Saturday, 16 March 2019

Lent 2: Hens and Foxes: Tim Mountain

Luke 13.31-35

Hens and foxes don’t mix very well. I have a friend who keeps hens at the bottom of his garden. He knows what it’s like to experience the carnage, the distressing blood-and-feathers-evidence, of a fox getting into the pen.

That fox’ is how Jesus refers to Herod; not so much wily and clever as we tend to interpret the image today, but to the Jewish mind, worthless and contemptuous. A good-for-nothing leader who got his way by bullying and coercion, threats of force and violence, by wielding power unjustly. He wasn’t interested in winning over people’s minds and hearts; compulsion and enforcement were the means to secure their allegiance to king and country.

God’s way is different. Not imposition but invitation. Yearning.  ‘… how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.’ The image can’t be pressed too far (acknowledging the rawness of nature, red in tooth and claw – even hens) but here are chicks clustering around their mother to seek safety and protection, warmth and the company of siblings, instinctively trusting that she will look after them in their defencelessness and weakness.

God, unlike Herod, is not tyrannical or coercive. God appeals and persuades, pursuing mind and heart through love. In Jesus, God renounces the exercise of power and walks a path of voluntary helplessness and vulnerability, especially in the days leading to Calvary.  God’s love is announced on the cross in arms outstretched, inviting all who come to be enfolded in embrace.

The tragedy of course, is that Israel, represented in Jerusalem, had walked away from God’s offer of protection, nurture and to be lovingly held. Later Luke tells us that Jesus wept over the city (19:41); such is the heartbreak he feels because of his fellow Jews ignoring and resisting God’s overtures, and the calamity that awaits them … from foxes like Herod … like the Empire.

In this Lenten season of self-examination perhaps we might review our own style of leadership or the leadership in our churches (or indeed, that which we see in our workplaces and the political sphere). In what ways is it fox-like or hen-like, and how might we try to challenge the one or nurture the other?  And I wonder also if some of us, having strayed a bit too far recently, might be wise to seek out and return to the shelter of God’s wings?

Friday, 8 March 2019

Lent 1: A slower, yet deeper journey: Ian Green

Luke 4.1-13

Every Lent I get this stone out of the drawer and look at it again.  We picked it up from the Dorset coastline and it immediately reminded us of a freshly baked roll!

After spending forty days in The Wilderness Jesus decided not to turn stones into croissants.

I wonder if that first temptation wasn’t so much about satisfying hunger as much as overvaluing the ‘instantaneous’.  Jesus chose not to go down the ‘quick fix’ route.  Instead the stones stayed stones and he coped with his hunger for yet another day.

We live in an age in which so much can be done quickly; we can hardly keep up with the pace of it all.  Bit by bit we buy in to the idea that news can be obtained at the press of a button, meals are ready when the microwave pings and big political issues can all be solved with nothing more than a catchy and popular soundbite.  Yet quick news is rarely the whole picture, quick food is rarely a good and wholesome diet and quick solutions rarely stand up to the complexities which follow.

I grew up in a wing of the Church that emphasized ‘conversion’.  It was so important to the congregation of my youth whether you had been ‘converted’; could you name the date on which you ‘accepted Jesus Christ as your Saviour’?  Well, I can, but that’s not the point.  Although I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude for those days I’ve sinced realised that Jesus wasn’t so much interested in the day I became a Christian but the life I’ve lived as a Christian.  He asked those fishermen to ‘follow’ him.  It wasn’t a one-off event but a lifetime’s journey.

In that ‘lifetime’ we will all change, and that change can be good and positive.  We may barely notice it’s going on.  Our life experiences will change us and will change our theology; our view of God, faith and love.  It will happen naturally and inevitably.  It’s the growth of a person filled with the Spirit of God and I suspect it will rarely be quick.

Jesus, in The Wilderness, rejects the quick fix answers and decides to go on a slower route, one that embraces complexity and struggle, yet one that opens all sorts of unexpected possibilities.  It’s a slow yet deeper journey.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Christmas Day: Visiting and Visited: Heather Andrews

Luke 2.1-14

So the day dawns, awaited, dreaded… a woman screams in labour as new life is forced from the waters of the womb, and beached upon the blue-green world. 

