Saturday, 2 January 2016

Merry Christmas, everybody's having fun?

Article in the Living Faith Column of the Walsall Advertiser, published on the 17 December 2015

Whether it be going shopping, visiting a pub or restaurant, or listening to the radio, there is no escaping Christmas music which is being played everywhere at the moment.  One of the most popular Christmas songs is Slade’s 1973 hit ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’, performed by Walsall’s very own Noddy Holder.  The chorus has these words: ‘So here it is Merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun, look to the future now, it’s only just begun’. 

It is a fun, catchy song, but despite what the lyrics say, Christmas for many people can be a sad and difficult time, whether that be as a result of bereavement, relationship problems, loneliness, unemployment, health concerns, or financial worries, etc.

Loneliness for example is said to be as bad for health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is twice as harmful as obesity, and raises the odds of developing dementia by up to two-thirds. That is why the retail firm John Lewis has partnered with Age UK this Christmas to try and help some of the one million older people in the UK who go for a month without speaking to anyone.

When Jesus was born (the event we celebrate at Christmas) he was given the name Emmanuel, which means ‘God With Us’. Jesus said that the reason he came to the world was to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)

Because God became one of us, He knows and understands what it is like to hurt, to feel lost, lonely and afraid, because He himself has experienced these things.    

Christmas is about knowing that we are loved unconditionally by God, and that whatever circumstances we may face in life nothing can separate us His love. As St Paul wrote ‘I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!’ (Romans 8:38-39)

Even in the midst of life’s difficulties, knowing that we’re are loved by God and that He will never abandon or forsake us, can bring a real and lasting hope to our lives, and that is one gift we could all do with this Christmas.

Christingle Talk 2015

Talk used at the Christingle Service on Christmas Eve 2015, based on John 3:16
  • What gifts are children looking forward to receiving?
  • For businesses Christmas is an important time of the year, and the first Christmas ads appeared on TV in early November. 
  • One of the most highly anticipated adverts of the year is the John Lewis Christmas ad. How many of you have seen this advert? It’s called Man on the Moon.
  • In case you haven’t seen it, let me briefly explain it to you.  It starts with a girl called Lily looking up at the moon with her telescope, when to her surprise she notices a small ramshackle hut, with an elderly man living in it.  She watches as he goes about his chores, and it is clear to her that he’s all alone up there. So she becomes determined to get something to the moon, to send him a message and show him that someone down here is thinking of him.  First of all she writes him a letter and tries to climb up a ladder to reach the moon, then she wraps the letter around an arrow to shoot it to the moon, next she tries sending up a paper airplane, but nothing works.  Then the advert cuts to the lonely old man on the moon, and floating towards suspended by balloons is a beautifully wrapped present.  The man smiles, and opens the present to discover it contains a telescope.  Using the telescope to zoom into the earth he spots the little girl waving to him from the window of her house, and he knows that someone has noticed him.
  • This advert has been viewed over 23 million times on Youtube.
  • For Christians, Chistmas is one of the most important times of the years.   The message of Christmas could be summed up by this verse from John 3:16  ‘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.’
  • In the John Lewis advert it is the girl Lilly who notices the Man on the Moon and reaches out to him in love. 
  • But the message of Christian faith is that God, seeing the needs of the world reached out to us in love, by sending his son Jesus to lay down his life for us on the cross. 
  • John 3:16 says ‘God so loved the world…’ but you could translate it as ‘God so loved YOU…. that he gave his one and only Son.’   This is the amazing truth, there is nothing you can do to make God love you more, and there’s nothing you can do to make Him love you any less. 
  • The John Lewis advert ends with these words ‘Show someone they’re loved this Christmas’, that is exactly what God did for us, when he sent his Son Jesus into the world. 
  • I asked you earlier to think about the best Christmas gift you ever received.  At a time when we receive presents we don’t always need, Christians believe God offers us a gift we cannot do without, Jesus Christ, and that through believing in Him, we can have everlasting life.
  • Reflection - I want you to think for a moment about what it means for you to know that God loves you unconditionally.  How might you respond to God’s love today?

