Tuesday, March 24, 2015

I Have A Dream

We are in that time in the church's year that we have to hold our APCM - for the uninitiated this is the AGM of the church.  These meetings, jokingly, can be a gathering of people waiting to go home.  They are the opportunity to deal with elections of officers (people to serve as Church Warden), to ensure that the financial matters of the church are sound and to sometimes harangue the clergy.

I try and I would like all of our churches to see these gatherings differently.

The APCM is a chance to look back with thankfulness over the last year at all that has happened, to learn from things that haven't happened as well as they could have and to look forward to where we believe God is calling us to be.

Yes there are things that must happen at this meeting - namely the election of Church Wardens, members to serve on the Parochial Church Council and the Deanery Synod and to receive various reports to do with the life of the church but I believe that these meetings can and should be much more that functional business.

With that in mind I would like us to use our APCM as a time to dream.

When I arrived in my current parish back in 2011 I met with nearly 100 people in small groups for coffee or a glass of wine depending on what end of the day it was. One of the questions I asked the people I met was about their hopes and dreams for the future were - if anything were possible in the life of the church, where would you like to be in 5 years time? These ideas and suggestions were gathered together and became the basis of our first Mission Action Plan.

Aware we have moved on over those 5 years, led and guided by God, I wonder if it is time to dream again? What are our hopes over the next five years for our life together? What are God's dreams for His people here?

Have a think, have a pray, dream - and anything that comes to you, anything at all, let me know!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Passion Sunday - The Great Preaching Experiment pt ii

I tried preaching again using the method I was taught recently. It still feels odd to prep and deliver this way but I am sure it will get easier with time.

Today's passage was John 12:20-33. Jesus' disciples are met by some Greeks who wish to see Jesus. Their words now sit facing many a preacher - exhorting us to preach in such a way that our hearers encounter Jesus for themselves.

I didn't preach from the pulpit making it easier. For me to engage with the congregation as used the lectern as my base.

I prepared the sermon in the way I have been taught:

Attention grabber - a way to ensure that people are listening and engaged.

Empathy - can the congregation empathise with a key aspect underlying what is going to be said. Today was reminding us that how we see someone can affect how we interact with them.

Context - how does the passage sit in the context of the rest of this section of scripture. Today was acknowledging this passage comes after Jesus' anointing at Bethany and His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Insights and illustrations - here lies the key things that as a preacher I feel called to say. Today was something about discipleship, something about. Good's call to us not to forget Jesus and his ministry in pointing people back to God, finally something about needing to make a decision about the natur e of Jesus' ministry for ourselves.

What is Jesus asking of us - herein lies the challenge

Respond - ask people to silently reflect and then ask them to respond the the central points in the sermon.

Today's go at preparing this way felt more natural to me, but again was a bit long coming in at around 14 minutes. I think this still as much to do with me honing the new skills I have learned.

Feedback has basically been good, but if you are reading this and heard this morning's effort, I would really value some constructive feedback.

I hope our congregations will grant me a little grace as I seek to embed these new skills!


Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Great Preaching Experiment

This CartoonChurch.com cartoon by Dave Walker originally appeared in the Church Times.

A few of you will know that a few weeks ago I went on a Preaching Masterclass - a piece of residential training.
I have to say that I found the mechanics of the way that we were being taught to preach was undoing the style I had learned over 15 years. It was like the key trainer was talking in Russian whilst I understood only English. As the first day went on I found myself becoming more and more dispirited, deskilled and frustrated.

I had to have a conversation with the trainers more than once privately asking them to explain to me again what it was they were wanting me as an experienced preacher to do.

And then somehow during the early part of day two - the penny dropped. What was being asked of us was to preach according to a pattern which will help us prepare and also deliver exactly what we wanted/needed to say.  The structure looks like this:

Attention: The sermon opens with some sort of attention grabber. Something to draw the hearers attention to the fact that you hope to share something worship with them

Empathy: Find some way of empathising with your hearers in relation to the sermon's key theme.

Context: What is the context of the passage in relation to where the piece or pieces of Scripture sit in relation to the rest of the Canon.

Insight 1: A small and short insight gleaned from the passage backed up with a short story to illustrate your point.

