Monthly Archives: December 2021

St Stephen’s day

To-day is St Stephen’s day. St Stephen is the first Christian martyr and he didn’t die of overeating. Instead he is stoned to death having enraged the pious and the orthodox by his works and his words. Why celebrate him to-day? Perhaps as a counter to the excess and good cheer of the day before. It is important to remember the dark side. Whenever we think of the stable we should also think of the cross. It’s possible to sentimentalise the stable but it’s quite impossible to sentimentalise the cross.

The background to Stephen’s story is trouble in the chapel. Stephen although a Jew is Greek speaking. He’s got a Greek name. He has friends and companions with Greek names. These Greeks had a more cosmopolitan outlook than the old guard. They felt they were treated as second class, pushed aside, their spiritual gifts ignored. Attempts to calm things down by giving them jobs didn’t succeed. Stephen’s fate is sealed when he is accused of challenging the central place that the Temple had among both the Jews and the first Christians. At this stage the Jews and the Christians had not separated into two separate and antagonistic communities.

Stephen is framed and brought before the Council on a capital charge. His death is preceded by a long sermon. In this sermon he describes Israel’s history in considerable detail. He lists Israel’s various acts of faithlessness in the past and he accuses his hearers of failing to respond to God’s saving acts in the present. “As your fathers did so do you”.

There is no invitation to believe the good news and be saved. He simply tells his hearers that they have betrayed and murdered the righteous one, he means Jesus of course. It’s almost as if he wants to invite the to murder him. They are not slow to take advantage of the invitation and proceed at once to his execution.

His death is the death of the righteous prophet. He is said to be full of the Holy Spirit-he gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God-and as he dies he forgives his murderers using words that recall Jesus’ own words. “Father forgive them for they not what they do” It is all rather splendid.

But is it wise? How appropriate is it to pray for the forgiveness of others when you provoked their sins in the first place. A sermon that provokes its hearers into murdering the preacher seems to me to be doubly ineffective-not only is the congregation left without hope its situation is gravely worsened. They now have blood on their hands.

This is what moralists call an occasion for sin. An occasion for sin is an invitation to sin-like leaving your car unlocked, or your back door open-or driving your relatives into a state of fury and exasperation by being difficult. For many people and in many ways Christmas is itself an invitation to sin. That’s why the government runs an anti-drink driving campaign at this time of year.

Stephen’s sermon seems to me to be an occasion for sin. Well that’s as may be but I am sure that such a point is very far from the author’s intention. The author of Acts presents the heroes of the faith as making a public profession of their beliefs regardless of the consequences. St Peter, St Paul and Stephen all make long speeches in Acts in defence of the faith and all suffer the consequences. There’s a sense of necessity about all this. In the same way Jesus’ own death was necessary. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s truth.

Stephen’s sermon lacks something in terms of pastoral sensitivity but then it is in a sense a speech from the dock and he would have known that his number was up. In any case he redeems himself in my eyes at least by his act of forgiveness. This echoes Jesus’own words of forgiveness from the cross. Stephen and Jesus before him die the death of martyrs in the same way as the prophets suffered for their fearless proclamation of God’s word.

The essence of God’s truth is that all should turn to him and be forgiven. God has compassion upon all but especially upon the poor, the outcast and the lost. Having accepted forgiveness for ourselves we should have compassion on others and work for their acceptance as well. So Jesus’ prays for those who crucify him and Stephen prays for those who stone him to death. But I expect that not all the first Christians would have admired Stephen’s

heroic death. They might not even have been entirely sorry. I can hear them now. He was a nice lad but he would go on so. You mustn’t upset people; whatever the cause. Don’t rock the boat.

And what has all this to do with Christmas. On the face of it not a great deal. Yet it is appropriate that Good King Wenceslas should have looked out on the Feast of Stephen and had compassion upon a poor man. The author of Luke/Acts would have been pleased. And it is also right to be reminded to-day of the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to bear witness no matter what.

That act of looking out is important. Christmas is far too much about looking in, shutting the door, excluding those who are not ours. Stephen wanted to look out beyond the cosy inward looking world of the synagogue. Wenceslas looked out from his cosy castle and had compassion on the poor. That’s what St Stephen’s day and Boxing Day should be about.

Looking out, bearing witness to the good news that is for all whether they are “ours” or not that is what this feast ought to be about. Facing up also to the cost of discipleship and of the necessity to walk the way of the cross whatever happens.

As Simeon said to Mary:

Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against. (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also) that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

The “Real” Meaning of Christmas.

