Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Ascension to Pentecost: Thy Kingdom Come…

“Thy Kingdom Come” is a critical phrase in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s how Jesus teaches us to pray: expectantly and trusting that God will hear our prayer. These words, “Thy Kingdom Come,” have in recent years been used as a name for an initiative by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to encourage us in our lives of prayer and to share our faith more widely. It’s an initiative which asks us to do this particularly in the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost. More and more churches have joined in - and it’s no longer something just for the Church of England. This year we have the opportunity to play our part.

There’s a website which tells you more - just search for it or look on the Church of England’s website. It makes suggestions as to some of the things a church might do. You could, it says:

  • Hold a Messy Church – if you’ve not done this before your first one could be themed around Thy Kingdom Come.
  • Introduce prayer stations at your church. For suggestions see our Bright Ideas for Your church booklet.
  • Hold a 24-7 prayer event in your church.
  • Go on a Prayer Safari.
  • Encourage your home group to run a Thy Kingdom Come session.
  • Go into your local school assembly and talk to the children about prayer.
  • Hold a prayer kite festival or a prayer bear picnic.
  • Have a ‘pray for five friends’ session.

That’s not to say what you should do, but what you could. You’ll probably realise that in fact they include some things we already do - from prayer opportunities in church to Messy Church. And we’ll be doing them and more in the period suggested, from Ascension Day, Thursday 10th May to Pentecost, Sunday 20th May.

We have a ready-made opportunity on Ascension Day. That’s the day we’re hosting our Deanery’s special Eucharist to celebrate the Feast. So instead of our usual Thursday morning service, we’ll have a Sung Eucharist at 7pm. Please come then, and please bring other people with you! We want to be able to give a big welcome to people from other churches in our Deanery - and to celebrate in a big way. Ascension Day recognises the place of Jesus at his Father’s right hand, exalted to the heavens - and it tells us of our hope as Jesus carries our humanity into the heart of God.

As to the other suggestions for joining in the initiative… I’ll expect to be in our schools for assemblies - not as a result of a special effort, but because it’s part of our regular ministry. There’ll be Messy Church too - something we’re already doing and on its regular day. And it will be Christian Aid Week, where we can be glad that people will be going out as part of their Christian discipleship to help the poorest of our world’s people. This is a regular thing too - though we can always use more help (see the separate article).

We’ve mentioned in this month’s Messy Church article that we hope to carry on what we begin in the Tuesday meeting onto the following Sunday - that’s Pentecost, 20th May. The Feast celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. And God calls us to be blessed by the Holy Spirit too. “Thy Kingdom Come,” we should pray. It’s the recognition that we are disciples of Jesus. And at Pentecost the first Disciples are transformed by the coming of the Spirit into Apostles - people who are sent out with a mission. It’s a calling for us all: to learn as disciples - to know ourselves changed by God’s work in us and to share that faith by word and deed.

Martin Jackson

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Easter hopes and the promise of the Resurrection

It has been a cold hard Lent - and even as we begin Eastertide the weather forecasters are telling us to expect yet more snow. At St. Cuthbert’s we’ve lamented that the daffodils which can so often set the churchyard’s bankside ablaze with their glory seem as yet to have no real interest in opening. And the church stands cold with its heating system dead and its congregation in exile across the road in the Church Hall. I realise so much more acutely now how a church is more than the stones of which it is made - it’s a place of Christ’s presence made real by the prayers of its people. When we find ourselves forced to move out and away from the church we cannot avoid a feeling that its atmosphere becomes one of abandonment.

Not wholly abandoned… It’s been moving that families have continued to want to come into the church for the funerals of loved ones - despite the harsh cold they would experience. Against the odds we have celebrated two marriages with real joy - and a sense of community ownership when it took a huge team of snow-shovellers just to get the bride and groom into the church. Then last Sunday a Baptism - water poured directly into the font from a kettle - though most of the photos were taken outside, where it was rather warmer than inside the church. And during Holy Week congregations have returned to brave the cold for the Eucharist, to follow the way of Christ’s Passion in the Stations of the Cross, and then to gather again for Good Friday morning.

