Farewell Heston & Lydia – a sermon by Heston Groenewald (and a bit more)

This morning we’re starting a series on John’s gospel, and Lydia and I are also saying farewell…

It’s been wonderful to meet you these last few years, and we’ve loved being in the neighbourhood. Just as we’re moving out of the neighbourhood, St Johns invites us to think this morning about God moving in. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us – or as the Message bible puts it, God became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.

St John is saying that ‘Jesus’ is what it looks like when God comes to meet us. And it’s not very dignified!

Jesus told a story about God coming to meet his people- the story we call the Prodigal Son, with a Father who runs with open arms and open heart, casting aside his dignity to meet his wayward child and welcome him back into his presence.

The image of ‘arms and heart opened wide’ is one we have in our Eucharistic liturgy as well- Jesus opened wide his arms of love upon the cross- he cast aside his dignity to die in shame, naked and disgraced.

That’s what St John says it looks like when God comes to meet us. God is ready to throw respectability and pride out of the window, because that is what you do when you’re acting in love. God was born in poverty and died in disgrace- and thought it well worth while for our love.

This love is the life that is the light of the world, and the light of all humankind. St John is suggesting that if we can put aside our respectability and pride, our barriers pretences and suspicions, if we can open our arms and our hearts WIDE, then we will find ourselves living eternal life, life in all its fullness. We’ll find ourselves living the life of heaven, here on earth. Just like the Prodigal Father, and just like Jesus.

‘Like it or not, heaven is other people. Did you think it was God? You are right; but it is God in people, just as it is God in you.’  John.V.Taylor

As Lydia and I have moved into your neighbourhood and met you, we’ve discovered that St John is right! We’ve learned to see God- to see heaven- in you, as we’ve opened ourselves to you.

So I’d like you to have the chance to do the same! God came to meet us, let’s go meet each other.

[BINGO TIME! – a break to play “Human Bingo”]

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…’

Our world can seem full of darkness, but every bit of that darkness can be overcome if people do what we’ve just been doing. Meeting each other. Just like God came to meet us in Jesus Christ. That’s very simple, but it’s also very profound and true.

As we leave, please will you carry on doing this- mixing, meeting, breaking down barriers and creating friendship and love. Then your life will shine like a light in the darkness.

Meeting you- in all your diversity and craziness!- has been the most invaluable lesson for us these 3+ years. Thank you and we love you!

*  *  *

A short thank you address on behalf of the Church of the Ascension, by Trevor Donnelly:

I’m going to keep it really, really short

I’m just going to begin with a quote, end with a prayer and say very few words in between…

Rowan Williams spoke to a group of people preparing for ministry and he talked about the things that destroyed ministry, the greatest enemies of doing God’s work:

“Now these three abide: laziness, anger, and fear—and the greatest of these is fear.”

There’s something profound for us all to think about there, but I realised that Heston and Lydia do not need that advice, in fact their work across the team has showed the very opposite:

  • hard work
  • serenity
  • confidence

hard work:

Heston has worked tireless and with commitment that puts myself (and pretty much every minister I know to shame).

As his training incumbent my advice was never to “do more” but rather to maybe take more time for himself…

serenity:

My personal vote of thanks has to be for the time I had to fly off to Belfast at very short notice.

I would phone him on a Saturday night and ask him to take the service at the Ascension on top of a service at Holy Trinity and St. John’s and I was greeted with a “no problem, do what you have to do.  I will be eternally grateful…

confidence:

Heston and Lydia have great confidence – confidence in the people of our Churches, confidence in you all, confidence in the power of love to change lives and confidence in the Gospel…

I have a few small tokens of thanks from your friends at the Ascension, which I will give in a moment.

The people of Leeds are lucky indeed.

I end with a prayer by John Henry Newman, although it is written in the first person, add you ‘Amen’ to make it your prayer too:

God has created me to do him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.  I have my mission.  I may never know it in this world.  But I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in the chain.  A bond of connection between persons.  He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good.  I shall do his work.  I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments.
Therefore will I trust him.  Wherever, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him;  in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him.
He does nothing in vain.  He knows what he is about.  He may take away my friends, he may throw me among strangers, he may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me… still…
He knows what he is about.
Amen.

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Stairway to Heaven – a sermon by Heston Groenewald

Last sermon at Ascension! Boo hoo. But we have some very appropriate readings for the occasion, with lots of ascension happening, up and down these stairways to heaven.

