Read Mark and Inwardly Digest? Where’s Nathanael?

Once again we find ourselves not in the Gospel of Mark! In this season of Epiphany the lectionary wants us to consider how those who met face to face with the adult Jesus responded to him, as well as the visitation of the Magi to the infant Christ. Today we are asked to think about Nathanael and his response – quite an intriguing one – the thing is, Nathanael isn’t mentioned in Mark’s gospel. Mark recalls how the four fishermen instantly responded, dropping their nets and becoming ‘fishers of men’; also Levi who gave up the lucrative tax collecting business, but none of the others’ stories are recorded. Philip who features in this passage from John alongside Nathanael is at least listed amongst the 12, but Nathanael isn’t (unless he is hiding under a pseudonym – there are many suggestions that Nathanael is referred to as Bartholomew in the other gospels.)

So why is Nathanael so important?

Well Nathanael is one of those very special types of people who we might call ‘the salt of the earth’, ‘a rough diamond’, someone who would call a spade a spade, someone without any airs or graces, or as John writes, ‘an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’.

Nathanael doesn’t seem to hold any airs or graces, he is certainly not one to have the wool pulled over his eyes. His first response to Philip’ invitation to ‘come and see’, is rather a rude scepticism, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’.

And yet, when he sees Jesus face to face, it is clear that they have already met. Nathanael seems to like the way that Jesus describes his character, ‘Where did you get to know me?’ he asks, which I can imagine him saying with a bit of a grin and a wink, as if to say ‘my reputation goes before me’, as if to own the description as being true.

Jesus answers him by saying, in a round about way, that they have met before, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’. Fig trees were known as places of prayer. Nathanael may be a rather sceptical rough diamond who doesn’t hold back, but he is also devout and faithful – a strong combination for a disciple, and he now recognises that Jesus is the one to whom he has been praying all this time. He declares,

You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

Long before Peter makes his declaration of Jesus as Messiah, Nathanael has nailed it.

Underneath his fig tree, Nathanael has found a ‘thin space’ between heaven and earth, here, in his devotions he has found a connection with the heavenly realm, but that is nothing compared to what is to come. Jesus promises this descendant of Jacob, that he too will see

heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending

but, for Nathanael, the prayerful, the ‘ladder’ that connects the two will be Jesus himself.

This is Nathanael’s epiphany moment: Nathanael meets the man of his prayers, finds himself loved and accepted and called into a purpose. What is our epiphany moment? Nathanael’s began with prayer, devout and regular prayer in a place of peace, set aside from daily life: not a monastery or a temple, but an easily found place that he could make his own. Nathanael, first got to know God in the ethereal realms of spirituality before coming face to face with the Son of God. If we want to discover God’s love and purpose for our lives then we too need to begin with prayer. Not just the prayers in church on a Sunday, but regular, personal prayer in your own set-aside space. There Jesus will come and find us, and call us, and there we will find his love and acceptance, and if we are willing to accept it, his calling too.

Read the gospel passage here.

Something to watch:

 

Something to think about:

  • What to you would be ‘Nazareth’ – a place from which no good could come?
  • Why do you think it was important for Jesus to have Nathanael in his ‘pack’? What attributes do you think his ‘lack of deceit’ could bring to Jesus’ ministry?
  • Why do you think Nathanael is given so little column space in the other gospels?
  • What unusual ‘attributes’ do you think you have that could be of use to God? If you are meeting in a group, spend some time thinking about each other’s attributes and perhaps, kindly, sharing them.
  • How can you safeguard time for personal prayer? Where is your ‘fig tree’?
  • Spend some time now, quietly waiting upon God – have something to hand to prayerfully fiddle with as you do so (a ribbon, some prayer beads, play dough..)

Something to pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you know us better than we know ourselves, seeing us as we really are, with all our faults and limitations, our quirks and weaknesses, yet giving your all for us in love.

