Which Mountain?

The Sermon on the Plain AKA The Sermon on the Mount

An atheist challenged a vicar saying, “I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, but I live by the Sermon on the Mount.  “Excellent,” replied the vicar, “how are you getting on with loving your enemies?” The atheist spluttered a bit and walked away.  Many people say they admire the teaching of Jesus, without ever having read it. When you look closely, you can’t do what he teaches unless you believe that he has the godlike power to help you to. But wait, Matthew wrote: “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain….” and then continues into what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount – but, and here’s the problem with that, there aren’t any mountains close to Lake Galilee!  So, which mountain did Matthew mean?

St Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, says that Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place,” so we call Luke’s version, the version we have just heard, the Sermon on the Plain.  It contains a lot of the teaching found in Matthew’s more familiar version, often called the Beatitudes, only Luke’s version seems more personal because instead of “Blessed are those who mourn,” which we hear in Matthew’s version, Luke writes, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  He makes it more challenging too: instead of the poor in spirit and those who hunger after righteousness, Luke has, “Blessed are you who are poor. Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are you when people hate you…”  Luke also highlights the opposites, which are a real challenge to social inequality: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you….”  Like Matthew, Luke shows that the outcome of all this is a command to love, but it’s even more challenging even than we find in Matthew’s version. Luke reports that Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” and “do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is a well-nigh impossible target to aim at and I’m sure none of us could boast that we live our lives in this way at all times.

So, why the difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions? Well, I believe it is do with the audience for which they were writing.  Luke, a Greek physician, wrote a non-Jewish readership; he mentions that Gentiles were amongst those listening to Jesus, and he doesn’t assume that his readers will be familiar with Jewish Scriptures.  Matthew, on the other hand, is a Jewish tax-collector, and he quotes repeatedly from the OT, and according to Matthew Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Just what a Jewish audience wanted to hear; but it wasn’t what Luke’s mentor Paul was teaching his Greek listeners, because he knew that it would put them right off wanting to become a Christian.

Luke and Matthew probably heard or read some the words that Jesus actually spoke on that day by Lake Galilee, over two thousand years ago, then selected and translated them in such a way to be most helpful to the people they were writing for. The answer to our question then, “Which mountain?” is that Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, standing on Mt Sinai to define for Jews a new law – whereas Luke wanted to challenge non-Jews with the highest standards of personal love and social justice to aim at. Read Luke chapter 6 again when you get home and realise just how much further you need to go before you come anywhere near this impossible standard. Then ask Jesus for his Holy Spirit to inspire you, because that’s the only way we can rise to the challenge.

 

 

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Testify To The Light

Advent 2016

There is a strong contrast between Advent and Christmas. It is a little like the contrast between waiting to have a baby, and then actually having that baby. When I was expecting Lilibeth, I had lots of ideas about what he or she would be like: first and foremost, would it be a boy or a girl; what colour eyes would the baby have; would the baby take after me; and most important of all would the child be fit and healthy. So I waited for the baby to come and I tried to get things ready as best as I could with so little knowledge of what to expect. But when Lilibeth arrived, everything changed. It was a little like I thought it would be, but also very different. Lilibeth looked more like her Dad. She was a girl (obviously). She takes more after my Mum than she does me. Her eyes are the same colour as my Dad’s.  But the biggest difference is in the way I felt and viewed the world. The moment that I held my beautiful little girl in my arms I knew that my life would never be the same again, and nor would I ever want it to. I had experienced what it is like to feel true unconditional love at first sight, and no amount of preparation and expectation could prepare me for that, knowing that I was now responsible for another human being for whom I would gladly lay down my life if I ever needed to.  And because of this I truly grasped how much God loves us; after all He too was prepared to give his life for us.

During Advent we get ready. We get ready to celebrate the birth of another baby and we get ready for his coming again. Once Jesus came into the world, things were never the same again. Never. Now Jesus was not the kind of saviour that everyone had in mind; in fact it was a bit like the difference between the expectation and the reality of Lilibeth’s arrival. Jesus was a different kind of baby. No prince, although we call him the prince of peace. And certainly no king, although we call him the king of kings. He was born to regular working people. Not in Jerusalem. Not to a rabbi. But to Mary and Joseph. The people of Israel had been waiting more than 500 years for him. Prophet after prophet had expected him to come and save them.

