Saturday, 27 December 2014

Birth pangs of the Kingdom - the first steps after Christmas

Well, Christmas is sort of over.  At least for the secular world where the focus is now well an truly on the new Year parties and the annual game of reviewing the previous twelve months and making promises or resolutions that the next twelve months will bring a new us.

Of course in the Christian Calendar, today is the first Sunday of Christmas.  So we still get the chance to sing Christmas Carols and to consider the immense action of God who we are told in John 1 v 14 in the message version, “became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood”

The two readings today help us to reflect on the particular nature of Christmas; Psalm 148 is cleverly set up mirroring the Genesis order of Creation; so we see God praised in the heavens and then on earth, in the sea on the land, by plants, animals and finally humans.  The key is the linking together of heaven and earth.  All that is in heaven praises God, and everything that is on earth praises God.  The Psalmist is clearly telling us that God is not an absent caretaker, holding court in some distant heaven whilst we get on with things down here.  No. God is Lord of both heaven and earth such that all creation praises him.   That is why we sang Jesus is Lord earlier.

We might of course, sometimes, look around us and wonder about that at times.  With all the sadness in the news and fears of terrorism, not to mention more individual stresses such as job insecurity, family upsets, illness or even death, it is easy to think that God is no longer active.  Why do bad things happen to people, why does the Middle East always seem to be the place where war kicks off.  We are told that our own country is recovering economically, but who is this benefitting the most.  For a lot of people, life remains very tough.  In the middle of this suffering both small and large in scale it is only understandable that we might have difficulty in being sure that God is indeed King of heaven and earth.  However, if we take time to reflect on the scriptures it is clear that from God’s perspective this is indeed the case.  We need to look beyond the veil.

The psalms reveal to us a true perspective on our attempts to talk to God.  They don’t hold back from talking about how hard things can be.  They often speak of existence in which sometimes God doesn’t seem to be close at all!   Consider Psalm 6: “Can’t you see I’m black and blue, beat up badly in bones and Soul?  God, how long will it take for you to let up?  Or Psalm 22 “ My God , My God why have you forsaken me?” or Psalm 73; where the psalmist is looking at a society fractured by material inequity with some very rich and many very poor people.  Perhaps with some of those problems faced by our ancestors, we might consider that it is worth looking at how they faced trials and problems very similar to issues we still face today.  For in the midst of the darkest of times, the Psalms reflect a deep faith in the sureness and the reality of God, in no way as some absent figure on a cloud, but as an intervening Lord and King.

And surely, Christmas is about the intervening Lord embarking on the greatest and most far reaching intervention yet.  Of course, as the God of surprises, He arrives in the most vulnerable and fragile form imaginable.  The Lord of the universe is born to a poor young couple – we know they are poor because of the sacrifice they made.  A pair of doves was only given (and bought no doubt in the temple courtyard) by those who couldn’t afford a proper sacrifice.  It is a token.  Jesus is the firstborn male for Joseph and Mary, and Jewish Law, Exodus Ch 13 tells us that the first born male is given over to God.  Animals would normally be sacrificed in this manner, whilst first born male Children would often be sent to study in the Temple.   Perhaps even in this very early story of his Gospel, Luke is making a direct Link between the wonder and majesty of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth whilst pointing ahead to trouble.  This is certainly echoed by Simeon’s speech to Mary talking about Jesus, presented in the Message version as “A figure misunderstood and contradicted– the pain of a sword thrust through you.  But the rejection will force honesty as God reveals who they really are”  This early suggestion of underlying threat and danger is echoed in Matthew who has Jesus being spirited away by his parents to Egypt to avoid Herod’s vengeance, whilst John reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world but that the darkness cannot put it out.  Both stories are indicative of struggle even at the very beginning of Jesus’ life.  The point to be taken from John’s introduction is that the darkness tried, and it would do so very hard.

The evangelists are giving us a picture of the vulnerability and fragility of these first few steps.  These are the birth pangs of the Kingdom.

Like any child, Jesus would need warmth, protection, food, drink and love; just like us.  He will grow and face a hostile environment of infections, just like us.  He will need to learn new skills; He will need to learn how to talk, to walk without falling over, to read, to listen; just like us.

It is in Jesus, then that we see, truly see, what God is like.  Our Lord and King certainly, but not one robed in purple with a crown, sitting on a throne as in some pictures.  Where we have made a caricature of Jesus, making him into something close to our version of a King or Emperor.  Rather God comes as one of us, fragile, delicate and most of all vulnerable.