God Of The Refugees

Christmas morning sermon 2015

There has been one story which as dominated the news this year, that is the refugee crisis.  Over 1 million refugees have made the perilous journey to Europe, the vast majority coming from Syria and Iraq. 
We are facing the biggest refugee crisis since WW2.  A report by the UN estimates that there are now 60 million people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and the rate of people fleeing for their lives is increasing.
For many refugees the journey to Europe took them across the sea, a dangerous journey at the hands of people smugglers which has resulted in the death of over 3,695 people. 
'Flight' by Arabella Dorman
Hanging from the vault of St James’ Church in Piccadilly, is an upturned refugee boat.  This dingy, designed to carry 15 people, transported 62 people from Turkey to Lesbos in Greece.  It is now an art installation by Arabella Dorman’s entitled Flight. The boat is suspended from the ceiling of the church, as if it were sinking down into the depths, and falling from its safety into the void are three life jackets: two adult-sized and one a child’s. The child’s has fallen further into the abyss, almost out of reach of the desperate parents.
So what does this have to do with Christmas?
You and I did not have any choice about when, where or how we came into the world. But God did.  And he left the comfort and splendour of his heavenly home, and chose to make himself weak and vulnerable, by being born as a human baby, totally reliant on others to feed and clothe him, to love him, care and protect him. 
He chose Mary, a young unmarried teenager, from a small, and insignificant village in Galilee to be the Mother of God.  And he chose a stable normally reserved for animals to be the place in which he entered the world, and for his bed a feeding trough. 
And the first witnesses to the birth of the Saviour of the World weren’t priests, or prophets, or politicians or Kings, people of power and influence but ordinary shepherds.  People who were looked down on by the rest of society, who because of their occupation were considered unclean, and therefore weren’t even allowed to enter the Synagogue or Temple.  Shepherds who weren’t even allowed to testify in court, because they were not trusted, and yet it was to these people that God choose to be the first witnesses of the birth of Jesus.
When God came into the world, it was in weakness and humility, so that he could identify and stand alongside the weak, the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and yes the refugee.  
Flight into Egypt by Eugene-Alexis Girardet
Jesus himself knew what it was like to be a refugee.  He knew what it was like to face persecution, and to be forced from his home, like the tens of thousands of people in Iraq and Syria who have been forced to flee their homes to escape, persecution and death.  For Jesus the threat came from King Herod, who saw this small child as a threat to his throne.  King Herod, who had his wife and two sons killed, because he feared they were plotting against him.  So Mary, Joseph and Jesus were driven away from their home, to live in a foreign land. 
And even when Herod died, we are told that Joseph was afraid to take his family back to Judea, because Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling there, and so the family returned to Nazareth in the north.
Now understandably, we normally ignore the dark side of the nativity narrative. We have enough darkness of war and tragedy and refugees on our TV screens; some come to church at Christmas to escape from all of that and be reminded that Jesus is the light of the world. But Jesus can only be light if he shines where it is darkest.
When the angels declared the birth of Jesus to the shepherds they said “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)  It was into this dark and troubled world, that Jesus came to shine God’s light and love. 
The Christmas story is not some fairy tale, far removed from the reality of real life.  It is a real historical event that changed the world for ever.  And it is an event that has something important to say to a world where pain and tragedy, suffering and loss, is still a reality for many people, because Jesus, who is Emmanuel, God With Us, entered into the darkest places of brutal rulers and fleeing families. He walked a path of pain greater than probably any of us have experienced, culminating in his barbaric death at the hands of another brutal ruler, this time, one who was too weak-willed to protect a man he knew was innocent.
Sometimes people picture God lounging, perhaps dozing, in some celestial deck-chair, while millions struggle and die through war and famine and flood. But that is not the Christian God, that is not the God we worship this day. No, that terrible caricature of God in a celestial deck-chair is smashed to smithereens by the crib and the cross.
What’s your darkness at the moment? Maybe your darkness is job worries or relationship worries or health concerns. Whatever the darkness in your life at the moment, Jesus is God with us in the darkness.
And he brings light in the darkness - hope in the darkness - precisely because the darkness did not put Jesus out. Herod tried to extinguish the light of the world at his birth, but failed. Pilate tried to extinguish the light of the world at his death, but not even death could hold him down. So Jesus brings light in the darkness - hope in the darkness - because he’s confronted the darkness in our world and the darkness in our own hearts - he’s taken that evil onto himself, and let the darkness do its worst to him - and still he shines as the light for the world - light for you in your darkness.
Here’s the experience of one Syrian, who was forced to flee for his life after being threatened by ISIS fighters. Mathai walked from his home in Syria, to Damascus, across the border to Lebanon and into Turkey, then Greece. Traffickers put him on trains and a boat – a route where five people from his home town had previously drowned. He trekked through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. He said, “Sometimes I was afraid, but mostly just so tired, so tired, so exhausted.” Two months ago Mathai finally arrived in Austria. Christians gave him a home and helped him apply for asylum. He was given an Arabic Bible. He said, “The Bible tells me I’m not alone, it reminds me that every human is loved by God and has a value. I’m very afraid, but when I turn to the Bible I see light. I particularly turn to passages in the Bible that are about forgiveness; it helps me when I think of all the people who have done awful things in my country, Jesus experienced the same and forgave his enemies. I am following Jesus.’’
Jesus brings light in the very darkest places. He wants to bring light in your darkness.  And he calls us to carry his light into the world, to follow his example and to stand in solidarity with the poor, the hungry, the frightened, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the stranger, the outcast, the refugee.   
As the opening verses of John’s Gospel remind us, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1:1-5)

May the light of Christ, shine in our lives, and in our world, now and forever more. Amen.

Who will be your guide in 2016?

When I lived in Bowness-on-Windermere, I used to help crew for a parishioner who owned  and raced a ‘Flying 15’, a 15 foot long, two person keelboat.  Sailing is one of the most exhilarating sports I have ever participated in, and there is nothing like the thrill of being in a boat that is powering through the waves, driven only by the wind.  But the weather on a lake can change very rapidly, and there have been many times when I have been caught in a storm, which can be really terrifying. I was therefore always extremely grateful that the person skippering the yacht was my friend, because unlike me, he had many years experience of sailing both on lakes and at sea, and knew how to handle a yacht in difficult conditions, and could calmly instruct me on what to do, and ensure that we always returned safely to the harbour. 

As we journey through life, it is important to have someone who can be the skipper or guide of our lives, in the good times when life is plain sailing as well as the difficult times when we we’re being tossed about by the storms of life. 

For the Christian, that guide should be Jesus, who has promised to be with us always (Matthew 28:20).  As the Psalmist writes ‘For this God is our God for ever and ever; he will be our guide even to the end.’ (Psalm 48:14) 

As we look ahead to all that 2016 has install for us, one resolution worth committing to is to make Jesus the skipper and guide of our lives.  You may wish to use the words of this song, as a prayer for the coming year:

Jesus, be the centre, be my source, be my light.

Jesus, be the centre, be my hope, be my song.

Be the fire in my heart,
be the wind in these sails,
be the reason that I live, Jesus.

Jesus, be my vision, be my path, be my guide.

May God bless and guide you in the year to come.

With much love