Friday, December 27, 2013

The Twelve Days of Christmas

When I was planning Christmas Day Service at my church I decided to make a large part of it a Birthday Party for Jesus.   It seemed very appropriate and something we don't usually do.   After candles (The Advent Candles), Christmas crackers, mince pies, balloons and a game based on the Unforgiving Servant we sang The Twelve Days of Christmas with gusto.   I gave the worshippers a copy of the words as we felt they might get the higher numbers wrong - I usually do!
Before we sang, I spoke about the history of the song.   Back in the days when Protestantism had just established itself in the United Kingdom the poor Roman Catholics had a very bad time indeed.   Their priests had to resort to subterfuge and hide in ingenious "priests' holes" in big houses where the families still continued the Catholic traditional worship.   If they knew the authorities had got wind of their presence they had to literally "go to ground" whilst a search of the house was made.   It was a very difficult and frightening time for Catholics who wanted to remain true to their traditional beliefs.   So it was that, as the Catechism could not be used, an alternative unofficial catechism was adopted.   This was The Twelve Days of Christmas which was a coded way of remembering what was considered something very important.   I append below a cracking of the code for your benefit:

My True Love = God

A Partridge in a Pear Tree = Jesus
Two Turtle Doves = Old and New Testaments
Three French Hens = faith, hope and love
Four Calling Birds = The Four Gospels
Five Gold rings = The Pentateuch (First 5 books in the Old Testament)
Six Geese a-Laying = The days of creation
Seven Swans  a-swimming = Seven sacraments
Eight Maids a-milking = the beatitudes of Jesus
Nine Ladies Dancing = Fruits of the Spirit
Ten Lords a-leaping = Ten Commandments
Eleven Pipers Piping = The remaining faithful disciples
Twelve Drummers Drumming = Points of teaching in the Apostles' Creed
You can see from this that a Catholic worshipper would be able to remember what each number represented and therefore keep their faith alive.   It reminds me of the need to give the early Christians something to keep their own faith alive during the terrible times of persecution that they faced at the hands of the Romans as they tried to evangelise the known world.   Many were thrown into jail following which they were torn apart by ferocious animals as a fun spectacle before the crowds in the Roman arenas.   To their credit, they accepted their fate and were proud to follow Jesus to death.   But, their encouragement was contained in the Book of Revelation, written in code so that we, today, have difficulty in understanding what it says.   But they knew what the code represented and could read the words with ease.

It has never been easy to live out the Christian life when those who are in command condemn you.   History is a large patchwork of different experiences of suffering on the part of those who have run up against opposition by living out the life taught by Jesus.   It seems that those who have persecuted Christians have known full well the power of Jesus in today's world.   Our faith and belief contains a strength which astounds those outside our ranks.   They have always gone to great lengths to try to eradicate Christianity.   They have always failed.   Prisoners have been incarcerated below ground and still have known the love of God coming and supporting them.   
The song, Twelve Days of Christmas, was obviously just another device to keep faith alive when danger threatened.   We are reminded that there is no place anywhere in which we can experience the absence of God and his love.   When he was imprisoned for preaching against Nazism, Pastor Martin Niemoller heard one door after another close behind him, and each one stood between him and The Book.   This was how he related the story at a meeting I attended as a youngster in Colne Municipal Hall.   Although he was not allowed his Bible, his faith was not diminished,and he survived a great many dreadful experiences before he was released.
As each one of us finds the daylight at the end of our personal tunnel we say, "Thanks be to God!"

