Thursday, 29 December 2016

The Magi

Based on Matthew 2:1-12, a meditation on the Magi in the form of a poem.  Legend has it that there were 3 Magi, we traditionally think of them as Kings and Cologne Cathedral has a reliquary that purports to contain bones of them.  We even have given them 3 names, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar but biblically we know very little.  They are only mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel and all we know is that were Magi, we are not given their names or how many there were.  We see them as Gentile Kings paying Homage to Jesus and gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh have been given meanings that may not have been an initial intent.  We have also forgotten how the visit itself seems to have led directly to a massacre. 

We are the misrepresented
Our message warped
In nativities; We are Kings, celebrities, spacemen,
Robots, figures of fun

We gave notice of revolution
Of an ancient prophecy coming to term
Of the birth of new beginnings
The birth of Immanuel

We followed a light
Announced a new king
And in our wake
Outpourings of bloodlust, destruction and wailing

We were the scientists of our day
Our heads in the clouds, politically naïve
We come to grieve for the innocents
And seek forgiveness from the King

We are not 3 or Kings, or spacemen
We are just like you
Trying to understand our place in the cosmos
We are the magi, following the light.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

T'was the week before Christmas

Readings:  Isaiah 7:10-17; Matthew 1:18-25

It’s one week to go until Christmas.   In the words of Corporal Jones; Don’t Panic!!

In the last minute rush when we suddenly get a card or a present from someone we haven’t provided for, or when we might be forced into sudden changes of plans; it is easy to forget that the Christmas that we celebrate these days bears little in relation to the first Christmas.  In other words we say we remember the birth of Jesus, but really we run about buying presents and have we done this, have we done that??

Our readings today from Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew contain some points that if we take the time to look at them with a fresh set of eyes, may help in leading us to a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the so-called Christmas Story.  I’ll come back to the manner in which we call it a story later, but just for the moment, that phrase, how does it make you feel?  Do you feel uncomfortable with the term Christmas story?  Does it suggest that it really didn’t happen?  That it is just a story?  Hold that thought.  For now though let’s dive into Isaiah.  Isaiah, as much as can be certain is believed to have lived about 700 years before Jesus’ birth and it was writings by Isaiah and Daniel in particular that Jesus was strongly affected by and ones that he significantly used during his ministry.  Isaiah was considered to be one of the greatest Prophets (if not THE greatest) of the Old Testament period, and very interestingly, guess what the name Isaiah means.  It is translated as “The Lord Saves”; an enticing echo perhaps of the very meaning of Jesus own name, “He who saves”.

Isaiah prophecies that a young woman would give birth to a child who would signify “God with us”.  When we hear this now we immediately assume Isaiah must have been talking about Jesus, it is such a close fit, however in the immediate context of Isaiah’s writing, this particular picture surrounds a relatively near event.  In Ch. 8 Isaiah and a Prophetess bear a child who may well be the “immanuel” of Ch 7.  However, since scripture always has multiple levels of meaning, later interpretations have pointed forward to a young Aramaic woman called Mary who was also of marriageable age (about 14 or so).  The Aramaic word for a woman such as this also could be understood to be a virgin, which perhaps challenges our thinking that Mary actually had a virgin birth.  When we get into a 2 and 8 about this, perhaps we need to consider that often translating ancient texts such as scripture is a really challenging task, and we may be making issues about what is really just a language thing.  For me, I have to say I don’t spend too much time worrying about whether Mary had a virgin birth or not, that in itself doesn’t prove to me that Jesus is who he claimed to be.  Of course the later interpretations of this particular passage from Isaiah also suggested that this pointed forward to Jesus, the root of Jesse and David who would be the full provision of “God with us”.

So from my vantage point in 21St Century Britain, I can’t say for sure that Mary had a virgin birth.  I would say this though.  Questions of whether Mary had had sex before she gave birth to Jesus miss the point of what was happening that first Christmas.  If we get too focused on how many magi there were, were there shepherds?  What was the Star?  How did it stand still? Who was the innkeeper?  Was there one?  Was Jesus born in a stable or in the upper room of of a house from one of Joseph’s family?  If we concentrate too much on these things then we actually get distracted and go further off the track.

