Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Unexpected Result - our Christmas Day Celebration

Our Christmas service followed on from our Advent theme and focused on the Unexpectedness of Christmas, and in particular, the Unexpected Result of Christmas.

Christmas Greetings

597      O come all ye faithful

The Unexpected Result – our Christmas Candle

Lighting the Christmas Candle

We light our Christmas candle
And think of the unexpected result
Of the birth of a baby who grew to a man
Who would have thought it
For the one born to be King?
No life of regal splendour
But a life lived with those no one else
Had time for.
A life lived for other people.
A life that seemingly ended in tragedy
Yet opened up life in all its fullness
For all of us to share.

John 1:1-5 and 14 – the Congregation

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

Reading:  Luke 2:1-7 – Pete

At that time the Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria. 3 Everyone, then, went to register himself, each to his own town.
4 Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, the birthplace of King David. Joseph went there because he was a descendant of David. 5 He went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant, 6 and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. 7 She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger — there was no room for them to stay in the inn.

A New Nativity by Alan Tichmarsh – Caroline

A New Nativity.
by Alan Titchmarsh.
When all those long, long years ago a child came down to earth below,
To save the likes of you and me from evil, harm and misery,
Do you suppose that even then, there were some doubting, heedless men
Who, rather than believe the word, just turned their backs and never heard?

You see, today we all recall, the baby in the ox's stall.
The ass, the stables, shepherds, Kings, - all ancient, rural, rustic things.
But what if, here, this very night, it happened....on the Isle of Wight
Would we rejoice and all be merry? Would we dash off and catch the ferry?

If Christ was born in Walthamstow, would builders drop there tools and go?
Would Wapping printers stop their presses?  Would supermodels ditch their dresses?

In Hampshire and in rural Kent, would shepherds, by an angel sent
Walk miles to see a newborn child, whose mother, unmarried, although mild
Had given birth to a baby boy, not at the Dorchester or Savoy,
But in a garage, there's the rub, round the back of the local pub.

And yet I like to think that we, despite the e-mail and DVD
Would know to go, when star shone bright, and make that journey through the night
To see the child who saves the world, in some old oil drum safely curled.
The nativity for the Millenium.  Would anyone out there like to come?

72        Away in a manger

Unexpected Presents

Greeting from Stefan and Birgit

Christmas Greetings

Sermon – The Unexpected Result

When the unexpected happens it can fill you with fear and trepidation, it can be pretty scary.

Mary did not expect to be expecting a baby: she was frightened.

Joseph did not expect to take on the responsibility of a father: it was scary.

Joseph and Mary did not expect to have to make the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem: it was frightening

Joseph and Mary did not expect to have to make do with the squalor of an unexpected stable: it filled them with fear

The Wise Men did not expect to have to take special measures to avoid the clutches of a King Herod determined to do away with the Christ child: Herod’s power and his abuse of power was terrifying

Mary and Joseph did not expect to have to flee south from Bethlehem and escape across the border to become refugees in Egypt for a matter of years.  It was a frightening time.

Think back a year to the last Christmas and in that time unexpected things have happened … not a few of them have been pretty scary.

A year ago who  would have expected the Arab Spring to have happened?  Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria – democracy coming to countries over-run by dictatorship.  But it has been a time filled with fear for Christian communities throughout the middle east.  Prayer requests come from so many Christians in each of those countries who are facing persecution in a way they have not faced before.

And then things that have happened very much closer to home – someone taken ill: I wasn’t expecting that.  Uncertainties at work, issues in the home, someone very close who has died.  I wasn’t expecting that to happen.

How do you cope with the unexpected that is so scary and troubling?

Two thoughts contained in two words that for me are particularly special this Christmas.

Of all the words I associate with Christmas, of all the words that crop up in the Christmas story, there is one long word that I want to hold on to.  It seems to me to be the word that speaks directly into all the fears that come when the unexpected happens.

It is the word, Emmanuel.

It sounds like a name.  But it is a name with meaning.  And it s the meaning of the name that is all important in the face of the unexpected.

Emmanuel means ‘God is with us’.

That’s not just a conviction to hold on to in the face of everything that goes wrong.  The point of Christmas is that it is a reality that is there, come what may, even when we feel it not to be so.

God is with us.  That’s what comes across in the prayer letters that come from the Middle East – it is the promise that shines out of the Christmas letter from Alex Awad and his congregation in East Jerusalem and his college in Bethlehem.  It is what shines out in the prayer letters that I receive from Middle East Concern.

God is with us.

How can we know that to be true?

