Slower than Butterflies

This post is based on a prayer session that I led today.  The title comes from a book of meditations by Eddie Askew, and the idea is that to appreciate God’s presence we need to be moving at a pace ‘slower than butterflies’.

During the Covid-19 lockdown I have been doing more walking, and more photography than usual.  I do love photographing butterflies, but it requires patience.  Although they don’t fly fast, they rarely stay in one place for more than a few seconds.  You have to stay around, observing them carefully and moving in slowly and quietly with the camera to get a good photo.

So here are some of my butterfly photographs, with some Biblical reflections about living slowly.

Small tortoiseshell

This is a small tortoiseshell, photographed on a riverbank – a very quiet place away from the noise of traffic.  We often need to find somewhere quiet to slow down and experience God in the silence.   The Prophet Elijah found this when he fled to a cave in the desert to escape persecution, in words that you may recognise from a well known hymn..

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (1 Kings 19:11-15)

Ringlet

This is a ringlet, photographed alongside a footpath across farmland.  Sometimes you have to look long and carefully to spot the butterfly, especially a dull coloured one like this, and only see it clearly for a moment before it flutters away.  That’s a bit like the Holy Spirit of God – often we only have a brief experience of the Spirit before she seems to flutter away again. But even that brief experience may send us away rejoicing.  Perhaps that’s what St John had in mind when he wrote the following letter.  The word for “looked at” implies a lingering gaze rather than  a brief glimpse, reminding us that the wait may be long before the experience arrives.

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

Skipper

This is a skipper, feeding on knapweed.  Butterflies and other insects have a symbiotic relationship with flowers – the insects feed on nectar, while they in turn pollinate other flowers, and so both species can continue to flourish.  Jesus spoke of how birds and flowers depend on God for their existence without worrying –

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)

Cabbage White

This cabbage white butterfly was basking on ballast on a railway line – a hot, dry and potentially dangerous environment with no source of food.  But  we can still find God even in places that seem a long way from a comfortable life, in the “valley of darkness” as well as the “green pastures”, as Psalm 23 reminds us –

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
(Psalm 23:1-4)

Speckled Wood

I found this speckled wood butterfly in a country churchyard.  The mound of earth may well have come from a recently dug grave.  As an old Christian proverb says, “In the midst of life we are in death”.  But butterflies are often held up as a parable of the resurrection: the earthbound caterpillar effectively dies as it turns into a chrysalis, which after a while yields the gloriously coloured, flighty creature that in its previous existence could not have imagined the glory that was to come. As Jesus explained –

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

So take some time today to slow down to butterfly pace, appreciate the silence, look for the signs of God in the natural world, trust Him for your material needs, and remember that beyond suffering and death will be the unimagined wonder of the world to come.

Cornish

A grayling butterfly, seen on the Cornish coast path.

May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun.
And find your shoulder to light on.
To bring you luck, happiness, and riches.
Today, tomorrow, and beyond.
            (an anonymous Irish blessing)

Copyright  (c) Stephen Craven 2020.  Quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Kneeling and toppling – a response to the Black Lives Matter movement

Yesterday I received two e-mails pointing me to the latest suggestion for a gesture of solidarity with a certain group of people: the idea was to kneel outside one’s house in silence at 8pm for the 8 minutes that an American policeman was preventing George Floyd from breathing.   I chose not to join in with this gesture, and I want to explain why.

Of course I agree that black people’s lives do matter and that the death of George Floyd – whether or not he was guilty of a crime at the time of his arrest – was an outrage and a travesty of justice.  No police officer should use more than the minimum necessary force in arresting someone, and every death in police custody must be investigated, with prosecutions where appropriate.

My reasons for choosing not to join in this particular gesture are more to do with the way that society works these days, and the dangers of crowd mentality.  The advent of first the Internet and then social media has made it incredibly easy for ideas – memes as they are sometimes called – to spread around the world.  I don’t expect more than a few people to read this blog, but who knows – the most unlikely things go viral.  The worldwide wave of demonstrations following Floyd’s death, and in the UK the removal by a cheering crowd of a statue to an 18th century slave trader in Bristol, have caught the headlines this week to an extent that nothing else has since the start of the Covid-19 crisis several months ago.  Without social media it would probably have been no more than a brief item on the news.  Twenty years ago we may never even have heard of a similar incident in the USA. A hundred years ago it would hardly have been possible.

As a Christian, I have to ask myself ‘what would Jesus do?’  Of course he didn’t have the Internet or a Facebook account.  But he was familiar with crowds, familiar with discrimination and all too familiar with political intrigue. Let’s unpack that a bit.

For several generations before Jesus’ time the people group he was born into – I’ll call them ‘the Jews’ although that’s a simplification – had been expecting a God-given spiritual leader (often referred to as the ‘Messiah’) and the expectation linked with that was that the Messiah would free them from Roman oppression.  Then as now, the Jews knew what it was to be persecuted.

At the start of what Christians call Holy Week, leading up to Easter, we remember when Jesus came up to Jerusalem for what he knew would be his last Passover celebration. Crowds cheered him, hailed him as the Messiah, and many would be expecting him to overthrow the Romans.  But he didn’t.

Jesus had a bigger agenda, a more important calling.  His task, uniquely, was to give his life “as a ransom for all”, to enable everyone to be reconciled to God.  That is why he would not be drawn into fruitless argument or vain attempts at armed insurrection.  Others had been there and failed.  He silently accepted the praise of the crowd on Palm Sunday, but equally silently accepted his betrayal by a friend, unjust trial by both religious and secular authorities, the calling of a hostile crowd for his crucifixion, and eventually that crucifixion as performed by the Romans.

At the same time, the Jews were not guiltless themselves when it came to racism.  Their scriptures, which still form part of the Christian Bible, include a record of genocide and hatred of entire people groups in the past. And even in Jesus’ day there was widespread discrimination, not least against their neighbours to the north, the Samaritans. The feeling was mutual and it seems the two groups would hardly talk to each other.  Did Jesus show that Samaritan lives matter?  Yes, he did.  But not by taking part in mass protests.  John’s gospel records him meeting a woman of Samaria alone, asking her for a drink (thereby making himself the one in need) and gently persuading her, and through her others of her village, to engage with him.  Later, he told the parable that we know as ‘the Good Samaritan’ through which he challenged his hearers to recognise discrimination for what it is, and that what matters is attending to the needs of other people irrespective of how we may categorise them.