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Advent darkness with the offer of light

I write this on the shortest day of the year with gales forecast for tonight and continuing through Christmas 2013.   At 9.00am today the sky above Penysarn, Anglesey was as black as I have seen it.   In daylight terms this was truly a very short day.   Over these 24 hours we could expect a great deal of darkness.
It was out of the darkness that Jesus came in the manger at Bethlehem, situated in a cave stable with his mother and father, unable to find any room in which to stay.   We are reminded of the dark and forbidding world in which we live when we read the nativity story of "no room at the inn".   There never has been any room in this world for God incarnate.   Only those who are committed to God are able to find him a corner in which to dwell.   The indwelling God, here in the world, reminds us that even in a hostile place there is room and a potential for love and salvation.
Today we face great challenges.   It becomes harder to make headway against life's storms.   Each week I volunteer at our local food bank and meet the people who have come for an emergency supply of three days' food.   One client told me of losing his job and a few months later losing his child of 7 months.   The crushing effect of these two events in his life have caused his health to deteriorate too.   Yet, still, he has dignity in his face and wears clean clothes.   His attitude to life ennobles him and causes him to stand up straight, even though he has incredible problems just getting through each day.
Jesus commented that "the poor will always be with us", and this is true.   Society, in general, looks down on people on benefits as though they have no right to occupy our streets and towns.   They say there is no need for poverty.   It might become true if all were to live by the standards Jesus laid down form his disciples.   But while there are those who earn great sums of money and complain about taxation the poor will always be there.   As I look around I see great inequality growing like rising yeast with no signs of abatement.   Oh, yes, the world to which Jesus came 2,000 years ago remains very dark indeed.
When you travel through a long tunnel, you see the small pinprick of light ahead that is the other end of the tunnel.   It gives you a point to aim for, the hope of salvation as you travel in darkness.   That light at the tunnel's far end reminds me of the star of Bethlehem that shone to speak of hope and salvation in all that darkness.   Lowly shepherds and mighty kings from the east together made their way to see the new king who brought salvation.   God beckoned and they came, drawn as if by a magnet.   There in the straw they found a small baby and marvelled at the hope for the world that came with him.
As I writ,e there are millions of Syrians without homes and many without shelter, caught up in a vicious civil war.   All over the world conflict rages as the powerful deny the weak a home or a meal.   Thousands of people in this country are devaluing their lives by taking drugs that will only destroy.   We see pictures of blood dripping from the hands of those who see themselves soldiers fighting a war that has no validity in reality.
Do we need Jesus to come to us again this Christmas?   I'll say we do.   He is our only hope.   People searching for peace and salvation in the worldly things of life do not know of their desperate need of the baby of Bethlehem.   All of them have a chance.   I pray that they do not walk away like the rich young man of the gospels.   Coming to Jesus is no quick fix for it is the beginning of a long journey.   But that journey has the greatest destination and a promise of true peace that cannot come any other way.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Superior beings?

In Luke chapter 14 we hear Jesus speaking to the Pharisees with whom he is eating a meal.   He is speaking about the industrious social climbing he sees at banquets.   He tells them that if they choose for themselves to sit at the top table they might be embarrassed later when their host asks them to move down the table for a special guest.   He suggests they should sit in a lower place and later enjoy being "upgraded to first class".   In this passage Luke is not suggesting Jesus is giving social advice - far from it.   Luke describes this as a parable.   So we need to look at it in this way.   We are hearing a story with a heavenly meaning.
My wife and I, about two years ago, were invited to attend a celebration dinner at our old church in Shaw, Oldham.   On arrival we noticed there were place labels on the tables and that ours was on the top table.   On checking the various names I realised that I was sitting with the other former church secretaries.   There was a social hierarchy in existence!   Actually, we enjoyed the event because it is always good to spend time with people who also have undertaken the senior lay job in a local United Reformed Church.   I say this, not from the point of view of status, but from a point where we could share our experience of this bed of nails!