It was one of those moments in the Church Council. A service for children and their families was being discussed and it was said that it would provide a means to get across the real meaning of Christmas. And that to my mind raised the key question which I then proceeded to ask: “What is the real meaning of Christmas?” The first answer I received was this: It’s not about shopping or consumerism. It’s about the birth of a baby. Somebody then said: I thought it was about the birth of God. Another voice then whispered in my ear: “Incarnation”. Gosh I thought that’s a big word. All three answers have their merits and are an attempt to put into words what Christians have always believed about Jesus-that in him we see God come amongst us as one of us. So God became man in Palestine for our sakes and in this sense its true; the story of Jesus is indeed the story of the birth of God.

Luke has a story about this birth with which we are all familiar. Matthew mentions it and then tells other stories about Jesus early days and Mark and John don’t mention the subject at all. In their books Jesus enters the narrative at the moment when his ministry begins. So perhaps the story of the baby in the manger isn’t really doing the business and is misleading us as to the true significance of what God is doing in Jesus.

The Danish writer and philosopher Kierkegaard told a story to illustrate what God has done for us. It’s as good a story as any you’ll hear this season. Yes it does sound like a fairy tale but it’s actually deadly serious and very effective. Just suppose he said; once upon a time there was a girl who belonged to the poorest class and lived in the most deprived circumstances.

A powerful and noble-minded King fell in love with her. However he has a problem. How can he win her love? Would she be happy to live at his side? She would lack self-confidence. She would always remember that she was a humble girl and he a great King. How could the love between the King and the girl be a truly happy love without any delusion or deception creeping in? To overcome the girl with a display of glory and power might satisfy the girl for a moment but would not satisfy the King. To deceive the girl with a display of apparent humility would also fail to achieve a true union of love between them.

Kierkegaard applies this parable to God. How is God’s true love to win the hearts of human beings? How is God to reach out to us and win us? How is God to overcome the infinite difference between him and us? Union, Kierkegaard concludes must be attempted by descent. Love must alter itself.

God must become our equal and appear in the likeness of the humblest and in the form of a servant. And that likeness is no mere disguise as it would be if the King assumed a beggar’s cloak. God in Christ will be born in a stable, will suffer all things, endure all things and make experience of all things. He will be forsaken by his friends, condemned by the powers and put to death on a cross. This is how much God loves us. God has become, as we are that we might become as he is.

God out of love wants to be equal with the lowliest of the lowly. God the king plants himself in the frailty of a human being. He becomes a new person. How extraordinary, how painful and difficult, how much like death. Yet this is what God wants and does. To sit with us in love as an equal so that we the life of God shall know as God is manifest below.

Kierkegaard’s story is a parable-a very effective one. It’s won wide admiration and it shows that creative thinking about Jesus didn’t cease with the gospel writers. What Kierkegaard has done is that he has shown us in this way how Gods’ love works and that is the real message of Christmas.

The Season with a Reason

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During the Christmas season many churches will have a wayside poster proclaiming ‘Jesus – The reason for the season’. Despite having some theological reservations about the statement I will concur that Christmas is a season and a season with purpose.

The birth of Jesus is, no doubt, the most joyous and celebrated of all holidays in our culture. Families get together, gifts are exchanged, and a good time is usually had by all. Even people who know or believe little about Jesus celebrate together. However most people think of Christmas as a singular event and when it is over, it is over until the same time next year.

Although the birth of Jesus was a momentous event, it was not a singular event. Jesus’ coming has deep roots in the religious and cultural tradition of the Jewish people; and the fact that God – Emmanuel came in the form of Jesus has had a profound effect on human life that show no sign of abating even after two thousand years.

The season that we call Christmas began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The Messiah had been expected for a long time. Ever since the Jewish people got into so much trouble that they realised their condition was beyond human help, they had been expecting divine intervention into human affairs in the form of a messiah. Their expectation of a coming messiah was intense but also intangible. Mothers prayed that their unborn would be a male child, and that he would be the Messiah. The expectation of the coming was not casual, like expecting a white Christmas, it was heart rending and visceral.

When times were good the expectation was less intense. Like most of us they did not feel the need for divine assistance when they were getting on quite well by themselves. The intensity of expectation was in direct proportion to the degree of national and personal difficulty they were experiencing at any given time. But, the expectation was always there, albeit at times in the background. When times were tough, they expected the imminent arrival of divine help. Like present-day Christians, when in trouble, the first words out of their mouths were: “Dear God, where are you?” It became increasingly obvious to them, as it does to us, that God’s timetable does not necessarily correspond with our timetable.

Crises came and went and no messiah. False messiahs came and went. In every age there are religious charlatans who exploit for their own selfish purposes the simple faith of the naive and desperate. There is always a following. People who live in the zone of desperation will grasp at any straw of hope and help. 