Insight 2: A more significant insight gleaned from the passage backed up with a short story to illustrate your point.

Insight 3: The key point you wish to make from the passage(s) backed up with a short story to illustrate your point.

Ask - What is Jesus saying to us through this passage (or passages) of Scripture?

What are you going to do now? How do we respond? Give some options that are attainable as suggestions.

Silence to reflect


I have prepared and preached this way twice now. Whilst I am very much still learning how to use this plan, I am finding that it gives a very clear structure to my preparation and hopefully also to what I ultimately deliver.

The sermon is then written on a series of post it notes which I have up til now, stuck inside my journal.

Preaching this way, rather than using a full script, was initially scary as I wasn't completely clear, word by word, what was coming next. But what has happened, as I have grown in confidence in this method, is that I am engaging more and responding more readily to my hearers - which is a good thing!

Here then is the 'text' of what I preached at 8am and 9am this morning and the accompanying audio.

This morning's sermon was too long - I am ultimately aiming for 10-12 minutes, but I will continue to hone this craft. I hope my hearers will bear with me!


Lent 3 - Based on John 2:13-22

Attention grabber
Story of waiting for Mr Lockton's maths class to begin. What are you waiting for? Christmas! I have never seen Mr Eliston, otherise known as Rave Dave beachse of his angry outbursts look so cross.

We all get angry sometimes - we may not be like Dr Banner in the 1970’s classic Incredible Hulk - ‘Don’t make me angry. You won’t like me when I’m angry. But we all know what it’s like to feel the flare of anger rise within us - all too aware that when it lights, we are no longer in control of our emotions, but they are in control of us.

This story in Mark is placed just before the Crucifixion. In John it’s at the start of his public ministry, Wedding at Cana and then they head to Caperneum. Jesus acclaimed as Lamb of God by John the Baptist isn’t just offering spiritual salvation but a holistic one where God impacts all of our lives - including our politics and the way we spend our money.

Insight 1
The passover was near - John places the drama of the lead up to the Crucifixion - the cleansing of the temple - right at the beginning of his account. It’s all back to front.

Illustration: I love going to the cinema. It’s amazing how some lines from films stick in your head isn’t it? ‘Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what’s coming next’ or ‘Rosebud.’ Both films start at the end.  Orson Welles’s film begins with Citizen Kane on his deathbed in heaving fortified Xanadu clutching a snow globe and uttering that one word. The film then delves backwards to find the significance of that line.

John begins his Gospel with a story that other Gospel writers place at the end of Jesus’ life - highliting at the outset the key place that the crucifixion and Resurrection play in our salvation.

 Insight 2
Jesus is someone who will turn the tables on the Establishment, who will challenge ‘the way we always do things here’. This is very much a political act.

Illustration: Charles I believed in the divine right of kings. Quarrelled with a dissolved 3 parliaments which led to civil war. Handed over eventually to Oliver Cromwell. Charles as you probably know was imprisoned and executed in 1649. In 1653 Cromwell actually did the same - dissolving the Rump Parliament with words that could be contemporary You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately ... Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

Jesus cleansing the Temple is a deeply political act reminding us that God’s saving love touches ever aspect of our lives. Jesus turning tables here is Jesus’ protest against those who had allowed the Temple to be a place that gave sanctuary to those who refused to pursue the justice of God. Jesus makes holy again that which was being profaned.

Insight 3 (Key point)
Jesus is shown identifying the Temple with himself. In other words, he – not the building – is the place where God dwells and the focus of faith. And now, we are the body of Christ, the church (1 Corinthians 12.27). Christ dwells in and through us. We have the responsibility of carrying and representing the image of Christ.

Illustration: We’ve all seen that portrait of Henry Viii - you know - *that one* but what I didn’t know until recently was Holbein, the artist was trying to make Henry look good.
It wasn’t just the notrious Labour Government who were spinning comment and were concealsy image conscious in getting their message across. Henry VIII and many before him did it too.

You know the painting I mean - the aggressive, defiant, bull-like figure, staring straight out at us, feet spread, fists clenched, shoulders padded, codpiece thrusting – every sumptuously adorned, jewel-encrusted inch proclaiming his self-assured magnificence. Unlike the real thing it seems.

