Sunday, December 23, 2007

set us free

Thank you to everyone who has taken part in this year's advent blog. We're almost at the end. It's been great reading everyone's offerings - plenty to think about and reflect on. Here's something from me for today.

Through advent I've been involved in running some advent services. (The last of which is on christmas eve - a sneak preview here.) Last sunday the readings were from psalm 146, isaiah 35 and matthew 11. I wrote this confession / petition in response to them, inspired by a friend's comment that these verses speak as much to us, as to those who are in physical chains, blindness, deafness, etc. The service especially focused on the situation in zimbabwe (stevenage where I live is twinned with a zimbabwe town called kadoma), in light of our links and john sentamu's recent prophetic act.
Spirit of God
Where we are imprisoned by selfish desires
Set us free
Where we are captive to the gospel of ‘buy one, get one free’
Set us free

Spirit of God
Where we have grown blind to the injustice of the world
Open our eyes to see
Where we have grown deaf to the cries of the poor and the oppressed
Unseal our ears to hear

Spirit of God
Where we are uninspired by the demand for daily protest and prayer,
Give us strength to go the extra mile

Where we have too readily accepted the lie that we can’t make a difference
Encourage us with the truth that we can

Where we are quick to forget to remember the poor
Help us remember, to see and to hear, to pray and to act

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Joy at Christmas

My thoughts today are about joy. I love Christmas. I love the time off work, I love the parties, I love giving and receiving presents.

But I have never forgotten Christmas 1984 - my first Christmas as a true believer, a follower of Christ, as a young teenager. I went to the watchnight service and celebrated Christmas Day with my non-Christian family shining on the inside - it FELT different. The gifts didn't matter so much as the fact that I knew the Giver. I felt as if I understood what is meant by "glad tidings".

Luke writes:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ[a] the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

And so every Christmas I try to deliberately recall this great joy that I felt! It's not to be falsified; it's to well up from deep within, like living water; from the Father to me - remembering Jesus arrival in this world IS (not WAS) a reason for great joy for all the people.

I pray for joy for hopeful imagination readers this Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007


I currently live in London. This means that Advent is not always a time I enjoy. In London, Advent means sharing already cramped public transport with people carrying 10 big highstreet bags each. It means a much longer bus journey, as my bus home passes through Oxford Street and Regent Street. It means streets crowded with people, again all carrying far too many bags. It means longer queues in the supermarket, when all I wanted was some bread and milk.

We all know that Christmas has become commercialised. Christmas, and Advent, are times when people consume to excess in almost all areas: Food, drink, clothes, gadgets etc. These are the obvious things.

One thing we may be only partly aware of, though, is consuming of energy. We all probably have some kind of interesting lights around, be they on the tree, in the window or hanging over our retail centres and in our favourite shop windows. We might tend to travel more, both to go shopping and to visit family. We might send more post than we would the rest of the year, sending cards and presents, and ordering gifts from our favourite websites.

My small Christmas challenge to myself is to make sure I turn off my fibre-optic tree when I am not in the room, even though I have to contort my body into a strange shape to reach the plug socket. And, while I'm at it, I might as well turn all the other things off too...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Old Folk Dreaming Dreams...

Today our church lunch club is going out for our Christmas Dinner – over 60 people aged 60 to 102 (plus me, a (just turned) 45 year old minister!). A selection of walking frames, walking sticks and the odd wheelchair; people who have no short-term memory, people who are registered blind, people who take so many pills they ought to rattle. And there will be a few gaps – an occupational hazard – as illness, infirmity and the inevitability of death’s embrace claim their chosen ones.

As I prepare to go and help them climb onto the coach, I find myself recalling words of Michel Quoist, Sydney Carter, the ancient prophet Joel and the gospel according to Luke…

Michel Quoist:

God says: I like youngsters, I want people to be like them.
I don’t want old people unless they are still children.
I want only children in my kingdom; this has been decreed from the beginning of time.
Youngsters – twisted, humped, wrinkled, white-bearded – all kinds of youngsters, but youngsters.

‘I like Youngsters’ Prayers of Life, Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1963 p 3

Sydney Carter:

You are older than the world can be,
You are younger than the life in me;
Ever old and ever new,
Keep me travelling along with you.
And it’s from the old I travel to the new
Keep me travelling along with you.

‘One more step along the world I go’ Sydney Carter © Stainer and Bell

The Prophet Joel:

…I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days…’
Joel 2: 28b – 29

The Gospel According to Luke

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old…
Luke 2: 36a

I have to confess that I am not a fan of the carol ‘Away in a Manger,’ it seems overly sentimental and has become associated with the ‘ah’ factor of cute, small children with clear skin, gappy smiles and endearing mispronunciations. Yet, when sung by my ‘wrinklies’, with wavering voices, dewy eyes and white hair, it always brings a lump to my throat.

