Saturday, December 8, 2007

Christmas Hopes - Fantasy or Reality?

I have a problem with Christmas.

We are invited to dream dreams that can never be achieved. We are tempted to live out fantasies that are not attainable. Whether that dream of a white Christmas is realised or not remains to be seen. One suspects that in all too many households the fantasy of the ideal family celebration will not be realised.

It is all too easy to put many of the favourite readings for Christmas that we shall share over the next couple of weeks into the category of dreams that can never be achieved, fantasies that are not attainable.

Will the people who walked in darkness really see a great light? Will there be endless peace? Will there be justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore? Will the wolf live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid? Will a little child really lead them? Will they cease to hurt and destroy on my holy mountain? Will the earth really be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea?

Is all of this no more than a dream … an idle fantasy, lumped in with all the other trappings of Christmas and then to be quickly forgotten?

I believe that what’s going on inside these readings is something very different.

Individually and collectively these readings give us a glimpse of what it is like when God’s rule takes a hold in our hearts, in our homes, in our communities and in our world.

When God’s rule takes a hold then light does come into people’s darkness, there is peace, justice and righteousness do prevail.

Our conviction is that ultimately God’s rule will take a hold and the new heaven and the new earth will come to be.

But our Christian conviction is more than that. It is that in Jesus Christ God’s rule has broken into our world. He calls us to make these things real here and now.

Take today's reading from Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

It is not just a dream, far less a fantasy.

It gives us a glimpse of what it is like when God’s rule takes a hold … and it maps out for us what we must do as we seek to make these things real here and now.

If the sound of weeping or the cry of distress should no longer be heard then our task is to give comfort to those who weep and to alleviate distress.

If an infant should live more than but a few days and an old person live out a lifetime, our task is to care for children and to care for older people with equal commitment.

If people are to dwell in houses they call their home, we cannot turn a blind eye to homelessness.

If people are to eat the fruits of the earth, we cannot turn a blind eye to those who are hungry … neither can we turn a blind eye to issues of unemployment if people are to enjoy the work of their hands.

We are called to be peacemakers and given a ministry of reconciliation because this is what it’s like when God’s rule takes a hold: the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, they shall not hurt or destroy.

The great Christmas readings are not the stuff of dreams or fantasy, they shape what we are to do here and now.

That is why this Christmas we have identified four things that we are supporting:

1. last week’s Gift Sunday focused on the people who come to our Day Centre,
2. and the Present Aid catalogue of Christian Aid.
3. Our Communion Collection is for the work of Cheltenham Community Projects – who incidentally are crying out for food parcels here in Cheltenham at the moment.

4. And our Christmas Day Collection will be for a remarkable project that has been initiated locally and seeks to bring better health care to the villagers of Sika in the Gambia. Jennifer Taylor and Lyn O’Farrell have both been very involved in that project and they are going to tell us something about it now.

It was after visiting the deprived village of Sika in The Gambia, that Jennifer Taylor (founder member of the charity) was inspired to build a medical centre in memory of her late sister Lilian Elizabeth.

Lilian had spent time in the Gambia before her unfortunate premature death and had always enthused about how friendly and warm the people were, despite their hardships.

Jennifer's inspiration came from experiencing this warmth & friendliness first hand and after witnessing the devastating effect that both malaria and the lack of medical treatment is having on the villagers.

Malaria is the biggest cause of death in the Gambia.

The village has no electricity and the living conditions are very basic. To date Jennifer has already improved their standard of living by funding the building of a well. In an attempt to reduce the incidents of malaria and with the aid of generous donations, she has also been able to supply 500 mosquito nets to the families in the village.

The cost of building the medical centre will be around £50k but to maintain it, we will need £5k per annum by way of donations and subscriptions.

The centre itself will be staffed predominantly by locals, as it is important to retain their cultures and beliefs. Occasionally volunteers from the UK will visit and help out in any way they can.

Jennifer also wishes to introduce a feeding programme, as during several months of the year they have little or no food.

Please note. All monies donated go straight to the charity as there are no overheads or wages taken by the volunteers.

For further details on how you can help, for updates on how the medical
centre is progressing and photographs of recent visits please visit the Lilian Elizbeth Fund website

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