Saturday, 25 December 2010

What can I give him? : A Christmas Story

Every year on Christmas Day morning, instead of a sermon, I tell a story. This is this year's offering, inspired by the Gospel for the day, Luke 2.1-20.


There was once a boy called Jacob. His family were all shepherds, and they lived not far from Bethlehem. Jacob wanted to be a shepherd too when he grew up, like his father and older brothers, staying out on the hillside at night, watching the stars come out and talking round the camp-fire, but for now, though he helped in the day, he was always sent home at night. He hated that.
Next year, his mother said, he would be big enough, but for now it was too cold, too dangerous for a young boy, and anyway, she said, she needed him, because each morning she would send him up the hill with breakfast for his father and brothers – who would go if he didn’t?

One morning Jacob woke up early, before it was light, and went to his mother as usual to collect the food. He put it all in his bag, and put on his sheepskin jacket, and set off. He hurried up the hillside as fast as he could to the family’s camp. As he got closer he could see the golden glow of dawn up ahead of him, but there was something strange, because that golden glow wasn’t where he expected it to be. The sun rose on the other side of the sky – whatever this light was, it wasn’t the sun.
As he got nearer he could see that actually this glow was a lot of separate lights, circling in the sky. And his father and brothers were nowhere to be seen; the sheep were just wandering aimlessly, all on their own. One of the lights swooped down towards Jacob. He was terrified. Perhaps his family had been right. The hillside at night really was a dangerous place. The light landed on the ground, and inside it Jacob could see a winged figure, tall and golden. “Don’t be afraid, Jacob…” said the figure. How did it know his name? Jacob was so puzzled he forgot his fear. “Who are you, and where are my father and brothers?” he asked. “They have gone to Bethlehem to see the baby,” said the figure. Gone to Bethlehem to see a baby? Jacob was even more puzzled. His father and brothers weren’t usually interested in babies. “What baby?” he asked. “The baby born to be king,” said the figure, “the Messiah God promised, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom of justice.” Now Jacob understood. He knew about the Messiah, the one God had promised to send to help his people. Everyone knew about the Messiah, and everyone longed to see the day he would come. No wonder his father and brothers were excited, so eager to be gone.

“But what about me?” said Jacob. “Why can’t I see the Messiah?” “You can, “said the figure. “if you are allowed to go to Bethlehem on your own. You’ll find him lying in a manger.” Jacob often went to Bethlehem running errands for the family, so this was no problem at all. “I’m off then! “ he shouted “Thanks!”. The figure swooped back up into the sky and Jacob set off running across the fields.

After a while though, Jacob stopped. If he was going to see this baby, shouldn’t he take something to give him? His mother always took a present when she went to see a new baby. But what did he have? He thought for a while, and opened his bag. What was there in it? A lot of food, but that would be no use to a new-born child. What else? Down at the bottom of the bag he felt something familiar. He pulled it out. It was smooth round wooden ball. His father had made it for him when he was small, and it had been his favourite toy. It was polished after years of play. But now he was growing up, surely he didn’t need it any more. That would do – the baby Messiah could have it to play with now. Good. That was settled. On went Jacob, clutching the ball in his hand.

The hills around Bethlehem are steep, and full of ravines, but Jacob knew the landscape well. He ran happily along the narrow mountain paths, not thinking twice about the steep drop to one side, cut by the mountain stream below. Whistling happily to himself, he tossed the ball in the air and caught it, tossed it in the air and caught it, tossed it in the air and…and, oh dear! He missed it, and down it fell, down and down into the river far beneath, where it was swept away by the swift flow of the water. It was gone. His precious ball. His gift for the Messiah. He tried hard not to cry, but he felt so sad, and so stupid – how could he have been so careless?

And what could he give the baby now?
He looked again in his bag. There was the food; but that was still no use to a baby, so Jacob sat down and ate it himself to cheer himself up. And as the bag emptied and his stomach filled he realised there was something else in the bag which he’d forgotten about. A small reed pipe, which Jacob had learned to play, as all proper shepherds did so they could while away the night watch, and signal to each other across the hillside.. Perhaps he could give that to the baby? He’d be too small to play it now, but Jacob could play it to him, and then as he grew up he could learn to play it himself. Jacob picked up the pipe and played a lullaby for a new baby. That would do! He was sad about the ball, but perhaps this would be even better?

He put the pipe safely in the bag – he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice – and he went on his way, and soon he could see Bethlehem, down the hill below him. He quickened his steps down the mountain path. He was nearly there. But all of a sudden Jacob’s feet went from under him on a slippery patch of gravel. He began to slide, and then to tumble, over and over, until finally, he landed in a bush and came to a painful stop nearly at the bottom of the hill. He lay still for a moment, sure he must have broken something, but his arms were all right and his legs, and slowly he got his breath back and sat up. He was covered in grazes and bruises, but he seemed to be all right. But if he hadn’t broken any limbs, what was that crunching sound he could hear when he moved, coming from his bag? He opened it. There was the pipe, all crushed to pieces. There was no way it could play a tune now, no way he could give it to the baby Messiah.

Poor Jacob! The bag was empty, except for the splinters of wood from his pipe. He had nothing to give the baby now. Shaken by his fall, and shivering a bit, he pulled his sheepskin jacket closer around him. His sheepskin jacket! What about that as a gift for the baby? Surely that was perfect, especially for a baby lying in a manger. This was a much better gift than a ball or a reed pipe, something really useful to keep him warm. Thank goodness he’d put it on that morning!

Now he was right on the outskirts of Bethlehem. Surely nothing else could go wrong. He set off to walk the last short distance – carefully! But as he walked along he realised what a mess he was. That fall down the hill had left him covered in dust and mud. He couldn’t go to see the Messiah looking like this – he looked like a scarecrow. At the bottom of the hill there was a small river, so Jacob decided to have a wash. He took off the sheepskin jacket so it wouldn’t get wet and laid it on the river bank. He waded out into the water. He splashed the water on his face and washed his arms and legs. There were a few people around – groups of children like him, and others coming and going, but he took no notice of them. All he could think of was finding that baby and giving him his present. When he was clean he waded back to the bank to pick up the sheepskin. But where was it? It was gone. Jacob looked up the river and down the river. Far off in the distance he saw those children he had heard. They were running away as fast as they could, and they were carrying Jacob’s sheepskin jacket with them, throwing it to each other and laughing. There was no way he could catch them. The sheepskin was gone.

Jacob stood there in the field by the river, shivering a bit in his thin tunic, looking around. There wasn’t even a flower growing in the field he could pick and take with him. Just mud, and grass and an old rickety shed in one corner. He went over to it, sat down with his back against it and howled. It had all gone wrong. Now he had nothing to give the baby – what was the point of even looking for him?

As he sat there sobbing, the door of the shed creaked open and a man came out. “Shh, you’ll wake the baby,“ he said. “The baby?” said Jacob. “Is he in there? Is he lying in a manger?” Yes, that’s right,” said the man. Jacob started crying even more. “Then that’s the baby I came to see, but now I can’t”
“Why ever not?” said the man.
“Because I’ve got nothing to give him!” Jacob told the man what had happened to his gifts. “You see, it’s all gone wrong!”
“You can say that again!”, said the man. “This isn’t what I hoped for Mary and the baby at all. Do you know what I am? I’m a carpenter, that’s what I am, Joseph the carpenter. So when I knew this child was on the way I started making him a crib. It was the best crib you’ve ever seen. I used the best bits of wood I had, and I carved leaves and flowers on it and painted it in bright colours. I put it all together beautifully so it would be safe and solid for him.”

“It sounds wonderful,” said Jacob, “so what’s the problem?”
“The problem? The problem is that it’s in Nazareth, where we come from, and we’re here in Bethlehem! And all because Caesar Augustus decided to make everyone traipse from one end of the country to the other to be registered. We don’t know anyone here and there’s nowhere to stay but here in this shed. So instead of sleeping in his beautiful crib, our son is lying in an animals’ feeding trough! A couple of planks nailed together, and not very well nailed at that. It’s a wonder it hasn’t collapsed. And it’s full of splinters. If only I had thought to bring some sandpaper… Fine carpenter I turned out to be!” Joseph sighed, and Jacob sighed with him. “And yet…” said Joseph…

“Wait here a minute”, he said to the boy. He went into the shed and a few moments later, he came out, carrying the baby, who had begun to stir.

“The strange thing is,” said Joseph, as he looked down at the child, “ever since he’s been born I’ve been wondering whether any of those things I’ve been worrying about really matter. The angel told me that he was God’s Messiah,”
“– “me too!” said Jacob –
“and isn’t he the one God said he would send to help us when we couldn’t help ourselves? Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we have nothing to give him. Perhaps the message is that he is the gift that God gives to us when we need it most. Here, you hold him and see what you think.” And he put him into Jacob’s arms. And the baby opened his eyes and looked up at him. And Jacob knew that Joseph was right. It didn’t matter that he had nothing to give – this baby was the gift God gave to him. And suddenly Jacob was glad that he had come empty-handed, so that his arms could be open to receive this wonderful child. And he went home that day with his heart full of joy.

Midnight Mass: Sermon by Stephen Snelling

John 1. 1-14

So I wonder what Christmas means for you. Maybe you look forward to it but if the statistics are to be believed, then for most people Christmas is actually a pretty stressful and expensive time. I read that in 2005 the average person in the UK spent 15 hours looking for Christmas presents, made five separate shopping trips, walked 20 miles and spent two hours queuing to pay. Office workers spent up to 7 million hours of company time doing their Christmas shopping, costing businesses £72 million in the first three weeks of December. On average, each household spent approximately £160 on food and drink, £660 on gifts, £20 on cards and postage and £75 on the tree and various decorations – so it will be more that that this year! It’s no surprise to discover that a majority of people in Britain find Christmas more stressful than going to the dentist – I’m not so sure about that!

