Saturday, December 24, 2011

What if men organised Christmas?

2 Samuel 7.1-11,16, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38

A recent survey of 2,000 men found a third of them were convinced that, if they were put in charge of organising Christmas, it would be less rushed, less stressful and less expensive. One female commentator remarked acidly that she didn’t believe Christmas would be less rushed if men were put in charge, simply because the planning wouldn’t begin until Christmas Eve. However, the ways that the men said they would cut down at Christmas were by sending fewer cards, (half of them wouldn’t send any cards at all in fact), by giving fewer presents and by having much simpler food. They wouldn’t be cooking turkey, for a start! A fifth said they would cook steak and chips for the family; another fifth said they would order in the food from a takeaway. And two-fifths said they would spend far less time with their in-laws.

School children were also surveyed. They too were worried about the cost of Christmas, and whether their parents would be able to afford it. Two-fifths said they would rather that Father Christmas brought them more time with their parents than a sackful of expensive presents, although - of course - that’s easily said! A quarter hoped to be able to see relatives who rarely visit during the rest of the year, but more than three in twenty worried about family rows at Christmas time. So beneath the veneer of festive cheer, a lot of people believe all is not well with the traditional British Christmas.

Our Old Testament reading from the Second Book of Samuel reminds us how David wanted to plan a more lavish worship space for God - a space fit for the Lord of lords and King of kings. He felt that there was an awful incongruity about God being worshipped in a tent while he was living in state in a palace built of cedar wood.

But God reminded David that he chooses to dwell in the midst of his people. If they live in tents then God expects to be worshipped in a tent, and not in a temple.

John Wesley adopted the same principle in his own ministry. For a long time Methodists were discouraged from building fine chapels and churches because Wesley believed that the proclamation of the Gospel properly belongs in the fields and in the streets, and in the homes of believers where they meet together to pray, encourage one another and break bread.

Our church is very beautiful and an ideal space for contemporary worship, but its existence cannot be justified purely as a home for God or a place purely for worship and prayer. Churches need to be community hubs if they are to be truly places where God is pleased to dwell.

This is an incarnational principle. It is surely no coincidence that the God who was pleased to be worshipped in a tent was pleased also to be born in a stable and to come to live and minister among his people, wandering from place to place like a travelling salesman with nowhere permanent to lay his head.

To think of God in this way is so startling - even now - that Paul calls it ‘that divine secret kept in silence for long ages’. Mind you, calling it a ‘divine secret’, which is the Revised English Bible translation, is perhaps a bit too strong, actually. It might be more accurate to talk about a ‘mystery’ rather than a ‘secret’.

I think Paul has in mind something more akin to a cryptic crossword puzzle or a Men’s and Women’s Fellowship combined Christmas quiz, than a dark Da Vinci code style conspiracy. In his new translation, which attempts to get as close as possible to the original Greek, Nicholas King calls it ‘the mystery that was wrapped in silence’.

Paul’s point is that, although the mystery of the incarnation has been made known to people throughout the world by the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel, many continue to look for God in the wrong place - in a palace rather than in the stable at Bethlehem. Even the wise are wrong-footed, therefore, by the only wise God.

So, last week, clips were played on television of the renowned atheist and essayist Christopher Hitchens calling God a ‘celestial dictator in a kind of divine North Korea’ where ‘nice’ people are ‘forced to surrender their critical faculties’ or ‘do unkind things’ in return for ‘the promise of salvation.’

Clearly he didn’t taking seriously the idea that God could be born as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem. No doubt he would have considered the incarnation to be one of those ‘stupid things’ which intelligent people are required to swallow in order to become Christian believers. But he acknowledged only recently that - although nothing had yet persuaded him to change his mind about God - ‘he liked surprises’. How intriguing, then, that both the Prophet Nathan and St Paul believed in a God of surprises!

