Saturday, 29 December 2018

Shepherd Monologue: Christmas Day Talk

My name is Dan and I’ve been a Bethlehem shepherd ever since my bar mitzvah.  It’s the only life I’ve ever known.

Us shepherds are a predictable lot.  When you work with animals and the seasons you tend to get into a routine.

That night you Christians talk about, the night that changed my life for ever – well, it wasn’t in the winter.  You see we’re on the hills during the lambing season in the spring – that’s when it happened, a spring night at the height of the Roman occupation of our country.

I’m old now and rarely go up on the hills these days but I remember that night as if it were yesterday. We seemed to be at the centre of it all and that’s not really us.  Usually we live away from the action.  Every spring we take the flocks out of their winter corrals and they graze at will on the hills and the lambing starts.  We can be away from the village for days, even weeks.  It’s as if we live in the background, just remembered by our families but forgotten by the shopkeepers, merchants and civic authorities.

It’s not that we just become village outsiders, we’re temple outsiders too.  You see Jerusalem is just a stone throw from Bethlehem, yet we only ever go there to sell our lambs to the priests – never to worship.  They say our hands are unclean.

Odd then, really, to think God gave us ringside seats at the birth of his beloved son.  Suddenly that night we became insiders.  And from what I heard of Jesus later that seemed to me to be part of his message – that God draws us all in, draws us to his love and makes us feel as if we belong, no longer outsiders.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how it happened all so quickly.  We weren’t being religious that night, we weren’t even praying.  Just going about our ordinary jobs.  Somehow, I always used to think you met with God at Synagogue or on Shabbat.  That night was so ordinary.  We’d just finished making sure one of our sheep, who had been having trouble, safely delivered her young and then suddenly there was this piercing bright light – at first it was almost blinding, but then it became the warmest shining imaginable.  We were told not to be afraid.  We were told the promised one had been born.  There seemed to be the most joyful singing in the air.  It felt like a dream yet became for us the most real conviction any of us ever held.

Still thrills me really.  That announcement to us as we went about our every night lives.  I’m sure when your country has a new king the heralds will stand on the balcony of palaces and proclaim the start of a new reign.  That night the Herald Angels choose to announce the news to us.  But isn’t that part of the message too.  Jesus came for everyone just as God’s love is for all – so why not announce the incarnation to shepherds on a hillside.  That said I still smile at the audacity of God by passing the priests and choosing me and my mates!

And the next bit that happened just blows my mind away even all these years later.

Those angels asked us to go and worship.  That’s all.  We didn’t even have time for a wash!  We went as we were.  Grown men.  To be truthful most of us shepherds know more about lambs than babies.  But off we went.  We asked Jacob to stay behind and make sure the flock was OK.  The rest of us ran to Bethlehem.

It was as if we were guided to that family and the place where Jesus had been born.  We went around the back and looked in.  Joseph asked us if we’d like to look.

Mary appeared exhausted but blissfully happy.  It was all so ordinary, a scene so full of love and hope – yet the words of the angels rang in our ears – that this birth was special – that God was blessing our world with his presence in this child.

As I look back now the thing that strikes me most of all is that we didn’t have to say anything, we went just as we were – all we were asked to do was to welcome the child.  It felt to me then, as it does today, that we were welcoming God come amongst us.  We knelt, we bowed our heads – and then we touched his brow, smiled at Mary, shock Joseph’s hands and walked back up the hillside in a shared silence that went so deep.

In our hearts we knew things would never be the same again, God was with us to bless us and show us the way. 

Amazing really what can happen when you are just watching the flock by night – all seated on the ground.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Christmas in Community: Nativity Service Talk

AFC Nativity 16.12.18
Once again it’s been lovely to have our All Age Nativity with different age groups taking part.

Just seeing the story re-enacted has reminded me that the days surrounding the birth of Jesus were  anything but  private occasions.

That first Christmas was very much a community event. 
There’s the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and their baby.  This young couple went through so much together from their long journey to Bethlehem, the chaos of the birth itself to their panic laden escape as refugees to Egypt.  But, maybe that’s the point, they did it together and found support in one another.

Then there’s the visitors without an appointment – shepherds and wise men.  Groups of people from either end of the social spectrum who all wanted to welcome the infant Jesus.

And, of course, there’s the angel choir, maybe even big enough to have filled the Albert Hall, singing SATB, or whatever angels sing (!) to both honour and proclaim the birth of The Prince of Peace.

Christmas isn’t a private time for the original participants.  It’s struck me this year just how much it was a moment of community.

God has made us in such a way that we often find strength in community.  Even the Trinity itself is a picture of community in action as Father, Son and Spirit work co-operatively together.

When a group of us visited Hauke and his family in Germany in September we arrived for our stay at Bremen airport and were taken to look at the town.  We stood outside the cathedral beside the statue of four animals standing on top of each other – the Brothers Grim Fairy Tell entitled the Musicians of Bremen.

