2015’s Christmas Monologue: What does peace mean? The innkeeper’s story

Monologue: What does Peace mean?

I remember hearing the announcement: Caesar Augustus, King of the world, declares that there is peace. The pax Romana – the peace of Rome. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want to live in peace? Well, it doesn’t always feel like peace means the same to the Romans as it does to the rest of us. Do you know what the Roman peace means? It means the world is at peace because the Romans have killed anyone who could start a war. ‘They make a desert, and call it peace’ – that’s what it means. And do you know what the Romans do, when they’ve brought you this glorious peace, by killing your kings and breaking your armies, and grinding your cities into the ground? They tax you. They make you pay for the soldiers that have made you bleed. So that’s how we know that Caesar Augustus, son of the Divine Julius, has brought us peace on Earth – he declares that the whole world is to be taxed.

At first, I thought it was going to be great for business, the census. Caesar Augustus orders everyone to go to their hometown to register. Well, seeing as we were in Bethlehem, I thought we’d be set up, you know? I mean, sure, it’s not that big a place if you compare it to Jerusalem, up the road, but it’s Bethlehem, city of David, you know? No ordinary town. Most of the time, trade for us is slow but steady – merchants or pilgrims travelling into Jerusalem from the hill country or back out again. It picks up at festival time, you know? But for the census, you see, everyone has to register in their home town. And suddenly – aha! – everyone discovers that their mother’s mother’s mother was of the line of David. Never mind that by now their family’s been living in Emmaus for five generations and married local boys and girls – no, suddenly they’re of the line of David for tax purposes. You’d be surprised how many people want to make that sort of claim. It’s good for their business, or their political prospects, or their chances of being guru to some crazy cult or whatever. You get the picture. So, when the census gets announced, they all know if they’re going to try and cash in on this claim of theirs then they need to be seen to take it seriously. I mean, a lot of them probably aren’t that keen on paying taxes to Caesar, but if you want people to think of you as of the line of David then you need to make a big thing of it and never mind who called the census. ‘Curse these Romans and their taxes, forcing the sons of the line of David to leave home and business and travel all this way just to have their name recorded by some scribe, but we will not dishonour our ancestors by failing to be there’ Hmmm? I expect you’ve heard them too, telling every soul they pass on the road where they’re going and why.

So, I was thinking business is looking up – all these people coming to a hometown that strangely enough they have no home in. I thought, time to put my rates up for census month, this’ll set me up for life! But it didn’t work out that way. See the problem was, as fast as people were coming to Bethlehem, people were leaving it too. And most of them seemed to be on my staff. Abra, my cook, turns out her family was from Jericho. Miciah and Hila were from Jerusalem. Even my suppliers were leaving – wine merchants, oil sellers, tailors. And you couldn’t say to a guest ‘I’m sorry, but we have no wine left since the merchants left to be registered elsewhere, so I hope you’ve brought your own – oh and that’ll be 20 denarii’.

I had to beg, borrow, and steal to stockpile enough to last. Take on new staff, pay them double and find time to train them to be half as good as the ones who’d left. When I started to add it all up – well, let’s just say I just about broke even by hiking my prices to ones even I winced at. They paid of course – after all, what other choice did they have? But it was hell. I was cursing the census by the end of it. We were providing service so bad our reputation would be ruined in every town the guests came from, and working our fingers to the bone to do it. We barely had time to think, let alone eat or sleep.

That was when the young couple arrived, all the way from Galilee. Late. She was heavily pregnant – looked like she was about to pop. I expect it had slowed them down more than they thought. They’d already tried everywhere else in town. I could tell just from looking at them that they couldn’t afford what we were charging, even if we’d had the room, which we didn’t. No-one travels like that if they can afford not to. This wasn’t one of those glory-seekers. He must actually be from the line of David. I told them we had nowhere, but the poor girl was practically in labour standing there. So I showed them to the stable. I couldn’t just leave them in the street. Look, I know I’m a businessman, but I have a heart, you know? I’d hardly let them in when I had to rush back to sort out bedding for the merchant from Caesarea. It wasn’t until hours later I could spare time to go down with some blankets and bread – I know, if you thought the service for the other guests was bad… but it was the best I could do. And more than they could afford. By then they’d had the baby. A boy. My wife wanted to know.

It was then that the shepherds arrived. That was a surprise, I must admit. Half a dozen shepherds, stinking of stale sweat, sheep, and wood fires, all suddenly descending on us, hammering on the door, babbling about visions of angels. Now I’m not an irreligious man – I go to the synagogue, make the journey to Jerusalem for Passover. But if a bunch of shepherds appear at your door in the middle of the night saying they’ve seen angels, what would you think? And yes, they clearly had had a few, but they didn’t seem to be actually drunk.