So with all the preparation and expense that Christmas brings for many of us, it is little wonder that the Christian message at the heart of Christmas is sidelined or forgotten. With so much else going on and so many other things left for us to worry about, for some people the Christmas story is really a bit to tack on if they have time.

So it’s really great to see you all here tonight – coming to ensure that Christ stays at the heart of Christmas and that it’s not abbreviated to Xmas or, worse still, a politically correct ‘Winterval’ or whatever.

And despite all the stress we have reason for a double celebration because three hundred and fifty years ago tonight the people of this country were again celebrating Christmas after fourteen years when it had been banned by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans because, as they said:

“More mischief is at that time committed than in all the year . . . . What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting . . . . to the great dishonour of God.”

But it is precisely because we have something to celebrate that we do so. And what is it that we celebrate? Why the birth of Jesus Christ of course. However, just suppose that you had never heard the nativity story before you might be forgiven for wondering what this evening’s Gospel reading is all about.

Because John’s gospel has no story of the birth of Jesus. No mangers and shepherds, no angels and wise men. No heavenly choirs. No doubting Joseph and his dreams. No risky flights to Egypt, no visits by wise men bearing gifts. John leaves that for Matthew and Luke to tell.

John’s gospel was written after the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and was written predominantly for a non Jewish audience - it assumes you already know the important details of the birth of Jesus.
Instead he begins his account of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus with a Prologue. He begins his gospel as the book of Genesis begins the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, “In the beginning.” His purpose is as far-reaching as the purpose of the author of Genesis. “In the beginning when God created the heaven and the earth”, begins Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”, begins John. He sets the story of Jesus within the context of an overarching story of God and his mighty works. God is. God loves. God speaks. God creates. God redeems. God has purpose.
God speaks. The Word was God. The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. There is reason, logic and purpose in what God is and does and this reason, logic and purpose is revealed to us in what the man Jesus Christ is and does. This is a great claim that John makes: if you want to understand the meaning and purpose of things, the “why”, of the universe, the created order, of the world and all that is in it, the way to approach the matter is through God’s Word, with him from the beginning, God’s Son Jesus Christ.
This is difficult for us to grasp but you don’t need to explain how the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, any more than you need to explain how water can be a Baptism of the Holy Spirit or bread can be the Body of Christ or wine His Blood. You need only take the Word at His Word and enjoy the company. The darkness need not understand the light to receive it; it only needs to be darkness. And the darkness can’t keep out the light or overcome it. Light always fills the emptiness of the darkness, as it did on the first day.

We who sit in darkness need only trust that the Light that gives light to all people shines on us in the Person named Jesus. Our Light and our Life and our Salvation. He is the Word that creates us and holds us together.

But does Jesus make a difference to our lives? Are the events of the first Christmas just an irrelevant sideshow? Something we remember briefly each year and then leave behind until the next time?
People question the idea that the Bible has authority for us today. Yes it contains inconsistencies and some things that are just hard to accept. But overall it speaks plainly and clearly about a God who cares about his people. A God whose existence spans the whole of history and who is not limited in his capacity for love and willingness to forgive and accept people for who and what they are. A God who invites all people to be one with him and to share his life, a life without limit, and of real peace and blessing beyond measure.
It speaks also of the one who has come to show us the way to find this God, the one who came from God and is God, but who is also fully human, in fact, the only truly fully human person who has ever lived – the only one who has ever lived a life completely in accord with God’s will and purposes.
We pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done on earth. We are incapable of making the first part happen by ourselves and we struggle with the latter. We are unwilling to let Jesus make a difference to the way we are as individuals. We have limited ambitions for what we could let God achieve through us, we resist his attempts to change us.
All too often Jesus makes no difference to our lives because we refuse to let him make a difference even though he brings us the greatest Christmas gift of all – John tells us that if we let Jesus into our lives we will become the children of God. He is here, ready and waiting, all we have to do is to say “yes” and give our lives to him.
The coming of God into the world and all that Jesus did in his ministry and supremely in his death, shows the lengths God is prepared to go to in order to help us change into what he wants us to be. We are so limited in how we see ourselves – ugly ducklings afraid to dare to change or be changed. God sees us as the beautiful swans he intends us to become.
The Christmas story doesn’t change – we come back to it year after year and it is the same – but we needn’t be the same – we can take God at his word – the Word being his Son – and allow ourselves to be changed by him into something a little more like the kingdom people God has called us to be.
To do as God wants us to do. To tell the Gospel story to others. To love one another. To transform the world by caring for the sick, the outcast, the starving, those in the midst of war and civil disturbances, those who don’t know God, and the drunk in the street, and the single mother abandoned by her parents. On this Christmas, accept with gratitude the abiding presence of the Christ child and then, in him, go into the world to love and serve the Lord.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Advent Breathing Space 3: Waiting in darkness

Isaiah 59.9-14, Luke 2.8-20

It’s rare today for us to experience genuine darkness. When it gets dark we just flick a switch to chase it away. We expect our streets and our public places to be lit too, with the result that the sky is so light that we can hardly see the stars anymore. This is a recent phenomenon, though. Our ancestors, like many people in the world today, had very little access to artificial light. When night fell, that was it. Candles were expensive, and for many people a feeble, smoking rush-light or the light of the fire was all they had. They knew what it was like to be in the dark in a way we have largely forgotten; the helplessness and vulnerability of it, the dangers that might be concealed in it and the limitations it places on normal activity.

Isaiah paints a vivid picture of life lived in the dark in our first reading. “We wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes. We stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.”

Of course, Isaiah isn’t talking about literal darkness. He is using this powerful imagery to express the experience of hopelessness that he and many of his fellow Israelites were going through in their exile in Babylon. The reading begins “Justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.” Justice and righteousness are the lights his people long for, but their world remains pitch black. They can’t see the way ahead, and they suspect that God can’t see them either. What is worse, they think this is all their fault; they turned away from the light of God when times were good, and now they find themselves far from him, not even able to see the path that will lead them back. There is no help for them now.

I think theirs is an experience we can all identify with. Most of us, sooner or later, come to a point where we don’t know what to do for the best, where we can’t see the road ahead, don’t know what direction to take, and are paralysed by the fear of what might be out there in the darkness. It might be our fault – we have done something we know is wrong and now we can’t see how to set it right. It might not be our fault; we may be the innocent victims of the wrongdoing of others, caught up in a darkness not of our making. The end result is the same. We are in the dark, directionless, feeling alone and abandoned. We can’t help ourselves, and we can’t imagine than anyone else can help us either. When there is no light, how can anyone else even see your plight, let alone come to your aid?

It is no accident, then, that Luke sets the central part of his story of the birth of Christ in the dark, in the middle of the night, with the announcement of his arrival being made to people who were well aware of its hazards. Why were these shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night? Because they knew that the night was the most dangerous time for their sheep, the moment when they were most vulnerable to attack by wild beasts or simply to wandering off and getting lost. These shepherds were men who had to face the dark constantly, to live in it; they had no choice, and they stand for the whole human race in this story, for all those who stumble about in the night of injustice or sin or sorrow. It is to a group of night-dwellers that God’s light comes first and most strongly, in the glorious radiance of angels. It comes to those who need it most, and it comes to them when they need it most, too, when the darkness is at its deepest.

In these three Advent Breathing Space addresses this year, I have been thinking about waiting for God, waiting in stillness, waiting in silence, and now waiting in darkness. This is the reality that we all have to accept. We like to think we are powerful, clever and independent, that we can run our own lives, sort out our own problems, but the truth is often very different. All of us face times when we can’t act to help ourselves, can’t find the words to express our need, can’t even see the way ahead or believe that anyone can see us in our darkness. Such powerlessness frightens us, which is why we prefer to pretend it isn’t so. And yet, as we discover in the wonderful tale of Christmas, God acts when we can’t, God sends his Word into our wordlessness, God not only sees us in the darkness where we thought we would have to live forever, but gives us the Light of the World so that we can see him too.

It’s all about grace, this Christmas story, the unmerited gift of God’s love. It is the most basic element of Christian faith, yet we all struggle with it. We so easily start to think that we must earn God’s favour, hiding our weakness and our need from him. We strive and we struggle when really he is waiting for us to sit still, shut up and hold out our hand in the darkness, so he can take it in his and lead us to the place we need to be. Amen.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

All Age Worship talk: What's in it for me?

Matthew 1.18-25

At the beginning of the service we sorted out which elements of the Nativity story were found in Luke's Gospel and which in Matthew, and which we had added that were found in neither, (like the donkey, the innkeeper and the stable!)

We’ve seen that the story of the annunciation to Joseph only comes in Matthew’s Gospel, and the truth is that often we don’t really take much notice of Joseph at all. Even in Matthew’s Gospel, where he is centre stage, he never actually speaks. We sometimes get to know what he is thinking, but he never actually says anything at all.

Mostly he just stays in the shadows.
That’s why today I wanted to focus on him, because actually I think he’s really important to the story, and he has something really important to tell us too.
It’s easy to find pictures of Mary, of course, but it’s quite hard to find pictures of Joseph - perhaps painters thought that a young woman was a more appealing subject than an old carpenter. As you can see I did manage to find some though, and I have printed on the service sheet. There are larger, colour versions of them on the board too, which you can have a look at later if you’d like to.

The first shows the incident from the Gospel story we’ve just heard. (The dream of Joseph. Georges de la Tour 1640). Joseph and Mary are betrothed, but not yet married, and in in their culture that meant that though they weren’t yet living together, the commitment between them was as firm as it would be when they were married. But now Mary is pregnant, and whoever the father is Joseph knows it isn’t him. It is a disaster. In a small community there is no hiding this. The natural thing would be for Joseph very publicly to disown Mary, to shame her, so that everyone knew that this wasn’t his fault. But that could have very profound consequences for her. She could even be stoned to death for this, and she certainly would be rejected by the community. But if he goes ahead and marries her now, it will dishonour him in the eyes of his neighbours. To work and struggle to raise another man’s child, a cuckoo in the nest, would make him look like a fool.