GIFT.  Womb-darkness work done… Child – Son - Offered to the Earth… Gathered into loving arms, bathed and tended, welcomed and suckled.  Skin to skin, then swaddled into comforting closeness. 

Slowly the light rises, star hangs like a beacon over the Christ-child… the angel-song magnifies, throbs through the air.  The fabric of the world is somehow changed…God’s JOY swelling, awakening a few nearby shepherds to a new reality, prompting activity, movement, response.

Glimpses of baby, gently cradled, man and woman rapt and caught in love’s new meaning. Heaven sings.

Baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, bound tightly for his security in a strange new world, bound close so his limbs would grow straight.  Preparing him for this new life… little Lamb of God…

Visiting and visited.

There is another time later in life when he strips, naked as the day he was born…takes the towelling cloth and wraps it close around himself, preparing for the next great chapter… as he greets his friends, kneels before them gently tending to their wounded, scabby, dusty feet… washing them, feeding them bread and wine… singing with them, and setting them a new goal… to love one another in a really big way… and he walks into the shadows of the green Olive grove to embrace another reality.

And yet another time when, having given His all to the love of His father, and for the love of all people, he is lowered by sheets from the terrible tree.

He is wrapped once again -  in the swaddling bands of death… bathed and perfumed with spices… bound and covered, hidden in the tomb-womb’s darkness, mission-accomplished, life gifted, offered to the earth…

Then in an OMG moment of unbelievable power, blaze of angels, death overcome, stone moved, earth taken in love’s embrace into the fullness of God… the swaddling bands are left, folded, tomb redundant, Loving Lamb of God RAISED, Life restored, renewed in indescribable Spirit-life.  All is changed.

And it all began with God’s overshadowing, woman’s total gift of her self, man’s strong and loving obedience and a whole lot of trust…

At Cradle, Table and Tomb, we are bound to Him, by Holy Spirit bonds of love, drawn into Christ’s loving, challenging, costly adventure…   We worship and adore Him…  Glory to God in the Highest!

Jesus, the Saviour, is born.
Love, and God bless, this Christmas Day

Monday, 24 December 2018

Christmas Eve: Zechariah’s Song: Tim Mountain

Luke 1.67-79

Advent. ‘Tis the season to be jolly and look forward to the coming of …… TV-show finals such as Strictly, Masterchef, The Apprentice, X Factor.  Shows characterised by competiveness and rivalry. How many times over the past few weeks have we heard the tired clich├ęs, ‘It means the world to me’ or ‘I’m gutted’, from winners and losers? But of all those taking part, when the dust has settled only a few will be remembered; most will be forgotten.

Here is Zechariah praising God for the birth of his baby boy who will be tagged ‘Baptist’, because that’s primarily how he’s remembered, not forgotten. John, reminding people of the Way of the Lord, right living and repentance for wrong living; getting them ready for the coming One who will give them what he can’t, namely the Holy Spirit.

Zechariah seems happy with the role his son would have. He doesn’t seem to be a pushy parent that some today are. John would be second fiddle, forerunner, herald to One with a more significant place in history. John would be the one who gets things ready. Like the wedding planner. Like the roadie. Like the make-up and costume departments, floor managers and camera operators in Strictly who set off the dancers in the best light possible.

Perhaps Zechariah might have been forgiven if he’d felt a twinge of jealousy and envy that it would be Another who would occupy the limelight, not his own dear baby boy. After all, he had been privileged with a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to enter the Holy Place to burn incense. He’d had an angelic visitation. John’s conception was extraordinary – a miracle – given Elizabeth’s age. His son would walk in the spirit and power of the great prophet Elijah.  But Zechariah seemed content. John would prepare the way for, not be in competition with, Messiah. Of course, at one level he couldn’t be! But neither should he be. They would walk complimentary, not rival, paths. He would be a witness to the light, not the light. They exercised different ministries and each had his part to play in God’s greater scheme.

