Going up to Jerusalem

For the Jews of Jesus’ time, and indeed before and since, ‘going up to Jerusalem’ wasn’t just a colloquialism such as ‘I’m just going up the shop’; nor was it an accurate geographical statement despite Jerusalem being 2,700 feet above sea level, with Nazareth being over a 1,000 feet lower. Despite literally getting closer to heaven by climbing so high, going up to Jerusalem for the high days and holy days wasn’t ‘just’ a religious experience: going up to Jerusalem meant going home.

Jesus is ‘going home’ for the Passover. This is the place where he belongs, it was here at only a few days old that Simeon and Anna held him in their arms and sang and prophesied over him. Jerusalem is where it began and where it will end.

When he gets there though he discovers that his home has been ransacked. No longer is it a place of peace and worship for all, but a marketplace of disrepute. Passover was the biggest festival of the year, and for those in the hospitality trade a time to make money. For those in the religious trade also a time of wealth – think Christmas shopping and all the additional market stalls that pop up. It was so busy, that even the outer court of the Temple had been transformed into a shopping mall for all the essentials of worship: sacrificial animals and temple coinage.

Jesus is angry: the temple courts are no place for farmyard animals. He forms a whip and drives them out.

The temple coinage was complicated. Jewish law forbade the making of graven images and roman coins bore not just the image of Caesar, but various titles including ‘High Priest’ which would have been practically blasphemous for the religious leaders. Obviously this heretical coin couldn’t be used within the temple treasury, so a holy currency was put in place, the ‘Tyrian Coinage’: and of course business could be found by exchanging the currencies at exorbitant rates.

Jesus is incensed: he turns the tables over, scattering coins everywhere. The courtyard is busy with pilgrims, there is dung from the animals that have just been driven out. Even the temple currency is now scattered and polluted.

Why is Jesus so stirred up by these entrepreneurs?

The outer temple could be thought of as the doorstep to the temple, to home. With the traders in place there is zero curb appeal for sure, it is as though his front door as been vandalised. The sense of peace and sanctuary in the approach to worship is null and void, but there is more here than meets the eye.

The outer court was the only court that gentiles could enter. The Temple was built in similar style to a set of concentric circles: right at the heart was the holy of holies and this could only be entered once a year by a priest whose name was drawn by lot. A rope was tied around the priest’s waist so that should he fall ill whilst performing his duties he could be pulled out, rather than anyone else going in to collect him and polluting the sanctity of God’s dwelling. A thick purple curtain, a wall of wool divided the holy of holies from the next court. The closer the court to the holy of holies, the more limited the people who were able to enter. The women’s court was one of the further out, but the one right on the very edge was the only one that gentiles could enter. This is the closest that people who weren’t Jewish could get to God, and this outer court, this crumb of temple worship has been eaten up by the traders. Jesus isn’t just angry, he is incandescent.

When the infant Jesus was held in the arms of the prophet, the song sung over him told how he would be a light to lighten the gentiles, and here at the holiest time of the year, they are kept out. This man made temple, designed to glorify Herod more than Yahweh, is designed to keep people at a distance from God.

At the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, as he dies on the cross, that wall of wool will be split in two, from top to bottom, from heaven to earth. No longer will there be a holy of holies kept distant and aloof from God’s people, from here on in everyone is welcome into God’s presence.

Read the story here.

Taking up our Crosses

‘We all have our crosses to bear’ is a phrase heard often in common language; it tends to mean that there is some difficulty or sorrow in our lives that cannot be healed, that will not go away. Something we just need to grin and bear.

This is not what is going on here. The challenge to ‘take up your cross’ was something new even to the disciples and has come at a turning point in their discipleship. Up to this point following Jesus has been an adventure, there have been challenges and some dangers along the way, but that has just added to the camaraderie. This raggle taggle bunch of men have found their place, and a spiritual place at that, following Jesus. They want to be more like him, they want to be awarded with positions of prestige in his ‘school’ and in his kingdom too, for just prior to today’s passage Peter has made the pronouncement that Jesus is the Messiah.

You are the Messiah

Mark 8:29

Even making such a statement was dangerous. In the political turmoil that Jesus and his followers inhabited messiahs had come and gone, generally leaving via crucifixion. The Roman officials took no risk when it came to political uprisings and a leader who gathered a following and spoke out against the occupation would soon be put to death. Despite this, when Jesus tells his disciples that he is to die they cannot stomach it. Peter in particular speaks out against the rash intentions of Jesus, and is ‘rebuked’, a telling off that would not just put him in his place but humiliate him too.