Painted during the worst year of his reign following no male heir and an uprising the north an nearly dying himself. It was painted to hang in the Palace of Whitehall to proclaim that without recourse to crown and sceptre or the weapons of war, that here was a victorious warrior king who had triumphed over his enemies and stood defiant in the face of all opposition. 

Jesus would go on to conquer his enemies and ours but not through power or might, but through selfless submission to His enemies will and rising victorious from the death of the cross, setting us all free.

What is Jesus saying to us?
The proper place for our worship is no longer Temple, but Him, and we, as His body, need to continue to embody Him in the world individually and corporately in everything we do and say.

How will we repsond - options

 - For some of us it might be in grand ways - protesting and calling for justice and fresh starts for people in Iraq or Syria.
 - For others it will be in unseen ways such as the way that we choose to spend our money - perhaps deliberately choosing fairly traded produce knowing that it brings a just a fair wage to the producer.
 - For all of us, whilst enjoying the beauty of our buildings and them being an aid to our worship need to remember that we worship Jesus and trust Him to lead and guide us into the presence of God and we can do that in school halls and fields as well as places such as this.


Lord Jesus, 
you came among us challenging our ways, our assumptions, 
our politics, and the way we treat each other.
Help us to hear your voice crying in our wilderness, 
to see your light shining in our darkness.
Help us to become the people you made us to be, 
your body in the world, 
carrying both your wounds and your love.
Bring us to the places where you need us to be, 
serving all your children. Amen.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Top 10 Tracks for 2014

Ahhhh my much neglected blog! How I have missed thee.  I was going to blog here my top 10 albums of 2014 some time ago but it never happened. They are lurking somewhere on my Twitter feed.

Following a chat with my mate Matt on Twitter about our fave tracks for 2014 to compliment his blog of his fave albums for 2014 on his go to blog for things metal and prog, I thought I'd have a go too.

It's harder than you think to single out single tracks from some really stellar albums of last year. I wonder whether the tracks I select will stand up away from the context of the albums from which they come. Sometimes context is all important in music.

I am saddened that I didn't include in this list anything from Dave Kerzner's excellent 'New World' especially the expansive 'Stranded - parts 1-5), or from the Neil Cowley Trio's sublime 'Touch and Flee' especially the restrained beauty of 'Kneel Down' or even the real return to form of Thom Yorke away from his Radiohead buddies who managed to out Aphex Twin the Aphex Twin in my book with 'Brain in a Bottle' from 'Tomorrow's Modern Boxes' or even A blast of Transatlantic, especially 'Into the Blue' drawing you skywards from the wonderful 'Kaleidoscope'...  Please excuse the links rather than embedded videos - Blogger is not liking me doing too many of those!

Anyway down to it and in no particular order:

Anathema - Distant Satellites - Take Shelter

I have been a fan of the band since 'We're Here Because We're Here'. For purveyors of beautifully crafted, genuinely emotional and very human music - human in the sense that the songs tend to deal with life as it really is, you will find none better.

Having moved from beginnings as a death/doom metal band, Anathema have really broadened their musical horizons and flown.

I met the band's guitarist and chief song writer Danny Cavanaugh at a gig once and I plucked up the courage to tell him how much their music meant to me. Stumbling over my words a little I explained something about fragile beauty and the sheer humanity of the sound they make. Anyway he seemed genuinely flattered and I got a prog hug!

Distant Satellites has many superb tracks and it was very hard to pick one. In the end I plumped for the last track on the album which move me to tears the first time I heard it. The album though is an essential purchase.

The Contortionist - Language - Language 1 - Intuition

Twitter has a lot to answer for. Through it I have made some superb friendships but I have also discovered a whole host of music that I wouldn't have otherwise come across. The Contortionist's 'Language' is one such album. Moving away from their musical roots, this band now pack a heck of a proggy punch. Some of the album veers into tech metal and djent, but for me it is the tightness of the arrangements and the sheer musicality that make this album and especially this track one of the stand outs of 2014.

Cosmograph - Capactitor - The Fear Created

I came late to the party on Robin Armstrong's offering to the prog world, having not quite 'got' the sophomore release 'The Man Left in Space' which I know many lauded. It all came home to roost with 'Capacitor' for me. Somehow quintessentially English, the sheer drama of the music draws me in and away. This track begins with accouric guitar and then a heavy riff which slaps you round the chops. Not a complex track, but one where the simplicity of the arrangement does everything it needs to.