Christmas a time for children? Or Christmas a time for youngsters, for God’s children? Part of the mystery of what we are celebrating in a few days is how the God who is beyond time, before and after all that was and is and ever will be, also became a child, new and tiny and vulnerable, constrained by humanity. Although Anna does not appear in the story until after Christmas, I have no qualms about drawing her into Advent. She and Zechariah, who may also have been old, were waiting and praying for this wonder, daring to imagine hopefully, daring to dream… praise God they were able to see the promise fulfilled!

Today John* will laugh at things that tomorrow he will not remember; Maisie* will ignore her diabetes and eat things that give her indigestion; Ethel* will need her food cut up and Peter* will probably complain. But for a moment, I will glimpse once more the child within each of these precious children of God, for whom Christ was born. I wonder what their dreams are as they approach Christmas?

Old people dreaming dreams; youngsters seeing visions, the old made young, the infinite contracted to a span. Such is the mystery. Such is the gift. Such is our God.

* Names have been changed

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A star is shining on a joyful sight......

Elizabeth Jennings was a Christian and a poet. Not that she wrote self-consciously Christian poetry - she wrote poetry informed by a faith open to questions and deeply conscious of those nameless yearnings and persistent longings that fuel Advent hope. The simplicity and seeming innocence of this poem contrast with the apparently more mature stance of sceptical realism, or the obviously less mature stance of sentimental daydreaming. To 'put memory away' is not to ignore, undervalue or shut out the past - it is to refuse to allow the past to define and determine the future. Today is new! Grace is said! The world's no longer old!

Hopeful imagination combines the age-long desires of the human heart, the capacity to see the world as redeemable and God as Redeeming Grace, and takes with utmost seriousness and utmost joy, the baby 'born as God and man'.

Carol for 2000

Put memory away. Today is new.
Carols and bells ring out and take the year
Into their power. They cast out pain and fear
For everyone and you.

Put memory away. Soft sounds are rocking
A newborn child laid in a cradle made
For animals to eat from. Grace is said.
A child puts out a stocking.

Put memory away and watch a world
Grown almost still because a baby can
Convince us he is born of God and man.
The world's no longer old.

Put memory away. Tonight is Now.
And new as children's hopes and old mens eyes
Soon Kings will come and they are rich and wise
But to a child will bow.

Put memory away and have no fear.
A star is shining on a joyful sight.
A young girl's Child is born to us tonight
And casts out pain and war.

Elizabeth Jennings.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fullness of Time

Paul wrote ‘that when the timing was right.’ God sent his son into the world. When the timing was right. Last year as I prepared for Christmas services I pondered how God’s choice of time for the birth of the Christ was deeply ironic. ‘In those days’ says Luke, ‘Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.’ Caesar Augustus - he’s the boss man. He issues a decree, the rest of the world obeys.

Born in 63BC thrust into the limelight at 19 Augustus combined political acumen, to become sole emperor aged 33. His name means ‘the exalted one’ but he was also known as the ‘father of the country.’ He held the title ‘chief priest.’ He was said to be the ‘son of a God.’ In death he was named the ‘divine’ Augustus. His really great achievement was stability and growth for the empire, or the pax Romana – the Roman peace. He was a prince of peace. He even developed what he termed his ‘gospel’ for the people – the Good news according to Caesar: ‘Divine Augustus Caesar, son of God, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and Saviour of the whole world, has brought you peace.’

To all the world the question of just who was in control here was a bit of a no-brainer. Even with Mary heavily pregnant, even with the danger that this child might be born on the road or might not even survive the journey, Caesar Augustus had the right to force them to make that journey.

Yet Joseph too came from a long royal line. He had no political power. But he carried the promises of God that a Saviour would be born of his line and that promise was currently gestating in the womb of the woman he protected throughout that journey.

Yet the plans he put in place were for the good of an altogether different empire. For Augustus’ empire created the perfect setting for the seeds of a new faith to germinate. He built honest government and a sound currency, increased trade and eased communication. He cleared seas and highways of pirates. He smoothed the pathway to take the Gospel into the farthest parts of their known world and provided safe passage for Paul and other missionary journeys. He developed a postal service - which meant that even from a prison cell in Rome, Paul could spread the Gospel.

