Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Christmas Day: Pauline West

Trees swayed and passed on the whisper through wood and copse and avenue. Insects scurried across rough hewn ground, up walls, down drain pipes to spread the news. Birds sang and filled the air with it; sheep and cows huddled together and said have you heard. The whisper gathered momentum down pavements, streets and highways. It jumped to the sky where the stars exploded and shouted for the world to hear “He’s come; it’s happened; he’s arrived”.

Luke put it simply “Joseph went to Bethlehem to register for the census with Mary who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her first born, a son.”
Her first born; but for creation he was their creator, the first born of their world. They lived because of him and now he had come to live with them as one of them. Their creator had been born as a creature: God was with them as one of them.

The universe shimmered with the news.

And humanity, women and men created by God in his image; did they catch the whisper; did they hear the wonderful news? Did they bow low before their God, not on a throne but as Luke tells us “She (Mary) wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger”. Why such a lowly cradle? He tells us “because there was no room for them in the inn”.
The Son of God born into hardship and rejection and so he lived and died and then became the first born from the dead. For darkness could not put out the light and death could not destroy the love of God.

The whisper still travels; the good news is still there for all who want to listen, who are ready to be wrapped in the love of God and be born into his new life. Go, as the angels instructed the shepherds, and find the baby; let him grasp your finger and be filled with his transforming power.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Advent 4: Matthew 1.18-end: Gill Roberts


It’s so matter-of-fact. 

This is a tricky situation.

There’s a baby on the way – and it’s not his.

What does a man do?  He didn’t want to do it, but he was a faithful Jew, and rules are rules.  So he settles for middle-of-the-road quiet action. It was a good decision – sensitive but right.  It was settled in his mind.  He’d do things quietly.  He could settle down to a good night’s sleep now the decision was made.
BUT … God stepped into his dreams and SPOKE.  God does that sometimes.  You think you’ve got it all sorted but He has other ideas.
He spoke to him personally – Joseph – son of David -

*Don't be afriad

* God is acting

* This is Messiah - Saviour - Jesus

He must have been SHAKEN – but God says, “Remember who you are – son of David.”
Did Joseph understand it was actually happening?  Matthew makes it clear.  The PROPHECY IS BEING FULFILLED!

And then we saw this picture:

It was taken by a friend on holiday in France.  A carving set in a wall.  It had to be a nativity scene – hadn’t it?  But it looked as though the artist had started with Mary – tired out after labour and the long journey of the previous day.  Then there’s Joseph looking over her, exhausted with the trauma and wonder of it all.  The ox and ass – inquisitive (and just fit into the gaps).  And it’s as though the sculptor suddenly remembered who it was all about.  Where shall I put Jesus?  He was in the manger – not at the feet of Mary and Joseph but higher – raised – more prominent (even if it does look as though he’s been put on a shelf and been forgotten!)  Of course, the sculptor could have started with Jesus – placed in the manger set into the wall of the stable – at the correct height for the animals to feed from without bending.  It’s unusual.

It’s a prompt to look again at the first Christmas.

When we examine the nativity records from each of the Gospels, we discover the different viewpoints.  Luke is from Mary’s perspective – John is trying to give the whole picture from the beginning and here in Matthew, we catch a glimpse of Joseph’s part in fulfilling the prophecy.  How easy it is to leave Joseph out of the picture!  Yet here we see God the Father, attending to the details of the care for His Son.  A male, human protector for the Child and His mother.  You have a part to play here, Joseph.  Don’t let your pride hold you back from the significant role that is yours.  OK, so you had wanted this virgin for yourself.  It’s not to be yet.  But she hasn’t been used by a human male but rather sanctified by God Himself.  It’s a privilege for her and for you.  God has need of you both.

Look at this Joseph.
He looks exhausted from the journey and the trauma -  bewildered, amazed by it all. 
He looks dreamy - stunned.  Was the dream real?  Is this real?
There’s another dream to come that will create fear… Facing local public ridicule is one thing but the ire of King Herod is quite something else.  You’ve trusted God so far.  You have farther to go in trust.  Just follow the instructions step by step as you’ve done so far.

Can we do that?

