Category Archives: Bulletin

Epiphany: Love casts out fear!

As a season Epiphany doesn’t get much of a “look in” in Methodist Churches because it tends to be pushed aside to make way for Covenant Services. I have many more sermons in my files for Covenant Sunday than I do for Epiphany. This is a pity so I was pleased in one of my churches to be able to move Covenant Sunday to September to mark the beginning of the Methodist year and what used to be called the “winters work.”

Just this week I read an American article by a University theologian who set out to link Epiphany with the Covid -19 pandemic in a most imaginative way. Allow me to share with you some of his reflections.

The magicians or astrologers in Matthew’s story had a vocation. It was to gain control over the human and celestial worlds in order to assure a blessed destiny for human beings through wrestling control from the hostile evil powers. To control the elemental spirits of the universe and the laws of matter which ultimately they thought governed the world was their craft. They were the scientists of their age and they worked alongside the pagan priests of the time to bend reality to the will of humanity.

In the story the magi or the wise men follow the star that puts an end to astrology and magic. They encounter Jesus and they fall down and worship him. They have discovered that life is not simply a product of impersonal laws and the random movements of matter because at the heart of everything there is a personal will, a good Spirit who in Jesus has revealed himself as love. Love it is, as the great Italian poet Dante wrote, which moves the sun in heaven and all the stars.

In the loving purposes of God magic, astrology and the techno-scientific apparatus we engage with so as to control the universe are unnecessary. Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. In him all things came into being and in him all things hold together and it is in him that we live and move and have our being.  

During the past year we have seen a desperate search for magic bullets: the NHS app: remember that!, the find, test, trace, isolate and support system which never seemed to work, the lockdowns and now the jabs that will set us free!!. Now I will be glad to receive the jab and I have tried to observe the rules as closely as possible. But a route back to the world as it was before may not be open to us and perhaps that is a good thing for we need to build back better.

The Church has a very special vocation here. It is to proclaim that it is love rather than magic or science that is ultimately the key to life and that the universe is the work of a loving God. We should remember that as Isaiah wrote: Truly the Lord has born our infirmities, and he has carried our sorrows.

Covid-19 is a scary thing but we should remember that perfect love casts out fear. God loves us and he is not angry with us nor has he sent the virus to punish us. What he has done is enter our life. He has become as we are that we might become as he is. He is love and he calls us to embrace the love that is at the heart of the universe. That will involve repentance for we have used and abused his love and our actions have wasted much of his creation and now we are facing the price of our prodigality.

And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.

And the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Sisters and brothers that’s our vocation too!

Church and Crown

The Crown: Netflix Confirms Fourth Season For The Fall And Here Is All You  Need To Know

One of the big hits for Netflix, the television streaming service, has been ‘The Crown’. It is beautiful, compelling and emotional programming — drama well crafted, stories well told, and above all, it is a visual feast.

The disorienting quality of the series is that it is no documentary. While creator Peter Morgan says that the show has been thoroughly researched and is true in spirit, each episode so seamlessly intermingles what is known with what is imagined that any viewer may have difficulty deciding what is fact and what is fiction.

Did Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher say that to Her Majesty the queen in their weekly audience? Did Princess Diana really roller-skate around the palace because she was lonely and bored? Is Prince Philip always in such a foul mood?

The vision for ‘The Crown’ is of an institution that leads almost exclusively by looking backward. Royal duty is portrayed as synonymous with preserving inviolate continuity with the past. Decisions in the Buckingham Palace of the series are framed by cautions like, “Remember your great-grandmother Queen Mary” or, “What would your father have done?” In the series we see Prince Philip trying to modernise the way the palace works , constantly battling with courtiers from King George VI’ s day whom he refers to as ‘the moustaches’. Watching this I am reminded of every church committee that has ever protested, “But we have never done it that way before.”

The Christian commentator Gregory L Jones once wrote “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,”. Not on religious matters alone but in almost everything. Yet, despite the portrayal of the battles within the British court, Queen Elizabeth has done much to advance the monarchy from a medieval institution to a more modern one while simultaneously preserving what is at its heart. History with adaptation. Tradition with responsible innovation. This pattern of change and development should be true for the church. Church leadership inevitably involves the stewardship of tradition as well as enabling the church to change and respond to situations our forbears could have never conceived of.

Our churches are not ahistorical organisations, we must find our place in a polyphonic tradition that reaches back in history before there were royals in England, before England was England, (and Scotland was Scotland, and Wales was Wales, before somebody comments!)

That past informs our future, but what matters is how we allow it to do so. We cannot lament what lies ahead of us in hopes of returning to the past or perpetuating it perfectly; this is the Christian problem with nostalgia. Instead, we must reckon with the past, retrieving from it the best and lamenting in it the worst, all for the sake of God’s future.

2021 has started with as many challenges as 2020 gave us our response is vital for the future life of the church how do we adapt and innovate whilst maintaining the heart of our Methodist tradition? (And there are two more series of ‘The Crown’ still to come!)

God bless and stay safe,

Alan

Insights from my Aunt

During our various lockdowns I have been enjoying Family Zoom sessions with relatives in New Zealand. These meetings require some prior negotiation because of the time difference but we manage it. It has become evident to us that New Zealand has managed things well. They locked down hard at first and they imposed strict quarantine measures. Consequently they have had only 25 deaths and only this week I was able to admire my cousin’s holiday photos following her week long trip to the Mount Cook national park.

