Joy Story – the message of Advent and Christmas

The clocks have changed, and the dark nights are with us.

I have some sympathy with CS Lewis’ picture of life living under the spell of the White Witch in Narnia, Beaver said to the children, here it is “Always winter, but never Christmas”.

However, the relief from the darkness of winter is found in the new light of Advent, then Christmas, and it will be here before you know it!

Oh yes, it’s nearly Christmas.

Cards to write and send; presents to choose and wrap; food to buy and eat; music to love and sing; and family and friends to meet and greet.

It’s easy to bemoan the commercialisation of Christmas, and we worry, don’t we, that the CHRIST of Christmas gets buried beneath a mound of wrapping paper.

I certainly feel that nagging cynicism as we all get caught in the build-up. But, there is one commercial Christmas tradition that I love, and that is, the latest Disney or Pixar film release.

Among the “must-have” toys this year, apparently, are lots of furbie, cuddly-type toys. And, surprisingly really, Buzz Light Year. He first made an appearance 25 years ago. Buzz Light year continues to attract with clever catch phrases such as “to infinity and beyond”, which raises a deeper longing! Remember what St Augustine prayed, some 1600 years ago, “Our hearts are restless, till they find their rest in you”.

And the theme tune “you’ve got a friend in me”, resonates with men, women and children, as all long for deep friendship, and an answer to aching loneliness.

Toy Story 4

So, this half term we went to see Toy Story 4, with our Granddaughter. How clever that it still enchants us!

The latest film introduces a new toy, called “Forky”. He is made by his toddler-owner, out of pipe cleaners and a plastic fork. She is distraught when she thinks he is lost, and the army of other toys launch into action seeking to find him and return Forky to his maker.

As ever, the film raises some clever and searching existential questions.

Forky thinks he is trash, with no right to exist along with all the other toys. He assumes he belongs in the bin.

Even a child watching this film is forced to ask: Are we made by someone? How do we know we are not just refashioned trash?

They, and we, can hear the challenge: Doesn’t the fact that someone loves me, give me some significance?

And so to Christmas

Isn’t the abiding attraction and annual return of this event amazing?! Yes, there is a lot of merchandise attached, and sentimentality, with a tinge of cynicism. We long for a feel-good story – is that all that Christmas is? And, once the season is over, do we return to life as normal?

Or, could Christmas, in fact, provide answers to the meaning for our existence? And, do we see in Christmas, the very definition of love from our creator, who affirms that we are not “trash”, by being fashioned in human flesh, to be with us?

Christmas is not a children’s story. Nor, as history demonstrates, is it around for a short-lived season. It is a promise to us all, that as we worship at the feet of King Jesus, we may know the answer to life’s deepest questions.

Joy Story

I pray that this Christmas, you may know the joy, that was first promised to those shepherds:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

I do hope that this Christmas you may know something of the joy of Christmas, and hope amidst the gloom around us!

In (Christ) was life, and that life was the light of all people. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5)

What joy there is in this story!

 

LGBTI+ welcome in our Churches

  • How to be a generous, hopeful, and loving Church, which affirms the welcome implied in the Gospel, and calls all Church members to a life of God-focussed, God-directed, Holiness. Briefing document written for the Bishop of Guildford, Guildford DEF Guidelines for LGBT_SVibert

What’s wrong with an “island” mentality?

No man is an island

There are all sorts of resonances which flow from this ancient poem by John Donne:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Of course, having been brought up in Jersey, I am familiar with the challenges and joys of being surrounded by the sea! Island mentality is great, but it is problematic if you can’t think beyond your real or imagined borders.

Whatever your view of Brexit, though, wouldn’t it be a shame if our great country decided to retreat into an “island” mentality, unwilling to cooperate with others, and think only about self-interest. We are in danger of losing that sense of connection, mutual accountability, and corporate identity, which is part of our history as a nation. But this is not my main thought.

My big fear is that since the 1960’s we have lived in a context of huge societal and community changes, many of which have been spurred on by “individualism”. One writer defines individualism in this way:

It’s about the weight we attach to individual thought and action relative to the importance of authorities and traditional institutions. In other words, individualism is about the value of thinking for yourself versus what you are told by other people. (see Glynn Harrison, A Better Understanding).

