Waiting … (Advent 3 2014, Lamentations 3:22-27, James 5:7-11, Matthew 24:42-44)

There are different kinds of waiting.

The farmer waits for the crop to be ready but this doesn’t mean just sitting around until the grain walks up to the door. The farmer will be in the fields, looking for problems and trying to deal with them, checking for ripeness, paying attention to the weather forecast. When the moment comes he or she will move fast, getting the harvest in as quickly as possible. This is a waiting that is hopeful and also anxious, that is active and which needs to seize the right moment when it comes. This is one of the images of waiting for God’s action that James offers us.

The moment of harvest stands for the moment of God’s judgement. The judge is standing at the door. We have to be ready. As the farmer makes sure that everything is prepared for the time so must we. This is waiting that works.

In Lamentations we find something else altogether. “It is good to wait quietly”, it says, “The Lord is my portion therefore I will wait for him”. While we wait for the return of one we love, one whose love means everything to us, on whom we depend. Perhaps we might think of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, or of a child waiting patiently for the return of their mother. The waiting itself is just waiting and depends more than anything else on trust in the one who is coming. They will arrive in their own time and nothing we do will make a difference to that. Our patience is important because it will affect the quality of the welcome we give. The more we trust the more open-hearted we can be.

This is a waiting that simply holds itself ready.

So what about the waiting that Jesus talks about in our Gospel reading? Waiting to catch a thief in the night. The householder knows that they are under threat, that sometime during the night somebody is going to try to break in. They sit quietly and anxiously, nervous and alert, keeping watch so that when the time comes they will be ready to react. This, Jesus says, is also what it can be like to wait for God, to wait the coming of the Son of Man.

Three vivid Biblical images for what we are doing, during Advent, during our lives as faithful Christians. We wait, wait for Christ’s return in glory, wait for the coming of the Son of Man, wait for the fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation.

This waiting is a careful and active preparation. A making ready of what is growing, a looking for the time of readiness. It is the waiting of the farmer.

It is also the quiet patient anticipation of the arrival of somebody much loved. We look forward to greeting them, long for their presence. We try not to be too eager, to be ready to be properly happy when they come.

It is also a fearful watching, full of anxiety that we might miss the moment, fail to react as we need to, might lose all we have by not being ready.

The Bible gives us all these images and what they have in common, what we are called to remember at Advent, is the sense of a an expected future event that is at once something that will happen whatever we do or don’t do and also an opportunity we might miss. The crop will ripen, the loved one will return, the thief will break in. The farmer, though, can neglect to gather it so that it rots in the field. The waiting spouse or lover can give up, become resentful of the delay, turn to others. The watcher can be distracted or fall asleep so that the thief can steal away with the contents of the house.

After all this time, these many centuries of waiting, we Christians may find it difficult to continue to believe that this moment of opportunity and danger lies ahead of us. Scripture tells us that it does. Our encounter with our Lord is in the future for each and every one of us, at a time that no-one can know or predict.

The quality of our waiting is, perhaps, the most important thing about us. We await the time of our salvation, we are waiting for salvation, for the fulfilment of God’s plan for us and for all creation. As we wait we uphold, before all the world, the hope and expectation that things will be as they are meant to be.

An image for waiting not used in our passages is that of waiting for the birth of a child, an image never far from our minds during Advent. Many of us have had that experience in our own lives. We remember the mixture of joyful anticipation, fear of some disaster, and anxiety about the arrival itself. We remember the wondering and the dreaming about the future beyond the birth.

As we wait for Jesus we might do well to remember that, too. The coming of the Son of Man of which he speaks is not a peaceful idyll like the nativity stories we tell. It is a time of trouble and of danger. But it does usher in the time when peace and justice, plenty and love will be the order of the day and war, oppression, want and hatred will be banished. We can dream of that future and we can prepare ourselves to be part of it. We can wait patiently for God.

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Oct 25: Jesus loves me, this I know … (Romans 8:35-38)

Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me.

We know what God’s love for us is like by contemplating Christ’s life and above all his death. The love Jesus showed in life was a healing love, a sustaining love, a life-giving love. Those who were broken and in pain, those possessed by demons, those with disfiguring diseases and disabling illnesses came to him believing in his power and thy were restored. Those in grief, devastated by the death of those they loved came to him and renewed life was granted. This was a love that wanted nothing from those loved but which sought their well-being, their inclusion in the glorious life of God’s Kingdom.