That’s where my second word comes into play.  It’s my favourite word.  The word ‘serendipity’.  The joy of discovering the unexpected unexpectedly.   The Christmas story is full of serendipitous moments.  Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men, the Shepherds – they all were in totally frightening situations.  But in the fear, quite unexpectedly, they had a sense of the reality of God with them, the reality that God is with us.  Wonderful, serendipitous, God moments.

When I wrote about my favourite word in Highbury News I had a response from Peter Petrie, one of our evening congregation.  He had been digging into the derivation of the word ‘serendipity’.  It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 when he recounted a tale form the East of the Three Princes of Serendip,  Serendip the land once known as Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.   On their travels, Horace Walpole recounts, the three princes were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.

What fascinated Peter was the number of scientific discoveries that have been made as a result of ‘serendipity’.  Indeed it is a commonplace term in the history of science.  Maybe a Christmas quiz is to list scientific discoveries made unexpectedly.   You might include penicillin, the microwave oven, Teflon!

The point Peter made in his email to me, however, was an interesting one.  Though they appear to have been discoveries made by accident.  Something else was involved as well.  Each of the people responsible had the wisdom to recognise that something special had happened.

Serendipitous things happen and you have the joy of discovering the unexpected unexpectedly when ‘accident and sagacity’ are both involved.  Chance and wisdom.

That’s the other observation I want to make for Christmas.  Maybe the Christmas story should encourage us to seek the kind of wisdom that will recognise the God moment when it comes.  And that is something we can work at.

Putting yourself in a position where you are exposed to thinking about God, thoughts of God, in the pages of the Bible.  Prayer and praying have their part to play – those Christians facing persecution in the Middle East share that with us constantly, I pray for you each night, was said to me only on Friday, by someone who is not able to get out and do a great deal – but it meant the world to me as they shared that thought.  It reminds me to look out for the God moment that comes unexpectedly.

One other thing – it is as we step out of a concern simply for ourselves and step into a concern for other people that maybe, we shall encounter God unawares.  To love another person is to see the face of God.

From the squalor of a borrowed stable

Prayers of Concern

85        Good Christians all rejoice

Words of Blessing

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Unexpected Christmas Story

Sunday 18th December Service The Unexpected Christmas Story

Each Sunday of  Advent has been unexpected!  The unexpected gift, the unexpected guest, the unexpected route, and today the unexpected Christmas story.  Carolyn Tennant, our children's worker, explored the unexpected twists and turns of the Nativity with our children.

Young child welcomes everyone to the service!

·        That was unexpected ... but lovely!

Welcome and News of the Church Family.

An opening prayer and verse from theBible.

59 Hark the herald angels sing

CT- We probably all like stories. Bethany and Abigail like fairy stories and they are going to come up now with Helen who is going to read us one of her favourites.

(Helen sits on chair, children dressed as princesses sit comfortably on floor and Helen reads)

As she finishes, CT steps in;

·        That wasn’t what I was expecting! (asks the girls and has brief conversation about the expected ending to the story)

·        It just goes to show, you have to listen very carefully even if you THINK you know a story so well. When we’ve heard a story lots of times we can stop listening. We’re no longer surprised by it. We know what to expect, or at least we think we do.

·        The Christmas story can be a bit like that. We are going to re-tell the story and think about the surprises God had in store.

Nativity Play with Open the book. (includes ‘Little Donkey’, ‘Away in a manger’ and finishes with ‘Come and join the celebration’.)

·        Presents to open.

Choose child to come and open each present, one at a time.

1.      Baby doll
God chose to be born as a baby. He couldn’t do anything for himself. He wanted to identify with us totally. He relied on his parents. It’s perhaps not how you would have chosen to plan it if you were God. It’s a risky strategy.

But, how perfect! Right from the beginning, God loved to turn things upside down and challenge everything we think we know so well. As Jesus grew up, he taught strange things like ‘the first shall be last and the last shall be first’ and he said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth’. So, really it was the perfect plan to come into this world as a powerless baby.

1.      Teenage things- hoody, magazine, i-pod, make-up?

You might have thought that God would have chosen someone famous or special to be Jesus’ mother. Mary was probably only 12 or 13. How would you have felt? People were unkind to her when they found out. Again, God does the unexpected thing and chooses someone ordinary for this most extraordinary job. God chooses ordinary people even when we might think there’s someone better for the job. But again, this is the perfect plan. There are no worldly trappings to confuse the purity of his purpose.

2.    Toy crib

God’s choice of birth place would probably not be ours! A hospital, a luxury hotel, Marks and Spencers maybe, but not a noisy, smelly, uncomfortable stable with no privacy, surely! Remember how the so called wise men went first to a palace to find the baby. They weren’t thinking God’s way yet. Again, God does the unexpected and makes it perfect. Not perfect in luxury but perfect in plan. ‘lest none should boast’ ring the words of the bible. Jesus came humbly into the world with no trace of corruption of wealthy start in life.