Help us simply to know you better – glimpsing a little more clearly who you are in all your glory, greatness, love and compassion – so that, in love, we might give back to you in love, offering our worship now, our time today and our discipleship always, in grateful response. Amen.                                                               Nick Fawcett

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Epiphany: Leaving by Another Road

 

The night that Jesus was born a star hung from the sky. A star so bright that it shone light and hope into some of the darkest of places. A star so bright that it gained the attention of astrologers in other parts of the world. A star so bright that it demanded attention.

The attention the Magi, the Wise Men gave the star took time and deliberation. They didn’t just set off on camels, they did their research to try and understand what this brightest of stars could mean, and although they were not Hebrews they found their way to Jewish prophecies, and understood the significance of the ‘supernova’; understood enough to know that the gifts they should take with them needed to be fit for royalty, for deity, needed to reveal their understanding of that star.

The research, the gifts, the journey, took 2 years – Jesus was no longer a babe in arms, now a toddling child. The return journey would present a challenge, the return journey demanded a change from the Magi. They left by a different road.

Herod, it seems hadn’t noticed the star, even though it shone so brightly above him. Herod needed to have both the star and its significance explained to him, and when it was, he was not happy. His own researchers came to the same conclusion that the magi had: the star equated royalty, deity, competition, change. Change scared Herod: change could mean a loss of power and respect, it could mean the loss of his lifestyle, even his life under Roman rule.

Just as the Magi had been compelled to come close and to respond with love and gifts, Herod had been threatened by the prospect of a new, usurping, king and responded with fear and hate and violence.

The magi observed a star, so bright that it demanded their attention and made them question everything they knew. What did you observe this Christmas? What has demanded your attention, what has raised questions for you?

We think we know the Christmas story so well that we almost ignore it, disengage from the questions at the heart of it; however the birth of a king, of God himself, is something to be celebrated, pondered upon, worshipped… each year we are invited to be present just as the Magi were, and we are invited to be changed by the experience of meeting with God himself.

Once Christmas is over and the decorations are packed away, we can return to our everyday lives as if nothing has changed, but if we do, then our celebrations have been meaningless. Experiencing ‘God with Us’ is life-changing, but change is challenging, threatening, exhilarating, adventurous… Do we have the courage to make the Christmas story a reality in our everyday lives? Do we have the courage to commit ourselves to Jesus everyday and not just Christmas day? What will we need to change in order to do so?

Or are we too scared of change to do anything? Will we allow fear to eat away at us as Herod did, or will we look to travel a different way into the new year as we continue our encounter with Jesus?

Something to watch:

 

Something to think about:

  • What has surprised you this Christmas?
  • What part of the Christmas story has moved you this year?
  • Why do you think that the Magi responded with such positive energy towards the star?
  • How were the Magi open to the warning of the dream to travel by another road?
  • What challenges wait for us as Christians in the year ahead  (individually or as a church)?
  • How can we respond as the Magi did?
  • What do we need to set aside in order not to respond as Herod did?

Something to pray:

Lord God, the bright splendour whom the nations seek: may we who with the wise men have been drawn by your light discern the glory of our presence in your Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Christmas in a Nutshell

One of the most magical experiences of the Christmas Festivities is going to see a production of The Nutcracker. I took my girls for the fist time this year and we waited with bated breath for the dance of the sugarplum fairy.

But what has this to do with Christmas really and truly?

In the ballet we are welcomed into a family’s preparations for Christmas: Clara is waiting with great expectation for her Godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer to arrive knowing that he will bring unusual gifts and excitement with him. Indeed he doesn’t disappoint, bringing with him magic and toys. His special gift for Clara is a nutcracker fashioned as a handsome soldier, however, in an argument with her brother the nutcracker is broken. Herr Drosselmeyer mends him and lays him to rest on a high shelf.