But the Gospel Paul spread was not that of Caesar Augustus, but of the child, in the womb of a heavily pregnant teenager that Augustus thought he could herd into a stable. Even Augustus’s census merely relocated the family of promise to Bethlehem, where it was believed God had promised the Messiah would be born. When it seemed Caesar Augustus was boss, God was creating the circumstances in which Christ could be born and doing it amongst those people Caesar Augustus thought he could force to do his bidding.

As plans go the Christmas story seems utterly chaotic. Sabotage the wedding plans of a young couple, to the point were a wedding doesn’t seem possible. Wait until they are ready to give birth then force them to make a long journey. When they get to the end of the road there’s not even a decent place to give birth. But yet all along God is not caught short.

That Christmas message brings hope to a world where leaders think they are in control, where they stake great claims for themselves, or seek to ensure a legacy for themselves. At times the church seems a little more like Mary and Joseph. Constantly being sabotaged, constantly under threat.
Yet within us we carry something beyond the grasp of this world. Yet we too carry the promise. God’s kingdom gestates in the body of Christ’s church. Creation itself waits in expectation for that fulfilment. And even when it looks black, and the church is tossed about by the powers of this world, God is not caught short. God will bring his plans to fruition. Now, as then, his promises will not fail.

Christ entered the world of a man called the Father of a Country, a chief priest, divine, a Son of God, a prince of peace, the exalted one, Saviour of the world. The Roman Peace lasted until AD 180. Jesus was born in an outhouse of a small village on the edge of empire, simply because Caesar Augustus wanted taxes. But that birth brought about a new kingdom whose peace will last forever. Even as Luke was writing, the empire which Caesar Augustus built was crumbling, in serious need of reform. Yet the increase of the government of that child in the womb would never end. And that child was the Everlasting Father, our great high priest, the Son of The Most High, the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the World. Augustus may have called himself a God. His successors may have crucified Jesus Christ. But neither Augustus nor his successors were any match for one who today sits exalted over all the earth. God had no rivals then. He still doesn’t.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

‘Ich bringe alles wieder’

In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most precious book, Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge recalls how this German Lutheran pastor spent the first eighteen months (from April 5th 1943 until October 8th 1944) of his confinement in the military section of Tegel Prison in Berlin. After not a little quibbling he was given permission to write to his parents. Within six months, Bonhoeffer had ‘made such good friends among the warders and medical orderlies’ that he was also able to start writing to them, ‘partly by letter, partly on scraps of paper’. In one such letter, written in Advent 1943, Bonhoeffer penned to a friend the following words, words which betray not only what was on his mind and in his heart at this time of year, but in doing so also serve as an indictment to so much of what passes for Christianity today, a Christianity for whom the Word which created it – and for which it exists to serve – has become all too foreign.

… For the past week or two these words have been constantly running through my head:

Let pass, dear brother, every pain;

What lacketh you I’ll bring again.

What does ‘bring again’ mean? It means that nothing is lost, everything is taken up again in Christ, though of course it is transfigured in the process, becoming transparent, clear and free from all self-seeking and desire. Christ brings it all again as God intended it to be, without the distortion which results from human sin. The doctrine of the restoration of all things – avnakefalaiw,sij – which is derived from Ephesians 1.10, recapitulatio (Irenaeus), is a magnificent conception, and full of comfort. This is the way in which the words ‘God seeketh again that which is passed away’ are fulfilled. And no one has expressed this more simply than Paul Gerhardt in the words which he puts in the mouth of the Christ-child:

Ich bringe alles wieder.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. Reginald H. Fuller; London: SCM, 1954), 87.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Christmas Songs

In order to see a very funny advert go to

This is the IRN BRU's parody of the well known Snowman Christmas story involving various scenes from around Scotland.

Words include:

We're walking in the air
I'm sipping on an Irn Bru
My chilly snowman mate said that he would like some too
I tell him get your own
He looks like he is going to cry
I tell him one gain that the IRN BRU is mine
Now I am falling through the ait
I wonder where I'm going to land
He knicked my IRN BRU
And let go of my hand!

The humour and joy in this comes from the fact that:

Something enjoyably familiar becomes delightfully unexpected

Something sweetly sentimental is made wonderfully, humanely, realistic

Someone smugly up is brought embarrassingly down

This song will be in my Christmas top ten along with the Magnificat the lyrics of which I will preach on tomorrow.. Luke 1:46-56

This song includes the words:

52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

The joy, soul joy of this song too comes from its unexpected, human, reversal of all things.