Distorted Harmony - Chain Reaction - Every time she smiles

Another Twitter find. Israel's Distorted Harmony, I am reliably informed began as somewhat Drem Theater soundalikes, but with Chain Reaction they find their musical stride and really step out big time. This track gives a hint at the diverse an rewarding nature of the rest of the album. But if you need a reason to listen, for me it just makes me smile from the inside out. A gem.

A Formal Horse - s/t EP - Rosensage

With a new EP soon to be released, A Formal Horse are for me, one of the key players in the current revival of British prog.  Yes there are nods and references to other seminal bands gone before them in their musical palate but they blend them to form something totally new, all topped by Francesca Lewis' superb vocal delivery. Definitely one to watch - or rather listen out for!

Haken - Restoration EP - Crystllaised

My love for this band knows no bounds - musical technicality, tight arrangements, heaviness, death growls, circus music oh and chooooooons and boy do they cut it live. Matt Spall it is all your fault. Restoration was a chance to reimagine some old demo material and Crystallised just tops it all.

KXM - s/t - Stars

As as MASSIVE King's X fan, andy band featuring Doug Pinnick on bass and vocals in my book is going to be special. But one that also features George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob) on guitar is almost too good to be true. Would their mix of musical styles work together - well yes they do. For fantastic grooves and riffs and soooooulful vocals this is 2014's sadly unnoticed delights.

Matt Stevens - Lucid - Oxymoron

How Matt and his band 'The Fierce and The Dead' don't have more exposure is beyond me, save in the small musical pool that is the prog world.  Matt's skill on acoustic and electric guitar is simply stunning. Simple accoustic looped tracks on the one musical hand and slabs of punky anarcho prog on the other. Lucid is Matt's finest music hour as a solo artist for me and combines both of those musical traits effortlessly. Oxymoron is a stunning opener and channels the spirit of Bob Mould perfectly.

Seven Impale - City of the Sun - 'God left us for a black dressed woman.'

I don't subscribe to Spotify, but I do use it occasionally to listen before I by something. Very occasionally I click on the 'you've listened to X, you might also like Y' link.  This is how I found Norway's Seven Impale and for me, one of the most important musical discoveries of recent years. I love jazz, I love prog - they do both with a bombastic tongue-in-cheekness. Musical fun fun fun!

And lastly...

 Go Go Penguin - 'V2.0' - 'Garden Dog Barbecue' 

I love jazz. I grew up listening to it and I my dad is responsible for much, so I had to include some here.  I was introduced to this Bristol band by another Twitter friend and I love their twist on contemporary jazz. They have pushed it to it's creative limits in similar and yet different ways that The Bad Plus and E.S.T have.  VS2.0 is a gem  and if you don't like trad jazz - give this a whirl.  This song scitters and jumps like the jazz drum n' bass mashup that it is. Dance, you won't be able to help yourself!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Secrets and Fear

As I read this morning’s Gospel in preparation for what I wanted to say this morning on first reading I had, as it were, the ‘soft focus reading’ - the extension of the Christmas story which the church inconveniently locates in early January - 3 Kings called Caspar, Melchior and Balthazaar kneeling at a manger, glorious light streaming from it as they present their precious gifts.  There’s a wonder and magic about this story of wandering magi led to Jesus from the distant East by a star. It tells of the far-reaching – indeed, global and cosmic – implications of Jesus’ birth. Even more, it witnesses to God’s commitment to reach all people with news of God’s redeeming love.  And if that’s the sermon I should be preaching, perhaps I should sit down.

Then when I the Epiphany Gospel again, I noticed other things at another level - secrets. God reveals the secret of His plan of saving love to wise strangers from another land - hinting at Jesus’ call to Jew and Gentile alike that all are called Daughters and Sons of God; Herod secretly summoning the Wise Ones to quiz them for the details of how they heard of this birth; Herod sends the Wise Ones on their way with a new urgency to find the Messiah Child and to send word directly to him of the outcomes of their search; and then the Wise ones  warned secretly in a dream from the God of Israel to avoid Herod on their return journey.