Would Jesus have thrown a statue into the river?  Well, he overturned the tables of the Temple moneychangers when he saw that they were acting unjustly. I don’t think he would oppose the symbolic removal of Colton’s statue.  But the Temple incident was symbolic of all he had been teaching about the love of God, the dangers of wealth and religious power.   Symbolic actions like that do have their place in making a point to support an existing cause, as do demonstrations, vigils and lighting candles.  But in themselves, divorced from any other action, they achieve little, sometimes nothing, and can even harm the cause when peaceful protests turn violent as they often do.

Also, crowds are notoriously fickle. Someone this week asked a good question – how many of those who criticised Dominic Cummings for breaking lockdown (the previous week’s cause celebre) were also among those who broke the rules themselves to pack together to call for racial justice?   And how many of those who were in the crowd celebrating Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem were also in the crowd calling for his death?  The crowd moves on, the news moves on, another issue raises its head, the same or different people form a new protest movement, and last week’s ‘big story’ is in danger of becoming a footnote in history itself.

I am sure that Jesus would have agreed that ‘Jewish lives matter’, but also ‘Samaritan lives matter’ and even ‘Roman lives matter’.  He is here now with those who mourn the death of George Floyd – and countless other innocent victims of injustice.  He is here with those who are passionate for justice in all its forms.

There are many other causes besides those of tackling racism. Each one get its ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ in the media, and occasionally, for reasons that are not obvious, one particular cause gets longer in the spotlight, as racism has this week.  But none of the others have gone away.  Climate change, fair trade, the plight of asylum seekers in the ‘hostile environment’, sustainable transport… those are just the issues that I, personally, give particular attention to.  Those are my calling.   There are many others, no less worthy.  Racism is one.  Then there are animal welfare, LGBT rights, food poverty, nuclear weapons – the list is endless.    None of us can be involved in them all.  If you are involved in any of them, well done.

My reason for not kneeling for “Black Lives Matter”, then, is not because I think they don’t, but because that happens not to be one of the ‘causes’ that I feel particularly called to be involved in, and a symbolic gesture one evening means nothing if it isn’t backed up by sustained action.  So I thank God for all those who do work for this cause, whether or not it is in the media spotlight.

The way that Jesus  – the crucified and risen Messiah – changes lives and changes society is by calling individuals to repent.  Repentance meaning not merely being sorry for what we have done wrong, but starting a whole new way of life based on his ‘two greatest commandments’ – to love God (as creator of the world – if you don’t believe in God, at least love the world), and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  “Who is my neighbour?” someone asked, and Jesus replied with the story of the Good Samaritan – it is anyone whose needs we can do something about.

What each of us should do, then, is firstly to look at our lives and see where they may be harming others, directly or indirectly, and what changes we might need to make in the way we live to minimise or prevent that harm.   Then to pray, or ponder, what particular causes we are called to give positive support to.  And to give those few causes, or it may only be one, our full support, not only by occasional symbolic gestures, but with words, actions, giving of time and money, and changes in lifestyle that prove we really mean it.

All lives matter. Black lives matter.  Your neighbour’s life matters.  Your life matters. To God and each other.

© Stephen Craven 9 June 2020.

Palm Sunday (5 April 2020)

A Bible reflection for Palm Sunday (5 April 2020)

By Stephen Craven, Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) in the parish of Bramley, Leeds.

Introduction

Since all churches including ours (St Margaret’s Bramley) are closed at present, there will an online service offered by the Rector at 10.15 this morning on our Facebook page. If we had been having a service in church it would have been my turn to preach, so here is my reflection on the set readings for the day.

The Anglican liturgy for Palm Sunday is different from the standard pattern.  Instead of the usual short Bible readings, there are no fewer than six readings set for today, the last and longest of which is the full story of the passion (suffering) of Jesus according to Matthew.  I have chosen to comment on four of these.

Practical tip: for the Bible readings, right-click and select ‘open in new tab’ so that you don’t lose your place on this page.

 

The first Bible reading

Matthew 21:1-11 Jesus enters Jerusalem

 

Reflection

At a time when we are all socially isolated, reading of the crowds pressing around Jesus seems strange, and their cheerful shouts of praise may sound discordant or even disrespectful when we know how many people are suffering.  We are beginning to get used to being on our own, or just with a few family members, most of the time.

Yet people are still finding ways of doing things together, of staying positive.  Online meetings, virtual parties, swapping jokes (did you see the announcement on 1 April that the Bishop of London will be blasted into space to found the Diocese of the Moon and Mars?). ‘Dates’ where we chat by phone over our individual cups of coffee or glasses of wine.

And then there’s the 8pm clapping for the NHS – coming together to honour the workers putting their own lives at risk, hailed as heroes and heroines by the rest of society.  That’s much like what the crown on Palm Sunday were doing, coming together to honour Jesus as their hero, the one who would save them (Hosanna means ‘save us!’).   But save them from what?  From the Romans? From Herod?  A very different answer would emerge in the course of the next week.

 

The second Bible reading

Psalm 31:9-16

Reflection

Many of the Psalms are songs of lament, an honest crying out to God of the things that are wrong in our lives or in society, and the pains we suffer (physically or mentally).  Several of the verses of this psalm have echoes of how people are suffering with the Coronavirus: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in trouble”… “my strength fails me because of my affliction, and my bones are consumed” … “when my neighbours see me in the street they flee from me. I am forgotten like one that is dead, out of mind” … “fear is on every side”.  Nothing can shock God, so in reading this psalm and responding to it, be honest with him about how you are feeling.

But like many of these psalms of lament, Psalm 31 ends in hope.  “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his love to me when I was beset as a city under siege … be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.” (verses 21, 24).

 

The third Bible reading

Philippians 2:5-11 

Reflection

In the early centuries of Christianity, men argued constantly about who Jesus actually was – truly God and not fully man, or truly man and not fully God, or somehow both fully God and man?  Most branches of Christianity teach the last of these: Jesus was truly divine, yet in every way a real human being: body, mind and spirit.   When he suffered, he really suffered.  Did this – becoming a suffering soul in a suffering body, dying on the cross – demean him, somehow compromise his pure divine nature?

Paul, writing to the Christians at Philippi, gives a resounding ‘no’ as his answer.  Precisely because Christ suffered for us as the man Jesus, experiencing all the pain that we can experience (while at the same time demonstrating how we should live), and thereby redeeming us from the sin that had separated us from God, he was given the highest honours in Heaven, and deserves the highest praise from us. Part of the way that we can honour Jesus’ sacrifice for us is by being servants of others, as many are doing already at this time of suffering.

 

The fourth Bible reading (the Passion Gospel)

Matthew 26:14-27:54

 Reflection

What does Holy Week have in common with the present lockdown of society?  For a start, the rapidly changing events.  No two days are alike.  Three weeks ago, I was working as normal in a city centre office, drinking with friends in pubs in the evening. Then came word that we should be socialising less, keeping our distance from people. The Diocese (my employer) asked us to work from home at least three days a week.  That was new for me, setting up my work laptop to log in to the office computer network. By the end of the week, we were told to take home whatever we needed as the office would be closing and home working has become semi-permanent.  I’ve had to learn video conferencing, scanning papers at home to upload remotely to the office.

The following weekend, like many people, Linda and I met friends for the final time in a pub on Friday evening, and on Saturday we drove out into the countryside – parking on a minor road, walking (mostly) quiet paths.  Two days later the Government told us even that was not permitted, and we’re now only allowed a short daily walk from home. Phone calls (maybe with video) are the only way of keeping in touch, and for those who live alone and don’t have the internet, it’s even worse (my mother is at least seeing my sister who comes to sit two metres away from her in the garden to chat). On Friday this week it was confirmed I will be ‘furloughed’ from next Wednesday – ‘laid aside’ for at least three weeks, albeit on full pay thanks to the Government’s 80% grant scheme. Compared with those whose small business have collapsed, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Jesus understands.  In the course of one week he went from being at the centre of attention, in control of his activities, to being accused of blasphemy, abandoned by his closest friends, losing his freedom of movement, whipped and crucified with only a few people present. The ‘Via Dolorosa’ or way of suffering, marked in many churches by walking round the Stations of the Cross as Jesus walked to Calvary, must have been a time of terrible loneliness. Even if there was a crowd watching, this time it was hostile. Some people say it was the same people who praised Jesus on Palm Sunday who called for his crucifixion on Thursday.  Others say the crowds were different.  But clearly the popular mood changed rapidly. Things had turned ugly.  Judas, one of the inner circle of disciples, betrayed him.  Pilate, though believing Jesus to be innocent, symbolically washed his hands of responsibility (oh, how topical!) and handed him over to be killed.

There is also the wild range of emotions. What have you experienced in the last few weeks?  Bereavement? Confrontation? Fear? Sleeplessness? Confusion? Loneliness?  Again, Jesus understands.  He went through all these emotions himself –  bereavement when his friend Lazarus died shortly before these events (famously, “Jesus wept”), confrontation in the Temple, the blood-sweating fear of Gethsemane, sleeplessness while his exhausted disciples dozed, the confusion of his betrayal and arrest, the loneliness of the trial and Cross.

 

But there are signs of hope, both then and now.  Throughout Holy Week there were exceptions to the popular mood. His mother who followed him to the end.  The anonymous owner of the Upper Room who lent it for the Last Supper. Veronica who wiped his face. The penitent thief.  The centurion who acknowledged him, after his death, to be the Son of God. Joseph of Arimathea who gave him a decent burial. These are the unsung heroes of the Bible story.   Likewise, in our own time we see signs of hope, whether it’s the solidarity of all applauding the NHS together, community initiatives to support isolated neighbours, donating to or volunteering with foodbanks.  Those who do these things are the sometimes unsung heroes of our own time.

In the last week I have also started to hear suggestions for this to be the wake-up call for a whole new way of living.  Maybe in the future we can commit to making permanent the temporary changes that have been forced upon us: less travel, less unnecessary shopping, more time calling friends, more exercise outdoors, a new engagement with God and nature, a new sense of belonging together as one common humanity.  These, of course, are all parts of what it is to live the Christian life anyway.

So we can know that Jesus understands the rapid pace of change and  emotional distress that we experiencing, but also asks us to be like those who face up to these by continuing to serve others, being heroic in any small way we can, and being open to more permanent change.   For Christians who know the ending of the Holy Week story on Easter Day, there is the assurance of resurrection, which is much more than Jesus coming back to life, it is the start of a permanent change, a completely different form of life – life eternal. More on that next week!

Finally, may I wish you a blessed Holy Week and joyous Easter.

Stephen


Reflections copyright © Stephen Craven 2020

Bible texts accessed through the Oremus Bible Browser are from The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

A Lenten retreat

Text of a sermon preached at St Margaret’s church, Bramley, Leeds

Sunday 23 February 2020 (last before Lent)

Bible text: Exodus 24:12-18


Moses was exhausted.  At his wits’ end. Stressed out. Dare I say, knackered?  Let’s just recall what he had achieved in the last year or so, bearing in mind what psychologists tell us are some of the main causes of stress.

First of all, this elderly man had faced up to a near eastern despot; bringing plagues on the country by God’s power using nothing more than a miraculous staff (and constant prayer).  Facing up to bullies causes stress – check!

Then, at the Exodus, he led at least a million refugees out of the country by night, through the sea and into the desert, again with nothing more than the miraculous staff and prayer.  The responsibilities of leadership cause stress – check!

Once safely out of Egypt their problems hadn’t stopped. Surprise, surprise, there  not enough food and water for a million people in the desert. Moses had to face up to a rebellion against his leadership as a result.  Being unable to access life’s basic needs causes stress – check! But once again the miraculous staff – and constant prayer – had come in handy.

If that wasn’t enough, he had directed a battle against a hostile tribe, again using that trusty old staff and constant prayer, though this time he was so weak his assistants had to hold his arms up. Warfare causes long term stress – check!

He had already been up the mountain in Sinai once, to receive the Ten Commandments and lots of other regulations, amounting to four pages of closely printed text in our Bibles.  But it seems he had to memorise them all at first, because only now is he summoned up the mountain a second time to fetch the written tablets of the Law.  While physical and mental exercise are recommended for older people, that was going too far!  Over-exertion causes stress – check!

If all that wasn’t enough, somewhere along the way we are told he had separated from his wife, and a while later his father-in-law comes along to have a word in his ear about it.  Relationship breakdown causes stress – check!

Finally, until recently he had been acting as judge for the whole people of Israel.  Fortunately he had been persuaded by his father-in-law to delegate most of that workload to other people (see, even in-laws can be worth listening to at times!) But that had taken its toll.  Sorting out disputes causes stress – check!  How many stress factors is that so far?  I make it at least seven.  It was most definitely time for a break.

So, God calls Moses up the mountain a second time.  On this occasion Joshua, who would eventually take over from Moses, comes with him.  The instruction from God is clear: “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there”.  I emphasise that word “wait”.  We are told that the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain: the word is the same that John uses when he writes that the Word of God “came and dwelt among us” in Jesus.  But this was only base camp: the two of them spent seven days there, not yet going into the full presence of God, but waiting.  I believe this was Moses’s retreat, and God wanted him to de-stress before calling him to the next phase of his ministry.

This is a good time to think about retreats, as many people do make a retreat in Lent.  They are not necessarily about abstinence or physical discomfort, although  Moses presumably fasted through this time and slept out in the open.  Most retreat centres these days offer good food and a comfortable bed, and there’s nothing wrong with that – it may be just what you need.  Ideally, though, the retreat is about renewing your relationship with God, so that you can re-enter the world and its problems with renewed energy, understanding and vision. So what might Moses have got out of his seven-day retreat at Mount Sinai Base Camp?

Firstly, he had time to think.  Retreats are not holidays.  They are not about pleasure seeking. They may well be about relaxing, and certainly having time and space away from distractions to think clearly.  We are told that Moses was a very humble man, and reluctant to speak (which is why Aaron had to go with him to meet Pharaoh). He had spent a long time in the desert alone as a shepherd.  In the language of today, he was probably an introvert, someone who finds their strength in solitude. More than most people he needed to get far from the madding crowd.  After all the stresses of leading Israel out of Egypt he needed time alone with God -and with himself.

Next, he had the opportunity to let go.  Retreats are not about “getting things done”, or even “sorting out problems”.  Rather, a retreat should be about leaving the cares of the world behind, to de-stress by handing over all your problems to God.  When Linda and I were on the Scargill community, many guests who came to us from busy lives would say they ‘left their cares at the cattle grid’, starting to relax as they came up the drive and into the calmness of our community.

Then, he had time for more reflective prayer.   All the praying he had done these last months was intercessory – for his people’s freedom, for their physical needs to be met, for victory in battle, for justice in the courtroom.  Now he desperately needed the other sort of prayer – meditation, contemplation, enjoying God’s presence.  A balanced prayer life includes both – meditation to take us out of the world and into God, and intercession to face outward to the world and bring its needs to God.  But on retreat, the emphasis is on the first.

‘Letting go’ is also about letting others take the strain.  “Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them”.  No-one is indispensable. Retreats can be about taking time out of daily life, handing over responsibility, letting other people answer the phone and look after the children while you are away – “me time” as well as “God time”.

Once someone on retreat has let go of their cares, relaxed and started to focus on God, then comes the opportunity to hear God’s word.  For Moses of course, that was quite literal – at the end of the seven day retreat began another, longer, tougher one – forty days on the mountain top alone with God, but the first week of retreat was essential so that he could be ready to hear God speak.

For most of us that will be through worship, the Bible, other reading, or perhaps pastoral conversations with a retreat leader or chaplain. But always be open to hearing God speak in a more audible way, or by dreams or visions. It does happen.

The retreat is also a place of discernment. At the end of a retreat, ideally there should be a call – a renewed sense of vocation, of having a place in God’s kingdom.  Moses went back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, and also with detailed instructions about the building of the tabernacle, the place of worship.  In his forty day solo retreat he had come to understand more deeply the nature of God and the way that he should be worshipped, and had that message to pass on to others.

So as we approach Lent, starting this Wednesday, here are some questions to ponder.

  • Can I make time for a retreat during Lent? Not necessarily a full week in a recognised retreat centre, but perhaps a quiet day away by myself to spend in relaxation and prayer?   Or even just a good long walk, if the weather lets up?
  • What are the things that are causing me stress at present? Can I manage to lay them aside for a while?  Is there someone I could talk to about them who could help me de-stress? Maybe a family member, as with Moses and his father-in-law, or a friend such as Joshua, or a health professional?
  • What are the things that distract me from prayer? Certain people, places, foods, devices?  Can I lay them aside for a while – give them up for Lent?
  • Does my prayer life need a better balance? More intercession, more Bible reading, or more meditation? What would help with that?

Whatever your answers to these questions – and we are all different – be assured that if you turn aside to look for God, you will find him.  Few of us will have as stressful a life as Moses – or Jesus – but just as they found God in the solitude, so can we.

Joseph in Egypt – resonances of redemption

Text of a sermon preached at St John the Baptist, Adel, Leeds.

Text: Genesis chapter 42

The book of Genesis offers us many well known stories that have passed into Christian and even secular consciousness. The longest sequence of these concerns Jacob and his twelve sons, a dynastic saga that sets the scene for the later Exodus.  The passage that we heard read tonight is only a part of that sequence, towards the end of it in fact. You may well know the whole story, but in case it’s unfamiliar I will summarise it as follows:

Jacob, grandson of Abraham, had twelve sons, by his two wives and two servant girls.  Joseph was the second-youngest, and Benjamin, born several years later, the youngest.  These two were the only sons of Rachel, the other ten were their half-brothers, and that explains a lot that happens later in the story.  As young men, the older brothers hated them because they were Jacob’s favourites, and even more so when Joseph told them of dreams that they would one day bow down to him.  So they sold him to slave traders, who in turn sold him to an Egyptian official.  Thrown into prison in Egypt, he escaped only when a former fellow inmate told the Pharaoh that Joseph had the gift of interpreting dreams.  As a result of which, Joseph became finance and logistics minister, storing up surplus grain for the seven-year famine he had predicted. A famine that afflicted neighbouring countries including Canaan where his family lived.  That’s the story so far.

So, in this episode, by which time Joseph was very well off, the older brothers come to see him to buy corn from the Egyptian stores. The whole story is rich in resonances, not only for our own time, but also for the wider message of the Gospel.  Let’s look at a couple of them.

The first image that came to my mind when I pondered it is the many movements of people around the world today displaced by war, disease, famine or flood, such as the so-called caravan of migrants into the USA, or the asylum seekers crossing the North Sea in small boats.  I don’t imagine for a moment that Jacob’s was the only family that went down to Egypt to seek food or work in the drought, there must have been thousands.  Joseph presumably had to receive all of them to assess their needs.  Far from being hostile to these refugees from natural disaster, he – and his Egyptian masters – were willing to help them.  At the end of the story, Jacob’s extended family is invited to settle permanently in Egypt.

What a contrast that is to the attitudes of suspicion we so often see around us.  There is good work being done in Leeds by a network of churches and voluntary organisations to support homeless people, asylum seekers and refugees.  Jesus would approve – he proclaimed his mission as being to seek and save the lost, he spoke to despised groups of people, he told the story of the good Samaritan (as unlikely an idea in some people’s eyes as the good asylum seeker).

Back to the story – It’s quite understandable that Joseph, however generous to other visitors, would not want to greet his brothers joyfully as soon as he recognised them.  The anger and hatred he may have felt at the time of his enslavement may have been long gone, but the wrong they had done would not have been forgotten, and how was he to know whether he could trust them now?  Reuben, the eldest, reveals that he had opposed any harm to Joseph, so in sending the rest of them back with the grain they had paid for he retains the second eldest, Simeon, as a hostage.

That is the other image I want to bring out – the hostage.  We know about hostages of course – it’s a practice found in probably all societies.  The reason for keeping a hostage is to barter them for something – ransom money, another prisoner in exchange, or a favour from the other side.  The news this week has been of a British registered tanker and its crew held hostage by the Iranians as a revenge for us detaining one of theirs.  God willing, they will eventually both be released.

Joseph knew all too well what it was to be a hostage – thrown into a pit by his brothers until he was ransomed by slave traders – out of the frying pan and into the fire we might say.  His second spell in imprisonment was for refusing to sleep with his master’s wife. We might call him a prisoner of conscience.  We know all about them too – how about Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe, who is according to Amnesty International a prisoner of conscience in Iran, although she could also be described as a hostage in the international tensions between Iran and the west.

Joseph’s motive in keeping Simeon hostage, though, is different – it’s to ensure he doesn’t lose connection with his family again, and also so that he can get to see Benjamin, his youngest and closest brother.

One of the explanations sometimes given of Jesus’ death is that he was offered by God as a ransom for the evil in the world that keeps us hostages apart from God.  The good news is that we don’t have to offer anything in return – the ransom is paid, we are free to go, we only need to accept that he has reconciled is back into God’s family.   Much of the New Testament explores this theme of reconciliation, of drawing people back into God’s family where they belong.

So we have in the story of Joseph at least three universal themes that find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ – welcoming refugees, ransoming hostages, and restoring broken relationships.  Joseph overcame the setbacks of his early life through faithful service, and persevered until they had been put right – not by vengeance, but by patience, generosity and love.  May he be a model for our own discipleship.

(c) Stephen Craven 2019

Christian persecution today – lessons from the Bible

This is a talk I gave to my local church today. We lit a candle which burned throughout the service as a reminder both of the light of Christ, and in solidarity with prisoners of conscience (Amnesty’s logo being a candle surrounded with barbed wire).

Readings: Genesis 41:1-37 (Pharaoh’s dreams). 1 Corinthians 4:8-13

_____________

As I mentioned at the start of the service, our focus today is on the persecuted church. Throughout the world, discrimination against people of faith generally, but Christians in particular, is probably at the highest level it has been for centuries. The mainstream media, of course, focussed on national politics and sport, makes little mention of this. But look online, and you find that across the world, our brothers and sisters are suffering. In fact, according to the International Society for Human Rights, a secular group, “80 per cent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians.”
This discrimination occurs in more than half the countries of the world (link). Another organisation, Release International, names among the countries of particular concern at present Nigeria, China, and perhaps surprisingly India. Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, and the DRC continue to be of great concern as well. Deprived of employment, denied the right of peaceful assembly to worship, forced from their homes, and in some places murdered in cold blood simply for having converted from Islam or refusing to deny their faith in Christ. An international study in 2014 estimated that 100,000 Christians are killed every year because of their faith – that’s another ten people in the time we meet for worship this evening, and the figure has almost certainly increased since then. This morning we remembered St Margaret who suffered from Roman persecution of the Church. Her experience would be familiar to many today.
When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, they were not suffering persecution, but he had. He briefly recounts his experience as an evangelist – hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten like a slave, homeless, reviled, persecuted, slandered. His call to the Corinthians was to set aside what they saw as a privilege, a freedom from the burdens of Jewish law that meant they could ‘live like kings’. Instead they were to be like Paul, “fools for Christ”. That doesn’t mean behaving in a clownish way. Quite the opposite. The foolishness Paul has in mind is the challenge of standing up for Christian values even when it hurts. Accepting discrimination instead of resisting it. Following Christ’s teaching to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Margaret, and many other martyrs before and since, have followed this teaching. That is one challenge to all of us.
In our first reading from Genesis we encounter Joseph called up from the depths of the Pharaoh’s dungeon to interpret his dreams. As you may recall, the reason he was in prison in the first place was because he refused the advances of Potiphar’s wife, and it appears he was there for quite some time. He, too, suffered for standing up for the principles of his faith.

While in prison, God had given him, not for the first time, the ability to interpret dreams, and the cup-bearer remembered this when the need for interpretation arose again. Pharaoh’s dream predicted seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. The message was to prepare while times were easy, for the hard times that lay ahead. I venture to suggest that this dream has a timely warning for us today.
We may think that at least we are safe as Christians in this country. But for how long? A recent study showed that the percentage of British people calling themselves Christian – whether or not they belong to a local church – is now below 40% for the first time, while over 50% now identify as humanist or atheist. So we are definitely in a minority already. That, and the general tendency towards extremism of all kinds, suggest that living an openly Christian life will become harder, not easier, over the coming years. At the moment we don’t have to resist persecution, but we do have to resist secularism. At the moment our non-Christian neighbours may be tolerant of us, but it might not always be so.
Therefore, while we still have free speech, let us use it to stand up for our persecuted brothers and sisters across the world. Organisations such as Release International, Amnesty, Open Doors and Christian Today run campaigns, so we don’t have to start from scratch. While we still have the right to evangelise, let us use it to reach out to our community with the good news of Jesus. While we still have freedom of worship, let us not give up meeting together, as Paul wrote. Let us continue to burn the candle for justice, for freedom, for faith, for the light of Christ. Amen.

The threefold hope of Easter

The Threefold hope of Easter

A sermon preached at Adel St John the Baptist, 12 May 2019 (Evensong)

 Readings: Isaiah 63:7-14 / Luke 24:36-49

The story of the appearance of Jesus on the Emmaus road is a well known one, that has found its way even into secular use.  Luke’s account of what happened later that day is less well known.  Those disciples have run back to Jerusalem in the dark, and all of them are now are gathered in the upper room, maybe that same room where they had shared the last supper only three days earlier.

Luke uses a curious phrase to describe their state of mind – “they yet believed not for joy”, in other words they were so joyful they could not take in what was happening.  In the last few verses of the gospel which follow today’s reading, Luke describes the Ascension, after which the disciples return to the city in great joy, continually praising God. But what was it that caused them such joy throughout the forty days of Easter and even after Jesus had left them for the last time?   Easter offers a threefold hope:

First, there is the Easter acclamation: Jesus is risen!  The appearances of Jesus to the disciples were no hallucination, no ghostly haunting, as he tells them himself: “handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have”.  The physical resurrection of Christ is proof for all time that there is life beyond death, a life more than the mere shadowy existence of Sheol or Hades that was the best people had hoped for until then. That alone is a cause for joy, as we know those we have loved and lost in the Lord will rise with him.

Second, there is God’s continuing presence with his people, even after Jesus’ physical presence departed from earth.  In John’s account of this appearance it is more explicit: he breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit”.  Luke, masterful storyteller that he is, closes the first of his two volumes with a great cliffhanger of a closing line: “tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high”.  The disciples would have to wait another ten days to find out at Pentecost what “power from on high” meant.   But for us who know the end of the story, the promise of the Holy Spirit, whose fruit is love, joy and peace, should make us as joy-filled as the first disciples.

Third, scripture came alive to those disciples – at Emmaus and in the Upper Room – as never before.   The new understanding that the whole of the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus was another cause for joy.  For the Jews love to look back at their history, how God made himself known to their ancestors, rescued them from slavery and oppression, performed miracles whenever the survival of the race was at stake, as the reading from Isaiah reminded us.  Now they understood it all had a higher purpose in Jesus the Messiah. Those who treat the actual words of the Bible as “the Word of God” miss the point: the Word of God is his living presence, promised in the scriptures, embodied in Jesus, and enlivening all who understand it.

So this is the threefold and joyful hope of Easter: to know that there is a resurrection of the body, to experience God’s presence with us by the Holy Spirit, and to be stirred into action by understanding the living Word of God. For none of this is without a further purpose: “beginning at Jerusalem you are witnesses of these things”.  The task of witness begun at Jerusalem with eleven disciples is now the responsibility of all his billion followers, including you and me.

Our last hymn gives us an opportunity to declare this together: “We have a gospel to proclaim, good news for all throughout the world.” 

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

Turning values inside-out

A sermon for St Margaret’s Bramley, 7 April 2019

Readings: (Isaiah 43:16-21) / Philippians 3:4-14 / John 12:1-8

I want us to hear a couple of short stories this morning, as well as our two Bible readings. Let’s start with one of Aesop’s fables.

The miser and his gold

The miser put a great value on the gold, although in its hole it was of no practical use. Today’s Bible readings are also both, in different ways, about what people value.

St Paul (or Saul as he was originally called) put great value on his Jewish heritage. He was proud of the tribe he belonged to, he boasted of his theological education, his devout practice in temple worship and obeying all the religious rules.  He was even proud of persecuting the new Christian sect who didn’t do these things. He thought God valued him because of all those.

But as soon as Saul encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he saw that those things he had valued were not only of no value, but negative value – “whatever gains I had, I have come to regard as loss” – the language is that of credit and debt. Like the miser’s gold in the hole that had been replaced by a stone, they had become not treasures, but a weight around his neck.  He had not only to ignore, but get rid of, those things that were holding him back in faith.

Instead, Paul (as he was then known) valued more than anything his faith in Jesus Christ. He writes, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death”.  That verse puzzled me when I first came across it, and it still challenges me now.  To know Christ – yes, that’s what we all want to do as Christians.  To know the power of his resurrection – yes, that sounds wonderful, although it’s not something we experience day to day. But to share his sufferings and become like him in death?  That’s really challenging.

Does it mean that Jesus expects me to be persecuted and tortured to death to prove that my faith is real?  I don’t believe that every Christian is expected to suffer literally in that way, though some do in other places around the world.  Perhaps it makes more sense if we think of it in these terms of reversing values. To value our faith above worldly ideas of wealth and status will often mean losing out in financial terms, just as Jesus and his disciples lived a simple life with no settled home, and that hurts.  It will sometimes mean losing friendships, when people don’t understand us and walk away, just as Jesus was rejected by many, and that hurts.  When these things happen, we need to remind ourselves again what it is we are valuing – the cross and resurrection of Christ.

Value of course, is so often measured by the world in monetary terms, like the miser’s gold. In the Gospel story we see a great contrast between Judas and Mary in their values.  For Judas the value of the perfume was monetary.  He reckoned it at 300 denarii, which was nearly a labourer’s annual wages, let’s say at least £10,000 today. It was Mary’s life savings, in the form of a physical asset, again like the miser’s gold.  But unlike the miser who kept the gold hidden in the ground where is was of no use, Mary was willing to realise its value in a new way. At that moment, when Jesus who had raised her brother Lazarus from death to life, came to visit, money meant nothing. Like Paul, she had come to a point where she understood that her relationship with Jesus meant so much to her that everything she valued, including the jar of valuable ointment, meant nothing. Indeed it had to be sacrificed in order to allow Jesus to take his rightful place in her life.

There’s another way of considering value, besides the value that we give to money, possessions or relationships.  That is the value that other people, and God, put on us, on our own unique life. Here’s another story from a different religious tradition, that of the Sikhs.

Guru Nanak’s disciple and the precious stone.

[For non-Indian readers, 50 lakhs = 5 million Rupees; 2 Crore = 20 million Rupees]

Jesus, of course, said similar things about the value that God puts on us. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Or again, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones (that is, any of his disciples) for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”

Lent is a time when we are encouraged to think about what we value, and what our value is to other people and God.  Some people like to put aside something that they think is holding them back from God – like Paul laying aside his empty Jewish traditions, or Mary pouring away her costly perfume.

Others, like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus to listen to him (as another gospel story tells us) prefer to take up or do more of something that they think will help them find God – prayer, devotional reading, or study groups.

When we do find God through Jesus, and realise our value to him as well as his value to us, often the only meaningful response is one of sacrifice.  Mary’s outpouring of the ointment was both a response to Jesus’s teaching that she had received, and a thank offering for bringing her brother back to life. Paul’s response to encountering Jesus in his life was to sacrifice his high status in Jewish circles and join the very group of believers whom he had once persecuted.

Perhaps, then, it is to the extent that we are willing to make sacrifices for Christ’s sake – sacrifices of money, or possessions, or time, or status, that we being to respond to Paul’s challenge “to share Christ’s sufferings”. But we can only be motivated to do this, when we realise that the value God places on us is far more than the value we can ever place on him.  On the cross, Jesus showed that the value he places on each one of us is greater than the value he placed on his own life.  The sacrifice we owe in return is nothing less. In the words of a well known Lent hymn:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

 

(c) Stephen Craven 2019

Experiences of God in the clouds

 sermon preached at St Margaret’s Bramley, 3 March 2019

This week, the General Synod of the Church of England took Evangelism as its main theme.  Evangelism in quite a wide sense of commending God to other people through our own experience, as well as in a narrower sense of passing on the teachings of the Church to a new generation.   One of the speakers at Synod described Christians as “Trip-Advisers for Jesus”. I presume he meant that we can rate our spiritual experiences and share them with others, just as certain websites allow you to do the same with your holidays.  For at its core, evangelism is a personal thing, and we cannot pass on to others what we ourselves have not experienced.

It’s that last word – “experienced” – that I want to dwell on today. Too many people still think that being a Christian is either all about “believing the Bible” (however you choose to interpret that), or “going to church”.  But when we actually read the Bible, most of it is about people’s experiences rather than their beliefs or religious practice.