Remember the words of the Magnificat when Mary spoke about the child she was to have.   When he embarked on his ministry he would be teaching a reversal of values so that those at the bottom of the social strata would find themselves elevated and really valued.   It is important for us all to remember that we are equally privileged to sit at God's banquet together.   Personally, I cannot understand the thinking of those who consider themselves superior to others.   What value there is in social climbing I do not know.   I am happy to be me and loved so much by God.   Why does God love me?   Is it anything I have done or achieved?   No, he just loves me, and that is enough for me.   No wonder we sing about Amazing grace!
It is worth remembering how we are all equally loved by God because it reflects so much that is valuable.   When Paul talks about the various parts of the human body, pointing out the interdependence of the members we are seeing how, whatever our contribution, how each part plays a vital role.   Christianity works so well because we all play out our individual parts to make the whole movement effective.   As we work together like this we find ourselves able to confound the strongest forces in life.   It is a very practical way of life and capable of amazing achievements in the name of Jesus.
One of the reasons that throughout history so many Christians were imprisoned for their faith was that those in power could see how extraordinarily difficult it was to both extinguish their belief and to reduce the effect of their religion.   The quiet, dogged refusal to give way has shown, throughout the ages, the resilience of our faith.   In Roman times many Christians were sent to the arenas for supporting those already condemned.   The court judges continued to send many Christians to their deaths.   These victims were, amazing though it seems, actually proud to follow their saviour to death in his name.   This sort of pressure from those expecting nothing but pain and death was extremely hard to resists.   And here we are today, in receipt of a heritage of such calibre.
We continue to sit in the lower seats and find ourselves promoted to sitting with Jesus.   Let no one pretend they are superior.   We are equal.   Together we can move the mountains of life because we have the Creator on our side.   It takes a long time to get through, but we make it, thanks to almighty God.   For all who are called to the high table of God there is abundant joy and an amazing grace to see us through.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Mary and Martha

Of all those who could, two thousand years ago, claim to be friends of Jesus, there was one particular family.   They held a high profile in the gospel narrative.   They were Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha.   In Luke 10, following the parable of the Good Samaritan, there is a report of a special visit to their home.   We can truly say that Jesus had the best welcome in that house.   The other story about Mary anointing Jesus' feet with extremely expensive oil, brushed on with her hair, takes place in the same household.
This is a story involving (but not about) Jewish convention in Palestine.   The plan was to have Jesus sit down to a meal in the house.   Convention dictated that the men were at table while the women prepared the food in the kitchen and served it up.   In other words, domestic matters were in the women's domain.   What happened was that Jesus was teaching as the meal was prepared for them.   Unusually, Mary came and sat "at the feet" of Jesus instead of involving herself in the domestic work.   Martha was beside herself because it left her supervising the work without Mary's help.   So she complained to Jesus.   It reminds me of the days when my son and daughter were young and my daughter had a complaint against her brother - "Dad, will you tell him?"   This was the response of Martha.
Mary had deliberately chosen to learn from Jesus and later become a teacher herself.   So she sat "at the feet" of the master.   This expression does not necessarily mean that a pupil literally sat at the feet of a teacher.   It is simply an expression that speaks about the teacher/pupil relationship.   Mary had broken away from convention in doing this in the same way as when she let down her hair to anoint Jesus feet on another occasion.
There is a wonderful aspect to this story.   It is here that we are shown how the boundless love and grace of God breaks through every single boundary in its flow into the hearts of all men and women.   It tells us how fortunate we are to receive a love that, like a great river, bursts its banks and floods the surrounding area, changing it forever.   Here is another facet of God's love.   It is there for all.   There is no person who has done something dreadful who is not included in that love.   This can be a hard lesson to learn when we compare our lives with those of others.
The fact is that God loves even those we might count unlovable.   But, just think how much love there is for us as we see it burst forth and claim territory we would not have thought possible.   There is a story told about a minister whose wife had just died.   He and his young daughter were sailing to America to start afresh in a different scene.   On the Sunday of the voyage the captain had asked the clergyman to lead the service on the ship.   He did so and preached about the love of God.   After the service, father and daughter were standing at the ship's rail, gazing across the ocean.   She looked up at him and said, "Daddy, does God loves us as much as we loved mummy?"  "Look over that water and think how far it is." he said.   "Look down and think how deep it is.   Look up and think how high is the sky.   God's love is wider than the ocean, deeper than the sea and higher than the sky."   The little girl suddenly squealed, "That means we are right in the middle of God's love!"   What a discovery!
Every person in this world has access into that width, height and depth of love.   It's like a huge waterfall on the scale of the Victoria Falls with even greater power.   That is the scope of the love we know from God.   Like the waterfall or the great river that busts its banks, the love of God bursts through absolutely any barrier or convention.   God does not see boundaries.   His love is for all.   Now that is what I call good news!
Mary sat at the feet of Jesus to learn from him.   She could then be a missionary for him.   She saw the need for her and everyone to take on the ministry of the whole people of God.   That is how we need to see it today.   We can work within as many denominations as there are but we need to see our common purpose.   Together, we have a duty to preach the gospel of Jesus.   Agreement on every facet of church governance is not necessary providing we get on with the task to which we are called.
Praise God!   Remember that song, "Such love."