Stairways to heaven are a very foundational idea in Jewish and Christian thinking- heaven and earth are two dimensions of the same reality, and they are linked together. This understanding runs right through our scriptures, starting in Genesis where the heavens and the earth are created as God’s temple, and humans are placed into this temple as the ‘image’ of God. Heaven and earth are created to be interlinked and continuous- God comes and goes freely between them both, and the humans who are made in God’s image don’t seem to know that there’s any distinction to be made.

That all changes when they get kicked out of the garden, out of God’s presence, and life on earth suddenly seems far less heavenly. Then things go from bad to worse- Genesis 3-6 murder of Abel, Tower of Babel, the flood- as humans either forget the divine image that they bear, or they deliberately turn away from it. And so God invites Abraham and Sarah and their family to reclaim the divine image and offer it to the world. That was never going to be an easy calling, as their family name suggested- the patriarch Jacob was renamed Israel- wrestles with God- and that set the tone for the story of Israel and humanity- heaven and earth are more at odds that at ease. Not so easily continuous anymore.

And so it’s a very hopeful thing that Jacob- Israel- has this dream about a ladder which connects heaven and earth, as the messengers of God ascend and descend. He calls the place Beth El, the house of God. And that’s exactly how the Israelites understood the Jerusalem temple when it came along- the house of God- this was the place where heaven and earth overlapped, the temple was a little piece of heaven here on earth.

Jesus was also convinced that heaven and earth are connected and interlocked, but he had something new and special to say about that idea. He describes the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, so the place where heaven and earth overlap isn’t a place or a temple anymore, it’s a person- the person of Jesus.

Jesus went around doing the things that the temple was there for. He forgave sins, he healed people and restored them into the community, he taught the Torah and its application on his own authority. He told people that he was the true way to God. He was acting as though HE was the place where heaven and earth overlap. HE was now God’s address on earth- if you want to be in God’s presence, don’t go to the temple, come hang out with Jesus.

And that makes the resurrection and Ascension of Jesus very interesting, especially for us lot who call ourselves the church of the Ascension. Jesus ascends into heaven, and once again there’s a being who can move freely between heaven and earth, and is completely at home in both dimensions of reality. Just like God and Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis- in Jesus, divinity and humanity have been reunified, heaven and earth have been reunified.

That suggests, that we should be able to see or sense heaven in the world around us. Barbara Brown Taylor talks about being a ‘detective of divinity’- she goes around ‘collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks that God has left for her to follow.’ She says our earth is shot through with heaven, and there are pointers all over the place- in the beauty of nature, in the creativity of art, in the discoveries and mysteries of science, in the longings of our hearts, for love, for justice- all of these things are little bits of heaven breaking into our earthly life.

That’s exactly the idea behind a ‘sacrament’ – a little bit of heaven that has broken into life here and now. The Eucharist is one that we share every week – but if we’re being detectives of divinity, surely we should be looking out everywhere for sacraments- for bits of heaven…

The Sacrament of a joke, the funniest story

The Sacrament of tears in your eyes

The Sacrament of a meal, slowly cooking,

The Sacrament of a round glass of wine

The Sacrament of a child’s first, wide-eyed, steps

The Sacrament of all that trust in you

The Sacrament of bass, drum, guitar

The Sacrament connected to the… hip bone

The Sacrament of being there, right place, right time

The Sacrament of a listening ear

The Sacrament of the novel you can’t put down

The Sacrament of the poem with no rhyme

The Sacrament of starlings, in V-formation

The Sacrament of eye-contact (with a dog)

The Sacrament of a lie-in, the long weekend

The Sacrament of getting paid or getting laid

The Sacrament of your sweet lips on mine

The Sacrament of You and Me

The Sacrament friendship, rough and smooth

The Sacrament of the days, the months, the years

The Sacrament of questions with no answers

The Sacrament of silence. Enough said

The Sacrament of a life baptised by love

The Sacrament of the divine

In bread and wine.

(Sacrament – Martin Wroe)

As we turn to the Eucharist, there’s a brilliant prayer of preparation: By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled himself to share our humanity.

