Midnight Mass (John 1, 1-14)
Let me start by wishing you all a very Happy Christmas.
I know that for many here this year will have been difficult and challenging. I also know that 2019 will be a challenging year. In the political sphere we seem to be inhabiting a world characterised not by ‘glory,’ ‘grace’ and ‘truth,’ but rather by ego, ill-will and, falsehood. I think, and believe, that 2019 will be a year for the church to show her true colours and to offer to a deeply broken world a better story in which to believe and live by; not a new story but a better story, for our Christian story is an old and timeless story.
Our story begins and ends with the word of God: ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.’ Of course by gathering here tonight to greet the Babe of Bethlehem and to receive him into our midst, through word and sacrament, we not only proclaim that God ‘was’ but that God ‘is.’ Our faith must always dare to proclaim, in word and deed, that God is a present reality and that His Son, Our Saviour, continues to live and reign supreme and that the only Christmas present we can give Jesus is to welcome him into our midst. The reading from John’s prologue makes it clear that people of faith – religious people – haven’t necessarily found it easy to truly welcome God – Jesus – into their very midst: ‘He came to what was his own and his own people did not accept him.’ Once again, the best, no the only, Christmas present we can give Jesus is simply this: to ‘accept Him,’ or to receive Him, and to learn from Him.
A few weeks ago I cited Archbishop William Temple’s observation that what the world really needs above all else is this: ‘more and better Christians.’ I truly believe this. In fact I have never believed it more. The Christian faith, as an active lived out faith, is a necessary good for the world and the one way in which Christians can truly honour Jesus. The Christian faith offers to a world starved of true virtue, and sickened by cheap and frequently unfulfilled promises, ‘glory,’ ‘grace’ and ‘truth.’ The miracle of Christmas is simply this: that God makes a free gift offering of himself. Our free choice is whether to accept or reject the gift. In reality we have only two choices as to what to do with the supreme gift. We can leave it unwrapped, alone, under the tree, or perhaps in the back of a drawer, or, we can lovingly unwrap the gift and place it somewhere where we can cherish it and nurture it. If we make the choice to accept the gift the place we must keep it, and allow it to live, is in our hearts. As Christians Jesus must always, for us, be at the heart of things. Keeping Jesus at the heart of things is good for us as a community, and as individuals, and for the world around us. The world needs a better story and the only people who can tell it are people like you and me. Our ability to tell a better story and to sing salvation’s song is contingent on one thing and one thing only: receiving him, and believing in his name, for this is the means through which we offer to the world real, divine, ‘glory,’ ‘grace’ and ‘truth.’
There is an old saying, one we are all familiar with, that ‘it is better to give than to receive.’ Christianity, in some ways, turns this ‘wisdom’ on its head and says instead: ‘in order to give that which is of the highest value you first need to receive it.’ Our Christmas duty and joy is to receive Jesus into our hearts as the Prince of Glory, Grace and Truth for our own sake and the sake of the world around us.
Advent 4: Luke 1, 39-45
I love the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth. It is, without doubt, one of my favourite gospel narratives. The meeting of these two cousins, the young virgin who is mysteriously pregnant and her older cousin only slightly less mysteriously pregnant, provides the basis for the Hail Mary, that prayer so beloved by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and by some Anglicans (me included). The meeting, the encounter, also speaks directly to what we refer to in the Eucharistic Prayer, as the greatness of the ‘mystery of faith.’
We live in an age where mystery is sometimes looked down on; treated with suspicion. We live in an age that, yes, prizes experience, but which also suggests that only that which can be empirically proved is to be prized. But as a person of faith I want to promote and celebrate the characteristics that animate the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth – joy, fruitfulness, friendship, openness, hospitality; the very characteristics which make the story so human, humane even.
But, the story isn’t just a human story, its also a divine drama; a drama in which the Holy Spirit plays the most significant role as the animator par excellence. One of our advent challenges, it strikes me, is to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in us and amongst us. If we are truly to enter into the mystery of Christmas we must like Mary and her cousin Elizabeth to be first open to the work of the Spirit of God within us; the Spirit who renders the improbable probable, the impossible possible, the mystery credible. One of the great impossibilities, or mysteries, in the Christmas story is God’s casting. To effect His purposes, to create His drama, God didn’t choose the rich, the famous and the accomplished. He chose ordinary people; Zechariah a jobbing priest, Elizabeth his pretty ordinary wife, Joseph a carpenter and, of course, Mary a young virgin. We should take great confidence from the fact that God chose, and continues to choose, ordinary people, people like you and me, through which to effect his story.