Clara cannot sleep though and at midnight returns to check on her handsome soldier. And then the magic really begins, as the Christmas tree begins to grow, and then the room is over run by mice, a battle ensues and the Nutcracker duels the Mouse King. In a puff of smoke Clara and her handsome prince are transported to the Kingdom of Sweets where they are welcomed by the Sugar Plum Fairy.

So we have a God Father who brings an unexpected gift, a Young Girl who receives a Transformational Present, a Dashing Soldier Dressed in Red, a place over run by Animals, a Heavenly Being who dances with joy and an adventure that begins underneath a Christmas tree.

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This is beginning to sound like another story: God the Father, Presents a Young Girl with a Transformational opportunity. In a land ruled by Roman Soldiers Dressed in Red, she finds herself giving birth in a place reserved for Animals, and Heavenly Bodies sing and dance for joy. And it all begins because of Christ.

 

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And that is Christmas in a nutshell.

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Christmas Already?

Today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the day we light the fourth candle on the Advent Wreath, the candle for Love, the candle for Mary and all mothers; but today is also Christmas Eve, and I feel cheated of time. I am just not ready, I need another week, at least.

A few decorations have been used to sparsely decorate the house, the tree is just beginning to warm up after 3 weeks of sitting outside, wrapped in netting. The Christmas cake remains un-iced, and laundry is still scattered around the house. Of course I knew that Christmas was coming, it happens on the same date each year, I have had plenty of warning, 12 months of warning, yet, I had been banking on that last week of Advent to really get ready, those last few days between the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Day. This year there are no ‘last few days’.

I wonder if Mary also felt cheated of time? I wonder if she too felt caught unawares? Of course she knew that the baby was due, her size could not have hidden that from her. She had spent time with her elderly cousin in her last trimester, she knew that a baby took 9 months to cook and would then need a safe space in which to be born, and helping hands (of the female variety) to see her through labour. Perhaps the baby was premature? The Bible doesn’t say so or even hint at it, but all that travelling so late in pregnancy could well have moved things on – especially if she really had been travelling by donkey (although the Bible doesn’t mention a donkey either).

Each year I have great plans for family festivities and slowly dressing the house over the course of Advent. I dream up great new bakes, imagine hand festooned garlands and beautifully wrapped gifts. Scented candles, Christmas jim jams and matching bedding. The reality is so much….less. The birds for the boxing day game pie are still hanging in the out-shed and the venison frozen. Husband has had shop-made mince pies delivered – the shame!

I imagine Mary would have envisioned a home birth, her mother and sisters at hand to guide her through the labour pains, to reassure and comfort her. I imagine Joseph would have been free from any maternity duties, except naming his son and heir. Instead, Mary and Joseph were caught short, in a strange town, although home to ancestors. No bed for Mary, no sitting stool to labour, no familiar faces or helping hands, and no safe space for Joseph.

And yet, their Christmas was the most perfect ever. Angels sang, supernovas shone, animals warmed the room and provided a crib. Shepherds brought blessings…

This Christmas will not be the pinterest-perfect showpiece I had imagined, but that doesn’t matter. The few gifts I managed to order are stuck at the depot, the lights I had strung have blown, nothing has been festooned. I doubt if there will even be peace on earth, especially when Monopoly comes out. But God will be with us. And that is what will make Christmas perfect, if I can stop for long enough to stop panicking about the Turkey.

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Soul Food: Sugar Plum Fairy Cookies

It’s time to prepare the Christmas Boxes as thank yous for all those who help to make life a little more joyful, beginning with my daughter’s dance teacher. Earlier this year we had a family outing to the ballet to see The Nutcracker, and so some Nutcracker inspired cookies seemed to be perfect.

I adapted a recipe from Mima Sinclair’s Gingerbread Wonderland by making my own molasses by simmering a handful of prunes in some apple juice and then blended into a paste, and instead of lemon juice in the icing I used orange juice.

There’s nothing particularly Biblical or true to the Christmas stories about these cookies, other than the fact that I had to use an angel cutter as I don’t (yet) possess a ballerina or fairy cutter. However, the Nativity story is full of a sense of ‘What If?’..