Aye as a singer Mary has the X factor!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Managing the Manger

Nearly two years ago, plans were announced for a theme park in the Holy Land on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have miraculously fed 5,000. It was to be a project undertaken by American evangelicals with the assistance of the Israeli government. Theme parks seem to be distinctively if not exclusively American inventions. It is richer than a mere ‘amusement park’ and typically involves aping some aspect of real life – the town square or other urban landscape is a favourite – in the setting. The result is a parody of the real world, but safe, secure, sanitised, shorn of any rough edges or real life beyond the time of business hours. No one is homeless; no one is oppressed; no one protests; no one lives there; no one is born, suffers, dies there. It is nowhere. It isn’t reality – in all its messy, heart-rending, wonderful, rough around the edges, glory. The theme park is a bid to control an unruly reality.

Now, of course it is just a theme park – a place of recreation to escape. That no one lives there is quite to the point: it is like an embodied drama in which we can assume certain roles and consider certain options. No one lives in Shakespeare’s Verona just as no one lives in Disney World. There is a necessary air of stylized unreality about it all, which is of the nature of the thing.

The problem becomes when the theme park substitutes for the reality – or when we can only think of the reality in terms of a theme park.

I have a friend who went to Jerusalem a year or so ago, and he remarked that he was disappointed that it was so cluttered, and that there were so many people there hawking religious tchotchkes. He didn’t remark on the religious tensions and strife there, but he might well have. We can develop a notion of Jerusalem and other biblical locations as idealized locations, a sites so hallowed and sacred that they must be ‘pure’ in some way, unsullied by litter and congestion and strife and souvenirs. Or as a Rabbi friend of mine said to me in a slightly different context, ‘so this is the Holy Land?’ We can be tempted to find the real thing anticlimactic – maybe a little too real to be convincing – and wish we had something a little purer, a little more set apart. A theme park would suit this nicely.

It seems to me that the shed (or, more likely, a cave) we will find ourselves gathered near in 11 days is rather particularly like that. We have heard the story for roughly two millennia, and we have had children re-enact it for us for nearly that long, and it can become pretty idealized and well-scrubbed in our minds.

But it was a stable, used in a desperate moment by people worried about taxes and unable to find room among the throngs in Bethlehem. An unanticipated place for an unanticipated birth of an unanticipated child, in a place which might have been tidy but still smelt of animals and oats and shit. It wasn’t prepared; it wasn’t ideal; it wasn’t special; it was just a place.
But the impurity of it all, the unruly reality of it all, that if we saw it today might make us wonder ‘so what’s the big deal?’, that is good news: because that’s our world, the world that God created and – despite our best attempts to live elsewhere – is determined through Christ to redeem. It might not be tidy or safe, but it’s all we’ve got.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

a lesson in rest

the more we reflect on our lives
the more we see clearly our lives are too loud
too crowded
too packed
too hectic
too noisy
too busy

and what we need is more silence
less haste
less rushing about
a call to slow down
a lesson in rest

Our lives get so squeezed
we constantly find something or someone has to go
and we find ourselves forgetting the things
or the people
the family and friends
that shape and support our everyday lives

and what we need is more silence
less haste
less rushing about
a call to slow down
a lesson in rest

big brother
my space and facebook
pop idol and any dream will do
neighbours and friends
heroes and lost
west wing and green wing
news 24
stargate and star trek
match of the day and songs of praise
turn on, tune in
turn on, tune in
turn on, tune in

and what we need is more silence
less haste
less rushing about
a call to slow down
a lesson in rest

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Will you be singing the Coventry Carol?

One of the tasks at this time of the year is to try to spread out the choice of Christmas carols so that we don't sing one of them to death (but, then again, maybe closing the lid on some of them isn't a bad idea afterall). As I've glanced through some Carol books I am left to ponder whether many of them are too sentimental. I understand the theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie was leading a session for the LICC on sentimentality in Christian worship and art last Monday - I'm sure it was very interesting. Do our Victorian carols dangerously leave us with a the false image of the shepherds, angels, wise men all looking-on at the new born baby saying to each other 'ahhh, isn't he cute'? How about sending people on their way into the festivities of Christmas not with the image of the Christ-child wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, 'no crying he makes', but with news of their descent to Egypt to escapte the harsh brutalities of Herod's tyrrany. A Christianity that merely gazes and gaups at the little boy in Bethlehem isn't a true understanding of the Incarnation. Within a short period of his birth, Jesus was, according to Matthew's gospel, a refugee.