But then I read it again and noticed something further.  When I read it a third time I noticed fear directly and indirectly, spoken and unspoken in the hearts of some of the characters in the unfolding story: when Herod heard the Wise One’s news he was frightened as was the whole city. Why? Fear of a loss of authority and power? A fear of unsettling the status quo? Fear of change? Fear of what the Romans might do if their puppet King Herod is unseated by another, rightful claim to the throne… There is also an urgent fear driving Herod’s calling together of all of the Chief Priest and Scribes - he wanted to make sure he got all the facts straight so he could act.

Secrets and Fear sounds more like a film title than part of a story that in one sense concludes part of the Christmas celebrations. And yet secrets and fear are all too often the unseen hallmark of our lives.

As parents, we tell our boys that we don’t keep secrets - it’s about encouraging an atmosphere of openness and dialogue, yet as parents and adults we all keep things locked tightly away like the contents of the Wise Ones’ treasure-chests on their journeys.  We conceal all sorts of emotions and experiences - hurt, anger, grief, lies, but also the truth about ourselves for fear of ridicule or social unacceptability.

Either out of our own experience or the experience of others we also now how harmful the keeping of secrets can be to our own well-being.  The word Epiphany as I have mentioned before means revealing. It’s not necessarily a lightbulb moment, but can be a silent dawning, a gradual opening of the Truth.  The Epiphany sung aloud by angels on the hillside to social lepers - shepherds - is again revealed to religious lepers - astrologers, Magi, wise men - in the night sky.  The secret is out - the world as we know it; God as we know Him; humanity as we experience and live it is transformed by the arrival of this baby Messiah.

Fear, for many, is a hallmark of these early days of 2015.  With Ebola now on these shores; if you believe the political commentators who say that the austerity of 2014 will be worse in 2015; with no sign of let up in Syria and Iraq; and planes dropping out of the sky and boats catchingg fire and sinking - life for many is not a place of Christmas joy but of fear.  Fear can destabilise and cripple us as much as any illness - and living in its long shadow can literally, over time, dehumanise us.

The Epiphany revealed to both Joseph and Mary long ago of the birth of God’s King in their care strikes fear into the heart of Herod, the Roman puppet king and his city and yet produces a very real and contrasting and transforming joy in the hearts the Wise Ones when they encounter Him for themselves.

Having celebrated Christmas for the children with a soft focus crib scene on December 25th, The adult version of the nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of adoration and gifts of gold for a king, incense for a priest leading us into God’s presence and myrrh for the healing of all hurts, to a darker world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence.  But if this Christmas story is darker and more adult, it is also realistic. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and school shootings, a world where innocents die every day in tragic circumstances and to preventable illness and hunger. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the Wise Ones – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents in the verses to come – Matthew paints an accurate if also difficult picture of our world.

And that is what is at the heart of this darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, us, so often mastered by secrets and fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies through Jesus the king, Jesus the way into God’s presence and Jesus the healer of our hurts. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life. 

Come and pay him homage - pledge allegiance to this Infant King as his man or woman and open up the treasure chest of your heart and offer what you have there - whatever secrets and fears for the present and the future you have locked away - and let Him reveal to each of us the transforming treasures of God.


I am indebted to the scholarship of David Lose for some ideas in this sermon

Light in the Darkness - a Christmas Sermon

The world seems somehow much darker at the moment… Glasgow seems darker following the accident on Monday - candles have replaced the Christmas lights. The joy of Christmas has been replaced with the grief of a whole community.  They are a  city with a broken heart following the deaths of six people only about a year after the tragic helicopter crash in the city. ‘People make Glasgow’

The world seems somehow much darker at the moment…  Peshawar seems darker where the smallest of school uniforms is the most powerful reminder of the slaughter of 132 children of military families in their school by the Taliban. In a world of compassion fatigue can we really be desensitised to these deaths? "You can take down my school, you can take down my teachers, you can kill my brothers, but you cannot take away my identity," said one 18 year old student.