3.    Co-op funeral voucher in gift voucher card

Oh! I wasn’t expecting that! And I’m sure Mary and Joseph found it very strange to receive gold, frankincense and myrrh as gifts for their new baby. These presents show how the wise men DID know what they were looking for though;
Gold for a king,
Frankincense for worship
And myrrh for death.
God wasn’t afraid to hold new life and death in his hands at the same time. It is his remarkable and perfect plan.

A Hy-Spirit Christmas Song

Prayers including Christmas Lord’s Prayer written by Transformers and read by Grace and Andi.  The children's club we share with our friends from St Luke's, Transformers, has been looking at the Lord's Prayer for the last term.  This is a special version of the Lord's Prayer written by our Transformers for Christmas.

A Lord’s Prayer for Christmas

Our Saviour who art in the manger
Hallowed be thy son.

Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done with humans as with angels.

Thank you for all the food we have at Christmas, Give to the poor so we can ALL have Christmas food like turkey and mince pies.

Forgive us our greediness,
And cleanse us from wrong

And carry your forgiveness through the world

Help us not to be tempted to open any presents or calendar doors too early Or to steal things or do things we are not meant to do And lead us not into spoiltness Or spoiling surprises for other people.

Keep us safe when traveling
And keep us from bad things

Help us remember that Jesus is king and he is God’s son Not just at Christmas but forever and ever


Dinner table set up with one chair, fancy place setting and cloche covering meal.

Ask for volunteer to come to dinner, on condition they will eat whatever is served.

Seat the child, napkin etc.

Reveal the dish- tin of cat food!

·        I wasn’t expecting that!

Better open it up and eat it though as you promised! (read label etc., hope you like fish etc.!)

Open tin to reveal chocolates!

·        Well, I wasn’t expecting that! That was much better than you expected!
God planned things at Christmas that no-one expected, they were even better.

We can get so comfortable and familiar with the Christmas story and with coming to church that it stops having an impact.

Let’s pray that we will be surprised, challenged and overjoyed by what God is saying to us this Christmas when we understand God is with us – Emmanuel.

Carol:  See him lying on a bed of straw

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Unexpected Route

On the third Sunday of Advent we had a Sunday Special that started at 9-00 in the morning as our youngsters met for breakfast and some fun and games.  They made an unexpected journey that took them around the district looking for things that began with each letter of the word Christmas.

They then joined us in church as we explored the theme of 'Unexpected Journeys'

Carolyn Tennant, our Children's Worker then shared these reflections.

The theme of our service is ‘The unexpected Journey’.

If you have ever used a Sat-Nav, you will probably have your own unexpected journey stories to tell!

Have a look at this light hearted clip about the not-so wise men…

Show ‘Sat-nav-tivity’
We’ll be coming back to their story later.

(Children to the front.)
The children who came for their breakfast this morning have made an unexpected journey themselves.
Can you tell us about it?
(What was unexpected about it? Where did you go? How did you decide where to go? How did you find your way back? Did you have any other jobs to do on the way?)

Children sit down, readers remain.

In the Christmas Story, the people involved had to make many different journeys. These weren’t fun holiday type journeys. They weren’t exciting adventurous trips that had been months in planning. Sometimes the people had to leave in a hurry and think quickly about what they might need and travel light. I think it’s true to say none of the journeys was planned and most were reluctant travellers.
Let’s listen to the story as the children tell it now.

Unexpected Christmas Journeys

1.      Luke 2:1-7
When Mary was expecting her baby, everyone was ordered to go and register in their own towns. So, Joseph and Mary had to make an unexpected journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem where the baby was born.

2.    Luke 2:8-20
Some shepherds were spending the night watching their sheep in the fields. An angel came to them and the glory of God shone over them. The angel told them not to be afraid and said they should go and see the new baby. So it was that the shepherds made an unexpected journey and Mary and Joseph and saw the baby lying in the manger.  They rushed back praising God every step of the way.

3.    Matthew 2:1-12
Some men who studied the stars travelled from the east expecting to find the baby in Jerusalem.  King Herod wanted to trap the new born baby, so the wise men journeyed on, following a star and finally they found the baby and gave him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They had to make an unexpected journey home by another route as God had warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod.

4.    Matthew 2:13-15
After the wise men left, an angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him to go and take Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt to keep them safely away from Herod and his plans. So Joseph had to make another unexpected journey in the night with his family.

5.    Matthew 2:19-23
After Herod died, an angel came to Joseph in another dream and told him to take Mary and Jesus back to Israel. So up he got and travelled again. But when Joseph heard that Archelaus was the new king, he was frightened of going through Judea.   God told him in another dream to go to Galilee and so one last unexpected journey took the family back to Nazareth.  There Jesus grew strong in body and wise in spirit.  And the grace of God was on him.

