2020 – a Christmas like no other? A sermon for Adel Parish church.

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2020 – a Christmas like no other? Sermon for Adel Parish Church.

(With thanks to Malcolm Guite)

Usually, at this time of year, a well-loved member of our congregation helps Father Christmas out by standing in for him at a school the other side of Leeds. This year of course – he couldn’t go. The children were sad, and worried that with all the restrictions Father Christmas himself might not get to their houses this year. So, our Father Christmas recorded a video – assuring them that even these strange times wouldn’t stop the deliveries on Christmas night.

It reminded me of another Christmas memory I read recently, from the early 60s…of a British child brought up in Zimbabwe, who travelled ‘home’ by ship once a year. One year, unusually, they travelled over the Christmas season.

The young Malcolm was worried; they would be way out at sea…what if Father Christmas couldn’t find them? There was a Christmas Eve party, but what of the man himself?

Suddenly that party was interrupted by conversations on the bridge accidently broadcast over the tannoy.

Malcolm writes…”we heard an alarmed call from the navigator: “Something on the radar, sir. North-north-west, approaching swiftly. Shall I take evasive action?” “Hold your course steady,” the Captain called. “Let’s see if I can get a sighting through the binoculars.” Down in the dining room, we all held our breath.

“Oh yes, yes, it is!” came the Captain’s jubilant voice. “It’s him!             Slow and steady,” he called to the engineer. “Bring her over, and cut the furnace for a moment; we don’t want too much heat and smoke when he comes down the funnel. All right, everybody, prepare to take on an extra passenger.”

And of course, a slightly sooty Father Christmas was soon ushered into the party – with presents for all the children. He wasn’t going to let a little thing like a ship out at sea stop Christmas.

There has been talk this year of ‘Christmas being cancelled’. Even limited plans had to be altered at the last minute, leaving some very upset…perhaps this year it’s not only the children who need reassuring. All the usual certainty and family traditions…Christmas day with this part of the family…Boxing Day with that…sprouts – or not…cramming into church for Christmas services…meeting old friends…none of it possible in the usual way.

But if we think about the Christmas story…in a way it was always one of changed plans and making do.

I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt…their plans for an ordinary, respectable wedding dashed…their lives no doubt challenged by unkind talk about this mysterious baby. Perhaps they thought God might have made his announcement a little more widely, told the neighbours at least, to avoid the stigma of this unexpected arrival.

I wonder too, what they thought as they trekked from door to door in Bethlehem, desperately looking for a safe place for his birth. Might they have expected God to plan more carefully for this special child? No room at the inn, and then no home as they fled from Herod, becoming refugees.

What of their parents? No doubt they’d imagined the arrival of their first grandchild: respectable, safe at home, with family around to share in the joy.

And the religious people of the day…faithful Jews, longing for the coming of the Messiah…doing their best to follow the law…assuming the saviour would come into the midst of those traditions…come first to places of worship…recognisable to those expecting him…

But no. We may have tamed it with our beautiful Christmas carols, clean and tidy nativity scenes, traditional round of services…but that first Christmas was a mess of altered plans and dashed hopes…played out against a background of fear and anxiety in an occupied country with a volatile King.

And so it went on…shepherds settling down around their fire to an evening of storytelling perhaps…confronted by a host of angels forcing them away from their sheep, down into the busy town…Shepherds who normally kept to the edges…finding themselves the centre of attention, sharing their news.

The Magi, wise men…I don’t know what their plans were, but I don’t suppose they included a trek of hundreds of miles, following a star to an unknown destination.

In fact, this 2020 Christmas of disrupted plans, of being out of our comfort zone, of making do, is far more faithful to the event we celebrate.

Christmas was never about the traditions – although they help us connect with the mystery. Christmas is God’s statement that he is with us in times of darkness and uncertainty. That can’t ever be cancelled…not by the disapproval of society…not by the danger of a busy town and a dirty stable…not by Herod and his soldiers. Not by a global pandemic.

Christmas is a reminder that God’s presence doesn’t depend on carefully laid plans, and following traditions…that he comes to be with us particularly where there is chaos and fear.

I trust that many worried children will find this year as always that Father Christmas somehow manages…because he is propelled by the love and sacrifice of anxious parents, and the compassion of strangers.

And I pray that we, as we gather at the crib…in the churchyard…in church…in our own homes…in our hearts…As we gather with a few loved ones or alone…in joy or grief…in despair or with hope…will find that Christmas is not cancelled.

This Christmas is not easy – but with everything else stripped away it might be a time to accept God’s gift of being with us in the darkness, of sharing the pains, joys and uncertainty of human existence…the gift of love.

