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The Real Meaning of Christmas

Isaiah 63:7-9
This passage is truly prophetic. It doesn't predict the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. It doesn't say that his mother would be a virgin when he was born, nor that he would eventually be rejected, crucified and raised from death. But it's prophetic in the true sense of that word. All true prophecy contains profound insights into the nature of God and into our relationship with God. And this passage is truly prophetic for, without recognising exactly how it might happen, the writer - the third prophet in the Isaiah tradition - understands that God will chose, out of a mixture of love and pity, to save the human race from its distress, and that he will do this not by sending a messenger or an angel to tell us how to change things for the better but by his own personal presence among us. Was the prophet thinking of incarnation, of God becoming a human baby lying in a manger? Probably not. That would have been beyond his wildest imagining. But he had sens…

The Real Glory of Christmas

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1.18-25

Isaiah's prophecy seems harsh. Ahaz loyally refuses to ask God for a sign. He says that he doesn't want to put the Lord to the test - a sentiment later echoed by none other than Jesus himself! But it would appear that, on this occasion at least, it's the wrong answer to give! The Prophet tells him that he should have asked for a sign, after all, and now he will be given one whether he likes it or not.

What's going on here? Perhaps Isaiah realizes that the real reason why Ahaz didn't ask for a sign is that he already suspects it will be inauspicious. Is this the royal equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and singing 'La, la, la!' to drown out the sound of bad news?

If so, the King is showing remarkable faithlessness because, in fact, the sign is not going to be the bad news he dreads. Instead, the sign is going to be full of hope. And what could be more hopeful than new life? Within two years - in other wo…

A New Kind of Judgement

Matthew 11:2-11
James 5.7—10
The newspapers have been full in the last week of the amazing story of John Darwin, the canoeist who returned from the dead after going missing in the North Sea more than five years ago. At first it seemed like a miracle, but now his wife has admitted that – at least for most of the time – his disappearance had become a scam. People are still speculating about his motives but newspaper reports suggest that it had to do with escaping debts.

From his prison cell, John the Baptist began to hear similar stories about amazing events – blind people receiving their sight, lame people walking, the deaf hearing, even the dead being raised to life. Only this was no scam. John's disciples were able to report what they had actually seen and heard. Isaiah's prophecy seemed to be coming true before their very eyes.

But were people pleased about it? Jesus clearly implies that they were not! 'Blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me,' he says, as if anyone…

The Desert That Becomes a Garden

Isaiah 35:1-10
This passage mixes beautiful images of peace and regeneration with more disturbing themes about the nature of God's justice.

Years ago our family was toiling through an Alpine meadow in the hot sunshine when one of our children turned to us and asked, rather crossly, 'Why are you making us go through this barren wilderness?' It was an incredible thing to say because only someone walking with their head down could have failed to notice that, on both sides of the path – as far as the eye could see – there were literally millions of flowers of every colour and shade. If this was a wilderness, it was a wilderness which was rejoicing and blossoming like the one pictured by the Prophet.

In the prophet's vision, not only shall the wilderness blossom abundantly but the burning sand shall become like a pool, and the thirsty ground shall gush with springs of water. And this will be no empty mirage. The sparse desert grass will mutate into water-loving beds of reeds a…

The Wicked Wolf and The Lamb

Matthew 3.1—12
John the Baptist, too, has been reading the prophecy of Isaiah and – like the Prophet – he expects the Messiah to wreak powerful vengeance on wrong doers. He pictures God's special agent and new ruler arriving on Earth with his winnowing fork in his hand, ready – in the days before combine harvesters or threshing machines – to begin the laborious task of separating the nourishing wheat from the inedible chaff. The chaff, he observes ominously, will be burned with unquenchable fire.

Hundreds of years before, Isaiah had warned that God would be compelled to chop down the decaying nation of Israel so that righteous new growth could spring from its roots. Once again, warns John, the axe is at the root of the tree. And this time the Jewish nation may not be so fortunate, for God may cause those new shoots of righteousness and spiritual vigour to grow up among Gentile peoples instead of giving Israel another chance.

Once again, too, snakes feature in the story. This time the…

Living Together in Harmony

Romans 15:4-13
Paul here seizes on just one verse from Isaiah's memorable prophecy in order to prove that Jesus was given a special mission to take God's saving message to Gentile people as well as to members of the Jewish race. He was having a hard task in convincing some Jewish Christians that he was right about this, and Isaiah's words, 'The root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples', seemed to lend powerful support to his argument.