Each of us has her or his ‘calling’. It is the ministry we offer, the path we travel, that which we are that shapes what we do, what we believe God draws us into. Furthermore, our calling is not another’s calling, nor their ours. Each is individual and unique. We are not in competition with another’s ministry. Our focus is to be not so much on what someone else does but to walk the Way that we believe God leads us, bearing witness to the light to the best of our ability and with holy intention, as did John.

Prayer: Lord, grant us grace that we might walk along the path you have called us to follow, learning contentment not competiveness. Help us to live humbly and so to fulfil the hopes and desires you have for us, allowing Jesus to be pre-eminent in our lives. Amen.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Advent 4: The Visitation: Pauline West

The Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli

I was introduced to this picture by a friend who is an artist and photographer. She had in her studio a version of this picture worked in pastels by her sister, also an artist. I use it every year in my Advent displays. It depicts the story in Luke 1 v 39 – 45.

It is a little known story; we tend to jump from the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, to Mary’s song -  The Magnificat – and then to the birth of Jesus; maybe putting in the birth of John the Baptist on the way.

But the story of the visit of Mary to Elizabeth is important particularly in the season of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting and expectation and nowhere in the story of Christmas is that portrayed with so much humanity as in this story of two pregnant women waiting for the birth of their babies.

Luke tells us Mary went off in haste to see Elizabeth. She packed her bags and ran away from the awkward situation in Nazareth; the gossip in the village; the bewildered but concerned parents; the overprotection of Joseph trying to understand it all. She ran to Elizabeth; she would understand, had not the angel virtually told her to go? Mary was clutching at a straw to get help and she was not disappointed.

Look at the picture; the care expressed by the older woman – Elizabeth – greeting the younger woman – Mary – sensing her fear, her vulnerability, her longing for support. There is the firm handshake that says “You are safe here”; the arm drawing her into a compassionate embrace. Look at the face, the smile that says welcome.  Mary may have wanted to come, may have been urged by Joseph and her family to go, but now she has come there is the hand of the younger woman on her heart expressing her uncertainty and her longing to know it was alright to be here; will she be believed; will her story be accepted; will she be helped.

Luke goes on to tell us of the encouragement Elizabeth gives to Mary; of the confidence she instils as she confirms that both of them are caught up in the ways of God; that neither pregnancy is an accident, but is the work of God. These few verses represent weeks of conversation, we are told Mary stayed about three months probably until the birth of John the Baptist. When she leaves the months ahead will not be easy for Mary and it is Elizabeth who reinforces in Mary the foundation of quiet confidence and trust in God that we see in her during the life of Jesus. They were soul mates that God brought together at a time of waiting as a preparation for the years ahead.

Thinking of God’s preparations for the coming of Jesus, I wrote a reflection on Elizabeth and Mary for the Advent display in Hawkshead Hill Chapel.

Elizabeth and Mary
Are they blessed these women?
Chosen to bear life; to grow life;
chosen to carry a burden.
Does God understand the burden as well as the blessing:
understand what she is asking?

Creation made with such hope; given such blessings and
crowned with male and female made in her image;
has collapsed under greed; selfishness and self protection.
God sighs because people forget the responsibility to care for each other and for all God has made.

It is time to start again, not with a flood
But with two forgotten women;
One pitted in her old age for her barrenness
The other a slip of a girl, marriage arranged, family and village happy.

God sees them differently.
One is strong with years of wisdom and devotion to husband and God.
The other is growing in her understanding and commitment to God.

These women have not forgotten who made them,
who called them, who directs their paths.
Others may pity them; pass them by;
slot them into accepted patterns.
God knows them and chooses them
to carry the burden of a new beginning
and be blessed.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Advent 3: John the Baptist: Waiting and Wondering: Christine Hutt

Luke 3.7-14
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.  John answers them with a promise:  ‘I baptise you with water but one more powerful than I will come’ – the Messiah, the Christ will come.

But in that waiting time John challenges the people who ask ‘what shall we do’?   As Baptists we know that our faith can never be second hand – God has no grandchildren. We have to make our own decision about faith – believer’s baptism is the outward sign that we have taken that step to become God’s children. A baptism of repentance for John is a radical examination and retrospection of one’s personal and public life. Repentance is only a part of the life of faith and therefore needs to be complemented with a reorientation.  John advocates that our faith is not just about belief but, like James, about putting that that faith into action.  In other words ‘faith without works is dead’. So in the waiting time of Advent we need to remind ourselves that the Christian life is about giving and sharing, about generosity and honesty.