And that’s a mind-blowing hint that we can be detectives of divinity, but really Jesus invites us to be AGENTS of it. To share in the life of heaven and make it happen in the world around us. And isn’t that an awesome and humbling thing. As we follow in the way of Jesus, WE are the places where heaven and earth meet. Where God’s good will is done, on earth as in heaven. And isn’t that exactly what our world needs, with all its relentless bad news…

The glory of God is a human being fully alive, and full life consists in beholding God. Let’s go ‘behold’ the hints of heaven that are everywhere around us, and then let’s go live the life of heaven and spread it everywhere we go. Let’s go be the church of the Ascension!

Epiphany: the journey of the Magi

Today is the feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate the visit of the wise men.  The word epiphany means revelation – suddenly seeing something true.

The ‘Epiphany’ that season focuses on is the epiphany of Christ to the magi, although in the following Sundays that make up a whole “season” of epiphany we hear about the epiphany of Jesus’ baptism (when God the Father speaks and the Spirit appears as a dove when Jesus enters the waters of the river Jordan) and the first miracle of Jesus (when the change faith can make in our lives is symbolised by boring-old-water being changed into rich, intoxicating wine)

But the “Epiphany” of the magi did not come easily.  It’s not simply that any long journey was challenge in the ancient world, this was a mysterious quest with puzzle at its beginning, a shocking conclusion and a middle shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.

The vision of the 3 Kings that has developed in our religious culture is worth unpicking.  We will finish this service with the carol “We three Kings” but we sing it to celebrate an inspiring story, not as a hymn to historical accuracy.  It is often imagined that three Kings who had a hobby of stargazing, saw a star in the sky and decided to “follow” it.  The star led them first to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem and a directly to a stable where they found the baby Jesus.

The Biblical story is less straightforward:  If we read the Bible we find that the wise men there were not ‘Kings’ and we don’t know how many of them there were.  They brought three gifts so it was assumed there were three, but the Bible gives no number.

The bible says these wise men saw a star “as it rose” and says nothing about the star guiding them.  They were astrologers who saw meaning in a strange celestial phenomenon.  The star is not mentioned until much later in their journey, in inference being that it disappeared for a time, and they travelled in darkness.  This certainly fits in with the story that they had to make inquiries, and traveled to Herod’s palace to see if he knew anything about the birth of a new king.

There was no guiding star – only theories and prophesies and rumours.  Their journey was full of dangers and doubts and difficulties.  But they persevered.  And then the star appears again as they approach Bethlehem, and they take this as confirmation of their mission, but the first confirmation from the heavens since their quest began.

Finally they meet the child prophesied to be King, but not in a palace, not in luxury, not with an entourage of midwifes and doctors, but in poverty, born to a couple of poor, illiterate peasants.  And here the Magi earn the title of “wise men” for they recognise the poor child and offer their gifts of God, Frankincense and Myrrh.

The Biblical version of the story is much more inspiring than the popular version (although both may be at odds with history)

We too are on a journey, when we started, in the enthusiasm of youth, most of us were attracted by something bright – an ideal or a vocation, a vision of hope.  But this ‘star’ does not remain in the sky the whole way through our journey, we lose sight of it, and our path grows dark.

The magi can be role-models for our journey, they lost sight of the star but kept going, they made inquiries, they studied and reflected and they kept on going… until eventually they saw the light again and found their way to Bethlehem and offered their gifts

I’d like to close with a famous poem that captures the struggle of the journey, the alienation of the wise men in a strange land, and foreshadows the end of Jesus life with its lines about “three trees on a hill” and playing “dice” and “pieces of silver”

The Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Wilderness & Vineyard – a sermon by Heston Groenewald

This morning we are thinking of prophets in our Advent preparations. And the gospel reading gives us John the Baptist, this iconic wild man in the wilderness. John stands in a long tradition of Jewish prophetic voices- voices that are calling for things to be different- calling for a society and a world that is better, more fair, more just and more equal.

These prophetic voices usually come from THE WILDERNESS. And that’s an interesting thing. God’s people started their life in the wilderness, so it is a special and important place in their- and our- theological imagination. The wilderness is the place where God gave the law to Moses and the people, it’s the place where God led the people in a pillar of cloud and fire. The wilderness is a place where God’s people know where they- we- stand with God, and we know what God wants of us. In our dealings with God, morality and life, the wilderness is a place of clarity and vision, of black and white.

But when God’s people enter their promised land, they stop wandering and build a civilisation. Their economic and social life changes, and their symbol becomes a vineyard (eg. Psalm 80) rather than a wandering nomad. A vineyard is structured and organised, and it’s a far less simple place than the wilderness. With a vineyard, you have to be productive, which means dabbling with wealth and power structures- you have to make compromises and choose between two evils, and morally there’s much more grey than black and white.