Of course, then as now, some Christians probably said that Isaiah had been talking about the people, or the kings, of Israel and Judah, not about Jesus. Paul will have none of it. He asserts that whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, to give us hope and encouragement on our own faith pilgrimage. This doesn't mean that the prophecies of Isaiah and others didn't have a different meaning at the time, only that they have a special meaning for Christians too, and that meaning is just as vali…

Looking Backwards and Forwards

Isaiah 11:1-10
Once, years ago, a neighbour and his son helped me cut down a large sycamore tree which was too close to the manse. Actually, they did all the cutting and I just shouted, 'Timber'. The neighbour, who had been a forestry worker in his youth, painted the stump with tar to try and kill it. But his efforts were in vain. In no time at all vigorous new shoots grew from the stump and it took me all of my time to keep them in check. In a year they could easily grow six or seven feet tall and almost too thick to prune without lopping tools.

Of course, this method of harvesting quick growing wood has been known by human beings for thousands of years. The technical terms for cutting down an old tree in order to encourage new and vigorous growth which can be easily harvested is 'coppicing'.

In their attempts to explain why God had allowed his chosen nation to be enslaved, the Bible writers seized on this image of coppicing. Israel, they believed, had become morally and…

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Genesis 1.1-5
Revelation 22.1-5


These two passages deal with the twin themes of creation and light. They are both about creation because the first passage, from Genesis, describes the origin of the universe and the second passage, from Revelation, describes its recreation. They are both about light because the writers of Genesis envisage the nothingness before the universe began as infinite darkness, and the writer of Revelation imagines the new creation as infinite light.

Whether this is a description of the physical reality in the time before creation and in the the new creation surely doesn't matter. It is a poetic description, which sums up our most basic hopes and fears.

Perhaps, like me, you hated the darkness when you were a child. When I was asleep in bed I always had to have the bedroom door ajar and a light shining on the landing. It symbolised order and security. If the light was on, and even if the narrow strip of light shining through the gap between the door and its fra…

True Leadership

Luke 23.33-43
This passage is filled with irony. Jesus behaves with the graciousness and greatness of a true leader, thinking of others even at the moment when he himself is being put to death and is enduring terrible pain. But no one recognises his qualities They are too busy casting lots for his clothes or scoffing at him. If he is the good shepherd, the true king who is capable of rescuing and safeguarding the nation from harm, why can't he also save himself?

Even one of the criminals joins in the mockery, but the other springs to Jesus' defence. Perhaps he is just clutching at straws. After all, what has he got to lose? As well as being executed, he is about to come under the judgement of God for his misdeeds. By throwing himself upon Jesus' mercy he just might escape eternal punishment for his crimes. Or is there more to it than this? Does he recognise that the ironic thing about true leadership is the willingness of the leader to endure suffering and make self-sacrifi…

The Meaning of The Light

Colossians 1:11-20
As we approach Christmas Christians have much to be joyful about, for - like hostages rescued from captivity and emerging blinking into the daylight - we are people who have been transferred from the power of darkness into the inheritance of the saints who dwell in the light. And what is this light of which Paul speaks so eloquently in this beautiful poem? It is the light shed upon the world by the arrival in human history of someone who is the image of the invisible God, in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The astounding claim made by Paul is that Jesus, the child born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, is the person in, through and for whom all things were created. In other words, he is the being in whom all things hold together, none other than God himself. But this incredible and wonderful news is tinged with pathos, for God only became human in order to reconcile all things to himself by dying on a cross. The good news of Christmas is also an…

No More Spin!

Jeremiah 23:1-6
The shepherds of the nation in Jeremiah's time were the kings of Judah, who were both the spiritual and political leaders of their people. They had not only failed to protect their flock through negligence or weakness. They had done active harm by destroying and scattering it, which implies that their policies were wicked and reckless. Their conduct brought God's judgement down upon their heads.

Why does Jeremiah go on to say that God drove the people into exile? Was this for their own protection, to save them from further harm? Or was God angry with the people for putting up with such poor leadership? Who are the leaders of the nation today? In a democratic country, and a democratic church, is it we - the people - who have failed to show proper vision and obedience, or can we still blame other people, politicians and church leaders, for our problems?

One of the concerns which people had when democracy was first introduced was that people would make ill-informed a…

The Whole of Human History in One-and-a-Half Chapters

Luke 21:5-19
Many people, beginning with the first disciples, have interpreted this passage as a prophecy about the end of the world and what it will be like. But maybe that is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Perhaps it is better to see these words as a prophecy about the whole of human history from the time of Jesus until the present.