Matthew and Luke in their Gospels paint a picture.  They use picture language to help the reader understand.  They tell a story if you like (there’s that word story again).  They are trying to help us understand that something of huge, enormous, stupendous even significance had happened.  They tried to help us understand that this child was in some mysterious way, truly God with us.  That in this child who would grow to an adult, the full glory of the divine presence rested.  That somehow this child was in some weird way, extremely difficult to explain, the great I AM who spoke to Moses, the God of Abraham, Jacob and Moses, the Lord of Israel himself.  The child is the meeting place of Heaven and Earth.  Jesus is the new Temple.  He is a human equivalent of the Ark of the Covenant.

From this comes the language.  This is why we get skies filled with Angels, a star standing still above Bethlehem.  The writing is intentionally a bit crazy because the audience is called to realise that this is something that is extra special.

It’s not some ancient version of Alien visitation though.  Jesus isn’t a 1st Century superman.  No, the miracle is much more profound.  God enters his creation in the form of a vulnerable human child.  In this child, all of creation, not just humanity but the whole of creation will be put right not by some neat special effects cooked up in a Hollywood studio but by the child growing to adulthood, experiencing all the things we all get to have, snotty noses, illness, wet nappies the lot.  Jesus would become what we were always meant to be, an image of God witnessing the glory of God to His creation, and in so doing, to go on and defeat all the dark forces that we have let enslave us.  In Jesus we learn to fully praise and worship God and to bear witness to the truth.

If we do this, we echo our true purpose to be and image of God and we aid in the ongoing work of healing Creation that will come to final fruition at the right time.

This Christmas, I have a simple challenge for you.  When you see the child in the manger, look again.  What do you really see?  And more importantly, what will you do as a result?

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit


Saturday, 10 December 2016

The God of surprises

We have considered this morning already that God might well be a God of surprises, and that we have to keep our wits about us.

Sometimes surprises by the way can come in the weirdest manner.  Only last Saturday, we went to the supermarket in the morning and were regailed with a very tinny version of Hark the Herald Angels sing!  My first thoughts were NO! This is too early.. followed closely by No! They are mullering one of my favourite Carols.  Perhaps, however,  our less than welcome surprise may have caused someone else to ask what the song is about and perhaps even to find out about the “new born King”.

And yet all too easily we fall into a trap of complacency and think we know all about advent and Christmas; assuming there is nothing more it can tell us, nothing more that can surprise us How often will you hear things like Christmas is all about family; it’s all about the children.  Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without……you can insert whatever you choose here.

Advent contains more than one idea, or thought.  We are all familiar with preparation for Christ’s coming at Christmas, some of you will no doubt be familiar with a preparation for Christ’s coming at the fulfillment of time.  There may be more still!

Let us look at Isaiah.  Of immediate interest is that this particular picture of the Lord’s mountain is replicated in Micah 4:1-3.  Did two prophets come up with the same storyline independently of each other? Did one prophet borrow from another.  Mirror images of storylines is something that occurs quite a lot in Isaiah, so already we have scripture throwing us surprises and asking or encouraging us to re-evaluate our interpretation.

The Highest Mountain referred to is generally considered to be Mt Zion, but the thing is Mt Zion is not the highest mountain by any means, in fact it is highly unspectacular, and yet Isaiah and the psalmists insist on claiming that his unspectacular of hills is the Holy Mountain where the Temple of God will reside and that will become the centre of the world, with all nations coming towards it.  So the Temple of God is suggested as coming to reside on something or perhaps someone who will look surprisingly ordinary.  Can you see where this is heading?  Jesus wasn’t a high ranking diplomat or High Priest, he was a young man born to a poor couple of peasant stock and yet on this unspectacular individual the Spirit of God fully resided and dwelt with such that Jesus was and is the Temple of God in human form, and it is through this Jesus that all the nations would come to God for the new age, a time after judgement when Heaven and Earth are to be recombined.  It is true that Isaiah’s piece does actually also give a glimpse of a fulfilled age when swords are turned to ploughshares and a time of peach and growth and righteousness is achieved, the Kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven, this is a picture of a culmination of the new age, but look at how it suggests that the Kingdom is going to be different, that the world flock to a focus point different to what you would expect, the new focus would not be of power and might, it would be something else.