Mary, of course, encountered the same God of surprises a little earlier than Paul. Luke tells how she was deeply troubled by the Angel’s message - at least according to the Revised English Bible’s version of events. Nicholas King perhaps captures the intensity of her feelings more acutely when he translates the same phrase as ‘deeply disturbed’. And certainly that word ‘disturbed’ reflects the way that Gabriel interpreted her response, because Luke goes on to record in both versions, that the Angel told her not to be afraid of the message he was bringing to her.

The Angel told her that her baby wouldl inherit God’s promises to David, and that he would sit on David’s throne for ever. The power of the most High would make this possible and Jesus would be called the Son of the Most High.

It sounds impressive, and Luke’s first readers would surely have been amazed to discover, a few verses later, that Jesus was actually destined to be born in a stable and laid in a manger. This is hardly the outcome we would expect for a great king, unless - of course - we are familiar with the prophecy in 2 Samuel, that the family and the kingship which will be established for ever is being set up and sustained by a God who chooses to be worshipped in a tent and to dwell in the midst of his wandering people.

I think there is something of the Ebenezeer Scrooge about the minority of men who are quick to say ‘Bah, humbug!’ about the tinsel and turkey Christmas and who insist that they would stay at home eating a takeaway dinner and eschewing their family and friends. But perhaps they, and the children who hanker after a simpler, less expensive, less frenetic Christmas celebration, are also recalling - somewhere at the back of their minds - a distant folk memory of the humble beginnings of Jesus and the modest demands of the God he represents. Shouldn’t the feast which is named after Jesus be celebrated more simply, in a way that is more in-keeping with the story it proclaims?

Remembering the School Nativity Play

Luke 2.1-7
Have you been in any Christmas plays at school? If so, what part did you get to play?

I was once a shepherd, a part I remember because the headmistress lent me a valuable family heirloom - a pottery hot water bottle - which she thought would be an impressive prop that would make me look more authentic. She told me it was a special privilege to borrow such a precious thing, but she was letting me have it because I was such a good boy and could be trusted with it. Unfortunately, I was carrying it by a string fastened round the neck of the bottle. The string snapped during the dress rehearsal and - to my horror - the bottle smashed to pieces on the wooden floor. The headmistress lost her temper and shouted at me that I had been careless, so I thought it was in big trouble, but when she calmed down she said she was sorry and that it wasn’t me fault. Phew!

Another year it felt much safer to be a wiseman and read my own poem about the gift I had brought for the Baby Jesus.

The low point for me was when one of my teachers said I couldn’t sing - which wasn’t true - and therefore couldn’t be part of the group chosen to sing Good King Wenceslas. However, I was allowed to be the peasant gathering firewood in the snow. My mother dressed me up in peasant costume, complete with a woolly moustache stuck on with special glue that brought me out in a rash. ‘Oh you don’t need a costume!’ said the teacher. ‘Your ordinary clothes would have done just fine.’ She was like that with almost everyone. No wonder the class cheered when she announced she would be leaving soon!

In November there was a survey of more than 1,000 people to see what they remembered about the nativity and Christmas plays they were in at school. Girls remembered how they always wanted to be an angel, but only beautiful blonde girls were chosen for that role. Their second choice was to be Mary, but the teacher’s pet always got that part. Boys recalled how they wanted to play Joseph, or a wiseman. But someone has to be the donkey, don’t they? My sons got to be the donkey and the lamb one year because their mother was good at sewing and could make the best animal costumes! How lucky is that?

Looking back, older people think now that they would have liked to be the innkeeper or the wicked King Herod. Those are the scene stealing parts! The innkeeper has the power to change the whole story, like the boy who was asked, ‘Is there any room in the inn?’ and replied, ‘Yes, of course. Come in and make yourselves at home!’

The school Christmas play often isn’t fair, but then life often isn’t fair, either, and God understands that. The whole point of the Christmas story is that God came to live among us in Jesus to experience what life is really like from the inside, and to share it with us. Whatever we may face, he faces it with us. That is the wonder of Christmas.

Hope in a Time of Looming Crisis

Isaiah 40.1-11
Mark 1.1-8
We were watching the news on Channel 4 the other night when Helen said, ‘The news is so terrible these days that you really don’t have time to take in the enormity of it before they’ve moved on to the next item.’