Experiences of God can take many forms – listen again to just two verses from today’s Gospel.  “While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” (Luke 9:34-35). Hear the experiences there – “overshadowed”, “terrified”, “entered the cloud”, “listen!”  Jesus didn’t take those disciples up the mountain to preach another sermon, he wanted them to have an experience, an emotional experience, that would stay with them and change them.

Narrowing it down even further, the one word that I want to focus on from that verse is “cloud”.  It’s a word that occurs many times in the Bible. Sometimes the cloud is a literal one, sometimes more symbolic.  But always the focus is on experience.  Let’s just run through a few of these to get the idea.  I expect you will have heard of these people.

 

 Noah no doubt saw rather a lot of clouds during the forty days of rain.  But at the end of the story when he and his family were back on dry land, he saw a rainbow in the clouds. And he experienced God saying, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” For Noah, the beautiful colour of the rainbow became a way of understanding God’s faithfulness.

Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, in thick cloud and smoke, along with fire and a sound like the blast of a trumpet.  Earlier in life he had experienced the burning bush in the desert.  Out of such experiences, a confusion of sights, sounds and smells, and a terrible sense of awe, came the conviction that God was giving his people instructions for living.

Solomon experienced a cloud filling the Temple – in this case the cloud represents the presence or glory of God.  He had to cease his carefully rehearsed acts of worship and instead stand in awe as he sensed the real presence of God. Out of this and other experiences he became the wisest of people. Isaiah had a similar experience in the Temple, which brought him to a place of great humility.

Daniel, in Babylon with the Jewish people in exile, saw a vision concerning the last days, in which “One like a Son of Man came with the clouds of Heaven”.  His spirit was troubled and the vision terrified him.  But from that experience he recognised that God would give to the Son of Man dominion, honour, glory and kingship for ever.

Coming back to Peter, James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, their own experience of being lost in the cloud with Jesus and his ghostly companions also terrified them, to the extent that they told no-one about it until after the Resurrection when it all started to make sense, that Jesus was in fact a new lawgiver like Moses, a new prophet like Elijah, and also Daniel’s “son of man”.  Sometimes it’s only long after an experience that we can reflect on it and make sense of it.

I suggest that in all these experiences of the cloud, God is wanting people to be aware of what they experience (that is, by sight, sound, smell or any other sensation), and what the feel (that is, in their emotions)?  Out of that, he asks the question, “who do you say that I am?”

 

Noah may have responded to that last question with “The One whose Covenant is sure, never again to destroy mankind”.  Moses would have said “the Lord our God, who brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. Solomon – “The Lord whose glory fills the Temple”, Daniel – “The Ancient of Days”.  Jesus’ disciples were given the words by the voice from the cloud – “This is my Son, my Chosen”.

Of course, few of us will ever experience anything so dramatic as those prophets and apostles.  What might experiences of the cloud of God’s presence look like in practice for you or me?  I can’t speak for you, because the glorious truth is that everyone’s experience of God is personal and unique.  I can only speak for myself, so here are a few times in my own journey of faith when clouds have featured prominently.

The first time I flew in an aircraft, as a child, with a heart filled with wonder I looked down on the clouds.  Grey and flat from below, above they billow like cotton wool, reflecting the full light of the sun.  No human had seen this before we learnt to fly. At that time, aged ten, I would not have called myself a Christian – I just hadn’t given any thought to the question yet – but looking back on that and other times I’ve flown, I would reply to the question, Who do you say that I am, by saying “the Creator who made all things for Your glory. You delight in that which humans have not yet seen and have prepared what we cannot imagine.”

Years later as a young adult, I again found myself above the clouds, this time on a mountain top in France.  I was using that holiday to explore a sense of vocation. I had walked though the small hours of the night with a local guide to reach the top of the mountain not long after sunrise. What I saw was cloud that covered the valley below us.  As the cloud lifted in the morning sun it revealed a lake far below.  In the silence birds flew round us.  We stayed there for some time, rejoicing at the beauty of this scene.  I thanked our guide, who led us through the cloud and up the mountain. To God’s question Who do you say that I am? I replied, “the Guide who can be trusted to lead me to what I do not know, revealing your beauty along the way.”

Some years later again, when Linda and I were newly engaged, we stood together one evening by the kitchen sink, looking out as clouds gathered at dusk, glowing ever deeper with blazing red.  Never had we seen such a sunset.  We stood in awe of our Creator and in love with each other. Our answer to the question then was, “You are the God of power and passion.  You brought us together and we will trust you in our relationship.”  Like Noah, this sign in the heavens became a personal sign of God’s love.

Of course, not all emotions are happy ones, not all experiences are pleasant, and life has its ups and downs.  Going back a few years, I went on holiday by myself to get over the end of a previous relationship.  Walking alone across cloud-covered hills, I found the mist surrounding me to be a consolation at a time when I felt depressed. God’s presence in solitude embraced me, and to the question “Who do you say that I am?” I could reply “the constant lover, the One who never turns away but always understands.”

Those, then, are some examples of how God’s presence can be felt, experienced, enjoyed (or not).  This imagery of clouds is just one that happened to resonate with today’s readings. There are many other kinds of experience. What I would encourage you to do is ponder how your own experiences, everyday or out of the ordinary, of the world around you, can speak to you of God’s presence.

We are not disembodied minds, we have God-given bodies that sense the world around through touch, taste, smells, sights and sounds, sense our own minds through our emotions, and sense also God’s spirit within us. The truth is that it is only in experiencing God with and through our physical senses and emotions, that we can come close to saying that we know him.

Coming back from the sublime to – I daren’t say the ridiculous, but the mundane, with the General Synod and its discussions on evangelism.  It is when we are able to make sense of our experiences and share our insights with other people, that we are able to engage in the sort of evangelism that the Archbishop of Canterbury was talking about this week when he said this –

“When we talk of evangelism and discipleship, we are talking about a radically, differently shaped Church, which starts with being filled afresh with the Spirit of God, consumed with the love of God for us, for the world, and obsessed by the vision of God for the world, which we seek to change to show the shape of his love.”

So hang on to those moments when the world around you was suddenly lit up with the flame of God’s presence, when the place you were worshipping became for a moment filled with the glory of God, or conversely when the quietness of a misty day or a silent place touched you with his gentleness.  Sharing those experiences with other people may be the best form of evangelism you can offer.

