Sunday, 27 December 2009

Feast of the Holy Family 27 December 2009

A seemingly devout couple who spent hours bowed before a statue of the Virgin Mary were actually waiting for their mobile to charge. The priests in a Milan Church found the pair had been plugging the phone into a socket used to light up the statue!

Well this morning we also bow before Jesus, Mary and Joseph but to draw a greater power into service. I mean the power of love at the centre of the Holy Family.

This morning the liturgy moves from Bethlehem via Jerusalem to Nazareth. On Friday we celebrated the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Today we celebrate his childhood in Nazareth. As we heard at the end of the holy gospel, following the incident in the Temple: Jesus went down with Mary and Joseph and came to Nazareth. Or in Matthew’s account of his infancy his home (was) in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazarene’

I once went to Nazareth. I’ll never forget seeing two young boys at a well drawing water for their families. They could have been Jesus and his cousin John. The water was probably from the same source as that drawn on 2000 years ago, for wells do not move.

This morning we are all going in heart and mind to Nazareth, to the household of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. We’re going, with the scriptures and the holy liturgy to seek inspiration from the Holy Family for our own families and for the family we enjoy here at St. Giles’ as a local expression of God’s never-ending family, the holy, catholic church.

As we go to Nazareth we find welcome, challenge and empowerment.

We find firstly a welcome. The hearth of Mary and Joseph is an open hearth. How could it be otherwise? How could this couple who welcome God into their earthly home be guilty of turning any away?

In the Holy Family there is hospitality, the generous reception of friends and stranger alike. We catch something of the extended life of the Holy Family in today’s Gospel story of Jesus getting lost in the Temple when the three of them travel in a large extended family. To enter the story of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is to find yourself welcomed into that great hospitable procession of the people of God into the heavenly Temple. Mary and Joseph remind us that we can never have Jesus to ourselves. To be a Christian is to be one with Mary and Joseph and Paul and Augustine and Francis and Giles – and the list goes on!

In the Holy Family we find the welcome that marks the church from its beginning, God’s people belonging to God and belonging together.

You and I haven’t chosen one another but God has chosen us together to be his family here in Horsted Keynes. Welcome one another says the Apostle as God in Christ has welcomed you.

In Nazareth we see also an image of Christian family, of mutual belonging. Jesus, Mary and Joseph are present to one another in a way we can only hope to imitate by the grace of God.

Our families need to go to Nazareth, so to speak, and to learn there how to be more present to one another.

This quality of mutual presence and attention is part of the welcome families are all about, the welcome of open ears and hearts, of people putting aside their own agenda in loving service of one another. What greater gift can you give to anyone than total, undivided attention?

As we go to Nazareth we find such a welcome – and also a challenge. It is the Feast of the Holy Family today.

There’s so much sentimentality surrounding Mary and Joseph we need to get back to scripture to see them as they are – two of God’s holy ones and holiness is nothing comfortable but rather something challenging. The infancy narratives in the Gospel give evidence of St. Joseph’s capacity to hear the voice of God and guide the Holy Family.

And Mary! If she had not been what we call ‘ascetic’, a woman set apart and well disciplined in the spiritual life, she would not have become the God-Bearer by whom God came down to live in your life and mine.

As someone wrote, it was as if the human race were a little dark house, without light or air, locked and latched. The wind of the spirit had beaten on the door, rattled the windows, tapped on the dark glass, trying to get in – and yet the Spirit was outside. But one day a woman opened the door, and the little house was swept pure and clean by the wind. Seas of light swept through it, and the light remained in it; and in that little house, a Child was born and the Child was God.

As we go to the home in Nazareth we encounter the challenge of holiness, what Pascal said was the most important influence in the world. We see a Holy Child formed by a Holy Mother and her Spouse. How can we enter such a home?

There are families I know where there is such a sense of the Holy Spirit that I am made to feel deeply challenged. Some households have about them a transcendent quality, a joy that is pointer to heaven our true home. This is also true of churches. Just welcoming visitors is not enough. They need to be challenged, intrigued by what they see inside our buildings, both the worship of Jesus and the people of Jesus in their self-lessness and joy.

I wouldn’t be here this morning if I hadn’t been bowled over by the awesome rites of a church I visited in Oxford over 35 years ago, a saint of a priest and many apparently humble, holy and humorous folk who gathered day by day to go unto the altar of God, the God of their joy and gladness.

This morning we go to Nazareth to learn in the school of Jesus, Mary and Joseph of a welcoming love and a challenge to holiness. Lastly we will find at Nazareth a source of empowerment.

For 2000 years people have been empowered by the saving grace of Jesus Christ born of Mary.