The only thing he can think of to do is to quietly call off the wedding and hope her family have the sense to keep her hidden or send her away somewhere till the child is born.

When the angel comes to him, in a dream, although he comes with a message that is supposed to be reassuring, you have to wonder what Joseph thinks. It may make him feel better to know that this is all right in the eyes of God, but his neighbours aren’t very likely to be convinced by talk of angels and dreams.
There is nothing in this message which is going to make any difference to their whispering campaigns.

Tissot’s painting of “The anxiety of Joseph” captures it perfectly. You can see him in his workshop, so preoccupied that he can’t get anything done, with those neighbours he fears so much going about their business all around him.

Joseph’s decision to stand by Mary is a brave one, angels or no angels, and that’s not the end of the cost to him. The picture below (Durer: detail from The Seven Sorrow's of the Virgin") is a detail from a bigger picture. Joseph is leading a donkey, on which Mary sits with a rather wriggly looking Jesus. It’s not a pleasure trip, though. They are on the run from King Herod, who has given an edict that all the children of Bethlehem are to be killed, because he is so desperate to get rid of anyone who might be a rival to him. In Matthew’s Gospel, as we saw, they are living in Bethlehem from the beginning of the story. But now they have to leave their home and run for their lives, down to Egypt, a foreign land, not knowing if or when they’ll return. Joseph is leading his family into exile, with no idea of how they will live there, just as many fathers do today. All this could have been avoided if he had cast her off, but he doesn’t.

And when they do come back, it isn’t to Bethlehem, their home town – that’s still too dangerous. They have to make a new home in Nazareth, way to the north, where perhaps they know no one.

But Joseph has made his commitment. A commitment to Mary. A commitment to Jesus. A commitment to God. And he sticks by it. This is the right thing to do, so he does it.
The question I used as a theme for this service, “What’s in it for me?” is a question that Joseph never seems to ask, or if he does, he quickly dismisses it. There is nothing in it for him, at least not at the outset – just scorn and danger. But he does it anyway, because it is the right thing to do, and without his protection and care, how on earth would Mary and Jesus have survived?

We only hear of Joseph once more after the birth of Jesus. That’s when Jesus is twelve and Joseph and Mary take him to the Temple for the Passover – his first – and manage to lose him there, each thinking he is with the other as they set off home. Our stained glass window here has the moment when they find him again, holding forth in the Temple and confounding the religious experts. He’s still causing trouble even then, and still Joseph sticks with him. We presume that Joseph died before Jesus began his public ministry, because he isn’t mentioned then, but his work is done by that time, and it has been done well.
The other pictures I have put on the sheet are, I think, really powerful attempts to fill in the gaps. Guido Reni (Above: Guido Reni: St Joseph with the Infant Jesus 1620s)shows the developing bond between Joseph and Jesus – the perils of having a beard and a small baby! The next picture (Childhood of Christ: Gerrit Van Honthorst 1620) shows Jesus holding a light while Joseph does his work – Jesus, the Light of the world, has brought light into Joseph’s life, light he never expected to see. The two figures in the background are angels watching with approval.
And the last picture (Giovanni Battista Caracciolo:
Saint Joseph and the Child Jesus c.1625)
is one which I think is a detail from a bigger picture, though this is all I have found, and I think it is quite remarkable. We might talk about New Men and the changes in the expectations of fathers over recent generations, but here is Joseph, an affectionate father figure with whom Jesus feels just as safe as he would with his mother, just as physically close.

What is in it for Joseph? At the start, apparently nothing, and yet, the love and commitment he gives to Jesus are returned to him in full measure, pressed down and overflowing. This child, who ought to have brought him nothing but trouble and shame has actually brought him delight.

As I said at the beginning, Joseph actually never says anything, but if he could talk to us, I wonder what he would say? I’d like to suggest two things.

The first is that families come in all shapes and sizes, and they always have done, and whether they are full of love or full of strife has much more to do with the quality of the relationships within them than it does with the biological or legal ties that bind the members of the family, the number of parents around, or their gender. It is love that makes the difference.

The second is that “what’s in it for me?” though it is a perennially popular approach to life, may end up leaving you poorer rather than richer, missing out on the blessings that only come when you give up your own agenda and open yourself up to the glorious surprises of God.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Advent Breathing Space 2 Waiting in silence

This is the second of three addresses written for our Advent Breathing Space communion services. The final service takes place on Thursday Dec 16 at 8pm.

Psalm 62.1-7, Luke 1.5-25,57-66

We live surrounded by words and it is easy to find we are drowning in a sea of them. As well as face to face communications there are phones, texts, emails, words thrown at us by newspapers, advertising, the internet, television and radio. We can “have our say” on almost anything too, giving instant, and sometimes ill thought through opinions on discussion boards, blog comments, Twitter, Facebook.

Earlier this autumn there was a short but fascinating series of programmes on BBC 2 or called The Big Silence, where five volunteers were introduced to the practice of silence by Christopher Jamieson, the Abbot of Worth, and then went through a eight-day silent retreat. Most had no Christian belief, and none had any real experience of silence before. They found it very tough, but also completely life-changing. In silence, for the first time ever in some cases, they were able to hear the sound of their own souls, and beyond that, something that many of them acknowledged as the voice of God. They found, to their surprise that far from cutting them off from communication, silence opened them up to the most important communication of all, the words they had been longing to hear, words of healing, forgiveness and challenge.

Christian tradition, like many other religious traditions, values silence, time when we don’t speak, and aren’t spoken to either. It recognises the danger of words. They can be wonderful, but often we use them to cut things down to size, to manage and control. If we can put something into words, explain it, pick it over we feel as if we know where we are with it. But that is often an illusion. What I mean by the words I speak may be quite different from what you understand when you hear them. And some things are simply too big, too complicated to put into words at all. We struggle to express things like love or grief, the things that really matter to us, not because we don’t feel them intensely but because we do. We know we will never find words to express them adequately. They are ineffable, to use an old word – unspeakable, beyond description.

Zechariah had an experience of the ineffable in our Gospel reading today, an experience of the God who is beyond all our abilities to describe. He’d gone to the Temple to do his duty as a priest. He thought he knew exactly what was going to happen, that he had it all under control. He would just say the time-honoured words, do the time-honoured rituals and then go home. He’d probably practiced and practiced to get it word perfect. But there is an angel, large as life, standing by the altar, with an explosive announcement to make. His wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, despite the fact that she is far too old for this to be possible, humanly speaking. All Zechariah’s carefully prepared words go to pot, but not only that, his grasp on the rest of his life evaporates too.

Imagine how many conversations he must have had, – with himself, with Elizabeth- over the years as they agonised over their childlessness. How many words have they spoken as they tried to make sense of it? He thinks he has it sorted out in his mind. He has grudgingly accepted that this is how it is. But the angel tells him otherwise. Zechariah demands an explanation. But there isn’t an explanation, or at least, not one that he will be able to get his head around. He is struck dumb, not out of malice or as a punishment, but because there are times when, frankly, it is better to shut up and let God get on with what he is getting on with.

“For God alone my soul waits in silence,” says the Psalmist. Here’s another man who is reduced to silence by the things he faces, battered by his enemies till he feels like a wall on the point of collapse. He could talk about his situation till he is blue in the face, but he knows it wouldn’t bring him the help he needs. “From God comes my salvation,” he says. He may not know what God is doing, but he knows who God is; someone who is faithful and just and who will not abandon him.

By the time Zechariah’s child is born, he has learned this lesson too. “His name is John” he says to his assembled family and friends. Not Zechariah or some other family name. John – Yochanan in Hebrew, which means “God is gracious”. He can’t explain it or account for it, but he knows it to be true as he looks at his miraculous newborn son.

This evening, as we wait for God in silence, let us simply observe the inner chatter of our minds, the urge to put into words what can never be expressed or understood and ask for his grace to find him in the silent mystery of the Word made flesh who dwells among us.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Advent 2: The end of the world is nigh?

Isaiah 11.1-10, Matt 3.1-12

One of the great things about having a number of different people preaching in our church “team” is that sometimes you can pick up a thread from a colleague’s sermon and carry it through to your own, and that’s what I want to do this week. Last Sunday Stephen preached about the sense of expectant waiting that Advent tells us to have. He reminded us of the two Greek words for time. There is chronos – the steady, predictable time that ticks past, second by second, hour by hour. But there is also kairos, which is the word the Greeks used to talk about a special moment, a turning point, a time when something significant happens that changes everything.

Stephen was preaching on a passage from Matthew’s Gospel which talked about the Day of Judgement, something which the early church believed was just around the corner. On that day, said the reading “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.” Normal time – chronos – would be broken into by kairos time, a special moment. It set me thinking about the whole idea of this Day of Judgement, the Second Coming, the End of the Age. I wondered what we thought about it, how we understood it, whether it mattered, and if so, why.

My guess is that most of us don’t think about it much at all, and we certainly don’t talk about it- we’re afraid people will think we are a bit odd if we do. Apparently, by the way, the latest prediction is that Jesus will return on May 21 next year. I read it on the internet, so it must be true… I just thought I’d pass it on, in case you are planning next year’s holidays…
This date was worked out by a man named Harold Camping, but it is just the latest in a long line of similar predictions. The Baptist preacher William Miller predicted that Jesus would come back on October 22 1844, and he said it with such conviction that his followers gave away all their homes and possessions – what use would they be in the new world? This little episode is now known to church historians as The Great Disappointment…

The doctrine of the Second Coming can seem ridiculous to us; it is easily hijacked by people with very strange agendas. But it is there in the Bible, and in our Creed too – Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we say each week. It’s got deep roots in Christian thought, and that might mean that there is something in it which we really need to think about and reclaim.