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Long Journey

In Luke Chapter 9 we see Jesus setting off on the long journey to Jerusalem when all matters would come to a head.   He sent messengers ahead to arrange hospitality in a Samaritan village.   They came back to tell him that the village had rejected him.   James and John were indignant and wanted to ask for heavenly fire to consume the unfriendly village.   Jesus wasted no time in such activity and simply went further on to another village.   We need to see that if people reject Jesus it is (hopefully) no fault of ours if we are preaching his good news.   There is always the risk of failure in our mission to the world.   Having spent some time in tele-marketing in the past I know that as well as success there is failure through rejection.   However, if we cover the required ground, we shall find those who will accept Jesus.
As Jesus walked along three would be followers came to him.   To the first he said he must expect to have nowhere to stay as he followed him.   To the second came the advice that there was no time to deal with domestic matters.   If he was to come it had to be there and then.   The third one was told that on this journey there would be no looking back.   So, we learn that it will be no luxurious experience, it is something that is urgent, and it involves no looking back.   So, it is a Spartan existence journeying with Jesus.   There is no room for any passengers, because each follower is an intrinsic part of the mission.   We all must play an important role as we preach the gospel.   Remember that expression, "the priesthood of all believers."   It means that we all share the ministry of the Christian faith.   We all have to work our passage.
In the next chapter of Luke we read that Jesus sent out 72 men in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit.   His comment was that "the crop is heavy, but the labourers are few."   How well this mirrors the task facing Christians today!   Another telling comment was "I am sending you like lambs among wolves."   We certainly know that feeling!   The messengers were authorised to act in the same way as Jesus.   They were empowered to heal the sick as well as tell the story.   The men returned with their tails up!   They reported how they had even been able to drive out demons!   They were amazed at what this empowerment had achieved.   Jesus gave a warning to them that casting out demons was not what it was about.   That was simply a means to an end.   It was all about finding enrolment in heaven.   So - no bragging at what we might achieve - just keep on working in the faith.
It was a long journey to Jerusalem and our journey, today, is also long.   There is so much to do as we preach Jesus, crucified and risen.   It is true to say that our task is labour intensive!   Do not let the weight of the job overcome you.   Remember the story of the boy putting beached starfish back in the sea.   He knew he could not get them all back in the water, but he made sure that those he could save were saved.   That is the nature of our Christian mission. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

"My Parting Gift"

If we look at John's Gospel, Chapter 14, we read that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, the comforter and the advocate.   In the light of this he goes on to say that his parting gift is peace.   I have read this passage countless times over the years, but only recently given more thought to that parting gift.

After a long career in Local Government, I retired and eventually found myself in a position I never thought I would face, redundancy.   I had bought a small business and found it was not viable.   There was nothing for it but to make myself redundant and start to look for a job.   Even though I trained myself to a point where I was computer literate, it still was many months before I found employment.   Even then, my services were no longer required after three years, and I had to look around again.

