Monthly Archives: December 2022

Christmas Reflection 2022

Christmas Eve

Something I like to do to relax is to watch murder mysteries on television.  Most of these are repeats now, and frequently when watching a repeat, I can tell you all about the peripheral characters in the episode, and what happens to them.  Sometimes I can tell you who is about to be murdered – but it is very seldom that I can remember, until nearly the end who the murderer was, and yet surely that is the most important part.

We humans do like to measure things.  When a new baby is born, the second thing we like to know about it is the birth weight – the first being whether it is a boy or girl.  If you watch the news and weather forecast these days, it is seldom that we can hear it all without being told that what is being brought to us is the hottest or coldest or greatest or worst of its kind for over a year or decade, or sometimes even a century, be it temperature, windspeed or rainfall, or economic performance, price rises or measure of hardship.  Life these days seems to be measured in percentages.  The measurement of time too is something that humanity has created.  Time does seem to pass by faster as you get older – when I was a child, the time between Christmas and my birthday in April seemed to last forever, but Christmases seem to arrive almost on top of each other nowadays!

God does not seem to worry about time in the way that we do – we believe that He is outside of measurable, linear time unlike us who see time measured from our birth to our deaths in a more or less straight line.  And yet our measurement of time is based around the timing of God’s intervention into time, with the birth of Jesus.  There has been a great deal of discussion as to when that actually took place, but I am not sure that knowing the exact day and year would help us in our faith at all, although if it turned out to have been in the summer, a great many of our much-loved Christmas carols would become obsolete.  We do need to think about the timing though, as the time in the history of the nation was important.  Israel was not at this time an independent state – there was a Roman army occupying the land, and tax collectors sending the wealth of the country to fill the coffers of a ruling power.  But possibly worse than that, it had been about 400 years since any voice of prophecy from God had been heard.  The people of Israel must have thought that their national life and deity had ended when they were carried into exile in Babylon, and they would not have been expecting Him to intervene in their national life after so long a silence.  Often the hardest lesson to learn is that God breaks into our timeline at the point when the time is right – we cannot see the whole as He can.

To see the whole effect of the happening that we are celebrating today, that all the razzmatazz around us has been caused by, it is actually better to look at prophecies like the one we heard from Isaiah rather than the gospel accounts that we know so well.    The story in Luke’s gospel is actually about Joseph and Mary; and were it not for the shepherds it could just be a story of a newly married couple trying to find a suitable place for the birth of their first child in a town that was massively overcrowded, possibly due to an administrative error, we will never know.

Isaiah, and the angels seen by the shepherds tell a different story however, and they give us some idea of the scale of God’s intervention into human history at this time.  Isaiah seems to run out of ways to describe quite how dramatic this is – he describes sudden and almost blinding light in a place of utter darkness.  He talks of the amazed joy that we might feel at a time of great good fortune, unexpected wealth – the modern equivalent might be a lottery jackpot.  He tells of oppressed people suddenly being set free; their burden being ripped off enabling them to stand erect.  And finally, he describes how all who suffer as a result of war will find peace and safety, and all the instruments of war will be utterly destroyed so that they cannot be used again.  He finishes by pointing out that God will accomplish all this.

And what will happen to cause it all?  A child will be born.  It happens all the time – doesn’t it?  But as he goes on, this is no ordinary child.  Once again, Isaiah struggles to find the words to describe this child.  Even the proudest of new parents is unlikely to go to these excesses.  When I was thinking about this, the nearest illustration I could think of was that of a seed – and in particular a nut.  If you have any nuts at home – and at Christmas lots of us do have – take a moment to consider an almond or a walnut.  It is small enough for you to be able to hold several in your hand, and yet it contains the potential to become a large tree.  But this comparison really does not hold water, as the seed – of whatever kind contains the potential to become something great, given the right conditions – elements absorbed from the soil, the sun and the rain – but this vulnerable baby contained not the potential to become, but already was the whole of the creator of our amazing universe.

Every Christmas we hear the wonderful passage read to us from the first chapter of John’s gospel.  This used to be introduced at carol services with the phrase ‘St John unfolds the mystery of the incarnation’, and for many years I wanted to change that to ‘St John totally confuses the story of Christmas’.   I see now that the problem is trying to explain to my very limited brain, something that is far greater than it will ever be able to comprehend.  I think that is probably why we concentrate our thinking around the things that we can know and understand when we think about the incarnation.