There has been a tendency in my own thinking, to offer seasons for New Zealand’s success. Namely that it’s a long way away, that there are only a few ports of entry and that the population is quite low whereas the UK is densely populated. But they did rise to the challenge, they locked down hard and early and imposed strict quarantine controls at the borders. The New Zealand Government inspired confidence led by the beautiful and charismatic Jacinda Ardern and so on and so forth. If only etc., etc. Yes New Zealand has done well. I have even bought masks from a New Zealand supplier.

But there’s another consideration which I hadn’t thought about until my Aunt offered a reflection about recent events and compared this pandemic with that of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918/19. This hit New Zealand hard and according to my Aunt decimated the population. That I think is probably an exaggeration but there’s no doubt that it was a serious crisis for New Zealand. There was a response in the form of a Royal Commission and new public health legislation. What however my Aunt’s comments reveal is that it created a powerful folk memory and a resolve to address such crises more effectively next time. That is to say this time.

In our country there is no similar folk memory of the Spanish flu pandemic. Our folk memories of 1918 are associated with the armistice of November 11th 1918 and victory over Germany. Nevertheless the pandemic cost many more lives than the world war. When we see pictures of rejoicing crowds on November 11th we do not think as perhaps we should that these people are failing to observe a proper social distance.

Among the fatalities of the flu were the following:

Max Weber German sociologist

Frederick Trump (Donald Trump’s grandfather)

Gustav Klimt Austrian painter

Alfred Hindmarsh New Zealand Labour Party leader

Among the sufferers and survivors were the following:

Walt Disney

Mahatma Gandhi

Franklin D Roosevelt

Woodrow Wilson

David Lloyd George

Franz Kafka

Raymond Chandler

I have a book on my personal shelves entitled “1918”. Although this is a military history of the year there is no reference to the flu pandemic in over 500 pages despite the fact that it is believed to have begun in an American Army camp.

These reflections are important for they raise questions about what we chose to remember and what we chose to forget, what occasions are to be remembered with thanksgiving and what other occasions are to be remembered with repentance. There is a great deal in our past as Churches, nations and individuals that we should remember with repentance.

When the pandemic crisis is over we should come together once again with joy and give thanks for our deliverance. At the same time however we need to repent and repair our relationship with God and His creation. This pandemic occurred because of “spillover” by viruses into the human population occasioned by our careless abuse of the environment that God has gifted. We must acknowledge all that has been amiss, resolve to build back better and not simply return to normal.  

Collective guilt is not something we find easy to accept since we regard sin as a personal and individual failure. This is a mistake on our part and is contrary to the witness of scripture. Coming to terms with collective guilt is a valuable therapy for nations and leads to renewed healing and wholeness-just ask the Germans!

Plagues Past and Present

One of the best things about reading history is that it lifts you above what others have called the narcissism of the present. This is the foolish idea that our times are completely unprecedented and that we have nothing to learn from the wisdom and the follies of the past.

Two books in the past year have offered a corrective to this point of view. The first is “Epidemics and Society” by Frank Snowden. Written before the present pandemic which is nevertheless referred to in in a revised introduction it describes the history of humankind’s relationship with infectious disease and gives an account of the pandemics of the past. How lucky we were to escape a pandemic for so long! We had this one coming our way for some time and pandemics can be much more serious than this one. Think smallpox, Ebola virus and bubonic plague.

The other is “The Fate of Rome” by Kyle Harper. Harper is a professor of classics and ancient history in the USA. Most of us are dimly aware that the Roman Empire can be said to have fallen. Some of us know that pandemic disease gave the Empire a series of shocks. There seem to have been three main ones: the Antonine Plague of 165-6, the plague of St Cyprian in 264-6 so called because Cyprian Bishop of Carthage wrote a detailed description of it and the plague of Justinian which raged across the Mediterranean world in the sixth century and of which there are many reports. These diseases had a devastating effect on population numbers. In addition the Empire had to face the effects of climate change-not anthropogenic climate change to be sure- but none the less devastating for the strength and welfare of the Empire and its inhabitants. These findings have been resourced by a new science: bio-archaeology. The Roman Empire was not a blessing for the health of its inhabitants. To the question: What have the Romans ever done for us?-the answer might well have been: got us sick.

From my perspective particular interest attaches to the response of the Church in worship teaching and service. In the case of the plague of the third century Christians were initially blamed and persecution intensified. But the response of Christians in caring for one another and for strangers strengthened the Church and showed up the uselessness of the pagan gods. Preaching both at this time and later became darker with an especial emphasis on judgement and the end times. By the time of the plague of Justinian Christianity was the official faith of the Empire.

Against this plague the Church mobilised all its resources. There was special preaching, new Biblical commentaries were written and prayer walks across the city of Rome were held led by the Bishop-Gregory-known to history as St Gregory the Great. Gregory’s writings on pastoral ministry can still be read with profit today. An important theme of Gregory’s preaching was judgement and a belief in impending judgement is an impetus to action. So Gregory was inspired to initiate a mission to the savage Anglo-Saxons a mission which sadly remains incomplete to this day.  Special days of prayer were decreed for the Christian calendar by the Emperor’s command.