‘Joy is a new baby…’ a sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 3

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‘Joy is a new baby…’ a sermon for Adel Parish Church – Advent 3

Isaiah 61: 1-4, 8-end; John 1: 6-8, 19-28

“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”

“Joy is stronger than happiness.”

Preparing for this sermon on joy, I trawled through various learned books on my shelves…but ended up, as I often do, returning to some of the best theologians around – our children.

“Happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby.”

“Joy is stronger than happiness.”

The first, a quote from a school assembly when I was curate; the second from our own Callum Holmes when year 3 came to church last week.

To try to tease out the meaning of ‘joy’, we were looking at how it differs from happiness…and why joy, not happiness is our Advent theme.

It’s not an easy thing to put into words and I’ve been wondering what it is about those two statements that hit the nail on the head. I think perhaps it’s something about trust, endurance and promise.

Trust…it can be difficult in today’s world. All around the world people are bombarded with fake news…statements made just to keep people happy…with little regard for the truth. ‘The virus is nothing to worry about’, ‘climate change isn’t real’, ‘we’ll be fine by Christmas’, ‘our country is doing just fine’; and promises to do the impossible if only one is elected.

Some of the time it works, at least for some people – there can be too much hard stuff to face, especially at the moment…we might well be happier ignoring it. But this happiness won’t last – because it isn’t based on the truth.

Today’s readings also contain joyful messages of wonderful things to come; but both concentrate on the authority of those bringing the good news. The prophet Isaiah begins, ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news’. John the Baptist is very clear that he’s not the Messiah, nor Elijah; he’s the voice crying in the wilderness foretold by Isaiah, sent by God, he’s there as a witness to the coming of Jesus. These are messages from God, messages that can be trusted.

Callum suggested ‘joy’ is stronger than happiness – perhaps this is because it’s always rooted in the truth. Joy comes when we trust the good news we hear, even if things are not so good at the moment.

Perhaps joy is also stronger because it endures. Even genuine happiness tends not to survive difficult times; but joy is strong enough to withstand the darkness.

Advent comes at a time of darkness and shadows, when days are short, the weather often poor. This year we can add anxiety, the weariness of isolation, grief made worse by separation, fears about the economy. But Advent is also when we hear the good news that God comes to live as one of us, to share the darkness and shadows of even the worst human life. So Advent brings the news that we are unconditionally loved…by God. We can know this to be good news even in the darkest times. Happiness may be difficult at the moment – but joy endures.

Of course, happiness can be very real. This summer held many happy moments enjoying nature, on holiday, with friends. And I well remember the happiness of a new bike – or other longed for toy when I was a child.

Yet I immediately recognised the truth contained in that statement: ‘happiness is a new bike; joy is a new baby’. And I wonder whether that truth lies in the promise and potential of a new baby. Unlike happiness that comes from possessions or holidays…a new baby holds the promise of a lifetime of growth, development and interaction. It’s not just about now – but about what is to come.

I was bowled over by the birth of both of our children…but I have to admit to finding tiny babies a little boring. The joy of being a mother unfolded as they smiled, laughed, began to ask endless questions, and shared their childlike wisdom with me. The joy is still unfolding now they are adults and our relationship grows and changes.

That child in my assembly chose the image of a new baby because there was one in her house; but we could equally talk of joy being a deep and lasting friendship. I suspect, I hope, we all have people who bring joy into our lives by their companionship, the phone call or text when things are hard, the offer of help. And friendships aren’t static…bonds gradually deepen as, bit by bit we share ourselves more fully. Again, the joy comes in the promise, of love given and returned, of an unfolding relationship that is always new.

Advent joy comes from the promise that Christ can be born afresh in us this Christmas. And it’s joy rather than happiness, because it’s not just a day of recalling Christ’s birth, but the start, or the deepening of a lifelong relationship.

Advent is traditionally a season when, despite the business of preparing for Christmas, we try to put time aside to wait quietly for God. This year I’m doing that partly with this book on the poems of R.S. Thomas. Advent is quiet, sometimes solemn – but it’s still a time of ‘doing’.

Perhaps trust, and promise bring enduring joy rather than fleeting happiness because they call for a response. In Advent, even in the darkness and difficulties we are asked to trust in God’s steadfast love. To trust that God really does want to share even the darkest parts of our lives.

Then we are invited into a relationship, with Christ. As with every other relationship, the more time and effort we invest in it, the more its promise will unfold, and the more joy it will bring.