Did John get everything right about the coming Messiah?  John said that he was not worthy to untie the thongs of the sandals of the Christ.  Little did he know that Jesus would stoop to wash the disciples’ feet, to demonstrate that he had come as the ‘suffering servant’ described by Isaiah, not as the conquering hero, that people were expectantly hoping for.  John described a judgemental Messiah who would separate the wheat from the chaff, not a Christ who would say ‘O Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing; in other words, a Christ who demonstrated that the Christian faith is about showing and sharing the love of God with those who need care and protection in our world.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Advent 2: John the Baptist: Gill Roberts

Clive and I went to see this sculpture of John the Baptist by Donatello while we were in Florence.  We’d been a few years previously.  We appreciated the ragged, austerity of him – but he certainly wasn’t someone to meet on a dark night!  He was definitely someone who was different – out on the edge of things…

As we left the museum, having agreed where we were going next, Clive turned one way and I the other.  We stopped.  Something had happened!  Since our last visit, Clive had had a stroke and this was one of the early realisations that things had changed for us.  Clive had always been our sense of direction.  I relied on him and he was confident.  Now, suddenly, we discovered that we couldn’t do that anymore.  We both lost confidence in his sense of direction.

We all need a sense of direction - to know who we are and where we’re going. 

Here - at the start of this reading – Luke tells us where and when we are.  He sets the scene.  Here are the political top brass and here the ”spiritual” ones - all jostling for / holding on to power.  And, in the midst of all these, who does God pinpoint to speak His message?

·       John
·       Son of Zechariah – yes, that Zechariah who found it hard to believe God’s messenger
·       In the wilderness – not in the temple.

Of course, John himself must have been prepared because there he was, in the right place.

Had Zechariah and Elizabeth instilled into him the role he was to play when the time was ripe?  Can’t you imagine Zechariah telling his son that he was made for great things?  Whilst he himself had taken a while – and some persuasion – to believe God’s message, maybe he was careful about how he explained his role to John.  Can’t you hear his parents?  “Son, you are different from other boys.  God has a plan for you.  You’re special – and you are going to prepare people for someone even more special.”  (Strains of Handel’s “Messiah” fill the air – “the crooked straight and the rough places plain”)  Would they have told him about the angel’s message?  They’d had their instructions (Luke 1vv15-17) -
He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born …..he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah —to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Surely God’s Spirit would prepare him, as he was to prepare others.  It says that he was filled with the Holy Spirit before he was born and that God’s word came to him in the wilderness.  Had the passage from Isaiah shown him where he must be and what he must be doing?  He was to be “the voice”.  Would anyone come to hear what he had to say anyway – out there in the middle of nowhere?  Would God provide?  It seems he simply followed God’s instructions and left the rest to Him.

I wonder how easy it was for John to be different – someone living on the edge of things.

As we see him here, John certainly has his sense of direction.  He knew who he was and what he was meant to be doing.  Here was John the Baptist preaching out in the wilderness – shades of Elijah!
What did people think of him? Was he an oddity?  Was he regarded as a wise man – or a crank?

Were they reminded of what they’d heard of Elijah and therefore considered him to be holy and powerful?  Amazingly, people took him seriously.  They responded to him.  He continued being The Voice.

I suddenly realised what an important passage this is for BURGers!  It’s easy for people to poke fun when you talk about going on retreat.  “Running away again?!”  Maybe it happened to John!  Being where you know God wants you to be and being ready to listen for Him and do what He wants has to be the most important thing in life.  But it is living on the edge, for you don’t know what to expect.

Recently, I was reminded of the words, “Fan into flame the gift of God that is in you”.  (2 Tim. 1v6)
As we get older, maybe we feel “the gift” is no longer there.  Our prayer has to be that we know who we are and what our directions are for here and now.
Heavenly Father, please grant me your revelation for this day. 
Remind me who I am and what You want me to do.
I pray that Your Holy Spirit will be my guide and strength and great Director.