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!

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