Monday, 31 December 2012

Christmas newsletters

Gospel reading: Luke 2: 1-20

This year we hadn’t had, until yesterday, a single round-robin Christmas letter. Perhaps they are going out of fashion like Christmas cards. But I also wonder whether you heard Lynne Truss’s attack upon on them on Radio 4’s Today Programme this year. That can’t have helped with their popularity. Of course people have been taking pot shots at such letters for years. But I like Christmas newsletters – even if I can’t seem to get round to writing one myself - and was glad when one arrived through our letter box. I’ll read it to you

The Star Inn

Dear all

This year has been a busy, busy one for us Brewers, what with having had a glorious new kitchen for the inn and then Martha’s wedding to Joel in the autumn which we had here. See picture of the bridal party below and particularly note my new hat.

Joel is such nice boy and we all love him dearly. This year he’s been promoted to Chief Tax Officer for the local district - which has certainly brought its benefits if also some rather unkind remarks from the neighbours. And Martha is expecting a baby which is due in the spring. Simon – now 14 can you believe it? - is doing marvellously at school and has just got a distinction for his Grade 6 Timbrel and Loud Cymbals exam. Fluffy the ox had a new calf in the spring so it’s now Fluffy and Huffy in the stable.

We had a lovely family holiday on the Med in June with my sister and her family. Such a beautiful spot near Gaza! The sea was as blue and as warm at it could possibly be. And the food was glorious. There was a bit of bother, at the time, between the locals and the Roman authorities. Some people – near where we were staying – were being evicted from their homes to make way for some new barracks. But as you know we don’t like to get involved in other people’s business – and our holiday was hardly affected at all.

It’s been very hectic here in Bethlehem over the last month what with that irritating Census. Luckily, as many of you will remember, Tom and I were born here so no travelling for us and, to tell you the truth, it’s been quite a boon to trade in what is normally a quiet season. You have to pity some of the travellers. Last night we even had a pregnant woman and her husband arrive at our door – and the only room we had for them – was with Fluffy and Huffy in the stable. I didn’t think the oxen would mind.

The woman seemed very heavily pregnant to me. She might have even had the baby last night or early this morning as there seemed to be quite a lot of noise coming from the stable throughout the night. At one point some most unsavoury looking characters turned up who seemed to be friends of the woman or her husband. I didn’t like to pry and couldn’t really see what was going on from our bedroom window.

So a lot has happened this year – what with the new kitchen, Martha’s wedding, Joel’s promotion, Simon’s musical successes and our lovely holiday. Tom is still his old self, spending too much time on the business but I have my health so we have much to be grateful for. Happy Holidays and I hope that you and yours have a prosperous New Year.

Lots of love Ruth, Tom, Martha, Joel, Simon and Fluffy and Huffy

Now I don’t know about you but I enjoy such Christmas newsletters. They are better than just a card. For one thing they contain more news. And in some ways they are better than a present. They do I think, cost the writer more in time and effort than, say a box of chocolates. They deserve to be received as news and accepted as a gift with good grace.

Of course Christmas newsletters generally don’t cover the disasters and the failures of the year: only the good times and the successes. They can seem impersonal because the writer is writing for a lot of different people – both friendly and not so friendly. They can sometimes seem boastful, even competitive, as if the writer wants to prove to their readers that they and theirs are doing better than you and yours. And of course they are easy to take apart and make fun of as Lynne Truss did, ever so skilfully, on the Today Programme.

It is fairly easy to see that Ruth Brewer – the author of my Christmas news letter – lives in a bit of bubble where it’s only the affairs of those most closest to her that particularly matter to her. But aren’t we all a bit like that? More significantly of course, Ruth seems to have, rather foolishly, missed the significance of a big event on her doorstep because she ‘doesn’t like to pry’ and, as she says, she and her family ‘don’t get like to get involved in other people’s business’. But how many of us in similar circumstances, would have got out of bed, got dressed and ventured out into the cold, merely to see a stranger’s new-born baby?

The birth of God in the form of a apparently insignificant baby, surely shows us one thing related to Christmas newsletters. It is in the most human that God is to be found, in the seemingly ordinary but also extraordinary events in our lives such as the birth of a child. If Ruth had looked she might have found God in her stable that night. But she also might, in the spring, find God in the birth of her own grandchild. God was even present - had she but known it – in her joy at her glorious new kitchen.

Newsletters contain news and at Christmas we think of the good news of the birth of the Christ child. In the Christmas story it’s angels who bring this news, first to Mary, then to Joseph, before the event and then to the shepherds immediately afterwards. In our Gospel reading tonight we heard how the angel tells the shepherds, ‘Be not afraid, I bring you good news of great joy.’

Newsletters may seem to contain rather trivial news compared with the birth of the Saviour of us all. But remember it was only Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men and a few others who glimpsed the significance of the baby born in Bethlehem that night. The innkeeper and his wife presumably didn’t grasp the importance of the couple who they housing in their stable, or they would have found them better accommodation. News might sound trivial but sometimes seemingly trivial news has earth shattering consequences. We scoff at such news at our peril.