Times will always be hard for believers. Each generation will face new risks and challenges. In every age many will be led astray by false ideas and false teachers. There will always be wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famines and plagues. And people will also see dreadful portents of future disaster. When Christians stick fearlessly to the proclamation of the Gospel, they will always face persecution and betrayal, and they will need the guidance of Jesus' Spirit to know how to deal with these challenges. Endurance and faithfulness have been the name of the game for true Christians throughout history.

But maybe there is also something especial…

The Protestant Work Ethic

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
This passage is the foundation of what academics now call 'The Protestant Work Ethic' – the idea that idleness is ungodly and wicked, that Christians are called to work quietly and earn their own living, and that anyone who is unwilling to work doesn't really deserve to eat. What's more, Paul says that we should never be weary in doing what is right. I don't think he means that it's right to work 24/7 but, if working diligently to earn our own living is godly and Christ-like, it's easy to take the further step of arguing that earning as much as we can, for as long as we can, is also the right thing to do.

Of course, the work ethic was around in Christianity before Protestantism came along. Perhaps we should call it 'The Pauline Work Ethic', but later observers have noticed that Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian teachers never seemed to push the work ethic as far as some Protestant teachers were prepared to do. In fact, until…

The New Creation

Isaiah 65:17-25This passage describes the world as God intends it to be – a new creation where suffering, tragedy, sadness and disappointment will be banished and where there will only be peace, plenty, joy and delight. This is a vision towards which all believers are called to commit themselves, in prayer and action.But the passage raises some interesting questions. First, it talks about the imminence of this new creation, where as we know that it has yet to be established. Is this because – from God's perspective – a thousand years is but the blinking of an eye? Or is God's plan for a new and better world constantly frustrated by human disobedience?Second, isn't the passage denying the created order, which Genesis tells us is already good? It's one thing for God to banish to sort of injustice and misuse of the world's resources which leads some children to die, needlessly, when they are only a few days old and some workers to toil for rewards which someone else …

Life Beyond Death

Luke 20:27-38
This is one of a number of 'controversy' stories in which Jesus' opponents appear to be trying to trap him. The Sadducees were a group of Jewish leaders who did not believe in the idea of life beyond death. They saw this, quite rightly, as a new idea imported into the Jewish religion from other world faiths. But, of course, that doesn't make it a wrong idea.

It rather depends what we mean by 'resurrection'. If we think it means rising to a new life just like the old one, in which we all live in little thatched cottages with roses round the door and get to be married to beautiful people, then we are in for a big disappointment. Such will be the fate of the ignorant men and women who become suicide bombers in the hope of a life of this-worldly bliss in Paradise. Jesus scotches this idea with his abrupt reply to the Sadduccees: 'The dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.'

But just because we can't take the idea of resurrection as lite…

Idle Speculation

2 Thessalonians 2:1-17
Paul seems to be warning his readers here that they mustn't be preoccupied with the 'Advent' theme of God's promised new dawn for creation. It will come one day, but no one knows the time nor the hour and so it is foolish to speculate about it.

However, he is only human, and immediately Paul begins to indulge in some speculation of his own. The End Time will be clearly flagged, he says, because before that time there will be rebellion and lawlessness and the Anti-Christ will take over God's Temple.

This is almost certainly a reference to earlier prophecies that the reign of King Antioches Epiphanes – who installed a statue of himself in the Temple and declared himself to be God – would mark the end of the world. The prophecy turned out to be untrue, but that didn't stop later readers – including Paul – from reinterpreting it and applying it to their own situation. As recently as the 1970s I heard a lecture in which someone reinterpreted othe…

Silver and Gold for Good Causes

Haggai 1.15b—2.9
This is one of the Bible's great 'Advent' passages. The outlook may seem bleak, says the Prophet, but it's time to start singing a happy song for 'Things can only get better!' And, indeed, they are going to get better.

Sometimes people talk about wanting to take a silent collection at a meeting or service. They mean, of course, that they don't want the congregation, or the members of the meeting, to put coins into the offertory plate – even one and two pound coins. Instead of the chink of loose change, they want to hear only silence as people put five, ten and twenty pound notes into the collection.

Well, in this prophecy, God goes one better! The collection is going to be a noisy one, but not the careless noise of loose change being discarded. This is going to be the very deliberate noise of treasure clattering into the Temple vaults as God shakes the heavens, and the earth, and all the nations, to empty out their gold and silver.

It would be …

Reflecting On This Week's Bible Readings

Habbakuk1.1-4, 2.1-4
The Prophet reflects that his readers, or hearers, are living in dangerous and violent times. The righteous feel surrounded by wickedness. Justice doesn't seem to be done. He could be describing our world - the war on terrorism, global warming, violent crime, a legal system that many people cannot afford to resort to when things go wrong.