Well I tried to keep them quiet – it was the middle of the night and they’re a rowdy bunch – but they were demanding to see the baby. The angels had told them about it, gave them exact instructions to find him. So exact that they were hollering outside my inn asking for the baby in the manger. Apart from the parents, me and the missus were the only ones in Bethlehem who’d know what they were talking about. That made me think. So as I led them round to the stable, I asked what else the angels had said. What they told me – well, it wasn’t what I’d expected. So I kind of stood there at the door while they went in, and looked at the couple and their baby. They looked so ordinary. Yes, I’d thought the man must be genuinely of the line of David, but they weren’t people I’d have singled out as the parents of the Messiah. But that’s what the angel had said. That child, wrapped in some cloths that had seen better days, put in the straw of a manger for lack of anywhere softer, was going to be king of the world, son of God. Absent mindedly, I pulled a denarius out and looked at the face of the man who claimed those titles today. What was it the angels had said? Peace on earth, goodwill to all. When Augustus proclaimed peace it meant blood and taxes. I looked at the baby in the manger: his parents with barely a pair of denarii between them, the shepherds, who were as rough and rowdy as you’d find, silent and awe-struck, even the donkeys and horses looking curiously out. This was a different sort of peace. A peace where the people you’d usually try to keep out were there, welcomed in.

I walked away quietly, and I wondered, (as I tried to reassure the guests that the rowdy shepherds weren’t trying to break in and they could go back to sleep) I wondered: what sort of king is this? What sort of kingdom will he bring? And is it one where I could stand in peace, with the shepherds?

Eli the shepherd – last year’s Christmas monologue

Here’s the Christmas monologue from last year:

The challenge with these stories is always that their familiarity makes it hard to really hear them. We think we know what they are about, but a lot of the time we are remembering a nativity play rather than the story that was written down. One of the clues to this is that all the gospel writers tell a slightly different story, bringing out different characters, fresh perspectives. Our nativity plays and carol services cherry-pick the best bits from all of them, to present a story that the writers never did.

So I thought I’d really look at Luke’s version of the story. When you do this, it becomes obvious that Luke is telling a story about shepherds. Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and finding a stable where the baby is born is all told fairly briefly. We never hear them speak. But he spends a long time talking about the shepherds and what happens to them, and does a lot of the explaining about what has happened through their eyes. So what might it be like to see the events of Christmas through their eyes?

It wasn’t an easy job, being a shepherd, it meant spending a lot of time out in the fields. Sheep would be out in the fields from November to April. The poor soil that characterised a lot of Palestine meant that flocks had to move around to find pasture. Their shepherds would go ahead of them, seeking out water and grass. It was hard work, and dangerous at times – shepherds watched the sheep because they were at risk, from thieves or wild animals, or from falling into crevices or climbing onto cliff ledges. But not only that, being a shepherd out in the fields meant you couldn’t follow the religious law, you couldn’t attend the religious feasts, couldn’t observe the Sabbath. David had been a shepherd, but most shepherds were seen as fairly irreligious, smelly, rough characters, and often dishonest, roving around the countryside taking what they found. Not the people you’d expect to be the first witnesses to the birth of Christ.

Let’s imagine for a moment one of the shepherds out in the fields that night: Eli. Eli’s been a shepherd all his life, like his father before him, and his father before that. His sons are out in the fields with him. He’s seen pretty much all there is to see out there – seen off robbers and wolves, been out in all weather. It’s been a long cold night. He’s sat by the fire, looking over the sleeping sheep and shepherds.

Suddenly, there’s an angel standing next to him. Whatever you think an angel looks like: halo, robes, wings, harp, slightly ethereal, put that aside. This is a man, physically imposing, and seeming more real and solid than anything around him, but obviously not of this world. Whenever anyone sees an angel they are terrified. He’s a warrior, in armour and carrying a sword, but that’s not the reason for the terror. Glory shines from him like light. Glory is the physical manifestation of God’s presence. Wherever this man is, God is. Think about that for a minute. God stands next to you, utterly and unmistakably there, powerful enough to snuff you like a candle-flame, and utterly and completely alien. This is not a human being. This is an emissary of another world, full of danger and mystery.

So Eli manages nothing more than a startled yelp as he frantically pats the shoulder of the son sleeping next to him, his eyes large, mouth hanging open, heart thudding in his chest. His sons awaken quickly – years as a shepherd teach you that if danger comes you need to be up. They’re all there, huddled together for safety, before the angel’s words really register.

“Don’t be afraid”. I expect he has to say it several times before they can really take it in.

They stop cowering, maybe they move apart a bit, maybe they stand up, but I don’t think you can ever really feel comfortable or relaxed next to an angel.

But the angel hasn’t finished talking.

