Saturday, 28 December 2013

Sunday 29 December 2013, Matthew 2, Christmas 1, Escape to Egypt, Bruce

“When they had gone …”  When who had gone?  Thus starts our Gospel extract, and it is a reminder to read more widely.  Matthew has started with a list of descendants from Abraham down to his present day and the birth of Jesus.  Mary has been found to be pregnant, and an angel has warned Joseph her betrothed to accept her and the baby and to name him Jesus.  They have travelled to Bethlehem where the baby has been born.  Magi, wise men, have appeared from the East, seeking the new born king of the Jews so that they may worship him.  This is an important theme for Matthew, the glory of Jesus, revealed to the nations – to Magi here at the beginning and by the apostles being sent out at the end (Matthew 28).
The Magi do the obvious thing and go to King Herod to ask where the new prince is.  Perhaps they thought it was his son!  they are soon put right, however, and the king sends them to Bethlehem to search for the new-born and to bring word so that Herod himself “might go and worship him”.  They succeed in their mission and find Jesus.  They present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Then they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod with the exact address where Jesus is to be found, but to go home by another route.
“When they had gone …”  This is where it can get confusing.  We have a system of special days.  25 December we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  26 December we remember Stephen, the first martyr.  27 December we remember John the brother of James, credited with writing a gospel, letters and Revelation.  28 December we remember the Holy Innocents, of whom we will speak more in a few moments.  Next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the revealing of Jesus’ glory.  The traditional story to do this is the visit of the Magi, so Anne will be preaching about that.  This morning, I am picking up the thread of what happened immediately after.
Joseph has another dream.  He is urged to make a night time flit, to get away, to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt.  People say that we should never mix religion and politics, but for Jesus, just being born was a political act.  He represented a new world order, and alternative to Herod and his regime.  He was in danger.  For Matthew he is a new Moses.  The Egyptians in the time of Moses felt threatened by the growing numbers of Israelites within their borders, and started a programme of ethnic cleansing.  They ordered the midwives not to let any boy babies live, but the midwives ignored them.  Then the Egyptians ordered that all Hebrew baby boys should be thrown into the Nile.  We do not know how many this affected but we do know that one Hebrew mother put her baby into a basket and floated it out onto the river where it was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh and given the name Moses.  Eventually this Moses will lead his people out of Egypt.  So it is ironic that Joseph is directed by the angel to take his family down into Egypt for safety.
What follows is truly awful.  People have responded to this story in different ways.  Some have doubted its historicity – obviously Matthew made the whole thing up…  except that there is no evidence that he did.  There is no historical evidence either way. 
In a small village of a few hundred, there may have been somewhere between five and twenty baby boys of the right age.  They were not important people and so no historian will have been on hand write down their account.  The affair is sadly in keeping with what we do know about the character of Herod, who disposed of suspected rivals, killed all his relatives, built fortresses throughout his kingdom so he would never be far from them, and ordered the death of all political prisoners upon his death to cause the land to mourn.  The affair is sadly in keeping with what we know of the world today, where those in power are happy to accept so called “collateral damage”, whether of a car bomb or a drone, or a campaign of rape and pillage, and calculated starvation.  In fact, given what we know of turmoil in our world today, it seems that if it had not been for the testimony of Matthew this event might have passed unnoticed by practically everybody, except for the bereft mothers of Bethlehem.
The question to be asked is “Where was God in all this?”  I spoke to someone recently about the death of a relative; they were grateful for prayers, but had seen so much suffering that they themselves did not pray now.  We can be forgiven for asking why God allows such things.  We can also wonder why such a sad event is allowed to be part of the Christmas story, which should be such a happy time of the year.  Why didn't God warn the other parents of Bethlehem?  Did the advent of the Saviour bring with it the death of innocents?
There are no answers, certainly none that are easy.  It does seem to me that this is but one event, part of a much bigger story that goes back to the garden, back to Eden.  Just as Pharaoh was fully responsible for ordering the deaths of babies in his day, so Herod was fully to blame for this atrocity.  As I alluded to in my sermon about traffic wardens on Christmas Eve, good people can find themselves caught up in evil deeds.  Our whole world is need of redemption.
It is into this world that the redeemer came, and he was in danger and hardship from the outset.  No palace, no armed guard, no charmed route, no silver spoon.  He was, in effect, an asylum seeker.  Presumably with the benefit of the Magis’ gold, he was not forced to claim benefits while in Egypt, but otherwise how different was he from a refugee from Syria or Southern Sudan, or forced to leave his home in Belfast?  And as you follow his story through the gospel, look to see if Jesus ever had it easy.  You could almost say that the shadow of the cross has fallen across him from his earliest days.
And he feeleth for our sadness.  We do celebrate the birth of this baby boy, Jesus, but we do so giving thanks that he is here, that he knows us and all whom we love, that there is no hardship, difficulty or sadness of ours that he does not fully understand.  You might feel that there is no-one who can be a comfort to you, but there is one, and his name is Jesus.