What a Saviour – a practical Saviour! As practical as his foster father, Joseph, in carpentry where Our Lord picks up his capacity to mend, yes, even families.

How many of us have had to bring our marriages and our families to be mended? To the Carpenter, the One who anoints and empowers and saves – and seen the difference Christian Faith makes.

How much we need to get back to Nazareth, to Jesus, Mary and Joseph and see there a work of intense spiritual transformation open to all. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour (Luke 2:52). He did so that we too might increase in the same fashion!

Either Jesus Christ makes a difference, either he is born ‘to raise the sons of earth’ or our religion is moralistic do-gooding. If Christianity is about ‘do gooding’ it is only in the sense that Christians have access to a power beyond this world that incidentally helps you do what is right.

For that empowerment, for the challenge and welcoming love the Holy Spirit brings we go in gratitude once more this morning to Nazareth!

Through modelling Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may our families and our church be places of welcome so that people may find a home with us and with the Lord!

May our families and our church be challenging places where people get intrigued by Jesus Christ living in the midst of his people!

Father grant that our families and our churches may become places of spiritual empowerment where we share in the anointing of your anointed Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign, One God for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas all age eucharist 2009

A lady’s looking for work and sees a sign on a house: “PAINTER WANTED.” So she goes to the house and knocks on the door, telling the owner, “I’m here for the paint job.”

“OK.” The guy hands her a couple cans. “Here’s the paint. I want you to paint the porch.” She says, “No problem,” gets the paint and sets off to work.

It’s not very long until she knocks on the door again. “All finished.”

Handing over the money, the owner exclaims, “That didn’t take very long!”

“I even gave it two coats,” she says, pocketing the money. “And oh, by the way, it’s not a Porch, it’s a Ferrari.”

So what did we get for Christmas? A Porsche, a Ferrari – I need a new car. No, I got a battery charger – and…. anyone do better than that?

Come on children, cheer me up! Who got a Spiderman action toy, an electric scooter, a Twister video game, a Batmobile

Children share the presents they’ve received.

There’s a couple of young ladies who got an early Christmas present. Grace and Sadie Hitchen. Grace, what did you get for Christmas at Hooters across the road?

Baby John Barnabas Hitchen – baby Barnie.

Let’s have a look at Barnie because we’re going to bless him during the prayers today.

Applaud Barnie

Who else got a baby as Christmas present?

Mary and Joseph

At Christmas we get some great presents but we also have a reminder of the greatest present human beings have ever been given, the gift of Jesus.

Each year we remember the wonderful thing that happened in Bethlehem 2009 years ago.

God became a human being and began life in the household of Mary and Joseph as a little baby.

We welcome afresh God’s gift, the gift of Jesus.

What difference does the coming of Jesus make?

I’ll tell you but first let’s see if we remember a memory line I gave you a few months back.

The Son of God (hands up) became the son of Man (touch heart) so that children of men (touch shoulders) could become children of God (hands up).

What do I mean?

The other week I was walking under some power lines. You know, really high power cables that were carrying electricity from one place to another.

As I walked under the power lines I looked up and saw loads of birds on the lines.

I thought to myself, because I could hear the humming, how can those birds sit on the cables without getting frazzled?

Can any adult tell me why birds can sit safely on power lines whereas if the cables fell on us they’d kill us?

For electricity to flow you need to complete the circuit. If a bird could touch the cables and the earth power would flow through them.

God carries power. It’s the power that upholds the universe. Among the creatures in the universe one creature was specially designed in his image. Anyone know which creature on the earth is made specially like that?

A human being

Now God wanted to bring his power to play in the lives of human beings. Not so they’d get frazzled but so they’d be strong enough to do great things for him on earth.

What happened? He came down to earth and completed the circuit by becoming a man in Jesus. The Son of God descended from the power lines. He didn’t get frazzled but he did go through some stuff. Jesus, the Son of God became Son of Man. He died, rose and gave the Holy Spirit so all who received him could be part of God’s powerful circuit.

St John says at the start of his Gospel (1.12) to all who received Jesus and believed in his name Jesus gives power to become children of God.

Christmas is about getting God’s power into your life. We sang at the start of the Eucharist about Jesus being born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth. It’s true he does raise us and empower us.

Let’s try the memory line: The Son of God (hands up) became the son of Man (touch heart) so that children of men (touch shoulders) could become children of God (hands up).

Last thought, especially for grown ups.

It may be Christmas finds you a little overwhelmed. You may even identify with the jobless lady I told you who messed up the Porch, sorry Ferrari. Maybe you’re fighting regrets about the past, anxieties about the future, whatever.