 

.. What if Mary had said no? What if Joseph had deserted her? What if there hadn’t even been a manger for the baby to be laid? What if the Angels had lost their voices and hadn’t been able to sing? What if the Shepherds were too scared to leave their sheep? What if the Magi hadn’t been adventurous enough to follow a star? What if the Christmas story is true? What if Jesus really is God?

It is also full of thankfulness and joy, and so these cookies are baked with joy and given with thanks to an extraordinary dance teacher.

Ingredients:

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  • 140g prune molasses (see above)
  • 200g soft light brown sugar
  • 200g  butter
  • 4 tsp ground ginger
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 500g plain floour
  • 1 lightly beaten egg
  1. Melt the molasses, sugar, butter and spices over a medium heat until sugar has dissolved.
  2. Bring to boiling point then remove from heat.
  3. Add the bicarb and watch the magic as everything bubbles up.
  4. Have a cuppa whilst the mixture cools for 15 mins.
  5. Sift the flour and fold into the mixture a spoonful at a time.
  6. Beat in the egg using a wooden spoon – but be careful not to overwork the mixture otherwise the biscuits will lose their shape.
  7. Knead lightly until everything is combined.
  8. Wrap in cling film and leave in the fridge for an hour to firm up.
  9. Run yourself a bath!
  10. Set the oven to 160c /Gas 3.
  11. Take a chunk of dough and roll it out, then cut angel/ballerina/fairy shapes and place onto a buttered tray. Place tray in fridge for 5 minutes to prevent the shape running whilst cooking.
  12. Once golden remove from the oven and rest still on the tray for 5 minutes before removing to a cooling rack.
  13. Repeat until dough has been used up – this is rather a large batch of dough so you can cut other shapes too depending n who you wish to thank.

I decided to decorate my fairies using a line and flood technique, outlining he shapes with white Royal Icing, then adding some more water and food colouring to create the ‘plum’ effect to flood the outlines. Finally they were dusted with edible glitter, placed gently in a box and sealed with a bow.

 

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Carols by Candlelight

I remember Carols by Candlelight at the church I grew up in. The church, similar in size to St Leonard’s in Grateley, would be decked out in greenery and candles at every possible ledge or shelf, and special wooden poles would be fixed into each and every pew so that candles could be attached. No electric lighting was required, except perhaps for the organist.

I have to confess to being somewhat disappionted when after a very warm and atmospheric beginning to our carols services, with only the candles lit as the soloist sings the opening to Once in Royal David’s City, the church is flooded once more with electric light, because no one can see other wise.

I guess we have all become so accustomed to the power of electricity that our eyes can no longer focus unaided by a light bulb. I am sure if we really tried hard enough we could sing the carols from memory, couldn’t we?

The thing is, when we shut out the darkness, the half light, we forget our need for the true light.  We shut ourselves away from the darkness, switch on our lamps and lightbulbs, click onto our electronic back lit devices and are blinded by the wealth and power surrounding us, to our need for a light that is true. Even our streets are illuminated.

In the beginning all was dark, all was chaos and blindness, until ‘Very light of Very light’ spoke and created light. There was still night and day, still a time for work and for rest, but the light brightened everything.

Today, despite the light that we have created being so light, we find it hard to find the hope,the peace, the joy, the love with which that first light shone.

I discovered a charity this week which

brings light to the darkest of places, revealing children hidden from the world and guiding them home.

The charity is called Lumos, light. The Light of the World which our candlelight services end with, is the light that seeks to find children lost in the dark and lead them home: God’s children who have gone stray, who have roamed, who have rebelled, who have been left behind, are all precious to God. So precious that he sent his Son into the brokenness and bleakness and darkness once more to guide them, guide us home.