The full depth of that love is seen on the cross, though. Jesus died on the cross for us, for love of us. It isn’t easy to understand the meaning of that dreadful death, the way in which it was necessary, the way in which it restores humanity’s relationship with God, but it was and it does. What matters here and now is that this is a way that shows us what the love of God in Christ Jesus is like. It’s a love that not only wants our good, our healing, our life, but which is prepared to go to the cross. That’s a love indeed.

What’s more this is a love, we are told, that isn’t an abstract and general love of the human race. It’s a personal and particular love of each one of us. Immediately before the passage we have heard this morning the apostle Paul wrote these words: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” God calls those he foreknew. Each of us comes to God in response to an individual and personal calling from God. We are known and loved as the particular individuals we are. God loves you. You personally.

So God’s love for us is a love that is prepared to suffer crucifiction and a love that knows us as individuals. That’s what we’re told. But the dramatic and powerful signs that we’ve been talking about aren’t easily discernible in our everyday lives. We hear about Christ’s death but we don’t see it. We hear about Jesus’ healing but we don’t experience it. Many of us suffer from health problems and yearn for release from them. We would touch the hem of Christ’s robe if we could and feel his power course through us, but we can’t. Many of us have lost loved ones and wish for their restoration to us, but they remain dead. Given all that God’s love might seem distant and unreal.

We can try to convince ourselves that God’s love is manifest in the good gifts of life, and of course that’s true. But these gifts are neither particularly given to those in Christ nor are they unmixed with the bitter fruits of suffering. Indeed Jesus warns us that the way of discipleship is a hard road: “take up your cross and follow me”. When things go wrong for us this doesn’t mean that God has turned his back, just so when things go well this does not mean that God has noticed us or has come to love us better.

We don’t know that God loves us because he showers us with good things. We know God loves us because he tells us he does and because his word is to be trusted.

When we are sick or in pain. When we are plunged into grief by the loss of someone precious. When loneliness eats at us. When sadness or a sense of futility robs us of the will to live. When those around us seem not to notice our needs. At all those moments God loves us.

When money is short and a constant worry. When we feel oppressed by the world. God loves us still.

How do we know? Because God tells us so, in the Bible and through the Church.

I sometimes wonder and worry about what I was called into ministry to do, what will justify all the trouble and expense the Church has gone to in order to put me here. And then I remember. I have been ordained as a minister of Word and Sacraments and what the Word and the Sacraments do is, most of all I think, transmit God’s wonderful assurance of his unbroken and unbreakable love. I am here to tell you, and myself, that God loves you, loves me; to open the Bible as we have today and say, “look, it’s there, God loves you, has always loved you, will always love you, it says so in this Book”.

I know that sometimes it can be hard really to know, really to feel that love, so complete, so generous, so sure. But isn’t it the case that even the love of those closest to us is mysterious sometimes? At any rate all I can do is to point at the words of the Bible, to represent the thousands of years of continuous worship and teaching as I stand here, appointed by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and say: hear, hear and believe what the apostle wrote:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Potters Bar 13 July 2014: How can we pray when so many prayers are unanswered? (Matt 7:7-11)

We are commanded to pray and told that what we ask for in prayer will be given to us. Sickness will be healed and good things will be given. “Ask and it shall be given unto you”, says Jesus, “seek and you will find.” For some of us these statements, and others like them, are a barrier to prayer, they stand between us and God and we turn to him with our hearts full of longing, our minds brimming with things we would see changed, healed, transformed.

 

We know that often people ask for what they need and are disappointed, that people of faith pray fervently and still see their loved ones die, their families collapse, their children stray. We suspect, furthermore, that the idea of a God who could make things better but doesn’t because he isn’t asked in the right way conflicts with our conception of a loving God who reaches out graciously and generously.

 

I remember vividly the first time I was asked whether I would lead the prayers of intercession in our church in Edinburgh. I had no hesitation at all in refusing. “I’m sorry”, I said, “but that form of prayer makes no sense to me, I couldn’t do it and mean it, although I sometimes find hearing it moving and helpful.” This remained an issue for me as I entered my education for ministry. I knew that it must make sense, since it is so central to our faith and our tradition, but I couldn’t work out how. I knew I needed to find the way and I put my trust in the God who had called me to lead me into it.

