Thursday, 30 December 2010

Luke 2:36-40 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

When I read the gospel reading set by our lectionary for today, my instant response was, ‘why are we only reading the verses about Anna? Why not those about Simeon, too?’ Because of course, when the time for Mary’s purification came and Jesus was presented in the temple, Simeon and Anna were both there, both giving their prophetic witness to the true identity of the Christ child. Surely Simeon and Anna go together in bible readings, don’t they? Like Sampson & Delilah, or the Pharisee and the tax collector. But then my feminist upbringing kicked in – ‘girl power’ and all that - and I thought, ‘how great that Anna is acknowledged here on her own in our lectionary reading for today’. I decided to look Anna up in my ‘Who’s who in the bible’ reference book – and it turns out there’s really not much known about Anna other than what this passage in Luke tells us.

Her father was called Penuel, which is Hebrew for ‘face of God’. Her family line was through the tribe of Asher, which was not highly regarded by most Israelites because there was a lot of intermarriage and a history of dabbling in paganism. I suppose that goes to show how God will use even people with dodgy past histories to bring glory to his name – there is hope for us all!

But Anna was a very devout lady – after she was widowed, she spent virtually all her time at the temple, praying and worshipping, and for many decades. I thought a bit about how Anna’s temple-centred life differs from our life, even if our life centres on church. Some of us spend an awful lot of time here at church, but do we spend the majority of that time on worship and prayer? For that matter, our worship and prayer doesn’t need to be done solely here at church, but can be practiced throughout our daily routine.

Not all of us are called to be prophets like the prophetess Anna. But each one of us does have a role to play in God’s plan. For some, it will be active and obvious – as in the roles of evangelists, clergy, readers, intercessors, wardens, choir members or sides persons. For others, it’s quiet and out of public view, like those who care for people in need in the community or witness their faith to co-workers in their workplace. For many, it will be a mixture of the two, sometimes one, sometimes the other. God uses both the obvious and the subtle to reach the people he wants to reach. And the gospel writer Luke wants to draw readers of every age and stage of life into the picture. No matter who we are, or where we are, the story of Jesus becomes our story.

Mary and Joseph needed the wisdom of the old prophets Simeon and Anna at that moment; and the old man and old woman needed Jesus, they had been waiting for him, and now they thanked God for him. Anna and Simeon and all who were waiting for the redemption of Israel were living in patient hope, long-suffering, at a time when suffering had become a way of life.

These two aged saints are Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfilment of God’s promises. God is doing something new, but it’s not entirely new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the ‘new’ is God’s keeping of an old promise. Anna and Simeon are a portrait of the Israel that accepted Jesus. Those who rejected him misunderstood their own tradition and so were not capable of recognizing him as the continuation of Israel’s hope.

One thing we can learn from this lesson is that it’s about trust. Time and time again Joseph and Mary had to trust God. They didn’t understand everything the angels had told them about Jesus’ conception and birth, but they trusted. At the presentation in the temple, they didn’t know exactly how to respond to Simeon and Anna, but they accepted how they reacted to Jesus, in trust.

And that’s something we all must learn to do. We all must learn to trust God. Sometimes faith is messy. Things can happen that we don’t understand, or that seem to hinder, rather than help us to accomplish the will of God. And all we can do is trust.

The elderly Anna learned to trust God. She showed her trust in God by living a devout life, something that all of us are capable of doing by the power of the Holy Spirit. Anna was looking forward to the promises of the messianic age, ‘the consolation of Israel.’ Again not only are we capable of that, the New Testament commands us to do it, looking for the fulfilment of God’s promises for the redemption of the whole world.

What Israel didn’t realise was that God’s appointed redeemer would deal with the suffering of the world by sharing it and taking it upon himself. The face of God shown to us in Jesus Christ is that of a suffering servant – who suffered on the cross for our sake – who still suffers alongside us, though glorified in heaven. It’s not about ‘girl-power’, or ‘manpower’, it’s about the power of God and his graceful nature, seen in the face of Christ. Our Emmanuel, who came to raise the lowly, and humble the arrogant – let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. Amen.

Friday, 24 December 2010


Despite the still icy and snowy conditions, we had a great turnout for the Christingle service at 4:00pm today - over 225 people. Wonderful to see all the families that come to this service. A real privilege to speak to them about God's love for the whole world, made manifest through Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the World. Now just need to stay awake for tonight's Christmas Eve Communion at 11:30pm!