The last prophet before Jesus came was John the Baptist. John was just a few years ahead of Jesus, and he warned the people to prepare for Jesus.

Today is the half way point in Advent and it gives us a little break from the solemn nature of the season so that we might evaluate where we are in our preparation for the coming of the light into the world.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not doing very well. My preparation has fallen behind. You see, I’m strictly an “A type” and I’ve been so busy with day-to-day tasks that I haven’t put aside time for a special Advent devotion. I often try to read an Advent-themed book or take on a spiritual discipline, but not so far… I just can’t seem to slow down long enough to take on another task.

And you know, some things never change, I was once described as someone who is “perpetually running in circles trying to stop.” That’s how I feel this Advent. I can’t stop: there’s so much to do and yet I feel guilty for not doing something, anything to help me focus on what is really taking place right now: we are preparing for the coming of Jesus into the world, into our lives. But the reading from today, has saved me. I now have a game plan.

When I was preparing my sermon, today’s Gospel made me aware of the paradox that exists in Advent, between the expectation to be still, to wait, and the overwhelming urge to take action, to do something to prepare for Jesus’ coming into the world.

I was inspired by the Fourth Gospel’s portrayal of John. It differs from the other three Gospels in that he is referred to as John the Baptist in Matt, Mark & Luke, but in John he is called “the forerunner of Jesus”. We read that “he came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

In today’s Gospel, we don’t spend a lot of time reading how neurotic John was, we simply see him as a maverick preacher who made the religious establishment nervous, so nervous that they sent a party out to interrogate him.

“Who are you?” they asked. John replies that he i not the Messiah, or a prophet announcing the Messiah, or one such as Elijah, or the prophet, Moses. John identifies himself as the prophetic voice of one such as the figure of Isaiah whose role in the sixth century before Christ announced the return of God’s people from their years of captivity in Babylon: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'” (1:22-23, citing Isaiah 40:3).

John’s role is to make straight the way to the one who comes as the Messiah, and he does this through his identity in the role given him by God. He is simply the witness to the one whom God has sent.

The Gospel of John identifies John in a unique way and serves as a marvellous Advent text. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Gospel of John identifies this person only as John, and does not attach his identity as “the baptist” with his person. Only in a very unique way do we hear about the baptism of John in his words: “I baptize with water” (1:26), and in reference to Jesus in later verses, John says, “I myself did not know him, but I came baptizing with water for this reason that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31).

John bears witness to the baptism event: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him but the one who sent to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (1:32-34).

These verses are not included in the assigned text for this Sunday, but they are very important in filling out the portrait of John and his role in this gospel. What we begin to see is that the figure of John in the Gospel of John plays a unique role. John is not identified as the forerunner of the Messiah, which is his role in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the Gospel of John, he is portrayed as the primary witness to Jesus as he looks back on his relationship to Jesus. John is the first person in this gospel to bear witness and confess that Jesus is “the Son of God” (1:34). This confession is heard from a human witness not until the very end of the Gospel of Mark when we hear the confession of the centurion standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus has breathed his last: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).

The role of John continues to unfold in the Gospel of John in 3:22-30; 5:31-35; 10:40-42. In these ongoing texts, it is always clear that John’s role is one of the primary witnesses to Jesus. John is identified as “the friend of the bridegroom” who rejoices in the presence of the bridegroom and announces: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:29-30) and Jesus identifies the role of John: “He was a burning and shining Lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (5:35).

This Gospel then begs the questions: “Who are we? How do we identify ourselves in this world?   Do we testify to the light?”

In this season of Advent, this season of waiting and preparing for the light, my game plan in a busy world where I have no time for extra reading or learning, is to prepare for the coming of Jesus by testifying to the light so that others might believe through me.