In that case you’re like a bird on a power line – you’re sitting on your answer. Complete the circuit. Let God empower you for a new flight by welcoming Jesus today. Here’s part of your answer: the truth we’re here to celebrate at Christmas. Christ’s Mass is, simply stated, the bread and wine God ordained to keep the circuit operating after Jesus came down to Bethlehem in Palestine.

God was man in Palestine and lives today in bread and wine. Here is power for living and the best present God gives at this time – Christmas Communion, here for the taking and receiving, and available not just at Christmas but all the year through.

Midnight Mass 2009

The battle to save the world is one between expanders and restrainers.

The Copenhagen climate summit set those wanting economic expansion with rising consumption against those who want to restrain growth to save the planet.

George Monbiot, an avowed restrainer, sees this conflict as a battle to redefine humanity. Some want us to become more greedy. Others want us to become more philanthropic.

The expanders want our western economies to grow much as in the past with a trickle down to the needy. The restrainers want us to change so we can live mindful of the human race as a whole.

It’s hard for a species used to ever-expanding frontiers to accept that our survival depends on our living within limits.

This is a good illustration of what Christmas is all about.

We’re finding through a rather long and painful way round what God has been trying to tell us since the coming of Jesus we celebrate tonight.

God is into restraint as the basis for right expansion.

Isn’t the coming of God to earth the biggest illustration ever upon the earth of restraint?

His coming to Bethlehem restrains him, as clearly as the child Jesus was restrained in swaddling bands.

Jesus is restrained so the world can expand into new freedom.

Just as Jesus was bound to set us free we must be bound, the human race, the world, must be bound to enter the glorious liberty of the children of God.

The clue to following up the Copenhagen summit is accommodation between restrainers and expanders. Accommodation is also what tonight is all about, what Christianity is all about.

In Christ God can accommodate to human circumstances and we can accommodate to God.

This is a wonderful night because it shows extravagant love to be at the heart of reality. Extravagant love that bears restraint, because true love does just that for the one it loves.

My love for someone, my children for example, is demonstrated more by the pain I suffer on their behalf than by the gifts I shower on them. So it is with the Lord our God.

The nations of the world will serve the human race not by expanding unbridled self interest but by adopting costly restraint. So it is with the Lord our God.

In coming to live as one of us God did not express unbridled self interest but costly restraint.

By coming to live in a stable with the poorest of the poor he says to us, ‘I’ll accommodate to you. I’ll change for you. I’ll serve you and help your life expand - though it costs me’.

Jesus came and died for us. God accommodated to our nature and brought it into his. When we ponder all the restraints Our Lord endured we know God expects nothing of us he’s not prepared to go through himself and we recognise the invitation he gives us to share his divinity.

O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining; it is the night of the dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining. Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

Jesus died in our place to live in our place and show us our worth.

He accepted the ultimate restraint of death so we could expand into the divine nature. That’s the Christian good news.

As we heard in the Christmas gospel from Saint John: The Word became flesh and lived among us…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God

Or as we read in St Paul’s letter to the Philippians Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.

Christmas is a grand commemoration of the love that accepts restraint and teaches us to do likewise in the service of one another.

It’s costly to adjust your life to others. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel some cost in becoming your servant and parish priest. All those endless expectations to be served, yet balanced by much loving support and appreciation, not least the many Christmas cards for which our thanks.

A last thought. Some people see Christianity as a sort of straitjacket.

They mock our commitment to forgiveness, faithful marriage, giving to God’s work and so on.

They think we’re bound and want to free us to be happy pagans!

But we have freedom. Don’t we? To know you’re loved as extravagantly as we’re loved by Jesus is something tremendously freeing. Human beings are most free and alive in loving relationships.

We become ourselves in love - but loving relationships always involve restraint and a loss of independence.

‘Is it easy to love God?’ ‘It is easy to those who do it.’ From the outside it looks like a strait jacket but from the inside it feels like heaven.

Think of a world class singer and the hours she puts in training for her performance. How she adjusts her use of time to the cause she loves! Is she in a strait jacket?

When we gain a heart for the great cause that will outlast us all – the cause of hallowing God’s name, building his kingdom and accomplishing his will - we lose lesser concerns. Christmas and New Year is a time for taking up training, like the vocalist, to improve our Christian performance.

God help us and the world to restrain ourselves and keep close to Jesus giving him our devotion, so his kingdom advances in Horsted Keynes as more of us see our lives expanding into the glorious liberty of the children of God!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christingle service 24th December 2009 4pm

You’re all going to get a Christingle now but what on earth is one of them.

Well the main things are the candle which stands for God and the orange that stands for the world.

What’s the connection between an orange and the world? Who can tell me?

It’s round

What’s the connection between a candle and God? Who can tell me?

God is light.

The best image we could ever have for God is light.

Just think of what goes missing every night. What goes missing?