 

The key moment for me was reading an article, I don’t remember where or who it was by, that argued that when we pray we are, more than anything else, expressing our faith and trust in God. When we ask for the things we most want and need we’re not really trying to tell God anything he doesn’t know, after all he can read the innermost secrets of our hearts, is familiar with things about us that we hide even from ourselves. Nor are we trying to persuade or manipulate him, such an attempt would be futile and ridiculous. No, we are expressing our belief that all that comes to us comes to us from God and our hope that his grace will grant that we get what we want and want what we get. We are not making the hopeless effort to impose our wills on God but reaching out, yearning, for a full alignment of our will with his and, thus, his with ours, we are praying that all will be as we want it to be.

 

What’s more this work of ours, this striving to express ourselves fully to God in hopeful expectation that his will be done and our wills fulfilled, is one of the most important things we do, on behalf of God. Remember that for the core Christian tradition the innermost meaning of human being is its representation of God, we are made to be his image, that created entity that is his likeness in creation. Part of this is also that we represent creation to him, we stand in the midst of what God has made as that which most profoundly connects it to him, as we turn to heaven in prayer. This special kind of speech, this address to the creator, to the King of Heaven, isn’t a simple selfish seeking of favour, it is central to being what God intends us to be. Without fervent and heartfelt prayer we fail really to be human.

 

So, if prayer is both indispensable to faith and at the heart of human being, if a faith that doesn’t trust God to hear and respond is not faith at all and if a person who doesn’t pray is not yet a human being as God intends him or her to be, what do we do with the painful reality of things prayed for and not received? How can we sincerely and trustingly pray when we are so often disappointed? All those prayers for peace and all this war! So many pleas for healing and so much sickness! So much yearning for life and death everywhere!

 

There is no easy and complete answer to this question, this question that is so impossible to avoid. My own answer, which I offer to you only as a starting point, since I am no paragon of prayer but find myself in this pulpit responsible before God for speaking of him and even, perhaps, for him, comes in two parts.

First, faith, to be faith, trusts God even when all seems lost and God appears to have turned away. The great exemplars of faith include Abraham, preparing himself to sacrifice Isaac while believing still in God’s goodness and his promises, include Job, angry at God and demanding to know why he is suffering but never losing his faith that an encounter with him is possible and will give relief, include Christ, praying in agony at Gethsemane, pleading for the cup of suffering to be taken from him but concluding, not my will but yours.

 

Secondly these stories of faith and of encounter all end happily. Isaac is spared and Israel founded. God comes to Job in the whirlwind and restores all that is lost. Above all Christ is raised from the tomb into eternal life.

 

When our prayers appear to go unanswered we are called to keep faith with God, to believe in his promise of resurrection and new creation, to believe that, in the fullness of time, all will be well, all ills mended, all losses restored. Ultimately our prayers express our trust that the one to whom we pray will be true to his word, will make all things right.

Jesus is God (Potters Bar 9 Mar: Phil 2:511 and John 1:1-18)

Sometimes, when people say they don’t believe in God, the right response is to ask them to tell you about the God they don’t believe in. When they do you may find you don’t believe in that God either. It’s important for those of us who proclaim or rely upon faith in God to remember that God is not the same thing as our idea of God. The being we imagine or project isn’t the same as the being that the word “God” or the name “Jehovah” names.

 

I have sometimes thought that I’d like to start using God’s name more in worship and in preaching, to remind us that the Lord we meet in the Bible and in our life as the Church isn’t an abstract idea, an entity known only by deduction from what he does, but a person, a someONE who chooses to enter into relationship with his people. But then I remember that we do use his name, we use it a lot. God’s name is Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, the messiah, the one anointed. Jesus, the orthodox and historical Christian faith says, is God.

 

The classic statements are from the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, which are the first full council of the Church on the one hand and the last one recognised by most Protestants on the other. The Church was being torn apart by arguments about who and what Jesus was, how his followers should understand him. So in 325 AD all 1800 bishops in the Church were invited to Nicaea to decide whether Jesus was of the same kind, the same nature, as God the Father, or had been created by him as he created everything and everybody else, which was the position of a popular teacher called Arius. Arius held that while Jesus was greater than all other creatures, was the Son of God, unique and supreme, he was other and less than God the Father. Arianism denied that Jesus was God and asserted that there was only one true God. At Nicaea this position was decisively rejected and the full divinity of Jesus affirmed.

