A Gripping Yarn

There’s no doubt about it, the Nativity story is a great yarn. In the hands of even a poor story teller it quickly takes on a life of its own as it’s glorious cast assemble. It starts with an angel. Forget girls in tinsel halos prancing about a stage, this is the mighty Gabriel revealed in all his fearsome glory. Before him all are awestruck and afraid. He comes bearing a message from one before whom even he pales into nothing, the Lord Almighty, but this is a message not of judgement or condemnation but hope.

The lead parts and recipients of his message are the couple Mary and Joseph. Mary, a young woman with an open future ahead of her, Joseph, her fiancé, loyal and righteous. To each Gabriel comes with the same story; Mary is to have a child, God’s Son, the promised and long awaited Messiah to whom Scripture pointed. Every Advent I am struck again by their acceptance of what is happening, Mary’s joy at the news and Joseph’s willingness to keep her as his wife despite the obvious bump… Would I have been so accepting? No doubt the majesty of Gabriel helped.

Then we have the donkey (absent in the Bible but we can’t help but including him) and the laborious ride into Bethlehem. I imagine journeys are never that comfortable at nine months gone, but on a such a stubborn stead? Decidedly bumpy…

On arrival the innkeepers in turn announce that they’re full, “No room! No room! No room!” (hints perhaps of what was to come) but one takes pity (or perhaps has an entrepreneur’s eye for squeezing out a bonus profit) and rents out the room round the back where the animals are kept. And so finally we come to the most famous birth of them all; the birth of Jesus the Christ. No much is said of the process, perhaps out of respect to Marry and her son, he simply arrives, God himself born through the anguish and joy of childbirth.

Before we know it an assembly develops around the God-child. Shepherds, Wise men, innkeeper, animals and angels. At the heart of the tableau, Immanuel, God with us, our Saviour born to bring God’s blessing and peace. OK, that might not be exactly how it is described in the Bible, the Wise Men of course come later and no animals are mentioned, but the image is the same – at that moment the whole world revolves around this vulnerable child born in a stable in Bethlehem.

As I said, it’s a cracking story, one that so many of us listen to and are onlookers on as school nativity plays are enacted. The Shepherds were like that once. As the story folds out, they are looking in from outside on the mountain, outsiders living on the edge of society. Gabriel changes all that with his dramatic invitation to come and see, to come on stage and play their part. The same invitation echoes in the skies for us – don’t be onlookers, viewing the story from a distance, come in and make this story your story, play your part, come and see the baby, God’s Son, born to us. This is not some news-story happening to someone else, or some historic event which is done and dusted, but is our story – the same Christ invites us to join him still.

Church Newsletter Article 20.12.15

Talking Christmas…

It’s that time of year again. The hype-machine of the market place has begun churning out the plethora of adverts that will spew all over the place over the next few weeks, calling us to celebrate Christmas by buying this item or that item. The meaning of Christmas we’re told, is found in the purchases we make, the value of the gifts we receive and the look and taste of the food we eat. Christmas is a consumer celebration. The market place has hijacked our festival and ripped the heart out of it. Queue the customary grumpy old man moan. Bah humbug!

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and moany. If I’m brutally honest, I enjoy giving and receiving gifts as much as anyone. The little boy who woke at 5am if not earlier all exited and demanding to know ‘if he’s been yet’ lives on in me. Although a lot of the season as it is celebrated now is about making money and getting gifts, there is something inherently right about the concept of giving to others. There’s more to the modern celebrations that that as well, there’s also in there a focus on relationships; Christmas we’re told is a time for children, for getting the family together, for visiting friends, for doing things together. Again, there’s a lot that is good about that, even if the pressure to make it perfect and spend lots of money on it is perhaps not in line with what our faith teaches us.

Truth is, of course, as Christians we have another story to tell. Our story begins even earlier that the hype machine of the modern advertising age. Is November too earlier to start thinking about Christmas? October? God started thinking about it before the beginning of time! He always had in sight the plan to send his Son to become one of us, an astonishing gift of grace and love, expensive beyond compare, in order to bring us into relationship with him as his children. We had a great discussion about this at the Bible Study on Wednesday (8pm, Slipe Lane, most weeks – please do join us!) when we found ourselves expectantly pondering this very issue. What is the right way to respond to the story our culture tells about Christmas? Do we accept it wholesale? Do we reject it? Or do we look for overlaps with our own story, opportunities to take what we have in common and build on it to share what has been shared with us? What do you think?

