Friday, December 25, 2015

To make an end is to make a beginning - a Christmas Sermon

I got caught out when Richard Atkins rang me on Sunday morning to interview me about Highbury’s Christmas services on Radio Gloucestershire.  He got to the end of the interview, I had said what I wanted to say, and he then asked me, “So, Richard what do you really want for Christmas?”

My mind went a total blank.

Then it came to me in a flash!

Given that it was the Sunday morning religious slot … and given that I was on as a local minister promoting Christmas, and given advance warning, I might have had the wit to give some profound comment about the best present being that love of God in Christ that Christmas is all about.

As it was I went on to say,

“I’ve already had the best Christmas present possible, I said.  Having grown up in Leicester and been in Cheltenham for twenty-five years, having Leicester City top of the Premiership and the Robins top of the national League at Christmas – what more could anyone want!”

And so, today, I break with tradition.  Instead of showing one of the presents I have received I thought I would show you the presents I am going to give to Arsenal supporting younger son and Spurs supporting older son – A Happy Christmas from the top of the table!

Come to think of it I have copies of my present for Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea supporters too.

There is, however, a catch as my younger son, the Arsenal supporter, and my older son, the Spurs supporter remind me constantly.

What counts is what happens at the end of the season!

We shall have to wait and see!

When Andrea came up with the idea of using Bob Hartman’s new Christmas Poem for our Nativity last Sunday it caught my imagination.  It was a nativity with a difference.  It didn’t just tell the story of the nativity, it told the back-story in the Old Testament and went on to the end of the story by including the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of the babe born in Bethlehem.

“That’s why we have Christmas, and welcome the day
And sing, and eat turkey, and put on a play
And dress up like angels, and get lots of toys
It’s not just because of that sweet baby boy
It’s because of the man he grew up to be.
Who changed people’s lives, and can change you and me.
To live and to love just like God always planned
And turn what is sad into glad again
And turn what is sad into glad!”

You don’t get the meaning of Christmas unless you look to the end of the story.

Look to the end of the story and you find the story is really only just beginning!

It set my mind thinking.

Two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke tell stories of the Nativity.  John opens with that wonderful passage about the Word made flesh we’ve read once again on Christmas Day.

Each of those three gospels comes back at the end to ideas they started with.
Matthew begins with the back story of the Old Testament which he sees as a story of Three Ages.

1.      The Age from Abraham to David before the people of God experimented with the idea of having a Kingdom
2.      The Age from David to the Deportation to Babylon when the people of God experimented often disastrously with having a Kingdom
3.      The Age from the Deportation to Babylon to the birth of Jesus, the one anointed to be King in God’s kingdom.  His birth is then described and Jesus is given the name given by the prophet Isaiah to the king who got it right and ruled in God’s way, Emmanuel which means God is with us.

The Gospel story that then unfolds is the story of the way Jesus ushered a new age, the age of the Kingdom of Heaven which had at its heart love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy too.

The Gospel story comes to an end with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And it dawns on us that the end is actually the beginning of a story that includes us!  For the risen Jesus meets his disciples on the mountain top in Galilee, sends them out into the world to make disciples of all nations, teaching them all that Jesus had commanded them and then Jesus gives a wonderful promise that echoes the opening of the Gospel.

I will be with you always to the end of the age.  Emmanuel, God with us, to the end of the age we now live in, the age of the kingdom.

Luke starts in the temple where the presence of God is made known.  And Luke finishes in the temple where the presence of God is made known … only for us to realise it’s the start of something that begins in and around the temple in Jerusalem and spread out into the whole world, as Jesus brings the presence of God into people’s lives.

And John’s gospel?
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Read through John’s gospel and it’s all about life.

I am the light of the world: those who follow me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

I am the bread of life.  Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever, whoever eats of me will live because of me.

I have come that you may have life and live it to the full.

I am the way, the truth and the life.

I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.  And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

Get to the end of John’s Gospel, though John adds a bit of a postscript, and what do you find … the whole point of the Gospel story is that we who read it should have life – not just life beyond death, but life that begins here and now, abundant life, life we can live to the full, life that is not boundaried by death, but is lived in the eternity of God’s love.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples,
which are not written in this book. 
But these are written
so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, 
the Son of God,
and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Once again the Gospel ends as it began – with a life that now is ours to live.

It’s been a sad year for us at Highbury. This Christmas we miss here quite a number of those who were with us this time last year, celebrating Christmas.

Only the day before yesterday we had a service of thanksgiving for Edna who for getting on for sixty years and more rarely missed a Sunday morning service, was one of our flower arrangers, a member of the book club.  She knew what was in store when she was diagnosed with a major cancer towards the end of November.  And a couple of days before Advent Sunday when I visited her I think we both knew we wouldn’t see each other again.  That morning I had prepared the first of my sermons on the theme for Christmas this year.  Something Edna said prompted me to share my theme with her.  With a philosophical look, as she told me how her daughter had found a place in a nursing home to go to near her daughter’s home, Edna shrugged her shoulders and said, “all things come to an end.”

That first Sunday I had found myself turning to the poetry of TS Eliot, a writer that Edna’s generation, with her love of books, will have grown up with.   These are words that have spoken powerfully to me over the years.  Not least at sad times too.

These words come from Little Gidding, the last of the Four Quartets.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

That for me is the point of Chrristmas.  And you only get it if you read to the end and discover the end is but the beginning of something that we are part of.

The Jesus who is Emmaunel, God with us, invites us to live life to the full as we love God, love our neighbour and love our enemy too and he makes a promise to us

I am with you always to the end of the age.

There was one last thing I shared with Edna, before going on to share the 23rd Psalm, prayer and the Lord’s prayer.

On the next page of TS Eliot quotes Julian of Norwich, a woman mystic writer of the Middle ages in words I for one want to hold on to.

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.

This has been my favourite carol this Christmas …

"Of the Father's Love Begotten"
by Aurelius C. Prudentius, 413, cento
Translated by John. M. Neale, 1818-1866
and Henry W. Baker, 1821-1977

1. Of the Father's love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the Source, the Ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.

2. Oh, that birth forever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bare the Savior of our race,
And the Babe, the world's Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face
Evermore and evermore.

3. O ye heights of heaven, adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him
And extol our God and King.
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring
Evermore and evermore.

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