One of the most famous icons which led the processions –an icon of Mary devoted to the health of the Roman people can still be seen in in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. It would be interesting to know whether it’s been brought out as an aid to intercessory prayer during the present pandemic.

So far during this pandemic the Churches response has been disappointing. The leadership seems unable to speak prophetically and their prayers are sometimes half hearted. The theme of judgement and repentance is scarcely ever mentioned and yet the scientists know that behind the pandemic and the climate crisis lies environmental degradation driven by greed. The later Romans were taught by their Church to repent of their greed, inequality and waste. Why is our Church so timid and so silent?

Happy Christmas to you all!

There’s a Christmas song I particularly like and have often played to congregations. It goes like this:

Sweet little Jesus boy

Born long ago

Sweet little holy child

And we didn’t know who you were.

And we didn’t know who you were!

Indeed we didn’t and in large measure we still don’t. Think of what the characters in the nativity stories made of these events.

There was Herod. He thought he knew who you were. He was wrong!

Then there were the shepherds. They received a message from an angel saying that a saviour had been born who is Christ the Lord. Not you will notice a baby who will grow up to be a saviour. This is the Christ: the saviour of the world. They make their way to Bethlehem and they pass the message on. That’s a good thing to do! Then they return glorifying and praising God.  They are central players in the scene, not just bystanders or extras as they are made to appear in the typical nativity play. They seemed to know who you were.

Then there are the wise men in Matthew’s gospel. They see the child and they fall down and worship him. They don’t just bring gifts and put them around the Christmas tree. They fall down and worship! How very odd and so very unexpected! That these visitors from the east should give to this baby divine honour. But these are wise men and by worshiping Christ they show themselves to be truly wise. They knew who you were and are. That’s why they’re wise.

But how wise are we? What is this season really about? Of course we all know what Christmas is really about but what is the festival of the nativity-the Christian festival really about. Is it about the birth of a baby as someone once explained to one of my Church Councils? Or is there more to it than that. Someone in the same Church Council tentatively uttered the word incarnation. Now that’s a big word –enough to frighten anyone. Perhaps its time to follow the example of Mary and keep all these things pondering them in our hearts. So let’s do that for the next few minutes.

What then is God doing? Why is this festival an occasion for such joy and gladness? How do we make sense of God’s strange strategy?

During the Eighteenth century King George III showed great interest in agriculture and wrote papers under the pseudonym Ralph Robinson. Similarly earlier in the same century Tsar Peter the Great of Russia came to England to study shipbuilding and worked in the shipyard at Deptford under an assumed name, Peter Mikhailov. He rented a house, trashed it during drunken parties but on Sundays when sober he went to the Quaker Meeting House.

Are we to imagine Jesus as God in disguise as these folk were Kings in disguise or God under an assumed name? The Church has always opposed this notion. In Jesus God has truly become one of us. At the same time Jesus is not to be mistaken simply for a teacher, a healer, a carpenter or even a prophet. The Church has opposed this notion too for Jesus Christ is not only one of us he is also one with God.  This is the Christ the saviour of the world. Who do men say that I am, said Jesus. You are the Messiah said Peter. The wise men recognised this. That’s why they are wise.

God is love and what God is seeking to do is to find a way to rescue us from the hells of our own selfishness and self indulgence. The Christmas season normally give us plenty of opportunities to pursue those! We can be rescued from the pitiless and tragic aspects of human existence. We are fallen creatures but we can be lifted up and restored to the paradise that was lost but can now be regained. God’s love can reach out to us, change us and turn us around. How can this happen? How does God manage it?

Telling the truth about God is not a straightforward matter. Jesus himself recognised this and taught in parables sometimes perplexing his own disciples in the process. It’s best to come at these things obliquely so that those who hear the stories are led to ponder on them and make them mean something for them personally. So each generation needs new parables.

After all explanations appeal to the mind and illustrations delight the eyes but what we seek always is something that will move us body and soul, speak to our hearts and turn us towards the truth. What better way than a story? 

The Danish writer and philosopher Kierkegaard told a story to illustrate what God has done for us. It’s as good a story as any you’ll hear this season- a true modern parable – one of the best.

Once upon a time there was a girl who belonged to the poorest class and lived in the most deprived circumstances.

A powerful and noble-minded King fell in love with her. However he has a problem. How can he win her love? Would she be happy to live at his side? She would lack self-confidence. She would always remember that she was a humble girl and he a great King. How could the love between the King and the girl be a truly happy love without any delusion or deception creeping in? To overcome the girl with a display of glory and power might satisfy the girl for a moment but would not satisfy the King. To deceive the girl with a display of apparent humility would also fail to achieve a true union of love between them.

Kierkegaard applies this parable to God. How is God’s true love to win the hearts of human beings? How is God to reach out to us and win us? How is God to overcome the infinite difference between him and us? Union, Kierkegaard concludes, must be attempted by descent. Love must alter itself.

This is the key point.

God must become our equal and appear in the likeness of the humblest and in the form of a servant. And that likeness is no mere disguise as it would be if the King simply assumed a beggar’s cloak. God in Christ will be born in a stable, will suffer all things, endure all things and make experience of all things. He will be forsaken by his friends, condemned by the powers and put to death on a cross. This is how much God loves us. God has become, as we are that we might become as he is.