Christmas Eve Communion, 24 December 2013, 11.00pm Hebrews 1, John 1, Bruce

The sermon on Sunday at the carol service was the one with all the jokes.  So tonight I thought I would be a bit more serious.
Well, ok, I will try one little one:
One day, a teacher, a dustman, and a traffic warden all died and went to heaven. 
St. Peter was there, having a bad day because heaven was getting crowded. When they got to the gate, St. Peter informed them that there would be a test to get into Heaven: They each had to answer a single question. 

To the teacher, he said, "What was the name of the ship that crashed into an iceberg and sunk with all its passengers?" 

The teacher thought for a second, and then replied: "That would have been the Titanic, right?" St. Peter let him through the gate. 

Next, St. Peter turned to the dustman, and figuring that heaven didn’t really need all the stink that he would bring in, decided to make the question a little harder. "How many people died on the ship?" 

The dustman guessed 1228, to which St. Peter said, "That happens to be right. Go ahead." 

St. Peter then turned to the traffic warden. "What were their names?" 
Parking is a bit of an issue in Camberley at the moment.  Several roads in the town have been designated from 30 Minutes to Permit Holders Only.  The new signs look exactly like the old signs and quite a few folk have not noticed them.  I believe the number of tickets issued is approaching 1000.  This has upset quite a lot of people, and it does not seem fair to me.
I am talking about this now because I seek a direct link with the coming of Jesus.  I really do.
In John 3:16 we read: 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

The world, literally the kosmos.  This is a hard word to get a grip on.  Does it mean that God loves the rocks and earth that we stand on?  Does it mean all the people who live on the earth?  One translation reads For God so loved all of us that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  But that is to restrict the meaning which is wider than that.  Sometimes the word “world” is used to indicate sinful and perverse ways of operating: avoid the sins of the world.  Sometimes the word is used to indicate all of creation, the creation that Jesus was instrumental in creating – the way that Christians tell the story. 


The truth is that God has created a wonderful world system, that is literally beyond our understanding.  Physicists used to be quite blaze about how they had figured out the universe.  It appears that 95% of all creation – dark matter and dark energy – exists as a theory.  It might be there, and probably is, but we have not discovered ways to prove it.  I have noticed that physicists are tending to be quite humble now; it is the geneticists and biochemists who think they have it all figured out.  I await developments with interest.
If it is true that the world of the physical is wonderful and awe inspiring, then it is also true in the realm of human society.  The big claim, made in Genesis, is that God created us in his image.  We have the capacity to love and create and appreciate beauty.  There is so much to admire in humankind.
And yet we find ourselves shut out of the garden, estranged from God and from each other.  It is very rare to find a truly evil person.  And yet the world is full of people, good kind people, who find themselves to be part of systems that force them to act in ways that are less than human.  Organisations such as the armed forces, governments, health services, banks (I used to work for one), churches (I work for one today), are not immune from acting in ways that seem to ignore the needs and concerns of ordinary individuals.  This is what it means to be human, and it is why Jesus came to live among us.
Camberley has a good story to tell.  As more offices are being converted to flats, people are moving back into the town.  We might soon return to a society such as I observed in Northern Spain when I walked the Camino, where people lived in apartments over the shops and the towns were vibrant and alive.  As a Streetangel I am glad to see something that might improve the quality of nightlife in Camberley.
But these residents need somewhere to park.  It does not seem unreasonable to reallocate some spaces for their use.  But you have to tell people.  The way our world works is that the decision is made here by Surrey Borough Council, but the notices are the responsibility of Surrey County Council.  The enforcement then goes back to SHBC.  If parkers make a fuss and complain, and SHBC stop enforcing the new rules, the residents who have bought tickets will quite reasonably complain that they are unable to park.
It is a very small scale example of how our human relationships and interactions are so complicated and can lead to such difficulty.  In the area of benefits or education or health provision, we again and again find that real hardship can be caused as a result of decisions made or enforced by people who perhaps feel helpless to change the system.  It is a symptom of a world order, a kosmos, that is out of joint.