The world seems somehow much darker at the moment… Sydney seems darker in the aftermath of the café kidnapping of some 30 or so people and subsequent siege last week which ended in the deaths of 3 including the kidnapper.  The world seems somehow much darker at the moment… It might be since the events in Ferguson and Staten Island in the US where racial tensions seem to be running higher than for a generation. Or maybe it’s the number of global “hotspots” there are in the Middle East, the Ukraine, Nigeria, South Sudan and more. Or maybe is the number of deaths caused from Ebola and the fear that disease strikes into the hearts of so many thousands of miles away. Or maybe…

The world just now seems rather dark, even hostile. And so I wonder what this Christmas will feel like when so much of the world seems to be in turmoil and the angel’s cry of “peace on earth” seems like more of a frankly worthless, utopian wish than a blessing and we who gather to sing carols and hear the Christmas story seem so very small against the backdrop of this troubled world.

And that’s when a part of this morning’s Gospel stood out to me. Truth be told, I’ve heard it countless times, but this time is struck me differently: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

What strikes me is that the events Luke describes also seem incredibly small. I mean, what does Emperor Augustus or Governor Quirinius care about a pregnant teenager or wandering shepherds? Mary, Joseph, and the rest – are so incredibly small compared to these rulers. And yet Luke declares that whether these rich and powerful leaders care or not – whether they even notice or not – yet the events Luke describes in detail are going to change the whole world. Forever.

It’s an audacious claim, when you think about it: that the birth of a baby to an unwed teen in a backwater town could possible matter. And yet there, in a nutshell, is the promise of the Gospel: that God shows up where we least expect Him to be and always for us.

So though this world be dark, it is not forsaken, and the headlines we read and worry about will have their day and then fade again against the backdrop of this story we’ve been telling now for nearly 2000 years. God loves this world! And God will not give up on it…or us. Moreover, God continues to come to love and bless this very world and invites us to do the same.

Well, if Luke reminds me that the Gospel has always been set amid world events as a promise that God works among the seemingly small and insignificant to change the world, John calls to mind a more realistic assessment of human life. Right near the end of the Gospel we heard last night, St John writes: “No one has ever seen God” To which I want to reply, “No way?”

So many of us struggle to see God amid the desolate headlines. So many more wonder where God is amid their own more private pain of ruptured relationships, lost loved ones, loneliness, illness, job loss, or depression. Or maybe it’s just that we get caught up in the day-to-day routine of, in an increasing number of cases, making ends meet that we have a hard time imagining that God could possibly make a difference in our world. Sure, maybe we believe in God in general, but sensing God’s presence – let alone seeing God – in the nitty-gritty of our lives seems a bit much.

But John doesn’t stop with his stark assessment. He goes on: “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Perhaps the problem isn’t that it is impossible to see God, but rather that we are prone to look in all the wrong places. Rather than speculate about God’s existence, John seems to say, we should instead look to Jesus - this fragile infant whose birth we recall today. And when we do that, we encounter the God who became flesh, taking on our lot and our life that we might have hope - like a beam of light shining into our world, into our cities and neighbourhoods, however dark they may seem.

Both of these passages seem to acknowledge that, when you get right down to it, the Gospel message of hope, grace, and peace seems rather improbable, even unlikely. I mean, that the Creator of the cosmos would even know we exist, let alone love and cherish us? It’s almost too good to be true. But for just that reason this is the story I keep coming back to, hoping against hope – and, on our good days, actually believing – that it is the one true story we will encounter not just today, this week, year, and lifetime. That God so loved the world… And He still does.

Perhaps more than ever we need the light of this story to shine into the nooks and dark crannies of our soul, and the places we wonder if it can possibly be true, those spaces where the world’s darkness seems so much more prominent than the light. Because that’s what this this child was born – to shine light in dark places, to bring hope to the discouraged, insight to the lost, and the promise of peace the peace of God to all who long for it. Amen

Monday, December 15, 2014

Are You Sure You Want The Advent Joy?

We are in the season of the Christmas party - office or otherwise. Some of us enjoyed lunch as members of the In Touch group last week. The delicious food aside, there on the table were the obligatory Christmas crackers, with their small ‘gift’, party hat and groan-worthy joke.  With that in mind, last week must have been a slow news week, as one of our national newspapers had the time and space to print the 50 best (or worst!) cracker jokes. I had to share a few:

How did Mary and Joseph know that Jesus was 7lb 6oz when he was born?
They had a weigh in a manger!

