Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day - Breaking Down Barriers

I knew it would be!

And it has turned out that way!

Christmas has been different this year.

It is not just that a group from Highbury joined friends from St Luke’s and other churches in Cheltenham and further afield and stayed for six days in Bethlehem.

It is much more that we met with people, made friends, and have stayed in touch.

When we received the Peace Light from Bethlehem at our Christingle service on Wednesday evening we received greetings from some of the people we met … and that evening when I looked at my emails I discovered that the father of one of the Scouts who had appeared in our video clips had sent us an email, a prayer for Christmas …

In this time of grace, pray for little Jesus to be born in your heart.

May He, who is peace itself, give peace to the entire world through you.

Therefore, pray without ceasing for this turbulent world without hope, so that you may become witnesses of peace for all.

May hope begin to flow through your hearts as a river of grace.

Peter’s family own the Star hotel where we stayed. Peter himself is manager. One picture has been precious to me this Christmas … and that is the view from the Restaurant window

– it is a magnificent view looking down from one of the highest spots in Bethlehem on to Manger Square to the left … and in the distance to the right of the church tower the site of one of Herod the Great’s palaces on the mountain top that he had sliced off.

It was Belmont’s carol service that prompted me to focus on that view. In telling their Nativity story they focused on the cruelty of King Herod. Felicity and I had just seen the new release for Christmas, Nativity! Wonderful entertainment for anyone who has ever had anything to do with Nativity Plays. Two schools go head to head in competition with each other. One focuses on the cruelty of Herod in a way that you simply have to see!

It was a cruel world that Jesus was born into, as the Wise Men visit Herod in his palace and then thwart his plans to kill the Christ child by returning home by another route. Herod built a number of palaces for himself.

There from the Restaurant at the top of the Star Hotel we looked out at one of them. Look more closely and you can see how Herod has sliced off the top of a mountain.

He has then sunk into the top of the mountain a fortress.

To explore it is to be overwhelmed by its scale and its statement of utter Power.

At the foot of the mountain he built the most palatial of palaces.

Herod the Great’s regime under the Roman Empire sought to build peace through the imposition of city life, the development of commerce and above all by military conquest.

That view over the rooftops of Bethlehem presents us with a stark choice – looking down to Manger Square we look to the child who has been born for us, the son who has been given to us: we look to the one who has been named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He stands for a justice and a righteousness that has at its heart love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy too.

And then there is the power of Herod the Great and the Roman Empire, the power of urbanisation, commercialisation, and military might.

It is a stark contrast.

To follow Christ is to choose the way of peace in the pursuit of justice.

Staying in Bethlehem, now a walled in city, only a couple of months after the Gaza bombardment, we couldn’t help but be aware that we were touching a conflict that is right at the heart of our troubled world today.

The contrast is as marked today as it was 2000 years ago, as Carole Davies’s wonderful sketches she made for us remind us.

Here are pictures of two walls. The wall that surrounds Bethlehem, Gaza and the Palestinian communities is symbolic of something that is somehow not right. From Israel’s point of view it is a security fence that protects against terrorism. From the Palestinians’ point of view it is an apartheid wall that encroaches on their land and keeps them a separated and isolated people. However you look at it, the wall is symbolic of something that is very destructive.

The other wall has a small door in it. Bow down and enter through that door and you enter into the Church of the Nativity and recall the coming of the Christ child the Prince of Peace.

The way of the Christ child is as important today as ever it has been.

The way of the Christ child is the way of the Prince of Peace who seeks to tear down barriers and in their place build bridges.

We met with Christians and heard of the work those Christian Palestinians are doing in order to work for peace and justice today.

And for Christmas we have had greetings from some of those we met.

Their greetings capture for us the way of Christ in this troubled world.

Tantur is a place that stands for the work of reconciliation in a divided world. Father Michael McGarry, Rector of Tantur and one of our speakers back in April has sent us a Christmas greeting.

I would just like to extend my wishes for a blessed Christmas to you and all your friends, and to invite your continued prayer for the peoples of the Land.

And please keep Tantur in your prayers.