So, if you are like me, and can’t seem to get yourself in a waiting mode; or if you simply haven’t begun your Advent preparation, I invite you to join me in modelling John’s ministry in our lives.

Now I’m not suggesting that we run out and get camel hair coats. Personally I prefer cashmere. And I’m not suggesting that we eat locusts and honey, although I will probably need to go on some sort of diet after the forthcoming festivities.

I am suggesting that we, as disciples of Christ, be  witnesses… that we testify to the light, so that others might believe through us.

“How,” you might ask, “can we do that?”

Well, we could begin by telling others about this wonderful church community and how “we care for one another so that we can care for others.”

We could actually add the word, “God” to our secular vocabularies and use it from time to time to communicate that he is a part of our lives.

We could even talk about the difference faith makes in our lives.

If you’re not quite ready for that … yet, you might consider letting people know who you are by the way you live your lives, the way you treat others, all others. In other words, if you’re not comfortable preaching the Gospel, you can simply live it.

Share the love of Christ and invite friends and neighbours to our Christmas services.

We can all witness to the light and we can do it as we carry out our day-to-day activities.

I know this because it is written in Isaiah (61:1-4):

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;   he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

That’s who we are and that is how we can prepare for the arrival of the Messiah in our own lives.

 

 

Advent & The Grinch

Advent 2014

I want us tonight to think about just one verse of our New Testament reading this evening – Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Vs. 13)
Week after week Priscilla, Kirsty, Sally and I stand in this pulpit and do our very best to preach the word of God with love and faithfulness. In doing so we sometimes need to refer to some authors who are well known, well respected and can offer us profound and brilliant theological ideas.
This evening I want to introduce a particular book by an author, who to this date has written over 42 world famous books! His books are being published in over 34 different languages and can be found in many homes. His work is so well respected that he goes by the name and title Doctor, or to be more specific “Dr. Seuss”, the children’s author who I hope many of you know or have heard of, at least.
The book I want to think about this evening in relation to this Advent sermon is “HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS”.
For those of you who do not know the book or have not seen the film that comes on every Christmas I will explain it. The story is about a Grinch who lives in a cave and to be honest he is one of the meanest creatures you will ever hear of. He is described in the book as being, “as cuddly as a cactus”, with “termites in his smile and garlic in his soul”. The bottom line is that he is mean through and through. Like a bad apple he is completely rotten down to his core.
In the story, the Grinch makes it clear that he hates Christmas and hates those who celebrate it. So in a wicked plan the Grinch decides he will wipe out Christmas for the cheerful “Whovillians”, who live down below in a small happy town. So, on Christmas Eve the Grinch sneaks into every house in the village and removes everything that has to do with Christmas. He steals the presents, the food, the stockings, the decorations and even the tree. As the Grinch is returning to his home at the break of dawn he is positively pleased that he has ruined Christmas for all and that there will be no happy “Whovillians”. But when we reach the end of the story we see that this is not so. It reads,
“Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming it came!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his Grinch feet ice-cold in the snow
Stood puzzling and puzzling: ‘How could it be so?’
‘It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
‘It came without packages, boxes or bags!’
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
‘Maybe Christmas’, he thought ‘doesn’t come from a store.
‘Maybe Christmas…. perhaps .. means a little bit more’.”
You see the Grinch realized that there was something sacred beneath all the wrapping and trimmings and that something was the true meaning of Christmas.

