I’ve just set up my Nativity crib scene and I’m struck by what a busy little gathering it is. The manger, where baby Jesus will lie on Christmas Day, is surrounded on all sides by people and animals. There’s his mother Mary and his father Joseph. There are shepherds, wise men, angels and various others – probably, I think, people of Bethlehem who just happened to be around at the time.
This got me thinking about how God orchestrated this gathering so beautifully at the first Christmas.
So how did God set up the first Nativity crib scene?
Well, first, he used the Roman census to get Mary and Joseph (and the donkey!) to Bethlehem. Then he sent angels to the shepherds to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth. Then he put a huge star over the place where Jesus was born to guide the wise men to him. And then, by chance, there were others who also came and saw the baby. So that, in the end, we have a wonderful congregation – of all ages, backgrounds and even species – greeting the arrival of Jesus into our world.
What about today, this Christmas?
I believe that God also wants us to gather together today to remember and celebrate the birth of Christ. Some people may be intentionally journeying this Christmas to meet up with us; or we may be journeying ourselves to meet with them. God may be prompting many people to gather with others at carol services or Christmas services to hear the story of a Saviour who was born to bring peace on earth and goodwill to all. These congregations will be of all ages and backgrounds – and may even, here and there, include a donkey or a lamb!
Gathering is an essential part of Christmas
So let’s make sure we are part of God’s Nativity crib scene this year. If someone invites us to Church, let’s say yes. Let’s make the effort to go to the place God wants us to be, as Mary and Joseph did. If we hear God inviting us in our hearts, let’s say yes. Let’s say, as the shepherds did, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.’ If we are from another culture, even another faith, let’s see what we can learn from the story and message of Christmas. Let’s travel on a journey of exploration, as the wise men did, and see what this child in a manger has to teach us.
Let’s gather – young and not so young, rich and not so rich – in our churches and in our homes. Let’s discover what a baby, a very special baby, has to show us and the amazing difference he has the power to make in our lives and our world.
No, no, I haven’t gone completely mad. I’m not a month ahead of myself – it really is a new year – a new year in the Church calendar.
The Church year starts on Advent Sunday (four Sundays before Christmas Day) and it is a time when we are called to wake up and get ready for the coming of Christ . This getting ready means preparing to celebrate his first coming 2000 years ago; it means inviting him into our hearts through the power of The Holy spirit today; and it means looking forward to his second coming – when peace and justice will reign in our world always.
Special prayer for the start of Advent
In the first week of Advent we pray a special prayer which includes the words Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. I love this prayer and think it’s worth stopping and thinking a bit about what these words really mean.
What is the armour of light?
First of all, the words come from a letter that St Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome around 60AD. Paul has been talking in the letter about what it means to be a Christian – reminding his readers of the ten commandments and how they have been fulfilled in Christ’s command that we should love one another as he has loved us.
St Paul then says that now is the moment to wake from sleep. By this, he means that it’s time to wake up and to stop just going with the flow, doing the same as everyone else in our culture.
We need to wake up, cast away the things we know are damaging for ourselves and for others and put on the armour of light. We need to put on clothing that will protect us from temptation.
Paul speaks about the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of hope.
Why do we need the armour of light?
We need this protection because life is a battle. We are constantly at risk of being assaulted by temptation and injured by living our lives out of line with God’s will.
There will be times every day when we are bored or busy, lonely or overwhelmed, discouraged or puffed up with pride. We can then very easily respond to these feelings with alcohol or binge eating or spending hours on social media or saying and doing unkind things.
But what if we have put on the armour of light? What does it mean to do that?
What putting on the armour of light looks like
Well, it means that we took the trouble and found the time to start the day by reading our Bibles and praying – maybe alone or maybe by going to Morning Prayer at our local church. It means we went to Church last Sunday (and we go every Sunday) and we really absorbed the message about God’s calling for us to be a blessing to all nations. It means that we punctuate our days with prayer so that we are more Christlike in our relationships with others.