Several events this week have made me wonder whether our Carol services should include reference to the Coventry Carol which doesn't sit very easily alongside Away in a manger, but is refreshingly un-sentimental. Firstly, the news of the Archbishop of York's prophetic action in response to the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Secondly, the ongoing troubles in Bethlehem where the Christian community faces isolation and possible extinction. Thirdly (and I'm sorry for bringing football into this Advent blog), the news yesterday that a young professional footballer who escaped the harsh realities of life in Sierra Leone has lost his court case and now faces deportation back to his native land, nine days after becoming a father.

To seek a resolution to the real injustices and sufferings of our world is the real reason why we worship the Christ who came in flesh and blood to experience the dirt and death of the world. Maybe as I sing carols this Christmas I need to be reminded again that he didn't stay in the warmth and comfort of that manger for very long. But then again maybe the manger wasn't warm and comfortable anyway?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Unanticipated Messiah, part 2

Christ entered this world the way he spent most of his life in it: in secret. Even Mary and Joseph, who had been told by an angel that their son was going to be special, seemed frequently to forget it. When the young Jesus, for example, decided to stay in the Temple with the teachers, and his parents thought he was lost, they did not understand him when he said 'Did you not know I would be in my Father's house?'

The life of Jesus was not particularly unique. There were many wandering prophets, teachers and healers in Galilee and Judea in that period of history. Even Jesus' teachings were not particularly unique. Rabbi Hillel the Elder had taught in the 1st Century BCE that the totality of the Torah could be explained by the phrase "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow". Throughout his 'active' life, most of the people Jesus encountered addressed him as 'Rabbi', meaning 'teacher'. Prior to this, of course, he was simply the local carpenter, son of the local master carpenter.

In Mark's Gospel, the Disciples do not realise that Jesus is the Christ until exactly halfway through the written text, and very much toward the end of Jesus' life. When they finally figure it out, Jesus' response is both joyful, but cautionary: 'finally you've worked it out! now do not tell anyone!'

And so the coming of God into the world of men, as a man, was a largely unanticipated event, and was largely unknown to anyone who met the God-Man. He came and lived among us, and went undetected.

It is this, I believe, that points us ultimately to the story of Easter. The Secret Christ- not hidden, not playing games, not being deceitful- came; and we, sinful as we are, could not notice the real deal. The whole of creation was oblivious. And so, when Christ was nailed to a tree, having been beaten and broken by the world, sin and evil appear to have won another victory: another act of hatred, violence, death.

When evil entered into the broken man on the tree, it expected nothing out of the ordinary. It did not perceive that it had entered into the God-Man, could not, perhaps, have anticipated that God would ever become incarnate. Evil, tricked by its own blindness, as was all of creation, entered into God and was consumed by him. Death was unable to hold the God-Man, and so it was overcome.

Advent and Christmas point us, always, to Easter. It is in the story of Easter that the Christ becomes revealed fully. Prior to Easter, all we have are whispers on the wind...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

In Christ God Has Come Together With Us

Each year between 1926 and 1933, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth penned a Christmas meditation for a German daily newspaper. In his 1931 reflection, ‘It gives new lustre to the world’, Barth began by asking a question asked each Advent by Christians generally, and perhaps especially by those called upon to preach: ‘What does it mean to hear the Christmas message?’ He proceeds to say that if the question is put like that, ‘then it behoves us all, especially if we happen to be theologians, to keep our mouths shut and first to consider that the Christmas message is not a philosophy, nor an ideology, nor a moral system or anything like that’. Instead, the Christmas word is ‘the Word of God to which no one has the key and whose real meaning for us, now as in former ages, is God’s secret. Hidden is the point where the Christmas message concerns each one of us and our whole generation, where its grace and judgement, its promise and command affect us’.

However (and it is a big ‘however’), as Barth proceeds to note, the question posed above does not need to be put like that. We could ask, for example, ‘What does it mean that we have heard the Christmas message?’; in which case, while we cannot lay hold of the full reality of the Christmas message, interpret and apply it, as if it were some human wisdom, neither can we or should we ignore its testimony which speaks to us of its hidden reality, of its way and nature, whereby both we and every other generation are reminded of certain possibilities, which are, so to speak, the outer garb of an incomprehensible but real encounter between God and humanity. In the grace of God, we can and must speak that which we know and have heard. In the grace of God, we can and must bear witness, testimony, to God’s self-disclosure. And in the grace of God, this testimony is preserved for us in Holy Scripture.