Things go wrong for our vineyard Israel. They’re surrounded by huge powerful empires in Egypt Assyria and Babylon, and they are seduced by the trappings of power as they set up their little nation. As they start running after power and wealth, they effectively turn away from God’s blueprint for their society, which is all about ‘Jubilee’ (Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, Luke 4, Acts 2:42-47) – equality and generosity. Turning away from equality means oppressing the poor and hungry in their society. And whenever that happens in the vineyard, God sends them prophets- in the wilderness- to speak truth to power, to remind them who God is and what God requires of them.

And so Isaiah, Micah, Amos, John the Baptist and Jesus all use very colourful ‘wilderness’ language to remind the vineyard people that God requires them to ‘Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God’ (Micah 6:8). And that means they have to look after the people who are poor and hungry and marginalised in their society, and it means they have to stop chasing after the false gods of power and money. The wilderness voices call them to return to the way of life they were given in the Torah- in the wilderness- which means loving neighbours and a society of equality and Jubilee.

This equality is described in some wonderful ways. From our readings this morning and Handel’s Messiah: every valley shall be exalted, the rough places made smooth and the hills brought down… To prepare the way of the Lord.

This is not just geological talk. This is the same language we know from the Magnificat, where Mary rejoices that God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty – this is about the levelling of society.

And this is a good thing for us to hear from the wilderness this morning. Advent invites us, as God’s people, to do some self-evaluation and soul-searching. Here at the church of the Ascension, we are often ‘wilderness voices’ within the wider church, as we call for equality and a better society and world. But at the same time, here in Blackheath we are very firmly in the vineyard. We are settled and comfortable, and we’re bought in to the structures of society- which means that to some extent we dabble with the gods of power and wealth.

So what do the voices from the wilderness have to say to us this morning? The same thing they’ve always said. They call for a society and world which is fairer and more equal- more level. They call for a society where everyone has enough; where no one has too much, forcing others to go without food, electricity, etc. Equality and justice is a HIGHLY relevant message for our unequal, divided society, and for us within it.

Prepare the way of the Lord this Advent. That means levelling society. God wants to bring down the mighty from their thrones and thereby raise up the lowly. The mighty is US! We have too much, and so God invites us to humble ourselves so that others can be raised up and have enough.

‘Comfort, O comfort my people’ is the wilderness message of Isaiah this morning. How about making that our message this Christmas…

How do we do that? With our Christmas presents! How about buying and giving Christmas presents in a way that doesn’t just benefit people who already have a lot. How about buying and giving Christmas presents in a way that shares our over-abundance with our brothers and sisters who have too little to live on.

In this way, we ‘prepare the way for the Lord’ – we level  the mountains and valleys, we equalise the inequality in society, and we bring comfort to God’s people.

http://lydialivinglightly.org/being-a-conscious-consumer/gifts/

What are we doing with our bag of gold? – a Sermon by Peter Farley-Moore

“A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom” Bob Dylan

Matthew 25:14-30

When I was at mission training college with CMS the principal – George Kovoor – gave everyone £10. The challenge was to multiply the money and raise funds for the mission. Everyone got busy in very worthy pursuits – some made jam and chutney, some did a cake sale, some did some kind of sponsored event. Andrea and I tried to break the mould and neither of us are very good at making chutney so we were delighted when a friend offered to put the money on the horses for us – we transferred our £20 to his account and he rang me the next day to say he had made nearly £70 profit on the horses. It was fantastic. At the next weekly college meeting we duly handed in our “PROFIT” and were given a round of applause at making such a good return…when asked how we made the money the warden was less impressed and took a while to convince that we had actually gambled the money! Soon after that the college closed down….after the most disreputable intake of students they’d ever had!!

The parable of Jesus in Matt 25:14 is a good one because it seems to be saying that we have all been given a bag of gold!  For some it’s a big bag, for others the bag is smaller. But, size is not important. The important thing is that everyone has been given some gold – the challenge that Jesus gives is this. What are we doing with our bag of gold?

Our master – Jesus has gone away, but one day he will return and he will ask us what we have done with our gold. Let’s not be like the last person in the parable who had simple buried the gold and allowed it to depreciate in value. Rather, let’s get the gold out of the bag, find a way of investing and multiplying it so that when the master returns we have some increase to return to him.