It isn’t the danger that Peter is afraid of; to go to battle is something that he is prepared for. Peter is a man of strength, loyalty, and action; it is he who will actually use the sword when Jesus is arrested. Jesus isn’t talking about battle though, this new teaching isn’t a pep talk before donning armour and taking up weapons and beginning a military (or even rebel) manoeuvre, Jesus is talking about walking to his death without putting up a fight. This Messiah will be subjected to torture; this teacher of the faith will be rejected by the religious authorities; this source of life and healing will be put to death, and it is all part of the plan.

The disciples are shocked. This is not how following Jesus was supposed to pan out. Jesus was to make things right again in heaven and on earth, that was why they were following him, had given their lives to him. Not this failure.

Jesus continues, not only will he willingly die, but he is calling his followers to be willing to die for the cause also. Perhaps if he had told them to raise arms and done so himself, they would have willingly responded to the rousing battle cry, but not this. Not this weak and feeble, pathetic end to the glorious years of being at the heart of Jesus’ teaching of hope and healing. Jesus isn’t asking them to be willing to die for him, he is calling them to carry with them their instrument of death: death is to become part of their life from here on in, and could take place at any point.

There is some comfort, perhaps, maybe… those who lose their life for Jesus will gain eternal glory. A more sinister form of asking a child if they want one sweet now or two later.

The disciples are shocked by this new teaching. Stopped in their tracks. Peter at least, has a wife, a family, what would this mean for them? They are shocked, and yet we know that they will make the decision to follow Jesus. They will indeed pick up their crosses, perhaps carrying them lightly at first. This is what makes them saints and heroes, well 11 of them anyway.

In Peter’s denial, in the others’ shock, amidst the inner turmoil each has to face in order to make that decision to follow or not, something is lost. Yes Jesus has said that he will knowingly walk into a trap that will result in him being tortured, disgraced, executed, but he has also openly declared his resurrection,

after three days rise again.

Mark 8:31

When we are faced with difficulties and challenges, when our own crosses become too heavy to bear, do we lost sight of the bigger picture, the resurrection that is to come? As we make our way through lent in a lockdown do we need to be reminded of the resurrection that is to come? Do we need to maybe put down our crosses for a moment so that we can straighten up and look to the horizon, see the sun’s rays, and recall Resurrection Sunday?

Read the full passage here.

Beloved

Love it or hate it, Valentine’s Day is upon us.

It would be easy to think that Valentine was the founder of Hallmark (or vice versa) and that love is something which can only be expressed through excessive gifts and dates at luxurious restaurants and hotels. These may certainly be expressions of love (and if your love language is ‘gifts’ then well appreciated ones), but love is so much more.

The marriage service begins with a line about love: God is love and those who live in love live in God.

God is love.

Love ‘lifts us up’ according to the ballads and love songs. Love is where we find ourselves, our ‘other halves’ (a cliché that particularly riles me), home, heaven… Love is kind, love is gentle, love bears no record of wrongs, according to St Paul’s Hymn to Love.

But today I want to think about how love transforms us. It has been said that every woman is beautiful on her wedding day. It is more than just the expensive dress and hours spent in the beautician’s chair. The joy that emanates from a blushing bride as she basks in the love of her brand new husband, would outshine the most lavishly dressed beauty queen.

Love isn’t just for newly weds and love birds, or even for fortunate Valentines; the love that transforms, transcends the every day is a gift from God for each and every one of us.

In this week’s gospel passage Jesus himself is transformed by the Father’s love. In a prophecy-fulfilling moment Jesus takes his closest disciples up a mountain, a high mountain Mark tells us, and as they reach the top something unbelievable happens: so unbelievable that Peter, James and John are told not to mention the incident to any of the others when they re-join them.

At the top of this mountain something quite literally awesome happens to Jesus: his clothes become dazzlingly white as he is ‘transfigured’. The disciples’ spiritual heroes stand alongside Jesus, despite being long gone. Peter is flustered and says too much, the others are silenced. The man before them is no longer their friend, their teacher, their rabbi… the humanity seems to fall from Jesus as his deity quite literally shines through.

As wonder-ful as this moment is, there is more to come: the cloud of God’s presence comes over them all and God the Father speaks the most treasured words any of us can ever hope to hear:

This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!

Mark 9:7

Within each of us is a need to be loved. We can pretend that we are independent, that we don’t care, that we are happy being single, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t also need to be loved. At this time of year we can often confuse passion and lust with love, but as stirring as they can be they cannot replace the un-conditional love that God bestowed upon Jesus, and if we were only aware, has for us too.

The love that Father God bathed Jesus in on that mountainside quite clearly had a very physical impact upon him, but love goes deeper than the skin. When we come to God the Father and open our hearts to him, we too can bathe in that transformational love: Love that doesn’t seek anything in return, love that doesn’t have to be bought or earned, love that will not remove itself upon a whim. The love of God is love at its purest, its truest: love that sees us for who we are and who we can become with a little TLC.

If Valentines day is making you feel less than lovely, then these words are for you:

This is my child, the Beloved.

Our clothes may not become dazzling white, and we have no deity to shine through. It is highly unlikely that any prophets will appear alongside us. That doesn’t mean that God can’t transform us though. Throughout the Bible we hear the stories of people who were thought of as not just unlovable, but untouchable. As Jesus came near them, their outer shells fell away as the love transformed them into children of God.

As children of God it is our inheritance to live in love, and to spread that love to others who are feeling unlovable. Jesus called his first disciples to love their neighbour, to love their enemies. This Valentines I hope and pray that you feel as beloved of God as did Jesus that moment on the mountainside, but also that you can share the love with those round you. Times are tough, many are feeling low and as if they are running on empty. Isolation and loneliness are the silent side effects of the pandemic, people need our love.

This Valentines we have a new challenge: to reclaim the gift of love from the market place and do whatever we can to bathe our neighbourhoods and communities with God’s abundant love.

Read the story of Jesus’ transfiguration here.

To read the Soul Food Cook’s suggestion for sharing the love, click here.

The Names of Jesus

In our household we celebrate Candlemas on the 2nd February as the final feast of Christmas, and as such we leave the Christmas lights, tree (stripped bare of baubles and tinsel, admittedly) and the nativity set on display. It reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world shining all through the wintery darkness. I like to hold on to the Christmas blessings as long as possible. The down side is that we can get Jesus fixed in our minds as a helpless infant, ‘away in a manger’. When we read our Bibles we discover that Jesus was rarely ‘meek and mild’ and far from ‘no crying he makes’ was prone to passionate teaching and even angry outbursts.

Today’s passage from St Paul’s letter to the Colossians helps us to make the transition from the Christmas Baby to the Man on the Cross. The passage has been described as a song of praise. Paul begins the letter by giving thanks for the Christians at Colossae and then bursts into this song.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Colossians 1:15-20

Not once do we find the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ or even ‘Lord’; instead we have ‘The Image of the Invisible God’, ‘Firstborn of all Creation’, ‘Head of the Body’, ‘The Beginning’, ‘The Firstborn from the Dead’. These names, or titles, take us from Creation to Resurrection, and help us to understand a little more of just who Jesus is, to flesh out the Christmas Infant from the childhood tales.

Jesus is the Firstborn

It is tempting to think about the child in swaddling cloths when we hear this title. For us the firstborn is quite literally that, the first child born to parents. The term has a much deeper and more complex understanding in the Greek in which Paul originally wrote, and the Hebrew in which he studied the Scriptures. The ‘firstborn’ is unique, supreme, in first place. Jesus here is distinguished as the firstborn of all creation, he existed prior to creation and is supreme over all creation. The firstborn has a special place in the father’s heart.

Jesus didn’t come into being within creation as we all have, but was before creation existed, indeed creation couldn’t exist without Jesus. Jesus has power over creation, autonomy over creation, and yet becomes part of creation.

Jesus is the Image of the Invisible God

As the culmination of creation, God brought humanity to life, made in God’s image to be in relationship with God. If we look hard enough we can see glimpses of God in each other, however we are all fallen and broken people. The image of God within us has become tarnished and distorted. Jesus is the only one to bear the very nature and character of God perfectly. What has been invisible, too dangerous for mere mortals to see, has now become visible in Jesus, God in human flesh.

When humans judged the woman caught in adultery, Jesus showed grace and mercy; when humans traded from the temple for their own private wealth, Jesus showed righteous anger; when humans shunned and abused each other, Jesus showed love; and when humans diminished God, Jesus praised and honoured God.

Through Jesus we discover the intimacy and love and integrity of God Almighty, through Jesus we experience the splendour and the glory of God, through Jesus we see the future as it should be, and pray ‘Thy Kingdom Come.’

Jesus is the Head of the Body

As a rabbi this could quite clearly be seen. Jesus was the teacher and his disciples followed him every where, sitting at his feet to lap up his teachings, eating with him, celebrating with him, mourning with him, even, occasionally praying with him. When there were mission to be undertook, Jesus sent his disciples out, and they went. They were obedient to him, mostly.

Jesus was the head of the body of disciples. And he still is, when the church works well together.

When the church is healthy, Jesus is still the head, exerting influence over the rest of the body, just as with our own human bodies. Sadly there are, and have always been, times when there seems to be nerve damage and the flow from head to limb doesn’t work as it should. Messages get mixed, or the limb acts quite contrarily.

This description of Jesus was a favourite of Paul’s used in several of his letters. It is a good reminder for us all how to live and love together as God’s people. This is the Jesus we need as we continue as people of faith looking towards the future but living in the here and now.

Jesus is the Firstborn from the Dead

We have almost come full circle. Those same connotations apply here. We are brought to Easter and Jesus’ resurrection and we are pushed forward to the resurrection of all God’s people. Jesus brought light and life into creation way back in the beginning; that first Easter he brought life to death; in eternity he will bring life to us all. Jesus is supreme over death. Jesus has a unique relationship with death, having command over it. Jesus existed before death had any power and it is Jesus’ presence that will endure beyond death’s.

This is our future: we have been brought into creation by the creator of all things, we have come to know God through Jesus’ presence, we have begun to learn how to live in harmony with each other as we follow Jesus’ lead, and we have found hope in the resurrection life that only Jesus can offer. Jesus may have first come to our awareness through the Christmas carols and nativity plays, but he is so much more than that.

Baby Jesus has grown up, and it’s time that we allow our faith to do so also.

A Light to Lighten the Darkness

Hannah was a wealthy woman, for her husband it would have been no problem to pay the ‘ransom’ to have their first-born son redeemed from God, 5 Shekels was easily affordable; but Hannah had dedicated her son to God before he was even conceived and she faithfully kept that vow.

Mary was not a wealthy woman, her husband was a carpenter, or perhaps more accurately an odd job man. For them the price was steep. At Mary’s purification, two doves were offered in stead of the lamb that those with greater means would give. Mary and Joseph didn’t have the means to redeem their child, Jesus still ‘belonged’ to God. Of course, he did, he was God’s Son, Joseph was his stepfather.

We easily skip over this part of the story of Christ’s Presentation at the Temple with Luke running Mary’s Purification and Jesus’ Redemption into one: there are more interesting things going on, prophets both male and female, bursting into song and prophecy. The part of the story with the doves doesn’t belong to Jesus, it belongs to Mary. It is one of the rituals of motherhood which marks the end of her seclusion from domestic chores, her period of healing after the stresses and strains of pregnancy and labour, the honeymoon month of bonding between mother and child during which she has no other cares than to heal her own body and nurture her child’s.

That period of their symbiotic life has now come to an end, and Mary is made to face the shadow side of giving birth to a child of light. The prophets remind her that he will die before her, that what she will experience as a parent will mirror the anguish of her child: just as his side will be pierced, so will her soul.

There is light and darkness in this encounter in the temple courts. Simeon’s heart bursts with the reality of the Messiah in his presence, the Christchild in his arms, bathing in the light that will bring light even to the Gentiles, and Anna too speaks with joy, praising God; but they are old. They have lived long faithful lives of prayer and devotion and now have been rewarded with the very presence of God. They are at peace and will soon be making their way to eternity. Mary and Joseph are at the very beginnings of their faithfilled encounter with the son of God, which will see them become refugees running for their lives, will see them mocked and ridiculed as parents of an itinerant preacher, humiliated at their son’s public execution and broken by inconsolable grief.

Simeon and Anna are the Old Jerusalem, Jesus is the new. Simeon and Anna remain within the Temple courts, Jesus’ light will spill out to every nation. In this meeting of old and new, in the very rituals and traditions of the faith, there is also a parting of the ways. As Jesus is presented at the Temple, a new era is ushered in. Jesus isn’t redeemed from God, isn’t exempt from Temple duties, because he is the new Temple. Jesus isn’t redeemed from God, because he is God.

Anna and Simeon recognise this to be true and have given their lives for this moment in time. Mary and Joseph also recognise this truth and dedicate the rest of their lives to enabling Jesus to shine for us all. Do we recognise the truth? Jesus is more than the endearing cherub in the manger, he is the light of the world. Jesus is the light, and the hope, and the purpose in all our worlds, and will see us through this present darkness. Do we recognise the truth?

Read the full story here.

Here is Wine.

Lot is in trouble!

You may remember Lot, the nephew who travelled with Abram and Sarai until the two households became so large that fights broke out around grazing rights. Abram and Lot climbed a hill and Abram, the elder and most senior of the two, allowed Lot to choose the best land for his household, leaving Abram what was leftover. Lot and his family found themselves in Sodom, which did not end up well for them, eventually needing to escape from God’s judgement, from brimstone and hellfire. Before that, the king of Sodom found himself on the losing side of battle, and his country being plundered and it’s population taken into slavery, including Lot.

Once more Uncle Abram looks out for his nephew, and we learn something new about him: Abram has an army! Since the two have parted company God has blessed Abram with so much wealth that he is able to keep a private army of 318 men! Abram is also a man of cunning and tactics and leads these men on the successful rescue mission to bring his nephew home.

As the defeated kings return home they ‘parlez’ with Abram at a place called ‘the Valley of Shavez’ which means the King’s Valley. The king of Sodom has been defeated and rescued and his pride is dented; he wants to bargain with Abram to have his own wealth restored, but Abram isn’t interested in any of that. His mission was to rescue his nephew and anything else is just a by-product, after all he isn’t in need of anything, God has already blessed him abundantly.

Into this parlez arrives a different king. We don’t know who he is or where he comes from, and he won’t be seen again. Some suggest that he is Shem’s son, that is, Noah’s grandson, which is interesting because the king of Sodom was also descended from Noah; or perhaps Job one of the earliest characters written about in the Bible. Or perhaps he is Jesus, pre incarnation, pre being born of Mary. What we do know is that this man is both priest and king, just as Jesus was, is; and his name is Melchizedek.

As Abram and Chederlaomer the king of Sodom, meet, King Melchizedek, king of (Jeru)Salem joins them. He has nothing to do with the wars and battles and rescue missions, he isn’t here to barter for his share of the spoils, he is here to bring blessing.

By his very presence Melchizedek blesses all who are there that day, but specifically he speaks God’s blessing over Abram, and gives thanks to God for a righteous battle won.

There is something else going on here though, because Melchizedek brings with him bread and wine. Bread and wine was a colloquialism for a meal, simple and regular nourishment: Melchizedek could just be acting as the sandwich delivery guy at a conference, but if that was the case it would be so insignificant that it wouldn’t be mentioned. We know from history and our own faith that bread and wine take on a deeper significance in our relationship with God. Within the bread and wine of Passover the Israelites found an eternal connection with God, within the bread and wine of Holy Communion Christians find themselves in the presence of Christ, but Melchizedek predates both those events. So what is happening here? What is the significance of the bread and the wine?

Kristen and I were in Italy for a friend’s wedding. The night before the ceremony we were having dinner in a vineyard, and the host gave us a tour of the grounds. At one point he led us into a basement storage room filled with these massive wooden barrels of wine.

After explaining the various steps in the wine-making process, he launched into an impassioned speech about the earth and food and abundance and grace and gratitude and friends and how we all need each other and how generous the earth is and how holy and sacred all of life is.

Everything is Spiritual, Rob Bell.

This Sunday in Epiphany we usually think about about Jesus’ first miracle, the one where he revealed himself as the Son of God, the one where he turned water into wine. We know the story well, even if we don’t know the details of the story we know that Jesus had the power to do something so many of us long to do: turn the ordinary into the wonderful, water into wine.

Jesus was at a wedding; he wasn’t the priest or the rabbi or even the groom or best man. He was just a guest, stepping in when there was a need: Jesus, the bread of life, turned water into life. An ordinary wedding (if any wedding can be ordinary) was blessed by the presence of God.

Melchizedek turns up in the middle of a political situation and brings God’s blessing. A peace descends upon those agitated kings and tribal leaders licking their wounds. The covenant between God and Abram is strengthened again. Abram receives the blessing of God Most High, and that is more than enough. He rejects the spoils of war, or any sense of reward from a sinful king, the blessing is more than enough, and the bread and the wine symbols of God’s presence.

This passage may be difficult reading for us. We see the blessing, we delve into the significance of the bread and the wine present in the valley, but we have been separated from receiving the blessing. We have been separated from each other, from worshipping together, from sharing the cup of wine for so long now. Have we also been separated from God, from Jesus? Have we been in Exile, just as Lot found himself far from home?

Abram wasn’t expecting to meet God in this valley at this time. Abram had not arranged for a priest to be part of the negotiations. Abram was not expecting this blessing at this time. Nobody at that wedding in Canna was expecting to be on the receiving end of a miracle. Perhaps, worshipping from home our expectations of the holy and sacred are also diminished? It is in these unexpected times and places that Jesus’ presence takes us by surprise.

There is an unexpected twist at the end here: Abram receives the blessing, the most wonderful blessing of God’s unexpected presence and then he does something quite amazing: he gives to the priest one-tenth of everything. Abram is a wealthy man, one-tenth of everything is a lot. It isn’t requested of him, there is no invoice or expected tip, or collection plate passing the rounds. Abram eats some bread, drinks a little wine, receives a blessing, and makes a connection with God which causes him to generously give of himself and his wealth.

Perhaps it is no more than we would expect of the Father of Nations, God’s chosen one, but just like the presence of Melchizedek in the Valley bring bread and wine, it is unexpected enough to be noted in the holy scriptures.

We are living in unexpected times. There will be unexpected blessings to receive and unexpected blessings to give. Whatever Valley we find ourselves in, no matter how battered and bruised we are feeling, God Most High is present with us. In the ordinariness of the bread and the wine, of the meals we eat at home, Jesus is present. The ordinary has become sacred.

Read Abram’s story here and the wedding story here.

Listening on the edge

Before there were kings and queens there were priests, prophets, and judges. Before Jerusalem there was Shiloh, and before the Temple there was the Ark of the Covenant.

Eli, a descendent of Aaron (Moses brother), was the High Priest of Shiloh, his sons, also priests were next in line to fill the role, but they lived in a time of silence. God had not spoken for many years, the word of the Lord was rare, visions uncommon, and Eli’s sons were greedy, abusing their positions of trust and power. Eli has been an important leader, but he had little control over his sons and as he aged the future looked bleak.

Hannah and Elkanah (and Elkanah’s second wife Peninnah) lived in the hill country of Ephraim, faithfully making their way to Shiloh for pilgrimage each year. A respectable family of means (as signified by multiple wives) and, in contrast with Eli’s sons, spiritually devout. Hannah though, was broken. As loved as she was by her husband, and her status as first wife, she had not been able to conceive. In her distress she took herself to the temple where she wept, silently crying out to the Lord in prayer, begging him to give her a son, to reverse her shame, and vowing to dedicate her son to God. Even in prayer, Hannah found herself judged: Eli seeing her lips move but hearing no sound, assumed she was drunk and ‘rebuked’ her. As Hannah explained her heartbreak, her desire for motherhood, her vow to God, Eli finally blessed her.

In time Hannah did indeed give birth to a son. She named him Samuel which sounded like ‘God hears’. At first Eli had not heard her, had been unable to recognise the pouring out of her whole self in prayer, but God had, and now she was a mother. As the child grew and was weaned, Hannah and Elkanah kept the vow that had been made, and Samuel was brought to the temple to be dedicated to God and to be apprenticed to Eli.

Eli had been given a second chance. His sons would be punished for their misdeeds. The priestly line of descent would be broken, and another would fill their place. Here he was, this child conceived in prayer, now learning how to minister to the Lord. Eli found himself once more in the position of raising a child in the house of God, teaching him to serve with humility and wisdom.

The child who had been conceived in prayer, named after the God who had heard his mother’s tears, was now the one to listen.

As Samuel slept in the temple of God, lying next to the Ark of God’s presence, the lamp of God still burning, a voice spoke, calling his name,

Samuel! Samuel!

1 Samuel 3:4

Samuel was sleeping in the holy of holies, but God had not spoken for many years. Waking to the sound of his name, Samuel ran to Eli to see what he wanted. But Eli didn’t want anything and sent him back to bed, once, twice, before realising that just as God had heard Samuel’s Mother, now Samuel heard God. God had not been heard for many years. God had not spoken to Eli despite his position, but now God was speaking to this child, whose prayerful mother he had accused of being a drunk.

As Eli lies in bed, old and frail, his eyesight deserting him, he realises that the prophesy has come true. His life is ending and his rebellious and sinful sons will die because of their misdeeds and his inability to reign them in. His time as priest, prophet, judge is coming to an end, and a boy has been chosen to replace him. When the boy comes to him a third time having heard his name called, Eli passes on the baton, and instructs him how to respond, how to listen to God’s call,

Speak for your servant is listening.

1 Samuel 3: 10

And upon this cliffhanger we leave the Temple for today. What does God have to say? How will Samuel respond? What lies in store for Israel as a new judge begins to take his place?

At the beginning of a new year, what does God have to say to us? Everything is in upheaval again. The pandemic is not ceasing, many of our churches are closing, how can we listen to God? Are we prepared to place ourselves on the edge of the cliff as we wait to hear what God has to say? Will we, like the young Samuel open our hearts and minds to what God has in store? Will we allow God to direct us, shape our future, lead us into new ways of living, of loving, of serving God and God’s people. Will we take those words given by Eli to Samuel into our own prayer lives and begin each day with them? When we stop to listen to God we are taking a risk. What if we hear something we don’t want to? What if God presents us with a challenge that changes everything? Are we ready to take the plunge and open our hearts and minds to listen to what God has to say, and if we do, are we ready to put what we hear into action?

Read the story here.

Speechless

Last week, guest writer John Searle (Christmas in Four Words) focused on St John’s ‘nativity’ account. Here we learn of Jesus as the logos, the Word. This week we are in St Mark’s gospel for his ‘epiphany’ narrative. John and Mark buck the ‘cute’ trend, not for them the ‘traditional’ retelling of the babe born in the middle of the night, in poverty, in splendour of angels and stars. Not for them a visit by enigmatic visitors from afar bearing wealthy and symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

John’s nativity took us back to the beginning of time, Mark’s epiphany takes us back to heaven.

The Feast of Epiphany marks the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas: it features special cakes and traditions and rituals, and brings down the Christmas traditions. We are taken to something more sombre and sinister: the angry, jealous, murderous king who kills all male infants under two in order to eradicate the threat of a coup. In the gifts of the Magi we are given a glimpse of the Christchild’s future: gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, myrrh for death. An epiphany is an unveiling, a revelation, a moment of dawning truth.

In John’s account we are reminded that the Word not only became powerless and vulnerable in being born amongst us, as one of us, but also speechless. The power of speech gives way to the power of action. Only unintelligible voices were heard that night: the cries of labour, the mewling of a newborn first tasting air.

In Mark’s Epiphany account, we are stripped of the glitz and glamour of wealthy visitors from afar. We are on a river bank in an oppressed country, oppressed by the occupying nation and oppressed by insincere religious leaders who have lost their way. John the Baptist speaks of hope for a future, of a need to repent of such oppression (and our place within it). He prepares people to welcome the Word when he comes, when his true presence is revealed, and here he is…

Once again the Word becomes speechless. In Mark’s account of the baptism John prepares the way, speaking for Jesus, the Word. For Mark the spoken word of God comes not from Jesus, but from heaven. It has the same impact, the revelation of Jesus as the Word, the revelation of Jesus as God’s Son. Not a son of God in the way that the Roman and Greek Gods bore offspring which were part or fully deity, with superhuman powers, yet very human whims and fancies. Jesus is the heavenly being who created the heavens, intimately entwined with the immortal Father, God’s Son. Born into humanity, but of heaven descent. The Father’s words bring clarity, there is no doubt for those who are present that Jesus is….. Beloved. We will use words in future to describe the Son of God, Son of Man, Immanuel, Christ, Messiah, Lord, God, but the Father bestows upon his silent son the ‘Beloved’.

And here it is, the ultimate revelation, God is love. The Word became flesh out of love for humanity. Jesus walks with us, lovingly showing us the way to love others: tough love, empowering love, freeing love. This is what pleases the Father: not the religious language and rituals, not the signs and wonders, not the perfect hymnody, or self flagellation, but love.

Jesus is speechless. He stands in the river as the water drains from him, bathed in the words his Father is speaking over him. Here in this moment we have an epiphany of Jesus’ true identity. Here in this moment, just as Jesus is silently filled with the love and affirmation of his Father, we too see the purpose of the Word, and that purpose is love.

Read Mark’s account here.

Christmas in Four Words

We have a guest preacher today, John Searles a member of our team of ministers:

The Word Became Flesh

(John 1:1–2:4a)

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

The Word became flesh

This is a profound passage. John’s Gospel is so memorable partly because of its uniqueness among the Gospels and John’s distinct purpose in writing it. By the time John’s Gospel was written, the church had come to recognize that God’s timetable for Christ’s return was much longer than first anticipated.

All but one of the apostles had died, and second and third generations of followers were now leading the church. The church was being embraced by gentiles, even as its early Jewish members were dwindling rapidly. 

It became clear that the promise of Christ’s coming kingdom needed to be understood with a new patience. Therefore, unlike the other gospel writers, John approached his Gospel with the purpose of strengthening the church for the long period that lay ahead.

He frequently employs the verb, belief (pisteuo), which appears 98 times in the Gospel, but he never uses the noun, faith (pistis). In other words, John emphasises the necessity of knowing Christ through an active, continual trust in the Lord, rather than simply resting on our moment of confession.

Miracle to believe

And it is with this belief that I want to start our discourse. For part of our Christmas miracle is for us to believe in who Jesus is!

The start of John’s Gospel is wholly unique and reflective. John begins by affirming Jesus’ role in the beginning of all Creation. Like Genesis, John begins with a statement “in the beginning” of Creation and with light and darkness – John borrows from the words of Genesis so that we might ponder the connection. 

Who is this God who created all things? John writes to answer that question. That God is Jesus Christ – the God with the power to create merely by speaking creation into existence. A God who made light by His Word. 

The member of the Godhead who acted to bring about Creation was the Son. And since He spoke the Creation into existence, John calls Jesus the Word.

Paul echoes this truth in Colossians, which was written decades earlier. 

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. (Colossians 1:15-16)

So John coined the name “the Word” as a succinct way to explain that the Creation of Genesis 1 was the work of Christ.

In that sense, John is saying Jesus is the solution to the problem of darkness. Not only does He bring life to our physical bodies, as our Creator, but Jesus is also the Word, the source of Truth. He is the Light and the eternal life of the world. 

The question becomes will the darkness embrace the light of Christ? 

John answers this in verse 5, that Jesus brought His light into the world, but He was not understood by the darkness. John neatly summarises Jesus’ entire earthly ministry in that one verse. 

So how do you fit the meaning of Christmas in to these verses…Verse 14 sums it up – “The Word became flesh”. Having understood the greatness of Christ, we must ponder this amazing gift.

How do you fit every gift you ever wanted to give into a box? Well, its like that when we come to Christmas.

The fact that He became flesh fills us with awe and wonder. The stable in which Jesus was born is in fact like Doctor Who’s Tardis – it’s bigger on the inside! It holds eternity and infinity within it in the form of God made flesh.

The Word became Flesh. It has happened! He is here!

We struggle with questions like who am I or what was 2020 all about? Christmas tells us we can find answers to all our questions. God became a human being and made himself accessible to us.

So first – there is the Christmas miracle – for us to believe.

Gift to receive

Second there is a Christmas gift for us to receive.

The sadness of 2020 with covid has isolated us from our loved ones. Even walking in the street we are forced to wear masks, keep space and wash our hands. But this is a picture of our sin. We have separated ourselves from our maker – the Word who made us. From the macro politics of Brexit to the microbiology of a virus, even to our most private struggles and fears. Sin has separated us from God.

We’re not socially distanced – we are spiritually distanced from God who loves us and made us. But the good news of Christmas is the Word became flesh. We are so careful to try to protect ourselves and our health workers from this virus, but when the Word became flesh He didn’t try to protect Himself. He became human flesh so that He could die. He became a human being so He could stand in for us, so that one day He could die on a cross for us, paying for our sins as if He committed them Himself. So that He could rise again for us and give us new life.

Here is the Christmas gift for us to receive. Not only that, it has your name written on it.

Verse 12-13:  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

The Word became flesh! This is a Christmas gift for you to receive. And so I have to ask – have you received it?

It’s not an idea or a philosophy that we’re thinking about. It is a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ – God in the flesh.

You either receive Him or you don’t. But it’s the most wonderful thing to walk with Him throughout your life. – to know that your sins past, present and future have been forgiven. That in Him you have been brought into God’s presence as a citizen of heaven even while we are here on earth.

Christmas in four words. “The Word became Flesh”.

Amen

This Year’s Must Have Gifts

Hidden at the very bottom of the stocking was the most valuable gift of all. Tucked into the seam of the toe, hiding. It couldn’t be seen, only felt, and tiny fingers had to dig and delve to scoop it out. Small and shiny, nestled into a child’s cupped hand. What was there…?

This year, for Christmas, I want to keep you safe from harm. Safe from illness, from disease and virus. This year I gift to you…. hand sanitiser.

This year, for Christmas, I want to keep you clean and comfortable. Protected from being caught short. This year I gift to you…toilet roll.

This year, for Christmas, I want to keep you full and satisfied. Far from hunger and empty cupboards. This year I gift to you…pasta.

This year, for Christmas, I want to keep you in my heart. Secured in my love and friendship. This year I give to you my distance.

I want to wrap my arms around you in the fiercest hug. I want to hold on tight and never let you go, I want to feel your body next to mine, your head nestled into my neck as I lean my head on your shoulder. I want to be able to smell the perfume you always wear that reminds me of the fun times we have together. I want to twitch when your hair gets up my nose, and break away laughing as I try to stifle a sneeze. I want to see children playing together, holding hands, sharing secrets in a blanket fort thinking we can’t hear them, and when a child gets tired lift it onto my knee and cradle it close, whether it’s my child or yours. I want to laugh over the board games, bluff with the card sharks, share the snacks laid out between us, and not worry too much if I pick up the wrong glass of mulled wine and take a swig. I want to sing with gusto to our favourite Christmas tunes, I want to pull a cracker with you and laugh out loud at that cheesy joke. I want to spend time in your presence, and you in mine. This year, for Christmas, I give you my distance.

Next year, for Christmas, I want you to be here.

This year, for Christmas, He will be here. Nothing too sanitised, as he wipes away a tear, shares a space at the table and wraps us in His love.

This year, when everyone else is absent, He will be present.

Closer than ever before, God is with us. God is with us in the sorrow, in the empty seats around the table, the decorations we couldn’t quite be bothered to put up, in the turkey that tasted dry in our mouths. God is with us as we reach out via zoom, as we face time family, ‘teams’ the Christmas party. God is with us as we sing our solo renditions of Away in a Manger, without the usual gusto. God is with us even if the church is empty and the bells remain silent.

God is with us.

The child in the manger. The scared and tired parents. The shepherds invited in. The stars and the angels. God is with us.

The child pulls cupped hands to face, opening them to peek inside. Eyes glisten, and widen. Wow. A tiny silver star. Not as large or as bright as the one that shone on that first Christmas night, but this child knows that it is holding a peace of heaven. This star shines with reflections of fairy lights, of tinsel and baubles, of smiles. This star shines with hope, and with love. This star shines with the reminder of God’s presence with us, this Christmas and always.

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