He then goes on to speak of The Kairos Palestine Document, a remarkable statement signed by most if not all of the Palestinian Christian leaders.

It outlines a very Christian response to the troubled situation in the Middle East and is well worth reading.

As Palestinian Christians we hope that this document will provide the turning point to focus the efforts of all peace-loving peoples in the world, especially our Christian sisters and brothers.

We believe that liberation from occupation is in the interest of all peoples in the region because the problem is not just a political one, but one in which human beings are destroyed.

We pray God to inspire us all, particularly our leaders and policy-makers, to find the way of justice and equality, and to realize that it is the only way that leads to the genuine peace we are seeking.

One of the signatories to the Kairos Palestine Document was Alex Awad of the Bethlehem Bible College, another of our speakers and the one who welcomed us to his East Jerusalem Baptist Church on the Sunday of our stay.

He too has sent us a greeting for Christmas … and a prayer.

What he says comes out of the Middle East conflict. It is rooted in Bethlehem. But it speaks to each one of us and challenges us with the choice we each of us can make this Christmas – the world’s way, or Christ’s way.

It was Alex Awad who concluded last Sunday’s Songs of Praise from Bethlehem. Let me finish with his words to us for this Christmas:

From Bethlehem the birthplace of our Saviour, we send you greetings.

We hope that this Christmas season will bring you cheer that will continue throughout the New Year.

In Bethlehem this Christmas, the streets are beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and there is a spirit of joy, enthusiasm and expectation within the Christian community

We are thankful that the situation is much more peaceful than in recent years.

Despite the Wall which surrounds us and the many challenges we face in this land, we will focus on the Christ child and from him we will draw courage and inspiration.

We pray that Immanuel, the Almighty God, who came to dwell with us as a babe in Bethlehem, will cause his grace and peace to cover the face of this Land and bring forth peace and reconciliation among its inhabitants.

We pray that His peace will continue to flow all over the globe.

May you our friends in England rejoice in the presence of Immanuel!

God is with us!

Thank you so much for remembering us at this special time of year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Will Jesus Come Again? Making sense of Revelation

Will Jesus come again?

What is the purpose of him coming again?

What will happen when he does?

Do you really think this will happen

? on earth

? in heaven

How do you make sense of Revelation?

A timely set of questions for the third Sunday in Advent, that season in the year when we look to the coming of Jesus Christ.

Let me share my response to those questions …

I want to say a resounding yes

Jesus will come

  1. to my heart, If we have never met with this Jesus, he will come to our hearts as we invite him … O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for thee! The purpose of his coming is to give us life in all its fullness – the wonder of God’s love so transforming us as to fill us with God’s glory, his peace, his wholeness – and that is salvation! And it happens here and now – on earth for each one of us.

  1. to meet my deepest need, Whatever the problem we face, Jesus will come into our lives in order to be with us in facing that problem. He comes with a healing touch, he comes to give peace, he comes to meet our deepest needs. The purpose is that Jesus wants to be with us – carrying our burdens with us, walking through life with all its troubles with us. He comes here and now – into our world to make a difference to us. At this table we hear time and again those words of Jesus Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest … he comes to each one of us at the point of our deepest need. The purpose of his coming to us is to meet the needs we have – to be with us, to watch over us, to give us peace. And this is real, here and now.

  1. In the guise of a stranger At another level he comes to us in the guise of the stranger who is in need. Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats – Lord, when was ti that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink>? And when wsa it that we sa you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing. And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” The purpose of this coming is so that we may share God’s love in Jesus with all – and be constantly alert to show our love for Jesus in loving all around us.

  1. to take me home One reality we all share is that we will die … I love the analogy the NT uses of falling asleep and then in a twinkling of an eye we are raised – and at that point Jesus comes in all his glory, and he comes for us – he comes for each one of us. The purpose of this coming is to bring us into the glory of God’s presence – and this is where earth touches heaven. But we don’t know how or when that will happen – so we must always be alert. My grandfather’s advice to my father when he first went into the pulpit was to preach each sermon as if it were his last. That’s not bad counsel – to live each day as if it were our last. Don’t leave unfinished business with God. God wants to set things right with us – let him!