Tonight we celebrate a life.  A baby was born who grew to be a man who challenged the system.  He absorbed all the evil that could be thrown at him.  He is God’s gift to the world, precisely because he is a light that shines in the darkness.  We might picture a diseased organism, and a drop of antibiotic, or perhaps some stem cells, are introduced that spreads out and kills infection and restores health.  In the same way this one life, lived 2000 years ago, has made a real impact.  Ideas of human worth and equality spring from that one life.  Hospices and hospitals, schools and universities, the whole concept of welfare and democracy, have rippled out.  Jesus came to his own, and to as many as received him, he gave the right to become children of God.  He calls each of us today to follow him, to receive forgiveness and new life, and to part of his ongoing movement.  When we pray Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, we are saying that we want this world to be better, that we want the weak and vulnerable to be protected, that we are willing to protest against systems that are unjust and unfeeling, that God loved every single person, including you, so much that he gave his only son that no one need perish but that all should inherit eternal life.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Sunday 22 December 2013, The birth of Jesus according to Matthew, Bruce

“Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he.”  Thus starts one of our carols that we sing at the carol service this afternoon.  It is a lovely carol, but we do not know if it was true.  What do we know about Joseph?
He appears in the stories about the birth of Jesus, and when Jesus is twelve going up to Jerusalem.  He does not appear in any stories about Jesus when he has begun his adult ministry from the age of about thirty.  We therefore presume he must have died by then, and that he was likely older than Mary.  But that might mean that he was 20 and she was 15.
Engaged.  In keeping with Jewish custom he had been betrothed to Mary.  They had had a ceremony at her house at which vows were exchanged.  He had said the words “I go to my father’s house to prepare a place for you; I will come back to take you to be with me.”  A period which was typically as long as a year had begun during which building work could be done to prepare the bridal home.  The young couple had a lot to look forward to.
Expectant. We do know that he was of the tribe of David.  Like all the people of Israel, he was waiting.  At some time in the future, God would send the promised deliverer to rescue his people.  Centuries before God had promised to King Ahaz that he would deliver the “house of David” from the threatened invasion by the Assyrians and Ephraimites.  He would do this quickly, in the time it took for a new born child to grow old enough to start eating solid foods.  Joseph was heir to this tradition, the way that we are to the Battle of Waterloo or the Battle of Britain, but with something extra.  There is the expectation that at some time in the future God will act.
Exercised.  Like a character in the new X box ad, Joseph is put on the spot.  God is acting now, and he wants Joseph to be involved.  Out of the blue his whole life and expectations are shaken up.
First, his intended is found to be with child.  There was careful provision made for this in the law in Deuteronomy 22.  It mattered whether the offence took place in a city or out in the fields.  It was a serious matter, and in ancient times could be subject to the death penalty.  Joseph reveals himself as a compassionate interpreter of the law; he will deal with her as gently and quietly as circumstances allow.
Second, an angel breaks into his dream with a warning and a promise.  It is as if you were suddenly called to join Wellington at Waterloo.  As if you were asked to climb into a Spitfire or help operate an operations room as enemy bombers sweep in.  What you thought was history, to be remembered and celebrated has become your living reality and you must make a choice. 
Joseph, remember when God appears to Moses and says I have seen my people’s troubles and I am with them to deliver them?  It is that moment now, and God is with us.  Joseph, do you remember when Isaiah promised that a young woman would conceive, and this would be a sign that God is with his people Israel?  It is that time now, and you are in the place of Ahaz.  Joseph, do not be afraid to take this woman as your wife, and this child as your son.  It matters that he will be the son of Joseph, because then he will be revealed to be the promised descendant of Abraham and David that we read about in the first 18 verses of the Gospel.  Joseph, call him Joshua (Hebrew), Jesus (Greek), because that means “Yahweh will save”.  It tells us all that we need to know about your son to be, that he will save us from our sins.  Joseph, what are you going to do?
It is striking that Matthew has his priorities.  There is no story about how Jesus was born, no stable or manger; Jesus appears half way through verse 25 and the story continues.  Neither Mary nor Joseph get to say anything in this telling of the story.  It is all about God.  God acts in history by promising long beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures (Romans1:2).  God sends the angel with the message that it is the Holy Spirit who has enabled Mary to conceive.
What can Joseph do?  He can be obedient.  There are subsidiary questions we can ask.  How was Joseph equipped to receive this calling from God?  A lifetime of patient study of the scriptures must have come into it.  A regular pattern of prayer so that he was familiar with God’s ways and could realise that it really was an angel speaking.
What can we do?  We are called to share that obedience that comes from faith for the sake of the name of the one who received the name of Jesus – Saviour.  We are called, like Joseph, to be open for all that God has for us, open for all that he would teach us, open to serve and help all who seek for him, and open to follow him wherever he leads us.  We will see in the next week where God was leading Joseph.  Let us also be open to see where God is leading us, and who he is leading us to.