All well and good, you might say. Every human being is uniquely made in the image and likeness of God. We are indeed special; we are unique individuals.

But Harrison goes on to point out that individualism has overvalued private thought and judgment, to such an extent, that the value of tradition, the role of the state, and the place of the authorities, are thought irrelevant. I define who “I am” irrespective of what my biology, my gender, my nation, or my background, might determine. And who is to say that my private judgement is better than generations of family, national or church wisdom?

We are family

Because all human beings are made in the image of God, we have much more in common with one another than, sometimes, an individualistic society might think.

Human beings are deeply social animals. We want to be connected to one another. For sure, the means by which we are connected have become increasingly complicated with modern technology, but nevertheless, we long for connection. I

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A reluctant prophet (and a fishy tale)

If ever you were in Sunday School, you will remember this lively, short, book of the Bible.

A Fishy Tale

It’s a fishy tale, that resonates with the children – yes, we will have a whale of a time! However this little bible book has a very grown up message!

In brief, Jonah was commanded by God to preach a severe message to Israel’s neighbour, the Ninevites (nothing to do with hand cream, but the capital of their enemy Assyria).

Anyway, rather than swallow the message, hook, line and sinker, Jonah rushes off in the opposite direction, boards a boat, and seeks to escape.

A severe storm brews, and pagan sailors start calling out to their gods. Eventually, they realise that they are caught up in the crosswinds of displeasure from almighty God, and agree to hurl Jonah into the sea, whereupon, God gets a big fish (not a whale, sorry) to swallow up Jonah, and rescue his reluctant prophet.

From the belly of the fish, Jonah cries out to God, and the fish obediently vomits him out onto dry land. Finally, Jonah does what he is told, and preaches a message of judgment to the people of Nineveh. This is the great message: “salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), which was good for Nineveh and good for us too!

To Jonah’s great surprise, they hear, heed, and repent (even their cattle put on sackcloth!).

Job done, right? God’s reluctant prophet profits from God’s provision, preaches the proclamation he’s been given, and the Lord proceeds to protect pagans from perishing! (how about that for a pod of P’s?!)

Ah, but… Jonah is mad at God. Surely these wicked people are not worthy of God’s lavish grace. But Jonah ends with words of rebuke, directed at the reluctant prophet: “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11)

Some lessons

  • Sometimes we turn and run rather than face the living God. As Winston Churchill was once reported as saying: “Occasionally a man stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened”.
  • Sometimes we prefer to feel superior towards the people around us, rather than getting on with telling them about God’s love and his mercy.
  • Sometimes God is very kind and gracious towards us, and again and again, he welcome prodigal children back into his family.
  • And, sometimes, God brings storms into our life, so that we might finally cry out to Him and recognise he is our King.

The story is told of a mother seeking her wayward teenage daughter. Who, like the famous prodigal son, had wasted her money, and her life, on loose living. Not able to bare it any longer, the mother posted hundreds of notices all around the city: “Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, come home”.

Who is not drawn back to God by his compassion, mercy and love? Indeed: grownups and children alike need to hear again the message of Jonah. Perhaps that is why Jesus uses it as the key symbol of his ministry on earth (Matthew 12:38-42).

Do join us any Sunday to hear more!

 

The Birth of Jesus Christ and some implications for Justice

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18-20, ESV)

 

Joseph – the just man and a true hero of the faith

Joseph is described as a “just man” (ESV) or, one who is “faithful to the law” (NIV, Matt. 1:19)

He is, perhaps, a lesser-known character in the Christmas Narrative. After all, the Virgin Mary, and the child who would save the world, are the heroes who most readily come to mind. In our Christmas nativity, we depict Joseph trudging wearily beside the donkey, which is carrying the heavily pregnant mother of our Lord. But, it seems to me, this just man, who was unwilling to allow his fiancé to be shamed, is something of a hero.

What does justice mean for you? Meeting out judgment is certainly part of it. We have a strong sense of justice, and feel an emotional revulsion towards injustice. Of course, we all love the idea of the police officer capturing all guilty people, that is, until they pull us over for breaking the speed limit!

