Isaiah 9, 2-7; Luke 2, 1-14.

A sermon for Christmas  Day with visual aids.

Have you ever sung the song about the 12 Days of Christmas?

Did you know it has a secret, religious meaning?

Everything mentioned in the song stands for something else:  4 calling birds are 4 Gospels, 2 French hens are the Old Testament and New Testament, & partridge in a pear tree is Jesus; & ‘my true love’ who gave all the gifts to me over the 12 days of Christmas is God.

I thought I might do a version of the song with you today – with presents in this Christmas stocking which stand for 12 of the gifts we are given at Christmas with the coming of Jesus.

“On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a baby boy – a son; as Isaiah prophesied in Jesus we are given the Son of God. (baby doll)

“On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a royal child. Isaiah said, & the angels said baby would be Prince of Peace, King of Jews, reign on throne of his ancestor David. (crown)

“On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a Saviour. The name Jesus means ‘God saves’ and angels told shepherds baby born would be their saviour. (St Bernard dog with brandy. This might not look like a saviour to you, but if you were buried in an avalanche in the Swiss Alps, it would!)

“On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Messiah, the Christ. The angels told the shepherds that the Messiah would be born. Messiah or Christ means anointed one. Priests and kings anointed with oil (jar of oil)

“On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” a light. Isaiah said people who walked in darkness would see light when the special child was born, and John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus as that light. (torch)

“On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” the Word. John’s Gospel says Jesus was the Word or Wisdom of God made flesh. Gospels and NT are words about the Word of God. (New Testament)

“On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” A shepherd. The prophets foretold  a shepherd King like David, and in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself “The Good Shepherd” who gives his life for his sheep. ( model sheep & crook)

“On the  eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” A vine. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself the True Vine, of which we are all branches. If we remain in him we bear fruit. And in this Holy Communion we drink the fruit of the vine to remember him (grapes)

“On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:” some bread. Bethlehem where the Gospels tell us Jesus was born means ‘House of Bread’  & in John’s Gospel, Jesus says he is the true Bread, the Bread of life. In this Holy Communion we share bread to remind us we are the Body of Christ. (roll)

“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me”: A Lamb. John the Baptist called Jesus the Lamb of God, and we remember that in this Communion service, when we give thanks for the Lamb of God who died to save us from the wickedness of this world. (lamb)

“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:” a Redeemer. In the olden days, money was paid over to redeem people from slavery. Today we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose life and death redeems us from slavery to evil (money)

“On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me:”

Emmanuel, God with us. The Christmas stories tell us that Jesus was both human and divine, the Son of Man and the Son of God. (Rubik’s cube puzzle)

That’s a mystery, that Christians have spent 2000 years thinking about, trying to puzzle out what exactly it means for us. And we will go on trying to puzzle it out throughout this coming year.

I hope you will enjoy your material presents this Christmas, and the spiritual presents that God gives us in the birth of Jesus. I hope you will go on trying to puzzle out what exactly the birth of Jesus means for you and the world, and that you will be here with us during the year to help us unwrap all the gifts that God gives us.

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Are you Ready for Christmas?

December 18, 2011

(Romans 16, 25-27; Luke 1, 26-38 & 46b-55)

 

It’s a question people constantly ask you this time of year. “Are you ready for Christmas?”

 

Is anyone ever ready? There’s so much to do, so many things to arrange at home and at church: services to plan, shopping to do, meals to prepare for, presents to buy for different age groups, and celebrations with family members to co-ordinate. No wonder so many people collapse exhausted on the actual day!

 

The trouble is we all want to have a ‘perfect Christmas’. When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought’ last Thursday http://tinyurl.com/7qk9g5t, he spoke of his belief that God doesn’t wait until we are ready and everything is perfect; God comes to us, in the same way as he came at the first Christmas, in the middle of the mess, to bring love and joy.