“I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”

That doesn’t sound so bad. Eli begins to breathe a bit more easily. His first instinct had been to assume they were all going to die. They’re not exactly observant jews. They go to the Temple – when they’re delivering sheep ready for the sacrifices – but the priests won’t have anything to do with them. They sell to the market traders. Everyone assumes they’re sinners, so decent people won’t have anything to do with them. And that sort of prejudice encourages you to make bad choices. He’s seen it in his sons, felt it in himself. They’re a motley bunch. And if he had ever thought God might turn up and say anything to them, Eli would have expected it to be something with a good deal more ‘Thou shalt not’ about it.

“To you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

The angel had to repeat this bit too. Even after having gotten over the shock of not being dead, it took a lot for Eli to take on board that not only was the Messiah, the promised saviour, who he’d heard stories about all his life but never really wasted too much time actually thinking about, not only was he actually coming, he was coming tonight, and he was coming in the town whose lights they could see in the valley below them. And the angel had told them to find him.

Suddenly they are surrounded. An army of angels, each as imposing as the first, singing “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth”. The sound is overpowering, just like the men themselves. Being in their presence is like standing too close to the sun, it feels like no human being can stand it for too long. But then they are gone, leaving the shepherds standing about, trembling, the echo of the song still ringing in their ears. Eli’s sons turn to him, the same crazy hope burning in each of their eyes.

“Can we go and find him?”

Eli looks at them, and smiles.

“Go.” He says. “I’ll watch the sheep.”

Eli sits by the fire, watching the sleeping flock. Somewhere down in Bethlehem he hears the singing start. Not pure, clear voices like the angels, but the rough voices of his sons, as they make their way back to the fields, praising God for all that they had seen. The Messiah has come, and God has chosen him and his sons to be the first to see him. What did it mean? He’s pretty sure that the rabbis and the priests wouldn’t think they were good enough. But maybe God does think they’re good enough. Now that really would be good news.

The Angel Theodosius – 2013’s Christmas offering

I was sitting down to write my traditional Christmas monologue and I realised I never got round to posting the last few year’s, so here’s one from 2013:

A glimpse behind the scenes at Christmas…

We all know the Christmas story. Very well, almost too well. But there was once a time when it wasn’t known at all. When it actually happened, I expect most of it passed people by. The whole thing was a bit of a secret operation on God’s part, after all – putting himself behind enemy lines, so to speak. I wonder if even the hosts of heaven really knew what was going on. Perhaps we might imagine an angel, not one of the important ones, not Gabriel or Michael or anyone, someone fairly junior. Would he really know what was going on? I’m sure they’d all know something was happening – I mean, the second person of the Trinity goes missing for 9 months and you can’t expect it to go unnoticed. But the whole plan must have been so secret, and so unlikely, that I imagine this angel, let’s call him Theodosius, wouldn’t really be able to puzzle it out.

We might imagine Theodosius sitting with his friends sharing news (I’m sure angels don’t gossip, so we’ll call it sharing news).

“What could he be doing?” one might say “It must be something very important, to have taken so long.”

“Perhaps he’s making something new? After all, the Word was a key part of creation, wasn’t he? Maybe this is creation part 2 or something?”

“But surely we’d see if something that big was happening?”

“But the archangels have been acting a bit funny, haven’t they?”

“How do you mean? I know Gabriel went off on that top-secret mission and would never say anything about it, but that was almost a year ago now.”

“No, they keep doing reconnaissance flights over Galilee when they think no-one is watching.”

“Over Galilee? That’s odd. You’d think if there was anything important happening then it would be in Jerusalem, at the Temple.”

“Shhh. Here he comes now.”

“Yes, Mr Gabriel, sir? A special mission, needs the heavenly host out in force? Absolutely. We’ll just get our harps… and… oh. Not me? Right. There’s another little job for me to do? Oh, ok? Should I get my harp too? Am I singing to someone? No. My sword, then, do I need to fight someone? No. Right, then. I should get my best robes on though, yes? Just so I look my best? Oh. No-one’s going to see me. I see. No, no, of course that’s fine, sir. We each have our jobs to do, don’t we? Right. I’ll get right to it. Thank you, sir.”

Some time later we might imagine Theodosius sitting on the roof of a ramshackle stable at the back of a down-market inn at the less desireable end of Bethlehem. Somewhere below him there’s a dirty young girl giving birth while her fiancée hovers anxiously with a lamp. They’ve just arrived in town, late, after a long journey. Theodosius had encouraged an innkeeper to take pity on them and offer them the stable to stay in. He’d still charged them an extortionate amount for it, but frankly the man wouldn’t have offered anything if he hadn’t had his indifference massaged a bit. Theodosius looked out to the hillside. All but invisible to mortal eyes, a vast choir of angels was surrounding a group of shepherds. It was going to be the most incredible show of force by the heavenly host in centuries. And Theodosius was missing it. Angels don’t get jealous. But he was sad that he couldn’t be with his friends and experience it for himself.