Those few times we’ve been back to use the church - each time I have been in on my own - it’s brought into my heart a sense of loss for a church we might so easily take for granted, and a longing to return. That’s why for me it has been important to say that we would kindle the Paschal flame and light the Easter Candle in church, that there we would renew our Baptism vows and sing an Easter hymn. It’s a declaration of our faith - faith not in a building but in what the building witnesses to. We’ll be back - and hopefully with a renewed confidence in the faith which led to its being built in the first place.

The church is more than cold stone. And the Easter message is how God overcomes the coldness of the grave in which Jesus was laid on Good Friday. It’s nothing that anyone can do that brings about Resurrection. For the three women who come to the grave on that first Easter Day, all they hope to achieve is carry out the burial rites which they had been unable to undertake on the day of his death. They come expecting to find only a dead body. They come in grief and loss. They come not knowing even how they will be able to get at the body - “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” they ask.

And we never discover the answer - simply, “the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.” There are no explanations. In St. Mark’s Gospel a young man sitting in the tomb simply says, “He has been raised. He is not here.” His words seem merely to compound the women’s sense of alarm. They leave the tomb and flee in terror - and the last words of St. Mark’s account are “they were afraid.”

These are the words which are probably the original ending of St. Mark’s Gospel. What the women witness is a fearful thing. But it isn’t the end of the story.

We’re given two alternatives for our Gospel today. St. Mark’s telling of the story in its baldest form - the story of the three women who go to the tomb, find it empty and then run. But also St. John’s Gospel in which the Evangelist draws out the movement from the coldness of the grave to the first warm perception of what the Resurrection means. In each of the Gospels it’s Mary Magdalene who plays the central part. She’s the first of the three who, St. Mark tells us, went to the tomb. For St. John she’s also the first to visit the grave - and, when she runs from it, it’s to tell Peter and another disciple that the tomb is empty. And when those disciples go home it’s Mary who stays by the tomb. It’s Mary who shares her grief with the men in white to whose presence the other disciples seem to have been oblivious. And it’s Mary who hears their question, “Why are you weeping?” repeated by a stranger she takes to be a gardener.

St. Mark gives no explanations of the empty tomb. Simply “he has been raised.” St. John gives no explanations and even the oddness of angelic beings doesn’t cause him to make any comment as to why they are there. But John gives us detail - the folded grave cloths which is all that Peter finds. And still more he shows how God touches us in our humanity. “Why are you weeping?” is the question put both by the angels and the unrecognized stranger. The question reaches into Mary’s heart. She has no answers when even the body of the Jesus she loves so deeply has been taken away. No answer until Jesus speaks her name, “Mary!” It’s then that she knows he is risen, then that she can turn and address him as “Rabbouni, Teacher.” The Resurrection faith is real not because it can be explained but because it is known, and known personally when Jesus speaks Mary’s name. It’s real for us because Jesus knows us by name. Jesus reaches out to us in our sorrow and need, in faith and doubt, and enters into the deep recesses of our hearts, and speaks our name. We need only turn to him and he is there.

The events of the first Easter morning don’t rely on sacred buildings or a framework of religion. They take place in the opening up of a cold place of death. They acknowledge the fears and failure to comprehend of those who are there. They show the reality of grief, but also of persistence, faith and love. And they show us a risen Lord with a human heart which beats close to ours - one who knows us by name. And in that risen Lord, who has shared our human existence, who has died upon the Cross to show the extent of his love, we see our hope of life with him.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Lessons of Lent and Easter…

I’m conscious that I started Lent by saying that the word “Lent” is in origin another term for “Spring.” It’s the time of the lengthening days - that’s where the word comes from. As I write it’s now British Summer Time. But it’s been a long drawn-out winter - and I’ve felt it’s coldness in more ways than one.

Not least there have been the frustrations of a church without a heating system - and a location where the snow has frustrated much that we had planned (both the Hall and the Parish Annual Meetings have had to be re-scheduled for a start). There have been meetings and meals cancelled - and a sense that somehow we are failing because we can’t offer the warm welcome we would wish to give people. Lent has felt lean rather than spring-like. It’s been a hard slog just to get by.

And yet I hope our hearts will be lifted. As I write, we still have to work out just how we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter Day - what should take place in the church (especially if the temperature drops still further) and what should we do in the Hall? I’ve had a sense of loss and exile in being away from the church. But that has made me recognise still more deeply just why people in these last weeks have been so definite that they wanted funerals for their loved ones and baptisms for their children in church regardless of the cold they may feel and the difficulties we might experience. It really is worth it!