This Christmas as we switch on our own Christmas lights, perhaps we can create a central focus in our homes for our own Nativity, allow it to be the brightest light amidst all the decorations, perhaps even turn off the lights and let the light of Christ shine in our hearts calling us home to be with Him once more.

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Read Mark and Inwardly Digest: Christmas Lights

This week’s Gospel reading doesn’t come from Mark, it comes from John, but is an echo of last week’s passage.

Both readings focus in on John the Baptist, but with different results. If we follow the themes of the Advent candles, this week brings us Joy. It is Gaudate Sunday, a day of rejoicing and for those who like to fast during Advent, a time to relax those limitations – so go on, have a mince pie and rejoice. We are coming closer to Christmas, we are half way through Advent and the huge celebration, the Feast is close to hand. It is also the Sunday set aside to remember John, not to be confused with last week when we remembered all the prophets including John.

So what is different between these two passages, why are we set practically the same reading two weeks in a row? Is it merely to stretch preachers’ abilities and creativity at a time when sermons and addresses are already at a premium with all the additional services; or does this same passage have something different to tell us, something equally important and needing more time to understand?

Last week Mark described John: what he wore, where he lived, what he ate, what he spoke and did. This week is about NOT John. This week is about what John is not.

John is NOT the Messiah. John is not the one that everybody has been waiting for, except in the sense that a prophet would come to point the way, to shine the light on the one to come, the one who is coming, now. I imagine those huge spotlights used for film premiers. John is not the one on the carpet, not the one the paparazzi are calling to, John is not the headliner, the director, the producer or even the co-star or supporting cast of thousands, he is the one behind the spotlight, the one training it on Jesus.

However, there is nothing glitzy or glamorous going on here. We discovered last week that the location for this moment is not a red carpet and VIP suites, but a wilderness, a barren land, and a river, set apart from civilisation.

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This week, the Gospel writer takes us back to the very beginning of creation, when there was nothing civil,only chaos, and into that chaos, God spoke, and the word that was heard came into being, and the word was ‘light’.

Let there be light!

and there was light, because the word spoken was a reflection of the being who spoke it, and that being was Jesus himself. God spoke creation into being and now God has come to be among his people, his created beings.

And John is here to deflect the attention from himself, to direct it to the one who brings true light, not just glitter and sparkle which will tarnish in time, but light which will bring all that is good to life, just as had happened at the beginning of the world. Light that will  bring with it joy and celebration and a new way of seeing and understanding the chaos that is all around.

As we follow John’s direction and look where he is pointing our attention, we will realise that John isn’t shining a spotlight on Jesus after all. That light, that glow that surrounds the man whose baptism by John was sealed with the presence of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of God the Father, emanates from himself. John isn’t ‘bigging him up’, he is taking note, legal records, standing as witness to the very presence of the Light of the World, the King of Creation, the Messiah, the Son of God, with us, here and now.

And that is something worth rejoicing over.

Something to do:

Light 3 candles. Read aloud the passage from Mark 1: 1-8. and the passage from John 1:6-8 Take some time to sit quietly with the readings. What differences jump out at you, what similarities? What images are created in your head? What associated words come to mind? What feelings and emotions are created within you? What music can you hear? If you feel comfortable, share these with others.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • Have you ever visited a place for their display of lights, or been present at the switching on of the Christmas Lights? What drew you?
  • Why do you think John was so eager to deflect light and attention from himself?
  • Why do you think we are set passages on John two weeks in a row to consider?
  • What do we gain in our understanding of Jesus from this week’s reading which wasn’t apparent last week?
  • If you had to choose just one reading which would it be, and why?
  • How can we, like John, deflect the attention to Jesus? How can we ‘testify to the light’?

Something to pray:

We continue our celebration of Advent.
We light the candles on the wreath and we are reminded of the great gift that is ours in Jesus Christ.

As we light the candles we will rejoice that Christ has come to us.
He is Immanuel…God with us.

On this third Sunday of Advent,
as we think about the coming of Jesus Christ,
we light the candle of joy.

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