Why?   So that we can relate to him, so that once again, Eden can be opened up so that we can walk with God here on earth.  For this is the truth of the Good News.  You don’t have to wait until you are dead to meet God.  \with Jesus, birth, life, death and resurrection heaven and earth are once again joined.

It is thanks to what God has done for us that we can meet with Jesus and know the Holy Spirit now.  We can experience heaven; albeit through a mist most of the time; but the kingdom is no longer a mustard seed.  It is growing.  The fog is slowly clearing.  That is the true gift of Christmas.  This is what Christmas is all about.  It was worth the birth pangs.  God made himself vulnerable for you, are you willing to do the same for Him?

In Jesus name.   Amen


Sunday, 14 December 2014

So what is the meaning of Christmas; when outreach gets real

For a year now, with a group of volunteers I have been leading a Listening Ear Programme which incorporates a Chair Exercise/Relaxation class for people who suffer from Chronic Pain.  We also offer counselling sessions for those with a need for more formal emotional help.

All our services are free and depend solely on donations and the free giving of time by volunteers in the Church at GMC.

On Friday 19th, we are hosting a Carol Service for the people who use the service, many of whom do not necessarily attend church regularly; in fact for some of them the only experience they have of a church is when they come to our group on a Friday.

Our Message for the day is included below, I hope you enjoy it and find it helpful,  God Bless

                                        What is the meaning of Christmas?


Well, why do we do this every Christmas?  We have a pagan festival that the early Christian Church adopted, so we have an odd mix of Christmas Trees – you can’t really miss them here!  Mistletoe – an old English fertility sign – Parties, Food +++, Family get togethers, a yearly visit to Church – well it’s traditional.  Carol Concerts, and school nativities.

I wonder what we really think Christmas is all about? 

Some say it is all about the children.  Santa Claus, the big guy in the red suit.  But isn’t he a product of Coca Cola?  Presents galore.  With every year the pressure on and from retailers gets greater.  Where is this heading? – higher bills and more debt. 

Some say it is all about Family.  That’s what  is most important isn’t it?  Then why is Christmas such a busy time for Samaritans?  Why are other more break ups at Christmas than at other times?  And yet Family get togethers are such a traditional theme of Christmas?  Jesus had this to say about the importance of family or racial allegiance.  “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.  Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Sometimes this sounds like one of those hard biblical pieces where Jesus just sounds a bit rude, and we therefore ignore it or avoid it.  But in the context of 1st C Judea, Family and tribal ties were all important, they still are in some parts of the middle east.  The history is that just earlier his family were actually saying they wanted to pretty much kidnap Jesus as they felt he was becoming an embarrassment.  Maybe Jesus was still smarting a bit; either way the message is that family is not THE most important thing.  Tribal or blood ties should not be what dictates our choices or thinking. 
Some say it is an excuse for a Rave!
Great; everyone likes a good time.  But what comes next?  Post Christmas blues, Credit card bills, more debt.