We think about overcrowded inns, we invent a donkey, and some other livestock that may or may not have been present.  We think about tiring journeys on foot, neglected sheep on a hillside and most of all a new-born baby that never cries.  In the same way that I watch the murder stories, we concentrate on the things that we can understand.  We have placed the importance on entertaining and feeding our families and the giving of gifts until they almost supplant the original story.  None of these things are wrong – except perhaps for the never crying bit – but they are not the main event.  I think that the reason we have reduced our thinking about the happenings of that first Christmas, is that the reality is far more than we can hope to fully understand.  And so, I do wish you all a very peaceful and joyful Christmas – which begins with our worship this evening when we meet with God through the Eucharist.  I hope that if you are spending time with friends and family, it will be a good time, and that if you will be alone at this time, that you will find a time of peace and rest.

I do hope as well that every one of us will be able to find the time on this Christmas Day, to step out of the lights and tinsel, and away from the eating and drinking, laughter and perhaps tears to spend a few moments alone with God.  A time of quiet when we can immerse ourselves in His love, concentrate on His presence with us and His immeasurable gift to us and ask Him to help us to come a little closer to understanding what Christmas is actually all about.

Advent 4 – Joseph – 18th December 2022

Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25

Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King, Alleluia, we are going to see the King – Amen

Once every 3 years in our cycle of readings, we get to this day and it is mainly about Joseph rather than Mary. In the gospel of Matthew we have a few short verses to describe what came to past when Jesus was born. And in the bit we heard there is no mention of shepherds, donkeys and even travelling to Bethlehem for the birth, and the only angel mentioned is seen by Joseph in a dream. The good news is that Matthew does acknowledge this all happened in Bethlehem at the beginning of the next chapter (and his account of the wise men – more of that in a couple of weeks).

So what do we know about Joseph then? The truth is not a lot. In Matthew’s genealogy (family tree) which precedes the account of the birth in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is described as the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. His lineage goes all the way back to Abraham (28 generations) and David (14 generations). We surmise from our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day that Joseph was likely to have been significantly older than Mary when they married. We also know from much later in Matthew’s gospel that Joseph had a trade as a carpenter – when Jesus appears in the synagogue in Nazareth, when people doubted him saying Is not this the carpenter’s son? Finally, we know that Joseph was still around as the family travel to Jerusalem (and Jesus is 12 years old), but by the time we get to descriptions of Jesus’ ministry (when he was in his early thirties in all probability) as there is no account of Joseph being present, the assumption is as he was older that he has died (though of course Mary still features prominently).

In Matthew’s account of the early days around Jesus’ conception and first couple of years of life, Joseph has repeated encounters with angels in his dreams. Firstly, as he contemplates what to do about Mary pregnant with someone else’s child, and then twice more, so they flee from Herod’s wrath after the visit of the wise men and then return to Nazareth again when all is safe once more.  In our passage today, Joseph is described as righteous. (He is holding to his faith and beliefs clearly – and we first hear him trying to find a way to ensure Mary is not exposed to public disgrace (when she was found to be pregnant before they married)). This was a thorny dilemma. There wasn’t an easy answer.  Many would not have hesitated and even thought it was righteous in the circumstances to throw her to the proverbial wolves. The choice Joseph was going to make before God intervened was compassionate and not without risk to himself and his reputation. A hint of the character of the man perhaps?.

Let’s unpack the dream sequence next. We know a previous Joseph (of technicolour dream coat fame!) who was a dreamer – but that was different. Technicolour Joseph had dreams all about himself and the gift to interpret dreams for others. Whereas Mary’s Joseph had vivid dreams with repeated angel encounters. We can only surmise that we have this story as it was handed down by oral tradition from Joseph himself until it eventually reached the ears of the gospel writer Matthew. The dream he had was very compelling and very clear. It says Joseph responded to the angel of the Lord’s commands. We don’t get any sense of hesitation or doubt in Joseph. I find this reaction in Joseph quite compelling. The option he took would have caused him some angst in the society of the day (no doubt, the tongues to wag about quick pregnancies after their marriage!). The angel spoke to his sub-conscious in his sleep and Joseph acted on it precisely as he had been asked. Would we do the same?