There were many widely divergent concepts of what the Messiah would be like when he came. For the most part their hopes and dreams tended toward a political and religious “strong man,” a warrior-like messiah who would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore Israel to the power and splendour of the reign of David. They never dreamed that the Messiah would come when and as he did. Only Isaiah came close with his “suffering servant” who would be a light to all nations, and this was a fragmented glimpse that had little ideological support by the Jewish people (Isaiah 53). The Messiah is on his way! The time is drawing near that the hope of the ages will be fulfilled, but in a most unexpected manner.

Of course we would not have mistaken the truth of the Messiah, but how many people today yearn for a revived ‘messianic’ church which is full, wealthy and powerful.

The epicentre of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. Even those who know nothing but the solitary fact of his birth can be blessed by the event, but blessing and insight await those who know how it all came to pass. No one puts it all together in such a fetching story as Luke. Luke takes the loose ends of strange and obscure events occurring in the lives of the most unlikely people and leads us unerringly to Bethlehem, a stable, and the manger in which the newborn Messiah was laid by a wide-eyed teenage mother as a puzzled, but faithful, Joseph looked on.

Again Luke’s nativity began before the birth in Bethlehem. It is Luke, with his scientific mind, who tells us that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (which she had kept secret), an angel appeared to a teenage girl named Mary and informed her that she would bear a son without benefit of an earthly father, who was to be called “Jesus.” The angel informed Mary of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, her kin. So, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary came to visit. When Mary greeted Elizabeth the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These two women share a secret that the world has waited long to know. As they revel in what they have come to know, Mary speaks a song of praise that has more to do with her unborn son than herself. It is Mary’s song. We call it “The Magnificat,” from its Latin name.

The song thanks and praises God for including her in this unfolding divine drama. As Mary sings of the power of God, we can read what she says to be the power to be exercised by her unborn son. It portends a revolution and a reversal of present reality. This is the most comprehensive statement of liberation theology in the Bible:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55)

We look around the world today and realise that Mary’s prophecy is still to come to pass. Like our Jewish ancestors who looked for the coming messiah we hope and yearn for this new messianic world.

Do not give up hope, Christmas isn’t over yet!

Christmas blessings, Alan.

Are we nearly there yet?

I am sure we have nearly all experienced a car journey as a small children where the moment you pull off the drive the chorus starts – “Are we nearly there yet?”. The driver will roll their eyes and tell us to be patient. But we can’t, we are just too excited to reach our destination and so ten minutes later the question rises again – “Are we nearly there yet?”

Well the first snows of winter have fallen and in conversation people say they can’t believe that it’s December and Christmas is around the corner. Quick get the tree up and decorate the house with lights, but before we reach Christmas, we must first travel through Advent. Like an exasperated driver I need to say “Be patient.

One of the challenges of Advent is to stop being busy and spend some time in prayer. Prayers for patience. Prayers for tempering our enthusiasm. Prayers for remembering not everybody enjoys this season. Prayers to slow down and think.

Advent is a time for giving praise for what God has done, is doing, and promises to do. We focus first on the One who was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, as we sing in the Gloria Patri. The One who breathes into us the breath of life, who sustains and guides us through our years and receives us when we die. The One who comes again each year at Christmas that we may never lose hope.

Thanksgiving naturally follows. We thank God for being God, for coming into our world to be One with us—Emmanuel. We thank God for God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. God who understands us when we do not understand ourselves. God who is patient with us when we have none. God who receives us back when we wander away, rejoicing in our return, embracing us in arms of grace. 

This, too, is a season for confessing sin. Imagine what breaks God’s heart. Living and dying with Covid. Political divisiveness. Economic injustice. Fear of the stranger. Quickness to judge and slowness to listen. Climate change and mediocre environmental stewardship. Housing and food insecurity. Racial intolerance and misunderstanding. There are so many reasons we need Christ to be born into our world as Saviour. Lots to lift in prayers of petition too. 

Remember also to build in pauses for silent prayer, that you may hear God’s voice speak an Advent message to us. Remember prayer is listening as well as talking.

I believe it essential in our prayers that we honestly name evil alongside goodness, sorrow alongside joy, agony alongside hope. Remember in the joy and sparkle of Christmas there is a story of a heavily pregnant woman have to journey on foot(!) from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Remember, too, of a family with a baby having to flee a tyrant and seek refuge in another country. Give thanks for God’s incarnational, suffering, resilient love, no matter what happens in life.

In all things we believe God is working for good. So, we pray to God honestly, but not always patiently. We won’t stop asking ‘are we nearly there, God’ because we are confident we will reach our destination. No matter how long it takes.

Grace and peace this Advent season,