In Jesus God has come down to earth. Earth and heaven are one. This is an absolutely amazing thought. God as become as we are that we might become as he is. Heaven has come down to earth so that earth might be lifted up to heaven.

There remains what is perhaps the most important question of all. What would it mean to live as if this were true-that God truly is love-that love is what holds the universe together and that consequently to love is to go with the grain of the universe as God has fashioned it. Well we could love more and in all manner of ways live our lives more courageously and generously. But perhaps at this time of year especially we should emulate the shepherds and share the message of the angels with our neighbours and friends always giving glory to God and praising him for those good things that we have heard and seen.

A Very Messy Christmas

1,374 Broken Christmas Ornament Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free  Images - iStock

“In those days a decree went out from the Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1)

So begins St. Lukes account of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so begins a nightmare for Mary and Joseph. In the final weeks of her pregnancy Mary would have her plans for the birth, her mother (traditionally St Anne) would have been awaiting the call, the village ‘sage femme’ (midwives) were prepared – they had done this many hundreds of times. Joseph would have received reassurance from the men of the village and been told to keep well out of the way until it was all over – and then some emperor thousands of miles away scuppers all the plans and preparations! So off Mary and Joseph go to a town they did not know with a non-existent donkey. (At least they could travel)

Now I don’t want to draw too many parallels between the nativity and Christmas 2020, and I definitely don’t want to say that a British Prime Minister is behaving like Caesar Augustus, but there is something about the messy confusion of our Christmas this year and the messiness of the birth of Jesus.

May be that is not a bad thing. We have become too comfortable with our Christmas celebrations, we know what is happening, we do the same things each year call them traditions but really it is so we don’t have to think too much about what we are doing and what the birth of Jesus means and should mean to our lives.

Many of us have had to change our plans at the last minute this year presents will remain unopened, food placed in the freezer (if there is room) and a schedule of telephone and FaceTime calls arranged for Christmas day.

Yet in the middle of all this confusion is the one constant, the helpless babe that is Christ our Saviour. In the Nativity God says he cares naught for our plans and preparations instead we are called, like the shepherds to leave behind what we are doing and come and adore Immanuel, God with us. And then like the Wise Men abandon our future plans and start following a new road.

A happy and peaceful Christmas to you all,

Alan.

Something for Sunday

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord let it be to me according to your word.

Once upon a time at a Church Council held at about this time of year I tentatively enquired of the membership as to what the meaning of this season might be. A distinguished member, the wife of a former President of the Methodist Conference no less, announced that it was about the birth of a baby. I had the temerity to cast doubt on this –after all two of the four gospels have no infancy stories and St Paul seems unaware or at least uninterested in the stories that are told at this time of year. Another member of the meeting almost equally distinguished, a retired headmaster the son of the manse and an old boy of Kingswood-it was that sort of place- offered “incarnation” as the meaning of the season. Ah ha- I responded now you’re talking. But there was no time then to talk about how and why God became human. Most years the opportunity to talk in such terms is postponed to the Sunday after Christmas when ministers and priests try to expound to their hungover congregations the real meaning of Christmas as the Church understands it.

Another difficulty at this time of year is the question of Mary and in particular the story of the annunciation which is the gospel reading for Sunday. In my experience this is problematic for thoroughly modern Methodists and so the fourth Sunday in Advent is often chosen as the ideal date for carols services and nativity plays. The opportunity to address the question rarely arises but now in the special circumstances of this year and from a safe distance I am able to do so.

Catholics often criticise Methodists and other Protestants for having a Mary shaped gap in their devotional lives. I have listened to these comments over the years and wondered. I have also admired and been moved by representations of Mary in art-especially representations of the annunciation. There are almost countless examples and they used to be popular on Christmas cards until the season was secularized in recent decades. Now you have to search for them in specialist outlets like Cathedral shops. Sad is it not! Yes I think we are missing something.

And now let us turn to Luke’s story in Luke Chapter 1 focussing in particular upon Mary’s response to the message of the angel. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to your word.

Consider the signs of the times. That is to say in the 1st century. Not so very different now that we are in the 21st century. Things are all over the place. Our relationships with God with one another and with other creatures –plants and animals are disordered. But in Jesus Christ God has acted to redeem the world not simply by preaching to the world but by becoming one with the world in Christ. He came to live our life to bear our pains to take up our struggles and to die our death upon the cross. And then to rise up as the first of the new creation –to reconcile all things in the love of God. God has become as we are so that we might become as he is. That’s a famous sentence but it’s a useful one.

And Mary has a crucial role in this. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit she will give birth to Jesus. This birth is no ordinary birth but rather the moment when God took human flesh so as to redeem our fallen race. As to what Joseph’s part might have been well that’s a discussion for another time.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. We can feel re-assured that he is God’s angel. He says so himself’ He declares (although not in this passage) that he stands in the presence of the Lord and that he is God’s messenger. This is his fourth appearance in the Bible and his second in the New Testament. He will not appear again.

He has a message for Mary. He shows her and us what her calling is to be. Mary wonders how this can be but she accepts her vocation with the words of our text:

 “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

This is Mary’s choice. The choice of the good Christian. Let me explain.