Why did no one bid for Rudolph and Blitzen on eBay?
Because they were two deer!

What's the most popular Christmas wine?
'I don't like Brussels sprouts!’

Those jokes may not fill you with any sense joy, but deep joy lies at the heart of all that hear and say and pray and sing today.  The irony is not lost on me that this Gaudate Sunday (gaudate which comes from the Latin to rejoice!) and in Advent and Christmas we sing ‘Joy to the World’ as we await the coming of Christ, but this time of the year often generates the highest frequency of incidents of depression and heartache.

For the prophet Isaiah, joy is not about personal pleasure or *my* happiness or even the possession of a gift already unwrapped.  The joy that Isaiah speaks of is rooted in a gut wrenching hope that the struggles and disappointments of life, will one day be fundamentally and finally resolved by God Himself.  That hope and joy rises out of knowing what it is to be burdened and oppressed, to be the little guy, to feel like you no longer matter, or that your number may be up. That no one cares. No one notices. But the good news is that through a person whom God appoints, a new freedom and peace that is deep and satisfying is coming.

As we are bombarded with ads for perfumes and toys and yet all too aware of what the international troops are leaving Afghanistan to, or what is still unfolding in Syria, Iraq the Ukraine or Nigeria, or as we begin to hear of Blue complaining that Red’s policies will not cut it leading up to the election next year: above that clamour, the voice of God echoes down the centuries speaking words of hope for the oppressed, the addicted, the imprisoned, for the broken-hearted, for those who mourn and for those whose lives are blighted by robbery and ‘petty crime.’

To Jewish ears, this is not some pie in the sky political manifesto but resonates with the practice of everyday life.  Through Isaiah, God speaks of Jubilee.

As you know Jewish people observe a Sabbath every seventh day and rest from all work, remembering God doing the same after His acts of creation. Every seventh year is a special sabbath year and involves a similar rest for land, animals and people, but the seventh cycle of these seven years cycles is extra special. It is a sabbath of sabbaths.  It is Jubilee.

These words of God through Isaiah, were first spoken to a defeated and broken people whose city was razed to the ground, whose centre of worship had been decimated, whose loved ones have been slaughtered and raped, whose identity and very existence has been attempted to be wiped from the page of history.  And into the silence following this genocide comes a shout of divine hope.

During the Jubilee, property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged, slaves were freed and sent home, prisoners could be pardoned and so on. The use of Jubilee language in this section of Isaiah’s prophesy is a clear indication that the freedom proclaimed by God is intended to be made permanent.

Though the Jubilee was a rare event -- to be observed every fiftieth year -- God's servant is sent to announce that that our long-longed for liberation is now and that God will act now to free people from debt and oppression. But this freedom isn’t just physical, it’s emotional too - instead of feeling shame at being the defeated and humiliated underdog (heads hanging and wearing funeral clothes) they are to be welcomed as honoured wedding guests - anointed with oil and be-garlanded.

This is a message of hope and assurance in God. This is the sort of message that makes us want to stand up and shout yes please, where do I sign, that makes us sing in spirit: I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God.

All this stands in stark contrast to the jostling to pay at the till for our Christmas shopping.  This Advent hope and longed for joy taps into Archbishop Justin’s shock and shame at the state of a nation and culture that needs foodbanks to feed our nation’s hidden hungry. it is not good enough to excuse ourselves that it’s somehow ‘their’ fault because of choices ‘they’ have made when ‘we’ fail to speak out against or vote out the system that perpetrates it all.

True joy this Advent and Christmas is marked not by jokes but by concrete actions - not by carol singing, but by rebuilding walls and lives and skills and bank balances. It is about dignity for the despised and hope for the hopeless and not just by a passing feeling.

This is the ‘Joy to the World’ that we sing of - but not just in Advent.  This is God’s new way of living.  Always. It begins with us accepting John the Baptist’s call to re-orientating our lives God-wards in repentance. But then it  must focus outwards to others. It is transformative substantive change. It is practical.  It is local in our community.  It will involve us mixing with others who may lack dignity and who feel humiliated by us and others like us.  But it is has divine mandate… still. Jesus did it. Are you in?