You may struggle with this parable – because in a simplistic way it presents us with a master a bit like Alan Sugar in the apprentices board room trying to decide if someone is hired or fired based on pure economics….But, let’s put aside any anti-capitalist leanings we may have and instead see what we can glean from the parable.

The parable tells us quite a lot about theology / about God

  1. God is generous – he distributes his gifts generously and he wants to give us more and more; more blessings, more talents; more opportunities as we grow and live our lives responsibly and fruitfully. God wants us to prosper
  1. God trusts us – he isn’t a control freak who micro manages his creation or his kingdom. No, he has given us the freedom to use or not the gifts that he has given. He has gone away in order to allow us to build something, to allow us to do something with the good news of his love, with the gift of forgiveness and eternal life that he has given
  1. God has not abandoned us – there will be a day when he returns. We are called to be energised by the reality of God’s return. We cannot afford to laze around ignoring the bag of gold or wasting our energy on other things – we need to remember that God has given us a gift and we are being called to be faithful with using it and letting it grow and multiply ready for his return.

Many of us are good at using the “bag of gold” – the education, the upbringing, the employment opportunities – that life presents us with and making some healthy profit….no doubt many of you have acquired in your lifetime land, property, investments, pensions that are an indication of our ability and skill at making the most of the resources at our disposal.

But, are we good at transferring that skill, that energy, that drive to our spiritual “bag of gold”?

The parable gives us a clue as to why we may be more reluctant or passive when it comes to our spiritual life and growth:

  1. Distorted theology

The master in this parable is a complex character. You may be put off by him  – if you only see the way he treats the third servant who was given one bag of gold and buried it, if you only look at this part of the story you could end up thinking he is a tyrant. The third servant certainly seemed to have a very negative image of his master – he thought his master was to be feared; someone who was unkind and critical.

But, the other two servants didn’t think this – to them the master was generous; the master they knew had invested in them; given them responsibility; freedom; opportunities to grow and develop. He was good and he was encouraging in his response and assessment of their work. He blessed them. He honoured them for their faithfulness.

Maybe we have a distorted theology – maybe we are like the 3rd man in the story – we are afraid of God; we are put off by the parts of the bible that emphasises judgement and punishment and forget the other dimensions of God’s character – his love, his generosity, his faithfulness.

Maybe we are discouraged in reading the Bible or fearful  of God because we focus on the prophets and their tales of judgement – forgetting the songs of joy and liberation in the OT; forgetting the abundance of creation in Genesis 1 – the goodness of the world that God made for humanity. Maybe we focus too much on the cross and forget the liberation of Easter Day resurrection.

  1. Competitive Comparisons

Maybe we are reluctant to really take the spiritual growth seriously because we feel inadequate. We look around and see others who are more equipped than we are – maybe we struggle to pray, have difficulty with the bible, find it hard to give time and love to our neighbours. Maybe we feel we are not gifted enough to serve the Lord.

This parable is a warning to all of us not to get stuck into that negative cycle. To break out of our inadequacy or inferiority.

God has given each us a gift. We are called to use it and to let it be a blessing to others however small or insignificant we may feel it is. Think about the widows mite – the smallest of gifts offered in the temple but, with a massive impact it has had in God’s kingdom.

  1. Forgetting the master

Many in the church throughout history have lost heart because they feel that God is too remote or that Jesus’ return has taken too long. They have lost their passion for the spiritual passion, given up hope in the coming kingdom and transformation of the world. Given up their belief on the victory of God. 1 Thess 5 is an example of how even the earliest of Christian communities were in danger of being overwhelmed by their suffering, their harsh and anti Christian context – Paul writes to them and tells them to wake up, to get ready, to hold on to the faith because Jesus is coming back for them and wants to save them into his kingdom.

Conclusion:

The irony of life is that for many of us in the West – in the so called developed world – we have big stashes of gold – we have properties, we have safety nets, we have an education – but are we using it responsibly, generously, and as God would have us use those things…..our churches are too often small and struggling.

However in many of the poorer nations – the global south – where bank accounts are less common, insurance policies fairly non-existent and education hard to come by – in these communities the church is often growing and thriving.

As churches in the West and in UK particularly we can feel our spiritual bad of gold is fairly limited, fairly ineffective, fairly insignificant….but, is that really the case.

