Saturday, January 02, 2016

Christmas for New Birth

Have you ever held a new-born child?  It is an experience without peer.  A tiny life.  A person in miniature.  Holding a new-born for the first time, I was told by her parents to support the baby’s head – a baby’s head is too large for her neck to support at first.  New-borns do very little – they cry, feed, sleep and poo.  There are no smiles or coos to reward the parent or visitor.  And yet it is one of life’s greatest experiences.  Parents are driven by biology to protect and nurture their child, but non-parents too can understand the imperative to care for the bundle of warmth that barely fills a hand.  To hold a new-born child is to hold something that is simultaneously immensely fragile, utterly dependent and unimaginably precious.

Christmas is when we mark the time that God took flesh in a new-born child.  God became fragile, dependent and precious and was born to an unmarried teenager.  Some of our carols get it wrong.  Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes?  Certainly not! Babies cry to be fed, to be changed, to be held.  Jesus needed all of these, he would have cried.  The Gospels are more realistic.  There we read that Joseph thought of leaving Mary; that birth was not welcomed in the house, but with the animals; that the so-called wise men nearly brought disaster in the form of Herod’s murderous wrath; that Jesus and his family fled as refugees from violence in their home country.  We also read of Mary’s care for her child, and her treasuring of all that happened.  The fragility and dependence of God on his mother is a source of wonder, an image of the Word made flesh, God become human.

We are to be born again.  To be new-born into the world.  Sometimes this sounds like we have been given super-powers, a new suit of armour to deflect the challenges and pain that might come our way.  But to be new-born is to be fragile, easily broken by what others do.  It is to be dependent on others for care and food.  And it is to be precious beyond price.  We need to acknowledge our fragility and dependence, not to guard against it.  It is in our fragile and dependent state that we are precious.  Can we celebrate this Christmas that our preciousness is found in being fragile and dependent?

In Jesus, God shares in our humanity and became a child.  In Jesus, we are new-born into the kingdom of God.  We are immensely fragile, utterly dependent and unimaginably precious.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18.1-5).  

Originally written for the Diverse Church Advent Calendar 2015.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Truth: A sermon for Christmas

Some words from that very familiar Gospel reading: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth”.  If you want a thread to help you understand St John’s Gospel, then you could do worse than to look at the way that truth appears in the Gospel from the beginning to the end.  The Gospel begins with the passage that we have just heard.  Here we learn of the true light which was coming into the world, and the grace and truth of the Word made flesh.  Truth remains a theme throughout the Gospel.  Near the end, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus ‘What is truth?’ as part of his trial. 

Truth is important to John’s Gospel, and so tonight I want to say three things about truth.  First about the truth shown in Jesus; second about truth as a life; and third about being witnesses to the truth.  First then, the truth shown in Jesus.  The whole thrust of the Gospel reading about the Word is that in Jesus, the Word made flesh, we see something of the whole way in which the world is made and ordered by God.  We are offered a lot of different ‘truths’ in our world: the truth that ‘money makes the world go round’; the truth that ‘might makes right’; the truth that ‘if it feels good, do it’ to name but a few.  The Word made flesh shows us that none of these are true.  It shows us the deep truth of reality, the Word that was in the beginning and through whom all creation came into being.  And it shows us this not in a place of power, or of wealth, but in a place that was on the margins, in poverty.  The Christmas story shows us all of this in the fragility of a baby whose life is threatened and who flees with his parents, becoming refugees in Egypt.  This is the truth that comes from above – and it is found in a child, a poor family, and in the flight of refugees.  If we are to be people of truth, we will need to align ourselves with this truth and to find truth in places and people who are marginal, poor, refugees, outcast.

So the first thing that the Christmas story has to tell us is that the deepest truth of the whole world is to be found in Jesus and in the places where Jesus is to be found.  The second thing that the Christmas story has to tell us about truth is that truth is something that has to be lived.  The whole of the Gospel of John is the story of a life – the life of Jesus – in which truth is found and opened up for all of us.  It is the truth of Jesus’ whole life that makes Pilate’s question ‘What is truth?’ sound so very shallow.  It is the truth of the whole of Jesus’ life that we find in the Gospel.