This is what it means to put on the armour of light.
Advent is the time running up to Christmas and it can be stressful. You may feel fraught; you may feel frustrated; you may feel forsaken. Whatever your feelings, remember to out on the armour of light every day and be protected.
St Paul goes on, a couple of verses later, in his letter to say put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Clothe yourself in Christ. Clothe yourself in faith in Christ, in the hope that you have of new life in Christ and in the love of Christ – for you and for the whole world.
And as the special Advent prayer goes,
May God grant you the grace
to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day…
we may rise to the life immortal. Amen.
In Jesus’ times the Jewish people expected the great prophet Elijah to come again – and, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus suggests that this has happened in John the Baptist. He says to his disciples, ‘If you are willing to accept it, John is Elijah who is to come.’
Accepting this, people began to ask whether Jesus – who seemed to continue the ministry that John the Baptist had started – was Elisha, the even greater prophet who succeeded Elijah.
It’s an interesting question. And, when we read the Old Testament stories about Elisha, we see many similarities between Jesus and Elisha.
Here are ten of them:
1. Their names have similar meanings
Elisha means ‘God is salvation.’ Jesus means ‘Yahweh will save.’
2. Their ministries both start at the River Jordan
Elisha takes up the mantle of Elijah at the River Jordan and starts his ministry. Jesus is baptised by John at the River Jordan and starts his ministry. Elisha sees the heavens open and Elijah being taken up in a whirlwind and then receives a ‘double portion’ of the Holy Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism John sees the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove.
3. They both raise a woman’s adult son from the dead
Elisha raises the son of the ‘Shunaammite woman’ from the dead. Jesus raises the son of the ‘widow of Nain’ from the dead.
4. They both feed large numbers with a small quantity of food
Elisha feeds 100 men with a few barley loaves and there is food left over. Jesus, on two occasions, feeds 5000 and then 4000 with a few loaves and fishes and there is food left over.
5. They both turn a small quantity of liquid into an abundance
Elisha turns a small amount of oil into enough oil to fill every vessel in the community. Jesus turns water into huge quantities of wine.
6. They both heal lepers
Elisha heals Naaman, the Syrian commander, of leprosy. Jesus heals many lepers.
7. They both make things that should sink, float
Elisha makes an iron axe head float. Jesus walks on water and enables his disciple Peter to walk on water.
8. They are both betrayed for love of money
Elisha is betrayed by his servant Gehazi because Gehazi sees an opportunity to make money from betrayal. Jesus is betrayed by his disciple Judas because Judas sees an opportunity to make money from betrayal.
9. They both give sight to the blind
Elisha first blinds his enemies and then restores their sight. Jesus often restores sight to the blind.
10. Their deaths bring new life
Elisha’s tomb was a place of resurrection. Raiders interrupted a burial and the body was thrown hastily into Elisha’s tomb. On touching Elisha’s bones, the dead person came back to life. Jesus’ tomb was a place of resurrection. He himself was raised to life and brought the promise of new life to all.
It’s fascinating to see all these parallels and how the ministry of Elijah points forward to the time when the will of God would be revealed uniquely and fully through the person of Jesus Christ.
The ministries of Elisha and Jesus share similarities – not that surprisingly, as they both lived their lives in relationship with God. But Jesus, as God’s son, lives fully in relationship with God in a way that no other has or can. This is why, as Christians, we believe that God is completely revealed in Jesus.
One of the things I most enjoyed about the recent BBC drama Bodyguard was how the character David Budd was constantly looking up and around when on duty – scanning rooftops and high places and scrutinising places that others didn’t seem to notice.
When I read in Luke’s gospel the story of Zacchaeus – the despised tax collector who climbed a tree to see Jesus and yet remained unseen, I think of Jesus looking up and around like David Budd.
The story of Zacchaeus is a wonderful story and tells us so much about Jesus and why God sent him.