A Christmas newsletter not only contains news but is also a sort of gift. And at Christmas it is customary to exchange presents, to symbolise the gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense brought by the wise men, but also to remember that the baby in the manger was God’s gift to us. ‘For to you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour’: in other words the angel is saying to the shepherds that the baby has a tag on it saying ‘For you’.

A newsletter is a type of gift because the writer gives something of them self in writing it. In writing one the writer has to reveal what they have seen as significant over the last year, show what they truly care about, open them self up, if ever so slightly to acceptance or rejection. In laughing at the newsletter we reject that gift. And it is a gift which is ever-so precious.

Our offertory carol today is In the Bleak Midwinter. The last verse begins ‘What can I give him, poor as I am?’ and ends with the words ‘Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart’. In a way people give their heart in Christmas newsletters. They give us something which God gave us in the form of human baby. In allowing himself to be born as a baby in Bethlehem he gave himself to us – with the hope of acceptance but at the risk of rejection. Our giving of our heart to God, in return, may seem a strange thing to do but it is all he asks of us. It’s all he wants from us this Christmas.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Waiting for God

St Matthew’s, 16th December 2012,
Readings: Zephaniah 3: 14-end; Philippians 4: 4-7 and Luke 3: 7-18.

My sermon today was billed as ‘Getting ready for God ‘ but actually I am going to be talking mostly about waiting for God.   Of course getting ready involves waiting.   But the two are not the same.   Getting ready involves activity.   Waiting does not.   I want to commend waiting to you.   I think it is much under-rated and I’ll try and explain why.   One reason for why I think waiting is good is that whilst God is, of course, a God who does things he is also a God who waits.   For example he waits for us to come to him.

But firstly why should we be thinking about getting ready for, or waiting for, God today particularly.   Well obviously we are in the season of Advent.   And at this time in the Church’s year we think about the coming of Christ into the world – both about the first time he came – as a helpless baby – and about our hope of his return – as a triumphant king.   It’s natural to feel that we need to get ready to celebrate his first coming and that we need to get ready for his second coming.   But what does getting ready involve?   Doesn’t  it mean that we have to do something?

I want to suggest – rather radically I hope - that we don’t need to do anything, to be ready for God to come,  that getting ready for God is not a question of preparing ourselves, making ourselves suitable for his arrival but of waiting.   Waiting is much more than just getting ready for an event, or a specific day, it about an attitude of mind.  Waiting does involve remembering what has happened and, indeed, hoping for what will be, but more importantly it is acceptance of what is.

Waiting has, I think, got a rather bad name.  What do you immediately think of when you hear the word waiting?   Perhaps ‘buses’ spring to mind.   Perhaps you are now imagining standing at a bus stop getting colder and colder and more and more frustrated at the non-appearance of your bus home.  Or perhaps you might-as its Advent – be thinking about waiting for a baby to arrive.

Of course we can wait for good things as well as bad and waiting is coloured by what we wait for.   Waiting for a baby – or even a party to celebrate a birth - is clearly different from waiting for a bus.   And then again waiting for the 25th December to arrive is quite different for waiting for Christ’s second coming.

Waiting also depends on how we perceive what we wait for.  If we are a child we normally wait for Christmas with expectation and excitement at what is in store for us.   This is because we are hopeful that when it comes it will be associated with good things – namely presents.   If we are an adult and particularly if we have been infected with bar-humbugitis - we tend to wait for Christmas with indifference or even dread (dread perhaps at the likelihood of burnt or underdone roast potatoes and family rows).      

We do, when you think about it, quite a lot of waiting in our lives and as we get older we do even more.   Of course when we are very young – a baby – all there is to be done – besides eat and the consequence of eating - is wait, wait to be strong enough to walk, wait to learn how to talk, etc. etc.    It is no coincidence, I think, that we remember the incarnation at the celebration of Jesus’ birth, rather than say at the celebration of his baptism.   It’s as if we need to remember that God is as much present in the powerless baby – who waits for his life to unfold – as the man who is at his most powerful – at the height of his ministry.

As we get older we older we again become more and more dependent on other people and we spend more and more of our time waiting for them to do those things for us.  But we don’t have to be old to end up doing a lot of waiting,   Getting sick or losing your job also entail a lot of waiting. 

Waiting is something which is often thought of as somehow demeaning.  Babies and old people, sick people, unemployed people are sometimes thought at somehow less important than those who do stuff – particularly paid work.  Those who are active and busy are somehow seen as more important than those who are not so.     But this is surely not how God sees things.   Jesus the baby was surely no less important than Jesus the man.   Jesus the dying man – nailed to and therefore doing nothing on the cross – was no less important the Jesus the man rushing round preaching and healing.   Waiting is just as important as activity.

This is brought home to us by looking at the life of Jesus in a bit more detail and here I am summarising a book called the Stature of Waiting by an author called WH Vanstone.  As Vanstone points out, and as can easily be seen by even a quick reading of the Gospels, Jesus’ life falls into two halves: not equal halves in actual years or months but in halves in the way the Gospel writers write about it.   All four gospels expend many more words on the events of the last week of Jesus’ life than on any other week in his life.  For example Mark takes 10 chapters to describe Jesus’ life up to his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey seven days before Easter Sunday and six chapters on his last week.  