Advent joy is stronger than happiness because advent joy is a new baby. As we await the birth of the Christ-child we are called not only to come and adore him, but to stay and grow with him. Amen

Judgment as love? A sermon for Advent 2 – Adel Parish church

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Judgement as love? A sermon for Advent 2 at Adel Parish Church

Isaiah 40: 1 – 11, Mark 13: 24 – end

Advent means a new church year. It also means a change in our Sunday gospel readings. Last year we mainly heard from Matthew – this year it’s Mark.

Today we heard the start of Mark’s gospel, and he starts as he means to go on – abruptly! This isn’t Luke’s beautiful nativity story or John’s soaring poetry introducing Jesus.

No, for Mark, ‘the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ’ comes through John the Baptist shouting in the wilderness, and a baptism of repentance…owning up to what we’re doing wrong…judgement if you like. Judgement – perhaps not the first thing we expect from ‘good news’.

In the past though, advent sermons traditionally tackled the themes of death, judgement, heaven and hell. In recent times we’ve moved to ‘softer’ themes: hope, love, joy, peace; so today you’re expecting love rather than judgement. But actually, in the good news of Jesus Christ, I don’t think judgement and love are that far apart.

For me, Christianity is all about love…since God is love. But it’s an active kind of love: not just a beautiful feeling for a baby in a manger; but the challenging sort of love found in Mark’s Jesus; who comes to shock us, to show us who we really are, and who we ought to be. Jesus who says that entering his kingdom involves facing the truth about ourselves and changing the direction of our lives.

A group of us have been using the ‘Pilgrim course’ to explore some of the foundations of our faith. We’ve reached the ten commandments, the traditional standard against which lives are measured. This week we were challenged by Jesus’ comments on them. ‘Never mind don’t murder…if you’re angry with someone that’s just as bad. Never mind adultery…don’t even look at another woman.’

This sounds very judgmental, almost impossible to live up to – and not much like love. But as we explored Jesus’ words, they altered our view of the commandments, from a list of remote ‘do nots’, to a framework that leads us into fullness of life. Judgement, yes; but judgement that helps us to grow.

‘Don’t murder’, ‘don’t commit adultery’, ‘don’t steal’, can be taken for granted. Of course they’re important, but for most of us keeping them doesn’t impact our lives much. They’re about what we don’t do, more than how we live. Jesus challenges us to go further, to judge our own lives, and address the anger, lust and envy they contain. And these are things that hurt us as much as they do others.

The Pilgrim course asked us to consider the ten commandments as ‘a firm and friendly arm around the shoulder saying, “this is how to live”’…that seems to me an example of judgement experienced as love.

Mark’s good news is that Jesus Christ is coming…that he’s coming to shock us, to show us who we really are, and how that’s not who we should be. But Mark’s good news is also that Jesus judges with love…that he loves us just as we are – but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.

So, our Advent love is a challenge. Preparing to welcome the Christ child into our lives involves having a good look at those lives. Christ’s judgement comes to us as love – but love that offers us some hard work as we try to become more like him. Advent love as tough love perhaps!

There are places in the bible though, where judgement is welcomed not feared. The announcement ‘Here is your God, he will come with vengeance’, is seen as an occasion for rejoicing in song and dance.

‘Your God will come with vengeance’, hardly seems like a cause for joy – unless perhaps it’s spoken to the oppressed, the wrongly imprisoned, the enslaved, the poor and needy. If you’re wronged or exploited by the system – then judgement is indeed a reason to rejoice, judgement might be felt as love.

American philosopher Cornel West says this about love: ‘tenderness is what love feels like in private; justice is what love looks like in public.’

We’re all individual followers of Jesus, who hope to feel his love tenderly working in our lives. But we’re also Christians citizens of this community…country…world, who are called to make his love known to others. ‘Justice is what love looks like in public’, so justice is also part of Advent love.

You may have seen on the BBC news this week a film of two vicars in Burnley almost broken by the burden of feeding the hungry and listening to desperate people. It put the problems of my job into sharp perspective. It also, I think, demanded a response.

One vicar said ‘I go into homes with families; there are children ripping open the bags to get at the food as I come through the door.’ This surely demands justice not charity. In a society as rich as ours, even a global pandemic shouldn’t result in starving children.

For me, sharing Christ’s love must involve actively working for a society where everyone has the right to food and warmth, even when jobs are scarce and some industries struggling. It must involve working against injustice wherever we find it.

We’ve been rightly proud of Adel’s response to our Advent Foodbank appeal, but I think we should also be doing all we can to bring about a time when such an appeal isn’t needed.

Today Esther/Joshua/Ted lit our candle of love. This Advent I pray that we all experience the tender, challenging love of Jesus who comes in gentle judgement to help us change and grow.

Today n lit our candle of love. This advent I pray that we share Christ’s love – working for the justice that is its public face. Amen