So, what does the Bible say about it? Quite a lot, actually. The problem is that it says a lot of different things about it. It is easy to find predictions about the end of the world in the Bible, but it is impossible to make one coherent picture out of them. If they were jigsaw puzzle pieces we would soon conclude that they’d all come out of different boxes – you just can’t fit them together. That’s because they have come out of different boxes. They were written by different authors at different times for different reasons. Those authors really only wanted to help their people deal with what faced them; they weren’t trying to provide us with a timeline for the apocalypse.

So for example, we read about the Rapture in Matthew’s Gospel, but then we read the Book of Revelation, and where is the Rapture in that account? It’s not there at all. It is quite a different scenario. And what about Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which talks of God in Christ being “pleased to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven.” (Col 1.20). It’s a picture of universal healing and redemption. There is no sorting of sheep and goats, no lakes of fire for those who don’t make the grade.

In today’s readings we have yet more visions of the end times. There’s Isaiah, who speaks of God establishing justice, of a time when even the animals will live in peace – the lion and the lamb lying down together. His vision has no angelic beings or last trumps. It’s about flesh and blood, politics and economics. It is set in the world he knows, even if it is a transformed world, not in some heavenly realm.

Then there’s John the Baptist in the Gospel, calling people to get ready for the kingdom of heaven which was coming to birth among them even as he spoke. His vision is of a new community, one where you don’t need to be a descendent of Abraham, ethnically Jewish, to belong. It is for everyone who wants to be part of it. Anyone can be grafted into the family tree and be called a child of God.

These are all visions of the future, descriptions of what the writers think it will be like when God intervenes, establishes his rule, sorts things out, but they are very different visions, both in detail and in mood. Some are strange and mystical, some are down to earth, some are dramatic and sudden, some speak of a gradual unveiling of God’s kingdom. We would be foolish to take any of them literally as predictions of the future – which one would we choose? And yet there are a couple of common threads which run through all these visions, and it is the common threads, rather than the details which I think give us wisdom for our own age.

The first common thread is that all these visions are set against times of trouble, written for people who urgently need hope and strength. Isaiah wrote when the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Matthew wrote his Gospel just after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 and the book of Revelation comes from a decade or so later, during another period of savage persecution. For those who first heard these words the present was hard, and the future was terrifying. Could anything ever change? Yes, said the Biblical writers. God had not forgotten them. They might think they were staring at disaster, the end of everything, but God was at work to bring about a new beginning.

Our lives might seem safer but the reality is that we face just as many challenges as they did. There are global challenges: climate change, terrorism, increasing conflict around the world over natural resources as well as completely unpredictable natural disasters. Then there are personal threats, which can feel just as devastating. Illnesses or bereavements strike out of the blue, and though they are individual tragedies, they can still feel like the end of the world to those who suffer them. But the words of the Bible in those ancient times of trouble can speak just as loudly to us now. Hold on. God hasn’t forgotten you. He can bring new worlds out of the wreckage of the old ones. Whatever we go through, God goes through it with us.

The second common thread in these writings is that they remind us that there are things we can do to prepare for tough times, even though we don’t know what will happen or when.

I’m what a Critical Incident Chaplain – I’ve even got the vest to prove it. I’m part of a team of clergy who are trained to respond, under Kent’s Emergency Plan, to major disasters. We were all put on “stand-to” this week because of the snow, though fortunately we weren’t needed. The training we get for this emphasizes that we can’t anticipate every possible problem in detail – every incident is different. What we can do, though, is to develop what is known as resilience – good communication networks, confidence and experience so we can adapt and improvise, resources and tools that will be useful. We can think through what might happen and practice our response in advance, so that the skills are there when they are needed. That’s not just good advice for heavy snowfall, it is good advice for the rest of life too.

I’ve never actually had to put on this vest for real in a genuine disaster, but my day job, as a parish priest involves helping people deal with personal crises on a regular basis – sudden deaths, serious illness, family breakdown and so on. They are all Critical Incidents to the people concerned, private apocalypses. Everyone struggles when these things happen to them, but I have noticed that some seem more resilient than others, and it is usually because of the habits they have built up over the years, habits which pay rich dividends when times are tough.The habit of prayer and reflection helps them keep things in perspective and draw on God’s strength and comfort. The habit of forgiveness and generous love towards those around them protects them from getting bogged down in resentment and recrimination. The habit of keeping their eyes open to God means that they can find him in even the grimmest of times. These are habits that take time commitment and practice to establish if they are to be deep rooted and secure, which is why during times like Advent and Lent you’ll find me producing material for reflection, or inviting you to groups or special services. They are ways in which we can begin to build these habits or practice them together.

Learning these habits often means we need to change, or as John the Baptist puts it, to repent. That’s a word that might sound a bit severe to us, but the Greek word he uses – metanoia - isn’t one which necessarily implies sackcloth and ashes or grovelling in shame. It literally means to change your mind, your attitude to life, to decide to live differently. Do that, he says, and you will find yourself bearing fruit worthy of repentance, fruit which will sustain you in the tough times, and make you ready to find God at work and work with him.

I don’t know how or when the world will end, and neither did the writers of the Bible, but I do know that, as today’s collect puts it, God wants to “come among us and with great might succour us”, giving us the help we need. The question which faces us is whether we have that same desire, whether we are ready to open the door and let him in.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Advent Breathing Space 1: Wait for the Lord: Waiting in Stillness

This is the address which I would have given at our first Advent Breathing Space Holy Communion tonight. Heavy snow meant that I decided to cancel it, however, as it seemed foolish to encourage people to risk coming out through the snow and ice. As you will see when you read it, the fact that we were prevented from doing what we had planned may have been God's way of reinforcing the message!


Psalm 37. 1-11, Luke 1.26-45

Advent is a time of waiting. Children know that well, as they wait for the arrival of the lumpy stocking at the end of the bed or the moment they can open the intriguing parcel under the tree. We can probably all remember how endless the wait for Christmas seemed when we were small – we longed to speed things up. But any attempt to do so, surreptitiously unwrapping the present early, for example, actually ended up spoiling it completely.

Waiting doesn’t get any easier as we grow older, especially when the things we wait for may be far more life-changing, and when we’re not so sure that we actually want what is coming. We wait for a diagnosis of a disease, for the results of an interview, or for a change in a relationship – a declaration of love or an announcement that it is all over. We wait, not knowing whether, when or how that wait will end.

During these three Advent Breathing Space talks, I want to think about what it feels like to wait. I’m going to be looking at three aspects of waiting which often feel frustrating, but which can, if we are prepared to look, give us glimpses of the God who waits with us. We’ll be thinking about waiting in stillness, waiting in silence, and waiting in darkness over these next three weeks.

In today’s Gospel reading we meet two women who are waiting. Elizabeth and Mary are both pregnant, and pregnancy is really one long wait. We have found ways of speeding up almost everything in life – communication, transport, jobs and household tasks – but pregnancy still takes nine long months, nine stubborn months. A baby can’t grow any faster; there’s nothing you can do but wait, be still, be patient. There is a passivity about it which can be intensely frustrating. You can look after yourself and try to make sure you eat the right things, but that’s about it. Most of us like to be in control, to be active, to be able to sort out our own lives, fix what is wrong – or at least try to. But when you are pregnant, it can seem as if everything is just happening to you. You are taken over by a force you can’t command, rendered powerless over your own body.

The pregnancies at the start of Luke’s gospel share that sense of uncontrollability. But there is more. These are also unexpected, unplanned and extremely unlikely pregnancies. They aren’t the only “miraculous” births in the Bible, though, and they follow a pattern which is in some ways familiar from the Old Testament. Abraham and Sarah’s child, Isaac, is born in their extreme old age. Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, seemed unable to have children when she conceived him. When a child is born in unlikely circumstances in the Bible it is always a sign that they are going to be significant in some special way to the ongoing story of God’s relationship with his people. Isaac and Samuel are, and it will be the same with John the Baptist and, of course, with Jesus.

The manner of their births is like a big red arrow pointing at them, which says, “watch these two – they are going to do something new, something great for God.” God is at work in them right from the start, as they are conceived in these seemingly impossible ways, doing things for humankind which humankind cannot do for itself. Through them God will change the world, usher in a new kingdom, a new community which embraces all, both Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free. Elizabeth and Mary are willing – indeed happy – to play their part in this work, but the message is clear that it is not through their human planning, their striving, that it is happening; they shouldn’t even be pregnant at all. This is God’s work, not theirs, done at his initiative, in his time and way.

Christians have a word for this; it is called grace, the unearned, unmerited gift of God, given to us because he loves us, not because we have somehow deserved it or puzzled out how to extract it from him by our own actions. Just as Mary and Elizabeth couldn’t make their pregnancies happen, or control the growth of the children within them, these stories remind us that we can’t control God’s work in our world. We can help to create an environment where his love can thrive, just as a mother-to-be can nurture the child in her womb by caring for herself, but we can’t make God do what we want, however laudable our aims are. In fact our “activism” can often get in the way, as we give in to the temptation to force our agendas onto others, fix their problems for them, scrabble around in desperation for solutions to mysteries that will always be beyond us. We do this because we haven’t learned to trust God’s love; we think that it really is all down to us to keep the world spinning on its axis. We are so intent on taking hold of our lives with our own hands that we never unclench them long enough for God to put into them the gifts we really need. “Do not fret because of the wicked,” said our first reading, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” But we do fret, trying to hurry God up so he fits our timetable.

Advent reminds us that it is safe to be still, safe to wait for God. It reminds us that it’s not our job to save the world, even if we could, and that our attempts to try to do so will usually make things worse rather than better. It reminds us that our task is, first and foremost, to pay attention to the life that is in us, the gift of God to us, to let it grow in his time and his way, confident that he can bring it to maturity to be a source of life for others too, just like these children growing in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth.