Well surely Carol Concerts are what Christmas is all about.  After all lot’s of planning go into them, we all feel good after and they set us up for Christmas.  How many of us will shake the ministers hand and say “ Nice Service!”  So what stops us going back next week or the week after?  No, it is not enough that they give us a feel good Christmassy feeling.  Great as they are, Carol Concerts are not what Christmas is about.
So it must be the Nativity scene, surely. Those of you on facebook may well be aware of the nativity scene that is doing the rounds.  Though I wouldn’t agree with those who seem to argue that we ought to keep nativity plays in schools due them being traditional.  It’s not really traditionally British, as the scene is of an event that happened in the middle east, probably not in a stable, there was no innkeeper, we don’t know how many wise men, so question marks here as well.
A few days ago my youngest told me about a story at her school.  One of her friends had said that Christmas will last until about February.  When Beth said that it finished at Epiphany this young lady looked a bit blank.  Well that’s ok in itself because you wouldn’t expect everyone to know about Epiphany  but she then looked blank when Beth mentioned Jesus.
Perhaps it worth looking again at the Nativity and Jesus in particular  and see what we can see.
We have the manger, Mary and Joseph, 3 magi, Shepherds.  Who are these people and what role are they playing.  One way of reading this is to see them as playing important signposting roles to what is happening.  Take the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb – you will find that in Luke’s gospel in the very first chapter.  We have angelic visitations from Gabriel.  God is intervening here bout how.  There are echoes of Elijah with John the Baptist, Elizabeth’s baby.  Elijah was one of the Old Testament’s most important prophets.  We have 3 magi with presents that seem a bit odd, and the song of Mary which talks about the rich and powerful being upstaged and the poor having righteousness and justice.
The baby is hailed as the Messiah.  And this is the key.  This baby is the LORD himself.  God himself.  Fully human and divine, arrived to take his place as King of heaven and earth.  But again there is a real difference; no palaces, no servants; God arrives in the smallest and most insignificant manner you can imagine.  In fact it causes a stumbling block to some people that the author of the universe did not leave any record of his birth.  No evidence it was that hidden and small and unimportant.
This is a different type of kingship.  No Mafioso, no secret service, no MI5.  This is a suffering King, a servant leader whose aim is not to lord it over his people but to heal creation, all of it, whilst at the same time caring for an individual.  God is God of both the big and the small.  With the birth, the Kingdom starts as a mustard seed, starting to spread shoots and roots in Jesus life and ministry.  A new covenant is promised and enacted in his life and death and resurrection through which creation is transformed.  With Resurrection we have new life, new hope and a new age, a new way of doing things, a new way of living.
Who then is Jesus?  A good man, a teacher? A mad man? God?  The Gospels are really clear on this, and have been written so that we are left in no uncertain terms.  Jesus is our Lord and King who suffered rejection, from both his family and his society; betrayal, torture and death.  Why?  For Love.  John tells us this in his famous passage in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.  Not just  to bring about the judgement of evil.  Not just Satan, but also all who serve him.  To break down the barriers between Heaven and Earth.  To allow us to speak openly to God again  and for God to speak to us.
So in the midst of all that we have made Christmas, spend a moment please through the season to glimpse inside the manger.  A baby, more than a teacher, more than a prophet, more than a good man, rather take a look at God, the creator of the universe, making himself vulnerable for our sake and for the sake of all creation.

And when you have done that, read what happens next!


Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Success

Yippee!   at the weekend I found out that I had passed all the final academic parts of my Faith and Worship course.  Just 3 days after successfully surviving the final interview at the Local preachers meeting with the outcome that the Methodist Church is now happy to recommend me to be an accredited Local Preacher.

it has been a long journey, some of which I have shared on this blog.  One of the parts of the interview was to share my growth as a Christian in the last 3 years.  I would like to share with you all now, especially as I have been humbled by the knowledge that this blog has been read internationally. Those who have read this in the past, you will be glad to know that I mentioned you in my interview!

Well, here is my story I shared:


My journey towards being a local preacher has led to a deepening of my personal relationship with God to a level that I had never felt possible when I started even though back then I was arguing in my initial statement before being accepted on note that relationship with God was key.  I have found that God majors on surprises and faithfulness.

I believe that my call to preach has been strengthened in the experience and feedback that I have received over the last 3 years.  I have been fortunate to receive positive feedback from all age groups, young to old. People have said how messages have touched them personally.  In reading scripture and in studying scripture and reading around the subject, I have become more aware of God grasping me in this way.  It is not an exaggeration to state that my life has been changed beyond recognition by this journey.

I have helped in Sunday school, at a recent youth alpha event, and attended two HTB leadership conferences.  Now a steward at GMC, I have set up a listening ear project having gained a qualification in Christian Counselling for the local Community, which includes Chair Exercise Classes and managing 2 Counsellors who provide free counseling to those in need.  This is proving to be a significant outreach to many who have no knowledge of God and for whom their experience of the inside of a Church is on a Friday afternoon.  We have attended Churches together in Medway to highlight our work in the towns.  Next month we will be holding a Carol Service for the users of the Listening Ear instead of our normal Chair Exercise Class.

It is something that I would very much like to develop if possible into a chaplaincy role

I am aware that I still need to develop in both my worship leading and preaching and I look forward to further guidance and development under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, with the support of this group and GMC.

I have found that as a person I have become calmer, and I find it easier to cope with extremes of emotion.  I think this is as a direct result of spending time with God.  I still feel irritation with poor thinking, but I am learning to apply the active listening that I use in my day job in all situations and I am aware of the need to love the person and argue the process.  I am fortunate that I have enjoyed the complete support of my family, and it was my absolute delight in July to assist at the adult baptism of my two daughters.


Finally I have found a talent for writing poetry and hope to publish a meditation for easter.

Thank you for all your support in my journey.  I remain a pilgrim, and my journey goes on.