Monday, December 27, 2021

Christmas Night

Here is the transcript of my podcats for the Nativity of Our Lord on Christmas Night.

The Nativity of the Lord - Christmas Night 2021

Reading: John 1:1-18

During the present pandemic, we have all come to appreciate being able to communicate with each other online. Indeed, it is hard to imagine what life would be like at the present time without the internet. Even those who dislike social media - and I personally certainly have an ambiguous relationship with it – have, nevertheless, appreciated being able to use it to keep in touch with family and friends. Seeing loved ones online may not be the same as seeing them in person, but when travel restrictions prevent us from getting together physically, online is the next best thing.
One of the things online social media companies want you to do is to fill in your profile. Most of this is straightforward enough. One profile question that can cause problems, however, is the one about our ‘relationship status’. Although for many this too is a relatively straightforward question to answer, it certainly isn’t for everyone. For some, their relationship status is anything but straightforward, and so Facebook, for example, helpfully has as an answer the option: ‘It's complicated’.

On this Christmas Night, then, I want to ask a profile question that doesn’t get asked on social media sites. Now don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to put your hands up or to answer out loud, but I do want to ask you to think about how you personally would answer. The question is, ‘What is your relationship status with God?’

This, again, is for some a straightforward question to answer. They either do or don’t have a relationship with God. Some have a deep and meaningful relationship with God, and they can’t imagine their lives without him. Others don’t think there is a God to have relationship with or simply have no interest in him anyway. But for others, well, ‘It’s complicated’.

So let me ask you again: ‘What’s your relationship status with God?’

Now notice I am not asking you whether you believe in God. The fact that you are here at all at Midnight suggests that at the very least you are not unsympathetic to the possibility of his existence, even if the season we are in and the traditions that are part of it also have something to do with you being here.

No, I am not asking you about your belief, but about your relationship. It is, of course, perfectly possible, indeed it is common, to believe in someone’s existence without having anything approaching a relationship with them. We don’t have a relationship as such even with many people we know and see on a regular basis.

The question I am asking, then, is specifically about your relationship with God. And it is here that for many it starts to get complicated.

For some, it’s complicated because their relationship with God is a distant relationship, perhaps no more than a vague sense that there is a God. For many others, however, it is complicated because they are not particularly sure that they want to commit to a relationship with God. They may be happy to go to church and even to take part in church activities, but to enter into a fully committed relationship? They are certainly not ready for that.

Why am I going on about this tonight of all nights?

Well, it’s because tonight all over the world people like me will be talking about the passage I have just read, which begins with the famous words, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God …’ St John will also write ‘and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. Church leaders and preachers will also refer at this time to St Matthew’s words, ‘Emmanuel – God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). We will tell people that in order to be with us, God has become one of us. We will seek to reassure people that God has not left us or abandoned us. Instead, we will explain, he has entered our existence as one of us.

Our assumption seems to be that if, as church leaders and preachers, we can convince people that this is indeed true, that there is a God who has done this, then they will be overjoyed and want to become regular churchgoers from that moment onwards. Apart from being somewhat naive, it misses the point of what the Word becoming flesh was all about. Seeing ‘God with us’ as simply being about God reassuring us that he is ‘there for us’ is fraught with difficulty.

Firstly, take the phrase, ‘God with us’ itself. St John, in our Gospel reading, also describes the Word as the one through whom all things originally came into being. St Paul describes God as being the ‘one in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). How much more ‘with us’ could he be than that? God was already with us without the Word having to become one of us. Preachers will explain that by becoming one of us God can now understand what it is like for us. But surely if he is God, he would know that anyway?

Secondly, as if this isn’t enough of a problem, as I have said, many of us don’t in any case want God with us. At least, not in any way that matters. Some want absolutely nothing to do with God at all. They see God as just a crutch for weak people, as an imaginary friend for people frightened of being alone. They are very happy to take their chances in life without him.

Others, however, while not wanting anything to do with God on a regular basis, think that it would be nice if God could be there for us when we get into trouble. In other words, they want to see God being with us as a sort of heavenly insurance policy. But the bottom line is that the rest of the time they want to live their lives their way, without any outside interference. It would be good if God could be with us when we need him, but, they think, that doesn’t mean he should have control over us.