I don’t have experience personally of God using my dreams, but I have on occasion had a sense I needed to do something. On one such occasion, I felt I had to visit someone in hospital (and do it then and there). The patient turned out to be in a much more serious condition than I had realised, and I was able to be a significant comfort to his relatives whilst the patient had some interventions. We prayed amongst other things and the patient pulled through. Several other times, I have been thinking about someone and I have either met them in the street or they have rung! I call these things God incidences not coincidences (which is a phrase I first heard from the Baptist preacher and writer Ian Coffey). I have come over the years to recognise these moments and act on them as Joseph did in his dreams and I would be interested to hear your God incidences over coffee after the service this morning. On Wednesday there was a power cut shortly before the School nativity was due to start. Unlike most of Wincanton who had a power out for the next couple of hours. The church lights flickered back into action after a couple of minutes. Another God incidence? I think so….

In the gospel we heard, Matthew links this to one of the prophet’s words again (Isaiah of course!) and the significance of the baby Mary was carrying being Emmanuel ‘God is with us’ to help ground us rather than Joseph in the importance of his mission. Have we really taken in the enormity of that? It has huge consequences for then and for us and went on to change things forever, so we can encounter the God of love through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus left with us through his death, resurrection and ascension.

Sending a vulnerable baby to earth, meant an earthly father needed to be recruited to help care for Jesus as he grew up, and the man God chose was Joseph. He chose him just as much as he chose Mary. I think God chose Joseph because his heart was compassionate and kind and open to God’s prompting. Just recently I have told the first two parts of the Christmas story to the children in Wincanton Primary School. I kept in the bits about Joseph’s compassion to Mary (as many children today understand all too often about relationships breaking down and why). I also had them when I said the names of the two characters saying for Mary – I’m special and for Joseph I’m special too – as I think he was!

A final thing I admire about Joseph’s openness to God, was how whole hearted it was. From what we know of events, once he was in and there for Mary, he stuck with it. Particularly keeping her and the young Jesus safe from the harming influences on this earth, and caring for them until his time was up.

I am going to conclude these thoughts with a reflection by Lisa Debney from the compilation Hay and Stardust about the character of Joseph:-

My arm around your back was all that I could offer as support as each unravelling chapter came.

My arm around your back was there when you first heard the news that heaven dwells in you and words fled faster from me than response. My arm around your back was all that I could offer you to reassure you that I would never desert.

My arm around your back was all that I could offer as support on Bethlehem’s weary road, as the journey wound around path and street and doors closed swiftly in our faces. My arm around your back was all I had to protect you from despair.

As the child emerged in an open barn, my arm around your back was all I had to help you through. To be a leaning post, it seemed, was all that I could do to show I struggled with you in the birth.

It doesn’t seem enough for one who’s destined to endure so much. I should have words or eloquence or money, land and powers of protection to buffer you against the harshness of this world.

But all that I can offer is my arm around your back. Its strength will never be enough to show the strength of love that holds me to your side. But ready still to comfort, to steady and to reassure, my arm around your back, if needed, will be there.


The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995,

Joseph by Lisa Debney from Hay and Stardust edited by Judith Burgess – published by Wild Goose Publications © 2005


Advent 3 Year A – John the Baptist – Rev Alison Way

James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11, And Matthew 3:1-12 (last week’s gospel)

Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King, Alleluia, we are going to see the King – Amen

Thus far in our Advent journey, we have thought about the patriarchs – the significant figures from the earliest Old Testament times – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David etc. They remind us how God was working with his chosen people, but these characters and their stories also pointed to the day when a different way through Jesus would come and that was always in God’s heart and plans.

Last week we thought about the prophets – Messengers from God who spoke into their timeframe things for their times and things for the future and who spoke what God put on their hearts to say. We heard the words of Isaiah last week in our reflection.