And our faith is worth it! That’s what I want to declare. Jesus has little to say about buildings - except to point to a Temple whose destruction he prophesied. That’s not to say that buildings are without value. But it’s to point us to a Temple which is eternal, not the creation of human hands.

We have been taking stock during these last weeks as to just what we need for the good of our church building. There will be appeals and hard work ahead. But meanwhile I hope we have discovered something of what it means to be the Church - in the sense of “Christ’s people.” The Church is first those who are called by God. Let’s be thankful for that - and affirm again: We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!    

Martin Jackson

From the April issue of our Parish Magazine - read it all by clicking here

Friday, 2 March 2018

Not quite what we were expecting…

… and certainly not what we wanted! I started the month of February full of expectation. Throughout most of 2017 I’ve been taking part with other diocesan clergy in a course of residential and other gatherings called Missional Leadership for Growth. It’s taken me away from the parish - but it’s also had its counterpart in meeting with a small team at St. Cuthbert’s and sharing of how we can move forward with members of the PCC and others. It’s about the Church’s “mission” (indeed God’s mission which he shares with us) - and how that may help us grow. And we have been making progress with plans for the future - especially looking to see how we can link our life and work here with a national initiative for prayer between Ascension Day and Pentecost in May. That’s a period when Christian Aid Week takes place - so we want to link in with that as we consider our Christian responsibilities. And those ten days will start as we welcome members of other parishes to join us for a Deanery Eucharist on Ascension Day - so it will remind us that we are part of a greater whole. We want to look at all the good things that are going on - from Messy Church to Lunch Club - and try to join them up still more effectively.

We’re not changing those plans. But how they are delivered will no doubt be affected by circumstances beyond our control. We did not count on the leak in our church heating system. To call it a “leak” feels like an understatement of the problem. It’s a catastrophic failure. One hole… but it took three visits from the heating engineers to find it. We could see the water pouring through the wall into the old boiler house below the choir vestry. But only when the experts followed the ducting through which most of the pipes run, excavating as they went, did they find that the source of the leak was a pipe buried under the flagstones beneath the red carpet near the font. The pipe itself was under another pipe, which meant both sets of pipes would have to be cut through to reach it. But all the surrounding pipework was so decayed that it wouldn’t be just a matter of replacing a couple of sections. The hole is at the heart of a complex system of junctions, bends and bifurcations. There would need to be a massive excavation (at least two weeks) and the font would need to be moved. An estimate was given for the repair (with no guarantee that it wouldn’t be more) of £13,300 + VAT. And once that work was done, there would be no guarantee that a leak wouldn’t occur elsewhere - an experience we’ve known to our cost on several occasions.

So we have realised that we need to think hard - and hopefully replace the whole ancient system of pipework which must be almost if not as old as the church’s 168 years. Bear with us in this, please - and be patient. It’s a massive undertaking!

For the moment - and with the Bishop’s permission - Sunday services will be held in the Church Hall. It would be good to be back in church for Easter Day - but that will be without heat, so wrap up warm if we do that! Then we imagine we’ll return to the Hall till it gets warmer. Will that put us off? I’m glad to say that on our first Sunday in the Hall, numbers went up! Let’s keep it that way!

Since then, of course, we’ve had horrendous winter conditions. In the midst of which we’ve had two weddings. We hired in an industrial heater and borrowed others. On each occasion they raised the temperature by about 3 degrees - which isn’t much when you’re starting at 3 degrees! The second wedding had to contend with deep snow - not only on the Bank but also in getting to us. But happily they persevered - and the outcome was wonderful! Something they’ll certainly be able to tell their grandchildren about.

The night before that wedding, I posted on Facebook that we’d welcome help in clearing what snow we could. I wondered if anyone would notice. But then - as they say - it went “viral.” People took it to heart - and shared it with others. The original post reached about 28,000 people! The next morning there was a tractor clearing the Bank, and a Land Rover with a snow plough, and 40 to 50 people with shovels. And people serving them hot drinks to keep them going. It’s one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever known - and it’s been repeated since over the wider community. The story itself has been in the Chronicle, the Northern Echo, the Church Times, the Times of Malta(!) and on BBC and other websites - and I’ve found myself talking about it in three different radio interviews.

The word gets round - when it’s something people want to hear, when hearts are ready to be touched. That’s what I think we can learn.