The difficulty is, of course, that while we may want to live our lives our way, we are not very good at it. We like to tell ourselves we can manage perfectly well most of the time without God, but the evidence is very much against it. Hence the darkness that engulfs humanity and the terrible mess we see around us as people compete with one another and trample over each other.

This is true on a political, social, financial, and cultural level; it is also true on an individual level. Many tonight will put a brave face on Christmas, but inside they are hurting and fighting the darkness that threatens to overwhelm them. For not only do we do evil, we suffer both the consequences of the wrong we ourselves do as well as the wrong others do to us.

The Word becoming flesh wasn’t about God wanting to show he is with us in the sense of being there for us when we feel we need him; it was about God wanting to get through to us in the darkness of our existence and to make it possible for us to have a relationship with him.

Jesus came as a light shining in the darkness to give us the chance to turn from darkness to light, to turn from ourselves to be with him. So how did we respond to the light? St John writes that even his own did not receive him (John 1:11). And now today, still we don’t receive him. God may be ‘with us’, but we certainly aren’t with him.

We don’t feel any guilt about this. After all, we didn’t ask him to come in the first place. We may not be good at it, but, generally speaking, we want to make our own decisions about how we live our lives, without anyone telling us what we should and should not do.

There are those who are attracted to the light, who know their need, and who would like to have God in their life … to a point. They can see the benefits of a relationship with God, but they want it to be on their terms. They don’t want to lose control or to feel they are tied down. What they want, in other words, is a ‘casual relationship’; one in which they can think about God when they feel like it, where they can turn up when they have the time, and where what God wants is one factor among many in the decisions they make and how they live.

Their often-unspoken fear is that anything more than a casual relationship with God might mean God intruding into their lives and taking away their freedom. And let me say tonight that those who think like this have at least understood what a relationship with God means. They have understood the implications of God being ‘with us’, perhaps better than many who will be preaching on it!

St Catherine of Siena describes God as the ‘mad lover’, which is to say that God is so madly in love with us that he is not interested in a casual relationship with us. If God enters our life, he does so as he entered the world, that is, as a demanding and disruptive presence. When it comes to God being with us, it’s all or nothing. And this is simply not something that many are prepared to commit to.

No wonder, then, when confronted with the Divine Lover who wants all of us and wholehearted commitment from us, we are not so sure. And so, for many tonight, when it comes to our relationship with God: ‘It’s complicated’.

We cling to the hope that God will be happy with less than a fully committed relationship. I am sorry to have to tell you on tonight of all nights that he won’t. The Word didn’t become flesh for everything to continue as before as if nothing has happened. Too much has happened for that. What has happened is the Cross. St Paul puts it like this:

‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

God loved us so much, so madly, - to use St Catherine’s words - that not only did the Word become flesh and dwell among us, he went to the Cross and died for us, and now tonight he has turned up offering us an eternal life-long relationship with him. Or as St John puts it later in his Gospel:

‘For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

God is not looking tonight for us to make a commitment that he hasn’t already been prepared to make himself.

God promises much in the relationship he is offering us: forgiveness, peace, joy, abundant life; always to be with us and, yes, always to be there for us, but he wants a response from us; he wants commitment. Now if we don’t want to respond and we are not interested in the relationship he is offering, if we don’t want to commit, then he won’t make us. This is about consent. That’s what faith is: consent and commitment. But you can’t have it both ways. The benefits of this relationship aren’t for friends; they are for lovers.

St John, after writing of the commitment that God has been willing to make to us in his Son, the Word made flesh, writes:
‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)

The darkness once tried to put out the light and for a moment it looked as if it had succeeded, St John tells us, however, that the ‘light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it’. That doesn’t mean, however, that the darkness has given up, and many, now as then, prefer the darkness to the light.

Many choose to live their life in spiritual darkness seeking pleasure, possessions, power, and position in this world. And in the darkness, many find what they are looking for. But the darkness also finds them, enters them, and possesses them. Not only do they live in the darkness, the darkness now lives in them and threatens to destroy them.

Tonight, we are being given the chance to let the light of God shine in the darkness of our lives. Yes, that will be painful; light shows things up and reveals things that often we don’t want to see, but light also dispels darkness. God wants on this most holy night to dispel the darkness in our life and enter our life as an abiding presence in a committed relationship with us.