Let us pray that we will have the courage this Advent to wait in stillness, and let God be God.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Advent 1 2010

A sermon by Stephen Snelling
Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44

Happy New Year! It’s Advent Sunday the first day of the Church’s year. Like all new year’s days we look forward and backward and it is a time for resolutions!

But the church year does not start with something that has happened, such as Christ's birth or resurrection - something from the past that becomes present once again. The church year starts, instead, with a strange emptiness, a strange sense of expectation. The church year starts with waiting and wonder.

First of all we look backward and remember that the whole point of our being here is that we are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, The child that was born in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago on that night when Before Christ became Anno Domini. In remembering we look forward to Christmas and the celebrations that surround the birth of Jesus.

Now you might be forgiven for thinking that Christmas is already here – the lights have been on in Regent Street and Oxford Street since early November, Bluewater and Lakeside are open until 11 in the evenings to make it easier for you to buy your Christmas gifts – I haven’t heard Bing Crosby singing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” yet but I’m sure that I will soon.

Of course Advent helps us to look forward to Christmas. But just as importantly it gives us the space and time to think about and to prepare ourselves for the return of Christ to this world – when he comes to claim us for his own.

It’s important to remember that after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven the early Christians expected that the second coming would be sometime fairly soon. Jesus predicted the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem earlier in the same chapter as our reading – in fact it happened in AD70.

Although Jesus says that even he does not know the day and hour of his return the disciples on hearing the prediction of the fall of the Temple immediately think of the second coming and the end of the age. In their minds the events became inseparable and consequently they began to speak of them as imminent.

The disciples and followers of Jesus hoped that the second coming would be soon – they didn’t want to wait. I remember when credit cards were first introduced that one of the advertising slogans for the Access card was “it takes the waiting out of wanting” - today waiting has become something that we dislike. Only a few years ago we had to wait nine months to know the gender of a baby. Now the mother just has a scan and the secret is revealed. Not so long ago we used to send our photos off to be developed and wait expectantly for their return. Now we have gone digital and the result is available instantly. We shop whenever we want without waiting for the shops to open. On the Internet, we can shop in the middle of the night and pay instantly by PayPal or credit card; we even have a bigger and better 24 hour Tesco at Riverhead.

Email and mobile phones bring instant communication. The instantaneousness of life means that our expectations are raised. If we can't have it now, then we don't want it. If service seems slow in a shop or a restaurant, we leave. We always look for the shortest queue at the checkout and, if we do have to wait, we consider it such a complete waste of time that we shut down our mental activity and go into stand-by mode. 'Life's too short', we say. Too short for what? Too short for waiting, that's for sure. And what's wrong with that? Why should we wait?

To have it made in today's society means not waiting, not wondering. Making it means you are too busy to wait, too important. Making it means you are too smart to wonder, too adult. We want it all now. We find it impossible to wait for anyone or anything.

But then we look forward again and we do wonder don’t we? We know that Jesus said that he will come again and we wonder when it will be. Will it be today as we’re sitting down to lunch? Or tomorrow when we’re digging the garden or doing the shopping? Or next week? Or next year? When? Lord, when?

William Barclay in his commentary on this passage tells a story about an apprentice devil who is sent to earth to deceive mankind. Satan asks the little devil how he plans to go about his mission. The apprentice devil says he will try to persuade humans that there is no God. But Satan says experience has taught him that this ploy simply doesn’t work. The devil then suggests that he could discredit any kind of belief in hell. Satan commends him on his idea but insists that this approach wouldn’t be a winner either. Satan, however, is taken with the apprentice devil’s third idea and tells him to go ahead with his plan – which is simply to tell mankind that there is plenty of time.

And we do think that we have plenty of time to prepare for that day don’t we? And so we might have if we are talking about the measurement of time that we are used to. The sort of time that has a past, a present and a future. Time that has a beginning and an end.

But in the bible there are two kinds of time. The first kind is that which has to do with events in world history. The word used for it is chronos in Greek – and that is where we get the word chronology. The other kind of time in the Bible is called kairos, and this is God’s time. This is a time which humans cannot manipulate or with which they cannot interfere.

Jesus Christ being born during the reign of Caesar Augustus is a matter of historical fact, and this is the chronos time of the Incarnation but the Incarnation happens in God’s kairos time as well. It was God’s plan from eternity and human beings had no control over it.

When Christ comes again it will be in God’s kairos time – nobody knows the day nor the hour. Indeed it will be an hour we do not expect. But Jesus does tell us that it will happen at a time when people are unprepared – just as it was before the flood in Noah’s time. This isn’t to say in any way that Jesus is against us living a normal life – but rather against indifference to God’s plan, and the kairos moments of gracious opportunity given to each of us.

I’m reminded of a sketch from the 1960’s satire “Beyond the Fringe” called “Now is the end of the world” Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller are all sitting on a mountain top dressed in loin cloths and waiting for the end of the world. They speculate as to what will happen and then they realize that there is only thirty seconds to go – they count down and then – silence! Nothing happens! “Never mind lads,” says Peter Cook “same time tomorrow!”

But he will come! And what are we going to do while we are waiting? Are we going to be like those people who scoffed at Noah when he built his ark? They just got on with life – they ate, they drank, they had parties, they got married, they had children. Even when Noah had finished his ark they carried on just as before. They weren’t looking for God. They were only looking for the next thing that was going to happen. And they weren’t ready when the flood came – they were swept away. We have all seen the images of natural disasters – the tsunami, the earthquake in Haiti, the flooding in Cumbria and Cornwall – we have seen the results of the unexpected.

So what should we do while we’re waiting? Waiting for the wonder that is Jesus Christ. Well we need to keep on with our ordinary everyday lives because unless we do the world would grind to a halt. But there are things that we can do – the sort of active waiting that we should be doing as Christians. St Paul gives us a list of dos and don’ts in this morning’s Epistle and in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells us that we should feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick and visit those in prison – we should be compassionate towards those less fortunate than ourselves.

So, that apprentice devil in the story may have chosen the best way of deceiving mankind after all. Making us believe there is plenty of time. So as our New Year’s resolution let us follow the advice of St. Paul from today’s epistle which tells us that we are nearer to the second coming that when we first became believers and that we should cast of the works of darkness and put on the armour of light To engage with God in his time, rather than the God of our earthly timekeeping.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Christ the King. Breathing Space Sermon. Who'd be a Royal?

Jer 23.1-6, Luke 23.33-43

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, the end of that long story which encompasses Christ’s birth, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. It is the feast of Christ the king, when we think about the reign of God in our lives now and in the world to come, when we ask ourselves what a good ruler should look like, what it means to have power and use it well.

It’s a good week, as it happens, to be thinking about kingship. In fact it’s been hard to escape all things royal, what with a certain engagement dominating the news. Whatever we think of all the hysteria that seems to surround royal weddings – and I’m fed up with it already – we can’t fail to be happy on a human level for two people who have found love and want to make a commitment to each other. But mixed in with that happiness, I think many people – myself included – feel an undercurrent of anxiety for this particular couple because of all the expectations which will inevitably be thrust upon them. One newspaper article I saw this week was headed, “Does Kate know what she’s doing?” Marriage is always a journey into the unknown, of course, but we all know this one will have more challenges than most.

Ancient Celtic and Germanic tribes sometimes had what was called a Tannist king, who was appointed for a fixed period – usually a year – and then killed off by his subjects as a human sacrifice to the gods; they believed the giving of his life force strengthened the tribe. It seems horrendously barbaric and wasteful to us, but when I look at the way the Royal family is sometimes treated, I wonder whether that urge to set someone up on a pedestal so that you can later knock them off again has really ever gone away. There’s a sense in which we still sacrifice our monarchs; it’s just that now we do so to the gods of public opinion instead.

Power is a strange thing. People will manoeuvre and scheme to climb to the top of the heap, but when they get there, the reality is often not as attractive as it looked. It brings with it responsibilities that can soon start to feel burdensome; all eyes are on you, the buck stops with you, you are the one everyone blames when things go wrong. No wonder so many leaders try to ignore those responsibilities and just take the power on its own. Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Hitler – the list is endless of those who ruled by stamping the life out of those beneath them.

The complicated nature of power featured in both our readings tonight. Jeremiah denounces the leaders of Israel, who have cared only for themselves. They have scattered the sheep and left them vulnerable, and the result has been disaster. Jeremiah was writing around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the exile of its people –he knew whereof he spoke. But God, their true king, hadn’t forsaken them. He promised to raise up a new leader, one worthy of the name. That was a promise which the people cherished and dreamed of, not only through the exile, but long afterwards too. Though they came back to their own land, they were still ruled by foreign powers, subject to the whims of tyrants, and they longed for the arrival of a Messiah who would deliver them.

Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled that promise, but you have to admit that, from tonight’s reading at least, you wouldn’t pick him out as Messiah material. He hangs on the cross under a sign which proclaims him the “king of the Jews”, but it is an ironic title, a reminder from Pilate that anyone who thinks they can rival the rule of Rome will be brutally set right. It is hard for anyone to see in this battered, dying man, anything that resembles a king, someone who will enable his people to “live in safety” as Jeremiah put it. He can’t even protect himself, something which the bystanders take cruel delight in pointing out.

And yet , there is one man – even here - who recognises his power and authority. The thief who hangs beside him realises that here is someone – the only one – who loves him enough to come to the place where he is, not because he must but because he chooses to. He exercises his power by laying it down for the sake of others. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” – says the thief. To have a kingdom, you have to be a king, and that is who Jesus is for him. Jesus’ love has transformed his life, enabled him to see himself truly, even at this late hour, given him hope for the future. The power to heal the human heart is surely a far greater power than that of any despot, no matter how many armies he has at his disposal. You can conquer by force, but you can only really change someone for the better by love.

Tonight in the silence, then, let’s think of rulers, the burdens they bear and the temptations they face. Let’s think of our own power and how we use it. And let’s remember Christ, the king of love, who laid down his life that we might fully live.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday

Micah 4.1-4, Matthew 5.1-16

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Coventry. On the 14th November 1940 more than 600 people were killed in one night of bombing, thousands of homes were flattened, and the medieval cathedral was almost entirely destroyed. Wave after wave of bombers came over. For hours and hours there was no reprieve. There was no water to fight the fires, and very little that could be done for those in the worst hit parts of the city.
Many British cities suffered in the same way – Liverpool, Hull, Plymouth, London, Sheffield, Southampton and many others. Even my own home town of Exeter was bombed in what were called the Baedecker raids on towns identified in the Baedecker tourist guides as being particularly beautiful or historic.
The bombing wasn’t one sided, of course. British bombers carried out equally devastating raids on German cities – Berlin, Dresden, Cologne and many others – and I am sure that the people underneath the bombs felt the same terror no matter which side they were on.

Aerial warfare like this wasn’t absolutely new. There had been Zeppelin raids in the First World War, but not on anything like this scale, or with anything like the same destructive effect. In that earlier conflict people at home could still think of war as something which was fought by servicemen on battlefields “over there” on foreign territory. But in the Second World War anyone could be killed without going anywhere near the front line. In a sense war “came home“ to British civilians – literally and psychologically – in a new way.

I’ve been reading a book recently[i] which gathered together diary entries from the Mass Observation project, a project which invited volunteers to keep a record – a diary – of their everyday activities, their thoughts and conversations. It was one of the first attempts seriously to study the lives of ordinary people. It started in peacetime, but when war began, of course, these diaries took on a new importance. They were a window which revealed the way people experienced war on the home front. I am sure that those of you who lived through that time yourselves would recognise the experiences recorded there and be able to add your own stories too. What comes across most powerfully in the diary entries is the way in which war very quickly affected almost every aspect of people’s lives. There were the air raids of course, the terrifying nights spent in the shelters, not knowing what you would face when the all clear sounded. But there was everything that went with them too. The blackout, the fire-watching, being an evacuee or taking in evacuees, the exhaustion brought on by endless disturbed nights. Then there were the other day to day impacts of war, the sheer dreariness of rationing, the queues for everything, the hard work of having to make do and mend, inventing ways around the shortages of everyday items. And on top of all that the numbing anxiety about family members in the forces, and the uncertainty about how, when, whether it would all end. Of course there were bright moments – there were demonstrations of courage, a sense of community, and for some, especially women, new opportunities for work and independence which changed their lives, but none of that cancels out the misery, fear, grief and waste which many of the Mass Observation diarists clearly felt.

One of them had been listening on the radio to a broadcast of messages from separated families overseas and she commented to her diary “it made me realise that if only the heartache in every land could be piled into a visible heap war would stop at once”.

Perhaps that was an optimistic view – maybe it wouldn’t be that simple – but I think she was onto something. If we could truly see the scale of the pain which war produces – that great heap of individual, private sufferings – it would surely be much harder to contemplate adding to it. If we could feel the sorrow of others as keenly as we feel our own we would surely work far harder to bring it to an end. When war “came home” to that diarist, when she saw, in that moment, the extent of the sufferings it imposed – person by person, family by family - she could never think of it in the same way again.

Part of what we are doing on Remembrance Sunday is that we are letting war “come home” to us in the same way, holding silence, standing still in the midst of our busy lives so that we can see, for a few minutes at least, its reality. There are some, of course, for whom it is already far too real, who can’t get away from its impacts even if they try; those who are serving in the armed forces, or have family members who are serving, those who live with the physical and emotional scars of wars past or present, whom organisations like the British Legion exist to support, those who have been affected by terrorism, like the people currently testifying at the 7/7 inquest, and those who are refugees from war – there are 43 million displaced people in the world today, the majority of them are fleeing from conflict. For all these people, war is a constant presence, unforgettable.

But for many of the rest of us, most of the time, war is something that happens at a distance, which can seem to have nothing very directly to do with us. We see it on our TV screens. We read about it in the newspaper, but it is easy to change channels or turn the page. We have the luxury of being able to forget, which is why it is all the more important that we should very deliberately remember. We need to let war “come home” to us for the sake of all those for who can’t escape it, so that they can receive the help they need, but also because if war doesn’t “come home” to us, then peace is unlikely to “come home” to us either. If we can’t bear to look steadily at that heap of heartache, we will never be able to dismantle it. It is as we grieve with those who grieve that we really begin to ask ourselves where all this suffering starts from and how it can be brought to an end. We begin to see how our own lives, our own actions, our own words can stir up intolerance and hatred, or sow the seeds of peace.

Both the readings we heard today emphasize the importance of those small things, the seeds of peace, and war, sown through individual acts in real lives. Micah’s vision of peace, written after he and his people had been deported to Babylon, culminates not in a grand scene of conquest and glory, but in an almost ludicrously small scale image. What will it be like when all is set right? It will be a time when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” True peace – peace that is real, that has “come home” - is about being able enjoy the fruits of your labours in your own backyard, without the fear that some invading army will take them away, or force you to abandon them, or wrench you away into exile. It may not sound very dramatic, but in the end this is the peace that really matters, the peace which affects the nitty gritty reality of life.

In our second reading, from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks to a crowd of people who also knew trouble first hand. They lived under Roman occupation, which was often brutally enforced. There was constant political upheaval. Revolution simmered under the surface. Jesus could have called this crowd to form an army, whipped them up against an enemy “out there”. But he doesn’t. Instead he focuses on what is going on in their own hearts and lives, what is going on “at home” in the centre of each one of them, because he knows that this is where wars begin and where peace can begin too, if we will let it.

The people he is talking to – ordinary people - may feel small - poor in spirit, battered down, mourning, worthless – that is the reality of living in troubled times. But their lives do matter in the grand scheme of things. If they can learn to live with compassion and integrity then God can work within them to build his kingdom.
They may look at themselves and think, “What difference can I make – I’m no more than a guttering candle in a very great darkness?” But Jesus tells them that the light they have within them is the light of the world, light that is vital, light that can change everything, if they will only let it shine where they are – in their homes, in their villages, in their daily, ordinary lives.

Of course, war is not simple. There is no easy solution to it. But that doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do about it, that we should leave it to politicians, diplomats, generals, experts in international affairs, to sort out. The truth is that if ordinary people like us don’t think about war, care about its impact, and do what we can to counter the conditions which give rise to it, then the peace that we long for – ordinary peace, the kind that lets people sit under their vines and fig trees – will never be a reality. Right where we are, in our everyday, undramatic lives, we are called to play a part in building God’s kingdom of peace, through the words we speak to one another, the care we take of one another, our willingness to put aside suspicion and hatred and take the risk of loving those around us and working for their good.

Today we remember. We remember those who have been crushed under the heap of heartache that is war, and those who are being crushed under it still. We allow the reality of war to come home to us, so that peace can come home to us too and take root in our lives. And as we do that, the promise of God is that the tiny lights which our small acts represent become a great light that no darkness can put out.

[i] Our Longest Days by Sandra Koa Wing.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

3 before Advent: Life after death. a sermon by Kevin Bright

Job 19.23-27a, Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17 & Luke 20.27-38

I was chatting earlier this week about what keyhole surgery is, when you think about it the surgeons have given themselves plenty of room for interpretation here. It really all depends on the size of the key doesn’t it, is it one of those tiny keys that you use for a pointless suitcase padlock that can spring open in a strong wind or are we talking about the sort of key used to open ancient church doors?

As you came into church this morning you will have walked under a man holding some keys which are also rather large in proportion to his body, St Peter allegedly holding the keys to heaven and it’s access to heaven, the afterlife, the resurrection life, our very salvation which features in our readings today.

Of course before we can consider the question of what life after death could be like we have to consider the issue of death itself. Sitting between the Sundays of All Souls, when we remember loved ones who have died and Remembrance Sunday when we reflect on sacrifice, service and many who have died in distressing circumstances, perhaps today’s readings are well placed.

Most of us will have suffered the death of someone we love and will know the resulting distress, sadness and heartbreak that changes our lives for their remainder. At its rawest moments someone telling us that our loved ones are at peace with God might offer long term hope but does little to ease the excruciating pain of the loss.

There’s certainly nowhere that states the rules for access to eternity with God nor much detail on what the afterlife could be like. Perhaps there are reasons for this, it may not be possible to define in earthly terms.

If you have ever watched the cooking programme ‘Saturday Morning Kitchen’ they usually have a guest who states what their idea of food heaven and food hell is, recently food hell was described as a pumpkin dish for one guest though you can be sure that many people at home would be shouting at the television that this is one of their favourite dishes. Similarly one person’s idea of heaven might be somewhere they can swim in the sea every day, another where reading time is unlimited, another having a beautiful garden to work in and another where they have the freshest ingredients available to prepare the finest meals.

Jesus makes it clear that all such ideas are superfluous in the answer which he provides to the Sadducees.

The question arose in the last week of Jesus earthly life following his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They attempt to ridicule the concept of resurrection life by using a far-fetched example to make nonsense of it. In the resurrection what is the situation of a woman who had seven earthly husbands? Which, if any, would be her real husband? The Law of Moses forbade the practice of having more than one husband at a time.Thus all seven could not morally be her husbands and, presumably, there would be no immorality in the resurrected life and therefore, it could not exist.

The answer goes way beyond the question to the point where it is left looking ridiculous.

Jesus makes it clear that such earthly considerations have no place in heaven any more than the type of food we prefer, the next life cannot be compared to this one. Jesus tells us how different it will be when he says ‘they cannot die anymore because they are like angels and children of God’.