But for Christians what is the true meaning of Christmas, particularly when there seem to be so many different voices? Because if Advent is a time of preparation we had better know what we are preparing for!
As Christians we are called to use Advent as a time of preparation and solemn expectation, a time to focus our understanding and efforts on the promises God makes to us during the season; or in other words to rediscover and reclaim the meaning of Chirstmas.
As Christians we believe that the precious child that came on that night in Bethlehem was the very key to a fulfilment of a promise made to us by God and spoken of through the prophets. A promise that would bring to all who believed in him – a deeper understanding of who God is and will always be for us and it is this promise that is at the heart of what we are preparing for.
It was a promise that through the birth, the life, death and resurrection of his very Son, we would learn and know who our God is.  Echoing Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans, our God is:
1) A God of love
2) A God of joy
3) A God of peace
4) A God of power
5) But most of all a God in whom this Advent season we focus on and put all our hope in. During the season of Advent we place all our hope on a child born in poverty in a stable in Bethlehem in whom and through whom God’s kingdoms has come to us.
Advent teaches us to hold fast to what is on the inside of us – our faith and hope in Christ Jesus. A faith in Jesus because we know:
1) He is the one who redeems us from our sins,
2) He is the one that frees all from all that gets in our way of loving God,
3) And that he is the one that gives us hope to believe in a new and better life for ourselves, for our family and for all of humanity.
This Advent you will encounter the Grinches, who will try and steal the true meaning of Christmas away from you and I pray that you won’t let them. WE must keep asking ourselves these questions throughout Advent, “What is it that I am truly hoping to receive on Christmas day?” “What is it that God has promised to all of us that no one can ever remove?”
I hope that the answer is our faith – our faith and hope in the child that was born that night who brings salvation and the promise of life everlasting…let no Grinch take that away!

 

Not Even Fools Shall Go Astray

Advent 2013

There is a strong contrast between Advent and Christmas. It is a little like the contrast between waiting to have a baby, and then actually having that baby. When I was expecting Lilibeth, I had lots of ideas about what he or she would be like: first and foremost, would it be a boy or a girl; what colour eyes would the baby have; would the baby take after me; and most important of all would the child be fit and healthy. So I waited for the baby to come and I tried to get things ready as best as I could with so little knowledge of what to expect. But when Lilibeth arrived, everything changed. It was a little like I thought it would be, but also very different. Lilibeth looked more like her Dad. She was a girl (obviously). She takes more after my Mum than she does me. Her eyes are the same colour as my Dad’s.  But the biggest difference is in the way I felt and viewed the world. The moment that I held my beautiful little girl in my arms I knew that my life would never be the same again, and nor would I ever want it to be. I had experienced what it is like to feel true unconditional love at first sight, and no amount of preparation and expectation could prepare me for that, knowing that I was now responsible for another human being for whom I would gladly lay down my life if I ever needed to.  And because of this I truly grasped how much God loves us; after all He too was prepared to give his life for us.

During Advent we get ready. We get ready to celebrate the birth of another baby and we get ready for his coming again. Once Jesus came into the world, things were never the same again. Never. Now Jesus was not the kind of saviour that everyone had in mind; in fact it was a bit like the difference between the expectation and the reality of Lilibeth’s arrival. Jesus was a different kind of baby. No prince, although we call him the prince of peace. And certainly no king, although we call him the king of kings. He was born to regular working people. Not in Jerusalem. Not to a rabbi. But to Mary and Joseph. The people of Israel had been waiting more than 500 years for him. Prophet after prophet had expected him to come and save them.

The last prophet before Jesus came was John the Baptist. John was just a few years ahead of Jesus, and he warned the people to prepare for Jesus.

Now, in today’s Gospel from Matthew, we find John in prison and he hears that people are talking a good deal about a young man, a teacher and preacher, who is very different than any they had seen before. And John, the prophet who came to herald the coming of Christ –is not sure what is going on. So he sends word to Jesus, “Are you the one?”

And that is a question for the whole world. We live in a world that celebrates Christmas, but gives very little thought to what Christmas is. In a very real sense it is still unthinkable for us to understand that God came among us, not valuing the wealth and human comforts we value. God came among us living in a working-class home in an occupied country, and his idea of saving had nothing to do with taking down the Roman army.

It is a little like giving birth, and finding out the baby is nothing like you thought he or she would be. Today, even John the Baptist isn’t sure. But Jesus has the answer. And it is simple. He tells John’s followers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

The saviour of Israel did not come riding on a white steed, taking up armour against the enemy. Rather he came walking, healing all that came to him and preaching the good news. And that is John’s answer.