St Paul writes:

‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Here tonight, God is looking at us face to face, and, in the face of Christ, he is offering us a relationship with him. God has made the first move. He is reaching out to us. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Don’t tonight let the complications of this life lead to you missing out on the life that is being offered to you.

In a moment, I will light the last candle on our Advent wreath, the candle that represents the light of Christ. If you want to begin a relationship with God that’s not complicated, consider lighting a candle on our votive candle stand in church or if you are not able to light a candle in church, then lighting one at home. Do this as a sign and a prayer that you want to let God’s light into your life and to begin the relationship with him that God is offering you.

St John writes:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …’ (John 1:12)

There is no better gift on offer this Christmas than the gift that is being offered to each of us here right now. Take that step of faith and let the light of God shine into your life.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Second Sunday of Advent.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Reading: Luke 3:1-6

Our Gospel reading sounds like it could itself be the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel. It is, in fact, the beginning of the second section of the Gospel. The first section has described the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus and also Jesus’ growth in favour with God and man. We are going to be reading extensively from this first section over the next few weeks!

St Luke’s Gospel is itself going to be the main source of our Gospel reading each week for this coming year, year C in the lectionary. To begin, then, a few words about St Luke’s Gospel.

St Luke’s Gospel is the first volume of a two-volume work. The second volume is the book of Acts. You will sometimes see them both referred to as Luke-Acts, that is, with a hyphen between them to show they are linked. Both volumes are dedicated to someone called ‘Theophilus’, which means ‘friend of God’. We don’t know anything about Theophilus, but he was probably a believer who acted as St Luke’s patron, which is to say that he paid for the volumes to be produced!

If this is the case, then he certainly got his money’s worth[1]. St Luke’s Gospel is the longest of the four Gospels with over 19,000 words in Greek (19,482). Matthew has over 18,000 (18,345); Mark over 11,000 (11,304), and John over 15,000 (15,635). Acts, the second volume has over 18,000 words (18,451) and is slightly longer than St Matthew’s Gospel. This means that St Luke not only wrote the two longest books in the New Testament, he also is the New Testament author who wrote the most. Out of a total of about 138,020 words in Greek, St Luke wrote 27% of them; St Paul 23%; and St John, 20%.

There are those who think, given the way Acts ends, that it may have been St Luke’s intention to write a third volume. I am one of them, but that is a story for another time! Suffice it to say that the length of each of St Luke’s volumes roughly corresponds to the length of a standard size papyrus scroll. The English word, ‘volume’ comes from the Latin word, ‘volumen’, meaning a papyrus scroll. The fact, however, that the Gospel and Acts were on separate scrolls has led to them being read and studied separately and not together as they should be.

In his actual opening to the Gospel, St Luke acknowledges his debt to the others who have written before him. It is worth quoting St Luke’s introduction in full:

‘Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’ (Luke 1:1-4)

St Luke’s Gospel has a lot of material in common with both Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke have about 20% of their content in common; Luke and Mark, 40%. St Luke says there were ‘many’ others who had written before him, so we don’t where exactly he got the 40% that is unique to him, although that doesn’t stop scholars from speculating!

Who, then, was St Luke?

We don’t know for certain, but from the earliest days most people have thought that it is the Luke who is described as a companion and co-worker of St Paul (Philemon 1:24; Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11). In Acts, there are passages where the author writes in the first person suggesting he is part of the events he is describing (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16). Not all agree with this identification, but I see no reason to doubt it. In Colossians 4:14, St Luke is referred to as the Beloved Physician. St John’s Gospel was written by the ‘Beloved Disciple’; St Luke’s Gospel by the ‘Beloved Doctor’!

You will often hear or read that St Luke was a Gentile. This, however, is far less certain than people make it sound. St Luke is certainly concerned with the spread of the Gospel to the Gentiles, but whether he was himself a Gentile is another matter altogether. Jew or Gentile, he is concerned with what happened, with the ‘events that have been fulfilled amongst us’ (Luke 1:1), as he himself puts it in the words he addresses to Theophilus.

Which brings us to our Gospel reading.

St Luke begins this second section of his Gospel with a series of people who are all historical figures. Some of the names you may recognize. Tiberias Caesar was the Roman Emperor from AD 14-37. Tiberias was the adopted son of Caesar Augustus, the great Roman Emperor who was Emperor when Jesus was born. Pontius Pilate everyone has also heard of. He was the ‘Governor of Judea’ from AD 26 -36, a period which covers the whole of Jesus’ ministry.