When, therefore, the Christmas word seems too incredible to believe, we can hear … and believe again. And what is this word? Barth again:

If God had wanted to deal with us as He is free to do, and as we well deserved it, according to His principle, He would never have become man. But He was and is merciful, and therefore in Christ He has come together with us (with us!), though His holiness and our weakness and wickedness should really exclude any coming together on His part and any thought of cooperation on our part. But God did and does just this, the impossible or – should we say? – that which is practical only for Him the Merciful One, which must happen so that His free and merciful will be done. The fact that also in this respect human beings can believe the eternal Light, means that we do perhaps have the will to do that which concerns us most, and which under any circumstance must be done in common with others. – Karl Barth, Christmas (trans. Bernhard Citron; Edinburgh/London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), 47.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

On Being Left Behind

Here I am, nearly a week later, and last Sunday’s gospel lesson is still rattling around in my head, Mt. 24:26-44. When it was read in chapel it quite struck me and my mind lingered over it for some time; I’m still not entirely sure just what to make of it, but I’d like to share some of my thoughts in process.

First, this is a favourite prooftext for premillenial dispensationalists to quote in support a rapture from the earth in which Christians are taken away to heaven and the world bears the brunt of God’s righteous wrath. This is the basis of the
Left Behind novels – from the passage saying ‘one will be left [behind]’. This is a troubling doctrine in a number of ways, not least because it seems to indulge our own (self-righteous) thirst for others’ blood, at times even endorsing a sort of prurient voyeurism on others’ misfortune – I have heard some seriously suggest that they would enjoy being in heaven looking down and seeing everyone get theirs. It seems when doctrine fuels anything like these sorts of attitudes in us, we ought to take pause and soberly reassess where we’re at and how we’ve gotten there. But this is also not a true doctrine; in any event, it is abundantly clear that it couldn’t be supported on the basis of this passage: just as those in the flood were ‘taken’ in judgement, so also those at the coming of the Son will be ‘taken’ in judgement as well. This isn’t a matter of believers being raptured away out of the world, but of them being left in the world. (So much for the old Larry Norman song, I guess.)

This gives a slightly different sense to ‘apocalyptic’ – at least here – such that it is not about the rending of creation, but rather its judgement and continuation. In fact, there is almost the opposite sense, and nearly the opposite sense of the flood, that actually life goes on. The man in the field, the woman grinding: do they simply continue their work in the following days? It seems likely (although presumably there is now more work to do).

But I wonder if those left feel ambivalent about those taken? Or to put it more strongly, I wonder if they are left in grief, in loss, feeling the massive hole where these other valued people used to be: co-labourers, but also presumably friends, family, loved ones. Life does not merely continue for those who remain, but it continues with loss, and visible notable gaps where others used to be.

What is clear on the basis of this passage is that although those left may live with grief and loss, no smugness of self-righteousness is allowed. There is a discreet veil over what happens to those ‘taken’ in judgement; there is no room in the kingdom, it seems, for satisfying our bloodthirsty curiosity. We are instead to be ‘ready’ for when the Son comes at an unexpected hour, a readiness which (I think) speaks of a certain integrity of life, such that we deeply appropriate and live the gospel of Christ, and its grace, service and love.

I trust that God’s judgement will be just and good and loving and in accord with the grace and holiness manifest in Christ. But at least now it takes a bit of graced imagination to think how this might work out, and I’m not sure I see it at this point. Even so, I join my voice gladly – though with perplexity – to the church’s chorus down the ages: Maranatha, O Lord Jesus, come!

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Unanticipated Messiah, part 1

When we get to advent, it is a time of great anticipation for the Church. Often, we hear that the whole world is looking forward with anticipation for the arrival of Christ, the redeemer, the God-Man. Sometimes, in our excitement, we assume it was the same 2,007 years ago...

If we cast our imaginations back to the first Christmas, the idea that all of creation is waiting with bated breath for the coming of the Messiah seems only natural. But I want to suggest that this could not be further from the truth.

Mary and Joseph, first of all, were on the long journey from Nazareth, in Galilee to Bethlehem, in Judea (a journey of some 70 miles as the crow flies). Travelling in the last stages of pregnancy, by donkey, would have been horrible: but doing the journey with a baby would have probably cost the child its life, and maybe Mary hers as well. They needed to reach their destination before Mary could safely give birth, and before they would have had the necessary provissions for the baby. Giving birth on the road was unthinkable. Far from looking forward with anticipation to his birth, Mary and Joseph were almost certainly dreading it happening early.

The friends and family of Mary and Joseph would have been busy fussing about, getting to their own places of birth for the census. There would not have been time for a baby shower, no gifts or old toys and clothes to inherit from family members and close friends. This was the most inconvenient time for their friends to have a baby.

When the young couple finally arrived in Bethlehem, all the inns were full up. They had nowhere to go except a cave, used for housing animals. 'I'm sorry that you're pregnant, I really am, but there's not a lot I can do...' you can hear the poor, over-burdened receptionist saying it now.