But, lest we're attempted to abandon hope, the Prophet says that God still has a vision for a better world which we are called to share and hold on to. It will be realised at the appointed time and if it seems a long while coming that is no reason to despair. We must be patient. For, whereas people who have no problems - and seem to be enjoying life - are often living just for the moment, the righteous - that is those who are right with God - live by faith. They share a vision which keeps them faithful and trusting, even when things get really tough They are always on the lookout for something better.

Are we obviously '…

How Not to Be Very Bad

Luke 18:9-14
As followers of Jesus it's okay to feel good about ourselves. In fact, that's an essential part of being true to Jesus' teaching. We're not called to beat ourselves up all the time, like the Christians and Muslims who - in various times and places - have gone around striking themselves with whips to punish themselves for their sinfulness. Jesus wants us to be repentant, but repentance is not about wallowing in guilt. It's about learning to love ourselves and about receiving the strength to change.
However, it's definitely not okay to feel good about ourselves if that leads us to look down on other people. Being a follower of Jesus isn't about being better than anyone else. It's doubtful that Jesus saw anything wrong with being a Pharisee as such. His teaching has a lot in common with the teaching of the Pharisees. Like Jesus' own followers, the Pharisees were happy to draw on the best ideas about God and goodness, wherever they come fr…

Fighting the Good Fight

2 Timothy 4.6-8, 16-18This passage purports to be Paul's farewell message to his protégé and successor Timothy. Like the three hundred brave soldiers from Sparta who defended Greece against a huge invading Persian army at Thermopylae, Paul senses that he is going to have to sacrifice his life for the cause. Whereas the Spartan soldiers died in the cause of Greek nationhood, to buy more time for the City of Athens to get ready to take up the fight, Paul is going to die in God's service, and for the sake of the Gospel. And just as the death of the Spartans and their king Leonidas was not really a defeat, but the beginning of the end for the Persian invaders, so Paul knows too that his death will not be the end of the struggle to bring Christianity to a disbelieving world. Generations of people since have been inspired by the Spartans' last stand, and similarly Timothy will be inspired by Paul's example. For, like the Spartan royal guard he has fought the good fight. Like…

Reflecting on Next Week's Bible Passages

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Jeremiah is writing to people who find themselves living as exiles in an alien land. They are not to give up hope. They are to assume that there is still a future both for them and for their faith. And they are no to try to attack or sabotage the society in which they now live, even though its values and culture are alien to them. Instead, they are to work for its welfare, because if it is a flourishing and successful society they will flourish and be successful too.

Many theologians and religious leaders have understood this to mean that Christians, and Jewish people, should not get involved in politics or in trying to challenge or change the society around them. Instead, they have concentrated on trying to build up and encourage the faithful. At best, they have seen the Church - or their faith community - as leaven in the lump, influencing what happens around them quietly and in almost imperceptible ways. At worst, they have left the rest of society to its own devic…

Sharing in God's Harvest

Luke 17.5-10There is little doubt that these two sayings started their life separate from one another. We can infer this because Matthew's Gospel has an almost identical saying, about a mountain rather than a mulberry bush, but it isn't linked to the saying about slavery, which is unique to Luke's Gospel. This means we are entitled to consider each of the sayings in isolation, to see what it might have to say to us today. But we may also wish to consider why Luke has chosen to link them. How did he expect them to work together?The first saying is about the huge potential of faith. If we only have microscopic faith, the world can still be our oyster. In today's Observer newspaper there is an article about the peaceful revolution which toppled the communist regime in East Germany in 1989. The author, Henry Porter, reminds us that it all began with prayer vigils outside a Lutheran church in Leipzig. By the time that 400,000 people were attending each vigil the game was up…

Our Calling

2 Timothy 1:1-14This passage is a spirited challenge to be faithful to our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ. It could be interpreted just as a message of encouragement for church leaders, an ordination sermon almost, but in the earlier letters of Paul it is made very clear that mission is part of the calling of every Christian. So either this passage is a development of Paul's original ideas, by later theologians who saw a need to set apart leaders for the Church to guide and sustain it, or else - in prison and facing imminent death - Paul has begun thinking about the need to appoint Timothy as his successor and to ensure sound teaching in the Church. In either case, it is legitimate to see the message as applicable to every Christian, even if it has a special resonance for ministers.The gift of God is within each one of us, as we are reminded at our baptism and confirmation. It is a spirit of love and self-discipline, empowering us to do God's mission, not relying on our …

Weeping For The City

Lamentations 1:1-6The city of Jerusalem, which the people of Judah had always believed was a special, holy place and the centre of the created order, had been ransacked by her enemies. Former allies had turned against her. Many of her citizens had been deported to do hard labour. The Temple was a ruin and no one came to the City on pilgrimage any more. Her leaders were in hiding or had been brought to bay, but the prophet believed that the suffering of Jerusalem was well deserved. People had been complacent and disobedient.