 

This caused no end of subsequent difficulty, though, since it was also agreed that Jesus was fully and completely human. He wasn’t just God in disguise as a human being he actually was a human being. At the Council of Chalcedon 126 years later in 451 AD the bishops were assembled again, for the fifth time in fact, to decide how we should make sense of Jesus being both human and divine. Various positions that were felt to allow one of these natures to be lost were rejected and a formula agreed that would keep them both.

 

Nicaea said that Jesus was God in the same way as God the Father and Chalcedon added that he was also human in exactly the same way as you and me. For many people this remains a puzzle and a stumbling block. What can it mean to say that a particular man and nobody else is God? This seems absurd and ridiculous. If we arrive at acceptance of the existence of a God of some kind this God will probably be something quite different from us, all present, all seeing, all powerful, unchanging and perhaps rather distant, at any rate not much like a fragile, limited, mortal, human being.

 

For me the importance of the Nicene-Chalcedonian teaching on Jesus isn’t first of all what it tells us about him, although that is important. It’s what it tells us about God and about our ideas of God. It tells us that our ideas about a distant God who is separate from us are wrong, that God is not a distant and indifferent, super-rational and remote being above and beyond our concerns and our problems.

 

If we want to know about God we shouldn’t start from a set of abstract thoughts inside our own heads, we should accept that God has always cared about human beings, has tried and tried to establish the relationship with them that he wants, that we are made for, that we need if we are to realise ourselves and be happy as we should be happy. The story of human being is the story of a covenant, almost of a marriage. At every stage God is reaching out to us and if we want to know about him we need to pay attention to what’s revealed.

 

This is true from Adam, through Noah, to Abraham, through the people of Israel to Jesus, through the apostles to the Church, with its councils and structures, to this place here and now. God is striving to find and to form us, his people, to show us his love and his way and to shape humanity to represent and relate to him in creation.

 

The climax of this effort is God actually coming to meet us, to become one of us, the Word made flesh, Jesus. In Jesus God shows us what God is, fully reveals the divine. It isn’t that we should try to work out how we can make the divinity of Jesus fit with our idea of what the Father is, it is that we should try to work out what God’s telling us about himself and about us and about how we stand in regard of one another by being Jesus. What must God be like if God is like Jesus?

 

Well first of all God must really care about us a lot. If God is willing to suffer our fate, even death on a cross, as the letter to the Philippians says, in order to help us out he must feel that we matter.

 

Secondly God must be involved with the history of the world and struggling to make it come out right. The God who comes in Jesus simply can’t be the almighty sovereign who pre-ordains everything. Jesus doesn’t look like that at all. God must be a healer and peace maker who wants justice and abhors war. God must be passionate and vulnerable, feeling pain and hurt by the suffering of others. God must be prone to outbursts of anger, to periods of doubt, to sorrow that leads to tears. In the Bible we see all of this in Jesus and Jesus is God.

 

Thirdly God must have the power, still, to overcome failure, suffering, even death. In the resurrection we see that God can take a human being past death into new and transformed life, into triumph and glory. It isn’t that at the end of the story Jesus sheds his human form and returns to being God. The resurrected Jesus, to be Jesus, must still be human. In him we see what God can do and will do for us.

 

Fourthly we see that God has now given us a way to be united with him in a real and very complete way. Through the life of the Church, through baptism and the communion meal, we can be united to Christ, can be in him and he in us. The God who is present in history didn’t go away when Jesus ascended to heaven (whatever that might mean to us, a subject for another day). Through the Holy Spirit Jesus promised still to be with us and so he is.

 

All of this is hard to reconcile with our usual picture of God, but there it is, that’s how he is revealed to us in Christ. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians:

 

Christ Jesus: being in very natureGod,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very natureof a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

 

Potters Bar 09 Feb 2014 – Christ is image of God (Col 1:15-20)

We have been talking and thinking a lot about the future of the Church recently, about the future of this congregation, about the future of our denomination. Most of our talk has been about declining numbers. When we’ve talked about growth we’ve often talked about the need to find more people so that the life of the Church as we’ve known it can be sustained. We have had in mind the church’s need for members.