Even the Magi, contrary to popular wisdom, are not due to arrive on the scene for a couple of years yet. Herod killed all the toddlers because Jesus would have been 2 or 3 by the time the Magi got there.

And so it came to pass, in those days, that in the cave used to shelter and feed the animals, the Son of God entered into this earth, incarnate as a frail, human baby. His two earthly parents were exhausted, the inn was full, and this was no occasion for a great celebration. The whole fabric of creation did not tremble before the God-Man; the world kept turning, and this insignificant event passed by without anyone even turning their head...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


ad-vent is the coming of Christ, the way of the Son into the far country, a unique and miraculous ad-venture of God. It's a dangerous and hazardous activity to be born in (2)1st century palestine, under occupation and with leaders ready to massacre innocents. But Christ comes to ad-vertise, to make publicly known the love of God to a world thats lost its way. The love of God becomes datable, becomes human, flesh and blood. Christ comes despite the ad-versity of life, to confront and overcome the ad-verse and hostile forces of evil. Christ comes to demonstrate and ad-vocate the way of God's kingdom. Christ comes to be God's ad-vocate to all creation, proclaiming the salvation of God. Christ comes to be the ad-vocate of poor, speaking good news and liberation, blessings to the needy and woes to rich. Christ comes to be the ad-vocate of all humanity, speaking and interceding on our behalf, going the extra mile, giving away what he possesses, turning the other cheek. Christ comes to ad-vise us not to worry about tomorrow, to go the narrow way, to treat others as you would have them treat yourself, to become like children, to forgive as you have been forgiven, to be ready and watching for his second ad-vent.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Like a thief in the night?

Last Sunday, being the first in Advent, our thoughts were turned to the second coming of Christ. I chose as my preaching text two passages: Mark 13:32-37 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-5:11. I said that the message of Christ's return does not sit very easily with this time of year as people are preparing themselves for the festivities and indulgences of the season. It's a bit of a reality check. The last thing on people's minds in the rush towards Christmas is that human history will one day finish its course, particularly as the trappings of Christmas can lull us into a false sense of security that 'all is well' with the world. The two above readings are unattractive at this time of year as we rush in haste to the baby in the manger. And yet they are instructive. So much of the NT breathes an air of expectation as we stand on tip-toe awaiting the final coming of Christ. And what a difference it will be to his first coming. As Eugene Peterson said at the National Pastor's Convention in the US this year, there wasn't any trace of celebrity in the Christ-child. He referred to his birth as 'the miracle that wasn't a miracle'. The baby born in obscurity and vulnerability will return in majesty and power.

But what are we to make of the image of Christ's return as being like a thief? It's easier to think of God as father, companion, comforter. I tend to think of a thief as violating what is personal and precious to me. But in Revelation 16:15 we read: "Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed" (c.f. Rev 3:3). In a sermon at the turn of the millennium, William Willimon said "God is determined to have us, I know that from the Bible. Much of our holding, grasping, accumulating is evasion of God. I want to secure my life on my own terms. Sometimes, there’s no way for God to have us except to take us. Steal us? And God will have us." A sobering thought but a wonderful reminder that whenever it will be that God-in-Christ returns, He will be doing so to rightfully claim what is His own and our hearts shall then find their final rest in thee.

Defiance as a fruit of the Spirit?

I am becoming a great believer in defiance, so long as it is the gentle persistent defiance of peace, the non-violent belligerence that seeks righteousness, the gently, annoyingly impatient hunger for justice. Isaiah is the great prophet of theological defiance -
for Isaiah desert isn't irredeemeable wilderness, deserts blossom
for Isaiah swords are re-forgeable as military purpose gives way to horticultural
for Isaiah gloom and deep darkness are doomed as soon as dawn comes, and it is coming.
So I like Alan Boesak's biblically informed defiant worldview - it is one of the litanies I'll use daily during Advent

It is not true that this world and its people are doomed to die and be lost –
This is true : For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him, shall not perish but have everlasting life ;

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction –
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly;

It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction have come to stay forever –
This is true : For unto us a child is born, and unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called wonderful counsellor, might God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world –
This is true : to me is given all authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even unto the end of the world.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church, before we can do anything –
This is true : I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and you sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall have dreams….

It is not true that our dreams for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity, of peace are not meant for this earth and for this history –
This is true : The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth………..