When I thought about the fact that Jesus indicates there will be no marriage in heaven I had serious and not so serious thoughts.

One conjured up a cartoon like image of a worn down little woman with a grumpy and overbearing husband sitting in the pew with a balloon coming out of her head stating ‘is this what they meant when they said come to church to hear the good news?

The more sensible thought was how you sometimes see on a gravestone where husband and wife are buried ‘united once again’ or similar sentiments. It shows how we are limited to seeing things in earthly terms, yet such words symbolise our hope for an eternity with those we love, knowing that if we are children of God then we can trust the God of love to care for us in ways which we cannot currently comprehend.

I can remember the words of the priest at my brother’s funeral. He had lifelong disabilities which meant he never was able to walk or do all the things my second brother and I were able to take for granted. She stated that following his death he was now kicking a football in heaven. I don’t think she meant that this would be compulsory otherwise we will be heading back to different peoples ideas of heaven and hell. I think she meant that she believed we will one day be free of the constraints of our earthly bodies able to enjoy perfect health in a new form.

It is both wise and proper that we think about what happens to us after we die and yet we have to also think whether this affects the way we chose to live our lives now.

Are we able to enter into a loving relationship with God now which will endure for eternity? Can we trust that Jesus sacrifice on the cross and his victory over death through the resurrection has opened a pathway to God for us?

I would hope that the answer is yes but the truth is probably…not always.

Sometimes earthly concerns and worries dominate our thoughts and shut out God. Sometimes we let ourselves down and cannot imagine a God so generous that he would forgive us and have us back. Sometimes faith in something so wonderful, so generous, such sacrificial love can seem just too great to be real. Put simply it’s often difficult to believe that each one of us could really be loved so much, and yet we are.

In the letter to the Thessalonians the people are urged to move beyond anxiety and fear about the end times and to focus on what they need to survive the times of difficulty, to keep their faith real and to draw on the assurance of their salvation. Like them we should be encouraged to stand firm in our faith avoiding the temptation to abandon it when it would be more convenient to do so.

I was recently given a copy of the text and accompanying notes for the passion play which takes place in the German town of Oberammergau every ten years.

The notes remind us that familiarity with Christ’s story cannot always be assumed and also that the issues and questions which seem relevant to it can shift with time. It’s something we need to consider when sharing Christ’s message with others. Yet there is also an element that doesn’t change, the fact that the story of Christ’s life captures ‘the fears and longings of the people’ giving’ them the kind of hope offered by faith.’ It states that the play is not museum like folk theatre but is a story that continues to reach deep into life.

It’s a message we will do well to apply to today’s readings reminding ourselves that the powerful message of God’s love and the hope it offers to us are not just something found in the history told by the bible but continue to be real, personal and available to us today.

Not long after answering the question about life after death from the Sadducees Jesus would find himself close to death on the cross as one of the criminals at his side uttered those familiar words ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replies ‘truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’.

He wants his followers to know that they will be with him when this life is over.

Confident in this truth we realise that all the rest is detail, detail which we can happily trust to God.


Kevin Bright

7 November 2010

Sunday, 7 November 2010

3 Before Advent Evensong: The wisdom of Solomon

1 Kings 3.1–15, Romans 8.31–end

“The Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.” At first sight it seems like a wonderful offer. Ask for whatever you want, says God to Solomon. But what should he ask for?

Folk stories are full of similar tales – stories where people are told they can have whatever they wish for – like Aladdin with his magic lamp - but these sorts of offers are rarely as simple as they sound. There is a tale, common across Europe, about a woodcutter who spares the tree he was about to chop down at the request of the spirit who lives in it and is granted three wishes. He goes home, not quite believing that anything will actually come of it. When his wife puts a plate of boiled cabbage, in front of him for his supper, without really thinking about it he wishes there was a sausage to go with it. The sausage appears on his plate. When he explains what has happened to his wife she is furious that he has wasted a precious wish on a sausage. A row breaks out, and in the heat of the moment the man wishes the sausage was stuck to his wife’s nose, which it instantly is. For the sake of marital harmony he really has to use his final wish to wish it away again, and that is the end of the three wishes, and they are back where they started. Be careful what you wish for, we say, because you may get it.

Or there’s another story about a poor fisherman and his wife who are promised whatever they want by a magic fish. The fisherman’s wife demands finer and finer houses and clothing until in the end, she wishes to be God himself, at which point they find themselves back in the mud hut they started in. Getting what you wish for doesn’t necessarily make you a better or a happier person.

So what will Solomon ask for? Many kings, the story implies, would have asked for wealth or power – that’s the way to win the admiration of other nations, or at least to put them in fear of you - but Solomon is different. Solomon says that he feels like a child, that he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going, in the face of the challenges he faces. So he asks for wisdom, a discerning mind that knows right from wrong.

Wisdom was a highly valued gift in the ancient world. All cultures had their “wisdom literature” – collections of sayings and advice passed down from through the generations. In the Bible we find it primarily in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job and the Song of Solomon, books in which the writers ponder the mysteries of life and death, love and suffering. Wisdom, for our ancestors, was about far more than mere cleverness, or raw intelligence, in fact it might not have much to do with intellectual ability at all. It was about living well, with justice, integrity and compassion. Solomon knows that he will often have to think on his feet, and to do that successfully you really have to have a deep-rooted sense of what is right, what is healthy, what will bring about peace between people.

There is one story which, above others sums up the wisdom of Solomon. It comes straight after the reading we’ve heard tonight – it’s the proof that he’s got what he asked for. It is the appalling tale of two women – both prostitutes – who come to him in a dispute about a child whom both of them claim is theirs.

If Solomon had just been clever he might have tried to puzzle out who the child’s real mother was by summoning witnesses and doing some detective work – today he would have just asked for a DNA test. But Solomon wasn’t just clever; he was also wise. He gave the order that the child should be cut in two, so they could each have half. And, as he had hoped, one of the woman instantly asked him to give the child to the other – she’d rather lose him than see him harmed. That was all the evidence Solomon needed, and she got the child back.

We can all see that this was the right decision emotionally, but in fact, the writer tells us, it was also the right decision legally and biologically. This really was the child’s mother. But it’s intriguing to note that, actually, Solomon could never have known this for sure himself. He has no hard and fast proof. He hasn’t sought it, and he evidently doesn’t intend to. Sometimes birth mothers are cruel or thoughtless, and foster mothers can give extraordinary love to the children they care for. Solomon knows – and it is all he needs to know – that whoever this child’s biological mother is, the mother he needs is the one who would will put his needs before her own, even if that means losing him to keep him safe. That’s what makes his decision not just clever, not just legally fair and right, but wise as well.

True wisdom, the story tells us, is rooted in love; any amount of cleverness can’t substitute for that. It is about the ability to see into the hearts of others, and to care enough about them to want to bring about what is good for them. It is also about knowing that God desires their good too, it is about aligning our vision with his. .

Solomon, of course, having asked for wisdom, gets wealth and power as well. In fact the story is probably suggesting that these are the natural result of ruling wisely. That’s a neat and satisfying ending, but I’d be uneasy about expecting things always to work out like that, which is why I am glad we had our second reading to balance it. There is no obvious success here, no message that suggests that doing the right, the wise, thing will automatically bring us happiness. St Paul and the church in are facing hard times. Their commitment to the way of Christ, the way of love, may be the right way, but it is leading them into head-on collision with the Roman authorities. Where are the rewards of their wisdom?

It must have been easy for them to think that they might as well give up, go back to the “dog eat dog” ways of the world, where might was right and the devil take the hindmost. But Paul reminds them that God often moves to an entirely different timescale than ours. Just because we are suffering now, that does not mean that God has abandoned us. Jesus lay in the tomb for three days, apparently a complete failure, rejected by God, stone cold dead. But on the third day God raised him, and death was swallowed up in victory. True wisdom doesn’t just enable us to see into the hearts of others, but also into our own hearts and into the heart of God, to discover in him a God who will never forsake us. This knowledge, says Paul, makes us “more than conquerors” because of it we have something that nothing can destroy or take away – the assurance of the love of God.

These two readings both, in a way, ask us the same questions. What is it that we really want from life? If God offered us anything we desired, what would we ask for? Would we ask for safety, comfort, wealth and power – the things the world so often calls success, but which are often bought at the expense of love and justice? Or have we got the courage to ask for wisdom – the ability to see what is right and to do it even if it brings us nothing but trouble. In the end, say these readings, it is this latter gift which is the only one which will truly be worth having.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Mourning into morning : All Souls

All Souls’ Day 2010

Revelation 21. 1-6

I don’t know about you, but I have found that in the immediate aftermath of bereavement it is often the small things that trip us up. Things like the jarring experience of seeing other people apparently just getting on with their lives. You come out from registering the death and see people laughing and joking in the street outside. On the way to the funeral you see people out shopping, children in tow; all they care about is whether they’ve remembered the washing powder or the cat food. How can it be, when your whole world has changed so radically, that they can go on as if nothing had happened? Of course they have no idea what has happened to you, but it still doesn’t seem right.

W.H. Auden began his famous poem about bereavement with the memorable words, “ Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,” but the truth is that even if we did stop the clocks, time would still flow on. Life would still flow on. And there is nothing we can do about it.

Watching things change can be really painful when you’re grieving ; the one you want to share those changes with is no longer there to see them. Things happen that they can never be a part of – a grandchild is born, a son or daughter gets married. I have often found that people who are apparently coping well with a bereavement are completely thrown backwards by the death of a pet, or a house move. That pet, or the home they made together might be the last link with the person who has died, bearing many memories of shared times together, and it is the final straw when they are lost too.

But time flows on. Life flows on. Whether we like it or not new things happen, new opportunities present themselves, new challenges must be met. The sun keeps coming up in the morning and new days dawn one after another.