For example, there was a report that high inflation, government cuts and the longest period of wage stagnation on record will mean that the spending power of the average British family is going to plummet over the next five years. And families with children will be particularly hard hit. In 2016 they will be worse off than they might have been if their children had been exactly the same age 14 years earlier in 2002.

Mind you, it’s not just younger people who are feeling the pinch. As Jeremy Clarkson might have said, public sector workers should perhaps spare a thought for those of us who don’t already enjoy their fairly generous pension arrangements. An announcement in George Osbourne’s autumn statement on Tuesday changed my retirement date from 2024 to 2026. Not only is that the date when I will now receive my state retirement pension, the date when Methodist Ministers are able to collect their full occupational pension was recently pegged to the state retirement pension age as well. So, if I want more or less the same pension I could previously have expected to receive at 65, I must now wait for at least another two years.

And then, of course, there’s the threatened melt down of the Euro, which promises to make the 2008 banking crisis look like a mere overture. The other day I tried to order some more Euros for our post office, where we sell them to holidaymakers, but Post Office Ltd - the people who run the network - were having none of it. ‘We’re trying to limit our exposure to the Euro,’ said the man on the other end of the phone, ‘In case things go wrong.’ In the end I persuaded him to let me have more 20, 10 and 5 Euro notes in exchange for most of our 50 Euro notes - no one wants them anyway.

And so I could go on, heaping one bad news story on top of another. But, funnily enough, a government report published this week also revealed that - at least as recently as last summer - most people in Britain were still feeling happy with their life. Perhaps that’s because, like my colleagues at work, they don’t watch the Channel 4 news, or any news programmes for that matter. Or maybe it’s because, as one expert suggested, when times are hard people have to put more reliance on relationships than on things, and if we’ve got good relationships with the people who matter to us it’s easier to feel happy even when the news is unremittingly bad.

Advent is supposed to be a time of joyful expectation. Instead, this year it’s a time of looming crisis, a crisis more serious perhaps than any when since World War II. How appropriate, then, that we read this Sunday the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, ‘Comfort my people, bring comfort to them. Proclaim that their term of bondage is served, for they have already received double measure for all their sins.’

Isaiah is clear that, no matter how deep the problems we may face, we human beings have only ourselves to blame. We are being punished for our own collective arrogance, short sightedness and greed. We assumed that every year things could go on getting better and better, that living standards would grow, that we could all enjoy longer and more prosperous retirements, and we were wrong.

But Isaiah is also clear that God is not going to abandon us. Instead, he has a message of comfort for us. God is coming to face the music with us, to stand alongside us, to help us and encourage us. And like the world’s major clearing banks pumping cheap cash into beleaguered European banks, the Lord God is coming in might to help us, lending us his powerful arm to protect and guide us.

So what is it that God can do for us to bring us comfort? I think Isaiah’s message is about the power of a personal relationship with God to bring us comfort even in the darkest of times.

He reminds us that we are as frail and fragile as grass or flowers, and our achievements - like our good looks - could so quickly and easily be gone and forgotten, just like a faded flower. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades, when the blast of the Lord blows on them.’ says the Prophet. And we might conclude, therefore, that God doesn’t care to save us; that we matter no more to him than a flower or a blade of grass. But, of course, Jesus said that God does care even for sparrows and wildflowers, and so he will care for us.

And Isaiah says that God will carry us in his bosom, and lead us to water, and shield us with his arm, tending us and looking after us like a gentle shepherd. In him, and in his word, we will endure for ever.

The worship resource Roots on the Web recommended that I should buy some locusts, which it said were readily available in supermarkets, and then do a blind tasting - a bit like the man in the TV documentary who gave his guests road kill to eat at a barbecue. Only after they had eaten the meat, and declared it very tasty, did he reveal that one of the dishes was actually squirrel. Or maybe it would have been more like the delicacies served up to celebrities in the jungle, except that they know what they’re eating. But then I asked myself, ‘What would be the point of giving you locusts to eat, even if they tasted lovely?’