  1. to bring all things into God’s glory The world of God’s creation has a beginning and that beginning is in God – and it has an end – and that too is in God. In the beginning the Word was with God and the Word was God – and at the end – the creation will not fall into destruction – it will be taken up into God’s glory – and into the glory of Christ – and that too the NT thinks of as the coming of Christ in all his glory. What that will be like we don’t know the details, we definitely do not know the time. But we know the reality. The purpose is to give us that strength of faith that can live in the turbulent world of trouble sure in the conviction that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Book of Revelation helps me make sense of it all But some of the greatest Christian thinkers, John Calvin and Martin Luther among them have not found it a helpful book and so if that’s how you feel about it you are in good company!

Let me explain what I mean.

The Book of Revelation starts and finishes with Jesus Christ. For me Jesus Christ is the start and finish of the Christian faith. He is the Alpha and the Omega. The beginning and the end. I always want to come back to Jesus Christ, who he is, what he stands for, the difference he makes in my life, in my family in the world at large.

The Book of Revelation is written by someone who is a devout follower of Jesus but finds himself living in a world where so much has gone wrong and so much is going wrong and so much is going to carry on going wrong that he finds faith massively difficult.

It is the world of Roman domination, the world of the Kings, King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. The world of Roman persecution of the young Christian movement.

Facing the sheer awfulness of the might of Rome at its very worst, in exile on the island of Patmos, John the Divine has a vision … and the vision he has is of the horrors of the world at their most unimaginable, and yet at the same time he has a vision of the glories of God at their most mysterious. It is as if a door into heaven opens for a moment and he sees the glory of God.

It is not (and this is where I would part company) that the vision gave him a detailed time line and blow by blow advance knowledge of what would happen at the end of the world. Instead it is the kind of vision that gives him the strength to draw on the glory of God for the living of his life in the middle of the awfulness of the world around him.

Everyone who is aware of the horrors of the world around us in every generation can see something of their own world in the visions of John the Divine in the Book of Revelation. That’s because the glory of God and his victory over all evil is timeless. And we always live on the threshold of God’s glory … but so often we are surrounded by the horror of the world.

1) In the beginning, Christ

Revelation begins with Jesus in all his glory, the Jesus who invites us to follow him. The Jesus who then expects us his followers to follow in his way and to be his body on earth.

2-3) Letters to all Churches – live out your faith! Chapters 2 and 3 contain 7 letters to a cross-section of representative churches spelling out what it takes to be part of the body of Christ in church.

4-8) Glimpse God’s glory – the purpose of life! Then the door to heaven opens … and John catches a glimpse of God in his glory. It’s a wonderful celebration of the King of Kings on the throne of heaven in chapter 4 with all of heaven at worship.

Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God almighty

Who was and is and is to come.

And God has in his hand the scroll that contains the secret to life, the purpose of life and what this world is all about. But no one can open the seals!!

It was fascinating as our Alpha course came to an end to hear the range of questions people were asking when we were thinking of the church. Why is the church up against it? Why 2000 years on is there so much still wrong in the world? Why? Why? Why?

In every generation the questions remain. Who am I? What am I doing here? What is the purpose of it all?

John looks and then he sees that there is one – is it King, or is it Lamb? It is Jesus. And he is worthy to take the scroll and open the seals. For Jesus is the one whose teaching on love opens up a way for us to follow in a cruel world; Jesus is the One whose death and his resurrection show us that there is something more, that death is not the end beyond which there is nothing. Jesus is the one who shows us who we are – we are the children of God. He shows us what we should do – love God and love all, and he shows us what it’s for: so that we might have life in all its fullness, the fullness of life that is not bounded by death, but is to eternity.

One by one as the seals are open we are confronted with the brutal reality of a world of trouble, a world of violence, a world of woe. Jesus does not enable us to escape from it. But he is with us through the awfulness of all that happens.

At the opening of the seventh seal in chapter 8 there is silence in heaven.

A remarkable, wonderful stillness in the midst of the storm.

Peace! Be still!

Take heart! It is I! Do not be afraid!