“Seek first His Kingdom and His right way and all these things will be added to you as well…don’t worry about tomorrow…each day has enough worries of its own.”  (Matthew 6 vv31-32)
In the meantime, you might have had some strange things to do, some exhausting things to do, some seemingly impossible things to do.  You may be wondering if it’s real, if you can go on.  Maybe Jesus isn’t as real as He once was.  Is He ‘on the shelf’?  Oh, not that you’ve forgotten Him exactly or left Him out, indeed you speak to Him moment by moment.  But maybe you’ve forgotten just who He is – and who you are - and you need a fresh ‘dream’ – vision – for the next step.  We can forget.  We can presume we know what He’s saying and give Him no space and time to refresh His calling and refresh us.

How do you read that left hand of Joseph in the carving?  It could be raised in blessing.  He might be waving at Mary… Or is he saying, “Enough is enough, God.”?  That’s when we need that fresh vision.  God knows.  May Christmas time provide that time to reflect on the journey we’ve had or the trauma we may have been through and give the opportunity to adjust our focus to that Jesus ‘on the shelf’ and bring Him inside and “let Him grow great inside” us.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Advent 3: Matthew 11.2-11: Heather Andrews

At this point in Matthew’s Gospel, we hear Jesus’ invitation to complete commitment…an old phrase from a hymn, ‘true-hearted, whole-hearted, faithful and loyal’ surfaced in my mind.

John is imprisoned by Herod, shut up in a grim fortress, facing an unknown outcome of Herod’s rage. In the darkness of his cell he is overcome by the darkest of doubts: ‘Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?’ He sends messengers to Jesus to ask the question. John has fallen into the depths of despair, and he wonders if it has all been for nothing…has he lived, listened, proclaimed and preached of the coming Messiah, for nothing? Has he baptised in the cleansing flood for the repentance of sins, then sent his own friends to follow the Saviour, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie… and has it been a figment of his imagination, that Jesus, his cousin could possibly be the promised One?

You can feel the layers of certainty and courage and commitment peeling away, as John wonders – is this how it was meant to be? Is this how the kingdom comes? Was it for this I came? The young man who spent his life in rigorous spartan training in simplicity and hardship in order to be heard as Prophet of the coming Kingdom, suddenly has a crisis of faith.

What is Jesus doing? He’s mixing with everyday people, and with some reprehensible people, he is upsetting the established religious cliques, and, yes, he’s showing signs and wonders… but these signs and wonders are not of the variety that John expected. They are not ferocious with inescapable judgment and punishment for those who have done wrong… instead they resonate with goodness and mercy and loving-kindness. Jesus lives out the Beautiful Attitudes of the Beatitudes, modelling a longing for righteousness, and a loving forgiveness that invites transformation and transcends condemnation. Jesus’ signs and wonders feed the hungry, open people’s eyes to the truth, bring new energy to tired legs, and allow people perhaps for the first time to really hear the Good news of the Kingdom of God.

And of course the earthly kingdom, being challenged, has hit back. And hits first at John, the forerunner. John is captured and chained, and his future is bleak beyond measure. And here I wonder that Jesus’ response to the messengers seems exasperated (as when he speaks of the children in the market place who won’t dance when they are played for). What more can I do John – raising the dead not clear enough? As a public endorsement, Jesus sounds rather equivocal: Yes, John is the prophet – the one who prepares the way, and no-one is greater… he has done his job well…yet… yet… the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.’

What are we to make of that? Has John let go of his faith in Christ? Has he let his feet slip off the Rock of his salvation, and is he turning his back on the Lord of Life? Is John really about to look ‘for another’? John had his fixed ideas of how the Messiah should behave, and Jesus is behaving so differently. I feel Jesus is using the freedom of close kinship and is giving John an exasperated nudge in the ribs and saying… this is God’s plan for the Kingdom, it has to be this way…. don’t give up now…look at the good that is happening, at the way people’s lives are being renewed as they come to Me. This is the way… walk in it…

It’s a challenge to us, when we want more and more assurance. ‘Open your eyes’, says Jesus, and really SEE the way life can be transformed when offered fully to God’s kingdom’. Life and modern culture is in many ways a battle – if we are not to be damned with faint praise surely we need to be ‘all in’ and ‘fully on the Lord’s side’.