John ate locusts and wild honey and people often say that this was in conscious imitation of the Prophet Elijah, but actually Elijah never ate a single locust in his life, nor is there any record that he ate honey. Like John, he did wear a trademark hairshirt fastened with a leather belt, but like Crocodile Dundee he would probably have advised that, while you can eat ants and grubs you really wouldn’t want to.

Locusts usually figure in the Bible as a symbol of disaster and destruction - they eat up propsperity, a bit like financial speculators. If John has taken to eating the locusts maybe it’s to make a point, that with God alongside us we can chomp our way through even the toughest of credit crunches and come out smiling.

None of this is to make light of the trouble we are in. It’s very real. But the Bible promises us that after John, the man who bit the heads off locusts, comes one who is mightier still, whose sandals he is not even worthy to stoop down and unfasten.

The Messiah, the Lord’s anointed, will baptise us with the Spirit, allowing us to find a relationship with God that is so strong and enduring that nothing will ever be able to separate us from his love.

A Christmas Story

Mark 1.1-3
Christmas was approaching and the whole family was looking forward to the holiday - the food, the presents, the decorations, playing games round a blazing log fire. But everyone agreed that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if they couldn’t attend the Christmas Eve service in the little church down in the valley.

‘I hope it doesn’t snow,’ said Mum. ‘If it snows we won’t be able to go.’

‘Oh, why not?’ asked the Twins. ‘Couldn’t we ski?’ asked Johnny. ‘Couldn’t we go by sledge?’ asked Jenny.

‘Well,’ said Dad, ‘We could only ski if we had any skis. And we could go by sledge down the hill, but then we would have to pull it back up the hill through the snow at one o’clock in the morning.’

So everyone agreed that if it snowed heavily they would have to stay at home, even on Christmas Eve, in their farmhouse high on the hillside.

‘That means we would miss the service where we celebrate the coming of Jesus,’ said Mum. ‘Somehow it won’t feel like Christmas if we can’t be there.’

The weather stayed warm and mild for December right up until the night of Christmas Eve. That evening, as the sun set, dark clouds full of snow blanketed the sky. Soon a few flurries of snow began to fall and - by mid-evening - the snow was coming down so thick that it was impossible to see across the farmyard.

Dad came in from checking the animals. ‘We won’t be going to the service,’ he said. ‘The snow is already half a metre deep on the road. Even with snow chains it will soon be impassable.’

The Twins watched the snow falling through the window and wished they could be outside playing in it. ‘Tomorrow, after we’ve opened our presents, we can throw snow balls and ride on our sledges,’ they said to one another.

Then, just as they were going to bed, there was an urgent kock at the back door. The Twins crept to the top of the stairs and looked through the bannisters, curious to see who was visiting them so late.

It was a young man, his coat and head covered in snow. ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ he said to Dad, ‘But we were trying to get home for Christmas to see our family and our car is stuck in the snow. My wife and baby are still in the car, but they can’t spend the night there. is there any chance we could stay here?’

Well, of course, Mum and Dad said it would be no trouble at all. The young man fetched his wife and baby and Mum brought some blankets for them and made up the settees so that they could sleep on them, by the fire. The twins came downstairs and shyly watched the baby feeding while Mum prepared some supper for the visitors. It was all very exciting, much more fun than going to church - even in the middle of the night.

In the morning, after a lovely breakfast of soup and toast and hot boiled eggs, Dad got out the tractor and towed the stranded car - with the young couple and their baby safe inside - down to the village where the road was still open.

I’m sorry you missed your service,’ Dad said to Mum as the family ate their Christmas dinner together. ‘I know you feel Christmas isn’t quite Chritsmas without it.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Mum. ‘The service reminds us how Jesus came as a baby to live with us in the middle of the night, while his family were far from home. But I think we were reminded of that anyway by our surprise visitors. I think it’s been a lovely Christmas.’