Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Journey to Freedom


Luke 2.1-20, Isaiah 62.6-12, Titus 3.4-7

Journey to Freedom

Earlier today I checked the news and saw that on top of all the travel problems caused by the wind and rain that a cable fire means that trains are not running between London and Gatwick airport. It’s not an information article for those of you dashing off to catch a flight after this service just an acknowledgment of the misery this will cause on top of so many other travel problems including fallen trees and flooding making roads impassable, flights cancelled and delayed and loss of power to many areas, including part of Gatwick airport should anyone eventually be able to get there.

No doubt this will leave lots of families anxious about whether they can get together in time to share Christmas Day, after all who are they going to argue with if they don’t make it.

I guess we are used to relatively civilised travel most of the time so how distressed we get with delays is relative to what travellers are used to. I read one account of a traveller stuck in a traffic jam in Cairo where apparently no one ‘walks like an Egyptian’, they all drive. Not only are there more cars than road, there are more people in each car than there is space for with distorted faces pressed against windows. The constant sound of car horns irritated him at first but after a while he concluded that with so many crammed in each car one body part or another was bound to be pressing against the horn.

Back in Great Britain the official advice is not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary. It’s hard to define ‘absolutely necessary’ journeys, especially when it’s likely to involve distress and hardship.

In Luke’s gospel we heard that Caesar Augustus clicked his fingers in Rome, demanding a census of his empire, probably for taxation purposes. This caused hordes of people to get on the move including Joseph and Mary making the ‘absolutely necessary’ journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Now the people stuck in airport lounges and train stations have my sympathy but their surroundings would seem luxurious compared to the 80 mile journey Mary and Joseph would undertake. A Polish carol has Mary plead ‘please go slowly, Joseph…look what a load I bear…’ Yet the journey is made, despite the inconvenience, the discomfort, the primitive accommodation available, there’s a sense of the journey being obediently completed to achieve God’s purposes.

It makes you think, doesn’t it, not just about travel delays but about life’s journey we all know that it’s not always plain sailing, parts of the journey involve pain and difficulty, there are times we feel progress is slow and it’s easy to lose sight of the destination we hoped for.

Of course many of our journeys at this time of year are made to spend time with people we love. Church congregations change as relatives move around to share Christmas with families and the commuter traffic has gradually disappeared from London’s roads as many who work there return home to other parts of the country, or to their home country.

As I lay awake in the early hours of this morning listening to the howling wind I couldn’t help but think of the words ‘silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright’ and wonder if an angel were to descend to shepherds on a hillside in this weather whether they could avoid being blown away, or whether the shepherds would shout out ‘I’m sorry but we can’t hear a word your saying in this wind!’

Obviously in more peaceful conditions God is announced to lowly shepherds, people looked down upon by the orthodox Jews as they were unable to maintain ceremonial laws, particularly relating to all the meticulous hand washing. In stark contrast with the imagery brought to mind of young children in nativity plays with tea towels on their heads shepherds were banned from many towns and their testimony was not admissible in court, they were classed as outcasts and the Pharisees spoke of them in the way they also spoke of tax collectors and prostitutes.

We’ve all seen individuals and groups shunned and excluded by society stop caring what people think, turning inwards on their small world and giving up hope of anything better. So when they realise that God has not given up on them, in fact he has specifically chosen them to spread his message of joy, it’s no surprise that the shepherds are shocked and terrified.

It’s clear that the shepherds journey to see Jesus is one of trust in the message they received, motivated by love of the Saviour and new hope for the future.

After a long journey, particularly a difficult one, we look forward to some comfort whether it be a relative’s house or a hotel room, something that clearly didn’t work out for Joseph and Mary.

The best welcomes have to be those where we don’t have to ring the doorbell and wait but where the host is expectantly looking out for our arrival. Excited children have been known to stare impatiently out of the window willing the guests to arrive and rushing out to hug them before they have barely got out of the car, and I don’t mean just at Christmas when they arrive bearing gifts.

There’s a similar sense in our Old Testament reading of watchmen eagerly looking for the salvation Isaiah speaks of, people who call out to God to restore peace and security. He tells of Jerusalem being restored, the city doors being flung open and a highway being made clear in order that it’s easy for the lost to return.

For the excited people in Isaiah and Luke’s shepherds the message is that God has brought freedom. Paul’s letter to Titus reminds us that the freedom God offers is not something we have to earn, but that it is a freely given gift available to us all.