What are we wanting to say? What do people hear us say? What’s the good news we can share? How can we turn a disaster into a triumph?

And, of course, that’s what the Easter story is about. So many hopes pinned by the Disciples and even the crowds of Palm Sunday on one man, hailed as a Messiah, but then betrayed and deserted by those closest to him. The Cross is about the death of that man - and about the worst that people are capable of doing to each other. But it’s also about the means by which God brings about something else still greater - and unexpected. It’s about the triumph of his love. The new life by which he raises Jesus from the dead is greater than death.

I’m not full of empty confidence. Over the last two weeks I’ve lain awake in bed wondering how do we get through this? - how do I even get through today? I still don’t know the long-term answer to our big fabric issues. But I am touched by the human response that I’ve seen - and especially as it related to people at that most important time of their lives, in committing themselves to each other in love.

What do we hope for? I can be glad for the human resilience I’ve experienced in these last few days - and for the way that action has been an expression of love. But still more, as Christians, I hope we will find cause to reflect and act on what our faith means to us - and God’s love which is its source. We need to do something about the fabric of our church - but there’s only any point in doing it if it says something of what we believe. Every day I need to ask myself, why do I do this? Unless the answer has something to do with my faith in a God of life and love, then mine has been a wasted life. Let’s grow together through the remainder of Lent, so that at its end we may recognise again that “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!

Martin Jackson
From the March issue of our Parish Magazine - click here to read it online

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Mission & Ministry - starting from discipleship

I’ve written previously that over the last year I’ve been involved in a diocesan initiative called Missional Leadership for Growth. The intention is that all the clergy of our Diocese of Durham should take the course - not only to try to enable clergy in “Missional Leadership” but also with the idea that we should then infect our churches. And hopefully that will lead to growth in our congregations - not just so that we can survive, but so that we can flourish as followers of Christ, be deepened in our faith and be able to share that faith with those around us.

So far I’ve had a whole day meeting with members of my “cohort” (we’re divided up in groups and I’m in Cohort 3 out of probably 6 or 7); and then two residential courses, each of five days. Next there’s a day meeting in February - but not only for the clergy… We’ll each be going with three or four parishioners with whom it’s hoped we’ll continue to think about what mission means. In fact not only think, but also do something about it.

Our little group in this parish has been rather late getting off the ground, but we have been talking more widely about what “mission” means for us - especially in our PCC (Parochial Church Council). And we are starting to plan, building on our hopes for a Mission Project linked to the period between Ascension Day and Pentecost (10-20 May) when our Archbishops ask us to engage in prayer on the theme, “Thy Kingdom Come.”

There’s more planning to do. But what we do recognise now is that if we are going to reach out to others with the Good News of Christ and the message of his Kingdom, then we need to start by looking at ourselves. And that means to ask what are we doing about our own discipleship? Not to beat ourselves up about our failings, but to see how we can grow as followers of Jesus. As our Bishop of Durham says, disciples are lovers of Jesus - and need to know they are loved by Jesus. What does that mean for us? - for me?

Lent is a good time to explore these questions. There are a number of ways we can do that - in particular through our Lent Course (see page 3 of our Parish Magazine) and by special opportunities for prayer. Join us!                               
Martin Jackson

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Dismissiveness and Discipleship: Eucharist – Epiphany 2

Preached by the Vicar in St. Cuthbert's and St. John's Churches
(and written before President Trump went rather further than Nathanael)

(1 Samuel 3.1-10; Revelation 5.1-10; John 1.43-51)

Jesus calls to his first disciples - and to us - with two simple words, “Follow me.” First, according to St. John’s Gospel, he calls Simon Peter and Andrew. The next day - where our Gospel reading starts - he calls Philip, who’d been a neighbour of Andrew and Peter. Then Philip tries to make an introduction and takes Jesus along to meet his friend, Nathanael. This is where it seems to go wrong… because Nathanael’s reaction is anything but gracious. Philip tells him, this is the man we’ve been waiting for, the man who’ll really make a difference, it’s all there in the Bible… and he’s called Jesus, and he’s from Nazareth! But all Nathanael can do is to harrumph: “Nazareth!! Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The first disciples of Jesus are not a promising lot. A couple of fishermen, one of whom will always prove to be impetuous, rash and useless at living up to promises; a former tax collector; a failed freedom fighter; a couple of ambitious place-seekers; a thief and traitor; and a number of them who never really seem to do much including Nathanael who comes across as the first curmudgeon of the New Testament and then re-appears only briefly in one verse of John chapter 21 (verse 2, if you want to check it) on a fishing expedition. What did Jesus think he was doing? Andrew Greely, American priest, sociology professor and novelist, put it this way:

 Jesus had [a] peculiar taste in friends. You put the whole crowd together and they were not as smart as one of the third rate philosophers in Rome. Maybe some of them could read and write. They were perhaps street smart, but [if] you were going to announce the nearness of the kingdom of God would you surround yourself with folks [like these]? They were utterly insensitive to Jesus’ spiritual message and interested only in the power and prestige they were going to have in his kingdom (which they didn’t understand at all). One of them was a thief and ten of them cowards. Surely, even if he had decided to limit his choice to Galilee, Jesus could have done better? Why these sluggards and nerds? Why indeed? And why do we pretend that our leaders today are better than they were? Patently the first Pope and the first bishops (if we want to use that analogy) were not sacred persons, but inept, often stupid human beings? Why do have to pretend that their successors are any better? Why should they be immune from criticism? Have we missed the point somewhere along the line that the leaders of the church and the followers in the church are fragile, imperfect human beings and that Jesus chose them precisely because he wanted a human church? If he wanted something better, he should have turned it over not to the philosophers in Rome but to the Seraphim.

But, of course, that’s the point. Jesus doesn’t come preaching the Gospel simply so that he can have a Church made up of angels, saints and seraphim. He doesn’t even want a Church where the philosophers have got it all worked out. He wants a human Church, followers who are ordinary people like you and me - like Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael.

There is a point in Jesus calling people like them. Philip himself is not someone that most of us could name as being of prime importance in the Gospels. But right from the start we see his contribution. He might not be able to articulate the finer points of what he believes, but he wants to share it anyway with other people. He takes Jesus to meet Nathanael; he gets miserable old Nathanael up on his feet from under his tree, and he pushes him towards Jesus despite his protests. Later we’ll find him bringing Gentile visitors to Jerusalem to meet Jesus. Still later we get confusion with probably a different Philip in the Acts of the Apostles preaching to Samaritans, reaching still further beyond the fringes of belief as he helps an Ethiopian pilgrim to understand the scriptures; and at the end of the Acts of the Apostles we see this Philip with his family, creating a welcome for St. Paul, and with his church community around him, a testimony to a life of faith-sharing. Whether or not these Philips are the same person, the point is the same. Jesus needs ordinary people who can carry his message - and being clever or articulate isn’t the first qualification. All that’s needed is a willing heart.

But with Nathanael, even that seems to be lacking. Don’t bother me, he seems to be saying to the enthusiastic Philip. And his dismissiveness could be hurtful. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathanael is blunt about feelings we may harbour: I’m comfortable where I am; I’m comfortable with what I know already… And that can mean, I’m comfortable with my ignorance, and I’m comfortable with my prejudice.

But Jesus needs people like Nathanael, he needs people like us - and thank goodness he uses people like Philip. Philip persists: “Come and see…” He gets Nathanael onto his feet and takes him to Jesus. And even before He reaches him, Jesus hails him: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” Other translations have it, “Here is an Israelite worthy of the name…” Jesus recognises him as someone who speaks plainly, who doesn’t cover up what he thinks. The name Israel, which was given to Jacob, son of Isaac, is a word that means “he struggles with God.” Jesus can see this straight away. Nathanael - beneath the blunt gruffness - is a man with a good heart, who struggles to know the way... How does Jesus know that, Nathanael asks. And the answer is strange - it’s because “I saw you under the fig tree.” That’s enough for Jesus - and it’s enough for Nathanael to be told. Jesus knows about Nathanael, he knows he can use him, because he was in the right place. But what does that mean?

