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.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Advent 1: The Dissonance of Advent: Ian Green

Luke 21.25-35Advent literally means ‘waiting’.  It isn’t arrival, that’s Christmas!  Advent is about travelling, and sometimes that means walking through the darkness with hope.

I suspect all of us like to think of faith as a noun.  It’s a thing!  Something we have.  We might even describe someone as a person of faith, as if they possess it.  Yet, maybe faith is more like a verb.  It’s something we must practice, something we have to live out and do, a positive and determined act of the will.

Advent calls us to practice our faith even in the times of waiting.

There is, how can we put it, a certain kind of ‘dissonance’ in Advent.  It’s not really a settled place to be.

In the bible story Mary has the honour of bearing Jesus even as she is viewed suspiciously in dishonour by those around her.  She and Joseph travel to Bethlehem in a state of chaos and fragility just at a time when she most needed calmness and security.

In the lectionary reading set for today from Luke there is that sense of waiting for the Kingdom.  It’s coming – as sure as the fig tree coming into bud shows the signs of approaching summer.  Yet in another sense it’s already here – God’s kingly reign among us is paradoxically both present and future.

It’s been suggested therefore that Advent is, in fact, a very good time to ‘name the gaps’ in our lives.  Like the gap between who I am and who I’d love to be, the gap between the society we live in and the society we long for.  And after the naming, to consciously acknowledge that God moves in those gaps.  That’s where his love and light are at work.  God is in the gaps and becomes a bridge between what we are and what we hope for.

So, as I write this on the very last day of November, 25 days to go and counting!  But...don't rush into Christmas, linger in the dissonance of Advent and see what happens.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Easter Day: Running towards Resurrection

The Swiss painter, Eugene Burnand shows the disciples Peter and John running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of Resurrection.

If you want to see the real thing you’ll need to take a trip to Paris and visit the wonderful Musee d’Orsay on the bank of the Seine.

Peter is graphically portrayed by Burnand.  He’s the older disciple with furrowed brow and gnarled hands.  He has the eyes of a man who thinks with emotion and who has spent a lifetime acting on impulse.

I suspect that Peter is a much-loved disciple amongst us.  He’s all too human and we see ourselves in him.

Where does Peter find resurrection that first Easter?

Well, I’d like to think he encounters it in his mind and the way he thinks.

His journey thus far with Jesus hasn’t been the smoothest.

On the Mount of Transfiguration he misreads the sacredness of it all and wants to build tabernacles there to preserve the moment in aspic.

He once told Jesus he would not be a suffering Messiah and received the rebuke of his Lord in the severest tone with Jesus declaring: Get thee behind me Satan!

And, of course, in the early hours of Good Friday, around the fire in Pilate’s courtyard Peter denies Jesus three times before the cock crowed.

Yet this wizened and world weary character we see in our painting this morning got so much right.

He was the first to recognised Jesus as the Christ and he was the disciple who actually got out of the boat and joined Jesus on the water.

He, like so many of the male disciples, wasn’t at the cross.  Yet here he is running towards resurrection.  And if we could read his mind and hear his thoughts as he strains to arrive at the garden tomb, maybe we would hear a dialogue going on in his mind as he ponders that perhaps Good Friday wasn’t the end after all, and just maybe there is another chapter in the story of Jesus.

As the gospel unfolds Peter’s narrative develops too.  For him the resurrection brings a new beginning as he is re-instated.  He can begin afresh, he isn’t to be remembered solely as the disciple who denied his master, he will go down in history as a faithful servant of Christ, indeed one upon whom the church has been built.

Peter will still make mistakes.  Indeed, quite soon he’ll retreat into a certain exclusivity, a sort of mindset that over-emphasises a particular religious tradition.  Paul will come along and challenge him and once more he’ll change his mind and become more inclusive in his outlook.

But that, I suggest is the very essence of resurrection for Peter.  The living presence of Jesus constantly challenges his thinking and taking him to new places. 

This continuous revelation, these exciting ongoing discoveries about the breath of God’s love are Peter’s way of exploring faith and encountering the divine.

Perhaps they can be ours.