9-20) The Storm

And then chapters 9 through to 20 the storm is unleashed in all manner of ways. The visions as they tumble over each other with wars and destruction and pain and suffering are almost unalleviated. To me it is telling that every generation from the very first has seen the signs of the times in their generation. This is the nature of the world we live in- this is its horror.

But, time and again, John the divine comes back to the King who is the Lamb of God, to Jesus Christ – who draws people out of the tribulation , a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and languages and they are standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white and they are saying …

Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!

That’s the thing to hold on to in the midst of all the calamities of the world. To that we can join with all heaven’s hosts and say,

Amen! Blessing and Glory and Wisdom

And thanksgiving and honour and power and might,

Be to our God forever and ever.

Who will have the last word? It is God who has the last word. It is Christ who has the last word.

Through it all … there is a vision to hold on to.

21) Beyond the Storm the ultimate peace

Revelation 21:1-7

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;

for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away,

and the sea was no more.

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem,

coming down out of heaven from God,

prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said,

‘See, I am making all things new.’

Also he said, ‘Write this,

for these words are trustworthy and true.’

Then he said to me,

‘It is done!

I am the Alpha and the Omega,

the beginning and the end.

To the thirsty I will give water

as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Those who conquer will inherit these things,

and I will be their God and they will be my children.

This is the vision to hold on to.

A vision that is filled out in all its glory.

And then it comes back to this Jesus – and all he is and all he ever will be.

Faced with the destructive forces of the world around us – hold on to this greater vision of God’s glory.

What’s the purpose of all that?

God forbid that we should ever think that because these horrors are to happen we can be involved in them and even hasten the time of God’s glory. Absolutely not!

The purpose of holding on to this vision is so that we can live in the present under the rule of God following the way of Jesus.

Remember he is the one with the secret to life. We must reject all the nastinesses of the world around us and we must live as those who are part of the Glory – we look continually to Jesus.

We live our lives in the way Jesus has mapped out.

22 At the end, Christ

No matter what the world stands for and what others do – we stand with Jesus and for Jesus and he stands with us and for us and in us too. We hear him as he says

I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star,

The Spirt and the bride say,


And let everyone who hears say,


Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.

We need to keep to the words of Christ in this book. What is written in the book of the Law, all of its words. What do you read there? Love God, love your neighbour. Pray the prayer of Jesus – Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Live out the way Jesus would have us follow.

And his testimony is this:

Surely I am coming soon.

And I certainly am drawn to say,

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come, Lord Jesus!

into my heart

to meet my deepest need

in the guise of the stranger

to take me home in the fullness of your time

to bring all things to fulfilment in God’s glory

And the last word of all is simply this. The grace of the Lord Jesus –

forget everything else, that’s what it boils down to. The free, forgiving, merciful love of God made real in Christ Jesus,

the grace of the Lord Jesus be with all of us. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Taking the Shepherds into our Everyday World

Shepherds came in for a lot of stick in all sorts of different ways in the Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

It was a bit ironic really. The whole of Jewish life found its focus through the Temple and its ritual on God. The temple could not exist without the shepherds. The fields around Bethlehem are the fields close to Jerusalem. The sheep the shepherds were looking after were the sheep required for sacrifice in the temple. Sacrificing went on in the temple all the year round. The greatest week of sacrifices came in Passover when the Passover lamb was sacrificed. – the stench of blood and carcasses must have been unbearable at times. The temple was not the place for the squeamish. Not that the meat went to waste of course – it was put to good use and eaten.

So on the one hand, the shepherds played a key part in the whole edifice of Jewish life and worship. Without the shepherds, no sheep. No sheep, no sacrifices, no Passover.

They were, if you like, the bottom tier of a big structure. And as so often happens they were also the ones people had least time for. AT the other end of the process the High Priest was looked up to, the Priests were looked up to … but the lowly shepherd. He just had a job to do.

It was actually worse than that. This is where the irony sets in.

Because of the very nature of the job the Shepherds were not able to avail themselves of the ritual cleanliness demanded by a worship focused on the Temple. They had to work all hours. They could not leave their sheep.

So it was they were treated as the lowest of the low. At best, the forgotten ones. At worst the despised ones.