The role and relationships of the next characters perhaps needs a word of explanation. Rome ruled its conquered territories in a variety of ways. Some parts came under a directly appointed Roman governor. Others were ruled on Rome’s behalf by people who were approved by Rome, but who had greater independence. Herod the Great was one such, and he ruled as King over the whole of Palestine. Herod the Great was still King at the time of Jesus' birth.

After his death in about 4 BC, Herod the Great’s Kingdom was divided between his sister, Salome, and three of his surviving sons.

Salome received an area to rule known as a toparchy, which included the three cities of Yavne, Azotus, and Phasaelis. Herod Antipas was appointed ‘tetrarch’ of Galilee and Perea (‘tetrarch’ means ruler of a fourth) and ruled from 4 BC to AD 39; Philip was appointed tetrarch of the territory to the north-east of the Sea of Galilee and ruled from 4 BC to AD 34; and Archelaus was made ‘ethnarch’ of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea. Archelaus’ title was ‘ethnarch’, which means ‘ruler of a nation’, and he was told he would eventually get the title ‘king’. Archelaus was, however, a disaster, and Rome removed him in AD 6 and brought his territory under direct rule by a ‘prefect’ responsible to the governor of the Roman province of Syria.

Not related to the Herod dynasty, Lysanias was the tetrarch of a small area on the western slopes of Mount Hermon in the north near to Damascus, centred on the city of Abila.

Although under direct Roman rule, Judea, centred on the city of Jerusalem, enjoyed a measure of autonomy, at least in religious matters. Local rule was provided by the high priest who presided over a governing council, the Sanhedrin, which had 71 members.

Annas (or Annanias) was the high priest from AD 6 to about AD 14-15 when he fell out with Rome. His influence continued, however, with the appointment, after a brief spell, of his son-in-law, Caiaphas, as high priest. Caiaphas held office from AD 18 to AD 36. Subsequently, Annas’ five sons were also in turn to become high priest.

Having, then, assembled this cast of historical characters, St Luke writes about the appearance in the wilderness of John the Baptist, whom St Luke describes as the son of Zechariah, who was himself a priest.

All of which is doubtless really interesting, if you are interested in history, which, let’s face it, many of us are not! But by introducing the ministry of John the Baptist, and with it the ministry of Jesus, in this way, St Luke is making a very important theological and spiritual point, and one that we need to take seriously.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to be hearing the story of the birth of Jesus a lot. At our Carol Service, we will hear it read to us in nine lessons. We will also sing of it and hear it sung to us. But it will not just be in church; we will, for example, hear Christmas carols being played in the shops and the malls and many other places besides.

The story of Jesus will have a fairy tale quality to it and that is how many will hear the Christmas story this Christmas - as a fairy story. As a magical and much-loved story certainly, but as a story much like many other stories that are also popular at Christmas, whether that be the Nutcracker, a Christmas Carol, or the Gringe Stole Christmas! Not, that is, as a historical account of something that really happened.

One reason for this is the way we celebrate the story of the birth of Jesus. We don’t celebrate it as the birth of a real person. We have added all sorts of traditions and embellishments to it that only emphasize its fairy-story like nature. In addition to the story of Jesus’ birth, there will be loads of other additions: decorations, cards, Christmas trees, presents, pictures of Father Christmas, and much more, all of which have little to do with the story of Jesus himself.

It’s not helped by how we tell the story in Church itself. We don’t even bother to get our facts right. For example, Jesus wasn’t born in a stable as such. The Wise Men after all, St Matthew tells us, when they found the place where the holy family were staying entered the ‘house’ (Matthew 2:11), which certainly wouldn’t have had a Christmas tree and wouldn’t have been covered in snow. There would not have been shepherds in the fields keeping sheep if it had been snowing. And we don’t know how many wise men there were just that they brought three types of gifts!

The traditional nativity is great fun and the traditions and the way we tell the story all add to its magical character. And we like it because there is so little magic in our lives. Christmas is a time for children especially, we say, but we say that because we don’t think it’s real. The fairy tale elements often blunt the reality of the story and result in us missing its message.

It is because of this that some church people get very negative about it all. In the parish where I served my curacy, my clerical colleague used to get very upset when lots of people turned up for church at Christmas who didn’t normally come to church, and he used to tell them off at some length for not coming during the rest of the year.