He heard a sudden silence below him, then the cry of a newborn baby. He was glad it had ended well for them. It wasn’t their fault they’d had to travel when she was heavily pregnant. The Romans ordered people around as they pleased. The little people without wealth or privilege to protect them always got the rough end of the deal. They’d be lucky to make it through their lives without some sort of tragedy befalling them. And they seemed a nice enough couple. A little underlying tension about the baby, he thought, but they seemed to genuinely love each other.

There was a blaze of glorious light from the hillside and he could faintly hear the great hymns of praise the angels were offering up. But that was all. He couldn’t make out the words. He sighed, and settled back on the roof. They’d tell him all about it later, he was sure. Why these shepherds were so important, what it was they’d had to announce to them. He’d been surprised when he realised that that was what the mission was about, he had to admit. Shepherds were not the sort of people he’d expect to have an angelic visitation. Notoriously vulgar and lacking in religious devotion – their job meant they could never make it to festivals or the synagogue on a Sabbath. Still, David had been a shepherd when he was anointed to be King, and these were shepherds of Bethlehem, David’s own town. Who knows, maybe this was the calling of a new prophet, or even a new king? It wasn’t quite as impressive to have helped a young couple find a room for the night, but as he’d said to Gabriel, they all had their jobs to do. And his couldn’t always be the glamorous one.

The light went out, and the choir dispersed. Theodosius smiled. It was wonderful just to have seen it from a distance. He wondered how much longer he needed to stay before he could get back and talk with the others. The couple had found somewhere safe to stay and the baby had been safely born. There really wasn’t much more for him to do. He drifted down through the rafters and looked down on the baby. They’d put some fresh straw in a manger and put the child in it as a makeshift bed. He seemed healthy. A very ordinary baby, with parents to love him. A new beginning for them. A small, everyday miracle. It lacked the glamour of the angelic choir, but it was something new being brought into the world. He found the smile was still on his lips, despite the smell of the stable. His work was done. And strangely, he didn’t feel as disappointed as he’d thought he might have been to have missed all the excitement on the hillside.

He let himself rise up again, through the rafters, into the night air. The shepherds seemed to be heading back into town, singing their own praises to God. Whatever had happened tonight, it was big, he could sense it.

He’d expected that the hall would be full of excited chatter – the normal post-flight buzz, only more so, after all they’d not been out in force for such a long time. He never expected that they would all be silent, expectant, waiting for him to come back. All his questions about the message to the shepherds died on his lips as he entered.

“Theodosius has returned!” Gabriel shouted, and the hall erupted in cheers. “The baby has been born! God himself has been born as a human being!”

For a moment, Theodosius’ mind went blank. He found himself replaying the evening’s events in his head. The couple, stumbling wearily up the road. The desperate search for somewhere to stay. The young woman going into labour. The baby being born. The baby. He remembered looking down at the child’s face. Remembered how he had felt. This is how creation starts again. With God right in the middle of it. How could he have missed it? How could anyone miss it? For a second he felt ashamed: he had been there and hadn’t even realised it, but then the enormity of it hit him: he had been there. He felt the smile on his lips again that he’d had when he looked at the baby. The choir had started singing again. And this time, Theodosius joined in.

According to John…

An idea for a Christmas sermon that doesn’t quite hit the right tone…

According to John…

It took me many years to write it. Many years of pondering on the incredible events of those three years. Others had already written the story, of course. Gospels that told of his teaching, his miracles, and of his death. But there was more that needed to be told. The things that couldn’t be seen. The things that we only realised years later. The truths that took a long time to really sink in. And that’s why I couldn’t start with the baby being born. Not because that’s not what happened. Not because it wasn’t important that it happened like that. Others had written that story already, and better than I could have. No, I couldn’t start there because it would be too close. Too close too early. This is a big story, not a little one, and I needed people to understand that. If you want to see a city, you need to go outside the walls, get some distance. Otherwise it’s just houses. So I didn’t start with the baby. I started before that. I started before everything.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

God was before everything, this we have always known. It’s written in the first lines of scripture. The first, the source of everything, the one who gives meaning to everything. But now I realised that he was not alone. The one who gives meaning had spoken that meaning in a way that makes sense. He had spoken a Word. And the Word was him, expressed in a way we could understand.