I hope you spotted all the journeys.

You might think that it was an odd idea for God to make Christmas happen like that.

Do you think you could have organized it better and made it easier?

We might feel like that in our own lives.

Unexpected things happen.

Things change and we have to change our routes and our plans sometimes.
This might involve moving house or school, friends moving away, having new teachers or dealing with the disappointment of an event we used to enjoy, no longer running.

For the adults, we learn that life is full of adaptations and we constantly need to review and re-work our ‘world maps’.

I was fascinated when I first read ‘The Road Less Travelled’.
Scott Peck writes,

 ‘Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.’

He goes on at length to explore how we need to constantly revise our maps all our lives, continuing to learn and embracing new information and ideas in order to keep our maps true.

Things change and we have to take a different route.
How do we cope?
We are going to hear how we can help in people’s lives through the work of CCP which helps people to deal with changing circumstances.

God doesn’t change.
But that doesn’t mean he’s dull or boring!
He has strange and unexpected plans for our life journeys!
What we know is that we can trust him.
He has the master plan and writes all the maps.

Later in the service Dave and Al who, together with Matt, grew up at Highbury and now work for County Community Projects spoke about the work CCP does in Cheltenham.  CCP is our Christmas collection and we are collecting food parcels each week.  This video gives a graphic glimpse of the kind of work CCP does.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Where Love is, God is

I grew up with two sets of Christmas stories.

I grew up with the stories built around the accounts of the birth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and Luke’s Gospel.  We will be reading those stories as advent unfolds and Christmas approaches … and we’ll be telling them again to the children in all sorts of different settings.

The other set of Christmas stories I grew up with were stories about the Christ child, tales that go to the heart of what the Christian faith is all about.

Of those stories, the tale of Martin, the Cobbler has been one of my favourites ever since I first heard it as a little one, told in the way I told it to the children today.

I think of it as a children’s story, beautifully re-told in lavishly illustrated children’s books, in glorious animations too.

It was a long time before I realised it was not written as a children’s story.

My father’s signature is on the inside of the front cover of a well-worn volume LXXII of ‘The World’s Classics’.  Twenty-three tales by Tolstoy.  There’s a book mark at Tale number 7.  The title was not so familiar to me, and yet it is a title that goes to the heart of the Christian faith for me.

Where love is, God is.

In a certain town there lived a cobbler, Martin Adveich by name.

Straightaway the story draws you into that basement with a single window through which all the cobbler can see are the boots of the passers by.

By the second paragraph of the story, it becomes very much bleaker than any of the children’s adaptations I have read.  There’s a theatre company doing the rounds at the moment that re-visits children’s fairy stories and re-tells them as they were originally told with a darkness that makes for very adult theatre.  The Knee High theatre company.  They could have a field day with Tolstoy’s tale.

It was while he was still apprenticed to his trade as a cobbler, working for a Master, that his wife died, ‘leaving him with a three year old son.  None of his elder children had lived, they had all died in infancy.’

He thought of sending his son away, maybe to his sister’s.  But then determined to look after him on his own.  And that meant being on his own.  He had to leave his master and go into lodgings.

And then the unthinkable happened.

“No sooner had the boy reached an age when he could help his father and be a support as well as a joy to him, than he fell ill and, after being laid up for a week with a burning fever, died.  Martin buried his son, and gave way to despair, so great and overwhelming that he murmured against God.”

There is a depth of despair in Martin’s soul that is dark, so dark it is without a glimmer of hope.  His prayer is simply that he should die.  He loses his faith.

“After that Martin left off going to church.”

Carolyn was telling us at our Deacons meeting that she had been to a Care For the Family Day on the very subject that we have very much as a focus for the work that Carolyn is doing - 'How to get your kids through church without them ending up hating God!' That’s a big challenging question.  At our church Meeting on Thursday, 5th January we are going to do things very differently – and give those who would like to have a conversation with Carolyn the opportunity to dig more deeply with her into this big issue.

Thee is something that resonates with Martin’s plight in Tolstoy’s tale.   One thing that puts people off church is what goes on not just in a troubled world, but in the troubled lives people lead.   Where is God in all of this?

What do you do in this moment of anguish and rage.

Martin has an unexpected guest.  What is wonderful about this unexpected guest is that he is willing simply to listen to Martin.  In the depths of his despair, it’s what Martin needs.

“Martin opened his heart to him, and told him of his sorrow … I no longer wish to live … I am now quite without hope in the world.”