We are an Advent people. We have the great joy of Jesus, the Messiah. And we have been asked to wait for him to come again. To prepare and to wait. And from time to time, some people will believe that “the One” has returned. This has happened a few times during my life. There was a fellow named Jim Jones who led people off to live in a commune, and some thought he was the one. There was a fellow named David Koresh, who said he was the one, and people went with him to live in his commune in Waco, Texas.

The truth is we are tired of waiting. We Christians have been waiting 2,000 years for Christ to come again. Perhaps we have not always waited very well, but we have been waiting. And it is normal for us to want to ask, “Are you the One?” But Jesus told us how to figure it out. If we think we have found the Christ, we can expect that he would be healing people in large numbers. We can expect he would be preaching the good news, and especially among the poor and marginalised. It is unlikely that he would instruct his followers to come live with him in a cloistered environment, forgetting the poor and the needy outside the chosen group; probably he would move around a good deal and would be found ruffling feathers amongst the establishment. In any case, it is not likely that he or she would be here to meet our expectations of a saviour.

Christmas has become popular throughout the world. But not Advent. Waiting for the unknown is difficult. Celebrating is fun. But celebrations ring hollow when we don’t know what it is we are celebrating.

This week I was unfortunate enough to catch a little bit of some Christmas home and cookery programme on the TV hosted by a young woman in her mid-20’s. She took us through turkeys stuffed with mashed potatoes, to wire mesh Christmas tree ornaments and table setting with pine cones and bricks sprayed gold. It was pretty much the celebrating of Christmas without a reason. But it was television, and I wasn’t expecting much. Then she said something that woke me up. She said it was important to remember what Christmas is all about. Great, I thought. We’re going to hear something about Jesus. But what she said was, “The real meaning of Christmas is the family dinner.”

Something is lost; something very big is lost, when Christmas is celebrated without Christ. And when we celebrate Christ, we have to remember that God gave us what we needed, not what we wanted. God is not Santa Claus looking at our list of wants. Santa celebrates God, but God is bigger than that. Santa is just a little part of the celebration.

The real celebration, the true celebration has something to do with God caring so much for us that he came and lived among us. Not as a prince but as a healer. Not as a warrior, but a bringer of peace. Jesus came as someone worth waiting for, the fulfilment of the great prophecies of old, the prophecies of the Messiah. Jesus is the good news.

The prophet Isaiah wrote, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray. “

And if not even fools go astray, there is hope for us all. Amen.

 

Balancing Act

Sermon from Remembrance Sunday

As I’m sure you all know, Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, and a new cathedral was built next to the ruins.  Benjamin Britten, the composer, was asked to write a Requiem Mass for the week of the consecration of the new cathedral.  Britten was a pacifist, and registered as a conscientious objector during the war, being condemned by some as a coward.  So he faced a dilemma, how as he to compose a Mass glorifying those who died in war while staying true to his principles.

Britten’s brilliant solution was to combine the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass, with the poems of Wilfred Owen, an English soldier-poet who died in the trenches in 1918.  As the war progressed, Owen grew increasingly appalled at the senseless loss of life, on both sides. He wrote:

Above all, I am not concerned with poetry.  My subject is war, and the pity of war.  The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.

So, Britten set each of the sections of the Mass against a different poem by Owen. These poems challenged the complacency of those who used religion to justify sending young men to die in wartime. So “Eternal Rest” is matched with Owen’s words, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.”  Against the “Day of Wrath, which seems to suggest that violence is God’s judgement on human sin, was set “Bugles sang…Voices of boys were by the river-side. Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.”  The Latin hymns about death are contrasted with Owen’s words: “Out there…we laughed, knowing that better men would come, and greater wars; when each proud fighter brags he wars on Death, for Life; not men for flags.”  After the plea that God may forgive us we hear, “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, Great gun towering toward heaven, about to curse.”  Against the words “This day of wrath…this day of tears” we hear the heart-breaking words of soldiers who say of their dead comrade, “Move him into the sun…If anything might rouse him now, the kind old sun will know.”  And after the Offertorium we hear about Abraham called to sacrifice, not his son Isaac, but the Ram of Pride instead – “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”  Those who were able to join us last night for the event to commemorate the armistice, will know that we did something similar – the choir performed Faure’s Requiem interspersed with extracts from a diary of a soldier written during the bloodiest two weeks of the recent operation in Afghanistan.

By highlighting the contradiction between Owen’s poems and the over-simplification of the Requiem Mass, Britten beautifully captured the conflict in the heart of each one of us, between the desire to honour those who died trying to defend this country, and a wish that war should never be necessary again.

Remembrance Sunday is a balancing act for the Church. There are some who think that war is such a terrible thing that we should not get dragged into celebrating it. Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem called At The Cenotaph about the devil praying that the people who march by should forget what the memorial means, and begin to believe that war is somehow cleansing. Another modern poet wrote how a veteran, having seen too many young men carrying the coffins of their comrades, feels the weight of the medals on his chest as too heavy to wear in a procession.  There is no doubt that generals have sent their troops to unnecessary deaths because they were instructed to do so by politicians, who themselves believe that the electorate would be more likely to vote for them if they lead the country into a glorious war.  Maybe they were right, and that refusing to fight would have caused more deaths at the hands of dictators than resulted on both sides from the fighting.

So you see what I mean by a balancing act. At one and the same time today, we must express our gratitude to all those who died as a result of war, and our sympathy with the bereaved.  But we also have to express our determination that there should be no more wars. These two things, honouring the dead and expressing opposition to war, are not incompatible, but we must be extremely careful what words we use to proclaim them. We should not and cannot use God as justification for war or to glorify it, as Benjamin Britten was only too aware.  The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie said “Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism.”

And so today, as we honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, we must also pray that there will come a time when war is not necessary and God’s love is felt around the world.

Amen.

Dear Friends for December

An article for our church magazine all about the reflective waiting that goes on during Advent and my own personal reflection on the upcoming festivities in the light of my dad’s diagnosis.

Dear Friends

If you ask most children what December is all about they will say Christmas. There are myriad adverts on TV, decorations and lights in every shop and city centre, and schools begin their Christmas activities almost as soon as December appears, giving the impression that the whole month is all about Christmas.  However, most of December is actually spent waiting and preparing for Christmas to come, which for a young child can seem endless.  Add to that, the worry that they haven’t quite reached Santa’s expected standards of behaviour for the year, and December can seem like quite an agonising month of waiting amidst the excitement and soul-searching.

This is also true for Christians – the season of Advent (the four weeks building up to Christmas) is all about waiting and preparing oneself for the arrival of the Messiah – on the one hand, it is a commemoration of the Messiah coming in the form of a newborn baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas, while on the other it is the anticipation of the time when He will come again in glory to herald God’s Kingdom on Earth.

While it is difficult to keep in mind in the midst of holiday celebrations, shopping, lights and decorations, and joyful carols, Advent, much like Lent, is intended to be a season of reflection, both personal and for the wider world.  I have begun my reflection early this year as I struggle to come to terms with my Dad’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. I will be honest; I have not been anticipating Christmas so much as dreading it, but then I found a poem that has inspired me and put me back on track, if only for a short while. It is called Four Candles by Aino Makoto, which resonates with the season of Advent, calling to mind the four candles which are lit at this time of year, one for each week of the Advent season. So maybe, if like me, you are struggling with something in your own life and Christmas seems daunting or if you are saddened by the state of the world we live in and are finding hard to look forward with anticipation because God’s kingdom seems so far away, then maybe the words of this poem will bring you some comfort as they have for me:

The Four Candles by Aino Makoto

The Four Candles burned slowly.

Their Ambiance was so soft you could hear them speak…

The First Candle said, “I Am Peace, but these days, nobody wants to keep me lit.”

Then Peace’s flame slowly diminishes and goes out completely.

The Second Candle said, “I Am Faith, but these days, I am no longer indispensable.”

Then, Faith’s flame slowly diminishes and goes out completely.

Sadly The Third Candle Speaks, “I Am Love and I haven’t the strength to stay lit any longer.

People put me aside and don’t understand my importance.

They even forget to love those who are nearest to them.”