The sun

We miss the sun because the world’s kept going by it day and night. We miss the sun because the world turns round every 24 hours so everyone on it gets heat and light and their crops grow.

The sun’s the most important object to the world because it brings it heat and light.

It’s a big clue to thinking about God our Maker.

But the world doesn’t just have objects like sun, earth, moon, seas, fields, and houses. It’s got persons – you and I for a start.

We’re actually the biggest clue to God in the world. The fact there are billions of thinking and loving people points to a Maker with a very big mind and a very big heart.

The Christingle orange stands for the world. The Christingle candle stands for God.

The Christingle red ribbon stands for the blood of Jesus who came to die for the world.

How do you explain that?

Hands up if you’ve got a fish tank in your home?

What happens when you go close to the tank?

The fish fly away.

I sometimes think about God as like a lover of tropical fish.

If you love tropical fish you get a big tank for them like God made for us when he made us the world.

If you love your tropical fish you take care to get the water warm for them, just like God’s made the world warm enough for human beings compared to other planets. You also feed your fish, just like God provides the crops of the field and the animals for us to eat.

But those tropical fish, they’re yours, you care for them and you feed them, but they’re scared of you! When you go up to the tank they dart away from you!

You’ve got tropical fish but they’re not keen to be friends with you.

God made us but we dart away from him. We run away from him.

So what did he do at Christmas?

He came to be one of us in baby Jesus.

The coming of Jesus to us is as if the tropical fish owner became a tropical fish. In that way he could be among his fish, get known by them and make friends with them.

It cost him. When he came into the tank to make friends the fish caused problems. They turned on him and bit him to death. That didn’t stop him doing what he came for though. When he was killed he rose and moved back to his home in heaven. In doing so he opened a way for us to be like God for ever outside the tank of this world in God’s own world we call heaven.

The Christingle red ribbon stands for the blood of Jesus who came to die for the world.

Baby Jesus is the Son of God become Son of Man – he’s the tropical fish owner become tropical fish.

As the candle is stuck in the Christingle orange the Son of God has stuck himself into our world. He did so to make a way out for us, as if the tropical fish owner changed the fish so they could live in his house and not in a fish tank.

You see this world is like a fish tank. Christmas reminds us of another world that’s deeper than the oceans and higher than the heavens God wants us to be part of.

The Son of God became the Son of Man so children of men could become children of God. Let’s say that and act it out.

The Son of God (up) became the Son of Man (heart) so children of men (shoulders) could become children of God (up).

It’s Christmas Eve and we’re looking forward to bedtime and waking up to presents. Mum and dad brought us to church tonight to remind us that the best present of Christmas is baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus, the Son of God became the Son of Man so children of men could become children of God.

Because Christians know that gift we’re glad to give to others. This service has a practical outcome. We’ve got a collection for the work with needy families of the Church of England Children’s Society.

During the collection you’ll get your Christingle.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Advent 4 The Blessed Virgin Mary 20th December 2009

Mary is there for us without getting in the way.

Do you know what I mean?

We should be there for people, especially at times of need, but without getting in the way.

This is the art of Mary – and it should be ours as well.

Sometimes people are so ready to help others that their desire to help becomes a hindrance.

I’ve mentioned C.S. Lewis’ lady before, the one who said she lived her life for others. Lewis writes how she did so, sadly, without discernment – so you could tell “the others” by their hunted look!

By contrast Our Lady discerns where she’s actually needed. She accepts God’s appointments – at the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation, Cana in Galilee, Calvary, Ascension, Pentecost – we can trace her faithful appearances right through the New Testament.

Mary is so good at being there for Jesus that for centuries Christians have entered her prayers to draw themselves to Christ by following through his life in the mysteries of the Rosary.

She is there for him. Only once does she slightly seem to get in the way. There’s a passage in the Gospel where we read of her coming with her family to pull him back from some task and being given something of a cold shoulder.

Mary’s art, however - pretty well a perfect art - is first to be there and then second to put her Son and not herself centre stage. Do whatever he tells you she says at the marriage in Cana making herself the humble instrument of solving the wine crisis by pointing to Jesus.

I am the handmaid of the Lord she says the first time we meet her in scripture, when the Angel came to announce her divine motherhood: Let what you have said be done to me.

Shall we not love thee, Mother dear, whom Jesus loves so well

To love Jesus is to love his mother – and to take a leaf out of her book.

Trust, obedience, humility, expectancy, persistence, faithful love – all of these we see in you, Mary, Mother of the Lord and our Mother, Mother of the church. Our Lord Jesus gave you to us as he gave you to St John on Calvary: Woman behold your Son, Son behold your Mother!

The church invites us to look this morning towards the mother of Christians, Mary most holy.