It was great to hear that Neil and Lorraine contacted Richard Atkins on his Sunday morning programme and got in a good plug for Highbury.  I happened on a very moving interview he did with Malc Allen, Chaplain to the Robins and Garth, a member of the Samaritans.  They were discussing the impact the sad news of Gary  Speed had had in the footballing world.  As the interview came to an end it was moving to hear the ever ebullient Richard Atkins describing the way he had suffered from depression ever since he had been twelve or thirteen.  He spoke of the way in which so many men refuse to open up about their depression, and spoke of the way in which it was so important to do just that.

It was moving hearing him tell his own story – the experience many of us share testifies to just how true those words of Richard’s were this morning.

Christmas is a time when depression can so easily overtake many.  All sorts of triggers are around.  It is a time when the darkness of this kind of despair can become overwhelming.

In some ways it is simply the willingness of the old man to listen that counts.

The old man who is willing to listen has a wisdom about him that stops Martin in his tracks.

He wonders aloud, as to your despair that comes because you wish to live for your own happiness.

Now I will be the first to acknowledge that tales like this have their weakness.  They are written to make a point.  And sometimes the point they make is unbearably simplistic.  I want to take issue with Tolstoy when he puts into the mouth of this wise old man the thought that all that happens is God’s will.  I actually think that dreadful things that happen cut across God’s will.  It’s not so much that he must will them … but rather my conviction would be that God can bring out of the greatest calamity something more – there is nowhere so dark that God’s light cannot come.

Simplistic explanations often have grains of truth in them.

And for me there is a grain of truth here.

One of what I would think would be many causes of all kinds of despair is that we have built up a culture where the pursuit of happiness means everything.  It doesn’t really matter what happens so long as I can be happy.  One of the things we are being brought face to face with is that the relentless pursuit of happiness is something that can be self-defeating.

Martin has indeed followed that path.  He has drowned his sorrows on more than one occasion to find relief from his pain in an all too transitory happiness.  What else is there but to live for happiness and well-being?

“What else should one live for?” asked Martin.

“For God, Martin,” said the old man.

In many ways it’s simplistic.

But that’s a choice.

What is the purpose of life.  To seek happiness?

Or is life to be lived ‘for God’.

A big choice.

But what does that mean?  All very well to speak of living life for God.  But it’s not very helpful.

That’s exactly Martin’s problem.

Live for God … this is the antidote to your despair.

Martin was silent awhile, and then asked:  “But how is one to live for God?”

I like the response the old man gives.

The old man answered: “How one may live for God has been shown us by Christ.  Can you rad?  Then buy the Gospels and read them; there you will see how God would have your live.  You have it all there.”

“These words sank deep into Martin’s heart, and that same day he went and bought himself a Testament in large print, and began to read.”

So often faced with a crisis of faith, in the face of the depths of despair we want to rail at God, we want to sort God out, we want to ask where God can be in all of this.

You don’t get so far.

Instead look to Jesus … and see God.  To look to Jesus read the Gospels.

A good gospel to start with is Mark – it’s the shortest, and it packs in a lot of the action of Jesus’ life.  There’s no time for the stories around the birth of Jesus, Mark wants to get on with it.  John the Baptist heralds the arrival of Jesus who has the simplest of messages,  God’s rule is breaking into the world,  now’s the time to start all over again, believe the Good news.  Fishermen follow him, and he makes his base in the home of Simon Peter.  And from there he travels the countryside with a simple message and bringing healing into people’s lives.

Then there’s a twist in the story – indeed there are three stories in quick succession of very unlikely people Jesus helps.  First someone suffering from leprosy – Jesus’ reaction to the illness he sees is on the one hand to be angry, and then to have compassion.  He breaks all the taboos and touches that man.  It is a most unexpected encounter.

  Next is someone who is paralysed – and Jesus treats him just like everyone else – no different, you might have thought his biggest need was physically healing.  Not so, for Jesus.  He’s no different from any of the rest of us.  He needs something deep down in his spirit to assure him of the love of God.  It’s the high-up people form Jerusalem who are tasked with making sure the law is copied out fully and accurately to every last ritual detail who are up in arms about what Jesus shares – only God can bring that kind of forgiveness.  For good measure Jesus brings healing to that man as well.   It is an unexpected moment.

And the third tale to tell is of someone who is in hock to the oppression of the Roman power – a tax collector.  Not only does Jesus welcome this most unexpected of people as one of his band of disciples, but he also spends the evening eating and partying with his friends.  An unexpected guest.

Martin’s thoughts turn to no end of people Jesus helped in unexpected ways.  His eye falls on the sermon on the mount.

He is moved by what he sees … but not convinced. 

Then Martin laid his head upon both his arms and, before he was aware of it, he fell asleep.

“Martin!” he suddenly heard a voice, as if  someone had breathed the word above his ear.

“He started from his sleep.  “Who’s there?” he asked.

He turned round and locked the door; no one was there.  He called again.  Then he heard quite distinctly: “Martin, martin!  Look out into the street to-morrow, for I shall come.”

The next day, not sure whether this had been a dream or not, he feels something is going to happen.  Jesus is going to come to him – the ultimate unexpected guest.

And as the day unfolds he is disappointed – Stepanitch, the old soldier is glad of the tea Martin makes as he comes in from the cold of sweeping the snow.

The mother in summer clothes with a babe in arms is so pleased with the cabbage soup … and goes away with a warm cloak for herself and her child.

And the old woman and the young lad – he could have ended up in gaol  if she had had her way – but Martin got her to see the boy differently, and got him to make reparations for what he had done by helping the old woman.

The day over, nothing had happened.

No Jesus.

He took the Gospels from the shelf.  He meant to open them at the place he had marked the day before with a bit of morocco, but the book opened at another place.  As Martin opened it, his yesterday’s dream came back to his mind, and no sooner had he thought of it than he seemed to hear footsteps, as though some one were moving behind him.  Martin turned round, and it seemed to him as if people were standing in the dark corner, but he could not make out who they were.  And a voice whispered in his ear|: “Martin, Martin, don’t you know me?”

“Who is it?” muttered Martin.

“It is I,” said the voice.

And out of the dark corner stepped Stepanitch, who smiled and vanishing like a cloud was seen no more.

“It is I,” said the voice once more.  And out of the darkness stepped the woman with the baby in her arms, and the woman smiled and the  baby laughed, and they too vanished.

“It is I,” said the voice once more.  And the old woman and the boy with the apple stepped out and both smiled, and then they too vanished.

And Martin’s soul grew glad.  He crossed himself put on his spectacles, and began reading the Gospel just where it had opened; and at the top of the page he read,

“I was an hungred and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye game me drink; I was a stranger and ye took  me in.”

And at the bottom of the page he read:

Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren even these least, ye did it unto me.”  (Matthew xxv)

And Martin understood that his dream had come true; and that the  Saviour had really come to him that day, and he had welcomed him.

What I like about the way this tale unfolds is that it is so true to the experience of many.  Happiness at all costs is not a recipe for living life to the full.  Live for God?  That’s all very well … so look to Jesus.  Read the Gospels and find that he is the one who comes alongside us in our weaest moments and draws us to a God who is with us when life is at its worst.  But more than that Jesus invites us to find him in serving other people.  In doing that we shall find in those wonderful closing words to Les Miserables that to love another person is to see the face of God!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Unexpected Gifts

An all age service for the first Sunday of Advent when we welcomed Brownies, Guides, Beavers, Cubs and Scouts and their families led by Richard Cleaves and Carolyn Tennant.

Welcome and
News of the Church Family

Call to worship -
Glory to God – a new song for Christmas
Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer
Congregational Reading: The Magnificat
Unexpected Gifts for Christmas Sunday 27th November Parade Service 1st Advent

The Unexpected Gift

At this time of year we start thinking seriously about our Christmas plans and this might include thinking about presents!
Each year there seem to be a few ‘top presents’ requested by children and sometimes this leads to all kinds of frantic searching in the shops and online as family and friends try to locate the elusive special, longed-for gift.

I investigated the league tables published on the internet;
Let’s see a thumbs up or thumbs down for the following present ideas…
(Powerpoint slides)

Cookie my playful pup
FurReal Go Go My walkin pup
Transformers dark of the Moon Optimus Prime
Barbie Fashionistas
Rock on Elmo
Lego Star Wars Millenium Falcon
Angry Birds Knock on Wood Board game
Singamajigs Musical Dolls

Some people like wrapping presents and others much prefer unwrapping them!
The new John Lewis advert has won a lot of Brownie points this year with its ‘Gifts you can’t wait to give’ campaign.

If you haven’t seen it, it involves a little boy waiting (not very patiently) for Christmas. On Christmas morning you expect him to rush to open his sack of gifts first, whereas the advert has a very unexpected ending; he dashes into his parents’ room unable to wait any longer to give them his presents.
Has me in tears every time!

We are going to play a well known game now.
It’s called ‘Pass the parcel’ and I fully expect that every person here of every age has enjoyed this game at some point in their lives!
There will be 6 parcels going round the church so keep awake for the next one on its way!
When the music starts, pass the parcel along and keep them all moving.
When the music stops, if you are holding a parcel, stop and open ONE layer.
Now, just to throw in an unexpected rule here, I want you to pass the unexpected gift you just revealed to the person next to you!
When we play ‘Pass the parcel’ we usually understand we won’t all get a present but in THAT game, lots of us got a present we probably hadn’t expected.

Chocolate is something we all like to get and maybe you are expecting to get some chocolate on a regular basis between now and Christmas; in your Advent Calendars!

We are going to tell a familiar story now in a fun way.

The Chocolate Nativity

The Christmas story is so well known that our minds can easily skim over it and we miss the surprise elements. To help you concentrate, listen out for your chocolate bar or sweets to be mentioned and hold them up high at the right time. You will be prompted by the pictures too. We can all join in because the Christmas story is something God wants everyone to know.

The story of the nativity is written in the bible and we have put this version together by reading Matthew and Luke.

A young girl named Mary heard a
from the angel Gabriel that she was chosen to be the mother of God’s son. Now, Mary wasn’t married yet to Joseph and so this awkward situation became a hot
of conversation among the locals. But Mary explained to Joseph that it was all part of God’s
plan. Joseph helped Joseph understand in a
and it all became as clear as a
Joseph had to return to his home town of Bethlehem to be counted in the Roman Census in order to
taxes. It was a
MARATHON (yes, we all know they are called SNICKERS now!)
journey for someone expecting a baby. 80 miles of walking over the stony hills which were

Under foot. They arrived in Bethlehem well
but having tried
there was no room for them to stay. It was certainly no
but one innkeeper said they could sleep in his stable. That night Jesus was born. There was no bed of
but Mary wrapped the baby in pieces of cloth and laid him in the manger. This baby was to show the full
of God. He was God’s own son, unique in the
Nearby in some fields, some shepherds were looking after their sheep. As they were gazing at the
went through the air and suddenly a
row of angels appeared in the sky. The glory of God shone all around them and the shepherds went
at the knees! But the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. I am bringing you good news that will be a great joy to all people. Today your saviour was born. He is Christ the Lord.’ So, the shepherds went straight as an
to find the baby. They told everyone what the angels had said about the child. Mary treasured these things in her heart and thought about them a lot.
There was great cause for
The shepherds went off, praising God with many a
in their step! Meanwhile, in a far country, there were some
otherwise known as wise men or astrologers. Some people thought they were looking at
but they were serious scholars busy scanning the
and one night they saw a
Was it
No, it was a very bright star shining in the east which they realized signalled the birth of the baby born to be king of the Jews. So they took some
and travelled by camel to Jerusalem to investigate. The road was
and they stopped for a few
on the way. When they found the baby, they gave him their
gifts of gold for a king, incense for worship and myrrh for death. Unusual gifts for a baby? But this was an unusual baby. They bowed down to the child and worshipped him as they recognized who he was.
Jesus wants us to recognize who he is and accept his leading in our lives as a gift from God his father.

He is God’s gift to each of us; the whole
of us are included in God’s plan.
The bible says, ‘God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.’
So, over the years there have been many
as people receive that gift of God’s love and a place in his kingdom, here on earth and forever.

Thank you for taking part.
Now, you are probably expecting me to say, ‘Put away your chocolate until after your lunch’.
But, unexpectedly, I’m not!
When we are given presents, we react in 2 ways; some of us get on and use or eat them straight away. (I can think of some family members who do that!) and others, like me, tend to keep things in their packaging, save things for later! The trouble with that is, as a child, I ended up with unused bubble bath that started to smell funny so I couldn’t ever use it! And I still have some writing paper sets that are way out of date because I was afraid to use them up! So, lovely gifts went unused.
If we don’t open our gifts we can’t use and enjoy them.
So, I give full permission to open these chocolates and eat them.
What I would like you children (and anyone else who wants to get up and move about) to do is to go and sit by someone new, preferably someone not your age, and have a chat while you eat.
Ask each other;
Have you ever received an unexpected gift?
What made it unexpected?
Who was it from?
Maybe you didn’t think you would get a gift
Or, the gift itself was not what you were expecting?

As I was writing, it occurred to me to add the idea that if we don't get on and open/use our gifts, we won't enjoy them/get anything out of them. Likewise, when considering the gift of Jesus, if we leave him 'wrapped up' (in the manger/in a story/as an idea) we won't get the benefit of him/won't enjoy him. (clumsy language, but you will get the idea!)You could pick up on this idea in your talk too?
The part of the Christmas story that makes me think of gifts is the part that tells of the Wise Men with the gifts they bring – gold, frankincense, myrrh – unexpected gifts, given by unexpected people. They knew just what to expect of a king – a fine palace. And they knew the palaces built by the King of the Jews Herod were among the finest in all the wolrd. No expense spared – a wonderful place to find a king.

But he wasn’t found there … found in a place where there had been no room – out in the squalor of a cattle shed. There they found the child.

The Christ child was the most unexpected of all presents.