It was shepherds who heard the message of the angels. It was shepherds who heard the song the angels sang. It was shepherds who went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

It was the shepherds who made known what had been told them about this child.

No wonder all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds of all people told them.

How taken aback people must have been when it was the shepherds who returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them of all people!

If the challenge of Christmas this year is to take the Christmas story into our world, into our everyday lives, the question we need to ask is … who are the shepherds?

Who are the people who at best are forgotten, at worst despised, because it is the nature of what they do that they are forgotten. They are the ones to remember not just at Christmas but the year round as well.

Think of any institution, anything around us – a work place, a piece of incredible engineering, a hospital, a school, a nation … think who is least noticed in that organisation, in the creation of that piece of work, think of the one whose task is most basic.

Our society reflects the difference – the most basic of tasks will usually be the lowest paid, and then that will rise to the most important and significant of tasks being the highest paid.

How does the Christmas story of the shepherds impact on that. One way it might is to challenge the highly paid to remember they couldn’t be where they are without the low paid and so to give freely, with a generous heart. Where as Christian people we have an opportunity to shape things in our society should we not call in question excessive pay at one end of the scale and the need to re-dress the balance at the other? Should there be a taxation system that re-distributes wealth and reflects the value of the lowest as well as the value of the highest in society? These are questions the Christmas story of the shepherds prompts us to ask.

Today’s the day to pose the most challenging of questions people have put into the box.

How is it OK for me or anyone else in our church to have more money and possessions than enough when others are in poverty?

A year ago we were supporting the Shepherd Society – that arm of the Bethlehem Bible College that seeks to bring relief to people in and around Bethlehem who have no social security system to fall back on and very little employment to survive on. It is telling that the Bethelehm Bible College chose to name its relief work after the Shepherds of Bethlehem.

The story of the Bethlehem shepherds works at another level too.

And one we don’t tend to notice. Bethelehem was as the carol suggests Royal David’s City. It was in those same fields around Bethlehem that the smallest, youngest son of Jesse was found watching over the sheep when he was found by Samuel and anointed king.

400 years later when the kingdom had fallen to the Babylonians and the people were in exile the prophet Ezekiel looked back on the record of those who had ruled in Israel and Judah … and he found those rulers wanting. He speaks of the rulers as shepherds and his words are an indictment against their neglect

You are doomed, you shepherds of Israel! You take care of yourselves but never tend the sheep. You dink the milk, wear clothes made from the wool and kill and eat the finest sheep. But you never tend the sheep. You have not taken care of the weak ones, healed those that are sick, bandaged those that are hurt, brought back those that wandered off, or looked for those that were lost. Instead you treated them cruelly.

Ezekiel sees the rule of God quite differently. He looks to the time when the rule of God with its concern for the weak, the sick, the hurting and the lost will be made real by one who truly will be The Good Shepherd.

Ezekiel 34:11-24 - The Good Shepherd

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

And Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd …

Accept the rule of God in Christ Jesus in our hearts and our homes and that will give us a set of priorities that is quite clear:

Our call is to look for those that are lost

To bandage those that are hurt

And heal those that are sick

To do what is right.

The Christmas story as it focuses on shepherds invites us to consider again the priorities in our own lives, the commitment we have to those in need, and are concern for those who are hurting in a damaged world.

We are prompted to think about our giving at Christmas – this year’s Christmas collection, Steps for Stephanie, to enable Rose’s grand daughter Steph to have the kind of aids and helps that will enable her when she is able to spend time with her mother at home.

We each will think of other charities we support.

Is this something that should not just be done in a happenstance way. Should there be a kind of planning in the giving that we make.

We encourage within the church family Planned Giving through our TRIO scheme: the responsibility is ours. That invites us to commit to giving 5% of our available income to the church. Why 5% - that is actually based on the biblical principle of a tithe. One tenth. But that’s 10%. The idea behind the TRIO scheme is that because it invites people to plan their giving in – when times are difficult then giving is as we are able. But it is good to plan. The other 5% is on the basis that we will give to other charities. The possibility of planning.

One interesting way is through the Charities Aid Foundation – whereby you can gift aid a regular sum into an account. You then have a cheque book to draw on that account and contribute to the charities you wish to support.

Planned giving to the wider good.

I fear the question remains …

How is it OK for me or anyone else in our church to have more money and possessions than enough when others are in poverty?

Maybe the final thought to share in response to this challenging question is that it prompts us to consider again our life-style. As the world’s leaders gather in Copenhagen to consider responses to climate change the reality is that whatever is decided impacts on each one of us and the way we lead our lives. The proper response is for each of us to consider the life-style we follow. The challenge is that we seek enough and not excess – what a difference it would make if we started to consider that!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Be an Angel for Advent

It’s just not me!

I guess it’s the wings that wind me up!

They look just a little bit too like fairies … and I don’t believe in fairies!

So I don’t have much time for angels.

And maybe that’s a pity!

After all … they have nothing to do with fairies, and not much to do with wings either for that matter!

And someone’s asked the question … and today seemed a good day to offer a response!

After all, today is Advent Sunday, and in the Christmas story angels figure large. Not least in the newly released film Nativity!

He's quite some Gabriel!

But who was the Gabriel who announced the wonderful Good news of the coming of Jesus to Mary? Nicky, one of our church members reads the story. Click here to listen to Mary at Home!

In the Greek world the word angellos was used simply for the messenger, the ambassador in human affairs, who speaks and acts in the place of the one who has sent him.” Dictionary of NT Theology Vol 1 page 101 Article by H Bietenhard

In the Old Testament there are two contrasting views of angels

  1. there are angels who are heavenly beings, members of the LORD’s court, who serve and praise him (Job 1:6, Isa 6:2) – sometimes they are called holy ones, strong ones, heroes, sons of God, heavenly beings. They were in at creation, they mediate revelation
  2. and then there are the destroying angels, the destroyer, the ministers of death
  3. the cherubim are special kinds of angels who show traits of both men and animals, and the seraphim who are the ones who do have 6 wings! Maybe that’s where the wings come from.

Not so common in the older books, they are spoken of more and more in the later books of the Old Testament, and in Judaism just before the time of Christ they are spoken of a lot.

They create in the mind’s eye a sense of the awesome majesty and wonder of God. They are always less than God. They are always linked to the Revelation and the wonder of God.

All of those ideas are carried over into the New Testament.

Half a dozen times angels are simply ordinary people carrying a message from someone. For the most part they have that heavenly sense and carry a message from God.

Always they are an expression of God, an outflowing of God, where angels are spoken of God is not far away – think this is really something special coming from God.

As Christmas approaches and we read those Christmas stories in Luke’s gospel we are not to be drawn to the angels – the angels in those stories draw us always to God and to Christ. Mary hears the words of the angel – and she knows what is happening is of God. The shepherds see the heavenly host – the whole mass of heavenly beings – and the whole point is that the message is of God and points towards Christ.

Think angels and then immediately be drawn closer and closer to God.

Three things about angels I want to take away with me …

First, Angels bring the message of Christmas from God. We are called to carry that message into our world. What we want to do this year is to take Christmas into the world and see what a difference it will make. Do take a bundle of cards – and take the message into the world around the church! Take to heart the angels’ song, take to heart the angel’s message – and be an angel – take the message out into the world you live in.

Second, on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Joanne Moston, our Roman Catholic guide, started each day as soon as everyone was on the bus with a prayer to the Guardian Angels to look after us on our travels. That’s not me! But at Highbury I inherited a custom from Clifford Small – on every church coach trip since the first one I took in Clifford’s company I have always prayed a prayer of blessing at the start of our journey and at its close.

It became comical on our Ecumenical Pilgrimage as Joanne would say her prayer to the Guardian Angels and hand the microphone to me for me to say my good, Protestant prayer in Jesus’ name seeking a blessing on our journeying. And we had a double blessing each day!!

But Matthew 18:10 has that wonderful thought that once I had no time for, but now have more time for … Jesus is talking about taking great care of little children. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” What a wonderful thought – each of us has in heaven an angel looking out for us – a guardian angel. A touching thought. But the point of that is actually not to direct us to the guardian angels in heaven. But it makes us think differently about each and every little child, and for that matter each and ever individual we encounter – we should always remember that they each have their angels looking out for them, looking in the face of God. That means we must care for each with an extra special care.