 

In the account we heard from Luke’s Gospel, it’s quite obvious that Mary wasn’t in the least bit ready for the events of the first Christmas Day. She wasn’t ready to be a mother: she was betrothed to Joseph, but, as she explained to Gabriel, they weren’t yet living together and she was still a virgin. She certainly wasn’t ready to be the mother of the Messiah, the Saviour of the World and the Son of God. So her response to the angel’s announcement was, “Why me?”

As she knew, she wasn’t anyone special. Two thousand years of Christian devotion may have turned her into something remarkable, through doctrines such as her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption, and titles such as Theotokos (God-Bearer), Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and Co-Redemptrix; but, as many of our TV Nativities show, in reality she was a simple girl, probably still a teenager, from a provincial village in an occupied country, with very little education, destined for a life of hard work, marriage and motherhood. The choice of her to be the mother of Jesus was nothing to do with her special qualities; it was an act of God’s grace.

 

Luke’s account tells us about Mary’s response to the announcement of Jesus’s coming birth, and at the same time, gives us pointers to how we can make ourselves ready to receive him when he comes into our lives.

 

Mary responded with humility. She puzzled over the announcement that she was ‘highly favoured’, because she didn’t think she had done anything to deserve that. But she accepted God’s plan, not just as a ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’ as the text is usually translated, but as a slave, which is what the Greek original usually means. She demonstrated that she was ready to go along with what would happen to her, even though she knew it would make her life very messy and turn the ordinary life she was looking forward to upside down.

 

She also responded with acceptance and obedience. “Let it be with me according to your word”. She accepted in spite of her doubts and questions, believing that with God’s plans, even the most unlikely events were possible. She demonstrated at the Annunciation that ‘obedience of faith’ that Paul spoke of in his letter to the Romans.

 

Mary also responded with joy. The Magnificat, which we heard in our second reading from Luke, is a psalm of praise to God for everything that will come about through the birth of Jesus, the Saviour.

 

But she also responded with insight. The Magnificat is a prophecy, which describes the distinctive and revolutionary character of the Messiah which Jesus will be. Through his coming, the poor will be exalted, the mighty will be brought down, the hungry will be fed and the proud will be scattered. This anticipates the whole of Luke’s Gospel, which  proclaims that  the titles which were given to the Roman Emperor – Saviour of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of God – actually belong to Jesus, not Augustus Caesar. The coming of Jesus undermines the worldly standards of wealth, status and power; his reign is not just for the Jews, but includes the Gentiles and those considered outsiders (Romans emphasises this as well). A peaceful revolution is about to begin!

 

What the Magnificat also tells us is that Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is about the birth of a whole new order of peace, love and justice, which this child brings into the world. It is about the birth of the Kingdom of Heaven. How ready are we for that this Christmas?

 

The celebration of Jesus’s birth should not be an escape from the harsh realities of life, as is the case with so many people’s Christmases these days. Mary is not going to escape reality. Luke’s story shows her as part of a poor family, which is pushed around and has their lives disrupted by the decisions of the civic authorities. She gives birth in squalor, away from the support of her own family and the familiarity of her own home. She has to rely on the kindness of strangers.

 

It’s very different from the sanitised version that we are so often presented with in Nativity plays, where politics and poverty are very much in the background. Most people prefer it that way, and see the Christmas holiday as a chance to retreat into domestic life, and forget the problems of the world. But the Magnificat calls us to the very opposite of escapism. It calls us to active engagement with the powers of this world, in the name of a God who comes to undermine the established order. At Christmas we are challenged to be part of the new order of things which the Magnificat describes.

 

We are called to called to engage with the way power is exercised in our world – but to do so as servants, as Jesus  did, not as dictators. We are called to tackle the issues of poverty, but with generosity and through sharing, as Jesus did, rather than by assigning blame. We are challenged to do something about the causes of disease, homelessness, and prejudice; but we are called to do so as collaborators, as friends, as welcomers, as Jesus did, rather than judging and excluding those who suffer from them.

 

The story Luke tells us this morning, and the psalm which Mary sang, tell us of a new way of living within the old order; a way which is messy, which turns our normal lives and expectations upside down, but which is ultimately joyful and transforming. They call us to connect with the outcasts, the marginalised and the poor of the world and of our community, and to live Christmas in the same servanthood, humility, and simplicity as Mary did.