For it seems to me that one of the greatest experiences of resurrection for us today is the way that God is continually renewing our minds as we think through our questions, apply our faith to new situations, become eager to tease out more and more our understanding of the way spirituality touches the everyday – and in all this something of the life of God blossoms in us and in the church.

We too can meet resurrection in our thinking – just like Peter.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Holy Saturday: Jesus is taken down from the cross: Heather Andrews

I have never given this ‘deposition’ - any thought before.  Scripture tells this part of the ‘Stations of the Cross’  as stark and practical – a thing to be done –John 20 31-42.  It is dark with casual violence.  The bodies, including the body of Jesus, were like trash, offensive and of no value.

V. 31 – The Jewish leaders didn’t want the victims hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath… so they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken.  Then their bodies could be taken down… when they came to Jesus they saw he was dead already, so they didn’t break his legs.  One of the soldiers, however, pierced his side with a spear and blood and water flowed out.  This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account;  it is presented so that you also can believe… 
Afterwards Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus… asked Pilate for permission to take Jesus’ body down… then… he came and took the body away.  He enlisted the help of Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night.  He came bringing 75 lbs of embalming ointment made from myrrh and aloes.  Together they wrapped Jesus’ body in a long linen cloth with the spices as is the Jewish custom of burial. 
The place of crucifixion was near a garden where there was a new tomb, never used before.  And so, because it was the day of preparation before the Passover, and since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Matthew adds that they rolled a great stone across the entrance.  And he adds that Mary, Jesus’ Mother was there.

Joseph of Arimathea took responsibility for the body of Jesus – I think of the phrase from a poem by Robert Hayden – this is indeed one of ‘Love’s austere and lonely offices’.  With Nicodemus, who brought the heavy weight of spices with him, they cleaned and sweetened and covered the body of their Lord.  They veiled him in linen, swaddled as he had been as a babe, and offered him to the earth in a freshly carved-out tomb.

The picture shows Mary, clad in the traditional blue, and I think of Christmas card pictures, the young woman, devout and committed, travelling to give birth.  By now she will have been a mature woman, with all the responsibilities of family life, motherhood and widowhood as part of her experience.  Now she is bereft of her first-born son, the one promised by an Angel, the one brought into being by the Overshadowing of the Spirit.

Her face lined, eyes sad, hair probably grey… she is unlikely still to be wearing the innocent blue of her maiden days.  She has watched the terrible brutality, held up by her friends as her legs buckle beneath her with the agony.  She has screamed.  Maybe she even held her precious Son on her lap for a moment as the men lifted him down, in a ‘pieta’ that would have been far from beautiful.

The two men, no longer secret disciples, but openly proclaiming their allegiance to the new movement, even as it seems to have been beaten down for ever, step up to the mark.  Mary takes John under her wing as a surrogate son…  they go to their homes…

The sun sets and the day of waiting deepens their sense of mourning and their unbearable grief.

And yet…     and yet…  God is at work…    a new day dawns…

Friday, 23 March 2018

Palm Sunday: Jesus dies on the Cross: Tim Mountain

Perhaps it’s the scientist or literalist in me that finds it difficult to appreciate pictures and icons like this in the way that some of my friends do. I’ve been watching Portrait Artist of the Year recently. I tend to prefer those paintings that actually look like the subject, rather than a series of suggestive, allusive brushstrokes.

This image, ‘Jesus dies’ is not what a crucifixion actually looks like. This is not a body beaten and bruised, suffocating slowly as it tries to support its own weight, nails tearing flesh, wracked in excruciating pain. To me it looks as if Jesus is saying, rather dispassionately, with wrists bent and hands spread, “Hey. Look what they’ve done to me.” One could berate the artist for creating something that isn’t accurate. Unrealistic. Unmoving.

Yet I know, of course, that this isn’t intended to be a picture that captures the horrors of crucifixion. The artist is not trying to replicate the scene or paint a photograph. Rather, I think he wants me, the viewer, to sit with his picture for a while and to reflect on different features of the painting; to follow the various trains of thought prompted in me by the scene. How do I interpret it? How does this picture draw me towards God and prayer, love and service?