 

I have come feel that this is getting things the wrong way round. If Christianity is to continue to be a force for good in our world it must be because people need it, not because it needs people. If we are to grow we have to have, and to believe that we have, something that others need. In order to grow the church has to offer a solution not an additional problem for those who come into it.

 

Today’s reading from Colossians reminds us what it is that we offer, what it is that we seek when we come here. Jesus, it says, is the image of the invisible God. In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to God, making peace by the blood of his cross. Through Jesus, the letter says, come reconciliation and peace.

 

Describing Jesus as the image of God reminds us that Genesis tells us we are created as this image. We are made to be the image of God and Jesus shows us what that means. In him comes a renewed relationship with everything that exists through a repaired communion with God. In joining ourselves to Christ, the man who is God, God who is the Son of Man, we put right all the things that make us less than we are meant to be. That’s what the Church offers; the opportunity to become fully, properly human, through unity with the one whom humanity is made to represent.

 

Our faith in God has at its heart the idea that the universe makes sense, has a meaning and a purpose, and that human beings have a central place in that purpose. That’s the core of what the creation story says to us. All this stuff around us, from the dirt under our feet to the stardust at the ends of the cosmos, from the massive nuclear reactor that is our sun to the cold empty spaces between galaxies, from the floors of the ocean to the inside of our skulls, all of it is joined together and celebrated in God’s seeing at the end of the sixth day that it was very good.

 

And, Colossians says of Jesus, “he is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of his body, the church.” So Jesus brings everything to peace, he holds everything together, he is the image of God, he is the head of the church. In all of this he is the image of the invisible God, and as such he is the prototype of the completed human race, he is, to quote again, “the first born of the dead”.

 

What we have to offer is Christ, is union with him through baptism and communion and through participation in his body, the church. What we have to offer is the chance to grow into the destiny human beings are made for, the representation of God, as God’s image.

 

When we think about what we need, what human beings need, we shouldn’t start from what we want but from how we can be, how we can do, how we can feel the best that we could; what can make us what completes creation and transforms it from good to very good. This final stage in the making of all things is the placing in it of an image of its creator, someone to represent God in and to it.

 

At this moment we are not, not yet, that perfect image. But we do have a way both of knowing what that image is and of becoming more like it. That way is Jesus. He is the perfected image, he is humankind as we are meant to be. That’s what the letter means when it says he is the image of the invisible God; Jesus is what we are meant to be. What’s more Jesus is not simply a distant memory. He is still present in the world in his body the church, of which, as the letters says, he is the head. When we come into the church we not only meet our risen and ascended Lord, we are joined to him.

 

Now that’s a big claim: “come into the Church and become part of the body of Christ, Lord and Saviour, God the Son”. It is, though, a central part of Christian teaching, as today’s reading shows. It is also both exciting and inspiring, if we take it seriously. Jesus is the one who brings peace and reconciliation, who holds all things together, and through the Church anyone can both receive that peace and the love that motivates it and become part of the wonderful work of redemption and salvation.

What’s more if these claims are true, that all of this is the fulfilment of the deepest and profoundest reality of what it means to be a human being, then those who are not part of the community of God’s people in the Church are missing out on something that they need to be truly and properly themselves, and I think deep down everybody feels that lack.

The offer we make is the chance to become a human being in the most complete sense. How this works itself out in the life of each person will be unique to them, after all nobody can be replaced by anybody else. In coming to know and to live out the limitless and inexhaustible love that comes to us through Jesus every person will be transformed, each will be raised to new and fuller life in communion with him and with their brothers and sisters in Christ.

For most of us most of the time this will be undramatic. It will be expressed through the peace we find in prayer, the uplift we get from singing something that expresses our faith, the comfort we gain from the words of the Bible. It will be experienced in the feeling of fellowship in our gatherings, in the simple acts of kindness we offer and are offered. All of these moments and actions are ways that God touches our lives and guides us towards our true destiny in the body of Christ, as those who make the divine love known. For the Christian, though, these undramatic and everyday works of love are part of the way the holy touches us.

That’s the gospel, the good news, that the Church proclaims. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near, anybody who hears the news can come into it, can become part of the people that God is sending throughout the world to bring peace and reconciliation. “For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross”.