In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

God is life and God is light. He gave us the very breath in our lungs, the spark in our eye, but more than that, he gave us all that is good and gives life. The joy of a baby’s smile, the warmth of a hand in ours. All we long for and need, offered out to us, like a light shining in a dark place. We can’t help but find our eyes drawn to it, wouldn’t you think? But somehow we miss it. Time and again we make the wrong choices, choose what frustrates us instead of what we need. We don’t recognise the light.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that allmen through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

John. I remember him. Like a madman, raving out in the desert. Maybe all people who see a great truth seem mad to everyone else. And he had seen it, no mistaking it. He had looked right into the light shining in the darkness. He saw the way that all round him people turned their backs on it, scrabbling round in the shadows, ignoring it. So he shouted about it, put a few people’s backs up. Made others think he was the light. But he was just a man shouting ‘open your eyes’!

That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. 11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Jesus. I heard the stories about his birth, but I never knew him then. I only met him as a man. But always far, far more than that. The Word, spoken where everyone can hear it. The Light, shining where it can be seen by everyone. The answer to all our questions, the fulfilling of all our needs, right there. So, of course, we turned our backs on him. Not how the story should end, really, is it? The Word spoken at the beginning of time is spoken again, and we try and silence it. Sometimes the truth is not what we want to hear.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: 13 which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

So it’s lucky, really, that that isn’t the end of the story. Because some didn’t reject him. I guess it started with that young couple taking on a child who would never quite be theirs. The innkeeper who found a place a young woman could give birth in safety. The shepherds and wise men who sought him out. And so it went on, until I got caught up in it too. And now you. You see, it’s not a small story. It’s the biggest story of them all. It started before the world began. And you’re writing the latest chapters now. The Light is still shining, the Word is still being spoken. How will you respond?

Beatitudes

A rephrasing of the beatitudes, from my All Saints sermon:

They say you are the little ones who will never amount to much, but God says the kingdom is yours.

They say you’ve lost everything that mattered most to you, but God says one day he’ll wipe every tear from your eye.

They say you lack confidence, that you’ll never get anything if you’re not a bit more aggressive, but God says one day you’ll have it all.

They say you are consumed by your idealistic dreams about a better tomorrow and you won’t be realistic about today, but God says keep dreaming, because those dreams will come true one day.

They say you’re too soft, you let people off when you should call them to account, but God says I’ll judge you the way you judge others.

They say you’re naïve, you’re not canny enough, too trusting, too easy to run rings around, but God says only the people who are always hoping for the best and trusting despite everything stand a chance of ever seeing him.

They say you’re too quick to compromise, too eager to mend arguments, too quick to forgive, but God says that’s what makes him proud you’re his.

They make fun of you because you follow God. But God says that you’re in good company, because that’s what they’ve always done to the people who follow him.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before…

A modernised retelling of the Christmas story, given as an after dinner speech to Worksop Rotary.

Have you ever wondered how the Christmas story would sound if it was completely updated? Jesus as the son of a teenage mother in Gateshead, whose builder boyfriend decides to stick with her even though the baby isn’t his. A new Government tax process forces them to travel down to some small village in Suffolk, because that’s where he was born. Only by this point she’s pretty close to her due date. It’s the worst possible time to be trying to make a journey like that, he’s only got his white van to drive in, and it’s not got great suspension. To make matters worse, everyone else has to go to their place of birth too, so the roads are just diabolical. It takes days to make the journey, with her getting anxious about the baby coming all the way. They’ve got her maternity notes with them, but Joseph hasn’t a clue where the nearest hospital would be if she does go into labour, and he’s worrying, though trying not to show it, so he’s snapping at her as they go. He’s not exactly thrilled about the whole not-your-baby thing anyway, so the fact that this child is causing him yet more grief even before its born is not endearing it to him.

When they finally arrive in Bethlehem, Suffolk, they discover that not only is it a smaller place than they’d imagined, but that both pubs, the Travelodge down the road and all the B&Bs have all been taken by other people. Right then, sitting in the pub carpark, when Joseph is starting to get the road atlas out and figure out where else they could try that might have places to stay and would still leave them within striking distance of Bethlehem, Mary announces that her waters have broken and she’s in labour. The baby is coming now. So now Joseph really starts to panic. His girlfriend is in labour in the back of his van, he hasn’t got a clue where the nearest hospital is, whether they’d make it there if he tried, and he can’t get a signal on his mobile because Bethlehem, Suffolk has really poor coverage. Which is when the landlord comes out with a baseball bat to find out what all the screaming in his carpark is about. Once Joseph has convinced him that his girlfriend is screaming because she’s having a baby and not because he beat her up, which is harder than you might think because he’s got a pretty broad Geordie accent and he’s a skinhead white-van man who’s built like the proverbial brick outhouse – anyway, once he’s convinced him that Mary’s having a baby, the landlord takes pity on him. He’s got no rooms spare in the pub, and she can’t give birth in any of the public rooms – ‘health and safety, mate – can’t have girls popping babies out in the toilets’, but he does have a garage round the back with an old sofa in it.

Meanwhile, out on the industrial estate on the outskirts of Bethlehem, there’s a bunch of security guards playing cards in the control room. Dave, the shift supervisor, is dealing, Steve holds cards with one eye on the monitors, Gary is passing the teas round, and Matt is busy texting his girlfriend with one hand. Suddenly there’s a flash like a flare going off on the monitors and they all turn to static. Gary almost drops the mugs. Steve curses, drops his cards and starts switching between cameras to try and find a working one. Dave gets to his feet and grabs his coat and torch. He rounds the others up, and they all trudge out to try and figure out what’s going on, Matt still texting as they go. It’s only when they get outside that they hear the singing. Not drunk kids larking about, or some car with its stereo turned up too loud, but proper singing – a choir, a really big choir, but somehow higher and deeper than anything they’ve ever heard before. And they can’t quite make out the words, though they know exactly what it’s about. Hopes fulfilled, boundless gratitude, and a pure, deep joy. Only they can’t see where it’s coming from. A song as loud as a pop concert, but no singers to be seen. This is just plain weird now, and they walk around the warehouses shining their torches into every corner getting more and more uneasy. Matt tells his girlfriend he’ll call her later and puts the phone away. Dave is about to call the boss when the singing stops. It’s completely silent. And that’s when they see the man. Just one man, walking towards them. Afterwards they can’t remember what he was wearing or what he looked like, but they all say he wasn’t an ordinary man. There was something about him, something powerful, almost dangerous. They can’t take their eyes off him. Turning and running isn’t an option. So they stand there, rooted to the spot as he gets close enough to look them in the eye.

“Don’t be afraid.” He says “I have a message for you from God. A baby has been born, about thirty seconds ago, in Bethlehem. He’s going to save the world. You’ll find him wrapped in an old dog-blanket on a broken sofa in the garage at the back of the Dog and Whistle.”

And suddenly he’s not alone, and it’s no longer silent. The warehouses, car parks, alleyways, everywhere is suddenly full of people singing. They’re surrounded, the song rolling over them, loud enough to deafen them. For five heartbeats, maybe six they stand there surrounded by this vast choir singing at the top of their lungs. And then they vanish. And it’s Dave, Gary, Steve and Matt standing there alone and the only sound is their breathing. They look at each other, questions racing through their head. Truth be told they had never had a conversation about religion. Steve had said he was getting the kiddie christened, but the rest of them had never been near a church, not except for funerals. So when it came to messages from God, well… 5 minutes ago Dave would have said he didn’t believe in God. They looked at each other, no-one wanting to be the first to speak, the first to say what he thought. Finally, Dave cleared his throat.

“Right.” He said. “We going to the Dog and Whistle then, see if we can find this baby?”

The garage at the Dog and Whistle is quiet. After Mary had the baby, the landlord fished out an old blanket from somewhere to wrap him in. Joseph is trying to figure out how they were going to get her and the baby to the hospital when a car roars into the carpark and four guys dressed in some sort of security uniform bundle out. They look around, but pretty quickly zero in on the garage and they’re coming over with torches, looking suspicious. Suddenly Joseph is a bit worried, and he walks out to meet them.

“Alright lads, what’s going on?” He asks.

“We’ve come to see the baby” says Dave, “the man said he was here.”

Suddenly they spot Mary and the baby on the sofa, and they look completely awestruck. They’d never really been sure what they’d find. As Dave is explaining about the man and the singing and how they got there, there is whirring sound and a helicopter lands in the middle of the car park. Three very well-dressed men get out. It turns out they’re scientists from the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. They’re from all over the world, one is Swedish, one Chinese, the other one from South Africa. All  speak perfect English. They say they’ve come because they detected some sort of alignment of sub-atomic particles that led them to the birth of a baby in the garage of the Dog and Biscuit in Bethlehem. Joseph doesn’t have a clue what they mean, and to be honest it seems like they’re not exactly sure themselves, but they do say that this baby is very special. In fact, they’re concerned that if certain unscrupulous people find out about the child then he could be in danger – some scientists might feel they needed to keep him in a lab under constant observation. They haven’t told anyone about it and they never will, but they have brought gifts. One set up a small trust fund for the baby (not millions, but enough to make sure they’re ok), another brought a nicely bound set of the world’s greatest religious scriptures (Joseph isn’t sure what to make of these, to be honest, he’s not much of a reader, but he’s sure they mean well), and the Swede brought a bottle of embalming fluid. Now Joseph really isn’t sure what to make of that, and the Swede wouldn’t say why he thought it was an appropriate gift for a baby, but he looked sad.

And then they are all gone. The scientists get back in the helicopter and fly off. Dave and the security guards drive back to the industrial estate before anyone spots they’ve left their control room. Dave had left Joseph directions to the hospital before he went, and told him which way to go to get out of the mobile blackspot. And then they are alone again.

