There is a service video link here https://youtu.be/rqekLvVBfec
Penny chose this poem for our reflection and is included in the service.
What Kind of Messiah
By Godfrey Rust
What kind of Messiah does anyone want? What sort of Saviour will do? Before we subscribe and get dunked in the font, what kind of Messiah are you? What kind of Messiah does anyone need in our postmodern hullabaloo? What qualifications will help him succeed? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you stop us from worry and calm us from fear? Will you free us from debt and fatigue? Will you send Boris Johnson* packing next year? Will you put us on top of the League? Will you heal our diseases with mystical magic so we’ll live to 102? Will you make it all better when things turn out tragic? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you find me a partner and get me a job? Will you save me a good place to park? Will I be superfit even though I’m a slob? Will you keep me a berth in the ark? Will you answer my prayers (but not everyone else’s)? Will you make all my wishes come true? Will you bless all of Liverpool*’s strikers (not Chelsea’s!)? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you be kind to Hindus and good atheists? Will you send all the bad ones to hell? Will you show Richard Dawkins he doesn’t exist? What is it you’re planning, do tell! Will you stop every war, every flood and tsunami and remove the excess CO2? Will you fix all the people who’re driving me barmy? What kind of Messiah are you?
Will you make sure my mortgage rate doesn’t go higher? Stop me drinking too much alcohol? Can I win EuroMillions and go and retire to a house on the Costa del Sol? Will you bless my belief and ignore my behaviour and vindicate all that I do? Oh, just be my own private and personal Saviour— what kind of Messiah are you?
© Godfrey Rust 2012, firstname.lastname@example.org
Isaiah 52.7-10, Hebrews, 1:1-4, John 1:1-14
Link to video reflection: https://youtu.be/iyrU6aT21sY
Link to all age video reflection (Based on Luke 2:8-17) https://youtu.be/e9SSm78k5vY
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen
We know the story of Christmas probably inside out and backwards – though we have been a bit starved of carols this year. I will preach this sermon at St Michael’s and we will have just heard – O holy night from Aled Jones (here is a youtube link to him singing it with Katharine Jenkins – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYK3sllLD3U) It paints a picture of the angels on the night of Jesus birth. We can see it in our mind’s eye and heart’s imagination, but at this special time it is also good to hear the magical and mysterious words of the beginning of John’s gospel. Where we move from telling the story literally to words with deep imagery and artistry – pointing to the deeper truths of Christmas. This passage from the beginning of John’s gospel explains why Jesus came to save us all and bring us all into the light of God’s love, once and for all and forever!
This reading though deeply familiar, is still yet veiled in mystery. Somehow within it are hidden depths, which are there to challenge our minds. God’s love for us is also in every word to touch our hearts. Something that resonates with the presence of God inside each one of us – his Spirit that inspires us tells us how Jesus came into the world. Also how sending his Son was an entirely different approach than the ones God had tried before.
Remembering God had tried making promises and agreements with his chosen people, and providing guidance on the way to live. God sent prophets, spiritual leaders and even kings to help his people, but again and again his chosen people had turned away from him. Despite all the difficulties and set backs, God still wanted to open his love up to everyone not just the chosen few. So simply and completely he sent his Son to us Jesus.
And yet this passage also brought together the approaches and the patterns of reason in the world John was writing into all those year’s ago. Let me explain what I mean. These words of John’s gospel start at the beginning. In fact – In the beginning to be precise, and the beginning is, of course, a very good place to start! For the early Jewish followers of Jesus they would have heard echoes of the start of the story of creation in Genesis, which also starts in the beginning. Early Jewish followers would have known the word of God was powerful and they would have agreed that in the beginning there was indeed the word, because God spoke words and things happened. God said let there be light and there was. God said let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind and there was. The early jewish followers would have known that the word (the spoken word and the power) was with God and to them it was self-evident that all things came into being through him.