 

So, are you ready for Christmas? Am I?

 

No, I’m not! If I knew one of the local clergy was coming round, I’d have a tidy up. If I knew a member of the Royal Family was going to pop in for tea, I’d get some new crockery and make sure the front room was newly decorated. But how  can I be ready to welcome our heavenly Priest and King into my life, if he’s going to enlist me into his revolution, and turn my life upside down? I’m not a revolutionary, and I like my life the way it is.  How can I be ready to be a servant of the poor and the marginalised, to be open to those whom society disapproves of, to be someone who challenges those who exercise power in church and state in the name of Christ.

I may be ready for the comfortable, sentimental family Christmas, that concentrates on the baby and the animals and the Magi with their strange useless gifts, but I’m certainly not ready for that sort of Christmas.

 

Yet I know I have to try. That’s what Advent is about. Advent 2011, like every Advent before, is when God gives us an opportunity to become more Christlike, a fresh chance to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas and an invitation to make ourselves ready to welcome the Baby of Bethlehem as the bearer of the Kingdom of Heaven, our King, and the Saviour of the World. So, let us get ready together!

Let us pray:

God of all hope and joy,

open our hearts in welcome,

that your Son, Jesus Christ, at his coming

may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself.

Amen

(© New Zealand Prayer Book)

 

Hark, the Herald!

December 4, 2011

(Sermon for Advent 2 & St Andrew) (Isaiah 40, 1-11; Mark 1, 1-8)

Last week, the vicar wished you a Happy New Year, as we celebrated Advent Sunday. Today I’m going to wish you Happy Birthday, as we celebrate St Andrew’s Day, our Patronal Festival or Feast of Dedication, and so the ‘birthday’ of this particular church and parish.

St Andrews-tide is traditionally kept as a time of reflection on mission. Both the ASB and Common Worship have a Day of Intercession and Thanksgiving for the Missionary Work of the Church on 29th November, the day before St Andrew’s Day.  It is therefore very appropriate that, as we celebrate St Andrew on the Second Sunday in Advent, our readings should concentrate on sharing the Good News of God.

Second Isaiah announces to the Jewish people that God is going to get them out of jail. They’ve served their sentence (twice over, with no remission), paid their debt, and now they’re going home! The first word of the proclamation is ‘Comfort!’ Comfort originally meant ‘give strength’: the good news not only makes them feel better, it makes them strong.

The prophet then relays God’s command to clear the way for his progress, and that of his people. This is no minor task, but is compared to a major engineering project, the building of a road all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem, levelling hills and bridging valleys through hostile and barren countryside. There are to be no obstacles to this freedom march!

Isaiah speaks God’s assurance that this will happen, because it is rooted, not in the weakness and fickleness of humanity, but in the promise of God.

God then speaks through his herald (and in Hebrew the word for herald comes from the same root meaning as the word for evangelist does in Greek) who is to proclaim from Jerusalem the good news that God is doing a new thing, where no new thing seemed possible. He is to alert the people to the truth that God is coming among them, as their strong protector, and as a gentle shepherd of the weak and vulnerable. The message the herald brings is of captivity turned to homecoming, despair turned to hope, darkness turned to light.

Mark, like all the evangelists, sees John the Baptist as that herald, that prophet speaking God’s message, that one who prepares the road for the one greater than him to travel. He prepares for the Messiah by saying that people need to repent, to change the way they think, and turn their lives round into a new way. He gives them baptism, a ‘sacrament’, an outward and visible sign, to remind them of that change. He tells them that God has forgiven their wrongdoing, and that when the Messiah comes, they will receive the Spirit of God within themselves, just as the prophet Jeremiah foretold.

John, like the ancient Jewish exiles, is seen as travelling in the wilderness. But that wilderness is theological and spiritual, not geographical. The wilderness is the place where nothing is available to keep people going. The wilderness is a place where nothing bears fruit.The wilderness is a place where people’s spiritual lives die – unless they have the help of God, who alone can lead them through the wasteland to enjoy life in all its fullness.