The story has a moral – each of the four animals was rather small by itself and not able to fend off its enemies.  But if they each stood on one another’s back, if they worked together and became one in their endeavour, then they would look really big and tall and maybe in the darkness frighten off those who wanted to do them harm.

By working together they became stronger.

So much of Christmas is about community.  In the Lord Jesus, God has shown us what a human life looks like when others are put first, when service is undertaken by a whole group or when a collection of individuals pull together and take note of the one going at the slowest pace.

God seems to delight in community and the birth of Jesus is surrounded by it from the Holy Family to the shepherds, angels and wise men.

May God’s blessing be yours this Christmas as you celebrate it amongst the communities you cherish, and may your part in those communities – be they church, family, neighbours or work continue to be a sphere of service and a source of inspiration throughout 2019.

In the name of that community of love and light, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen

Monday, 17 December 2018

Carol Service Talk: Dickens' Christmas Carol

This evening we have enjoyed many Christmas carols, and this year Dicken’s book, A Christmas Carol, is 175 years old. 

Looking through the Radio Times there are, at least, four versions of it on TV over the next two weeks and it’s been revived at London’s Old Vic this winter with Stephen Tomkinson in the lead role.

Dickens wrote this ghost story back in 1843 in just six weeks.  It was published on December 19th that year and such was its rapturous reception that it was sold out by Christmas Eve.  In 1844 it was republished an astonishing thirteen times and has never been out of print since.

Of course, one reason for its runaway success was its timing  We might think that carolling, Christmas Trees and family parties have always been  around, but the truth is many only became firmly established early in Queen Victoria’s reign, around the exact time of the first edition of a Christmas Carol in 1843.

Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer, says the story is an allegory of the Christian concept of redemption.  I think it has the feel of an extended bible parable.

Scrooge’s journey, accompanied by the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, puts him in touch with his ‘better self’.

By the end of the story he’s a changed man, now much more sympathetically aware of the world around him and ready to meet its needs with a new found spirit of generosity.

I think the unsung heroes of the book are Scrooge’s nephew and his wife, who invited him to keep Christmas with them every year.  He never came yet they kept the door open and at last, after the dream that brings Scrooge redemption with that rediscovery of his better self, he accepts their invitation to Christmas lunch – once he has ensured Bob Cratchit and his family, including Tiny Tim, have a similarly good meal.

Jesus, whose birth we have celebrated this night with our own Christmas Carols, shows us God in a way we can understand.  A God who us new beginnings, who helps us grow into better people aware of the needs of others as we live in meaningful community. 

These themes are not just for Christmas but for every day of the forthcoming New Year, becoming for us living stories of love, justice and generosity of spirit – which just like Dickens’ masterpiece, never go out of print or fashion.

Thursday, 6 December 2018 it ever a linear process?

It’s ‘John the Baptist day’ this weekend, as it is every second Sunday of Advent.

His story is predominantly in the gospel pages after the birth narratives, yet the part he plays as the one who ‘prepares’ the people to welcome Jesus makes him an obvious choice for one of these Sundays during a month of preparation.

John seems to me to be a wonderfully complex and unfinished character; so he’s like most of us!

He’s a typical Jewish Scripture prophet in terms of style.  He’s an old school maverick who preaches from the side lines.  He’s the fly in the ointment who becomes a great irritant for both the religious and secular authorities.  He’s the wonderfully eccentric ‘other’ who wakes people up; in contrast to the calm and cultured Temple priest who dutifully kept the status quo and probably sent the congregation to sleep with their predictable sermons.

So, on the banks of the Jordan river John preaches his heart out and people respond.  It’s a mini revival and a different sort of stirring emerges.  People do seem to have seen something more in John than just his odd way of dressing and eating.  They begin to see a need within themselves to become authentic as seekers after truth rather than stay with a religion that no longer seemed to speak with courage or honesty.

John points to Jesus, honours Jesus and promotes Jesus even as he baptises him.

And yet…..the truth is as we wind the tape on a few years with John now imprisoned, we meet someone who is no longer sure about the validity of his cousin’s mission.  John sends a message to the one he had baptised with such affirmation, it’s now a message of doubt and asks the question: are you the one, or should we be looking for someone else?

John started so well.  He is the one who knew what he was against, a real ‘non-conformist’ – hooray! He knew he was against dressed up religion, controlled by a powerful few, observed by a majority who’d lost the essence of who God is.  Into this context John shouted ‘repent’.

And they did, hundreds of them as they queued up for baptism.

Yet a few years after the arrival of Jesus it’s John who is now not really sure that his cousin is the real thing.  Too soft perhaps, certainly too nuanced. 

I’m glad John is part of our Advent journey because exploring faith is never a straightforward, linear process.  Life, events and experience gets in the way – fortunately.  And we are left wondering what to make of it all, we are left revisiting old questions we thought long since sorted.  We are left as seekers after truth who are always journeying, always discovering more and always unfinished.

ps…each week through Advent the Baptist Union Retreat Group is posting a blog – find out more at:

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