That thought is then finally developed in Hebrews chapter 13 – Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

If you are fascinated by angels – don’t get too engrossed. Look through the angels to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. But this verse suggests that we need to show kindness and give help and offer hospitality to complete strangers – for we may well be entertaining angels unawares. That’s a wonderful thought.

Be an angel and take the message of Christmas into the world.

Remember everyone has angels looking out for them so respect and honour each person, not least those littlest ones.

And finally help strangers and entertain angels unawares.

Earlier in our service Graham Ledger had introduced us to Street Pastors, to be launched in Cheltenham on Saturdya, 5th December. He had shown us a video of the work of Street Pastors. To see that video click here: Street Pastors take to the streets. To learn more about the launch of Street Pastors in Cheltenham click on the picture below.

Graham and co had the vision for Street Pastors in Cheltenham.

It was a vision needing to be owned by the churches.

And so the church leaders group that meets regularly was given a presentation by a friend who recently moved to Stonehouse from Watford. In Watford the vision had been to help people on the streets in the night time … and in the day time as well.

They had an initiative. Just the same.

But with a different name.

They called their initiative. Angels.

That’s the heart of our Street Pastor Scheme.

Not so much in taking the message of Christ and of God – that’s not what it’s about.

Rather – each of those people on the streets has their angels looking into the face of God and need our honour and respect.

And as Christians our task is to help the stranger – for in doing that we may well be entertaining angels unawares.

It is not so much that the Street Pastors are the Angels – rather that the person in need may well be the angel the Street Pastor meets, and everyone of those people whose needs they seek to help has their angels looking out for them and so is infinitely precious in the sight of God.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Remembrance Sunday

On Wednesday it was announced that the papers of Siegfried Sassoon had been saved for the nation and would be housed in Cambridge University. It was a reminder of that great tradition of war poetry that came from the First World War … the likes of Siegried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, struggling with the scale of the horror of war.

I found myself that afternoon speaking to HyWay. My mind went naturally to the weekend we had spent re-visiting old haunts in Shrophire where for eight years we had ministered to the Congregational churches of Pontesbury and Minsterley. We had enjoyed a weekend visiting our old churches, many old friends and exploring the beautiful, if little known, countryside of the Shropshire Hills and in particular the Stiperstones.

I told something of the story of Mary Webb, novelist and poet who lived in and loved the countryside all around those two villages. It was not only the men who had fought on the front in the first world war who wrote moving poems of the awfulness of what was unfolding. Mary Webb’s poetry of the war didn’t make it into the collections published immediately after the war, they make moving reading. As does one of her finest novels. Ostensibly Gone to Earth is a novel by a lover of the countryside and of all nature of the horrors of fox hunting. Written in 1916, however, it is also about the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man as it was witnessed in the awfulness of war. Indeed on one day alone, as she was writing, 1st July 20,000 British soldiers were killed, 40,000 wounded.

On Wednesday we reeled from the news that five soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. And since Wednesday we are horror struck at the rising death toll. A different scale, but for those families, for those who were wounded, the same sheer awfulness of war.

Today we have observed the two minutes silence and remembered all those who lost their lives in war and honoured their memory by re-committing ourselves to the search for peace.

And closer to home this week we have touched sadness and troubled lives.

It is at the end of a week like this I find myself asking what is the point? How do we cope in such a troubled world? How do we get through?

I find helpful pointers to a response to those questions in Romans chapter 8.

As a wonderful find of letters at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s wall shows – people supported each other by letter during the days of the Roman Empire.

Romans 8 is part of a real letter written by Paul to a Christian community in Rome that at times is up against it, living as it does in the sometimes hostile atmosphere of the Emperor Nero’s Rome. What Paul is doing as he writes is offering support to people who feel very much on their own and who need encouragement and support from outside their own situation.

That’s my first observation. There are occasions when we need to support each other, we need to acknowledge our own need of help from one another. That is the strength of an occasion such as Remembrance Sunday.