John prepares the way for Jesus in more than his proclamation. Jesus repeats John’s message of repentance, and of God’s forgiveness for what is in the past. Jesus proclaims God’s presence with the human race, saying the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s imperial rule, is close at hand. Jesus gives people a sacrament, the Communion, as a sign of this. But John prepares the way for Jesus in his life, too. Jesus, like John, will tread the road of persecution, suffering and death because of the message he preaches.

Both of them are saying, like Isaiah, God is here; God is doing something new among you; what are you going to do about it?

As some of us have discovered, in the study of Mark’s Gospel we have been following over the last couple of months, Mark frames his Gospel around Jesus’s invitation to the disciples to follow him in the way to life through service, suffering and death. In Mark

El Greco St Andrew

Jesus urges people to think about life in a different way, to proclaim the reality of God’s rule in the present time, and to be prepared to suffer and die (metaphorically or literally) because of their allegiance to God. His call to Andrew and the other disciples was to repentance, mission, service and crucifixion – because that is the only way to resurrection. He calls us to follow the same way.

We are all called by our baptism to be missionaries, to be heralds of the Good News. At the moment, in this church, we are engaged in a process of Mission Action Planning as part of the the diocesan initiative of ‘Living God’s Love’.

But before we can plan our mission, we need to be clear about what we are proclaiming to those around us. What is the Good News we have for the people of this parish at this time?

The MAP questionnaire, which  many of us filled in, identified the major strength of this church as ‘friendliness’. That is a good thing. Research into mission strategies shows that most people are brought to church membership by another person, often a member of their family or a close friend. Friendship evangelism works!

But as Bishop Alan pointed out in his address to the Diocesan Synod in June, there are two sorts of friendliness: there is the sort of friendliness between like minded people that builds them into a strong, supportive, but inward looking community (what is called in the jargon ‘bonding social capital’); or there is the sort of friendliness which impels a group to look outwards, beyond itself, to support and welcome those who are different from themselves (bridging social capital). Which of these sorts of friendliness will be Good News to those we seek to reach with our mission. Which of these sorts of capital will require a real repentance, real metanoia, real ‘change of mind’ on our part?

Our responses to the questionnaire also identified the lack of members, especially young people and children, as a weakness, and as a hindrance, or obstacle, to our mission. So a major question in planning our mission is going to be “What in the Christian faith will be Good News to this group of people?”

The Good News that Isaiah proclaimed in our Old Testament reading was freedom from imprisonment and exile. So what imprisons and exiles the younger generation from their true selves, the people God created them to be? According to Mark, Jesus proclaimed the Good News by healing people from their sickness, casting out demons from them, and welcoming in the outcasts. So what are the sicknesses of our culture, what demons enslave people today, who are the outcasts in our society?

We won’t find out unless we are prepared to listen. And that will involve being where young people and those outside the church communicate with each other, even though it may appear to us that such places are ‘the wilderness’: listening in to what contemporary music and fashion says, reading newspapers and magazines, watching TV and films and listening to the radio, and most crucially of all, engaging with social media, like Twitter and Facebook and MySpace, where so much opinion nowadays is formed and exchanged.

It won’t be comfortable, in the usual sense of the word – the world inhabited by people outside the church may seem like a wilderness to us – but then Andrew’s call to mission was not a comfortable one either! He and the other disciples were sent out by Jesus, without much training or equipment, to do the same work he did in the towns and villages of Galilee; and later, they were sent by the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth, and, many of them, to their own deaths, with the same mission.

In spite of this, they went out with joy, the joy that shines through the readings today. It is the joy that comes from knowing that there is no need to prepare for God’s coming, because God is already here in the world, already at work, healing and exorcising, defending and caring for the people of God. So, the mission of those of us who are charged to be heralds of the God’s Good News is simply to reveal, through our words and through our actions, that God in Jesus is already here, and point the way to him. As someone said on Twitter recently: a church should be a signpost not a destination.

Happy Birthday! Happy St Andrew’s Day! Happy Advent!

Happy Mission Action Planning!