Today, we are going to think about John the Baptist. John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus, just before he came Jesus recognises this role for John towards the end of today’s gospel reading. Just to recap a little on the material in last week’s Gospel reading – What kind of man was John? He was quite wild and lived a simple dedicated life in the desert. He was viewed as a radical and an extremist but he must have had great integrity – he visibly practiced what he preached by living a simple life out in the desert

There must have been something quite charismatic about him. He did not come to the people. They flocked to him!  Describing the crowds coming out to be baptised by him – travelling out  to the wilderness – literally out of their comfort zone! the crowds that came. Also they include the great and the good of his day. Amongst them the Pharisees and the Sadducees (who were the religious leaders of the day). He was particularly tough with them asking them not to rely on the lineage with Abraham. He called them a brood of vipers (which was very insulting) and that they needed to bear fruit worthy of repentance. To really mean what they were saying and doing, and be changed by it.

John was a rare combo of visible integrity and charisma, and tough truth telling. Remember he was in the in between times between the old ways and the new ways of Jesus. He didn’t get to see fully what happened next either, and what he was preparing the way for as he was beheaded before Jesus death and resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In today’s gospel reading, we have John sending people to Jesus whilst he is in prison and asking a question Are you the one who is to come or we to await another? he says. His present when he did this would have been very harsh. I have to say I have puzzled over the question John asked this week – And how to interpret itWe will never know for sure in my estimation what John’s motives are in asking Jesus this. We have to remember we are in Matthew’s gospel, so language of Jesus as the Messiah is much less explicit than we have been used to in our journey mainly through Luke in 2022. I have 3 theories about this question.

My first theory is this – Is John looking for certainty for his followers and himself in a tight spot? Hence asking – Are you the one to come or are we to wait for another? Desire for certainty would be a natural human response when the going gets tough as we know too well we want the way forward to be clear. For me the ongoing lack of certainty has been one of the most draining things in our journey thus far in the 2020s….

My second theory is that John is airing his doubts here. When he asks Are you the one who is to come or we to await another? Again doubt is a very natural reaction – we might describe this as a wobbly moment in view of his present circumstances. He is not the only one around Jesus who doubts him. This is also the same John who witnessed and reluctantly undertook Jesus’ baptism, but also we have in Matthew’s gospel account of the baptism in chapter 3 the most vehement reaction – That John would have prevented him – saying I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me? So it is not the first time John was doubting or unsure.

My third theory is that John had different expectations of Jesus. When he asked Are you the one who is to come or we to await another. As was customary in John’s day – that if he was the Messiah – he would come to rule with power and would overthrow Herod and the Roman Authorities. What John had heard of what Jesus was doing it was far from that! John was hoping to see judgement on those imprisoning him in his life time, which John did not get to see…. John could have also been doubting his own calling if this didn’t happen that way. Had been doing and saying what God needed him to all those days in the wilderness?

Probably the key to this passage is understanding that the way Jesus came and what Jesus came to do needs to be from Jesus’ perspective not John’s. Particularly the picture we have of him in Matthew’s gospel is that it doesn’t meet the expectations of John and others around him. Jesus came to turn things inside out and upside down, to reset the balance right enough but not by using the power and might they were hoping for and expecting.

For Jesus message was to be primarily about love, compassion and mercy. This is visible in his answer to John in our gospel today. He like John relies on the words of our old friends the prophets and explains some of what he has been about. Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 

All of which is lifted from the words of Isaiah Jesus read at the start of his ministry in the Nazareth temple in Isaiah 61 (but that story is not in Matthew’s gospel). It is partly how these are worked into Matthew’s account through this and a brief narrative before the sermon on the mount.

Jesus came to bring a radical message sure enough. To bring comfort to the uncomfortable and downtrodden, and to challenge the comfortable, rich and those with power (particularly those who had twisted God’s love into something to suit their own ends).

But this message was not with power and might, but with love, compassion and mercy. I hope the answer Jesus gave was of some comfort to John and helped him with his certainty, doubt or expectations. John would certainly have understood what Jesus was getting at as he was well versed in his own calling in the words of Isaiah. That final remark And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me – is a form of language we recognise as a beatitude (Blessed are statements at the start of the sermon on the mount). He is saying in language John would have got – John understand this differently – this is about love, compassion and mercy and that is what God’s kingdom should be about for us.