Saturday, 7 December 2013


Isaiah 11. 1 – 10         Romans 15 : 4 – 13         Matthew 3 : 1 – 12

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what the word ‘Advent’ means – it’s Latin of course, and it literally means ‘To come towards’ or more simply in English ‘to arrive’. So Advent is ‘The Arrival’. Who is arriving? Jesus is arriving. Where is he arriving? On earth and – more personally – in your life and in mine. When does he arrive? There are three arrival times – past, present, and future.

His first arrival on the world stage was in Bethlehem. His exact date of birth? Unknown – but we celebrate his birthday on 25th December which is as good a date as any. The main thing is that we celebrate his birth for the right reasons and in an appropriate manner.  The year of his birth? Well, the scholars tell us – on the basis of the biblical evidence (and even more importantly) references to Jesus in outside sources – that those who worked out the first calendar didn’t quite get it right.  It was 4 BC or very close to that. The important thing is that we can place him in history with a great deal of certainty.

His second arrival is in the present. He comes to dwell in the lives of all who invite him in. Jesus doesn’t force himself upon anyone. Who you ask to come to stay with you is your prerogative. When your front door bell rings and you open the door slightly and peer out, who do you invite inside – and who do you politely send on their way to the next house and the one after that? That’s your decision. Jesus stands at the door and knocks. But Advent – his arrival – doesn’t truly come until you have opened the door widely and invited him in to stay. We call that invitation a ‘prayer’ but it’s really no more difficult than a conversation that starts with an invitation – ‘Come in, Lord Jesus, and stay with me’. Then it’s Advent. Jesus has arrived in your life.

His third arrival is in the future. When? No-one knows. It will be when God’s purpose for his world is complete.

C. S. Lewis has been much in the news recently as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of his death and laid a memorial plaque in the floor of Westminster Abbey on 22nd November. He became one of the best apologists for the Christian faith in the western world of the 20th century. But for very many years he was a convinced atheist. And one of the reasons for that was that, as a historical scholar of the highest standing, he knew very well that many ancient religions were based on the idea of the dying and rising God. If you understood that our main source of life comes from the sun, you could see very well that the sun appears to die as winter takes its icy hold, and then miraculously rises again in the spring, with the birth of new life.  We celebrate the birth of Christ in December because Christianity simply came to supplant the ancient yuletide festivities.