A great present – but it’s easy just to leave the baby – wrapped up – in the manger, in a story, as an idea … but we need to unwrap the baby – see the way he grew to set out a way of living that can make a world of difference to anyone who tries it, who shares with us in the suffering of a troubled world, and goes through that suffering to resurrection victory, a victory to share.

But we have to do something … in return.

The greatest most unexpected of all gifts …

John 3:16

This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.

1 John 4:7-12

The greatest gift is one we need to respond to – it is the gift of God’s love, and the love we can give to each other and to other people too.

7-10My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn't know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can't know him if you don't love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they've done to our relationship with God.
11-12My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other.

A new song for Christmas – Presents

I want to light the first of our Advent candles and think about the Unexpected Gift – and the gift that we can give – the cubs have put some prayers together … and then get a couple of the Brownies to light the candle.

So through prayer … commitment to others … love for other people – the Cubs prayers …

Green Six

Last night I saw a lady across the street
So I went to meet
her and said, ”do you need help?”

One of my friends was ill;
had to resort to a pill.
So I sent him a Get Well card

These are acts of kindness and love
As pure as a dove.

If we care for other people that means being helpful ourselves – and so the prayer from Yellow Six

Yellow Six

Dear God,
We will cut the grass
Wash up,
Help other people by making breakfast,
Walking the dog,
Wash the car,
And make lunch.

And then we need to be concerned for other people, and to help others at Christmas especially ...

Blue Six
Dear Lord,
Please help us to share with others and think of others before ourselves, be thankful for what we have got because poor people would love to have it.

Red Six
Dear God,
Please help us help charities and help the elderly across the road and to keep people safe and sound.

The Brownies light the first of the Advent Candles.

A prayer for our first Advent Candle

Unexpected Gifts
We light our first candle
And think of unexpected gifts
Gifts we receive
Gifts we give
The greatest gift of all:
A love that knows no bounds
A love that shines in the face of Jesus
A love that is ours to share with each other
Ours to share with everyone around.
Through unexpected gifts of love
May your light shine in the darkness.

County Community Projects
Food Share and Education Centre

We will be having a special Christmas Collection for County Community Projects – through December and for our Christmas Day collection – CCP – and we will be hearing more about the work of CCP … gifts of money – but more than that – gifts for the Food Share programme.

We are fortunate in having the opportunity of showing our real commitment to love in action through our close relationship with CCP. As you can see from their ‘Thank You’ letter below, our involvement is really valued. They mention the opportunities to give food and we will put some of the money we raise towards the Food Share scheme as well as aiming to make a generous donation of food.
In the past I have had some professional involvement with the CCP Education Centre and can assure you that they do valuable and challenging work. It makes sense to let them explain what they do so I have taken this from their website,
“The aim with all our learners is to involve them in positive activities which are tailored to meet their individual needs and address the issues which have led to their exclusion from school. We give each child what is often their first positive learning experience, and help to build their motivation to take part and succeed. This raises their self-esteem, which in turn raises performance and aspirations.
Using subjects such as art, sport, exercise, cooking and conservation, we help young people understand that education can be fun and rewarding. We undertake work with them on anger management, communication, group working and rights and responsibilities. We prepare them for a return to full time school education or a progression to higher education.
The Education Centre is located in a purpose-converted building in Grove Street, Cheltenham. It offers a selection of learning environments, a well equipped woodwork room, IT and Multimedia learning facilities, a full kitchen and a leisure area with a TV, video and a selection of board and video games.”
To further improve their environment we hope to collect enough money to be able to buy some garden furniture

Dear All at Highbury Church
CCP would like to thank you for your donations to the CCP FoodShare - the emergency food distribution service for Gloucestershire people and families in times of crisis, which relies on donations from members of the public, churches, schools and businesses, and distributes over 500 emergency food parcels every year.
In the run up to Christmas, CCP FoodShare is extended to become the CCP Hamper Scamper, a food and gift distribution scheme.
Many disadvantaged people in Gloucestershire cannot afford the basic festive goodies which most people take for granted, including food and Christmas presents for their loved ones. The pressure on them to provide such gifts leads to many getting further into debt, which can last for years to come and only acts to make their lives even harder. This is the stark reality for many families every year.
The Hamper Scamper campaign aspires to bring the spirit of Christmas to hundreds of children, young people, families and vulnerable adults, including those who are homeless. This is not just by providing them with Christmas food items and gifts, but to help in the longer term to reduce or wipe out the debt that can accrue through the pressure of the festive season, culminating in year round misery.
If you would like to take part in this year’s Hamper Scamper, or want to find out more, please see our website

To lead us into our time prayer …

Prayers of Concern

Offering and Dedication

At this time of giving

Words of Blessing

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