Our Gospel reading paints a more realistic version in some respects, Matthew has Jesus filling in the blanks so to speak of how hard it is going to be for the work to be done.  Jesus focus in Matthew’s apocalypse, is like most works of an apocalyptic nature on the near future, he talks of an immediacy, of an urgency in a coming of Judgement, and of increased violence and tribulation for those who follow the way.  A word of warning, we are not meant to read either piece literally, they are deep pieces of scripture with multiple layers of meaning.  I sometimes wish the Bible came with a large flashing light that flashed loudly whenever we jump to conclusions in our interpretations.  Jesus it seems is actually talking about a totally different advent, an advent of horror and violence that will shake Jerusalem to its foundations.  There is good reason to consider this is in part relating to the events of the coming days, when judgement is served on Evil at Calvary.

I would like to make an argument that far from these two pieces of scripture talking solely about the end times, a suggestion that they both are, being often made, that alternatively they also speak directly towards a judgement conducted in and through Jesus, the cross itself, the beginning of which we prepare to celebrate at Christmas.

That’s crazy I hear you say.  Advent is about preparation for Christmas, or the end times; what does this have to do with the Cross.  Jesus’ life was about announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and everything he said and did suggested that this was being done in and through him, it led him inexorably up against the Roman Empire, and to him being killed in the cruellest way imaginable. And yet, this very event was the culmination of a life that according to scripture was hailed by skies full of a heavenly host and let’s face it some very odd phenomena.  Advent it seems points to the beginning of something that is very great, a time when the world will change, when God arrives in human form. 

Advent, then can mean many things.  Some will  look to Christ’s birth, others may see the Cross, for others again the second coming.  I am not sure one can be certain that it is one or the other, however I am clear that it is terribly important that we continue to ask questions about Scripture.  If we don’t we sell ourselves and our understanding of God short, and we then run off on a mission that is our own making rather than God’s.

To delve deeper that what we see on the surface of scripture is absolutely necessary, to battle with scripture, to seek meanings even when we know we can never really get to the full meaning.  Why, because if we don’t do this, we fail in what God calls us to do.

Perhaps in this period of Advent, we will seek time to think deeper and reflect on what Christmas may mean, what Easter may mean, Who Jesus was and what he meant to others in the 1st Century and what he means to us now, and on to the question of what he is calling us to do now as disciples.  Who knows?  You may just be in for a surprise

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit


Monday, 14 November 2016

Do this is remembrance of me

Message  13 November 2016

A message for Remembrance Sunday - What is Remembrance about? 