Mary’s choice is a strange choice in terms of the values of the world to-day. She consents to be used-some would say abused. She will know suffering. Her vocation will not be an easy one. It will bring no glory in the world’s eyes. Her way is that of suffering love, the way of a servant. But let us not misunderstand her here this is not a matter of sorrowful resignation rather it’s a matter of joyful acceptance. Very often people like to contrast the submissive Mary who obeys in verse 37 with the exultant Mary who sings Magnificat in verse 46. The contrast is a false one. Mary exults with joy because she has made God’s cause her own.

As I say this is controversial. In the way of the modern world Mary’s choice would make her a suitable object for counselling. Mary think again! Surely you don’t want to be anybody’s handmaid and certainly not God’s. You could make something of yourself, you could make your own choices, realise your own talents, express your own sexuality, be an affirmed and affirming presence. After all you’re worth it! Why bother with something as nebulous as salvation when you could achieve liberation and self-realization.

Mary take my advice read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Attwood. This is an account of how young women are used and abused as baby making machines in a future world which is ruled by religious fundamentalists who call themselves the Republic of Gilead. It’s a contemporary classic sometimes read in schools –alas.

The Christian way is quite different. It affirms suffering love, losing your life in order to save it, the way of grace rather than gain. By making God’s life our life by bearing Christ to our neighbours we can fill our lives with a love that never fails. This is true joy, true peace in short salvation.

Mary’s choice is the choice of the good Christian. We can embark on a journey with God that will take us who knows where. Mary bore Christ. We can bear Christ and take him to our neighbours in deeds of love and kindness.

Sometimes people say, indeed I’ve said it myself-oh the New Testament is a young person’s book. Mary was young. Her choice could never be my choice. But this is a misunderstanding. God can demand a choice from us and for him at any age. Mary was young but Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was old. Mary is led to sing but Zechariah; John’s father is struck dumb. I knew a minister once who was struck dumb. Not a good thing to happen. But he didn’t cease to be a disciple. He followed Mary’s choice. He was a great support to me and to others.

During the forthcoming holidays no doubt we’ll find ourselves in front of the screen. Celebrities will appear before us in all their physical perfection and charm. Images of material prosperity and affluence will dance before us in which the adverts are indistinguishable from the main show. How grubby and undistinguished our lives will seem beside the lives of these shining ones. We will feel guilty and we will rush out and spend lots of money to assuage our guilt. That is the object of the exercise.

What is to be done? Should we adjust our set? No don’t adjust your set. The set’s not at fault. To coin a phrase from my student days; It’s just that there’s a fault in reality.

True reality, what some have called ultimate reality, reveals to us that at the heart of all things there is grace not greed, love rather than lust and sharing rather than shopping. Mary is full of grace. She rejoices because she’s made God’s way her way. She will bear Christ. She knows in her heart a love that will never fail and a joy that nothing can spoil. It could be true for us as well but first we must listen to the message of God’s angel rather than to the jingles of the angels of this age.

And Mary said: Behold the handmaid of the Lord let it be to me according to your word.

Once upon a time at a Church Council held at about this time of year I tentatively enquired of the membership as to what the meaning of this season might be. A distinguished member, the wife of a former President of the Methodist Conference no less, announced that it was about the birth of a baby. I had the temerity to cast doubt on this –after all two of the four gospels have no infancy stories and St Paul seems unaware or at least uninterested in the stories that are told at this time of year. Another member of the meeting almost equally distinguished, a retired headmaster the son of the manse and an old boy of Kingswood-it was that sort of place- offered “incarnation” as the meaning of the season. Ah ha- I responded now you’re talking. But there was no time then to talk about how and why God became human. Most years the opportunity to talk in such terms is postponed to the Sunday after Christmas when ministers and priests try to expound to their hungover congregations the real meaning of Christmas as the Church understands it.

Another difficulty at this time of year is the question of Mary and in particular the story of the annunciation which is the gospel reading for Sunday. In my experience this is problematic for thoroughly modern Methodists and so the fourth Sunday in Advent is often chosen as the ideal date for carols services and nativity plays. The opportunity to address the question rarely arises but now in the special circumstances of this year and from a safe distance I am able to do so.

Catholics often criticise Methodists and other Protestants for having a Mary shaped gap in their devotional lives. I have listened to these comments over the years and wondered. I have also admired and been moved by representations of Mary in art-especially representations of the annunciation. There are almost countless examples and they used to be popular on Christmas cards until the season was secularized in recent decades. Now you have to search for them in specialist outlets like Cathedral shops. Sad is it not! Yes I think we are missing something.

And now let us turn to Luke’s story in Luke Chapter 1 focussing in particular upon Mary’s response to the message of the angel. “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to your word.

Consider the signs of the times. That is to say in the 1st century. Not so very different now that we are in the 21st century. Things are all over the place. Our relationships with God with one another and with other creatures –plants and animals are disordered. But in Jesus Christ God has acted to redeem the world not simply by preaching to the world but by becoming one with the world in Christ. He came to live our life to bear our pains to take up our struggles and to die our death upon the cross. And then to rise up as the first of the new creation –to reconcile all things in the love of God. God has become as we are so that we might become as he is. That’s a famous sentence but it’s a useful one.

And Mary has a crucial role in this. Through the agency of the Holy Spirit she will give birth to Jesus. This birth is no ordinary birth but rather the moment when God took human flesh so as to redeem our fallen race. As to what Joseph’s part might have been well that’s a discussion for another time.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary. We can feel re-assured that he is God’s angel. He says so himself’ He declares (although not in this passage) that he stands in the presence of the Lord and that he is God’s messenger. This is his fourth appearance in the Bible and his second in the New Testament. He will not appear again.