Alan Boesak, at the World Council of Churches, Vancouver

Monday, December 03, 2007

Priceless Insignificance

Yesterday I drove over to Cambridge to see my sister and her family for the ritual exchange of gifts. On the way over, I heard on the radio that the first Monday in December is the peak day for internet buying, as people having looked around the shops over the weekend buy on line – and hope, sometimes forlornly, that the gifts arrive in time for 25th December. In the afternoon we went ten-pin bowling, which I am very bad at, not helped by the fact that I am left-handed and the ‘house’ bowling balls are drilled to be used with the right hand (check it out next time you go!) – a centimetre/half an inch or so makes all the difference. These two factors have swirled in my mind as I began to contemplate the season of Advent.

Expensive Gifts
Matthew 26:6-13
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. "Why this waste?" they asked. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor." Aware of this, Jesus said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." (NIVi)

I cannot begin to imagine how much money will be spent this Christmas as people seek to demonstrate to others their love, to win approval, or maybe to outdo a rival. This little snippet from the latter part of the gospel according to Matthew suggests that lavish gifts are not automatically wrong, indeed there are, it seems, times when giving to the poor is not the best choice. How scandalous! The members of Jesus’ inner circle fail to grasp what is going on here – this woman is offering her all to Jesus. Some commentators have suggested that what she did was tantamount to offering him her life’s savings, her pension plan, her future security – a crazy gesture fuelled by love for this man who in a few days would be executed.

There is something crazily lavish about what God does for us, and Christmas is a great time to focus our hearts and minds on the abundance of Gods’ grace which is there for us long before we even begin to recognise it. Wasteful? Maybe. Loving? Undoubtedly.

Mere Incidentals
Matthew 13: 31 - 33
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches…”
“The kingdom of God is like the yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

These parables, so beloved of preachers and Sunday School teachers, point us to the importance of small things, tiny things; things that seem insignificant – like the positioning of the holes on a bowling ball! Yet, as we know, without the yeast (or leaven) the dough will not rise, unless the tiny seed is planted (to leap momentarily to John 12:24) it cannot grow into anything. Little things can make a big difference.

Something as tiny as an ovum in the body of a peasant girl? Something as tiny as baby born in a small town in the first century? Something as insignificant as the words of a travelling preacher? Evidently so! The God we consider to be so mighty, so strong and powerful, chose tiny, a mere blip in what was happening, to transform the life of the world for ever.

Expensive Jewels!
Matthew 13: 45-46
“The kingdom of God is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (NIVi)

A mere incidental – a speck of sand or debris caught inside an oyster. A protective layer built up to cover the irritant. A beautiful jewel sold for an enormous price. Remarkably the two are linked!
As I walk my way through Advent this year, I will pause to think where and why I spend my money – what is the motivation behind it? – but I will also pause to ponder the little things, the mere incidentals that make all the difference, be that a smile given away or the wonder of a God who chooses to enter time and space by doing something as unimaginably insignificant as being born.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Thoughts for 1st Sunday of Advent

On the first Sunday of Advent the Revised Common Lectionary directs the Church to Christ’s future and as yet not fully realized coming (Parousia). Christ’s coming is not simply the past event of the babe born at Bethlehem, Christ is not merely a figurine that can be brought out at Christmas, placed in the idyllic nativity scene, and then packed away again until next Christmas, though that is how many seem to regard him. Christ’s coming is the present reality of God’s revelation in the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s coming is also a future hope when he will come in judgement and mercy to make all things new. It is this present and future reality of Christ’s coming of which the Church seeks to remind us and for which it seeks to prepare us.
Matthew 24:36-44 is short section of a much larger passage dealing with what for Matthew's congregation was an important issue: the delay of Christ's Parousia. What was assumed to be imminent—the Parousia and apocalyptic judgment—was unexplanably delayed. Hence the warning, "Yet about that day and hour no one knows..." This repeated warning has not prevented some believers from engaginging in feverish 'end time' speculation throughout church history, and even still today. Some debate endlessly, based on verses 40-42, whether the 'rapture' will be pre or post tribulation. Others make wild connections between the allegorical figures in the book of Revelation and present-day persons and events. Such connections, it is claimed, prove that the Parousia is imminent, and some go so far as naming the date. To claim such 'infallible' knowledge is the hubristic enterprise of assuming to be privy to know that which '...not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son; no one but the Father alone.' By contrast, what Christ requires of his followers is readiness and faithfulness. This is the ordinary but demanding business of praying, being obedient to God's will, worshipping God, witnessing to Christ and serving others. This, arguably, is the ongoing test or 'crisis' (Romans 13:11-14) that we submit to day by day as we seek to be faithful to Christ who comes continually to us as God's revelation in the Spirit prior to his final Parousia.