If only the Bible wasn’t silent at this point… all we know is that soon John is murdered in the most appalling way, at the whim of flagrantly sinful people… and we know Jesus’ deep distress, that drove him, alone to a solitary place to pray the night long. But we also know that Jesus life is about love and justice and mercy… and these attributes challenge us to keep faith, to trust even in times of the direst trouble, to hold fast to the Lord of Life, whose coming into the world we celebrate and whose second coming we await.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Advent 2: Matthew 3.1-12: Tim Mountain

As a life-long supporter of Tottenham Hotspur football club I felt somewhat surprised and uneasy about the appointment of José Mourinho as their new coach last month. His reputation goes before him – the self-styled ‘special one’, a successful manager but also controversial. However, perhaps I shouldn’t worry too much because in one of his first press conferences Mourinho said he’d learned humility. “It’s not about me; it’s about the players and the club.” As one journalist observed, the ‘special one’ is now the ‘humble one’. So I can breathe a sigh of relief!

In our Advent passage we read about another special one: John the Baptist. It is evident from how Matthew describes him and his ministry that he is no shrinking violet. He leads an austere, if not eccentric, lifestyle in the desert regions around Jerusalem, preaching a simple message of repentance, baptising the penitent but castigating the religiously pretentious. He is a gifted and courageous individual, ardently serving God and exercising a much-needed ministry. Yet, for all his credentials and charisma, his self-understanding is that he is simply a herald of something and Someone much greater. “After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” John is the lesser who will yield to the greater. He is both a special one and a humble one. However, in John’s case neither greatness nor humility are self-proclaimed; it is Jesus who will later say of the Baptist that he is greatest among those born to women – but, paradoxically, also least.

I wonder what we might take from this as we think about how we serve in our churches, in our work, our neighbourhoods or families. In what ways do we try to ensure that our gifts and experience are put to use to build up and encourage others in our faith communities, organisations and circles of family and friends rather than to construct our own little empires? How do we try to ‘prepare the way’ for others to come to see Jesus as Lord? To what degree are we willing to be ‘less’ that another might be ‘great’? Humility is not being a doormat, or belittling our gifts and call; it is having an honest and realistic self-assessment. Or, as has been said elsewhere, ‘humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less’.

John the Baptist: both special and humble. By all accounts an effective and formidable prophet, he accepted that he would decrease as Jesus, more powerful and greater, took centre-stage.  

And as to the outcome of the tenure at Spurs of the ‘special-turned-humble’ one … well, only time will tell.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Advent Blog 1: Matthew 24 v 36-44 Christine Hutt

We appear to be living in times when ‘Biblical’ events happen –fires, hurricanes, floods (this picture is the River Thames in Abingdon in 2007 when people could not get to their boats moored by the riverbank).  The apocalyptic language in this passage from Matthew makes sense to those in great crises.  Extreme weather events, such as these, point to the major crisis of our time – climate change.  Noah was a man who was obedient to God, but perhaps he was also able to read the signs of the times.  He prepared for the flood, whilst other people carried on with their lives regardless. 

Kairos, the Greek word for crisis, also means opportunity.  In crises, whether personal, societal or global we are called not to bury our heads in the sand, but to continue to practise the faith that has given us hope in the past.   Change is not easy.  Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild in their book ‘Guard the Chaos’ (DLT, 1995) about finding meaning in change, point out that ‘For the new situation to “live” the old must “die”’.  After floods, fires and hurricanes the land takes some time to recover, but new signs of life do appear.  We need to accept a necessary death in order that new life may flourish.

Martin Luther is said to have remarked ‘If I knew the world were ending tomorrow, I would plant an apple tree today’.  We need to be in a state of readiness and read the signs of the times.  We need to hold fast to our faith. Christianity is not just about maintenance but transformation. John of the Cross said that darkness and suffering is bewildering, but his intention was to encourage us to bear it creatively.  He said darkness must be lived in faith, and that night is the place for encounter.  We need to keep watch and be ready because the Son of Man will come when we do not expect him. Whether that is at the end of our earthly life, at the end of our world or when Christ returns we do not know. But what we do know is that we will encounter the God who comes, as John of the Cross said ‘That everlasting fountain comes concealed in this living bread, to give us life though it be night’.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Easter Day: Gill Roberts

I don’t really do happy. 

The sort of films I take my friends to see are ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Shadowlands’ – serious, sober stuff!

I quite often find Easter Day disappointing – even depressing.
I can wake up and can’t help but sing,

Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
our triumphant holy day,
who did once upon the cross
suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!
Hymns of praise then let us sing Alleluia!
unto Christ our heavenly King!
who endured the cross and grave!
sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!
It is glorious, that first moment of realisation of resurrection!  I’m thrilled.

I can start the day thrilled with the knowledge of the resurrection, go to church for breakfast and communion but somehow it can fail to capture the atmosphere of the Day and it deteriorates.  There is an anti-climax.  In fact, just the opposite of the way things were for the followers of Jesus on the first Easter Day.  Easter Day didn’t start off being happy for them, did it?

They must have spent the Sabbath in an agony of horror, anxiety about whether they too would end up on crosses.  Their Lord had gone.  The One who was to have saved the world was no longer with them.  They were leaderless, rudderless.  What would happen now?  The women couldn’t stop crying.  Things didn’t improve.  There was nothing they could do on the Sabbath.  It was a woman who started off the activity on Sunday and for her it was
·       the shock of the empty tomb.  The horror of someone having stolen the Lord’s body.
For the men the result was that Mary seemed to have lost the plot – thought she’d ‘seen the Lord’.

Then John & Peter, checking it out, to their utter disbelief found it exactly as she said – though John had an inkling of what might have happened.  But how could it have happened?  Even though they remembered He’d said something about ‘the third day’.
An emergency meeting of disciples was called – and HE comes!  “PEACE”, He says!  How can they have peace?!  He’s there – but He’s not as He was.  Their thoughts were in turmoil because things have changed.  After three fantastic years of following Him, going where He went, hearing what He said, taking it all in – now it seemed they were to go it alone.  How could He be with them always?

Meanwhile the Emmaus couple meet a stranger, eat with Him and discover Him to be ‘the Lord’.  With burning hearts they can’t help but run the whole way back to the upper room to discover He’s been there too – and that Thomas has had his own special meeting.
What a day!  Fears, doubts, strange happenings, questions, no real answers, yet excitement, anticipation.  What does the future hold?

“Blessed are those who have not seen but believe.”

“This really is ‘counter-culture’ – that the most reliable foundation for a human life is something we cannot see, or touch, or prove.  How amazing is that!” (Richard Kidd on BURG retreat)
But the pains which he endured, Alleluia!
our salvation have procured!

now above the sky he's King!

where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!

Friday, 19 April 2019

Good Friday: Pauline West

I have been attending a local Lent Group. We start as you might expect with coffee and biscuits, and carry on being fed with scripture and sharing our experiences and the book we are following.  It is a discipline to go every Monday morning, but the rewards are good. It led me to thinking of the disciple band that followed Jesus; the good times and the learning experiences they had together. They chose to follow; they chose to continue following when others left; they continued in the discipline and it was good. The disciple band exploded into crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; excited expectant crowds, it was good. The week continued busy and noisy up to the start of the Sabbath on Friday, by that time nothing was good for the disciple band or Jesus.

As I thought of Jesus during his ministry; during that week; during that day I saw a lonely figure whose loneliness and isolation increased until that cry of “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” which resolves itself into the final words “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit”.
In this time of Lent when I am being fed in so many ways, I find myself haunted by the loneliness and isolation of Jesus. It is as if he stands among the beauty that surrounds me; the companionship of friends and neighbours and challenges me to understand the isolation of the discipline of discipleship. I need to ask myself in what way, if any, do I take up my cross. How do I tie in the comfort of the Lent group with that lonely, agonising walk to Golgotha?  

Some of the trees around me are already greening up for spring and the cherry; magnolia and camellia are brilliant with their flowers, but the older beech, ash and oak still stand with their bare dark branches. They call me to seek the wisdom of God who although surrounded by men and women made in his own image  chose to stand apart and die alone so that they and we may know what it means to forgive and be forgiven; to love and be loved as God does.
Perhaps I am called, as the sorrowing women and men finally did, just to stand by the cross and weep and wonder and trust him to lead me on.