What the story of Zacchaeus tells us about Jesus
First, Jesus is constantly on the look out for the lost. No one else notices Zacchaeus high up in the tree – well above eye level – but Jesus does.
Secondly, Jesus knows the names of the lost. He doesn’t need to ask Zacchaeus who he is.
Thirdly, Jesus calls to the lost; he speaks to them. He says to Zacchaeus, ‘Hurry. Come down from the tree.’
Fourthly, Jesus wants to be with the lost. He tells Zacchaeus he wants to come to his house to eat. Offering to eat with someone in Jesus’ time and culture meant asking them to be your friend. Jesus wants to be with the lost so that they are no longer lost: they are found. And when people are found, when they are with Jesus, their lives are changed. And we certainly see that with Zacchaeus.
Just in case that’s not absolutely clear, the storyteller – Luke – says ‘For the Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek out and save the lost.’
What the story of Zacchaeus tells us about us
From Zacchaeus’s point of view, we see first that we can never hide from Jesus when we are lost. He will always be seeking us, scanning the scene for us, trying to locate us.
Secondly, Jesus knows us by name when we are lost. We may be lost but we are never forgotten. God has our names on his ‘Missing’ list.
Thirdly, Jesus doesn’t just want to say Hi to us, he wants to share his life with us. Every bit of our lives.
Fourthly, when we open the door to Jesus, when we open up our hearts to him, he comes in and brings us joy. Luke says that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus. Even though - when Jesus comes into his life - Zacchaeus has to give half of all his possessions to the poor and more to people he has cheated – Zacchaeus is still full of joy.
We are all lost. We are all like sheep who have gone astray. So don’t hide from Jesus. Hear him call your name. Accept his desire to share his life with you. See the crazy things this will make you do. And experience what true joy is all about.
There’s a passage in the book of Acts in the Bible where the early followers of Jesus are said to ‘spend much time together.’ And this is a time of growth and flourishing in the early Church - despite opposition and adversity.
I was struck by the passage. And it made me ask how much people in my own Christian community spend together (outside Sunday morning services) and whether spending more time together might really re-energise our Church.
Spending time with others is important. As Christians, we need to spend time with Jesus (by reading our Bibles, coming to Church and praying) and with fellow Christians – both to encourage one another in the faith but also to enable us to see where and when we are getting things wrong. In order to journey towards truth.
No one likes, of course, to be wrong. It seems to imply we are lazy or stupid if we get things wrong. But, at the same time, we realise and accept that we are human and all human beings make mistakes.
In the 5th Century St Augustine said Fallor, ergo sum - which means I err, therefore I am. (Many centuries before Descartes’ more famous I think, therefore I am.)
It is fundamental to our human condition to err, to make mistakes, to be wrong.
But how does being wrong make you feel? Well, it makes you feel devastated, ashamed, embarrassed. Right?
Well, no – not right.
The thing is that we only feel devastated, ashamed and embarrassed when we REALISE we are wrong.
When we are simply wrong in our thinking we don’t then know we are wrong, So we don’t feel any of these things. In fact, we feel like we are right!
George Bush thought he was right when he invaded Iraq because he thought he would find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction there. He thought he would destroy the weapons, liberate the Iraqi people and instate democracy. But he was wrong.
What happens when we think we are right and others don’t
Often we are so certain of our rightness that we can’t understand how others don’t see things the way we do.
We, therefore, presume they are ignorant – that they don’t know the facts. We try telling them, we try berating them with evidence. But still they don’t come over to our way of seeing things.
So then we think they must be idiots.
But we know that they are perfectly intelligent, educated people.
And so what do we conclude?
Well, we don’t even start to consider the smallest possibility that we might be wrong – either completely or partially. That our opponents might have a point in their perception and understanding. So we conclude that they must be evil. And we start to label, ostracise and demonise them.
And we all know where that leads.
Importance of spending time with others
The truth is we should live in the knowledge that, at any time on any matter, we may be wrong. And spending time with others – particularly, as Christians, spending time with Jesus and fellow Christians – can help us and them to come closer to truth.