In fact, even in our own day, various strong nations have struggled with the idea of being “policeman” to the nations around – protecting one’s own citizens and meeting out judgement to nations that err. Is that what justice looks like? Here are some possibilities:-

  • Justice could mean retribution – a rigid interpretation of Jewish law dictated that Mary should be stoned to death. After all, she was carrying a baby out of wedlock, and Joseph knew that he had not fathered the baby. Even a more liberal interpretation of the law required her to be banished from the community.
  • Justice could mean equitable distribution of punishment. This might not be meeting out the harshest sentence. Perhaps justice is shown being equitable and moderate. Middle Eastern Culture would have viewed this turn of events as deeply shameful. Joseph was not honour-bound to stick with Mary, and he would have been seen to be just if he shunned her.

Joseph chooses neither of these courses of action.

  • Justice, as worked out by Joseph, is characterised as loving and compassionate. He interprets the demands of justice, possibly as described by the great Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, as showing care for the weak, the downtrodden and the outcast.

Of course, we must not forget divine intervention in this whole narrative. An Angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and encouraged him to accept his betrothed. This message shaped Joseph’s understanding, so he was persuaded that the baby being formed by God in Mary’s womb is a divine gift.

There are many personal and national implications for a view of justice that considers “compassion” alongside a strong sense of “right and wrong”. Here are a couple of my thoughts:

 

Compassion towards the outsider

There is a place for hearing the prophetic denunciation of our sin, which affronts a holy God. It is actually the big theme of Advent, this season in the Church’s year. People need to appreciate that they cannot just amble into the presence of God, particularly if God gets little more than a cursory look-in for the rest of their life.

However, Joseph’s actions show us that justice also demands that the Church’s message should be heard as one of compassion, mercy and love. Many people are put off by an assumption that the Church is there to condemn bad behaviour. However unfortunate this is, and, perhaps, despite how untrue this might be, this is a common perception. Are we best known for our compassion?

Care for migrants

Perhaps this is more contentious, but I also worry that nations (on both sides of the Atlantic) can appear to adopt a punitive approach to displaced migrants, rather than a compassionate one. For sure, there are some who are seeking harm to the nations they wish to enter. But many, if not most, are fleeing persecution and poverty.

Don’t forget, expectant parents, Joseph and Mary, were displaced, first to Bethlehem, then to Egypt. They became economic migrants, seeking help from a friendly host nation.

Maybe, from Joseph the just man, we can learn that our job is not to police, but to administer compassion and grace. Thankfully, we can leave the judging to our great God and get on with sharing the message of love, mercy and peace, which we find at the centre of the Christmas story, in our Saviour Jesus Christ the Lord.

With Christmas greetings, and hopes for peace

 

  • I am grateful to Kenneth Bailey Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, for many of these insights into Joseph.

Easter Hope

At this Easter time, my hope and prayer is that we may know the joy of the risen Lord Jesus, who has once-for-all conquered death, by his sin-bearing sacrifice. This term, we have rejoiced in the great Christian hope, which arises out of the events of Good Friday and Easter Day, a big theme in 1 Peter – “According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).

The Story of the Lampedusa CrossImage result for lampedusa cross
A simple wooden cross has been on display in the British Museum since 2015. It is known as the Lampedusa Cross, made from parts of a wooden boat, shipwrecked on 11 October 2013, off the coast of the Italian island, Lampedusa. The boat contained over 300 Somali and Eritrean refugees, seeking to escape conflict in Libya. The sacrificial efforts of the islanders managed to rescue half of them.
Inspired by the stories from some of the survivors, a local carpenter decided to use his skills to create a cross from the wreckage of the boat.  He made one for each of the survivors, as a reflection on their salvation from the sea, and hope for the future. He also made one for Pope Francis to wear at the memorial service for those who had lost their lives.
The cross serves as a great reminder of the tremendous sacrifice that was made by the residents of Lampedusa to save the lives of men and women seeking to escape the horrors and evil of war.
This “Good Friday” and Easter Sunday, we pause, and ponder, at the foot of the cross. Here, Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, sacrificed his life, so that we may escape the horrors of sin and death. How grateful we are!