Let me note just one thing. It seems to me that the body of Jesus is out of proportion to the cross. This Roman instrument of torture and death, does not dominate. Jesus does. Even at his death. The Empire’s might, represented in this, a most brutal and cruel mode of execution, isn’t the last word. Jesus is. The authorities may have thought it was all over with Jesus’ death ... but we know differently.

In our world where empires of a different kind play out their conflicts through savage violence in Syria or Myanmar or even the streets of Salisbury, in self-interested and national-centric competition through words and trade in Europe and America, we remember that theirs is not the last word or the last action. Standing by Jesus they are, relatively speaking, small. Today’s politicians and their policies are not the decisive authority. God is.

The death of Christ, a cruel political-religious execution is not the last word or the last action. Jesus’ words, ‘It is finished’ denote the ending of his earthly life; but not the end of the story – for another day will soon dawn. Resurrection trumps crucifixion.

Lord, help us to remember when life is bleak and appears hopeless, when it seems that wickedness thrives and death is commonplace, that the final words and acts are yours and that we are held secure, bounded by their promise, confident in new-life-resurrection.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Lent 5: Jesus Falls: Christine Hutt

Jesus falls:  bowed down with the crushing burden of the cross

Jesus falls:  the weight of the world’s woes on his shoulders

Jesus falls:  as his final act of self-emptying comes closer.

He has already been on his knees – washing the disciples’ feet

Three times he has fallen with his face to the ground in the Garden of Gethsemane,

Pleading with his Father for the cup of suffering to be taken from him,

His disciples unable to keep awake,

 unable to watch and pray with him.

Baptists do not traditionally pray before the Stations of the Cross, or use a crucifix to aid their devotions.  Once I was at a Catholic retreat centre in Leeds where I found the large wooden crucifix with the women at the foot of it really helpful.  I was going through a very difficult time and I found the crucifix beneficial to my prayer life: to learn to identify with Jesus, to feel his pain and to recognise our sorrows in the light of His sorrow.  I found this prayer on the internet which expresses some of my thoughts about ‘Jesus falls’.

‘Lord Jesus Christ, you have borne all our burdens and you continue to carry us. Our weight has made you fall.

Lift us up, for by ourselves we cannot rise from the dust. Free us from the bonds of frailty and sin. In place of a heart of stone, give us a heart of flesh, a heart capable of seeing. Make us aware of your presence. Keep us sober and vigilant, capable of resisting the forces of evil. Help us to recognise the spiritual and material needs of others, and to give them the help they need.

Lift us up, so that we may lift others up. Give us hope at every moment of darkness, so that we may bring your hope to the world.’ 
And a hymn that we do not often sing in churches today:
‘Take up your cross, let nots its weight
Pervade your soul with vain alarm
His strength shall bear your spirit up,
Sustain your heart and nerve your arm’

Meditate on the picture of ‘Jesus falls – ‘Is it nothing to you all you that pass by?’

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Lent 4: Mothering Sunday Reflection: Ian Green

Thursday was International Women’s Day and tomorrow we celebrate Mothering Sunday.

We are looking at the story of Moses in the Bulrushes at my church and in preparing for this I’ve noticed afresh just how many women figure in that story.

There are the brave midwives who go against King Pharaoh’s orders and end up saving Israelite babies rather than destroying them.  Love wins!

There is Miriam, the elder sister of baby Moses who watches him sale down the Nile in his basket and then suddenly appears the moment he is picked up and suggests that she finds an Israelite woman to wet nurse him – and so, actually, brings him back home straight away to be looked after by their own mother.  Miriam shows such clever cunning!

Of course Moses’ mother is there in the story – in fact she might even have been one of the midwives, the one called Puah, a nickname meaning ‘Bubbles’ because she was famous for keeping the babies quiet by blowing bubbles to them!  The mother of Moses did everything in her power to protect children.

Lastly there is the Princess of Egypt who ends up fishing Moses out of the water and adopting him.  Such a plucky rebel!  Her father the King had issued a decree that such babies should be got rid of but this woman speaks truth to power, adopts one and brings him home to the palace to be brought up in the Royal Family. 

I think all these inspirational women are heroes in the early story of Moses – each one lived with the courage of their convictions and took risks in the name of love.