The poem I read just now was written during the Second World War. The poet, George Barker, writes it for his much loved mother who was, by all accounts quite a character. She lived in London through the Blitz – she had tried evacuation, but found the countryside too boring – but of course living in London meant she was surrounded by death and the threat of death as the bombs fell. Like many at that time she was bereaved again and again. Yet Barker’s picture of her shows that he knows her well. However terrible these times are, he trust her ability to cope with them. He knows that she will, in time move from “mourning into morning.” I had to print the poem because otherwise we might miss what he is saying. She moves from mourning – with a u – to morning, without – from grief to a new day. It may not be the day she wanted to see and it will certainly be a different day from the ones she knew before, but he trusts her strength and her courage. He knows she will find a way to carry on living, and living with spirit and verve too.

From mourning into morning. That’s the promise of the Bible reading we heard too. It comes from the Book of Revelation, that great vision of heaven which John had on the island of Patmos. He was in exile, in fear for his own life and for the lives of the friends he’d left behind, the people he loved. Some of them had probably already met death at the hands of the Romans and others would soon do so. How could they – and he - cope with this endless grief and fear? But his vision reassures both him and them. God is with them. He will “make all things new”. His love will never be defeated by the darkness of the world. No one and nothing will be beyond his power to hold and to heal – he makes “all things” new, not just some of them.

Today it is right to look back and to remember those we love who have died. It is right to thank God for all they have meant to us. It is right to treasure our memories. But it is also right to look forward, to ask God to help us move from “mourning into morning”, to dare to trust that there will be good things in the future, small or great, and that those we mourn would want us to embrace and enjoy them. We do them no favours if we let our lives wither in grief.

After our prayers in a moment, I am going to invite you, if you want, to come up to the front to light a candle for those you are remembering today. But as you leave the church, I’d like to invite you also to take for yourself one of these daffodil bulbs. Plant it somewhere as a reminder to you of the promise of that God who makes all things new. When it flowers in the spring let it remind you that every new day is a gift to us, one which those we love surely would have wanted us to treasure and live to the full.

Night Vision : All Saints

All Saints 2010

Dan 7. 1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Eph 1.11-end, Luke 6.20-31

This morning we are celebrating the feast of All Saints. This evening we are going to move on swiftly to All Souls and the commemoration of our loved ones who have died. Of course the truth is that actually this isn’t really the proper day for keeping either of these feasts. Strictly speaking All Saints’ is tomorrow and All Souls’ is Tuesday; it is just more convenient to keep them now. Today, as I am sure you are all aware, is actually the eve of All Saints, All Hallows – Hallowe’en – an occasion which seems to get bigger and bigger every year, partly, I’m sure, because the shops have realised its sales potential. There are costumes for ghosts and witches in Tesco, gingerbread skeleton men in the cake shops, pumpkin lanterns to put by the front door, plastic spiders and fake webs to adorn your home (if you don’t have enough of the real thing, like us!) ,

But with this annual ghoulfest comes an equally predictable annual bout of anxiety from Christians. Hallowe’en is a sensitive subject, especially when children are involved. Is it healthy to peer into the dark aspects of life? Should we try to ban Hallowe’en or steer them away from it? Personally, though I understand those feelings, I don’t entirely share them. I’m not keen on trick or treating, which often seems to me to be rather intimidating and manipulative but I’m not too worried about Hallowe’en itself. Of course we want to protect our children, but the world can be a scary place, and sooner or later they are sure to discover that and have to cope with it. It may not be ghosts or witches they’ll face, but perhaps illness, war, cruelty, failure – things that can be even more terrifying. Children learn to cope with the adult world through play, and it seems to me that Hallowe’en gives them a rare chance to play with their fears, and to develop their inner resilience, the sense that they can, if they need to, “feel the fear and do it anyway”. Properly handled, Hallowe’en, can give them valuable practice in this, but the key is in those words “properly handled”, and that is where I think Christian faith has some wisdom to bring to this debate.

Staring into the darkness isn’t enough on its own. Acknowledging that the world is scary isn’t enough. It’s how you understand that darkness – how you interpret and react to the bad things that happen to you and around you – that makes the difference. It’s tempting, when things go wrong in our lives, to assume that we have failed, or that God has abandoned us, and simply to give up. But those aren’t the only interpretations open to us. In our second reading today we heard Paul’s words to the Christians in Ephesus. They knew all about terror; they lived with the constant threat of persecution. Yet Paul prays that they will learn to see with “the eyes of their hearts enlightened”, and will learn to interpret their lives in a way that helps them to cope with this. He prays that they will know that, just as God was present in the darkness of the tomb when he raised Christ from the dead, he is also present with them in their dark times, working for good through the “immeasurable greatness of his power”.

Having the “eyes of your heart enlightened” might seem like an odd image, but perhaps we might think of it instead as having a sort of spiritual “night-vision”, the ability to see beyond the obvious. These days we have technology which enables us to do that physically – wildlife films use it often, and it is standard kit for the military – but even without the gadgets we all know how our eyes adjust to the darkness after a while, revealing things that you couldn’t see at first. They may not be very clear, but we can tell that there is more there, more going on than we first thought. Paul’s talking about the spiritual equivalent of that here and just like it’s physical counterpart, you only really develop it if you are prepared to sit in the darkness for a while first.

Daniel, in our Old Testament reading, is a good example of this. This is the same Daniel who was thrown into the lions’ den, but that was just one trial among many. His story is set during the time when the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon. Life was precarious for the exiles. Though Daniel had become influential in the Babylonian court, he was far from safe and he soon fell foul of its murky politics. He wouldn’t play ball with the power games of the court, and the lions’ den was the inevitable result. He wasn’t the only one to suffer though. His fellow Jews, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, were pushed into a fiery furnace to die because they refused to worship idols.

As it happened God preserved Daniel’s life in the lions’ den, and for the other three, the deliverance was even more dramatic. Instead of being burnt alive, they came out of the furnace with not so much as a scorch mark on them. The watching Babylonians, peering into the furnace, saw them standing in the flames, singing praises, with a fourth figure standing with them, a messenger of God sent to sustain them. Their stories have happy endings, but that doesn’t cancel out the terror that came before, or the questions which their suffering must have made them ask.

Daniel’s dream, which we heard about this morning, reflects those questions. He is trying to make sense of his ordeal. Why is God letting this happen? Is there any purpose to the sufferings of his people, or is it all pointless? Will their story end in tears or triumph? He has a dream of four great beasts rising from the sea. It is very puzzling, but a heavenly being in the vision explains it to him.
“Four kings shall arise out of the earth,” says the being. “But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever – for ever and ever” (in case he missed the point!)

The power of Babylon, the overwhelming nature of the oppression he and his people faced had loomed so large in Daniel’s sight that he couldn’t see anything else. But this isn’t the whole picture, says God, and Daniel needs to learn to see this. Empires will rise and fall, kings will come and go, and those who concentrate simply on currying favour with them will rise and fall, come and go, with them. The holy ones of God, though – those whose loyalty is to God’s kingdom of righteousness and love – will find a peace and a purpose which will last for ever and for ever, and which nothing can destroy. God calls Daniel to use his “night vision” his “enlightened eyes”, to look into the darkness that confronts him and see it for what it is, something which will pass while the deeper things of God endure.

Jesus makes the same point in the Gospels. There were many people at the time – as there are now – who assume that wealth and success are proof that you are in God’s favour, while the poor and excluded are somehow getting what they deserve. But Jesus says that God is at work in ways that don’t fit that simplistic view. Jesus will himself soon be poor, hungry and thirsty, stripped naked on a cross, sorrowful and abandoned. Does this mean he’ll have failed? No. In fact, Christians believe that it is in the darkness of the cross that we see most clearly the depth of God’s love. Jesus refuses to turn away from it, to seek an easy way out – he lives the message he has preached - and so the cross becomes to us a promise of God’s presence in every darkness, every death.

This “night vision”, the ability to see in the dark, which transforms our view of the world is something which many people of many faiths and backgrounds affirm. I was reminded of it in a story I read this week in the supporters’ magazine of the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture. In it, an Iranian refugee, a Muslim, wrote of her experience. She had been imprisoned without trial for many years, and for some of that time had been held along with a 17 year old girl called Nosrat. They grew close during their ordeal. Then one day, the guards burst into their cell and announced that they were to be executed. They were led out to the courtyard, blindfolded and terrified.

She wrote that as she stood there, shaking with fear, Nosrat leant close to her, took her hand and began to sing quietly into her ear. “Her voice made me warm,” she said, “like a very strong wine flowing in my veins… Her voice was like a song of the Prophet David. I felt angels flying above us, felt their wings; we weren’t alone”.

They waited for the soldiers to shoot, but at the last moment they put down their guns and began to laugh. It had all been a sick joke.

But the woman went on… “A few days later they did execute Nosrat. God didn’t save her, nor did the angels… After a few years I was freed and I still think of her song. You might not believe it, but some nights I’m woken from my sleep by her voice, her song.”

That is not, in any sense, a story with a happy ending, and yet she has clearly drawn continuing strength from that memory. “We weren’t alone” she says – and if they weren’t alone then at that darkest of times, when would she ever be alone? She discovered her “night vision” – that counter-intuitive sense of the comforting presence of God when we are at our lowest, and her story echoes to me the story of Daniel, of Jesus on the cross, of Paul and those early Christians. When the “eyes of our hearts are enlightened” we learn to see God at work even in the darkness, especially in the darkness. And then we know for sure that the darkness can never have the last or truest word. Instead of being a place of terror it becomes the home of God, a place where we can meet with him most deeply.

We keep All Saints today against the background of its shadow, Hallowe’en, and I pray that this will help us to remember that sainthood isn’t a matter of avoiding the darkness, but of discovering that within it, as in every place, the Lord of life is with us.