Having signed on with an employment agency, I was sent to work with a large health products company where I took telephone orders for a new product.   I remained there for five months, and, when I left, the staff presented me with half a case of wine as a leaving present.   I was astounded!   I had worked for 21 years in my last post with the local council and my retirement gift was £30!   The case of wine was valued at slightly over that after only five months.   Soon afterwards I was working as a temp again for a well known information technology supplier and once more received a valuable leaving gift.   I was so pleased!   In 2004, my wife and I left Lancashire to live in Anglesey in North Wales.   At my final Church meeting in my United Reformed Church, where I had been Church Secretary, I was presented with a gift of cut glass wine glasses.   I had been a member of that church for 30 years, so it meant a great deal to me.   As I accepted the gift I also received the Aaronic blessing: "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."

Such a special gift will never be forgotten.   For almost 9 years we have drunk wine from those glasses and remembered our old church friends.   Yesterday, Trinity Sunday, I was back preaching there and told them how highly valued their gift remained.   I told them how I was certain that the peace of God remained at the heart of their fellowship.   You can find it everywhere.   Never judge a church by its numbers worshipping.   The level of faith is a far higher percentage these days.   In the supposed "good old days" there were many people at church each Sunday who would never become believers.  

When you consider that we have been presented with the two greatest gifts - Jesus' and God's peace - we are extremely fortunate.   It equips us so well to face the future and move into it with confidence and faith.   In Hebrews 11 we hear "faith makes us certain of realities we do not see."   How true this is.   We need to encourage each other by talking about faith and what it can achieve in the name of Jesus.
There is no need for us to be following Jesus blindly.   We should have our eyes upon him the whole time, confident that he is leading us forward to continue the work he started 2,000 years ago.   Don't forget the old hymn: "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full on his wonderful face."   We are the recipients of that holistic peace that is unique to Jesus.   It is not just the absence of war or other troubles.   It is the provision of all that is good for us.   What a gift!  

Monday, April 01, 2013

"My Lord and my God!"

Over the centuries, poor old Thomas has had a bad press through being referred to as "Doubting Thomas."   But, you know, it would almost certainly have been the same story had the absentee on the occasion of Jesus' first resurrection appearance to his friends been Peter or anyone else.   I believe that the outburst, "Unless I see the marks of the nails on his hands, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, and my hand into his side, I will never believe it" was a reaction of disappointment at missing the experience.   Just imagine you had been there.   Wouldn't you have been dreadfully disappointed not to have seen the risen Jesus when all your friends did see him?   So I don't see Thomas expressing a weakness here.  
When Jesus came again and Thomas was present the matter was resolved.   The words of Jesus, "Happy are they who find faith without seeing me", are more a confirmation of the situation for you and me centuries later.   It is quite clear to me that, for resurrection to be established, it comes in two stages.   First we have the shock evidence of the empty tomb, and then we have the evidence of the eleven who see him.   It was absolutely essential that there had to be witnesses to the resurrection in order for us to believe in 2013.   Their evidence is that on which our belief stands.   It would be harder to understand what was happening if we felt Jesus, alive in our lives, without first reading the account in the gospels.   Having their evidence before us, we understand that emotional response when we encounter the indwelling God.
The story of Thomas is found only in the Gospel of John.   This is not surprising because we see John's gospel as differing from the synoptic gospels in that it was written to say who Jesus was rather than to be an account of what he did.   Read the opening of this gospel and straight away there is reference to God being there at the very beginning.   Then read chapter twenty which was most probably the original final chapter of the narrative.   Here you are reading the story of Thomas, who, when he saw the risen Jesus, declared "My Lord and my God!"   So we see that we have the gospel finishing with God.   This final story is the only reference to a disciple accepting Jesus as God.   What a finish!
Although I accept that chapter 21 was a later addition, I value it greatly because it gives us the spur that all Christians need.   After sharing a barbecue on the lakeside beach, Jesus asks Peter, "Simon Peter, do you love me" three times.   Each time that Peter says, "Yes" he says, "Then feed my sheep."
This is what we are called to do as we follow Jesus.   We now become the shepherds and take over the flock.   Everything about the welfare of the flock now becomes our responsibility.   We undertake this responsibility because we are happy that we believe, through faith, in the resurrection of Jesus, without seeing him in the physical sense.
Ultimately we are making that same declaration - "My Lord and my God!"