Advent 4

Isaiah 7: 10-16 & Matthew 1:18-end
Are you prepared for Christmas? Every year, I send cards and presents across the pond; and every year, I vow to send them before the international posting deadline. I keep making that vow to myself, but I can’t ever seem to fulfil it. Maybe, like me, you still have shopping to do as well. We probably could all improve in our forward planning. But we can be thankful that God is a forward planner! Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah reminds us that God began preparing for Christmas from a very early time. And that’s what led up to the wonderful miracle that happened in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago.

Matthew’s gospel emphasises the fact that Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. That’s why he refers back to Isaiah 7:14 – ‘therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’. But expectation of a virgin birth was never actually part of the Jewish vision of the Messiah-to-come. Matthew use this Isaiah text because it fit the actual facts that he needed to tell – in other words, Matthew’s story of the virgin birth was shaped by the true event itself. But the emphasis in both Isaiah & Matthew isn’t the virginal status of the mother; it’s about the importance of the name ‘Immanuel’.

The meaning of Immanuel and the meaning of Christmas are the same - one simple truth, four little words: God – is – with – us. The Holy God of Israel, wrapped up warm in humanity, crying real tears, in a real city, with real parents, who are trying their best to take it all in: God is with us. He’s on our planet – on our countryside – in our manger – Immanuel! ‘God is with us!’

From the birth of Christ, fast-forward 2000 years and those four words that changed history can now change us. In fact, those four words are the only words that can bring meaning to the deepest places of our hearts. The challenge for us is to recognise God’s presence in all situations and circumstances. We might doubt God’s love in times of grief, pain and trauma, but we will find comfort, healing and strength when we are able to experience that God is with us even in such times.

For the woman whose partner has left her and the children, who continually struggles to pick up the pieces: God is with you. For the elderly person who can no longer care for themselves, and must now rely on the care of others: God is with you. For the teenager struggling against peer pressure to fit in - tempted with alcohol and drugs: God is with you. For the person who is seeking truth, and looking hard at Jesus as a possibility: God is with you.

At Christmas, in the quiet moments, many of us revisit our own past, which for some might bring back wonderful memories, but that’s not always the case – it’s not always comfortable and cosy - for some it overflows with sadness. But Matthew’s Christmas gospel invites us to look at the wider perspective, that we are not alone. We never have been, and we never will be, because God in Christ stepped out of eternity, and into time. And God chose a cave in Bethlehem to communicate one simple abiding truth: God is with us. And those four words have the power and the beauty to change our every waking moment.

Matthew’s Christmas gospel asks us to take the past seriously, to recognize how the past shapes the present, and to honour what God has done for us through it. And in the present we can find not just a lonely moment, but an opportunity for faith and service and the possibility of new beginnings.

The Advent challenge for us, on our own & as a church, is to follow Christ in becoming Immanuel in our broken world. In simple acts of service, inclusion and grace, God’s love is made clear and present. In particular, an awareness of, and care for, those who have significant need is a tangible reflection of God’s care: Setting aside time to volunteer in a caring ministry, or welcoming lonely people into our celebrations – these actions offer healing and transformation to a world that sorely needs it.
Whatever actions we might choose to do, this is the key to experiencing Immanuel again this Advent and Christmas: to offer ourselves as ‘little Immanuels’ in practical ways in the world.

Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, as we make preparations to celebrate the birth of your Son Jesus, we thank you that you have planned our future from the beginning of time. We thank you for Mary’s willingness to say ‘yes’ as you called her to be the mother of our Lord, and that Joseph listened to the Angel and was not afraid. May we, too, be willing and unafraid to do your will. Most of all we thank you that you have not left us alone, you have given us Jesus Immanuel, God with us. Strengthen us, that others might see you in us; and humble us, that we would see you in them and in each other. And may we look to the future with hope, serving you and all your people with joy. Amen.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Prepare ye the way

Advent 3 - Matthew 11:2-11

The candle we lit today on our Advent ring is for John the Baptist, and our gospel reading helps us to think about his particular role. After all his hard work preparing the way for the Lord, unfortunately John the Baptist was imprisoned for speaking out in truth about King Herod. And from prison, John could only get snippets of news about Jesus. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus affirms that he is ‘the One’, and gives examples of his liberating and healing work, which was fulfilled the prophets: ‘The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’. Then he teaches the crowd about the role of John the Baptist, explaining that, as great as John was, anyone who embraces God’s reign and his Kingdom is greater still.