Can God use me? Am I in the right place? We can convince ourselves that we’re of little use to anyone, never mind to God. We don’t know enough, haven’t got the right skills, have so many commitments, and need to be just where we are now - these can be our excuses. But where is God going to find the people he needs? Where does Jesus find his followers? The answer we get in today’s first reading is that God finds the greatest of the Judges of Israel, Samuel, while he’s still a young boy, and he makes himself heard while that young boy is in bed. Surely God can’t be speaking to Samuel - wouldn’t he speak to Eli the priest first? Samuel can’t comprehend it, until Eli realises what is going on: stay where you are, stay in your bed; know that God has a message which requires not priests and the Temple but which needs you and your open heart - so let him speak to you where you are. That’s why Jesus can call disciples who were simple fishermen working with their nets. He can call us. And he calls Nathanael from under a fig tree. Some commentators say that a wise student of the Jewish Torah would study while sitting under a tree, so that seeing him there gives Jesus the measure of the man. But perhaps Jesus is simply saying, I’ve seen you there - I know you; I need you. The fig tree is what will sum Nathanael up, in the same way that it’s enough for the Gospel writer to say that Philip comes from Bethsaida, and Nathanael thinks he can be simply dismissive of Jesus when he hears that he comes from Nazareth.

But now Nathanael recognises something new: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” He realises that Jesus has the authority of a teacher who can be called Rabbi - and it’s not just that he comes from Nazareth… he comes from God.

And Nathanael comes from under a fig tree… The question for us is, where are we coming from? What is it that sums us up, what are the ignorances and prejudices that we need to leave behind us? Do we realise that already Jesus sees us and calls us? - just as we are…

Perhaps what we need above all in today’s society is to recover our human identity as spiritual beings. We need to recognise that we are more than the sum total of the molecules and atoms from which we are physically created. We are more than all the stuff which we cling to as material possessions. We are made by God, loved by God, and called by God to be his people. We simply need to hear his call, feel his touch, let ourselves respond. It’s not that we should let go of our reason, but it’s to recognise that there are things beyond rationalisation. Believing is not something to be ashamed of. Praying is not something we need to apologise for. We don’t need to worry if we don’t have all the answers, and a faith which expresses itself in humility has much more going for it than the arrogance of certainty. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Christmas Night: The Vicar preaches at Midnight Mass

(Isaiah 9.2-7; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20)

How have you got ready for Christmas? I have to admit that I’ve spent much of the last week moaning about having a cold - especially losing my voice and getting such a sore throat, as well as worrying whether I’d have any audibility to offer for Christmas. I haven’t been alone in my ill-health. And anyone at this time of year is going to find much to pre-occupy their hearts and minds.

So, do I feel ready for Christmas? Mary and Joseph, arriving in Bethlehem from their home town of Nazareth, were not exactly prepared. An unplanned pregnancy - even if it was part of the divine plan. An arduous journey, just when they could have been fixing up their home. And at the other end, only temporary accommodation with an animal trough having to be used in place of a cot for the new baby.

Nell Frizzell, writing in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper, reflects on the Nativity story in the light of her own experience:

This is a story of a young woman wading through insane government admin while hobbling more than 70 miles to her in-laws’, in the final stages of her first pregnancy, before facing an accommodation crisis and the prospect of childbirth without a health service.

I gave birth five weeks ago. When I was pregnant, just sitting on the 253 bus would almost inevitably result in me having to lurch off before my stop, vomit in a bin and, shortly afterwards, want to lie down and quietly die in the Euston branch of Accessorize. The very idea of rumbling through the night on the bony haunches of a recalcitrant donkey, when your pelvis already aches from the tectonic shift it’s making to let a baby through, and the instinct to nest, settle and pat your baby’s bedding washes through your veins unquenched, makes me weep.

But then there is a birth. A birth that makes all the difference. We imagine Bethlehem in the stillness of the night. That moment of Jesus’ birth comes to us as a “still” moment. There would be blood, sweat and mucus - probably tears, tears and pain as well. But we’re right to focus on the moment of the birth. It’s that moment of the birth of each of my children that has stayed with me in the midst of everything else that was going on. And with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem we recognise one moment which changes everything. Everything is changed for Mary and Joseph - not only new parental responsibilities but bewildering messages and visitors and an even more difficult journey into exile to escape the attention of a genocidal king. And everything is changed for the world - for us - because this birth is a new revelation of God’s purpose.

From all we may feel of our unpreparedness at Christmas, it’s at this moment in history that we discover God’s love for the world as Christ meets us in the here and now - over 2,000 years ago and today.