He has a message for Mary. He shows her and us what her calling is to be. Mary wonders how this can be but she accepts her vocation with the words of our text:

 “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

This is Mary’s choice. The choice of the good Christian. Let me explain.

Mary’s choice is a strange choice in terms of the values of the world to-day. She consents to be used-some would say abused. She will know suffering. Her vocation will not be an easy one. It will bring no glory in the world’s eyes. Her way is that of suffering love, the way of a servant. But let us not misunderstand her here this is not a matter of sorrowful resignation rather it’s a matter of joyful acceptance. Very often people like to contrast the submissive Mary who obeys in verse 37 with the exultant Mary who sings Magnificat in verse 46. The contrast is a false one. Mary exults with joy because she has made God’s cause her own.

As I say this is controversial. In the way of the modern world Mary’s choice would make her a suitable object for counselling. Mary think again! Surely you don’t want to be anybody’s handmaid and certainly not God’s. You could make something of yourself, you could make your own choices, realise your own talents, express your own sexuality, be an affirmed and affirming presence. After all you’re worth it! Why bother with something as nebulous as salvation when you could achieve liberation and self-realization.

Mary take my advice read “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Attwood. This is an account of how young women are used and abused as baby making machines in a future world which is ruled by religious fundamentalists who call themselves the Republic of Gilead. It’s a contemporary classic sometimes read in schools –alas.

The Christian way is quite different. It affirms suffering love, losing your life in order to save it, the way of grace rather than gain. By making God’s life our life by bearing Christ to our neighbours we can fill our lives with a love that never fails. This is true joy, true peace in short salvation.

Mary’s choice is the choice of the good Christian. We can embark on a journey with God that will take us who knows where. Mary bore Christ. We can bear Christ and take him to our neighbours in deeds of love and kindness.

Sometimes people say, indeed I’ve said it myself-oh the New Testament is a young person’s book. Mary was young. Her choice could never be my choice. But this is a misunderstanding. God can demand a choice from us and for him at any age. Mary was young but Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was old. Mary is led to sing but Zechariah; John’s father is struck dumb. I knew a minister once who was struck dumb. Not a good thing to happen. But he didn’t cease to be a disciple. He followed Mary’s choice. He was a great support to me and to others.

During the forthcoming holidays no doubt we’ll find ourselves in front of the screen. Celebrities will appear before us in all their physical perfection and charm. Images of material prosperity and affluence will dance before us in which the adverts are indistinguishable from the main show. How grubby and undistinguished our lives will seem beside the lives of these shining ones. We will feel guilty and we will rush out and spend lots of money to assuage our guilt. That is the object of the exercise.

What is to be done? Should we adjust our set? No don’t adjust your set. The set’s not at fault. To coin a phrase from my student days; It’s just that there’s a fault in reality.

True reality, what some have called ultimate reality, reveals to us that at the heart of all things there is grace not greed, love rather than lust and sharing rather than shopping. Mary is full of grace. She rejoices because she’s made God’s way her way. She will bear Christ. She knows in her heart a love that will never fail and a joy that nothing can spoil. It could be true for us as well but first we must listen to the message of God’s angel rather than to the jingles of the angels of this age.

This is Leonardo Da Vinci’s take on the annunciation. Notice that Mary is shown with a text before her. This is quite usual for paintings of this period. Mary is not to be thought of as an illiterate but rather as someone who can engage with high culture. Feminists can take comfort from this.

Leaving and Going

Ruth💑💍💒#TraditionalCatholic on Instagram: “FIRST WEEK OF ADVENT --HOPE--  🙏 The Hope Candle serves as a reminder of the h… | Advent hope, Advent  candles, Advent

As a child I was always sad when our summer holiday came to an end and we were leaving behind all the fun and excitement of being on the beach or visiting new and different places, but as we were going home there was the rising excitement of meeting up with my friends and making the new Airfix kit I had bought with some of my holiday money. ‘Leaving or Going.’ Both these words can be used about the same event but reflect very different emotions.

If we talk about leaving in terms of departing, we can think about the pain of leaving with the sadness parents might feel as they prepare for a child leaving home to go to university, the anxiety one might experience in leaving one job to take on a new role, or the pain of losing someone dearly loved with the throat tightening words — “they have left us.” Leaving focuses us on the person or the place that will no longer be with us. Leaving evokes a sadness or sense of loss.

However if we replace leaving with going we can elicit a different sense of emotions. Going points to a destination. Going is a word of hope. When a parent’s language changes from “my child is leaving home” to “my son is going to College,” or “my daughter is going to University,” there is a change in the tenor of the voice to one of expectation and promise, even though the pain of leaving is still present. Likewise, the pain and hopelessness of the death of a loved one is softened by the knowledge that, yes, my dearest has left us, but my loved one is going to be with the Lord. The sense of destination elicits hope and comfort.

One of the great themes of Advent is ‘Hope’. During this season Isaiah chapter 40 reminds us that God’s Word offers us hope, even in the midst of difficult situations. The grass withers, and flowers fade, but the hope and strength of God’s Word stands forever. Hope. True biblical, theological hope is more than just wishful thinking. The ‘I hope the weather will be sunny tomorrow’ type of hope. True hope is the cry for a change in circumstances that seem hopeless. It begins with a cry of anger and desperation but hope does not leave us there. True hope gives light to a path out of our desperate situation.

