impacts the city, region and beyond

– sounds megachurch to me. And interesting for an outfit that calls itself a community church.

But my point is this. Many of us in the missional church movement are nervous about some expressions of megachurch. (In saying that, I’m not assuming insincerity or anything like that: I know good people in megachurches, including godly leaders.) But for those of us who have certain reservations, we have to listen carefully to why Chris Moyles found the experience so attractive. What came over to me time and time again in his comments was how much the sheer joy right across the congregation impressed him.

We are right to say there is more to biblical worship than celebration – it also includes lament. But I hear what Moyles says about the faces on some Songs of Praise worshippers and I hear a kind of longing. I’m good at the misery stuff due to my temperament and personality. But however serious we are about a rounded, compassionate Christianity that empathises with the suffering, let’s not throw out the baby of joy with the bathwater of hype.