Like Mary we need to learn the art of submitting to God, allowing Him to cast us in the Divine Drama. One of our greatest, most urgent, Advent challenges is to recapture the humility and integrity to stand in solidarity with a humble peasant girl – Mary- and pray: ‘Here am I the servant of the Lord let me with me according to your word.’ Like Mary, if we can do this, we will become the sort of people who render the ‘mystery of faith’ truly credible. We will become the sort of people whose very lives become a Magnificat, pointing away from ourselves and towards God. We will become the sort of people who sing, for others, salvation's song.
Our final, pre-Christmas, Advent challenge is to let the Holy Spirit so penetrate our very lives, that like Mary, we become ‘full of grace,’ exemplars of what it means to live transformed and godly lives within the ‘mystery of faith.’
Can I invite you to spend a little bit of time between now and Christmas day thinking about Mary, about her part in the Divine Drama and about what it might mean for you to open your heart to the life changing, life-giving, work of the Holy Spirit?
Advent 2: Baruch chapter 5, Phillipians 1, 3-11 & Luke 21, 25-25
I sensed a few quizzical looks when the Old Testament reading was announced. Some of you might have been thinking to yourselves ‘who on earth is Baruch?’ Anyone like to confess? Phew, its not just me then, for until a few days ago I had no idea who Baruch was. But, can I suggest that we might finding something reassuring in the fact that today we have heard read the words of someone we know little or nothing about? In a world which seems obsessed with the cult of celebrity, status and legacy there is indeed something rather wonderful about reading the words of a largely unknown person of God, thousands and thousands of years after his death.
Last week I suggested that resilience was a function of gratitude and prayer. Today’s reading from the Apocrypha and New Testament readings continue to talk to this theme. Baruch asks us to hold firm in believing that ‘God will lead Israel with joy,’ (verse 9). Earlier in the passage Baruch has asked the world-weary people of Israel to ‘arise…...look East…….rejoicing that God has remembered them,’ (verse 5). As 21st century Christians, occupying a world which seems to have lost leave of its senses, we must continue to thank God for the good things we enjoy whilst hoping, believing, that joy will return. Like the world-weary Israelites of long ago we must keep our heads held high, looking East (the metaphor for looking towards God) for, as I suggested last week, making sure our eyes are continuously fixed on God is the essence of radical repentance; that quality of looking to God, through the person of Jesus, for the answers to the deepest questions.
St. Paul would have been aware of the book of Baruch, he was very possibly fed, spiritually, by it. He is certainly keen to reinforce Baruch’s model of Christian resilience, for he too calls us to develop our reservoir of gratitude and our commitment to a disciplined life of prayer: ‘I thank God every-time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you,’ (verses 3 & 4).
If we like Paul wish to become disciples of Jesus Christ we need to cultivate our sense of gratitude and our commitment to prayer, or joyful prayer. I can’t really say this often enough.
So what of John the Baptist? In many ways John the Baptist is the sort of odd-ball character we are possibly a little wary of. I suspect that many of us would be uncomfortable walking the streets of Winslow loudly proclaiming a baptism of ‘repentance for the forgiveness of sins,’ (verse 3), but I do hope that we would all hope, and pray, that ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of the God,’ (verse 6) and that the church – you and me in other words – might ‘prepare the way of the Lord, making his paths straight,’ (verse 4). John the Baptist’s message is, yes, the importance of radical repentance but what he also teaches us is that our vocation is the humble work of preparation. As a church we need to lay the right paths and then leave the job of conversion up to God.
So how do we prepare the way and what are the mechanisms through which ‘all flesh shall see the salvation of God?’ You’ve got it: resilience and repentance. As a penitent and resilient Christian community we must always make sure that we are shaped through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, so that we become ‘as Christ’ for the surrounding community. It is our mandate and duty to offer a better, more hopeful, way ahead; a way that allows ‘all flesh to see the salvation of God.’
The way we get there is through our commitment to prayer.
Let me finish by giving an example of someone preparing the way through prayer. Bishop Stephen Cottrell has written with affection about his Aunt Millie. Millie wasn’t a real aunt, just one of those people who was kind of adopted into the family as an auntie type figure. Millie was a very devout Roman Catholic who was delighted to attend Bishop Stephen’s ordination to the priesthood. The reason she was delighted was that she had partnered with God, preparing the way through prayer. At Bishop Stephen’s ordination she told him that ‘every day, for the past forty years, when she had gone to Mass, she had prayed for the conversion of my family.’ Through her sheer resilience and her commitment to prayer she had accepted the challenge laid down by John the Baptist to ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’
This Advent can I ask you all a rhetorical question: what, or perhaps more precisely, who, are you praying for?
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