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Going Away In A Manger

A Guardian journalist has spent a night in a stable, rented from a non-Christian family who are fed up with the commercialisation of Christmas. All money goes to Leukaemia and Lymphoma research; the wife, a GP, will spend Christmas on duty in a hospital A & E unit.

Something to chew on?

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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.

Nativity!

A new family comedy film called Nativity! about a school nativity play that gains the interest of Hollywood is released in British cinemas on 27th November. For those with long memories of British TV comedy, it may bring back the nativity sketch from ‘Three Of A Kind’.

The movie stars Martin Freeman of ‘The Office‘ fame, along with other big British names such as Ashley Jensen from Extras (so that’s two stars from programmes originated by Ricky Gervais), John Sessions, Ricky Tomlinson and Alan Carr.

Damaris Trust has been commissioned to provide resource materials for churches to use in discussion and outreach (and which will, effectively, promote the film in church circles). Below is a trailer. Enjoy!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “untitled“, posted with vodpod

 

Christmas Is Really For The Children …

… to quote an old Steve Turner poem. Well it will be tomorrow for me. I’m not posting a sermon on the blog tonight, because neither of my services tomorrow demands one. In fact, they demand I don’t deliver a typical sermon.

In the morning, I sit in on a nativity service at one of my churches. The Sunday School will perform some drama, my Anglican colleague will lead the service, and I get to give a short talk.

I’ve drawn on an idea from a new book that I’d like to recommend as a useful resource at this time of year for preachers, ministers, worship leaders and musicians. It’s co-written by Lucy Moore of Messy Church fame, along with Martyn Payne. It’s called Bethlehem Carols Unpacked: Creative ideas for Christmas carol services. The book tells the background stories to eleven famous carols and then gives ideas for how to use them in worship, be it ‘adult’ or ‘all age’.

So I looked up the carols that my colleague Jane had chosen and adapted an idea for use with children in connection with The First Nowell. It’s a simple idea around the theme of birthday parties. What kind of people do you invite to your birthday party? God invited the most unlikely of people to celebrate the birth of his Son. The shepherds were ‘unclean’ and the magi were Gentiles. Those you would think more likely either just gave academic answers and did nothing (Herod’s scholarly advisers) or actively opposed Jesus (Herod). We have an ongoing party with Jesus: it’s called the kingdom of God. And it’s our privilege to invite all sorts of unlikely people to join that party. Were I expanding this I might draw in the Parable of the Great Banquet to give something for the adults to chew on, but I probably won’t have time.

Then in the afternoon I have a Christingle service. Although the (Church of England) Children’s Society is largely responsible for introducing this service to the UK in recent years, it is very appropriate for Methodists to celebrate, because its origins are Moravian from 1747. The Moravians, of course, were highly significant in influencing John Wesley towards his ‘warmed heart’ experience of 1738.

For those who don’t know the tradition, there is plenty to fill you in on the web, but briefly everyone is given a decorated orange. Each part is symbolic. The orange stands for the world, so we shall begin by thanking God for creation. The fruits (e.g., dried raisins) and sweets attached on a cocktail stick represent God’s good gifts. We shall lead that in the direction of Jesus being God’s best gift. The ribbon is for the blood of Christ, so I get the difficult part of the service where I have to lead a brief, simple prayer thanking God for the death of Jesus. Finally, the candle is for Jesus the light of the world, and as we light one another’s candles while standing together in a circle we enact our rôle as lights in the world, sharing the light of Christ.

Afterwards, we’ve invited everyone to stay for a free family tea of sandwiches and cakes. We’re hoping that our publicity to two local primary schools and the pre-school that uses our school hall will make for contact with plenty of non-church people.

Say a prayer for us, will you? This church hasn’t had a Christingle in years. It’s a new event to many, however old hat it is elsewhere. It is requiring hard work from many people.

One of my churches in the last appointment had to run two identical Christingle services every Christmas Eve, because it was so popular. They had a publicity advantage in being smack next door to a big supermarket, and also with the timing of Christmas Eve afternoon, when families might specifically look for a child-friendly Christmas celebration. We don’t have either of those factors in our favour, and couldn’t have gone for Christmas Eve due to a highly successful crib service every year at the parish church. But we do want to bless the community with God’s love and build our relationships with them. It was striking at our last Messy Church event a couple of weeks ago how the fact that we insisted on not charging made an impact on some parents. We want to bless them with a Gospel message and Gospel action tomorrow.

So if you could squeeze in a prayer, we’d be ever so grateful. Please leave a brief message in the comments section below to let us know you have said a quick prayer: it will encourage us. And obviously, feel free to offer any other comments in the usual way.