As we each ponder where we are on life’s journey we start to see that God draws us towards him and the freedom he offers.

There are clues to God’s nature in the way that Jesus, the new King came into the world in unexpectedly humble surroundings suggesting that God is prepared to meet us wherever we are on life’s journey, not where we wish we were with all the accompanying regrets, not where we kid ourselves we are or where other people see us but where we really know ourselves to be.

The author Margaret Silf illustrates the everyday falsehoods we have to live with when she describes her manager calling her in for the annual appraisal, an important factor in career progression and salary review. The manager asks ‘how do you see the job developing over the next three years?’ She considers two possible answers.

‘I hope to be leading a team in three years and taking on more responsibility.’

Or, ‘I hope that in three years I’ll be able to afford to get out of all this and do the things I really want to do with my life.’ Here, I hasten to add, that I’m not offering career advice!

The point is that there is often a tension between how we are living and where we feel drawn to be. It will apply to numerous aspects of our lives but by acknowledging and sharing these tensions with God we begin to see that God is where the truth lies.

Contrast the falseness of having to put a brave face on a miserable situation against the truth of the feelings inside you when you first fell in love. Contrast the drudgery of tasks that have to be completed against the passion we feel for work we love, maybe art, music, sport. It’s not that the first isn’t important but the latter is where we find our true selves and a spirit of freedom.

Many of us expend a great deal of energy maintaining the fa├žade of being in control, showing no fear, or being happy with a  situation when we would be far better off admitting to God where we truly are because that’s where God most wants to meet with us.

So we are invited to take a breather on our journey this Christmas and consider where we will spend it both physically and spiritually. The food and wine, decorations and gifts should all be enjoyed but let’s also make some time for quiet reflection and be honest with God about where we truly are and where we truly see him at work.

We all know the truth is that right now many are sad as they see family and friends suffer declining health, we know it is true that mourning of loved ones lost is brought into sharp focus at this time of year as they are missed at gatherings and we know it to be true that some people are so down that they have given up on God all together.

These are the very places into which we invite the Christ child this Christmas secure in the knowledge that this is exactly where he will feel most at home.

This is what makes sense of our Christmas celebrations and gives authenticity to our praise when we sing ’glory to the new born King’.

Amen

Kevin Bright

Christmas Eve/Christmas Day 2013

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Advent 4: Graceful names




It would be easy for someone who knew nothing about Christmas to look around at the way our culture celebrates it and assume that it was basically a festival for children. School nativity plays, Christingles, trips to see Santa at the shopping centre, and in the middle of it a baby, greeted with joy by those who come to seem him in his manger crib. It all seems very simple, very magical, very comforting.

Today’s Gospel reading, though, reminds us of how selective the stories we tell our children tend to be. For all sorts of very good and understandable reasons we tend to sanitise the story of Christ’s birth for them, and eventually we forget that the cosy story we tell is really only part of the truth.
The Christmas story is actually full of violence and fear – King Herod’s murderous rampage is central to it . It is a story of homelessness and exile, and, as we see here, it is a story about shame, or the threat of it.

Matthew’s version of the story, unlike Luke’s, puts the emphasis firmly on Joseph. Mary is hardly mentioned, and completely silent. Her opinions, thoughts and feelings are not recorded at all.  They are not even considered. In a culture like that of first century Palestinian Judaism that’s not surprising. The position of women varied across the ancient world. In some cultures they were freer than in others, but in the land of Jesus’ birth their lives were often very restricted, just as they are in some parts of the Middle East still. Respectable women kept themselves firmly in the background. So it’s not surprising that Matthew doesn’t even seem to ask how Mary might be feeling as her pregnancy becomes obvious and her child, in time, is born. Luke’s focus on her is unusual, an indication, probably, that he was from a non-Jewish background or that he particularly wanted to highlight the way Jesus brought women out of the shadows and gave them honour and dignity.

Matthew concentrates on Joseph , though, and the appalling dilemma he finds himself in. Nowadays the pregnancy of an unmarried woman wouldn’t be likely to cause much comment. Almost half of babies born today in the UK are born to mothers who aren’t married, who are either on their own or, more often, just living with their partners. Most couples I marry here are living together; many have children already. No one bats an eyelid; we are just happy to be able to celebrate with them as they make a public commitment. Unintentional pregnancy might still cause problems, but few people see it now as a disaster, or something shameful.

You don’t have to go back very far, though, to a time when attitudes were very different, when a birth out of wedlock was a scandal, something to be hidden, something which could cause misery to both mother and child alike. In first century Palestine it was even worse. Mary would have faced not only disapproval but also very real danger when her pregnancy became known. So-called “honour” killing is nothing new; the penalty for adultery in the time of Jesus was death.  As well as the risk to her, her pregnancy would have brought shame on her whole family, and on the man who was engaged to be married to her. No wonder Joseph is worried. What were people going to think of him? Either that he had slept with her before her marriage, or that someone else had and he had been fooled into taking on a child who was not his. He would either seem wicked or weak. If he stuck by her he risked  landing himself with a wife who everyone would be whispering about behind her back for the rest of their lives – tight-knit communities never forget these things. If he cast her off, though, what would happen to her? She could well have been left with no support at all, no home, no respectable way of earning a living.   

It was a desperate situation, and Joseph is in a desperate dilemma. He is a good and compassionate man, and he wants to do the right thing. He has just devised the best solution he can think of, to dismiss Mary quietly, in the hopes that somehow her pregnancy can be concealed, when the angel appears to him in a dream, assuring him of… well, assuring him of what?

All the angel really tells him is that the child who Mary has conceived is  “from the Holy Spirit”. It’s hard to know what the people of Jesus’ own time would have thought this meant. They didn’t understand the process of conception, and they knew nothing about  genetics and DNA, whereas we can’t “unknow” those things. There is such a gulf between our world view and theirs that it is really quite impossible to climb back into their minds and work out what they thought this phrase might imply on a physical level about Mary’s pregnancy.  There were plenty of stories from Greek and Roman mythology of gods fathering children on human mothers who they just happened to have taken a fancy to, producing half-human, half-divine offspring, but the early Christians were at pains to try to make sure people didn’t see Jesus in those terms. He was fully human yet somehow also fully divine too, not some hybrid, and they would have been quite horrified to think of God acting like those pagan deities, of any sort of physical or sexual act taking place between God and a human woman. Whatever Matthew and Luke were saying, they weren’t saying that. But if we can’t be certain about what they thought physically happened, we can be very sure what they thought it meant spiritually, and why it mattered so much to them.

In saying that this child was “from the Holy Spirit”, the angel meant, at the very least, that he was coming into the world in accordance with the purposes of God. His birth wasn’t a mistake or disaster, however shameful it might look to other people. God was at work in this child and through this child.
Miraculous birth stories are quite common in the Bible, a sign that a child is destined for a special role. They might be born to women too old to conceive, as Isaac is to Sarah, and John the Baptist to Elizabeth. They might be born to younger women who seemed unable to conceive, like Hannah, the mother of Samuel. But none of those births were to unmarried women, none of those births would have caused scandal –quite the reverse, they were joyfully received when they eventually happened.

In the child of Mary, though, God is doing something quite new. That’s what Matthew is telling us. God is revealing himself, his grace, in the midst of what looks like dis-grace, he is declaring holy a situation which to everyone around looked completely unholy. Jesus’ birth points us forward to his death on the cross, when he will hallow a squalid form of death reserved for those the Romans wanted to humiliate. His birth, like his death, proclaims that there is no situation God will turn his back on, no darkness too deep for him to light up, no place and no person he cannot dwell in and call his home. Matthew echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah. This child is Emmanuel – literally “God is with us”. That’s what the angel wants Joseph to know, that this child is God’s work, God’s gift, not an unwanted embarrassment whose arrival will wreck the lives of those around him, but a child who’ll bring hope and joy and love.

The children of unmarried parents, or parents married too late to be quite respectable, have often been called names which hurt and scar – illegitimate, bastard -  but the angel is clear with Joseph “You are to name this child Jesus. It’s a beautiful name, the same name as the ancient Israelite hero Joshua, and it means “God saves”. “He will save his people from their sins,” says the angel. No matter what it looks like to others this is a child whose life will be a blessing not a curse. God is with us, God saves – those are his true names.

And that is good news, wonderful news, for all of us, because we can all find ourselves in a mess, or having to deal with a mess inflicted on us by others. It’s easy to feel at that point that there is no hope, no way back. But even in those moments, this story tells us, especially in those moments, God is present, and where God is, blessing and life abound.

I’d like to finish today by reading a meditation written by Sally Foster-Fulton*, which imagines what Joseph might have said to us.

“I gave him a name — he needed a name. We all need to know who we are. I gave him the name Jesus: the name the angel whispered in my ear. And I gave him a family — everybody needs a family, folk who love you because you’re theirs. Not much is said of that and that’s fine with me — I didn’t do it to gain recognition or status. I don’t really know why I did it. At the time, things were so unreal — but the baby was definitely real and so was the danger to its mother if I didn’t do the right thing. I just needed to figure out what that was. I decided at some point that the right thing was love. The right thing was trust. The right thing was the hardest road, and so we started down it together.

I gave him a name — he needed a name. We all need to know who we are. And I don’t think we really understood who he was or that that name would echo through time — long after our journey was through. I gave him the name Jesus: the name the angel whispered in my ear — and now it whispers in your hearts as you sit here [ in the quiet of this night.]

I gave him a family — everybody needs a family, folk who love you because you’re theirs. And I don’t think we really understood who he would add to our family — who he’d gather to himself: how he’d make you all not just his family, but his body, his very soul.
It was the right thing — love. The right thing often leads you onto the hardest road, but it’s also the most beautiful. Let’s start down it together.”

Amen


*Sally Foster-Fulton from “Hope was heard singing”.

Sunday, 15 December 2013


Advent 3: Are You The One?


Matthew 11.2-11 & Isaiah 35.1-10
When you think about life together with all its twists and turns, how often have we all heard someone say such things as, I never thought I’d end working with these people, or living here, or with these responsibilities, or in some sad cases losing that loved one so early or under such circumstances.
In a positive way it can be all the effort you put into securing a new piece of business which results in something totally different, the football cross that you mis-hit which ends up going straight in the net as the fans laud your genius, the unrecognised plant bulb which you shove in the ground anyway only for it to bloom beautifully the following spring.
Reflection, particularly as the years accumulate, makes us realise that the harder we try to pretend to others that we are in control, the more we demonstrate our insecurities and the more our humanity is eroded.
Herod is a prime example, criticised by John the Baptist for marrying his brother’s ex-wife and feeling threatened by John’s preaching about a new kingdom he has him put in prison. From prison we heard that John sent his followers to Jesus to ask ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another’?
It seems a strange question to us with the benefit of history, but clearly John had some doubt. We know of John’s fiery preaching, warning people to flee from ‘the  wrath to come’ so why was he who prepared the way left languishing in prison, never to see the light of day again, if this is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke?
Is it unreasonable that he might expect to have his release demanded by the messiah he prophesied of, that he might have some role in all that he foretold? It looks like John has grounds for feeling very hard done by. It’s too early and dangerous for Jesus to reveal himself as messiah so all John receives is a cryptic message which quotes directly from our Isaiah reading. We can’t be certain how John reacted but they would have been familiar words and no doubt John would have been forced to recognise Christ in a different way from that what he had expected.
As Christians we learn that we don’t often understand where we fit into God’s plan and that can be extremely challenging to our faith. There’s an irony to the fact that as people of faith we can often end up feeling that we make life harder for ourselves. When we do things we regret it’s saddening to know we have gone against God’s will whereas the person of no faith may just shrug it off.
I’ve heard of people who say at their lowest or their time of greatest suffering that they’ve felt closest to God. However this isn’t the case for all people of faith, when faced with life changing and life threatening situations some find they feel as if nothing is there. The people Jesus talks of wearing ‘soft robes in Royal palaces’ are clearly not those suddenly forced to consider whether his message is real. At testing times many of us may ask as John did ‘are you the one’? Perhaps a bit like John it is asked because this isn’t what we expected, we thought we would feel your presence stronger even that you might set us free from our suffering in a way we can understand this side of heaven.
Of course there is no sugar coated way to deal with doubt or suffering a crises of faith but honest thinking and talking about it has to be start. Understanding that faith may not be a constant makes our support of each other more real.
Words of scripture and lessons learnt in better times may sustain us in hard times but it’s in these times that our faith is tested like never before and our true relationship with Christ is revealed.
Amen

Kevin Bright

15/12/2013

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Advent 2: Voices in the wilderness



“The voice of one crying in the wilderness” . If ever there was an appropriate week to hear those words it is probably this one, when the news has been dominated by the death of Nelson Mandela. His “wilderness” was the prison cell on Robben Island where he spent 27 years of his life, but even from there his voice was heard, his presence was felt. Like John the Baptist, he called for radical change, for justice, and for repentance, and great crowds listened, eager for the message.

Amongst the many people interviewed this week in the wake of his death, I caught a brief contribution from Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, and something he said struck me as particularly interesting. “”Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.“ South Africa is far from perfect now, of course but, at least in part that community Nelson Mandela hoped for has become a reality, a community where black and white work as equals, where there has been reconciliation rather than  an endless search for revenge.  It was something many thought was impossible; they had never known it before and they couldn’t imagine it ever being so.   Mandela’s genius and his gift was his ability to see , proclaim, and most importantly to live something that didn’t yet exist, to live forgiveness, to live hope, which meant that others could live those things too.

John the Baptist was doing the same thing as he preached in the desert to the crowds who came to see him. “The kingdom of heaven has come near”, he cried. Like Mandela, it was as if he could see something on the horizon which others hadn’t yet spotted, a new possibility for their lives that they had never imagined. The future didn’t have to be the same as the past, he told them – indeed it certainly wouldn’t be. What mattered was that they were ready to embrace that new beginning when it came. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” he said. “Make it possible for God’s peace and justice to take root, by living justly yourselves”. And people flocked to him.

They were eager to hear the good news of this coming kingdom. What did they think it would be like? Many would have in their minds the words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard today – Isaiah was one of the most read, most quoted books of prophecy at the time. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” he said. Isaiah was writing when Israel was in exile in Babylon, but he looked forward to a time of righteousness and justice, of prosperity and safety, just as John the Baptist did, a time when a new community would be built which would cross the barriers that had separated people from each other, when even the animals lived in peace.

Both Isaiah and John, like Nelson Mandela, knew at first-hand how cruel the world could be, how much suffering human beings could inflict on one another – they had no experience of a world of peace - but despite this, they believed that things could be different. Suffering gave birth to hope in them, rather than the cynicism which we might expect,  and hope gave them the strength to keep going when they felt like giving up.

Another great modern prophet, Martin Luther King once said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  I think that is true, but I also think that it is important to say that it doesn’t bend that way all by itself. It is the readiness of people like him,  like Mandela, like John the Baptist, like anyone else who lives aright in the midst of a twisted world which causes that arc to bend. It is the actions – small or great - which each of us takes which make the difference.

This was the message which those who came to John for baptism were responding to.  
They didn’t come out to protest or to campaign or to demand that others did something to sort the world out. They came, we are told, to confess their sins, to acknowledge their part in the mess of the world. They came because they realised that what they did really did matter. They came to receive the forgiveness of God for the times they had failed, forgiveness that would enable them to go out and try again, rather than giving up in despair.

Or at least, that is what some of them came for. It is clear though, that for others , there was a different agenda entirely as they made their way out into the desert. John denounces a group of Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him, members of powerful religious movements in Judaism. He calls them “broods of vipers”. He doesn’t mince his words.  It might not seem quite fair to us – or polite. They are, after all, apparently asking for baptism just like everyone else, but what John says next gives us a clue to what the problem is.

“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he asks. That’s the key. These are people who are running away from something, not towards something. They have had privileged positions. They shape the religious landscape of Israel. They have a lot  – a lot of power, of money, of influence – but that means they have a lot to lose as well. If change is in the air, they know that it might not be to their good. They can see trouble coming – threats from Rome, civil unrest, religious tensions and perhaps an uneasy suspicion that God might have something to say about the way things are too. They want John to tell them that it is all going to be ok. They want to find some sort of secure position in a protected enclave, where things can go on as they always have, and they can keep their place at the top of the heap as the people who make the rules. Change might be coming, but not to them, not if they can help it.

I am sure that many of them were good people, sincere people, but when you know that reform threatens your own position it is hard to want it whole-heartedly. White South Africans in the apartheid era faced the same challenge. Justice for all meant that those in power would have to give some of it up, and that goes against every human instinct for self-preservation.  Nelson Mandela apparently said that one of the things which encouraged him to feel that his dream might become reality was when he walked out of prison and saw that amidst the crowds cheering him on there were many white faces, people who were prepared to support him even though it would almost certainly mean a loss of privilege for them.

John the Baptist knew that God’s kingdom couldn’t be a place of separation where the favoured few could hide from all the rest. It had to be a place where people learned to live with those who were different from themselves, where wolves could live with lambs, and lambs could live with wolves. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says. If you want to be part of this kingdom you have to live it. “Be the change you wish to see” as the modern slogan puts it.

This is true of nations. It is true of churches and communities. It is true in our personal lives too. This Advent, as I said last week, you will spot a theme of “Home” running through a lot of our services and activities. One of the challenges we all face as we try to make homes, whether those are the bricks and mortar places we live in with our families or the homes we make of our communities, churches and nations, is that they are never simply ours. Even if you live alone there will be people whose lives are tied up with yours, friends and family with opinions and needs, people you feel responsible for and people who feel responsible for you. If you share your home with others, that will be even more the case. When a couple moves in together, when a new child comes along, or an adult child comes home having flown the nest, when elderly relatives comes to live with you there is often an awkward stage of adjustment. Whose home is it? Who sets the tone, makes the rules now?

The same thing is true on a larger scale too. Who do our churches, neighbourhoods and nations belong to? Who is entitled to claim them as home? ” Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,” said St Paul to the Christians in Rome, a mix of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds who were struggling, and evidently failing, to live together peacefully. Every generation has to face these tensions. Living with difference is one of the most basic struggles we face in a crowded world, which is why inclusion is so basic to Christian faith.  

Nelson Mandela dreamed of, suffered for, worked for “a community that did not yet exist”  in Rowan Williams’ words. This week as we celebrate his life and mourn his passing, we give thanks for the seeds of peace which he sowed in the nation he gave his life to. But we should also remember that we are all called to this task too; to imagine a community that does not yet exist, the kingdom of God, a kingdom where all are welcome. We are called to live it into being by welcoming one another as God has welcomed us, so that we can make this world he has given us into a home for all humanity. The voices that cry in the wilderness cry out to us too – “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Amen

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Advent 1: Home for Christmas?




Where will you spend Christmas this year?  Throughout Advent I find people giving me their apologies at the church door. “We won’t be here for Christmas - we’re off to see the children or the parents or the aged aunts and uncles. We’re off to the other end of the country or the other side of the world…”
I don’t worry too much about the church being empty though, because I know that there will be just as many people coming in the other direction, landing up here in Seal for what may be an annual visit to family here. It all evens out in the end. It is just how it is. Christmas is a great time for home-going and home-coming, when people gather together with those they love, or those they feel they ought to love.

Adverts, tv programmes, magazines and films are full of the imagery of the ideal home at Christmas; the family gathered round a groaning table or a roaring log fire, everyone getting along, children playing happily together…  at which point we know we are well into fantasy land! But it’s a fantasy we are very ready to buy into, quite literally, spending our money in the hopes that it will be like that for us too this year, even if our houses and families are far from that ideal.

The advertisers’ images might all seem very far from the story of the baby in the manger we’ll tell here at church, but nonetheless it seems to me that there is something very holy about that desire to come home, to feel “at home”, to be in a place where we know we are loved and welcome. That longing for home is echoed in the Bible stories we hear in Advent, which begins today.  

Advent means “coming”.   Something’s coming, it hints. Someone’s coming – and its not just Santa. The kingdom of God is coming. It’s just around the corner, close by, on the horizon - you only have to reach out a bit and you can touch it – that’s the message. But Advent isn’t just about what, and who, is coming to us. It’s also about the journey we are taking, the journey that leads us to our true home, that place of welcome we’re looking for. Just as Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, the shepherds to the manger crib, the wise men from their distant lands, we are called to be on the move in Advent, coming home to the God who loves us, and trying to make the little bit of the word we are responsible for a place of welcome for others too.  We do that through prayer and reflection, but we do it also as we give to those in need, as we campaign for justice and peace.

That  theme of home-coming is there, loud and clear, in our Bible readings today.
In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes at a time of turmoil for the people of Jerusalem, when they are in exile in Babylon, far from home, knowing that Jerusalem has been destroyed and its splendid temple looted. But it won’t always be so, says Isaiah. They mustn’t lose hope. They will go home and when they do, their city will be a place that everyone else wants to call home to as well. “Come, let us go up to the house of the Lord…” they’ll say. It is a picture of home-coming on a grand scale – the world will find a welcome in this place, Isaiah says.