Waiting no longer, Love goes out completely.

Suddenly…A child enters the room and sees the three candles no longer burning.

The child begins to cry, “Why are you not burning? You are supposed to stay lit until the end!”

Then The Fourth Candle speaks gently to the little child,
“Don’t be afraid, for I Am Hope, and while I still burn, we can re-light the other candles.”

With Shining Eyes, the child took the Candle Of Hope and lit the other three candles.

Never let the Flame Of Hope go out of your life.

With Hope, no matter how bad things look and are…Peace, Faith and Love can shine brightly in our lives.

 

Vicky Miller

(Lay Reader)

Dear Friends

This letter was written for the November edition of our church magazine, however I wrote it back on 2nd October, after which I promptly forgot what I had written.

Just over 3 weeks later, we received the devastating news that the treatment that my Dad has been getting for his cancer is not working and he has reached the end of the road as far as options for treatment are concerned.  This did not really surprise me, however the fact that his specialist suggested that the time we have left with him could be as little as six months, was like a sucker punch.  Following the news, I spent a weekend either crying or raging…raging against the world, medicine, but mostly against God.  I felt angry with Him and I really struggled in church on Sunday morning, but then I picked up a magazine and read my own words back to myself, words that seemed almost a little prophetic given the circumstances, and my struggle lessened – it is OK to be angry with God.

 

Dear Friends

November is a month that seems to be all gathered up into acts of remembrance – Armistice Day, All Souls and All Saints – all of which underline how death can also be the bearer of life, and that light is only truly appreciated when the darkness begins to cover us.

Memory is an interesting thing. Think back to some of your earliest memories. Some will be quite vivid, others will not. Memory is not always neat and logical, but it enables us to see beyond the immediate – the memory of a good holiday might cheer us up on a particularly grey and overcast day; memories of friends and loved ones enable us to continue and develop our relationships when we see them again.

As I got to thinking about memory I was reminded of Paul’s letter to the Philippians which is written at a particular dark and difficult moment in his life; he is imprisoned and expecting execution. Yet he describes his state of mind as one of thankfulness, joy and confidence. This is not because of his immediate circumstances, but his capacity to remember. He remembers the care and affection of his friends in Philippi; he remembers the things God has been doing in and through them; he remembers their common purpose of sharing the Gospel; and he remembers that God will be with him no matter what.

Sometimes we prefer not to remember as it is too painful, but memory is a gift to us, it is that part of a loved one or friend that can never be taken from us, our memories of them are safe and can be drawn on as part of the healing process.

As Paul sat, a condemned man he had more than just his memories to sustain him; he had his God. And while his friends could only be with him through the power of memory and recollection, God was sufficiently present for Paul to be able to give thanks to Him, there and then. As he thought of the future and recognised the likelihood of execution, he might easily have argued that he had little to thank God for. But as he trawled through the recesses of his mind, they were full of memories and experiences that gave him great cause to be thankful.

Coming together during this month to remember, and doing so in the presence of God, is a powerful opportunity. For some of us, the pain of loss and parting might be so great that we struggle to believe that we have anything to thank God for. But God has given us the capacity to remember, and He invites us to use those memories to discover that even in our present struggles and pain we can find cause to be thankful. And as we express our thanks to Him, so we begin to discover His presence, giving us the strength and healing that we need.

Remembering can be painful, traumatic, sometimes even tinged with guilt at our own shortcomings. Remembering is not easy, that’s why, perhaps, for generations people have come together in acts of remembrance, supporting and helping one another in the struggle and need. Let us use the memories of the past to find God in the present. Let’s not be afraid to shed the odd tear, or even express our anger and despair to God – he does not demand of us that we come to him in a state of polite composure. But through remembering; sharing our stories; laughing and crying together we will find the strength for each new day’s challenge. Remembering our loved ones might be painful, but forgetting them or allowing others to forget them would be a far greater tragedy. So as we share in the many acts of remembrance during November, let us pray that by God’s grace we might reach that place where, like Paul, we can look back and say “I thank my God, every time I remember you.”

Vicky Miller