But there is another layer here because not only would the jewish followers have understood the concept in the beginning was the word – so also would the Graeco/Roman ones and the parts of the world approaching life through Greek and Roman thought patterns when Jesus was born! Even if they understood the concept a little differently. These followers understood the word as the divine force to do with wisdom and reason and for them it was an entirely natural way of talking about God. John beginning his gospel like this to his Greek and Roman readers, In the beginning was the word was again a clear and clever reference to God, and as this reading unfolds it clearly it describes how Jesus, the Son of God, the outworking of the word came to earth.
It goes on in verse 10 He (the word/Jesus) He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. Frankly this combination of ideas about the word in John’s gospel is a stroke of genius as it is seemlessly marrying together powerful cultures and ideologies completely alien to each other – across the Jewish and Greek/Roman divide. In all cases really getting to the point about what God was doing in Jesus at the first Christmas but in different ways. This master stroke in the choice of words brings together cultures that we know didn’t mix well and in places were deeply hostile to each other.
Unfortunately in our world and our society today we still know enough don’t we about mixing different cultures and ideologies and just how challenging that can be. Finding ways of unifying ourselves to the common good and shared meaning are extremely important and never more so than in our world today in our pandemic times. Sadly over the years there has been many a conflict based on often unfounded fears of difference, when in reality the common ground was just a misunderstanding away! The lands around Jesus birth – still speaks to us with seemingly irresolvable conflicts between cultures that rumble on and on. We pray for peace there this Christmas and for peace in all the other places in the world where there is conflict too.
Having touched on how this wonderful passage from John’s gospel played out to the people of Jesus’ day. Let’s just take a moment now to dig more deeply into this rich passage and the concept of the word for us, the people of God today. We know that the words we say and use are immensely powerful. They bring meaning and understanding, and in this case hope, love and purpose. Sharing that meaning and understanding is as John’s gospel would have it is the life that is the light of all people. By saying Jesus is the Word – it is saying that Jesus is at the heart of all meaning and understanding and the essence of our communication with one another and our lives. As such this is a very, very powerful statement indeed.
For me one of the critical points of understanding in the Christian faith is the recognition of Jesus occupying the central part of our lives. When we share with those around us we gain meaning, understanding and love from those we meet. All of which start from God’s love for us and all his children. Our capacity to love and be loved is rooted and grounded in God’s love for us. It is in all our experiences of compassion and care that God is really present with us. The God who was with the word Jesus from the beginning and the God we know in every breath and dwells with us through the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus left with us.
This passage also brings together aspects of the Trinity, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The word (Jesus) the Son was with God and the word Jesus gave us the power to become children of God – which is a reference to the Holy Spirit. Jesus as word – meaning and purpose to life, is also the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot and will not ever overcome that. This also is something we need to be extremely thankful for. Through the Holy Spirit, we know God is with us in the good times and the bad and there is nothing no matter how bleak or painful that God cannot love us through and gently guide us through.
One of the main conduits of this providential care is those we are given to travel with. Christianity is not and never has been a solitary pursuit, but one founded in relationship with one another, our companions on the road and in relationship with our loving God . We may be socially distanced from one another in 2020, but love brings us together. God will be with us forever loving us in this world and the next. That love is something that no darkness can take away. Our experiences today of all this are just a foretaste of the intimacy and joy that dwelling in and with God for eternity will be like.
In Church – We often say the words Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit etc, but there is a slight different variant of that Glory to God, source of all being, eternal Word and Holy Spirit. Brings to the fore Jesus as the word –
The word is all our experiences of love, meaning and understanding.
The word is for yesterday, the word for this moment and the word for all our tomorrows in this world and the next.
Thank you God for Jesus coming into the world at the first Christmas our eternal word, our meaning and our light. Amen
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – Worship words – Text copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2000-2020
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer Amen
This reflection is different from the one I will be doing in the churches today. “Do not be afraid” appears 366 times in the Bible. That is once for every day of the year (even on a leap year like this one!) This phrase – Do not be afraid almost invariably happens when something pretty spectacular has just occurred. Like an angel appearing to an ordinary girl like Mary in our reading today, and fear is a pretty natural human response!
Fear is an interesting human state, in fact, as fear is both a state of mind but also has a effect on our physicality. Fear induces in us a reaction that produces the hormone adrenaline, which prepares the body to flight (run away) or fight. So, when we get frightened or encounter frightening situations our bodies prepare in ways that other emotions to do not effect us.
I think it is interesting and actually I find it a bit mystifying that doing frightening things is viewed as a pleasurable activity by some! Or something they will pay good money for! For example – I do not understand why people enjoy going to horror films or scary films at all. I cannot think of something I like less! I think long and hard about watching something with lots of suspense in it too – and hands appearing from behind walls etc…. I also do not understand the human capacity to go on scary fairground or theme park rides and think that is fun! And that goes too for extreme scary sports like white water rafting or bungee jumping. For me every day life can be scary enough from time to time, and this has been particularly true in 2020 without seeking out additional frightening experiences!
Life was certainly quite scary for Mary in our gospel story today. Imagine in our early teens for a moment being faced with a radical change of plan like this from an angel – a messenger from God? This encounter with the angel turned Mary’s life upside down and with a high prospect of it all going rather pear-shaped in her culture as a result to boot. As we know the end of the story, we know God’s plan had its own way of working itself out. But Mary did not know this as her part in the story of our salvation began. She did not know Joseph would stand by her and that that would prevent her from at best being ostracised by civilised society and to at worse being stoned for infidelity!
This makes her response to the encounter – here I am – let it be to me according to your word all the more impressive and determined. Mary sets an interesting example of how to handle fear – which appears to be pretty much step up to it and face it!!
But when we are handling fear in our lives. How do we do? There is an acronym for the word FEAR that will help us explore this more deeply, where fear is False Extremes Appear Real.
Let’s start then with False – fear is often a terror that what probably won’t happen will. A right level of caution is always appropriate but a wrong level of unreasonable anxiety is destructive. We have additional complications about falseness and truthfulness in our society today. It can be very difficult to find and stick to the truth. The phenomena of labelling some ‘fake news’ when it doesn’t reflect what we want to be true is at the root of some of this. Wanting it to be true and it being true are two different things. I long for a day when we don’t get ourselves in such a muddle over truth being absolute rather than relative as we now at times want it to be. The knack here is to keep things in proportion and on the side of the truth (not the relative truth), and remember a healthy dose of common sense can be useful!
Let’s move on to the next element of the acronym, from False to Extremes. Fear envisages a worst-case scenario in which absolutely everything that can go wrong does. Dale Carnegie – of how to win friends and influence people fame, also wrote a book about handling fear. He suggested that one of the ways of doing this was to imagine all the worst possible scenarios and then work out how you can handle them. This can lead to paralysing inactivity as we work all that out and at worse a significant neurosis. Very occasionally in life, everything does seem to go wrong all at once in life (and 2020 has had elements of this about it!) But, that is the extreme and certainly not the rule and many a cloud does have a silver lining even if it is a bit obscured to begin with. Also some of the strangest and scariest things we encounter at the time can be things we look back on with great joy!
The final part of the acronym from False and Extremes – is Appear Real. Appear Real – fear focuses on the imagination and flights of fantasy rather than reality! When people witness a frightening incident their descriptions of it can be wildly different. One of the reasons for this is that as time passes recollections are clouded by interpretations beyond the event itself. So we say what we have reasoned happened rather than what we actually saw.
The fact that God via the angel in this case says Do not be afraid or in the authorised version Fear not so often means God understands our propensity for nervousness and fearfulness. Faith is born out of our knowledge of God’s love for us and is the heart of our relationship with him. In taking even small steps into the unknown guided by God – we will find that he is with us in every step (even if we don’t know where the next step will take us!) At the moment we are on the cusp of a new beginning as the vaccine roll out begins to happen, but there are still many things we do not know about how all this will be long-term. I think it is important to remember to keep fear in perspective. With fear when False Extremes Appear Real.
We need to remember how it must have been for Mary as she lived the story of how Jesus came as the Son of God to earth and her role within it. This story helps us to live our stories. She didn’t know the twists and turns of her story any more than we know the twists and turns of ours. And yet Mary has the wisdom to say Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word. Let that be said in our hearts just as much in response to our uncertain times. Here we are, the servants of the Lord, let it be to us according to your word. Amen
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 – Some material from rootsontheweb.com
Advent 3 – Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-end and John 1: 6-8, 19-28
Link to the video of this reflection: https://youtu.be/-mhkKKMEzqE
I often think these days that the current younger generation will be much more patient and able to deal with waiting than people of my age. We all grew up with electricity, but whereas I am used to gadgets that switch on when I push the switch, modern electronics take time to get started. I can write down a phone number in a matter of seconds, but if I want to save it to my phone or computer, then I have to wait for it to boot up and for the application I want to open before I can actually make the note.
When John started preaching, the Jewish people had been without a prophet for some 400 years since the time of Malachi. What we don’t know is whether they had grown tired of waiting or were looking for a prophet to bring them fresh word from God. Whatever the answer, they would definitely have been surprised and excited by the appearance of John, and the religious authorities who had been keeping things going in the meantime were quick to want to check him out. John, however does not seem inclined to give them any useful answers, as he is only willing in the account we heard read today to tell them who he is not. If you read on in this chapter you will read John’s testimony concerning Jesus, and his account of Jesus’ baptism. John is very clear about his purpose – he is to prepare the way for Jesus by preaching repentance of sin and baptism, and when that is done, he is to fade into the background.
Is there a lesson for us here? More than once in our bibles we read accounts of people approaching the disciples and asking in various ways to see Jesus. Nobody seemed terribly anxious to see Peter or Andrew or James – and nowadays the world does not really need to see Penny or Alison or you either – although they may not entirely realise it, they want to see Jesus still. John is a good role model for us all here.
I sometimes wonder if the Roman emperor Constantine did the Christian church any favours when he made it the official religion of the empire. He certainly enlarged it massively at a stroke by enrolling his entire army, but the long-term effects have been to make our faith respectable and this is not always healthy. I have read that St Benedict who lived in about 500AD was amazed when sent to Rome to be educated by the number of churches that had been and were still being built. We do love our buildings! And yes – I love this church at Pen Selwood too. But do our churches distract from our message? For five months of this year, our church buildings have been closed to public worship – for three of those months the buildings were completely shut and locked and even now access to them is very limited. Do we feel that God went away in that time? Did we say with the exiled people of Israel – ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land’? We learned new ways – developed new skills, perhaps our church life will one day return to its former structure, but I rather hope it doesn’t. Change is never comfortable, and I am sure we would not have changed greatly in this year, but it has been forced upon us. Once again I remember the comment that someone put into our Vision Survey in 2018 – Whilst we all love the comfortable old, we would like to embrace the exciting new. During lockdown earlier this year we heard a lot of talk about the new normal, as people learned different, new and often better ways of doing those things that they weren’t able to carry on in the normal way.
I wonder if we ever consider these days quite how counter cultural Jesus and John the Baptist were in their day. Without going into the rights and wrongs, I wonder how much difference there really is between turning over tables in the temple court and pulling down a statue in Bristol. Some things cause deep offence to some people, and if you want your protest to be noticed, sometimes you have to upset people – whether by blocking the traffic in London, removing a statue in Bristol or returning large quantities of unwanted plastic to the shop that insisted on packaging everything.
Our reading from Isaiah gives us a good steer of what God is actually looking for in his kingdom. Jesus read some of these verses in the synagogue at Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry:
‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,’. The result of his preaching that day was to be thrown out of the synagogue, and almost off a cliff.
If you use email then I expect that you, like me receive several emails daily from charities in desperate need of funding. Television advertising is heart breaking to watch, and our news recently has been full of the campaign of Marcus Rashford for children to receive the free meals at home that they are given when at school. We are about the 5th richest country in the world, and still there are children going hungry. We pride ourselves on being open, welcoming and tolerant, and yet people in positions of power and authority are still being investigated, and inquiries show that many of our establishments are still institutionally racist. In the last week, 25,000 people have learned that they will probably be made redundant – and they are only a part of the damage that has been done this year. Charities that give advice and help with debt problems have never been busier, and the Trussell Trust, that runs many of our food banks tells me that they are expecting to give out a food parcel every 9 seconds this winter. I also know that people are wonderfully generous. Last month the Children in Need appeal raised the amazing sum of £41m. By now it is probably more than that, but I also know that next year they will be looking for more. Where did we go wrong?
Before you start looking for a handy cliff, I should stress that I am not seeking to blame anyone for these things – for once I am not even blaming the government! But there must be more that we can do. Each one of these people in need is made in the image of God, and deeply loved by Him. I know that many of the problems of the last year have been caused by the pandemic – but I also believe that many of them were accidents waiting to happen – it just took the push of a virus to set the dominoes falling. We have much to be thankful for. We live in a beautiful part of a country where we are free to worship, where we are free to call out our leaders when we see shortcomings. Where the intention of the welfare state is that no-one should fall through the cracks and have nothing – it is not perfect, but it is at least trying.
We cannot escape the fact though that our churches are becoming emptier – and not just at the moment because people fear infection. There must be something that we are not getting right – and I wonder if it is because our lovely stone walls prevent people from seeing that what they need and really want is to see Jesus. We look respectable, comfortable – but should we look loving? Should we take a leaf out of John’s book and point out that we are not, and don’t have the answer – but we do know, and can point to the one who does?
Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Link to the video of this reflection: https://youtu.be/UN25YTLHgbc
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight – O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen
I was talking about Isaiah last week in my reflection for Advent Sunday. The passage for last week came from the time when God’s chosen people have returned to Jerusalem after the exile, and are rebuilding the temple (but the people had lost their way with faith in God yet again). Where as this week’s reading comes from more hopeful times – a bit earlier in the story when God’s chosen people were on the cusp of returning from the exile to Jerusalem).
For devotees of Carol Services this reading is very familiar and often one of the chosen ones. It starts in a place that makes us feel good too – Comfort, O comfort my people – says your God. The verb is even in the imperative – showing it to be a command. That is like saying – “better times are coming, breathe in God’s love for you now”. We can resonate with this kind of message as we so need this kind of comfort today. Comfort from God is a breath away if we get in touch with our inner sense of God travelling with us through the Holy Spirit Jesus left with us. This is a very deep well always available to us. Sometimes we just need to pause and pray it into our hearts. This has been most obvious in our pandemic days. As vaccine hopes are peaking over the horizon, let’s lean in to it once more to give us the strength we need to endure (however long it takes us). God’s strength and hope is for us
In places the Holy Spirit is called the comforter, and in this part of Isaiah the verb comfort is used repeatedly to signify encouragement or restoration to new life, but it may also denote that a need for a change of mind or direction is required or some element of repentance. In a way, our recent times have also made us think about all we have taken for granted up to this point, and some ways we will want to change to make the future for ourselves, our nearest and dearest, our communities and our world better. It may be that our pandemic times have made us realise things we had not previously – and I think where it is needed reflection and repentance is very good for our souls. It shows God where we now know we need to proceed differently from now on, and helps us to be open to the Holy Spirit’s work with us and within us.
The next few verses of the reading – are ones we read knowing they point to the coming of Jesus (rather than the immediate events of God’s chosen people as the original readers would have interpreted them to be). Where it starts A Voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. I am not going to talk about who the voice was today, to allow Penny to major on John the Baptist next week in our Advent journey. I want us instead to think about preparing the way. This time of year we generally do a lot of preparations – all kinds of things (cooking, shopping, decorating, writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, and so forth)… I suspect some of it is scaled back for most of us in our pandemic days. But I wonder if we should think about how each thing we are able to do is bringing us closer to the real message of Christmas, how God’s love came down with one intent to save us.
There have been wilderness aspects of our last year’s experience. I don’t think I have ever in my life time spent so much time by myself. I shall be hugely thankful for times when we can more easily mingle. Currently having to set out that we cannot socialise at all inside the church buildings because we are in tier 2 is a horrifying thing for me to say. I so wish this was not the case – as fellowship is such an important part of our journey. We may not be able to chat together in person and inside in the way that we might want but we can pray together and strengthen each other for the journey in that way.
The next part of the verse says “make straight in the desert a highway to our God”. What does that mean? For the original listeners it would have been heard as a call to return to Jerusalem, and in some cases it is translated as highways indicating the dispersed nature of the people of God in exile across the Babylonian empire when this part of Isaiah was inspired. It sounds like a need to make a journey – in the people of God’s case a journey leading back to Jerusalem.
For us we tend to think more of God’s action in sending Jesus, as being the straight highway to God. A direct and decisive intervention pointing to God which we mark each Christmas. A straight highway is not a bendy country lane – but a broad wide and the most direct path possible through the desert times to better places ahead. This must be making us think about how our lives are being lived currently. From the outside do they look like broad highways pointing to God’s love for us or would we look more like a narrow, bendy country lane where the importance of God’s love for us is not so obvious. Being focussed and direct about God’s love for us is also better for us in other ways, as it stops us letting other things crowd in and get in the way too.
These weeks leading to Christmas do afford us opportunities to be more explicit in how we live and what we say. Celebrating Christmas is not cancelled no matter how much we can’t do what we would normally do! There are layers of tradition and family myths, which we are all going to miss that aren’t practical or safe in 2020! There are people we aren’t going to see and activities we aren’t going to be able to indulge in. In this genre is our annual warm bath in a range of mostly Victorian Traditional Carols inside the Church.
Singing the story TOGETHER in Church (not being sung too) is very much part and parcel of Christmas. From our enforced abstinence in this activity inside the church buildings in 2020 we will really know how important this is to us and next year (hopefully) singing TOGETHER will be part of everything we can do then. Yet we still can sing these things in our households, and through various different outlets videos/tv services etc (I will be pointing us to sources of these as we get closer to Christmas too). It is the togetherness that is really missing, and it is a togetherness that points to God. A large packed church full of people singing Hark the herald angels sing – transports us in a different way into the immanence of God’s love for us. There is no doubt that I will (and many of us will) really miss that. It can feel a bit like being there on the hillside as the angels impart the good news of Jesus birth to the shepherds. Let’s remember that feeling and as we remember know deep in our heart that the good news of Jesus birth is still the best news we ever had. In 2020 – let’s hold on to that and hold on to it fast.
A bit further on in the Isaiah passage it brings home to us what the good news is. It says Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all the people shall see it together. For Isaiah’s original audience – the dispersed people of God in exile in the Babylonian empire – this is all about the sign of God’s presence and power once more being visible and experienced in Jerusalem as the temple is rebuilt. I wonder what they made of the second bit of that verse that ‘All people shall see it together’. I suspect they may have interpreted that as being all the scattered people of God would be together and see it and not that it meant something much more radical than that – that Jesus was coming for everyone. That the “All” was so much more inclusive. Remembering even from the very beginning we remember that Jesus’ birth was revealed first to shepherds amongst the poorest and marginalised groups within God’s chosen people and then to wise men from the East – who were beyond God’s chosen people in every sense!! As Jesus was born from the very start it was clear he was for everyone – a saviour for the world.
As we reflect on ‘all people shall see it together’, let’s remember the message of love coming down this Christmas and every Christmas is for everyone, and use it to inspire us to beacons pointing to that love in all that we do.
Let us pray: – God, you have comforted your people, making paths where there seemed no path. You have lifted up valleys, relieved droughts, and made high places low. You have gathered your people in the eternal place of love. You speak to our hearts, and you forgive us for our wandering ways. Your light and love and faithfulness and work are true, ever true, always lasting. We praise you, for the goodness you are, and the pathways you make before us. Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995
Prayer adapted from Rootsontheweb.com