Love and compassion – having hearts on fire with love for God, and sharing that love with others and mercy – being merciful, quick to forgive and forget – not brooding and storing up a list of how others have wronged us. Let it go!!! This is also about understanding that God’s plan for us is what matters

In the Advent group this week we pondered the difference between us wanting to do work for God, and God working in and through us. Us wanting to do work for God can soon turn into us trying to organise God and remain in control (which does not work). The latter God working in and through us – has us working openly and wholeheartedly to God’s plan for us and works as God has intended….

As we continue our Advent Journey – Let’s not succumb to uncertainty, doubt and our own agendas and expectations, instead let’s overflow with love, mercy and compassion. Amen.

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995


Advent 2 – 4th December 2022 – Rev Ken Masters

A Sermon preached by The Revd Ken Masters at Pen Selwood on Advent 2, 4 December 2022

Readings: Romans 154-13; Matt 31-22

On reading through the Gospel passage, I wondered how John the Baptist got his idea of Baptism.  It’s something of a mystery – and the solution can vary according to which commentary you consult.  The older ones say it was an innovation – more recent ones suggest a source.

The land of Israel being hot, dry and dusty, customs of cleanliness developed strongly.  This was specially applied to the Levitical priesthood.  In the book of Leviticus [164; cf Ex 3018f] Aaron was told that ‘He shall bathe his body in water, and then put [the holy vestments] on.’  There was also the widespread custom, attested by various verses in the Old Testament, of providing water to wash the hands and feet of travellers – as was normal in Middle Eastern hospitality.  But we don’t know exactly what the religious customs were in the first century ad.

It is thought that ‘Jews practiced baptism as a traditional act of purification and the initiation of converts to Judaism’.  []  This probably began in the first century, but it’s not known when.  A more promising source for John’s idea of baptism comes from the Essene Community at Qumran on the western side of the Dead Sea – which was there before, and then during the period 4 to 68 ad.  This monastic community or sect regarded itself as the ‘true Israel’ for the last days.  Admission to the community was by purification – and members then regularly had to purify themselves.  The Dead Sea Scrolls references to this are translated as ‘ablutions’ or ‘washings’.  Alongside the ‘washings’ there was an insistence on ‘moral purification, the person had to have a proper interior disposition’.  [L F Badia, The Qumran Baptism,]

John would at least have known about the Qumran community.  Scholars used to state that there was no evidence John was influenced by the Qumran purification rituals.  But some more recent scholars state the opposite.  The Anchor Bible Commentary on St Matthew [p. 25] argues strongly:

There seems no question that John took over the practice of baptism, including the emphasis on repentance, from the Essenes, but gave it a far more profound meaning.

The difference between scholars’ views seems to hinge on more recent studies in-depth of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

John the Baptist was a link to the Jewish Scriptures.  He was an old-style prophet, resembling Elijah.  Like the prophets of old, he told the people to ‘Repent!’ –as Jesus did after him.  ‘Repent’ means ‘return’, ‘turn again’ – to behave righteously – to treat each other fairly and justly – to obey the Rule of God.  And then as a ‘sign’ – as a dramatic symbol – to go down with John into the River Jordan.  That was quite a small river, between the hot mountains of present-day Jordan – and the hot wilderness that goes up to Jericho and Jerusalem.  In the River Jordan, John would submerge them under the water – and then bring them up as the new person they were going to be.  It was an end to the old life and a fresh start to the new.  They had turned from their old ways and towards God’s way.

John was more than just a link to the Jewish Scriptures.  Like the great prophets he insisted on morally good conduct.  And in the words of Isaiah [Mt 33], John was ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’  And that was part of John’s purpose in baptising.  However, as John said, according to St Matthew [311]:

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John the Baptist’s great gift was that unflinchingly and courageously he pointed to some of the immorality of his time.  He told the people to turn away from that and to live according to God’s moral laws.  Mercy, justice and love are what God requires.  And today’s world could learn from John.  To live together in peace and fairness, in honesty and faithfulness, to look after the earth which God has given us, and to care for the poor and those in need.  This prepares the way for God’s kingdom.  This is the way to prepare for celebrating the birth of our Saviour.

May God help us all to Repent and to turn again to Christ Jesus as our Lord.  Amen.