Brookmans Park 29 Dec 2013: Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23

Christmas is a very peculiar event in many ways.

 

It is odd that this is a Christian festival but we have no evidence for its celebration until 350 years after Jesus’ death, something that led to the Puritans in England and in Scotland banning its observation as unBiblical after the civil wars of the seventeenth century and now it is as much a secular as a religious thing, with the emphasis on presents and feasting.

 

It is also odd that during Advent we look forward, we say, to the birth of Jesus, although we all know that his birth happened a long time ago and is not going to happen again. It is paradoxical to look forward to remembering something, since we must already have remembered it in order to look forward to remembering it.

 

Perhaps the strangest and most important aspect of Christmas, though, from our point of view, is that it is a time when we are instructed, commanded, to be joyful. This happens outside the Church, of course, with the secular festival of families, gifts and turkey where all are expected to be full of goodwill and happiness, something that leads to an annual avalanche of advice to families under stress on how to survive this trial by in-law and ex-spouse. This time is also a trial to those coping with grief or sickness. How does one deal with one’s feelings of loss or sadness when feeling good is compulsory? I’ll return to this but first I’d like to look at the way this problem appears within the more properly Christian Christmas experience.

 

We say, and we believe, that with the birth of Jesus something changed fundamentally in the relationship between God, the creation, and humanity God’s image, God’s representatives in creation. In becoming human God changed everything, as our reading from the letter to the Hebrews puts it: “the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Jesus is our brother and he makes us holy, sanctifies us. To do this, to go back to our reading, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” He shares our birth and our nature and this allows him to work our salvation and our redemption. It is this we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. God is with us, our God, Emmanuel, hallelujah, hallelujah, all is made right.

 

The great difficulty arises when we look around at our world or look deep into our own hearts, when we pay attention to those around us or are really honest with them. Is all well, all as it should be in our world, in our consciences or in our relationships? Is everything perfect? Is everything perfect for you? Were there no shadows over your Christmas? Was there no-one whose presence you missed around the table? Was there nobody who you wished you could have spoken with more warmly or embraced more whole-heartedly? If your Christmas was complete perfection then I’m glad and I admire your faith and your goodness, but I’m afraid mine was not. It was very good, Pam made a wonderful dinner, all three of our children were there and in good health and good spirits. My mother joined us for the day and everybody got on, but still, I was aware of the absences of those we have lost, of the continuing misery of so many in our world, of my own weaknesses and failures. I had a good day, but not a perfect day.

 

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that abuse of power, fear, death, loss, were part of the story of Jesus’ family right from the beginning. We’re still in the Christmas story when Herod unleashes terror on Bethlehem and the holy family become refugees in Egypt. The coming of God into the world doesn’t lead straight to the kingdom of justice and peace, it provokes the powers of this world to brutality and mass murder. The Christmas story is not simply one of unmixed happiness and joy. In it there is the evil of the slaughter of the innocents and the shadow of Christ’s death on the cross, symbolised in the gift of myrrh.

 

How, then, can we say that Christmas is joyful? Why do we celebrate? Jesus’ family flee their country under threat of persecution, many other families are plunged into mourning and Jesus, like all of us, begins to live with the future holding suffering and death for him? What is there about all of this that should lift our hearts and fill us with happiness?

 

The letter to the Hebrews gives one of the very best statements of the reason why: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

 

“Free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Jesus frees us by freeing us from the fear of death, says the writer of this letter. In doing so he destroys the one who has the power of death. We are freed by Jesus from fear and this breaks the power of evil over our lives, that’s what this passage tells us. We are liberated by Christ, by God, who comes to share our condition and to show us that it is not something to be afraid of, not something to flee from or to regret. Being us, being the creatures made by God to represent God, is good. Our lives are made holy, sanctified, by Jesus, by what God did at Christmas.

 

That doesn’t mean that everything suddenly became perfect, we know it didn’t. It doesn’t mean that we no longer suffer, we know we do. It doesn’t mean that evil was completely banished, we see it all around us. It does mean that we have God’s promise and God’s sign that perfection is not only possible but our destination and goal. It does mean that suffering will be put behind us and a new life of peace and joy will come. It does mean that evil has been defeated and God will finish the job by disposing of it completely.