Behold the one who brings Christ forth so that you and I in turn can be Christ- bearers!

We’ll do nothing to bring Christ into the world unless we’re there for God and for people.

We’ll do nothing, either, to bring Christ into the world if we serve God and other people dutifully whilst deep down serving them on our terms rather than theirs.

That’s not the religion of the child in a manger but the religion of the dog in a manger!

We Christians are called to let Christ and his kingdom prevail. This means being like midwives who come sympathetically alongside people and situations that cry out for attention and help what God wants to come to pass. We stand by, we facilitate, we pray, knowing our place as unprofitable servants – and, praise God, we see Jesus build his kingdom.

When someone we know loses someone they love we go to them to be with them. No sermons on life everlasting, thank you, just being there and making them the centre of attention and through that helping them see the source of our attention for them as if in God.

We get in the way very often when we speak spiritual truths to comfort – I’m speaking as a preacher and one who’s still learning this one. In everyday life people want love and the promise of prayer before they want theological explanations let alone encouragements to come to church.

When Mary went to Elizabeth in today’s Gospel she listened to her cousin first and praised God second. The evening prayer of the church would be all the poorer if Mary hadn’t praised – we love her Magnificat. Its context though is telling. Mary’s Magnificat came out of a time of listening. Our Lady came from listening to God in her Annunciation to the hill country where she first listened to Elizabeth and to her story of her child leaping in the womb. Mary listened and affirmed Elizabeth, bringing the two of them to God in prayer.

Mary is there for people without getting in the way. To learn from Mary is to be a pupil in a school of listening because listening brings us close to people and to God.

The world cries out for people ready to listen! There’s so much around us telling us what to buy, who to trust or not trust, where to go on holiday, how to spend our time, improve our health, invest our money – there’s so much information coming at us day in and day out, so much that tells us, so little that will listen to us.

Who will make us their agenda so to speak?

They say that the rising demand for alternative medicine is less about confidence in aromatherapy or whatever as about buying someone else’s time for an hour’s attention.

At the heart of the renewal of the church’s healing ministry is the truth that being a good Christian is being a good listener to God and neighbour and, yes, self.

You can’t actually be a good listener to other people unless you get discernment from listening to God as to the people who need your ears and the self-awareness that stops you putting your foot in it when you listen and attend to others.

Mary could forget herself and be there for God because she knew herself as loved by God. Because she had an ear to God and to her own dignity she had an ear to the needy – to this day!

Holy Mary attends to your needs and mine right now interceding for us before the Lord!

We’re entering a celebration which will bring many of us close to relatives for longer times than we often spend with them. Can we see a missionary opportunity?

We’re soon to be in a position where we can give something more of ourselves to our friends and family. How can we best do this?

By listening to God with Mary. Mary treasured the things of Jesus we’re told and pondered them in her heart.

The more real Jesus becomes to us and in us, not least through Christmas Holy Communion, the more our actions over Christmas will be loving as he is loving. It’s not how much we do or say or even listen that matters so much a how much love we put into it so to speak, which is why our listening to God is so important.

How can we best give more of ourselves? By listening to God and then secondly to ourselves with Mary. Mary encourages us to a positive self-regard. The Almighty has done great things for me. Take stock of all that Jesus is doing in your life and rejoice! Take stock also of the ingrained selfishness, the ‘dog in the manger’ bit so you can give it to God in confession. Take stock of how you and I at times put the work of the Lord before the Lord of the work. It’s when we get too busy in the Lord’s work that our own selfishness can become sadly all the more evident.

Why must we be so busy? What’s the agenda? My kingdom or God’s? The quiet voice of the Child in the manger or the bark of the dog in the manger?

If I have plans to serve the Lord through my family or neighbour or church beware! Listen to yourself as Mary did and distrust yourself if necessary.

Maybe Jesus is more interested in making you a waiter who waits for orders than a workman who plans to work for his master as he or she sees fit and messes up. We mess up in life very often as a result of not checking up with God on the best forward course of action.

With Mary let us see what God wants be done in and through us and in and through our church.

Let plans to serve give way to waiting for orders!

Listen to God, listen to yourself, sift and purify your agenda, then listen to those God puts your way who need your ears!

As we listen to others in these coming days with our outer ears let’s keep two inner ears listening to God and to our own reaction to what you hear lest it get in the way.

Like Mary let’s be there for people without getting in their way. Being surrendered ourselves, as at this Eucharist, to whatever God wants of us, to be made a Christ-bearer under the watchful care of the Mother of believers.

Jesus who was first carried by Mary at Bethlehem, who is carried to us in Bread and Wine this morning, waits to be carried by you and me to a waiting world!

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Advent 3 Faith & Reason 13th December 2009

You can’t see God but there are pointers and John the Baptist is one of them.