A phrase that’s worked its way into my head this year is “doing Christmas.” I think it’s come from those people who say “We don’t do Christmas.” That can mean different things - from not sending Christmas cards, through resistance to rampant commercialism, to conscious opposition to something seen as a deceptive ploy on the part of organised religion to attract unwary adherents. Or they may just be a bit miserable in their outlook… But they have a point! Because it’s not what we do that’s at the heart of our Christmas celebration. It’s about recognising what God is doing - and from that, something of his essential nature and purpose. We sang this morning, “O come, O come, Immanuel.” The Saviour who is born in Bethlehem is given the name Immanuel - which means “God with us.” This is about the very being of God who reaches out to us, who brings himself to be with us. We need merely to bring ourselves to be with him. “O come, let us adore him!” We love to draw close to any new-born child. This is one whose love is for the whole world.

But that can be hard to take in. What do we remember as we look back over the last year? - what will feature in those “Reviews of the Year” on TV and in the newspapers? A lot of horror - so much that it’s hard to remember just when and where. Terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, in Barcelona and Cairo… and many more. Atrocities of rampaging gunmen whose blood-letting is not the more excused when it’s said they were not terrorist-related. Genocide against the Rohingya people of Myanmar. Natural disasters - over 200 people have died in just the last two days of floods in the Philippines, and we probably can’t remember more than a fraction of similar incidents from mudslides in Mexico to typhoon inundation in Bangladesh. Along with the helplessness that so many feel in the face of political action or inaction by government or opposition, here and in so many other countries.

It's difficult to hold it all in our minds. Quite likely we don’t want to. But there are certain events we can’t avoid - not least the Grenfell Tower fire and all its says to us about poverty, right judgment and action, and humanity. I found myself literally confronted by this when I was on holiday in London. A summer’s evening walk in Notting Hill with blue-plaqued buildings, upmarket restaurants and bars, a general air of prosperity, and then I turned a corner to see the burned out remains of Grenfell Tower at the other end of the street. It was a shock I wasn’t ready for. In one of the richest local authorities of our country, the estates surrounding the Tower are amongst the poorest and most rundown. And still so many of the survivors wait to be re-housed. I was listening to an interview with one of them the other day - 10 members of his family living in two hotel rooms. You might have an image of the poverty to which you might suppose he was accustomed. But he was very articulate. Why was he living there, I asked myself, when he was obviously so intelligent and well-spoken? Why had he not been able to secure the help his family deserved? And then I realised I should be ashamed to think that way. His name was Muhammad Rasul - and that might cause you to make presumptions. But the only real presumption we should have was that this was a fellow-human being with all the rights and needs which all of us should possess.

From the unsatisfied basic needs of humanity in our society, we look tonight to Bethlehem - and we’re told “there was no room for them in the inn.”

Where is Jesus Christ in all this? When people tell me they are “spiritual” rather then “religious,” I tend to despair because they are forgetting the person at the centre of our faith. I was reminded yesterday[1] that the last Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has argued that one of the tests of genuine faith - as opposed to bad religion - is whether it stops you ignoring things. The test of faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting or ignoring aspects of what is real.

Nell Frizzell, writing as a new mother about the birth at Bethlehem, examines what happens following a birth:

Oh sure, the gold is great, but I can just imagine the look Mary might have given as she realised she was now going to have to carry a lump of myrrh over the hills as she fled to Egypt on the back of that bloody donkey, as well as everything else.

After I gave birth I didn’t want wise men at my threshold – I wanted midwives, mothers and aunties bearing lasagnes and knitted hats. I wanted wise women: women who had known how it felt in my body, had felt that weight of birth and were proud of me.

And, of course, there’s the admin to get through. My first attempt at filling in the CH2 child benefit claimant form was so entirely unsuccessful that I not only gave up just one page in, but also burned my lunch and managed to get urine in my hair in the process.

There’s so much to pre-occupy us, so many challenges, but also an ever-increasing superficiality in so many aspects of life today. We need to recover a sense of depth. So much is going on that we can’t keep it all in our minds. And yet… what do we remember?

Tonight we remember that single birth in poverty in a backwater of a distant Roman province over 2,000 years ago. That’s what stays with us - not simply to look back on but because it’s real and speaks to us to this day. We remember that. Not simply that we should take the Christ-child to our hearts - but to recognise that coming to us in human flesh, God holds us in his.

[1] Mark Oakley writing in the Church Times, 22/29 December 2017