In the first part of our service we read out names of young people associated with our church who died in the wars of the 20th Century and in Iraq in the 21st Century. We also honoured two of our older members. Gwen had worked in Bletchley Park as part of the code-breaking team. She was one of those surviving members of that remarkable group of people who only a couple of months ago were awarded a medal in honour of their service to their country.

We also heard from Vic who shared his memories of his own service during the war years.

You can listen to Vic's recollections on YouTube by clicking on this link. Vic Remembers for Remembrance Sunday

It was moving to hear Vic’s memories, to be reminded in my generation of what an earlier generation experienced not all that long before I was born. It was moving to be reminded how real the sadnesses within those memories are, and how important this Remembrance Sunday is – a moment not for solitary remembering, but for shared remembrance and support.

The very act of writing letters to Christian communities, especially such a one as this in Rome that were struggling with their own circumstances, is an act of solidarity, a recognition of the need to support each other.

Paul offers an insight into what’s going on that for him helps to make sense of a suffering world. It isn’t something that answers all those unanswerable questions. But it is an insight that he holds on to and that gives him hope.

Paul takes seriously the awfulness of the suffering there is in the world. He sees around him a world that is, ‘subjected to futility’, in ‘bondage to decay’. But he is convinced that no matter how great the awfulness of the world and its agony the goodness of the love of God is greater and will ultimately prevail. He uses the analogy of the labour pains of child birth – to suggest that out of all the agony and pain and suffering of the world, something better will come.

Paul’s reaction to a world of sometimes horrific suffering was not to give up on his faith on God, but to renew that sense of faith in God in the conviction that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’.

‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ he asks. Will hardship, or distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

That is the hope Paul holds on to. And he is the first to acknowledge that it is hope. In the middle of the awfulness of the Rome that Christian community were living in it was hard to see. In the middle of the awfulness of the 20th Century wars, or for that matter the wars of the 21st Century it is almost impossible to see. But Paul is quite blunt: ‘in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’

By writing his letter in these terms Paul captures why being part of church is so fundamentally important to being a Christian. There are some circumstances when it is impossible to go it alone. We need the support of one another. That’s what we are doing precisely at this moment, and in the whole life we share together here at Highbury. We support each other here in the context of this church … as we hold on to our conviction that the ultimate victory of God’s good is assured and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are two things that we can then do. First, is to pray. All of us are supported by prayer … but the reality is in the middle of the awfulness of no end of circumstances prayer doesn’t come easily.

The words of prayer ring hollow, as Shakespeare explores only too powerfully as the tragedy of Hamlet unfolds …

My words go up, my thoughts remain below,

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

The genius of Paul’s writing in this, so supportive letter to that underground group of Christians in Rome, is that he recognises precisely this weakness, and how vulnerable it makes you feel.

It is precisely at the point at which our human frailty gets the better of us, hope eludes us and we feel at our most vulnerable, that we have a strength from beyond ourselves that we can draw on. It is in this chapter as Paul touches on the awfulness of suffering in an agonising world that he refers to the Spirit of God more frequently than in any other chapter.

It is at this precise moment of weakness and vulnerability, that ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness.’

Paul knows exactly how it feels when the words of prayer fail us.

At that moment, ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray a we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit.’


It is so vitally important.

But prayer is at its most powerful, when it feels as if we have lost the ability to pray and words fail us. It is at that moment that in our groaning, in our sighing, God’s Spirit takes over the praying for us … and God knows our innermost thoughts … and God is there to sustain us and to see is through.

We support each other.

We all of us are supported by prayer.

And then we need to take a leaf out of Paul’s book, or rather out of his letter. As we receive such help, we need, in turn, to offer help to others as well. Is there a letter of encouragement we could do with writing? Maybe it needs writing. Or a word of encouragement we can share with someone else … we need to share it.

We support each other.

We all of us are supported by prayer.

And we are all called to share in the service of other people.

We’ll give the last word to Vic …

To hear Vic's memories of what followed on after the war and his life-time of service click on this link: Vic Remembers a Life-time of Service

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light