As I have prayed about this sermon and prayed for our Ravensbourne team of churches I have felt God saying that he has given each of us a bag of gold – the Ascension has gold; Holy Trinity has gold; St. John’s has gold. We all have gifts and resources that can be a blessing to others and generate growth. The tragedy would be if we get stuck in comparisons; or if we get trapped in unhelpful theology forgetting  the goodness and generosity of God.

As we respond to God’s word this morning – let’s ask him to open our eyes to see the spiritual bag of gold he has given us – both as individuals and as a church. Let’s put to one side negative comparisons and unhelpful theology that will restrict us from using the bag of gold well. Let’s pray that when the Lord returns he will find us vibrant, and growing and flourishing – making the most of what he has given us and being a blessing to those around us.

Do not be afraid

A sermon for Advent IV

How are you feeling about Christmas?

It’s a half-rhetorical question, I’d be delighted if someone chipped in, but we are Anglicans…

I love Christmas – from the naff music of “rocking around the Christmas Tree” to tinsel and fairy lights, from Dickens to carols in candlelight.

I was shocked a few years ago when I asked a group of women from our local housing estates what they felt about Christmas.  None of them saw it with anything like my flibbertigibbet enthusiasm.  For them it was to do with extra work, struggling to find the money to buy presents, struggling with bereavements and family tensions.  (I don’t think for one moment that these viewpoints are only found in housing estates!)

For many people Christmas is a time of dread and even fear.  Extra work and financial strains come alongside family gatherings where folks who don’t get on at the best of times find themselves forced together over a meal that is overly complicated to make (I mean who can possibly time all those different dishes to be ready at the same time?!) and the alcohol consumed to act as social lubricant just lowers inhibitions that are probably better kept raised.  Fear that you will not be good enough can damage your health – we ask ourselves stressful questions like “will my dinner be good enough for the in-laws?” or “will my presents be good or expensive or creative enough for the children?” or “will my Christmas sermon be fun enough for the kids while theologically inspiring enough for the adults?”

But for some Christmas this is a time of real pain – if a death or tragedy occurred around this time then the forced celebrations and chintz only open old wounds.  And if you lost someone during the year Christmas is a time when the pain is felt all over again – Christmas without mum or dad takes a lot of getting used to…

Christmas can be intensely lonely, intensely sad, and fearful.

But those who fear Christmas can take heart from the story of the first Christmas.  The Christmas story is full of people who are afraid.

  • Mary is afraid when the angel appears…
  • Joseph is afraid when he hears that Mary is pregnant…
  • The shepherds were afraid at the vision…
  • Herod was afraid, and that led to deepest disaster…

But as we reflect on this fear we have to hear the message of the angels, the message of Christmas:

  • The angel said to Mary “do not be afraid, God has highly favoured you” and Mary goes on to literally “give birth” to Christianity
  • The angel tells Joseph “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” and he overcame his fear to do the right thing…
  • The angels told the shepherds “do not be afraid, we bring you good news of great joy” and they become the first visitors to the baby Jesus (and a favourite image on a billion Christmas cards)…

Herod’s fear is worth considering.

Fear is a helpful emotion, fear of falling stops us dancing near clif edges and fear of fire stops us burning ourselves.  But misplaced fear can be devastating.  Herod’s fear leads to the murder of innocent children.  Fear can rob us of joy and ruin our lives, but it can damage the people around us too.  Fear does not only affect the person being afraid, if we let fear guide our opinions then we end up being so afraid of terrorism that we think it’s OK to torture suspects, or that political parties like UKIP pedalling fear and prejudice and lies start gaining votes.

Fear is not just a “harmless emotion” if it is misplaced it can be poisonous.

Christmas is a season when we should reflect on our fear, but it is a season that calls us to move from fear to faith, from dread to trust.

It’s a time when God appears in the form of a child, and so we are reminded that the best response to God is not fear, but love.

We are called to respond with love.  As 1 John 4 says “there is no fear in love, perfect love casts out all fear.”

If we are fearful, my message is not “do not be afraid – now pull yourself together” the message is “do not be afraid – here is an invitation to love.

  • Mary was called to love the baby she was asked to bear…
  • Joseph was called to love Mary, his fiancé with her mysterious pregnancy…
  • The Shepherds were called to love the Christ who would offer life and love to the whole world.

This Christmas let us try and turn our fears and sadnesses and loneliness into a manger to welcome the Christ child, and through our pain let up us pray for the grace to love.

Do not be afraid.

Love.

There is no fear in love, perfect love casts out all fear.

Amen.