The hope of Isaiah functions similarly. It begins in the midst of Israel’s distress as indicated in verse one. There is no need to cry “comfort, comfort my people!” if Jerusalem was not upset or in distress and in need of comforting. So it is imperative that we remember the context of this word of hope. The people of Jerusalem have been in exile and have experienced Babylonian captivity, economic devastation, and upheaval of life as they knew it. The prophet is challenging them to cease their focus on what they have left and to rejoice about where God has promised to take them. They are to imagine cities rebuilt, restoration of the nation, thriving economic life, and their restored relationship with God. God offers them a word of hope not based on their current condition, but based on their future, directed with promise and abundant life. It is not based on leaving, but rather, based on where they are going.

It is so easy to get stuck in the desperation of life — the pain, the struggles, what we don’t have or can’t afford to do — rather than to focus on the hope provided to us in the birth of Christ Jesus. Our Advent hope is based on the knowledge that our joy comes from God leaving heaven, giving up the crown of glory to come to earth. When God asked, “Who will go for us,” God decided to take on flesh, come in person, and dwell among humanity to light the way for us. God’s destination was not just to come as a babe in a stable. Even in leaving glory, God had a final destination in mind — the cross and Resurrection. So on this side of Calvary, we can celebrate the light of Christ preparing the way for us. We understand that the birth of the Christ Child points to a destination for our salvation.

God does not say that we will not have valleys, mountains, and crooked places in life. Adversity, pain, and trial are a part of life’s journey. Yet even in the midst of traversing life’s difficulties, God cries “comfort, comfort my people!” Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is the light that makes the crooked paths we create for ourselves, straight. He lifts the valleys of oppression, He destroys the mountains of depression, anxiety, and stress from our lives — in God’s time and in God’s way. Advent is a reminder that Jesus Christ is our hope in the midst of the troubles of life.

God bless and stay safe, Alan.

Something for Sunday

Last week I was looking at an American web site that offers guidance to preachers – “The Text this Week” it’s called. On a side bar was an advert for a baseball cap –it was after all an American web site. The cap bears a slogan: “Make Advent Great Again”!

Hallelujah! I thought. I’d like one of those. Trouble is by the time it comes it’ll probably be Lent. Still I like the challenge. How can we make Advent great again?

Advent is said to be the waiting time. But waiting for what exactly? There are those who say: that Advent is when we look forward. True but to what. For most people that simply means Christmas and as soon as that word crops up I feel we are losing the plot.

Let me suggest another approach. This is based on a famous quotation from the rule of St Benedict. Always, he said, we begin again. Benedict’s rule prescribes a mode of living together praying together and working together that will enable those who subscribe to it to grow in grace, and acquire the Godly virtues of faith, hope and love. It is, he said, a little rule for beginners—early Methodism was much the same. Now this is not magic. We fall short, we become bored, we are, let’s face it sinners. We must begin again. Advent is when the Church stirs itself up and begins again. Advent is when we recall God’s gracious promises and seek the strength to live in the light of those promises. Just like that computer we need to be re-booted. Always we begin again.

Our Old Testament reading challenges us to receive again in faith the good news about God’s gracious interventions in history: past and present. Isaiah speaks of comfort and restoration. A new time is coming. God is coming again-Zion will be restored. Those who have been exiled in a far country are to return-and the Lord will make the way straight before them. Those who have grown old in their doubts can be renewed in their faith. See the signs, be the signs and walk the way.

We apply these texts to the coming of Christ. The fact that whoever wrote this passage didn’t know about Jesus shouldn’t bother us. There is, I feel, a very real sense in which poets and prophets don’t own their own words. The words are greater than the person who first uttered them. Poets can speak more truly than they know.

The New Testament readings both this week and last week pose challenges to Christ’s disciples and those who might become Christ’s disciples. Last week the challenge was clear-be watchful, take note of the signs including and especially the signs of the times. 

This week is different- a new character bursts on to the scene. This is John the Baptist. Who is he? I see him as a bridge between the before and Christ’s new order going forward.

He comes out of the wilderness, just as in the Old Testament passage a voice cried out in the wilderness. Anyway John is a bridge, not only between then and now but also between places. He comes from the wilderness. This is more than a geographical expression – the wilderness is a place on the margins. Think of all the places that are on the margins of our world-the refugee camps-the belts of slums surrounding third world cities-the sites where the world’s increasing numbers of poor live and suffer the consequences of ecological degradation, inequality, racism and injustice.

John is a voice and he calls for repentance. Repent-what a boo word! –not long before Christmas too. The words a from a favourite Leonard Cohen song come back to me: Repent, repent I wonder what they meant.

To me it’s fairly clearly what they meant.  Pause, take stock, and think differently. Things are sliding in all directions but we can start again. We must begin again. We need to renew our confidence in God’s loving and gracious promises. We all need to begin again.

Now some points about John the Baptist:

Firstly John the Baptist is the forerunner. He is the herald of the Messiah. He says; “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”. He calls the people to repent.

John the Baptist is like a bell in a tower. He rings out a message and a warning. He calls people to church but he remains outside the Church himself.