Church Newsletter 14.11.15

Come and See!

I am still the biggest child in our house when it comes to Christmas. I remember when I was little waking up at a ridiculously early time and rushing into to my parents room, waking them up, and demanding that we all troop downstairs to go and see ‘if he’s been yet’! I thought when I got older that I would take the place of my parents, having just fallen asleep after the nights preparations, only to be jumped on just as the dreams embraced me, but over excited children demanding that we get up at 2am. No. I still wake up early, desperately excited, and have to lie there waiting for the rest of the family to stir. Some years I give in and go and wake them up!

One of the favourite moments of Christmas Day with my work hat on is getting to church before everyone else and watching everyone arrive. It’s lovely hearing the sounds of cheery discussion, to see folks come in wearing their Christmas clothes and clutching new presents, to smell the smells of Christmas Day and to greet everyone with a hug or a handshake.

Preparing for carols at Wormley Court this week I read through the Christmas story, and as I did so was struck by it being all about different people travelling to Bethlehem, coming to see. It starts with Mary and Joseph travelling there to fulfil the requirements of the census. A tricky journey no doubt with the expectant mother enduring discomfort and hoping she’ll make it. Then we have the flight of the angels to declare the news on the hillside. We have the shepherds, on hearing this proclamation, running eagerly down into the town to find the manger that was spoken of and finally we have the wise men, travelling from the East, come seeking the new born king. Of course, there was one other who hoped to make a similar journey or so he said, Herod himself. Fortunately with divine intervention, this particular visitation is delayed just long enough.

No doubt this Christmas there will be many on the road, travelling to visit family and friends, maybe even having to negotiate snow!

There is, of course, one more journey to mention, that of Jesus himself, God the Son, emptying himself and taking on the form of a human baby; vulnerable, dependent, with us, indeed, one of us. This is the most vital journey and the most astounding of all, that God should put aside the power and status and comfort of the divine heavenly life and embrace the frailty of stable birth and human living. At Christmas, God himself came to see, came to see us.

And so, however you celebrate this festive season, and whenever you arise, early or late, I encourage you all to make time and space to come and see – come and see Immanuel, God born with us, and worship our heavenly King.

Church Newsletter Article, 9th December, 2012

God Undercover

Where do you go to do your Christmas shopping? If you’re fed up with the crowds, maybe like me you turn to the internet, but if you want to head to bricks and mortar shops, then you have a variety of choices to turn to. If you want to stay local you head for Brookfield Farm shopping centre. If you fancy a change of scenery and want something more, maybe you catch the train and join the tourists in Oxford Street. If you really fancy something special, the Christmas markets of Austria and Germany are famed for their offerings; giant decorated Christmas trees, Father Christmases, seasonal edible treats and nativity scenes. If while you’re shopping, you fancy helping yourself to one of their offerings, however, be careful, as according to the website christmas.org.uk Big Brother is watching you!

This may come as no surprise. CCTV is something we’ve become used to in England, it is taken for granted that if we are in a public place, the chance is that we’re being watched. But this surveillance operation in the town of Weitra, close to the Czech border, is somewhat different and a little controversial. Those doing the watching are not doing it through strategically placed cameras, but undercover agents, detectives dressed up as the Baby Jesus! Asked to comment on the plethora of baby Jesi on high alert the website cites a city council spokesperson as commenting: ‘They are in among the crowds all day long and they are perfect for keeping an eye out for petty crooks.’

Of course, next Saturday (11th) Churches Together will be encouraging people to do the reverse and to ‘Get in the Picture’, dressing up as figures from the nativity story for a photo in Hoddesdon – look out for them in the afternoon and evening.

Do these activities sound like strange things to associate with the birth of Jesus? Are these somewhat at odds with it? Maybe. But there is also something quite fitting in both. The whole point of Christmas is that God came down from on high and mixed among the people he created and loved. Maybe not to catch them out, as in the Austrian market, but to be with them, associate with them. He quite literally became one of them and as the Message wonderfully puts it ‘moved into the neighbourhood’ (John 1:14). In Christ, God was no longer up there, but down here.

As we celebrate Christmas, this simple and yet profound truth is and should be at the heart of our celebrations. Jesus, God with us. It should also challenge us to consider how much we insist on people coming to us or becoming like us so that they can find faith, rather than our following Chris’s example and moving into their neighbourhood and becoming ‘one of them’.

Church Newsletter Article for Sunday 5th December