The Puritans in the 17th century tried to ban Christmas altogether and, in Scotland, for example, there were churches that, until relatively recently, didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. They saw the way Christmas was generally celebrated as all very pagan. Christmas Day in parts of Scotland was just another day.

Others took, and take, a different approach. You will hear talk at this time of year of putting Christ back into Christmas. The minister of the Church I belonged to before being ordained used to preach about Easter and tell people it was Jesus’ death and not his birth they should be focusing on.

Interestingly, the early Church doesn’t seem to have celebrated the birth of Jesus at all. They saw celebrating someone’s birth as something the pagans did and they wanted no part of it.

Well, as you know, I am not one of those who thinks we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. I love Christmas, and I love all the traditions associated with it. But I love them not because they are a way of escaping reality into a mythical, fairy-tale world, but because they are a way of celebrating Jesus entering this world and becoming part of the reality of human life.

There is a real challenge to us here as a Church and as believers. We have to be careful not to let the magical take over from the historical and, in the process, silence the message that Jesus came to bring.

But what is the message he came to bring?

When Jesus was just a month old, his parents took him to the Temple in Jerusalem, where it was said of him:

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed …’ (Luke 2:34-35)

If you ask people what the message of Christmas is, many will tell you that it is, ‘peace on earth, goodwill to all people’, which is strange as Jesus himself said:

‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ (Luke 12:49-51)

In St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says he came to bring not peace but a sword (Matthew 10:34). Mary herself was told that a sword would pierce her own soul too (Luke 2:35).

Yes, the Christmas story is a good news story, and it will have a happy ending, but not for everyone and not without pain, suffering, and death.

On Christmas Night, at Midnight, I will light the Christmas candle; I will read the Christmas Gospel and the famous words, ‘In the beginning was Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). But the amazing thing, St John tells us, is that the ‘Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14).

Unlike the Christmas decorations and traditions, this isn’t an addition to the Christmas story: it is the Christmas story. If it isn’t true, if the baby in the manger isn’t the God who made us and through whom we continue to exist, then there is no Christmas story.

St Peter writes:

‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (2 Peter 1:16)

St Luke tells Theophilus that he is writing so that Theophilus may know the truth concerning the things about which he has been instructed (Luke 1:4).

This is real. It is not a fairy story. It is not a metaphor or a type of parable. It happened. Jesus was born, as St Luke puts it, ‘in the days of King Herod of Judea’ (Luke 1:5). He began his ministry by being baptized by John, the son of Zechariah, to whom the word of God came in the wilderness:

‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas …’ (Luke 3:1-2)

We don’t have to be against Christmas as the Puritans were or tell people off as my colleague when I was a curate did, but we do need to guard against telling the story in such a way that makes it seem unreal and irrelevant to people’s lives the rest of the year. It is important that we as a Church this Christmas communicate the reality of the Nativity of our Lord.

St Luke will begin his account of Jesus’ ministry with the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus will quote from the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18-19)

Today, people may not feel poor materially, although there is still plenty of poverty around, but many do feel poor in spirit. Many feel they don’t have the strength and inner resources to go on. They are captive to habits and impulses they can’t control. They feel trapped by unhappy relationships, jobs they hate, or situations they can’t escape. They are blind and unable to see the way out of their depression and despair.

This Christmas, it is to people in these bad news situations that our Lord came. The good news of Jesus is not a fairy story to cheer us up once a year, but a message that can transform our lives all the year round.

We will know we are telling the Christmas story the way it should be told when what we are saying is important to people, when they react to it and divide over it, because that’s what happens when something matters. The story of Jesus is not a story people can remain neutral about or indifferent to. And if they can, it is because we are not telling it in the right way.

But to tell it in the right way, we first need personally, each one of us, ourselves to get with the story. The Christmas story challenges us to have faith in the One that the story is about. To ‘all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’, St John writes (John 1:12). The Christmas story is a story that still has the power to change lives today.

So, this Christmas, let’s make sure we tell the Christmas story as it is and pray that people will hear it, and that begins with us hearing and responding to it ourselves. The shepherds said to one another after the angels had announced the good news of Christ’s birth to them:

‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ (Luke 2:15)

This Christmas, may we do the same.


[1] Felix Just (