We all have agendas and interpretations that we truly believe are right but that really need greater questioning. Where we need to do more listening. Where we need to spend more time with others.
This is why community is so essential to the Christian journey. If we really want to seek truth.
So step outside the tiny terrified space that is insisting on your ‘rightness’ and dare to consider you may be wrong. That can sound a scary concept. But, if you have the courage to do it, it is truly liberating.
Today is Bible Sunday – when we reflect on how God reveals himself to us through scripture.
If you haven’t read much of the Bible, then why not give it a try? Perhaps start with a gospel – one of the accounts of Jesus’s life contained in the New Testament.
When I was a child I loved the Old Testament stories like David and Goliath and Daniel in the lions’ den – here’s a pic of me with my very first Bible... But I stopped reading the bible in my twenties and was only drawn back to it one day when I sat down and read Mathew’s gospel.
The Bible is not one big book that needs to be read from cover to cover. It’s a collection of 66 books – so don’t feel you have to start at the beginning. You can really start anywhere.
And the wonderful thing about the Bible is that – despite the many difficult passages it contains – God does continue to speak very powerfully to us through these books.
So, to whet your appetite – and to celebrate Bible Sunday - here are seven amazing facts about the Bible:
1. The Bible was written on three continents
Most of the Bible was written in what is modern-day Israel (Asia). But some passages of Jeremiah were written in Egypt (Africa) and several New Testament epistles were written from cities in Europe.
2.The Sinners’ Bible
In 1631, a publishing company published a Bible omitting the word ‘not’ in the Seventh Commandment - so that it read, “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery.” Only nine of these Bibles, known as the “Sinners’ Bible,” exist today.
3.Animals of the Bible
Did you know that dogs are mentioned fourteen times in the Bible, lions are mentioned 55 times and even unicorns get a mention in Isaiah. But there are no references to cats – sadly.
The longest word in the Bible is ‘Pelejoezelgibborabiadsarshalom ’ – a name given to a child meaning ‘Wonderful in counsel is God the mighty, the Everlasting Father, the Ruler of Peace’ (in Isaiah 9.6.) Let’s hope I never have to baptise a child with that name!
5.The oldest man
The oldest man in the Bible is 'Methuselah' who is said to have lived to be 969 years old.
There are many phrases that are repeated in the Bible. The phrase 'Do not be afraid' can be found 365 times – a different verse for every day of the year. Do you think God might be trying to tell us something?
7.The last word
The last word in the Bible is Amen. A Hebrew word meaning ‘So be it.’ A good way to end this amazing book of books.
A very special woman in my congregation, and friend, died recently and she left a prayer in her papers that she particularly loved.
I thought I’d share that prayer, as it speaks both of the person she was and also of the people we are all called to be as Christians – people who are both self-giving and self-loving.
My friend always had time for others and yet she also made sure she enjoyed life to the full.
So often we are good at doing one of these things, but rarely both.
And yet, Jesus calls us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. So, to be self-giving we must be self-loving too. And when we are self-loving we find ourselves being self-giving too. It’s a wonderful cycle.
So here’s the prayer:
Just for today help us to take one day at a time,
and not try to tackle all of life’s problems before lunch.
Just for today help us to adjust to what is,
and not to keep trying to adjust everything else to our own desires.
Just for today encourage us to strengthen our minds - to learn something useful, to read something that requires effort, thought and concentration.
Just for today help us to nourish our souls in three ways – to do somebody a good turn and not to get found out; to do something we don’t want to do; and, if our feelings are hurt, not to show it.
Just for today help us to look as agreeable as we can, to speak low, to act courteously, to be non-judgemental in our dealings with others, and not to try to improve anybody except ourselves.
Just for today help us to find a quiet half hour by ourselves for meditation and relaxation when we can try to get a better perspective of our lives.
Just for today help us to be unafraid – especially let us not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful.