Sunday, 27 December 2015

12 year old Jesus in the temple - A sermon by Kevin Bright

Luke 2.41-52, 1 Samuel 2.18-20 & 26 I preached on the first Sunday of advent as we looked forward to Christmas and in what seems like a flash it’s now the first Sunday of Christmas. Many people have put a great deal of work into everything from advent contemplations to music and hospitality which is probably why so many of them are collapsed in a heap at home right now. I heard of a worker who when asked whether he was looking forward to the Christmas break replied ‘ not really it’s just like another day in the office, I put in endless hours doing all the work and the fat guy in the suit takes all the credit’. Like me I’m sure you feel it was totally worth the effort of so many people and, on a slightly more low keys basis, our Christmas season continues today. One principal of preaching is that the preacher should not just take events and stories from thousands of years ago and lazily adapt them to fit what he or she wants to say in their sermon. There needs to be some regard to the context in which things happened. The way we see things and the language we use changes over time and it can be hard for one generation to see things the way the people in the story did. One young boy when asked by his grandfather where the best place was to buy Christmas presents this year told him to visit Amazon only to receive the reply ‘there’s no way I’m going all the way to south America at my age even if it is a bit cheaper’. Well, unfortunately for you it is also still the season of terrible jokes whether they originate from crackers or pantomimes. Upon hearing that Jesus’ parents noticed that he wasn’t with them what was your first reaction? How could they not have noticed, what sort of parents were they? After all we are told that they travelled for a day without noticing that he was missing. Is there anyone here who has ever lost a child they were responsible for, not necessarily your own. If so you will know the terror and dread that washes over you. Every second seems like an eternity let alone a day. Talking about changing contexts there’s now an app for your mobile device which you can use to send the image of your missing child to other people within a defined geographical area to see if they have spotted said child. Of course that’s if you haven’t already tracked them down via the GPS system on their mobile ‘phone! Evidently there a quite a few apps for what some call ‘paranoid parents’. Such technology would have been unimaginable to Jesus parents but there are parts of this story which are also timeless. The first is that Jesus was 12 years old and there’s a fair prospect that like 12 year olds throughout time as he starts to find his independence, it’s not always cool to hang out with your parents too much, particularly when surrounded by other boys of a similar age. At that age my children weren’t keen to be seen at the local cinema with me by their friends, something which became unimportant over time, as long as I’m paying. We mustn’t forget that Jesus was a 12 year old Jewish boy and at this age their tradition considered him a man. As such he had an obligation to attend the Passover in Jerusalem and as this was his first time the rituals and ceremony would have seemed fascinating, there’s every prospect that he got lost in it, literally and metaphorically. The words ‘Bar Mitzvah’ mean ‘son of the commandment’ and today recognise the coming of age ceremony for Jewish boys. Most people delight in seeing children develop and progress with their interests, but to find a 12 year old, after returning to Jerusalem and searching for another 3 days, sitting in the temple, listening, engaging, debating with religious teachers would be as astounding today as it was then. The fact that Jesus appeared to be an avid student is surprising but his knowledge and perception are what truly amazed the onlookers. Why not put it to the test next time you see a teenager on the X Box and ask them ‘wouldn’t you rather engage in 4 days theological study and debate in the local Cathedral? Today in our culture men and women travel together because were usually hopping on a plane, train or in a car. But it would have been traditional for women in a caravan, a travelling group, to set out earlier than the men who would catch them up in the evening when they had settled a camp and it seems likely this was when Joseph would have said to Mary and Mary to Joseph…’I thought he was with you’! The father and son message builds as when finally found by his parents Jesus replies ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ Perhaps a message to Joseph and Mary as to who he regarded as his true Father, perhaps a landmark moment as Jesus matures and builds his own awareness that he is the Son of God in a truly unique way. A friend of mine told me earlier this year that his sister had managed to track down their father and for the first time, in his fifties he was going to meet him. It’s not the same as Jesus’ experience in the temple but it made me think that most of us have at least one profound event in life which causes us to think deeply about our parental relationship, sometimes the death of a parent but sometimes points in life which cause us to stop and think. In his case, as you can imagine, the meeting was both difficult and emotional. In his father he could see reflections of himself, physical similarities, preferences and traits both good and bad. For him it proved to be an educating and enriching experience which answered some questions and filled some gaps. In God’s case, it worth reminding ourselves that whilst he is always ready for us to repair the relationship when it breaks down, to welcome us back with open arms. Samuel is also part of story about different kinds of sonship. Samuel is not Eli’s son but is growing up to see him as a guiding figure that he respects, ministering under him in the temple, learning from him and accepting him as a father figure. Contrast this with Eli’s actual sons who exploit the temple for their own ends causing their father great sadness in the way they behave. Normally Eli’s sons would succeed him but God has chosen Samuel, a fact which becomes clear from later events in this prophet’s book. So we are challenged to broaden our thinking about parenting. Clearly it has potential to extend way beyond our own blood lines both in our opportunities to lead and nurture those we can help but also to recognise God’s ultimate call as Father of all. Again and again in the bible matters don’t follow predictable time trodden routes. Eli’s sons would have scoffed at the thought of Samuel succeeding their father, as their complacency for their rights of succession made them lazy and sinful. Later others would scoff and mock Jesus as the son of God, what right could a person of such humble heritage possibly have to proclaim such greatness. It becomes clear that we do not need to be the natural mother or father of anyone to show the love that comes to most parents for their offspring. But there’s also no avoiding the fact that Christianity brings a tension to the whole subject. Not in a negative way, it’s likely that most Christians will have a loving relationship with their parents and as parents. The tension comes in taking time to really accept that regardless of the quality of our relationships with our relations our greatest loyalty comes from choosing to be children of God. If we are able to do this then we become part of a worldwide family and move onto thinking who is my brother, mother or sister, a move which has positive implications for all humanity. Amen Kevin Bright 27th December 2015

Friday, 25 December 2015

The Holy Night: a story for Christmas Day



It was the middle of the night when the man came trudging through the streets of the town of
Bethlehem. His wife had just given birth, but the only place they had been able to find to stay that night was a cave used as an animal shelter, just outside the village. The cave was out of the wind, but it was cold, very cold, and they had nowhere to lay the baby but the trough where the animal food was kept, cut out of the rock. The man knew that his wife and the child needed the warmth of a fire, but in those days there were no matches or lighters. You had to use flints and tinder – dry grass or bark - but the man had neither. The wood he had gathered was far too damp to light easily, even if he could have made a spark to set it going. He knew that what he needed were some glowing embers of burning wood from someone else’s fire. If only he had those, he could start a fire and his wife and child would be warm and dry.

Surely someone would let him have just a little of their fire. He knocked at every door, but it was very late, and no one was going to get up and answer the door to this stranger. No one would help. Eventually he came out of the other side of the village. He had tried the last house, but without any luck. He was about to turn back to the cave when he noticed high on the hillside beyond the village the light of a small fire, burning in the open. “It must be a shepherd,” he thought. “Who else would be outside on a night like this? I will ask him for some fire.”

So he began to trek up the hillside towards the light of the fire.

What he didn’t know, though, was that this particular shepherd was just about the most bad-tempered man who had ever walked the earth. He’d never done a kind thing for anyone, and he never intended to.

So when he saw someone coming up the hill towards him, heading straight for him, he wasn’t at all pleased. “Bah! Someone coming to disturb me, probably wanting something for nothing! Well, we’ll soon see about that!”

The shepherd had three sheepdogs, not gentle pets, but fierce great animals. He needed them to guard the flock from wolves and bears – and robbers too – so they were trained to be fierce and merciless. He whistled, and they sprang up straight away. He pointed at the man coming up the hill, and whistled again. This was their signal. They started running down the hill towards him, their great mouths open and their sharp teeth glinting in the moonlight. “That should get rid of him!” thought the shepherd.” But as they drew near to him a strange thing happened. The dogs slowed to a walk, shut their mouths and sat down at his feet, their tails wagging at him as he patted them on their heads.

“What is going on? ” said the shepherd to himself “Who is this, that the dogs don’t bite him? Well, I shall have to think of something else!” As the man got closer, the shepherd picked up the stick he always kept by his side to fight off the wild beasts. It was sharpened to a point, and heavy. He drew back his arm, aimed and let it go. It hurtled towards the man, and the shepherd watched it, grinning to himself. But just as the stick was about to hit the man it swerved off to one side and fell onto the grass. “How can this be? The dogs don’t bite him and the stick won’t beat him,” said the shepherd. “I don’t understand at all.”

The man drew closer, walking right through the middle of the flock  but instead of scattering as they usually would when a stranger approached, the sheep didn’t stir at all as the man came past them.  “The dogs don’t bite him, the stick doesn’t beat him, the sheep don’t run from him. Whatever is happening?”

By now the man was standing on the other side of the shepherd’s fire. “I wonder if you could help me” he asked. “No, go away! Whatever it is you’re asking for, the answer’s no!”
“Please, I beg you,” the man said. “My wife has just had a baby, and we have nowhere to stay but the cave where the animals shelter, and no bed to put the child in but a rock-cut manger. It is so cold, and we have no fire. Could you give me just a few glowing embers from your fire, so that we can start our own?”

The shepherd was about to refuse and chase the man off when he noticed something. The man had no bucket or shovel, nothing to carry the fire in, even if he gave it to him. The fool! Fancy him not thinking about that! It would be a good laugh to see him realise that he’d come all that way for nothing. “Go on then,” said the shepherd, “help yourself!”

But as he watched – don’t try this at home! – the man stretched out his hand towards the fire – don’t try this at home – and picked up some red hot glowing embers – please don’t try this at home! – and wrapped them in his woollen cloak. You’re really not going to try this at home, are you?

The shepherd waited for the man to cry out in pain, or for his cloak to catch fire, but the man was unhurt, no more troubled than if he was handling apples or stones.  

The shepherd was astonished. “What kind of night is this that the dogs don’t bite you, the stick doesn’t beat you, the sheep don’t run from you and the fire doesn’t burn you? How does it happen that everything seems to show you compassion and love this night?”

“If you don’t know, “answered the man, “then I’m afraid I can’t tell you; it is something you have to see with your own eyes to understand.” And the man turned away and began to walk down the hill again.

The shepherd gawped after him. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he thought to himself, and straightaway he decided that he had to know more. So he picked up the sheepskin fleece he used as a blanket, wrapped it round his shoulders and set off after the man, following at a distance so that he didn’t know he was there.  

Through the streets of Bethlehem he followed the man and right out of the other end of the village. By the time he got to the cave the man had already got the fire going, using the embers from the shepherd’s fire, and by the glow of the firelight the shepherd could see the mother, cradling her child in her arms. He watched her stand up and go towards the rock cut manger, cold and rough to lay the child in it. And suddenly something in his hard heart softened. 

“No, wait!” he said, stepping into the cave. The mother and father looked up at him, puzzled. “That manger is far too rough and cold for a baby! Here, take this.” And he took the sheepskin fleece from his own shoulders, and laid it in the manger for the baby to lie on, wrapping it over him and tucking it in. He didn’t know why. It was the first kind thing he could ever remember doing. But he could see the tears of relief in the mother’s eyes, and the smile on the father’s face, and the child starting to relax into sleep, and he was glad.

And as he looked at them, he noticed something strange. It was only out of the corner of his eye at first – a glimmer of light, the swish of wings, the faint sound of singing. But he looked again and suddenly realised that all around the little family, filling the cave, were angels, great shiny, shimmery angels. And up in the sky outside the cave there were more; and filling the hillsides too. Angels everywhere, singing, “Glory to God. His son has been born to show us his love and to bring us his peace.” And the shepherd knew that it was so. The child had shown him the love that was in his own heart, love he didn’t know he had. Love had been kindled in him that night, just as the fire had been kindled in the cave. And he fell to his knees and thanked God for opening his eyes to see this wonder.

And let us pray that our eyes are opened too by the love that we share, so that we can see God at work, not just on Christmas Day but every day.
Amen


My retelling of a Swedish legend, “The holy night”, from “Christ Legends” by Selma Lagerlรถf 1858-1940


Christmas Midnight: Come to the Manger




I wonder what has drawn you here tonight? People come to church for many reasons at Christmas. Some of you may be regulars, here with us throughout the year.  Some may be visitors, staying with family perhaps. For some, coming to this service might be a tradition, something which makes Christmas feel like Christmas for you. Others might have come on the spur of the moment, because you feel a particular need right now. You might have come to give thanks and celebrate something. Or you might have come because this year has been difficult or you are mourning a loss. Or maybe you’re just feeling hungry for something you can’t quite put a name to. Whatever your reason for making the journey here in the darkness of this December night, you are welcome, truly welcome. I am glad you have found your way here today.

The Bible reading we just heard reminded us of another night-time journey; the journey of the shepherds to the manger. What made them want to set out? What motivated their journey? It could have just been curiosity - watching over your flocks by night is probably fairly boring – but I think we’re meant to understand that it was more than that. They went “with haste” we are told. They really wanted to get there.

I think the shepherds were probably like many people of their time, yearning for deliverance. They lived under the oppressive rule of Rome. Life was precarious for everyone, but it was especially difficult for those at the bottom of the heap, as it always is, the poor and the powerless, people like these shepherds.

But somewhere deep down, they believed that God would help them, that he hadn’t forgotten or forsaken them. They told each other stories from their past, stories they’d recorded in their Scriptures, stories of God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and later from exile in Babylon. God hadn’t abandoned them then, so he wouldn’t abandon them now. He would send someone to rescue them again, his chosen one, a leader anointed for the job – Messiah literally means the “anointed one”.  This was the hope they held onto.

So when the angel announced that the Messiah had been born, there was no holding the shepherds back. This was the answer to their deepest longing.  No wonder they were off like a shot to see what it was all about.

But for all their excitement, they were probably also rather puzzled by the angel’s announcement ,because there were at least two things about it that must have seemed very odd.

The first was that it had been made to them at all. They were just shepherds, a group regarded with suspicion at the time. Why would God even notice them, let alone send his angel to them? And yet the angel had been quite clear “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.” Of course the good news was for all people, but at that moment, quite specifically the message was for them. God was for them. The child was theirs. “To you is born…” Not to someone else, someone better, more important, more sorted out and respectable – to them, right there, where they were, as they were. There were no conditions, no ifs and buts, no “put your lives right first and then I’ll come to you.” And as if one angel wasn’t enough to convince them, a whole host of angels appeared, underlining the message. “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”  Whoever else that last phrase referred to, it surely meant them, because they were the ones the angels had sung it to – a bunch of unwashed, uneducated, unprepossessing shepherds.

That was the first puzzle, but the second may have been even more baffling.

 “You will find a child, wrapped in bands of cloth”, the angel had said – well that was pretty standard; all children would have been wrapped in bands of cloth– but then he went on. He told them they would find this child “lying in a manger”. That definitely wasn’t standard. We don’t know where this manger was – the Bible doesn’t actually mention a stable. It could have been in the open air, or in a cave used as an animal shelter, or in a room in a house shared with animals, as many were at the time. But wherever it was, a manger wasn’t for babies. It was for animal feed. It was probably none too clean, and I daresay the straw was home to any number of creepy crawlies.  No sensible, self-respecting parent was going to put their baby to sleep in a manger if they had any other choice. But apparently these parents didn’t . It was the manger or the hard, cold ground.

We are so used to the image of Jesus “asleep on the hay” that we’ve probably grown immune to its shock, but it wouldn’t have made sense to the shepherds at all. If this child was the Messiah, why would God let him be born among the animals? Why would he let him lie in a manger? Why would he not send him to a family who could at least give him a safe and comfortable bed?

The birth stories in the Gospels are meant to point forward to the life and ministry of the adult Jesus; they are a sort of prologue, alerting us to its themes. This little detail certainly does that. It points forward to another time when people would wonder what on earth God was up to, and why he didn’t take better care of his son. It points forward to the crucifixion. Those who witnessed Jesus’ death asked why, if he really was the Messiah, he was on a cross and not on a throne. Crucifixion was humiliating as well as painful; a sign to everyone that you’d been cursed and abandoned. When Jesus was crucified it looked as if everything had gone wrong. But Luke’s inclusion of this detail of Jesus’ birth is a big hint that suffering and dying aren’t a sign that God’s plans have failed; they are the plan, somehow vital to what he is doing in our world.

We still tend to assume that God is most likely to be found in beautiful, respectable places, in the beauty of a candlelit church or in a glorious sunset, in lives that are upright, sorted out. We still, lazily, call some places god-forsaken – the grimy sink estate, the refugee camp, the bombed out city – but the Gospels proclaim is that nowhere is god-forsaken. In fact, they tell us, God’s first choice is to be in places where there is pain and disgrace, poverty and need.

Christian faith has been co-opted and distorted again and again by the rich and powerful over the centuries. But Christmas and Easter, if we keep them properly, bring it back to its roots, in a child laid in a manger and a man pinned to a cross. We can dress Christian faith up in gold and silver. We can build great cathedrals in God’s name, but if we truly want to follow Christ, sooner or later we will find ourselves kneeling in the dirt of a stable, or standing in the squalor of an execution site.

It may sound shocking, but there is a sense in which Christianity is really a faith for losers. It is a faith for those who have lost hope, lost their good name, lost their power, lost their way. None of us likes to think of ourselves that way, but all of us, at some stage discover that we are mortal and fallible. It all goes wrong, and we don’t know why, and we can’t do anything about it. When we come to that point, the God of the manger and the cross is the God we really need, the God who comes to us at our lowest point, into our greatest pain.

There’s a poem by the early twentieth century writer, Philip Britts, which seems to me to sum this up, and perhaps to sum up what those shepherds might have felt as they hurried to Bethlehem.

We have not come like Eastern kings
With gifts upon the pommel lying.
Our hands are empty, and we came
Because we heard a baby crying.

We have not come like questing knights
With fiery swords and banners flying.
We heard a call and hurried here –
The call was like a baby crying.

But we have come with open hearts
From places where the torch is dying.
We seek a manger and a cross
Because we heard a baby crying.
(Philip Britts 1917- 49 )

To hear that poem properly you have to abandon the idea that  “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. However sweet it might seem, it’s not realistic, as anyone who’s had a baby will know. Babies cry. It’s the only way they have to let us know that they are uncomfortable, hungry, thirst, cold, hot. They can’t do anything for themselves, and if they didn’t cry for our help, they wouldn’t survive.  So of course Jesus cried. His cried because he was human, the Word who had become flesh . In him God inhabits our cries, embraces our vulnerability and helplessness, stays with us through the dark nights and brings us hope and life.

I began by saying that I didn’t know why you had come here tonight, but perhaps for some of us it is the cry of a baby that has drawn us here, a sense of need, a hunger for hope. That crying child may be within us, or we may have heard it in someone we love. It may be in the voices of those we see on the news, the refugees crossing the Med in their flimsy boats, the homeless, those struggling with the hard grind of poverty, the people whose stories tug at our heartstrings and make us despair of the world we live in. But God’s promise to us is the same as it has ever been. He is there in the mangers and on the crosses of our world, born in us, dying with us, and, if we let him, transforming those dark places with the light of his love. 

To you is born this day a saviour, and you will find him lying in a manger. That’s the good news.
Amen

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Coming to Rest 3: Breathing Space for Advent





This is the third and last of our Advent series of reflections on the theme of Coming to Rest. In the first, we thought about our need to come to rest in God amidst the busyness of preparing for Christmas. Last week we thought about the way in which we come to rest when we hit rock bottom, yet find we have landed in the hands of God. Tonight, though, we change our focus. Tonight it isn’t we who are coming to rest, but God himself. God who, in Christ, lets himself fall from the glory of heaven into the ordinariness and the squalor of the world, into its confusions and cruelties, into our limited, painful mortality.

This is the God who “emptied himself,” according to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, who didn’t just take the form of a human being, but took the form of a slave. And even that wasn’t the lowest point of his journey. He “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

This downward pattern is there in the Gospel reading too. It starts with the Emperor Augustus and his decree that all the world should be registered. We don’t know whether this decree actually was made – there’s no independent record of it – but Luke’s point is that the story begins at the top of the tree of power in the ancient world. The Emperor Augustus is about as grand as it can get. But this story, it turns out, isn’t about him.

So next we lower our sights a bit. We are introduced to Quirinius, Governor of Syria, the Roman province which included what we would now call Israel. But the story’s not about him either.

It’s not till the end of the passage that we discover who the main character really is: a new-born baby, indistinguishable from any other. Even then, though, we haven’t stopped our downward descent. This child is born to a woman who has conceived him when she was not married; something that would have raised eyebrows at the very least, though Joseph seems to be behaving as if he accepts this child as his own. And the baby isn’t born in the comfort of a guest room or a lodging house, but has to lie in an animals feeding trough.

Biblical scholars argue about  precisely what Luke is describing here. It might be the space in an ordinary house shared with the animals. It might be a feeding trough out in the open. But the meaning is clear. This is about as low as it gets. A helpless baby, who seems to have all the cards stacked against him. But this is where God chooses to come into the world. This is where he comes to rest; first in the womb of an ordinary, probably teenaged, girl around whom there is more than a scent of scandal, then in a manger, rough and probably none too clean.  

It is about as unlikely a place as you can imagine for the king of heaven to be, yet this is the point. God comes to rest in unlikely places and unlikely people.

It’s a theme which Luke introduces here in his birth stories because it will give us a foretaste of what is to come in the rest of his Gospel. Jesus will be God’s presence in unlikely places throughout his life; among prostitutes and tax collectors, women and children, the sick and the outcast, the last places people would expect to find God. Ultimately, he will be God’s presence on the cross, and in the tomb. He will be God’s presence in these places, transforming them from places of squalor, failure and death, into holy places, places where forgiveness can be found new life can begin.

And it is still true today. The promise of the Bible is that in Christ, God comes to rest in our lives. My guess is that most of us would feel we were very unlikely places for that to happen, but that's how it is. And he doesn’t just come to rest in the sense of coming to a full stop in us, lying there inert and passive; in fact it is quite the opposite. He comes bringing rest, the rest which is wrapped up in the Hebrew word shalom, the rest which God enjoyed on the seventh day of creation.

Shalom is about far more than simply stopping work, though. Shalom is the state where all is as it should be, when wrongs are set right and all that was broken is healed. It is the peace that passes understanding, but which, when we have it we can’t mistake it for anything else. It is peace, true rest, which we can carry within us, even when the outward circumstances of our lives are troubled - a still, calm centre that can hold us through the storms of life.

So in the silence tonight, let’s picture our hearts as that strawy manger where Christ is laid, the place where – unlikely as it seems – he is perfectly at home , coming to rest in us and coming to bring rest to us.
Amen

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Coming to Rest 2: Breathing Space for Advent





Last week we thought a bit about the need to “come to rest” in God in the midst of our busyness, to stop struggling to prove ourselves, at least to God, even if we are constantly facing targets and pressures elsewhere. This week’s readings remind us that that not every “coming to rest” is freely chosen. We can be forced to a standstill by our circumstances too.

Jonah comes to rest in the belly of a big fish in the first reading we heard tonight. He had been called by God to go to the Assyrian capital city of Ninevah to preach a message of repentance to them. Frankly this was a big ask. Assyria was the mightiest empire the Middle East had ever seen, and it was very brutal. Israel had been hammered by the Assyrians, and many of their people taken into exile, scattered around the empire. Telling Jonah to go and preach there was a bit like expecting a Jewish person to go to the heart of Nazi Germany and tell Hitler to repent. It was that frightening. But Jonah isn’t just frightened that the Assyrians will harm him. In fact, he is far more frightened that they won’t, that they will heed God’s call, and that God will then forgive them. That would just add insult to the real injury the Jewish people had sustained at the hands of Assyria. He really couldn’t bear that at all.

So instead of going to Ninevah, to the north-east of Israel, he gets onto the first boat he can find going in the opposite direction, westwards across the Mediterranean towards Tarshish which was probably either in Spain or Sardinia. He wants to put as much distance as he can between himself and the work God wants him to do. But, according to the story – and it is just a story, probably based on an ancient folk tale – God sends a storm. Jonah, convinced it is his fault that this is happening, persuades the crew to throw him overboard. Presumably he expects to drown – but even that would be better than going to Ninevah. But God hasn’t finished with him, and, as we all know, a big fish comes and swallows him up. The words we heard were Jonah’s prayer from the belly of that fish. It’s very reminiscent of some of the Psalms in its language, but when Jonah talks about the waters closing in above him, when he talks about sinking down to the underworld, he means it quite literally. He has hit rock bottom, quite literally – the ocean floor – but the fish has saved him, and Jonah realises that he has been given a second chance.

In the parable Jesus tells, we see the contrast between the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax-collector who knows that he is in a mess. The Pharisee appears to think he can float himself up to heaven on the hot air of his boasting – in fact he probably suspects he is more than half-way there already - but the tax-collector knows he has nothing to offer but his sorrow. The burdens of guilt he carries drag him downwards like Jonah sinking beneath the waves.  Which one goes home having received God’s blessing of peace?  Not the one who thought he had earned it, but the one who knew from bitter experience that he never could.  The tax-collector comes to rest, at rock bottom, but finds that God is perfectly present with him there.

Advent is a penitential season, a time for taking a long hard look at ourselves and being aware of what needs to change. That sounds like a rather negative thing to do, but actually it is the first step to finding true joy. At Christmas, we celebrate the light that shines in the darkness, which the darkness could not overcome, but if we don’t acknowledge that darkness, the darkness in us and around us, we will never really see and appreciate the light either. We will live instead in a permanent half-light, a gloom by which we can just about get by, but never really live with the fullness of life God wants for us. So tonight, let’s be honest with ourselves and with God. It isn’t all fine in our lives, but it doesn’t have to be. We can fall as far as we need to, but we will always come to rest in the merciful hands of God.   Amen