“What just happened?” asks Joseph.

And Mary says nothing. She just smiles, and knows, just as she had known all along, that her baby is going to be something very special.

What difference does it make, to hear the story like that? Sometimes I think we make the Christmas story a bit too chocolate-box, a bit too easy listening. Something we can listen to and feel comforted, or nostalgic. It’s not that sort of story, really. It’s supposed to disturb us. It’s supposed to make us ask ‘who is this child, and what does he mean to me?’

So as you listen to carols and give presents, watch Christmas specials on the telly and clear away wrapping paper, remember the Geordie chippy having the worst night of his life, the night shift at the industrial estate having a close encounter with something not of this world, and the smartest men on the planet travelling hundreds of miles to see a newborn baby they thought could change everything. And have a very Happy Christmas.

John the Baptist: being true (Advent 2)

 

1.    The celebrity
Interview question – ‘What person, living or dead, would you most like to be locked in a church with?’ Would you want to be locked in a church with John the Baptist?
Calling for people to repent, baptising them, crowds come out, and he does his best to drive them away! “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But he must have been phenomenally charismatic. Religious events would have been a form of entertainment. No X factor. But no shortage of interesting preachers, teachers, and prophets.
John would have been quite well known. From a good well-to-do family – son of a priest at the temple. And he had given it up to go and live in the desert, like the prophet Elijah, running out to the desert to seek God. Like the people of Israel, walking through the desert to learn the ways of God. He challenged the public immorality of Herod, like the prophets had before him. He had followed a strict vow since birth never to drink, like the Judge Samson and the prophet Samuel. Luke talks about ‘crowds’ coming out to the wilderness to be baptised, Mark says it was ‘the whole Judean countryside and all Jerusalem’. He may have been exaggerating a bit. But clearly we are talking about very large crowds. John was a celebrity.
I don’t think he liked it very much. I expect he had come to the desert to get away from the noise, the distractions, the mixed motives, the hypocrisy and the crowds. But they came to him. To see the entertaining new celebrity prophet on their weekend breaks from Jerusalem. Come to listen to him rant and to experience this new religious movement. Come to be baptised. It’d be something to talk about at dinner parties, wouldn’t it. Did you experience anything when you were baptised by John? Rachel says she could feel John’s hands burning like holy fire on her head and she heard the sound of choirs of angels singing – it was almost as good as when we went to hear Matthias the miracle-worker last year.
You can understand why he got annoyed.
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

2.    Fruits worthy of repentance
It does sound like he’s gone a bit far, doesn’t it? Accusing the people coming to him for baptism of being a bunch of no-good snakes. He claims that despite what they say, they aren’t really committed to changing, to repenting. They aren’t showing the fruit that would show that the tree of their faith is healthy. John is too extreme, perhaps. But there’s a real problem here, isn’t there? How can you tell if someone is genuine? How do you know if someone sincerely believes or if they’re just going through the motions? John seems to assume that none of them are genuine. I’m sure he’s wrong, but we’re probably just as wrong when we assume the opposite. In the Church of England we generally assume that anyone who comes to us for any religious service is genuine. They’re not just here because they want to keep the grandparents happy, or because they want to be seen to do the right thing. This is a good thing. I’m firmly convinced that we’re better assuming people are genuine and letting God work out what’s in people’s hearts.
3.    Teacher, what should we do?
However, there is a way in which John is right to make such a challenge. If we should not accuse those around us of hypocrisy in their faith, it is still a question we should pose of ourselves. Those whose faith clearly was genuine asked John what they should do. His answer was clear in every case – show fruit of your repentance – show changes in your life that demonstrate that your religion is more than skin-deep. The wealthy should share with the needy. The tax collector – invariably corrupt – should collect only the genuine taxes. The soldier should live honestly, not threatening or extorting money by abusing their authority.
These are not massive, momentous changes. John does not tell them, as Jesus challenged the rich young ruler, to give away all they have and follow him. Rather, he asks them to live honestly, to stand fast against the normal everyday temptations that surround them. This in itself is sufficient to show their sincerity. When John speaks of showing fruit, he is not speaking of incredible moments of faith, the sorts of things we only see in the lives of saints. He is speaking of common decency, of living a good and honest life. This is the fruit of repentance John looked for. And unlike the grand gestures of faith, it is often only us who know about it. We know if we have lived with integrity, or made the compromises so many others do.
This is a challenge we must pose to ourselves, and that often we are the only ones in a position to know the answer to. Are we going through the motions, our faith only skin-deep? Or do we have fruits of our repentance in our lives? Amen.

Turning over a new leaf?