 

That’s why when we look at the imperfections of our Christmas, of our lives, of this world, we should neither ignore them nor should we let them obscure what is good. True faith, in this world, is not the denial that we and those we love get sick and die, that injustice is real and ourselves sinners, that our relationships fail and our bodies falter.

 

True faith is to hold on to God’s promise that his love is stronger than all of that, that his love mends what is broken, restores what is lost and heals what is sick. True faith is to be joyful even while suffering, to celebrate when mourning, to be happy even when sad. True faith is to receive what we are given as gifts from God, to accept them as made lovely by God’s love, made perfect by God’s perfection, made holy by God’s holiness. True faith is to see God in everything we have, to see God in those we love, to see God in ourselves.

 

The Christmas message, of God being born, of God becoming a mortal human being, is that what passes, what dies, what sickens and what fails, can be, is, divine when viewed with the eyes of faith. Our imperfect celebrations, our faltering love, all of it is holy and perfect if we transform it through faith.

Potters Bar 15 Dec 2013 (Rom 9:14-21, Matt 13:10-17)

The world and everybody in it needs Jesus, needs God, needs his justice, his forgiveness his love. That’s the basic message of Christianity, isn’t it? That we, all of us, need Jesus. The good news we proclaim is that what we need is available to us. God’s love, in Christ, is freely offered. There’s nothing you have to do or to be to earn it, it’s offered as a gift. All you have to do is to accept it. So what we’re saying, at Advent as at every time, is that everything is all right, as long as you know that it is.

 

That’s a pretty powerful and attractive message, on the face of it. God loves you, God is willing to overlook everything about you that isn’t lovable. God wants to be your friend and God wants you to live forever. All you have to do to get the wonderful gift of eternal life is to accept it, to take God’s offer seriously and believe that salvation and redemption are freely available.

 

If this is true then it’s hard to see why anyone would refuse. Eternal life with God just for the taking. You don’t even have to ask. It’s a bit like someone standing in the street handing out wads of ten pound notes except that the notes aren’t actually money, more a promise of money. These notes would be great to have if you and everyone else believed the promise but completely useless if they didn’t. God’s promise of eternal life is the most valuable thing there is, if you believe it, useless if you don’t.

 

In Advent this is made clear in a quite particular way. We remember that Jesus was born in the Holy Land 2000 years ago. We also remember that before leaving this life he promised that he would come in glory to reign over the earth, as recalled in advents hymns like “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” or “thy kingdom come, O God”. We are invited both to remember Jesus and the promises he made, the things he announced, and to look forward to his advent, his arrival, his coming.

 

So we are faced with a choice, a wager, as the great French theologian and philosopher Blaise Pascal put it. If God exists and his promises are to be trusted then we are saved. If not then we are not. But if we believe it and are wrong we’ve lost nothing and if we don’t believe and we’re wrong we have lost the joy of salvation, so the only rational thing is to believe.

 

Now I don’t find Pascal’s argument all that convincing, since it isn’t possible to decide to believe something in this way. You either do believe it or you don’t. What is true is that someone who is filled with confidence, hope and joy because of their faith in God is better off than someone who has no such faith, who thinks that death is the end of everything and there is no guarantee of justice, of good people being happy.

 

What Jesus seems to say in our passage from Matthew’s gospel and Paul in our passage from his letter to the Romans, is that this believing is itself simply a gift from God, that God grants or refuses understanding and acceptance of God’s message to whomever God wishes. I’m not so sure, though. In the passage from Isaiah that Jesus quotes it is clear that God’s withholding of understanding is a response to the turning away of people from God’s way. It is a judgement on them. Those who can’t understand are those who have not heeded God’s word, who have not done justice, who have worshipped the idols of this world, who have not loved God.

 

To get the wonderful gift of God’s redeeming love you have to be open to it and to be open to it you have first to love God and to love God is to love God’s will, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with him, as Micah puts it.

 

This Advent and this Christmas I hope we will all feel that blessed assurance, that we will all know ourselves loved and redeemed, will all have confidence in the glorious promise of the kingdom. There is nothing for us to be anxious or afraid about, so long as we trust in God. That trust can be hard to keep alive but we know that if we walk along the path we’ve been shown then God will grant us faith. It isn’t up to us, ultimately, we simply need to believe and God will do the rest.