But C. S. Lewis eventually came to believe that, without doubt, Christianity was true because it placed the death and resurrection of Jesus firmly in history. It was not just a way of explaining the cyclical nature of the seasons, which repeated year after year. It concerned a real person, whose birth, ministry, death and resurrection could be placed in real time and not in cyclical myth. Its critical basis is in history, and now (as we shall be singing later in this service), ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’, and when that purpose is complete, the final Advent will mark the fulfilment of his plan, a glimpse of which is mirrored in all our hearts and longings. The day of our dreams, when justice, truth and love finally triumph, God wipes away every tear from our eyes, and a new heaven and a new earth is born. Christianity has nothing to do with repeating cycles which never end. It has a beginning in time, and it works its way through time, to a final victorious climax when time finally comes to an end.

So Advent means that Jesus came; Jesus comes – to us in answer to our invitation; and, when the time is right in God’s sight, Jesus will come again.

We celebrate Advent in the four weeks leading us up to Christmas in order that we may examine ourselves and prepare ourselves for the arrival of Jesus. And the three readings we have heard – and have in front of us in our orders of service this morning -  have three key themes to guide us.

1. Repent. Advent is always linked with John the Baptist and our Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 3 shows him in action. His mission was to prepare the way for the arrival of Jesus, and his call was to repentance.

Now you will know well from many past sermons that repentance is much more about looking forward than about looking backward. No doubt we all have regrets – things done that ought not to have been done, and things undone which ought to have been done – and whenever we take part in a service, we confess our misdeeds and ask for forgiveness. But we can’t change the past. What we can change is the future – our direction of travel. Repentance means a change of mind and will, which leads to a change of life and direction. The Christian faith is always leading us forwards in a positive direction, not a wallowing in negative self-abasement.

So Advent is about an honest self examination to see what needs to be changed in order that we may receive the light of Christ shining in full brightness and become happier, healthier, holier people. We await the arrival of Christ the King. We must make ourselves ready.

2. Receive. Our first reading from Isaiah chapter 11 contains amazing promises. It tells us that Jesus will be full of God’s Spirit – ‘the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.’

As Jesus arrives at our door and we invite him to enter and stay with us, these are the qualities he brings. And they can’t be bought at any price, or acquired by good deeds, or by trying ever harder. They are gifts – Christmas gifts from Jesus which he brings into our lives. He will give us wisdom to understand the things of God. He will counsel us in how to lead our lives. He will give us the power to live as – in our hearts – we truly want to live. He will fill us with the life, the breath, the love of God himself. He is the channel of God’s grace and truth. People ask us what we want for Christmas. What greater gifts could we possibly request? And Jesus is the one who comes to us bearing these precious and wonderful gifts. Don’t turn him away. Accept with huge thankfulness these wonderful gifts he brings.

3. Re-Focus. This will enable us to re-focus our lives as we face the future. Paul tells us here in our 2nd reading from Romans 15 that our God is a God of hope. There are many reasons why hope may be in rather short supply this Christmas and as we look forward to 2014. Perhaps even ‘looking forward’ is the wrong phrase if we only consider our outward circumstances, health, resources and circumstances. But Advent is, supremely, a time of hopeful looking forward because when Jesus comes into our lives as the greatest Christmas present of all, he brings hope beyond measure. Hope of a renewed relationship with God. Hope of a glorious future which dawns on the horizon. Hope which is not bounded by death. Hope which is eternal.

Repent. Receive. Re-Focus.    If we can understand what it means this Advent to repent, to receive and to re-focus, then the love, the peace and hope in God becomes unbounded. And Paul’s prayer here at the end of our reading from Romans 15, will become true in your life and in mine. He prays for us: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

If you will follow these steps as God guides you, this Christmas will be very special indeed – you will be blessed by the birth of Jesus in your own soul, and the Christmas angels over St Michael’s will rejoice in the good news, and sing their praises to the glory of God, saying ‘Hallelujah’ Christ is born today in another soul here in this church.


1. Discuss how we can practically make time in these weeks before Christmas to reflect and pray and make ready to celebrate Christmas in the right spirit.
2. What first comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Repent’. Discuss its biblical meaning as a change of mind leading to a change of direction in life.
3. We hear about the need to ‘receive’ Jesus into our lives through ‘prayer’. Discuss what this means and how we can personally make such a prayer.