John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy foretold by Isaiah, ch 40: ‘A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”’ John lived a life of discipline and simplicity. He influenced many people to come into the desert to be baptized, confessing their sins. He didn’t soften his message to gain approval. When Jesus came, John pointed people to Him. He did a wonderful job preparing the way for Christ. No other prophet was greater than John. But Jesus says that those who embrace God’s reign and the coming kingdom are greater still.

John was filled with the Spirit while still in his mother's womb which helped him fulfil his mission. But John the Baptist didn’t know about the nature of Christ as King in God’s kingdom. His limited knowledge of Christ is obvious from the question he had to send his disciples to ask. But because of the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, followers of Jesus can receive a measure of the Spirit that wasn’t available until after Jesus ascended and was glorified in heaven. St. Peter says in Acts 2:38, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’. It’s a gift that wasn’t available to those under the Old Covenant. And like all gifts, you must receive it to be able to use it.

John the Baptist lived under the Old Covenant; but even those who are ‘least in the kingdom’ now live under the New Covenant with its better sacrifice, hope, and promises. Those who turn to Christ are immediately brought into the kingdom of God's Son - Colossians 1:13 says ‘...he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves’.

We can know many things which Jesus hadn’t taught His apostles until after the Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost. Jesus said, in John 16, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come”.

And the depth of knowledge about Christ has increased over the centuries, because many can read in their own language about Christ from all that’s recorded in the bible, and so we are able to know about God’s grace through the cross and the forgiveness of sin in a very personal and accessible way. We can share God’s kingdom vision of justice and mercy, and the future glory of a transformed creation. Our true greatness only comes by our relationship with Jesus Christ, made possible by the Spirit when we turn to Christ; and by his Spirit, when we ask, Christ lives in us and we live in him.

When we know Jesus has given such great blessings to us, we want to dedicate our lives to Christ, and produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, to nurture and enjoy the fellowship of the family of God, and proclaim the gospel of Christ and the kingdom in its fullness. We are called to seek out the places in our world where joy is being robbed, and to challenge the unjust ‘killjoys’ of our society. We are called to wait actively for Jesus to return. This is our source of patience and hope as we wait for God’s reign to be fully realised, both in this world and the next.

As we actively wait for the One who will come again, we must reflect on how we, as a church, can best point people to Jesus and prepare the way for his second coming. We need to identify areas of neglect in our community of New Brighton. To be salt and light, we must refuse to buy into the scepticism of our time, and commit ourselves instead to hope and compassion, and standing for truth and justice. In the way we live, speak and interact with each other, we can demonstrate that joy can be known in this world without oppressing, bombing or ignoring others, and without buying into rampant consumerism and achieveism. We need to allow the light of Christ to search out all the ways in which we inhibit the growth of his kingdom.

To finish, it seems appropriate to pray again the Advent candle prayer we prayed earlier: God incarnate, Prince of Peace, we confess that we have lost sight of your promises. We confess that we have accepted the depths of violence and poverty and despair experienced by so many today. We confess our cynicism and our doubt, and pray that we of little faith, may prepare a path for you, and give you the space to come into a broken world. Amen.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Advent 1

I've been too busy to post lately.

We had a great all-age Advent Sunday service last week, followed by the Deanery Advent Carol Service in the evening, both of which I led. Boy, I was exhausted at the end of it all!

Last year December was almost overwhelming, my first December as an ordained minister. This year I feel much more prepared, at least mentally. All the extra services combined with the family's expectations (not to mention my son's birthday) and unexpected pastoral situations, December is very busy.

This weekend is my son's birthday party, a sleepover followed by a trip to Blackpool (Ramp City indoor skateboard park). Six 12-year-olds. Will I get any sleep?

Also on Sunday is the annual Christmas Tree service, where we decorate the tree at church, and the band plays the music for the carols. I am leading the service and I am also in the band (guitar), along with my son (cornet) and daughter (flute). Should be fun.

I like Advent, because in this season we make a big deal about both the Incarnation and also the Second Coming. The Incarnation is just mind-blowing, that God would dwell amongst us in the form (at the beginning at least) of a little baby. Christ's return is something I yearn for - the new creation - come soon Lord Jesus.