 

How can I know?

How can I know, if you really love me? Maybe you too now have Whitney Houston echoing in your mind as you read these words? But, it is a good question isn’t it? Here’s another good question: “Is it possible that I can know God in such a way that I know that what I know is truly knowable?!” It is a two-part question:

Q1. How can I know anything?

Part of the answer to this question depends on what kind of knowing we are talking about.

Consider these propositions:

In a vacuum, an apple and a feather will fall to the ground at the same velocity. How do I know this is true? Through systematic observation of repeated actions, aided by a study of Newton’s Universal Laws of Gravity, I can reach a conclusion about the effect of gravitational pull on an object.

Jersey was liberated from German Occupation on 9th May 1945. How do I know this is true? There were eyewitnesses who were there (my father was one of them), many of them are still alive, and others have written eyewitness accounts of what they saw and heard. Events in history are deemed to be true, if we can trust the accounts of those who witnessed them.

I love my wife. How do I know this is true? Here things become more personal. I know this is true, because I feel love for her, and want to spend my life with her. You may observe our relationship, and deduce that I love my wife, but ultimately the truth is known only to me (well, and, hopefully, my wife!)

Q2. How can I know God?

It depends on what kind of “knowing” you mean.

Scientific knowledge? Is it possible, scientifically, to prove that God exists? No, clearly not. However, science is not opposed to religion, despite the protestations of certain new atheists. Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, John Lennox, robustly defends the credibility of belief, not least among those in the scientific community. In God’s Undertaker, he recounts a 1996 experiment which asked 1,000 scientists whether they believed in a God who answered prayer, and, in personal immortality. 42% said “yes”; 41%, “no”; and 17% were “agnostic”. Of course, this survey does not prove God either way, but it does debunk the common perception that scientific minds will disbelieve God’s existence. For many scientists, as Johannes Kepler observed, the process of scientific observation, is merely “thinking God’s thoughts after him”. Scientific enquiry might suggest God’s existence, but it cannot prove it.

Historic knowledge? Can I know that God exists from an historical point of view? Well, for Christians the answer is found in the events we recently celebrated at Christmas: “The Word (John’s description of Jesus Christ) became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son” (John 1:14). John goes on to assert that no one has ever seen God, but many, many, people saw Jesus, and by seeing Him, they came to believe in Him (John 1:18). At the end of his Gospel, John states that his disciples witnessed countless numbers of miracles performed by Jesus, but John recorded only a selection, so that his readers might “believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing [you] might have life in His name” (John 20:30f.).

So, you might say, historical enquiry – reading the source documents of Christianity, written by those who were around when God invaded earth – does indeed take you a long way on the discovery of knowing God.

But what about the third type of knowing?

Personal knowledge? Many in our culture are quite content to consider faith as a purely private, and personal, thing (so long as your beliefs don’t impinge upon anyone else). And, it is true: faith – to be true Christian faith – must have a personal dimension. Jesus summarised God’s requirements as “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.” (Matthew 22:37-39).

Truly knowing God means knowing his love, and learning to love as he loves.

As this brief survey has suggested, you will discover that I truly believe that you can know God! And, also, that you can know that he truly loves you! Of course, it is knowing of the kind we have outlined. Often this begins with an investigation of the truth claims about Jesus, recorded in the historic books of the Bible, but then this must lead on to a personal knowledge of God, as Lord and Saviour.

Here at Christ Church, we take as our strap line, “Knowing Jesus, and making Jesus known”.

People often ask me, “What is your vision for Christ Church?” At the moment, I can think of nothing better to say than this: “Everything we do exists in order to make Jesus known afresh to a new generation of people living in Virginia Water and beyond; and, thereby also, to equip our members to make Jesus known: by what they say, and by how they live.”

This is enough to be getting on with! We would love to help everyone who reads this magazine to connect with the life of the church, as we seek to “know Jesus, and make Jesus known”. Turn up one Sunday. Or, join one of our courses – Christianity Explored or Alpha. But, whatever you do, make sure that you know what you know, and you know why you know it!