Copyright (c) Stephen Craven 2019

Biblical references

Noah: Genesis 8:1-9:17

Moses: Exodus 19:9-25

Solomon: 1 Kings 8:9-13

Daniel: Daniel 7:1-13

Jesus and the disciples: Mark 9:2-9 / Luke 9:28-36

 

Looking outside the frame – a Christmas message

Looking outside the frame

Sermon preached at Bramley St Margaret, 23 December 2018

(c) Stephen Craven 2018

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6 / Luke 21:29-36

A few weeks ago I was sat on the bus, going into Leeds, when a young woman, possibly an art student, came and sat next to me.  She was carrying an empty picture frame – a large one, perhaps a metre high – and apologised as she slid it in front of our seats.  I asked what she was framing; she said, disappointedly, that large as it was, this frame was not large enough.  The picture she had was even bigger and would have to be cut down to fit the frame.  Bear that image in mind.

For the last three weeks of Advent we have been following Mary and the Holy Family through their amazing journey.  An emotional journey that started with an angel announcing her pregnancy, and moved on to the support she received from her aunt Elizabeth and from her fiancé Joseph.  We considered Mary’s bravery in accepting the challenge with all its risks, and the call to make a long journey right at the end of the pregnancy.

Now we arrive with Mary at Bethlehem.  Mary, we assume, is out of her depth.  Just when a young woman needs her own mother to support her through the birth of her first child, she finds herself several days’ journey from home with only faithful Joseph for company – but he’s presumably not been a parent before, either.  It’s a new experience, in a new town, with no facilities.  Scared or what?  What might be going through her mind, before the contractions start and they “call the midwife”?

Think back to that picture frame.  Let it represent Mary’s world view.  At this unprecedented moment, Mary needs to look outside the frame of her immediate challenges.  Of course as a good Jew she knows her Bible.  She can recite Psalm 139 – “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” That applies to us all, the Jewish world view framed the idea that every child is unique and known to God.  But Mary knows more. She had the personal encounter with the Archangel Gabriel and the promise that Jesus would be called the Son of God.

It’s not only paintings that are put in frames.  Spectacles are, too. I got these new glasses recently.  When the optician invited me to choose a frame, I went for a bigger one than before.  When I’m cycling, head down, I need to be able to see through the lens like this, not over the top of the glasses where I lose focus.  But they are varifocals so I can read clearly as well. Close up and long distance, to see what’s under my nose and know where I’m going.

Prophecy is like that. Mary’s knowledge of Scripture also includes the Prophets.  The Jewish scriptures are full of Prophecies, and traditionally one Sunday in Advent is given over to thinking about them.  One way we can think about prophecy is that of seeing through a bigger frame – the prophet is given an understanding beyond what people can deduce from their own reasoning, science and history.  It might be like reading glasses –  a deeper understanding of what really lies behind human words and actions – or like distance vision –  a word of knowledge of the future.

Isaiah alone uttered many prophecies about someone called the Servant of God, and we have just heard part of one of them read this morning.   Put together with the words of Gabriel, Mary realises, sat in the stable in these days before the birth, that the baby in her womb is not only her first-born, but the first-born of God.

Elizabeth’s baby John was only 6 months old at this time, yet before his birth it was prophesised that he himself would be a prophet. At his circumcision, John’s father had also prophesied over him, that “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Those words pointed not to John, but to Jesus.

Put together with the words of Isaiah, Mary realises again that her child will be not only the light of Israel, but the light of the World.  That’s a much bigger frame for her picture of the world!

Let’s leave Mary in the stable for a few minutes, and think ahead a bit.  Unlike us, Mary does not know at this point that the Magi are already on their way from the East, bringing symbols of kingship, priesthood and suffering.  They saw Jesus in a different frame altogether.  They under-stood that this baby was being revealed as the Son of God, but also saw that he would face dangers ahead.  Which brings us to the Gospel reading.

Jesus, as an adult, understood all too well what his identity meant.  He knew the intimacy of being God’s son, yet he also knew that in fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, he was the Suffering Servant, destined to die. He knew also that his death and resurrection would bring about enormous upheaval.   So among all the good news of forgiveness and healing, Jesus also prophesied.  His prophecies warned of coming dangers, of the importance of looking far ahead.  He uses the simple example of leaves appearing on trees at the start of spring, a sign that summer is on its way, to remind people that God does give us signs of the times if we can only understand them.

“Be alert at all times”, he told his disciples. “That day” – the day when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled – “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth”. This, and other prophecies in the Gospels, are often seen as having a double meaning: both the destruction of Jerusalem a generation later, and the second coming of Christ himself when we believe the world will be transformed in ways we cannot yet understand.  But they also had to be alert for what would happen in their own lifetimes.

For the moment, Christmas is upon us – not without warning, we knew it was coming, but so often we seem to have too little time to prepare.  The conventions of Christmas mean that our ‘frame’, or world view, can be restricted rather than expanded, and we find ourselves going along with the consumerism, family rituals and cultural expectations.    Jesus’ words about “Dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” are all too relevant, as what should be time to relax can easily end up being time to worry, and what should be time to appreciate God’s gifts can easily become a time of self-centredness.  “Being alert at all times” means being prepared for God, prepared for the unexpected.

We never know when crisis might hit us, even at Christmas.  As a boy, one festive season was ruined for me when my favourite pet cat was run over on Christmas Eve; twelve years later, my Grandma died, also on Christmas Eve.  And there are those who this year have much bigger worries than these: some will find themselves homeless, in debt or alone for the first time.  Many will remember the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004; this Christmas there has been another, in the same part of the world.  More locally, Boxing Day 2015 saw unprecedented floods in West Yorkshire.  In the light of those worries, those unexpected crises, those things that make us wonder how we can cope, what does Jesus’ call to “be alert at all times” actually mean?

Let’s remember Mary and Joseph again, sitting in the Bethlehem stable – no shepherds or kings yet, no baby, just the two of them and a few animals.  But actually it is an opportunity – assuming she didn’t go into labour the same day they arrived, they have a bit of time for reflection, to put their immediate worries into the expanded frame of thinking that the angels and prophecies have given them.  They are not alone, because God is with them – Immanu’el.  It’s not a disaster, because it’s all part of God’s plan.  There is the wider family to support them – we can be sure that Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary’s own parents, would have been praying for them.

So can we, perhaps, find time this Christmas season to widen our frames, to see the whole picture?  If you have a week off work, or two weeks off school, take the time between now and the New Year to look at your life and think outside the frame.  Do you have only problems, or opportunities?  A short term crisis, or the chance to alter your long term plans?  Immediate decisions to make, or time to think over the options?  What support do you have in whatever is troubling you? Are there family members and friends who can help, self-help books, special interest groups or charities to turn to for advice; support in the local Church, Bible passages to encourage you, forms of prayer that you find helpful?  Which of God’s many promises can you rely on to carry you through?

Mary could cope because she could look outside the frame – she knew that Jesus was being born, not just for her but for the world.  Mary understood the prophesies, and was ready for Jesus.  Are you?