Sunday, 24 December 2017

Silent Night - Christmas Eve 2017

There’s a saying, ‘It’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.’ This is particularly appropriate when it comes to the Christmas story. In so many parts of our lives, the way that we do things says far more about us than the actions themselves. There is a world of difference between a graciously given gift and a grudgingly given one - even if the gift itself is exactly the same.
The bare fact of the Christmas story - according to Christian tradition - is that God’s son was born in a human family. There were many stories in ancient mythologies of gods having children. The thing that makes the birth of Jesus stand out is the way that it happened. The demi-gods of Greek and Roman myth were the result of assaults and affairs by arrogant and manipulative deities. The story of Jesus’ birth, however, throws a very different light on the author of the Universe.
Putting aside the iconic images of a stable, a donkey, a kindly innkeeper and a star that could be seen even in daylight (these are all later, European embellishments), consider the baby, wrapped in strips of cloth, and lying in an animals’ food trough because there was no space in the house.
There are indeed a few remarkable and miraculous events in this story: an army of angels appeared, but only a handful of shepherds saw them; a significant star was spotted in the eastern sky, but only by a small group of mystics. Mostly, the story of Jesus’ birth is remarkably unremarkable.
One important detail is generally taken for granted: that Jesus was born in the middle of the night. A world-changing event was happening in Bethlehem, and 99.9% of the people in the neighbourhood were fast asleep at the time.
It’s not what you do; its the way that you do it. God did the most remarkable thing in human history so quietly that almost nobody noticed it had happened.
At Christmas time we are highly sensitised to the many traumas in our world. It is natural for us to ask what God is doing about such things. In answer to that question: whatever God is doing, he is almost certainly doing it very quietly, because that’s the way God does things.
Happy Christmas.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

God's New Brand - Sunday 17th December 2017

Names are always important. Whether it’s parents choosing a name for their child or the launch of a new business, a name says something. The internet age has brought us a new generation of sassy and witty company names, designed to express the ethos of the brand, to be easily remembered and to appear at the top of the search engine lists. Back in New Testament times, names were no less important.
In ancient Jewish culture many people were given names that were a complete sentence in themselves, in much the same way that some on-line businesses do today.
In English, the name ‘Jesus’ doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a word. But if you scroll back through the Latin (Iesus) and the Greek (Iesous), you get to the name that Mary and Joseph actually called their son: Yeshuah. They didn’t choose the name themselves; it was picked by God, who gave specific instructions through Archangel Gabriel. “You shall call him Yeshuah”.
To an English speaker, the name Yeshuah has no more meaning than the name Jesus, but Mary and Joseph weren’t English speakers. To them the archangel’s instruction was, “You shall call him ‘God Rescues’". Just like many companies today, God chose a name that went straight to the point.
Imagine the scene: on a hot, sunny day in ancient Nazareth - countless times - Mary must have stepped out of her kitchen and shouted for all the village to hear, “God Rescues, your supper’s ready!” Years later - also countless times - Mary’s son would have done the ancient equivalent of offering an introductory handshake while saying, “I’m God Rescues.”
God’s choice of name doesn't specify what he rescues us from. Like much of Jesus’ teaching, that is left open ended. It is enough for his name to assure us that God is on our side, and cares for us, and doesn’t want to leave us in the mess or a muddle of our lives.
God chose a powerful brand name. It's rather a shame that we have lost its impact through the meandering journey between languages.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Something Quite Different - Sunday 10th December 2017

Have you ever been in the classic situation, when speaking with someone who doesn't understand your language, of talking louder in the hope that they will then be able to understand? It seems to be a natural reaction to the situation, but we all know it doesn’t work.
The Christian Church and its message has been failing to resonate with the majority of people in the westernised world for many years now, and we are not going to solve this problem by delivering the same old messages again and again, but louder.
This challenge, that Christians face in many parts of the world, is nothing new. The prophets of the Old Testament had a similar experience; no-one was listening to them. God addressed this situation by doing something quite different. Enter John the Baptist.
John the Baptist walked away from the centuries-old Jewish traditions of divine law and sacrificial ritual. He made minimal reference to either law or ritual. His message was still Judaism, but Judaism-lite, very ‘lite' indeed. "Change your approach,” John challenged the crowds who were drawn to this new teaching. “The influence of God is all around you.” John had dispensed with Temple and synagogue, with law and tradition, and with sacrifice and regular worship. He replaced these staples of religion with a super-simple message of generosity and decency, combined with a zero-expense faith-action that anyone could do anywhere - emersion in water.
John’s Judaism-lite was an instant success. His message spread far and wide across the Jewish networks of the day. By the time that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John sat down to to write their Gospels, each in their own way began by saying: you’ve already heard about John the Baptist; now learn about Jesus.
John came as a warm-up act for Jesus, and we still need him today. Traditional Christianity has lost its potency. We won’t achieve anything by saying the same things, but louder. We need to follow John’s lead; we need to dispense with the over complex moral and religious packaging of our traditions. Instead we need to focus on the oh-so-simple message of John and Jesus: be honest, be caring, be generous, be forgiving - for this is the way of God.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Clearing Up the Mess - Sunday 3rd December 2017

The world is full of mess. We know that. From the rubble of Syria to the floating islands of plastic in our oceans there is plenty of evidence that our world is in a mess. Is it a hopeless mess? Or - as we limber up for the Christmas season - is there a thread of hope that things can, and will, get better?
The core message of Christmas is that God came into the world to address this problem, to deal with the mess. This sounds like good news, but how does his clear-up work?
We have a tendency to think of God as a divine chief executive of the heavenly council. We expect God to devote his infinite resources to a large scale clean-up of humanity’s messiness. Then we look around us and wonder what on Earth God is doing about the problems that we see.
One quick look at the Christmas story shows us that God didn’t come as a political power broker; he came as a powerless child, born into poverty and obscurity. God didn’t show himself to be an all achieving chief executive, instead he came into this world with just a proverbial bin bag and a sturdy pair of figurative gloves.
When we see litter in our streets, we can hope that the council will pay someone to clean it up. They may. We can lobby the council to devote more funding to street cleaning. They might. Alternatively, we can bend down and pick it up ourselves. This is the approach that God took in the birth of Jesus. He came among us as one of us and taught us to care for and forgive one another.
There is hope. We are that hope. If we want our world to be less of a mess, we need follow God’s example, and roll up our symbolic sleeves, and start making a difference.