What message does this passage have for us? Sheffield was once a mighty engine of the industrial revolution. Now large tracts of its former industrial heartland are desolate where once they were full of people. But Sheffield has also experienced a revival and many parts of the City never lost their prosperity . It wouldn't be true to say that her gates are in ruins, or that no one comes to visit Sheffield any more. On the contrary, there are ambitious plans to c…

Closing The Gap

Luke 16:19-31
Some Christians have taken the teaching of people like Jeremiah and turned it into a 'prosperity doctrine', arguing that if we put our trust in God we will prosper. There is no doubt that Jeremiah did believe something like this, but he wasn't thinking of individual prosperity. His argument was that nations and communities will prosper when they put their trust in God.

In the same vein, the writer of the letters to Timothy explains that, for individual Christians, trusting God means sitting light to our own material possessions and making do with just enough to be content; any surplus should be given away to those in greater need. Thus, in a society made up entirely of believers, no one would strive to be more prosperous than their neighbours and prosperity would, in fact, be shared.

This is not an argument against enterprise, but it is an argument against the idea that the driving force behind enterprise must always be personal gain. The Bible envisages a socie…

What Really Matters

1 Timothy 6.6-19
Jeremiah is happy to assert that there is a link between trust in God and material well-being. He encourages us to trust that God is working for social justice and for an end to oppression. In the world order that God will one day establish, land will be bought and sold freely, and people will get a fair wage for the work that they do.

The writer of the letters to Timothy is not so convinced. When he talks about trusting God for the future, he's not thinking about the promise of heaven on earth but of a pure spiritual union with God beyond this life. To him, therefore, worldly wealth is at best irrelevant, and at worst a distraction from what really matters. So he argues that we should only worry about having enough material wealth to be content.

In saying this, I think he is being true to the teaching of Jesus, who said that we should imitate the wildflowers and the wild birds, which do not worry about tomorrow or about doing better for themselves, but simply are wh…

Never Give Up Hope

Jeremiah 32:1-15
The other day I heard people talking on the radio about buying-to-let, the practice of buying a portfolio of two or three bedroom houses and renting them out to tenants, either as a way of making a living or as an alternative to saving for a pension. Buying-to-let has been very popular in recent years and has been blamed for driving up the price of small houses. But the popularity of buy-to-let depended on low interest rates and on mortgages being easy to obtain.

The landlords who were being interviewed on the radio were finding it tough in today's housing market. One person had three properties which they wanted to buy, but no one would lend them the money. Another person had a portfolio of thirty properties. Was he making any money? he was asked. 'No,' he said. He wasn't even covering the cost of his mortgages. And would he do it again if he were starting from scratch? No, he wouldn't.
Jeremiah's action, in buying his cousin's field, is a bi…

God's View Point on Disaster

Jeremiah 8.18-9.1
Jeremiah's lament is a reminder that Christians don't have to be relentlessly cheerful. He looks around for good news and can't find any. The harvest is over, but it has not been a good one. The people are hurting, but there is no one to heal them. They have made mistakes, and their errors are coming back to haunt them, a bit like the managers and directors of Northern Rock who gambled on an endless supply of cheap money and were caught out when times suddenly changed.

Unlike the people who have queued up not just to withdraw their deposits, but to point the finger of blame, Jeremiah chooses not to accuse anyone or rub salt in open wounds. He gets alongside the people in their suffering and mourns with them.

But, of course, it's not just Jeremiah who laments with those who have been bereaved, and mourns those who have died. For Jeremiah is reporting God's view point on disaster. Even when we are responsible for our own downfall, God chooses not to…

The Christian Guide to Leadership and Management

Luke 16.1-13The story of the 'dishonest manager' has always been a puzzle to Jesus' disciples. Its message is so cryptic that no one has ever been able to say for certain what it means.St Luke sticks onto the end of the story some sayings of Jesus which seem to belong to it, but he also includes one of the 'floating' sayings of Jesus – things which Jesus definitely said at some time in his ministry, but whose original context has long since been lost. The saying in question is the one about two masters: 'You cannot serve God and money.' That's undoubtedly true, of course, but the saying doesn't belong to the story, which isn't about money, although money figures in it. The story is really about leadership. We're all leaders – some great, some small. Some of us are destined to lead nations and armies. Some get to lead a company or a team. Some lead a class of schoolchildren. Some lead their family or friends. All of us, from time to time, are…