Well, Leah has finally bitten the bullet and started running, so I thought I ought to try and blog a bit more. And here’s my first offering: my first sermon in Heath Hayes, preached on Sunday, reproduced here by popular demand (well, Rosie asked for it anyway).
A couple of explanatory notes first:

I preach from headings rather than full text, so I’m not going to attempt to give a full text version here. I’ll hopefully expand the headings enough that it makes sense what I was saying. It also means that what goes down here is not necessarily exactly what anyone in church on Sunday heard. My sermons tend to evolve a bit depending on the setting.

And I’m experimenting with a new style here. For a while now I’ve been intruiged by the sort of structure used in stand up comedy, in particular Eddie Izzard’s routines, which I love to bits. He uses a structure where he appears to have no obvious progression of thought and be continually lurching off into bizarre and unanticipated flights of fancy yet the same characters or thoughts or ideas get woven into them. And each time a thought gets re-introduced into a new context, enabling it to be seen in a new light, it gets a bigger laugh. I wanted to try this sort of thing in a sermon: building the structure not around a logical progression of thought (as I normally do) but around a single idea, placed in different contexts. This sort of structure is well suited to John anyway, because he thinks like that, and I try to preach in a way that gives integrity to what’s there.

So, without further ado, on to the sermon: John 15:9-17 – Abiding in Jesus’ love.

A story (probably apocryphal): there was once a minister somewhere in scotland who had the habit, when he visited his parishoners, of sitting and listening to them, doing all the normal things you’d expect. But at the door on his way out, he’d turn and quote a verse of scripture at them. And then he’d say “Stick that under yer tongue and suck it like a sweetie”.
John’s gospel takes a bit of time to get your heard around, because John doesn’t think in straight lines. He thinks in spirals. He circles round and round ideas, seeing them from different angles. It’s like sucking on a sweet, a hard-boiled one, that you keep in your mouth and let it move around and around, tasting as more of the flavour emerges.
I think what John is saying in this passage is all about abiding in Jesus’ love. He’s circling around these words of Jesus “abide in my love”, seeing them from different angles. Abide, live in it, make your home in it. And I think what he’s saying about it is this: to abide is to obey, to obey is to love, to love is to abide.

To abide is to obey
The places we live shape us in different ways. My parents house is a semi with thin walls. So I learnt to play music quietly. My mother was a librarian. So I learnt to mark my place with a bookmark. My abiding had a shape. It’s not that there were a set of ‘house rules’ I had to follow or I’d be chucked out. Rather, I became a certain sort of person because of the place I lived. Abiding in Jesus’ love makes us Jesus’ love-shaped. Not ‘now you’re a Christian you’d better behave’ but ‘you’re a Christian, and that will shape you and your behaviour, like it or not’.
To abide is to love, to love is to obey, to obey is to abide.

To obey is to love
Very easy to hear John’s words ‘love your friends’ and think he’s got it wrong. We’re used to hearing about the challenge to love our neighbours, our enemies, to go beyond just loving our friends (don’t even the pagans do this? as Jesus asks in another gospel). But in some ways, loving our friends is harder than loving our enemies. Our friends, the people we have lived with, know us too well. They know the things we don’t like people to know about us. We know the things they don’t like people to know about them. Intimacy is a great challenge to love. There’s a saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. There’s a lot of contempt in families. There’s a lot of contempt in churches. Love your friends. There’s a challenge. Not a challenge to have a love that is wide enough to reach out to the stranger, but a challenge to have a love that is deep enough to go beyond our contempt. Abiding in Jesus’ love creates a family, people committed to loving each other despite themselves, self-sacrificially.
To abide is to obey, to obey is to love, to love is to abide.

To love is to abide
We are more used to the idea of living with people than we are to the idea of living with ideas. But we do, we live with ideas, we let them feed our hopes and dreams, eventually our thoughts and actions, and finally they come to birth – they bring change in the world around us. When Barak Obama was elected president, the first Black president of the United States, many people looked back to Martin Luther King and his speech ‘I have a dream’. That was an idea people lived with, a dream people lived with, that changed them, and changed the world. Jesus says we are his friends, not his servants, because he shares his plans with us. He doesn’t want blind obedience from us, he wants us to share his hopes, share his dreams, share in the idea of the Kingdom of God. To live with that idea until it changes us and changes the world.
As far as John is concerned, love is the very essence of that idea. We may struggle with the idea that love is what being a Christian is all about – we probably know many people who are genuinely loving yet would not describe themselves as Christian – but for John, love is so central to what God’s plans are about that he would likely tell us that love is love, and if you truly love you may not live at the address you think you do. John says love is the idea that Jesus calls us to abide in – live with it, inhabit it, let it change you and change the world around you.
To abide is to obey, to obey is to love, to love is to abide.

Jesus says ‘abide in my love’.
John says ‘to abide is to obey, to obey is to love, to love is to abide’.
The Scottish minister says ‘Stick it under your tongue and suck it like a sweetie’.