The Christmas story tells of many people making journeys to find the truth in Jesus.  The shepherds come all the way from the hills into the town; the Magi travel from distant lands.  Jesus calls his disciples to follow him, and teaches them as they move about.  And we too are called to follow, to learn the truth as we journey with Jesus through our lives.  We learn to see the truth, to tell the truth, and to live lives that are true.  Truth is not an abstract philosophical concept.  Rather truth is a life to live.  Truth needs to be made flesh in lives – in the life of Jesus, and in our lives as we follow Jesus.  As we follow Jesus, the truth becomes alive in us.

So the Christmas story tells us that the deepest truth of the whole world is to be found in Jesus, and that we learn that truth as we live lives that follow Jesus.  And the third thing that it tells us it that we are to bear witness to the truth.  Again we find this throughout the Gospel.  From beginning, where we are told John the Baptist ‘came to testify to the light’; to the end of the Gospel where Mary Magdalene is sent to tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  The deepest truth of the world, and the life that shows this truth need witnesses to show them to a world that is in desperate need of the truth.

This is not about standing in the middle of the village and shouting at people.  It is about pointing to the truth in everything that we do and say; in the way that the church organises itself and lives and works together; in the way that we care for those in need.  The first reading this evening speaks of the beauty of the feet of the messenger who brings good news.  It goes on to speak of the sentinels lifting up their voices and singing for joy.  So too the angel announces to the shepherds ‘glad tidings of great joy’.  Our encounter with the deepest truth of the world, our following of the truth in the life of Jesus, leaves us with joy.  Joy is our witness.  This is not witness that has to be forced out of us, it is the joyful sharing of truth that is good news, glad tidings. 

The Christmas story tells us about truth – truth that is the deepest meaning of the world; truth that needs to be lived out – in the life of Jesus and in our lives as we follow Jesus; and truth that needs witnesses, and finds them in those who are filled with the joy of having encountered good news.  Deep meaning, lives to be lived, joyful witness – this is what we learn about truth.

So this Christmas, and in the weeks and months that follow, what can you do that will line yourself up with the deep truth of reality?; how will you live that out so that the truth is alive in you?; and where will you encounter the joy of good news that will make you a witness to the truth?

Let me finish with part of a poem by John Betjeman called Christmas:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

May I wish you a very happy and truthful Christmas.  Amen.

First given at St Peter's, Parwich. Midnight Mass 24-25.12.15. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Advent Hymn: Advent Calendar Day 26

The short meditations on the O Antiphons that I have posted since 17th December combine to form an Advent hymn.  It can be sung to the tune CaelitesPlaudiant (which is more normally used for the hymn ‘Christ the Fair Glory’).

I have taken the opportunity to edit the verses since my original posts.

God’s Word and Wisdom come, stay among us always,
Teach us to live in tune with all creation,
From cradle to the cross, show the way you made us:
Grain of the universe.

God of your people come, save us by your presence,
Lead us through wilderness, exile and addiction,
Fulfil your promise, free us from what binds us:
Lord God of Israel.

Seed from the Sower come, plant in us your harvest,
Grow in our lives, we pray, fruits of your Spirit,
Form us from good soil, fruitful and productive:
Root of the tree of life.

Key to the kingdom come, break the locks that seal our hearts,
Free our compassion, challenge our indifference,
Help us to welcome strangers and the outcast:
Neighbour and our Servant Lord.

Sun always burning come, dawn upon us daily,
Judge us with mercy, teach us in our ignorance,
Lead us through darkness, to the life eternal:
Ever-burning Fire of Love.

King of the Nations come, bring an end to all our wars,
Undo injustice, repair the world we share,
With those we try to harm, reconcile and bless us:
Prince of Peace and Judge of all.

Christ born among us come, take our flesh and live in us,
Forgive our selfishness, heal our wounds and brokenness, 
Transform our lives and hearts, show forth your salvation:
Jesus, Emmanuel.

© Simon J. Taylor, 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

O Emmanuel: Advent Calendar Day 25

Christ born among us come, take our flesh and live in us,
Forgive our selfishness, heal our wounds and brokenness, 
Transform our lives and hearts to show forth your salvation:
Jesus, Emmanuel.