His vision is echoed in the Psalm we read together – “I was glad when they said to me, ‘ Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

But when we get to the Gospel reading the emphasis, and the tone, shifts. This time it is God who is coming home, in the person of this mysterious Son of Man. And frankly it sounds like a homecoming that has a rather dark edge to it – like one of those moments in East Enders when the doorbell rings and a long lost character everyone thought they were well rid of is standing there on the doorstep. It might all sound a bit bizarre to our ears, but this is an ancient text, from a world very different from our own, though, so we need to do a bit of work if we want to understand what it is really saying.

At the time of Christ there was a widespread belief in some sort of dramatic moment when God would intervene in the course of human affairs to overturn injustice and usher in a new age. Oppressive powers would be thrown down and the poor and humble would be lifted up. Many people at the time of Christ longed for this time to come. Faced with the might of Rome, little control over their lives it sounded like very good news… provided, of course, that you were on the right side of that dividing line when the Son of Man made his judgement. Naturally enough, those who embraced this vision tended to assume they were. What Jesus is trying to do here, though, is to get his followers to see that the changes they really need aren’t going to start “out there” with God sorting out other people, but in their own lives. As long as they are convinced that they are ok, and it is just those other folk who need to mend their ways, they are going to be in for a shock, because the mess of the world isn’t that simple. We are all involved in it. We are all oppressors in some ways, all victims in others.

Paul echoes that message in his letter to the Christians in Rome. “Now is the time to wake from sleep” he says. What we do matters, he says. How we live shapes us and the world around us, for better or worse. “Live honourably”, he says, because living honourably makes us more ready and more resilient for times when trouble strikes, as it inevitably will in every human life sooner or later. You don’t need to believe in a literal Day of Judgement, with the sky splitting open and Jesus coming in clouds of glory to know that.

Sudden change can come upon any of us. In a moment the walls of our world can crumble, the foundations crack. It might be an illness, a bereavement, a job loss, a relationship breakdown –no one is immune, however well-shielded they think they are. These times of trouble have an uncomfortable tendency to reveal things we’d rather they didn’t. They show us what we are made of, what inner resources we have, or haven’t got. They show us what others are made of too – who our friends are, how strong our relationships are. They may well reveal our society to us in a new light as well. We might discover the kindness of strangers, but often when the props are kicked away people also find out just how cold and mean the world can be to those who are  already on their uppers. Cuts to public services that seemed like nothing when you didn’t need them, now make the difference between life being bearable or not, and instead of sympathy and support, people are very ready to label you a scrounger or shirker.

When Jesus warns his disciples of tough times coming he knows what he is talking about. For him the cross lay ahead – this passage comes from just before his arrest and crucifixion. For many of his followers there was persecution coming too. For everyone in his society there was political turmoil that would lead in AD 70 to the destruction of Jerusalem and an expulsion of the Jewish people from their homeland which would last nearly 2000 years. These times would either be an end – the end of all their hopes and dreams, the moment to give up - or they would be a new beginning, launching them out with a new vision and new hope into a new age. It all depended on how they looked at the situation, and who they looked at it with.  He knows how much it will matter that they have sunk deep roots into the love of God, that they have a good and loving network of support around them. 

When trouble comes home to us, when truth comes home to us, God can come home to us too, feeling close in ways that he didn’t before, and that can make all the difference.  “Be at home in God,” runs an old saying “and the whole world is your home.” Whatever is happening you’ll have what you need to deal with it.

This Advent the theme of home-coming and home-going is going to be running like a thread through our preparations for Christmas, giving us a chance to ask ourselves what home means to us, where we get that sense of belonging and love which every human being needs to live well. The travelling crib set which is going to start its journey round the parish today with a week or two in school is a part of that. Can we make a home for the Holy Family? How does it feel to have God show up in our home or classroom? I’m also posting daily reflections on the theme of home on the church blog, with poems, Bible readings, music and questions to think about – there are paper copies here too.

My prayer for Advent is that somewhere in all of these Advent thoughts and activities, each of us will find some moment when we come home to God and he comes home to us, when we discover afresh what it feels like to be “at home” with him, loved, safe, welcome, just as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and wise men were welcome at that manger in Bethlehem and that we will be transformed as they were, by that knowledge.

Amen