God’s unseen-ness is a major stumbling block to Christian belief in a materialistic world. People too often believe in, or rather value, only what they can see.

Ask a married blind person though if they believe in the love their spouse has for them. Not only can they not see their wife but they doubly can’t see intangible love. All the same in my experience of blind people they know the love their spouse has for them.

Similarly it’s possible to experience God’s presence and love without seeing him with our eyes. That’s what we’re about in Church this morning in fact. God making himself real to us through the words of a book, through bread and wine and human touch.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Jesus once said.

There are many unseen things in life that are really important. People who complain at God’s invisibility don’t complain they can’t see electricity or the air around them.

We see the effect of the wind even if we can’t see it directly. Similarly though God is unseen he can be experienced by faith.

I’ve strayed a little from John the Baptist. He is a historical pointer to God.

He pointed to Jesus. As one in the great succession of prophets he also pointed to injustice. Like Zephaniah in our first reading he shared God’s heart to save the lame and gather the outcast.

John pointed to human wrongs but first he pointed to divine goodness.

Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world he said, pointing to his cousin.

When God landed on the earth he came into a specific place and time and culture for which St John the Baptist was herald. He didn’t land out of the blue.

Christianity is well thought out. It’s well thought out because it’s from the mind of God no less! You can’t rubbish Christianity as a blind faith because it’s a faith that’s rooted in history. There are few faith traditions so rooted in unambiguous historical events.

Listen again to that very specific account that introduces the third chapter of St Luke’s gospel which is today’s gospel reading: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip, ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

No wonder historians of all ages have applauded St Luke, whose gospel we’re reading in Year C of the Sunday Lectionary, as being one of them. You can check his historical facts. We can consequently be 95% certain John the Baptist and Jesus Christ met in the River Jordan where the first baptised the second. Because the ancient dating schemes slipped forward about 6 years we’re pretty certain that the baptism of Jesus in his 30th year by St John occurred in 24AD just as the first Christmas was probably 6BC.

When John baptised Jesus we read in several New Testament accounts that the Holy Spirit was seen to come down on him. There was also a voice from above, said to be from God the Father, saying You are my Son.

Jesus came into his own as Son of God at his baptism. He was conceived of the Spirit from Our Lady but the Spirit came upon him in power in a second anointing that occurred in the River Jordan at the hand of St John the Baptist. In today’s Gospel we read: As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. St John in a parallel to this passage in Luke Chapter 3 writes: He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God (1.33b-34).

You can’t see God but at one point in history you could because God became one of us. John the Baptist was sent as the pointer to this. More than that, a pointer to the one who’d help everyone who wanted to know God to know God and share God’s life for ever.

To be a Christian is to share the baptism or anointing of the Holy Spirit who makes the invisible God known as surely as the wind makes the air known.

It’s implied in the Bible that God is invisible to protect us from his glory. This invisibility serves our freedom to love without being manipulated. If he were visible that would dramatically affect our freedom to grow in pure love. By being invisible God can be with us without overwhelming us. He can stand at a distance to grant us freedom to make our own decisions including the decision to love him and our neighbour and ourselves.

A God we could see would actually be less wonderful than the God Christians believe in. We’d be able to contain him in our minds! Instead the Christian vision of God is one that expands continually from our limited dimensions to his unlimited ones. If you want a magnificent God the price you pay seems to be that of worshipping a God that’s invisible to mortal eyes.

The magnificence of God is shown to us by St John when he points to Jesus. The Jesus he points to goes on to demonstrate God’s magnificence by 3 years of teaching, a voluntary death, a glorious resurrection and Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon believers which is the way the Church finds God made real to her.

How can I believe in a God I can't see? I’m tempted to answer ‘you wouldn’t need to believe in someone if you could actually see them!’ Faith, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, is conviction of things unseen (11:1).

The question ‘How can I believe in a God I can't see?’ is really the question ‘how can I find faith?’

A quick answer is ‘you should ask God for it, ask him to open your inner eyes to his all powerful yet invisible presence’.

I remember once my faith going right into the doldrums. It really burned low, so low I went back to the monastery at Mirfield where I trained as a priest and asked for help.

Maybe it’s not God who’s gone but your vision of him, the monks said. Pray for a vision of God more to his dimensions and less to your own they said. For three days I prayed a prayer rather like God, if you’re there, show yourself! He did – I survive to tell the tale – he spoke to me through a leaf on a tree.

I made you. He said. I love you. I want to fill you with my Spirit. That he did, though I’ve leaked since.

Asking God for a vision of himself more to his dimensions and less to your own seems always to bear fruit. Faith grows – it enlarges, especially if it is enriched by prayerful reading of the Bible and celebration of the sacraments.

You can’t expect great things of God if you don’t believe he’s capable of them. The wonder of Christmas is its magnification of the Lord. The very thought that he who contains all that is could come to Mary’s womb, could come to this altar in bread and wine – could come into this heart and that heart and that heart! It’s an astounding thought really.

It’s faith that opens up such a vision. Now let’s be clear, faith isn’t a feeling you can work up or enlarge. It’s our capacity to compass God through an ongoing decision to reach towards him and be energised by him.

Christian mystics write of faith as a practical commitment. In the medieval Cloud of Unknowing the anonymous medieval author describes faith as an ‘eager dart of longing love’ that reaches out to touch God and release his possibilities into our situation.

John the Baptist pointed to God so that we too could be drawn to reach out to God ourselves.

Faith always takes us out of ourselves towards God and neighbour.

When C.S.Lewis asked himself ‘Do I believe?’ he said his belief seemed to go - just like when he asked himself in the midst of pleasure, ‘am I enjoying myself’ his enjoyment seemed to go. Both actions, he said, are like taking one’s eyes out instead of keeping them in the right place and seeing with them. Faith like enjoyment has its focus outside of self.

How can I believe in a God I can't see? You need to make a decision. That’s what faith is – a decision to act as if God were there and to be energised by a power quite outside and beyond oneself.

To have faith is to go beyond and not against reason. As John Donne wrote Reason is our soul’s left hand, faith his right, by these we reach divinity.

Both faith and reason lift us to God and in Jesus God himself reaches down to us revealing himself to both our reason and our faith. In St Luke’s record of history of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ we should see a reasonable case for the Incarnation, the coming of God upon the earth.

Here, in the coming of Jesus that Advent centres upon, what we believe and what we see come together.

As St John writes No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1:18)

You can see him now with your mind and heart’s eye - in his word, in the breaking of bread, in our Christian fellowship.

St John the Baptist invites you again, for his words are true today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow: Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.

Look at Jesus with both your faith and your reason. Look at him! Look at him and welcome him this morning in word and sacrament!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Advent evensong with conscience examination 6th December 2009

Isaiah 40.3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’

I want this evening to say a few words about repentance building on teaching I gave last Sunday.

Repentance means turning, turning humbly to God and to my brother and sister in sorrow for sin.

Repentance is also a thoroughly practical business. It means coming humbly before God and then practically before my neighbour, both of whom are hurt by my sins. It is no good mouthing religious words in church to God without the practical back up of asking forgiveness from the people we have hurt.

Christians change their lives by amputation not by compromise. We go places – we go to heaven – by our decisiveness under God.

If only we could see what we’re missing through holding back from a deeper repentance!

A preacher was on his way to Church but had a row with his wife. Hard words were exchanged. As he closed the garden gate the Lord said, “Go and make peace with your wife.” “But Lord,” he protested, “I’m already late!” “O.K.”, the Lord replied, you go and preach your sermon but I’ll be staying here with your wife.” Because he was a man of God he went back to the kitchen. When he finally made it to Church he preached one of the most powerful sermons of his ministry.

Every decisive act of turning to Jesus is costly to pride - but it brings with it the gift of the Spirit and a fresh empowering for Christian life and ministry.

Advent challenges us to deeper repentance, for some of us through the use of the Sacrament of Confession. You may have notices there are set times in the news sheet and one of them is after this service.

It’s a subtle trick of Satan’s to make repentance look lurid and not as down to earth, boring and matter of fact as it really is for most Christians. If you read the newspapers you will see terms like repentance and sin most always associated with a lewd life-style. In a similar way we see the word love devalued by being equated with physical sex.

Anyone who thinks sin is just sexual sin has been brainwashed by the devil!

Take unforgiveness for example. Unforgiveness is probably just as destructive a sin as sexual misdemeanour though the red letter press tell us a lot about unforgiveness, don’t they?

Or self-sufficiency. Living as a self-made man worshipping your creator! Where will that lead you?

In Advent season the church calls us to deepen our own obedience and generosity towards God and neighbour.

A boy stole one of his father’s cigars. Hurrying off to a secluded place he carried his prized possession. Cautiously the lad lit the cigar. It didn’t make him feel too good but at least it made him feel grown up. That is, until he saw his father coming. Quickly hiding the cigar behind his back, the lad tried desperately to look casual. Hoping to divert his father’s attention the lad spotted a poster advertising a band coming to play in town. “Can I go, Dad? Can I go to hear that band when it comes to town? Please, Dad?”

The father’s quiet reply contains a vital lesson for all who want to have their prayers answered.

“Son,” the father replied, “one of the first lessons you need to learn about life is this: never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smouldering disobedience behind your back.”

How many of us are hiding a “smouldering disobedience” even as we beg the Lord to answer our prayers? Indeed, Advent could be a chance to evaluate just why some of our prayers are not being answered and to maybe trace back the cause to areas we are shown of unrecognised disobedience. This will deepen the repentance we are called to. Christians change their lives by amputation not by compromise.

Our decisive welcoming of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament in church should focus the decisive welcoming of the Lord in every circumstance that comes our way – and our decisive casting aside of temptation to evil.

Jesus is as ready to meet us in the circumstances of our life as He is to meet us in the Sacrament of Bread and Wine. We need to repent – to turn away from evil to Jesus - again and again, hour by hour.

I believe we can only be glad at heart and overflowing with the life and joy of Jesus if we do so!

A person who is not resigned in a positive way to the will of God revealed to them in the circumstances of their daily living is someone who’s being worn away and destroyed. This is exactly why St. Paul encourages us to "give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you" 1 Thess 5v16 18.

Advent is a call to decisiveness in preparing the way of the Lord deeper into our hearts. We need to be decisive with weeding out the things that have no place in a Christ filled life.

Let us keep silence for a moment.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Bluebell railway carol service short thought 5th December 2009

I’ll tell you what I like about steam trains. They’ve got soul.

Do you know what I mean?

They don’t run with diesel. They run from a burning furnace!

That’s a soul.

There’s soul in all we represent here at Bluebell railway. We even name our engines and talk about their personality.

Human beings have souls. It’s the bit inside of you that makes you you.

Some people have colder souls than others. Oh yes, you may be feeling the cold tonight in your body, but many of us feel warm in spirit. Cold hands, warm heart – you’ve heard the saying!

If human beings have souls it’s because we’re more than an assembly of molecules.

In some ways humans have become like giants.

Through jet engines we can fly faster than sound.

With radar and sat nav we’ve got giant eyes powerful enough to see through fog and darkness.

Electronics has given us giant ears to amplify the slightest whisper, turn it into a shout and hurl it round the world.

Our harnessing of nuclear energy has given us giant fists with which we can wipe out whole cities with a single blow.

God sees all of this.

He’s given us Christmas because he knows human beings with giant eyes, ears and fists won’t remain giants for long without giant souls.

God gave us life so we could have his life and have it in our souls.

A steam engine slows when the furnace burns low. Though God made us we soon run down. We all too easily grow cold and dark inside.

To use another image, human beings are like computers with infected hard drives. We’re the victims of forces that depress us and make us do damage to others.

The forces of sin work inside of us like a virulent computer bug, slowly and methodically reducing the order within us until, sometimes, all that’s left is a dark screen.

The Christmas gift of Jesus is given to light up our lives, just like a computer buff sees to lighting up a closed down computer.

That’s why we’ve come tonight to carol with Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds and kings!

Because God who gave us life gave it so we could have his life - and have it in our souls by the gift of his Son.

In a Channel 4 documentary last April there was a fascinating presentation of everything consumed, produced and to some extent experienced by the average British person in a lifetime.

We walk 15,464 miles. We speak 123,205,740 words. We earn £1,537,380. We drink 15,951 pints of milk. We dream 104,390 dreams. We’re drunk 0.7% of the time. We smoke 77,000 cigarettes. We make love 4,229 times. We eat 4 cows, 21 sheep, 15 pigs and 1,200 chickens in our life time.

Makes you think! Christmas is a time for reflection - hence this short thought, which has almost run its course.

As we reflect in a Christian country the figure of Jesus is rightly set before us at this season.

Tonight we read again of his birth and its foretelling by Isaiah who said this: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.

St John starts his story of Jesus with similar words: the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never overcome it.

When this station was built Sussex churches were packed compared to today. Yet in Africa, China and South America nowadays you’ve got to almost fight your way into many churches.

Over all the earth, down through twenty centuries the warm light of Jesus has continued to shine.

It’s given to lighten our minds, warm our hearts and energise our lives - if we will welcome it.

Just as the light of the coal and its heat energises the cylinders of our trains the Christ Child is given to energise our living, warm up our souls and to get them moving in worship and service.

Bluebell is a voluntary association with a corporate vision.

So’s the Church of England, so’s Christianity – and both visions link to a burning furnace!

Over Christmas there’ll be opportunities for many of us to stoke our inner furnace.

God has given us life – that’s a statement you can argue about, but, either way, you can’t alter the claim.

He wants to give us his life – here’s where Christianity helps break new ground in human living.

There’s a refuelling possible in life. There’s a warming of the heart. There’s a joy from outside of ourselves waiting to come in if we’ll but welcome its source.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let ev’ry heart prepare him room.

Let’s sing again and warm our hearts as we do so!