The first half of Jesus life can be characterised by preaching, healing, performing other miracles, changing peoples’ lives: in other words doing things.   The second and last half of Jesus life can be characterised by his being arrested, brought before the Jewish and Roman authorities, tried, tortured and finally killed, in other words having things done to him.   The transition between Jesus doing things and having things done to him can be seen to occur in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus is handed over to the Roman authorities, seemingly by Judas.  

In Mark’s gospel the transition is perhaps the most clear.   Mark’s description of Jesus ministry is almost breathless with words like immediately and phases like ‘that same day’ scattered throughout.   Jesus is almost always the subject of sentences.   Mark even describes scenes through Jesus’ eyes.   Jesus saw Simon and Andrew casting their nets and called them rather than Simon and Andrew were casting their nets when he called them.   Jesus found Peter, James and John asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane not that they fell asleep.  Mark’s description of Jesus’ ministry shows Jesus to be decisive, powerful, successful.   Jesus persuades, confounds, changes situations – even calms storms and casts out demons.   He changes peoples’ lives thought what he does.

But after he is handed over – or perhaps hands himself over – at the Garden of Gethsemane everything changes.   After that Jesus does hardly anything.   In Mark’s gospel Jesus is, after Gethsemane, the subject of only nine verbs.  One is the verb which reports him dying.   Four are negative in form or meaning, ‘He was silent’, ‘He answered nothing’, ‘He still answered nothing’ and when he was offered wine ‘He did not take it’.   The other four verbs are verbs of speaking but whereas previously Jesus’ words persuaded or confounded people, now his words affect no-one, change nothing.  

After Gethsemane Jesus is no longer the subject of sentences he is the object.  He is handed over from one authority to another, is dressed by others, even fed by others, or at least given wine.  It is as if he has reverted to being a helpless baby.   Not, this time, a baby that was cherished by his parents and worshipped by shepherds and wise men.   But helpless like a baby nevertheless.   But note that in this helpless inactivity Jesus accomplishes his greatest triumph, the rescue of us all, and not just the people who came into contact with him.   But in this he had to wait, do nothing, he had to wait for God to act.  We can see in the events from Gethsemane to Easter morning Jesus waiting for God to come and God does come.   God comes to raise him from the dead.  

Note too that since Jesus is God incarnate it is as if God waits for God.   In and after the Garden of Gethsemane.  God waits for Jesus and Jesus waits for God.  This is why I think waiting is to be commended and especially when it comes to waiting for God.  If Jesus and God wait for each other we must too wait for God, as he indeed waits for us.

Perhaps I should end my sermon here but I’d like us to retrace our steps a bit.   Of course some waiting can involve activity.  Sometimes that activity can be fruitful.   When we wait at a bus stop we might usefully fill our time chatting to the other people waiting.   When we are waiting to have a baby we can rush around visiting people to share the good news – as of course Mary did when she was told by the angel Gabriel that she was to have a baby.   But note that waiting – by definition – means we cannot affect what we are waiting for.   However much we might like to, we cannot make the bus come any faster, nor – if we are a pregnant women – do anything to speed the baby’s birth.   There is no shame in this.  Our helplessness is not something to be pitied but to accept, and in the case of waiting for a baby, if not a bus, to rejoice in.   It would be good for many people if they could wait for buses without so much impatience, so much fruitless activity.

So it may be with much of life’s waiting.   Waiting, at its most basic, is acceptance of the inevitable and I think we need to learn this – or at least this is something I need to learn.   We can, like children do waiting for Christmas, wait impatiently for it all (what precisely?) to start.   Or we can like adults getting ready for Christmas, rush around preparing things rather wishing we had a bit more time before it (what precisely?) arrived. 

Alternatively we can try and adopt an attitude of mind which is one of acceptance – acceptance of own ultimate helplessness to change what will God will have it be.   This is not to say that we should not eschew bar-humbugitis and be as excited as we can be at the coming of Christmas, nor that we should do nothing by way of preparing for it.

And so finally to waiting for God.   What is this precisely?   I am only going to attempt to say what it is not.  And it’s not, I think, waiting for a particular day on which he arrived or will arrive.  I always find that first line of the well-known Advent carol ‘O come, O come Emmanuel’ slightly odd.   Firstly it sounds to me as if, in singing this, we think God won’t come unless we call upon him to do so and.  And secondly doesn’t calling him Emmanuel mean that he is with us already?   How can someone who is with us be called to come to us?  

We will – after this sermon be singing a well known Taize chant that begins: Wait for the Lord, His day is near.  Now this too could be taken to mean that we should wait for a future event – the Day of the Lord (as it’s referred to in our readings today) – but note that the chant doesn’t say ‘Wait for the Day of the Lord’  It says wait for the Lord.  The two are quite different.  

And so to summarise. When waiting for God we do not need to do anything.   He is already here.  He does not require us anything but to hand ourselves over to him.   Our example himself is Jesus himself who in the last days of his life waited for God.  If it is necessary for God to wait for God surely we should wait for him.