My English thesaurus offers the following concerning the word Remembrance.  Recollection, reminiscence, retrospection, keepsake, consideration, regard and thought among others.  The words suggest a “gathering in” of that which we want to hold dear to.  The word “Remember” bears echoes of Re-membering, a re-joining to a collective sense of our community.   By the act of re-membering someone or something, we consciously bring that person or event within the walls of our community.  We keep it safe, as we would a keepsake. 
War takes people from the experiences of an ordinary life into extra- ordinary situations and experience.  Many of these experiences are too horrific to speak about openly.  Witnesses to man’s seeming insatiable desire to inflict suffering on each other often need help to re-join so called “Normal Society”.  As individuals, we aim to re-member them into our communities (be it family, group or larger community).  We help them to remember their place or position- their role.  Equally, families of those who do not return face a similar task.  A task of grieving and re-membering the lost individual back into their lives and into the lives of his or her friends/acquaintances.  We seek to keep our loved ones safe and bring them home.  This is far more than just a physical journey, it has emotional and often spiritual elements to it as well.  The spiritual part is crucial perhaps, because isn’t it in God that we find and make peace with that which has been torn apart?
Jesus speaks into this, when on the night he was betrayed at a supper attended by his closest friends, he urges them to “do this in remembrance of me”
Remembering therefore is a key element in being human, created in the image of God.
Our Gospel reading today from Luke is one of those apocalyptic pieces of scripture that often can be misread as a warning of a coming Armageddon at the end of the world.  There is good evidence that the Gospel writers placed events in order to help support their point and their aim of helping the reader understand.  Skip back to the beginning of Luke’s chapter and we find him writing to Theophilus, “I have decided to write a careful account for you…so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught”
Apocalyptic literature like this piece in Luke, it’s partner in Matthew’s Gospel Ch 24, and in the Book of Revelations, is often written specifically about the time it was written in, not some far flung future event.  Though there may be truths within in that can be applied.  Jesus is talking about the coming judgement; and if we place this in context, Jesus is speaking in the middle of his last week alive when the atmosphere in Jerusalem is tense to say the least and the Temple leadership is out to get him.  Jesus is aware of the threat, and of the likelihood of betrayal among his closest followers.  He knows where this week is heading.  And for Jesus it is more than him sacrificing himself for his principles, laudable though they may be, refusing to accept ways of violence and arguing strongly for peace at all costs, Jesus is convinced that he is God’s true representative and is acting out the end of the age.

The Judgement is imminent for Jesus, something cataclysmic is going to happen and the world will not be the same again, so Luke uses picture language for upheaval, such as war and earthquakes; Matthew has earthquakes and torment.  What is it that is just around the corner.  In hindsight, when we put this piece in context, we see the coming judgement quite clearly, it is of course the coming Friday when the forces of evil will combine and do their worst to defeat Jesus, to defeat God and will fail, for it is on them that Judgement is made. 

So the point of our reading is that a new age is dawning, an age where God is King of Earth and Heaven, where Jesus has won the vital victory for us at such a great cost, and where we are called to follow him, to follow his way of peace, of love, of refusing to bow to the ways of pressure of self centred abuse of others, of lies, of deceit and of violence that we are often encouraged to accept as “human nature” or the way you get things done.
If we follow truly the way of Jesus, then we are invited to follow the way of non-violence, the way of peace, a rejection of armed struggle and armed conflict, however costly that may be.  Jesus, in fact, left no confusion over this.  We are to “take up our cross and follow him” – perhaps literally if necessary.  Jesus’ way, God’s way, a way that rejects the pathway of worldly power and authority at the point of a sword or a Kalashnikov, is offered in the Gospel as the only way to break the repeated patterns of behaviour – oppression of the weak, exclusion of the poor, or those political power games where success and wealth come at the price of sickness and death for those not considered “valuable” to society.
So, when we stand in Remembrance of the tragedy of war – let us turn back to God in humility and prayer and ask for his forgiveness and mercy and for his strength  so that we may walk in Jesus’ footsteps and “do this in remembrance of him”.  One life, 2000 years ago has left a legacy that continues to change lives today.  The very early church grasped this and shook the world to its foundations.  Recently it seems that sometimes the church has been tamed by society and attempts are moulded to make it into a reflection of society rather than Society being a reflection of Jesus.  There is increasingly a tendency to think that it has been put into its Sunday box.
But, Jesus cannot be boxed in.  They tried that once and he broke free on the first Easter Day.  So let us not act as though we can be boxed in either.  Let us rather, follow Jesus and live our lives in remembrance of him.  Who knows, if enough of us do so, there may be a stop to the slaughter of young men, women and children, on the altar of greed and selfishness.  An end to the uprooting of refugees, torn apart families of those left behind and those caught up in conflict areas.  Let us follow Jesus, let us “do this is remembrance of him”
In Jesus name