Or to use another metaphor he’s not the star. He’s simply the warm up item. Or again he is a voice whereas the Christ who comes is the living word of God.

This is a reminder to us that we too are not the stars in God’s show. We too are called to be heralds of God, forerunners of something and someone much greater than we are. We don’t ask people to join us for our sakes but rather for their sakes and Jesus’ sake. We don’t say follow me; we say follow Jesus. We are just voices like John but Jesus is the message. As John says: I am not the Christ but rather the one who says make straight the way of the Lord!

Secondly John the Baptist is a prophet. He points to the future but he has some very sharp things to say about the present. He calls upon people to repent. He blows the whistle. He says “no” when everyone wants to hear the word yes. He doesn’t go with the flow.

A prophet’s job is to be right with the will of God even at the cost of being wrong with public opinion. The church is called to exercise a prophetic role at the cost of its own popularity and short term influence-just like John the Baptist. Remember John the Baptist paid with his head for saying things that the powers that be didn’t want to hear.

Thirdly John the Baptist is a reminder to us that everything we do in the church is provisional. We are a waiting people, we wait upon the Lord and as we wait, we proclaim by word and sign the one who is coming.

We are proud of our buildings, our heritage of song and story, our devotional practices, our signs and sacraments. In large measure they are our religion. We treasure them and we are not wrong to do so. Yet they are only provisional-practices suitable for the interim between the time that is now and the time when he comes. We are living in the mean-time between the times. 

In the time to come there will be no temples, no sacraments, no orders of ministry and dare I say it no choirs or other forms of music either.  God will be all in all. This is what the Book of Revelation told us at the readings for Morning Prayer on Friday last.

We would do well to remember the provisional character of our religious life when we work ourselves up into a tizzy about some issue or other. Some issue to do with the use of the building or the practice of worship or the right use of Sunday or some matter to do with Christian behaviour. All these things matter but if any of them comes to matter too much then something has gone wrong.

We can come to believe too much about little things and too little about big things. Immersed as we are in running the Church which in many ways has a bureaucratic life of its own we become obsessed by trivia and detail. It’s important we keep our eyes on the big picture-that God loves us and that he will intervene at the close of the age to draw all things to himself.

To be a forerunner is hard but that is the calling of the church. We point not to ourselves but to Jesus-just like John the Baptist.

This Christmas yes even this Christmas many strangers will be coming into our churches. Perhaps seeking for something. Perhaps asking the same question that John the Baptist asked from his prison cell. Is this Jesus who you talk about the one or have we got to wait for someone else or asking a more general question about life itself. Is this it? Or could there be something better.  It’s important that we give them an answer and a good answer.  No this isn’t it. Things could be better. You could be better-the world could be changed. We`ve seen a vision of how. We’ve seen it in Jesus. Don’t look at us-look at him. Anticipate his coming again. Remember they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength

Veni, veni Immanuel

The (Hidden) Theology and History of O Come O Come Emmanuel - Daniel Im

Dear friends,

during Advent, we sing hymns such as, “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” and “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” These songs anticipate the hope that God’s people felt as they waited for this Saviour. During the four Sundays of Advent we  light candles of hope, peace, love, and joy, like a clock counting down to God’s intervention. My family has a hand sewn Advent calendar with numbered pockets which are filled with a surprise each day as we count down to Christmas.

Waiting for something that has already happened is a curious practice. Explaining the season of Advent can quite difficult but talk to any couple expecting their first child and you begin to understand the ‘now but not yet’ of Advent. When a child is in the womb, the child is certainly real even though you can’t hold the baby in your arms. A mother’s body changes, subtle flutters soon become kicks, and ultrasounds reveal a profile. The child is certainly real, but not yet born. It’s kind of like recording kick counts as the baby’s due date approaches. Ask any mother — the baby is already here, but not yet born.

The Advent season plays with our notion of time. The church gathers in the present to ponder the past for a future hope. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beautiful story for the Advent season because it is a tale in which the past, present and future all come together in one transformative night. Certainly this story is about Scrooge’s love of money and his altruistic failures, but it is also a story about how Scrooge cannot let go of his past. Early in the story, after establishing that Marley had been dead for some time, Dickens writes, “Scrooge never painted out Old Marley’s name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley” (Stave One). Scrooge seems to cling to the past because his (only?) friend Marley represented the only things in which Scrooge trusts: hard work, frugality, unwavering discipline and actions that can be weighed, measured and counted.

Jesus came to save us from counting our past as our only reality. It’s like when Moses led God’s people out of Egyptian slavery into the wilderness. Before they reached the Promised Land, the Book of Exodus says, “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt … for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger’” (Exodus 16:2-3). Because living in the wilderness was difficult and they were caught wandering between where they had been and where they were heading, the people complained and wished they had died as slaves. The people became stubborn and bitter (see Exodus 32:9), almost “Scroogelike” in their relationship with God and one another. Instead of moving forward in faith, trusting that God was with them, the people kept looking over their shoulders, hopelessly lamenting over the way things were.

Advent is like living in the wilderness between what was and what will be. Living into this tension, remembering God’s promises, and depending on faith become spiritual disciplines that keep us from becoming Scrooges ourselves. Even though the Promised Land may seem far off, we hold tightly to the promises of our God, for “he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

This advent more then any other advent we need to rely on the God of promise.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel

shall come to you, O Israel

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.