Into the darkness of this world

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is another Advent themed one, ‘Into the darkness of this world’ by Maggi Dawn.  It’s one of those pieces somewhere in style between ‘hymn’ and ‘worship song’, with the structure of the former but the informal sound and enthusiasm of the latter. But the theme is unmistakable: a plea to Jesus Christ to come to the world again and change it for the better.

The first verse starts by looking back to the Incarnation: ‘Into the darkness of this world, into the shadows of the night, into this loveless place you came’ but finishes with the appeal ‘Into the darkness once again O come, Lord Jesus, come’.  The chorus (identical in the second verse) asks Jesus to come with love and light to drive darkness far from us.

The second verse switches from ‘the world’ to the individual with an appeal to come to ‘the longing of our souls, the heavy hearts of stone’ and ‘order our lives and souls aright’. The third both looks back by addressing him as Emmanuel (a title used mainly in the Advent/Christmas season) and also asks him to visit ‘this broken place’ which could be understood either locally or universally as you prefer. The last chorus has different words, finishing with ‘We long to see you face to face: O come, Lord Jesus, come’.

Overall I think this makes a good advent hymn as it makes us think of personal, local and global concerns, the coming of Jesus into the individual and his eventual return to rule the world.

Longing for light

The hymn I chose for today from Sing Praise is ‘Longing for light, we wait in darkness’ by Bernadette Farrell.  Although included in the Advent section of the book, It isn’t specifically an Advent hymn in the way that ‘O Come, Emmanuel’ is for instance, or ‘Lo he comes’. It’s one that I have sung or heard at any time of year, as its theme is the things that people long for, of which light is only one example.  As I mentioned in the blog for 7 April, it is a variation of Farrell’s Easter Eve hymn  ‘This is the night of new beginnings’.  But it is appropriate for the start of Advent, perhaps especially this year as yesterday was also the start of Hannukah, the Jewish festival of light.

What, then, do we long for?  The first four verses each list some of the longings that people share, in our own families or around the world.  For light and truth; for peace and hope, for food and water, for shelter and warmth.  To each there is a response as we ask Christ to make us, his Church, a light for others. ‘Light for the world to see’, ‘Your living voice’, ‘Bread broken for others’, ‘Your building, sheltering others’.  Finally we ask that we be ‘servants to one another, making your Kingdom come’.  

The chorus after each verse is “Christ be our light, shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness. Christ be our light, shine in your church gathered today”. This is another reminder that we are part of a larger whole, the worldwide Church. This is another aspect of Advent: seeing the needs of the world around, and not just praying that God will do something about it but that we his people may be part of the solution.

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near

Today is Advent Sunday, and the song I chose from Sing Praise is titled ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’. It’s a phrase often used in Advent, as it sums up what the season is about, not only getting ready for Christmas but also for the final return of Christ in glory, whenever that may be.

But the song, one of the chants from the Taizé community, is actually better known by the start of its refrain or ostinato, ‘Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart’.  This also describes the spirit of Advent: waiting for future fulfilment while at the same time being encouraged in the faith (‘take heart’) and making the most of the present time (‘his day is near’).

I made a mistake in sight-reading it at first, wondering why the first line of the ostinato is repeated, then the second, as that’s not how I’ve normally heard it. But then I realised the music staves carry on across the double page spread on each line, which is an odd way of setting it out.

The cantor’s verses, as often with a Taizé chant, don’t follow a fixed metre but fit in and around the ostinato.  The phrases are a mixture of familiar Biblical verse (‘Rejoice in the Lord always’, ‘God heard my cry’, ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God’) and what I presume are fresh ones (‘Joy and gladness for all who seek the Lord’, ‘O Lord show us your way, Guide us in your truth’).  But they all fit in with the atmosphere of this season, when we seek better knowledge of God and ourselves, balancing the sober introspection of a time of penitence with the joy of forgiveness (and of course unless you spend the whole four weeks on retreat it’s not possible to ignore the ramping up of festivities in the world around).

Who can measure heaven and earth?

The image above may be a riddle to you. Goat and Compasses? This is in fact the name of a pub in Hull, believed to have been altered from the older name ‘God encompasseth’, and it is a clue to today’s hymn from Sing Praise…

‘Who can measure heaven and earth?’ by Christopher Idle.  The words celebrate the Wisdom of God as personified in the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiasticus / Koheleth. There are six lines to each verse, for which a tune is provided in the book, but it’s not well known, and John used the better known ‘England’s Lane’.

‘Wisdom’ is portrayed in Ecclesiasticus and some other places in the Bible as a female character very close to the creator God.  A such, she is sometimes identified with the Word of God (Christ) and sometimes with the Holy Spirit.   In this hymn, what is celebrated are the wisdom of God shown in the complexity of creation, the secret knowledge of God that we can never know, his gift of wisdom to people in general and to those who love him in particular, and wisdom’s eternal nature outlasting earthly things.

The only quibble I would have is with the first couplet of verse 4, which surely needs some qualification. “Wisdom gives the surest wealth, brings her children life and health”. Neither wealth in the usually understood sense of money and possessions, nor health in the sense of physical and mental well-being, necessarily go with wisdom, although the wise person makes careful use of what wealth they have, and faith does help with mental health.  So the verse should perhaps be understood in the light of Jesus’ teaching about not worrying for tomorrow and making friends with the wealth that we have.

There is a Redeemer

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘There is a redeemer’ by Keith and Melody Green. Dated 1982 on the copyright, I’ve known this song since probably not long after that. 

The song praises Jesus by several of his Biblical titles: Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah (Christ), Holy One, Redeemer, Name above all names, King for ever.  The chorus invokes all three persons of the Trinity: ‘Thank you O my Father for giving us your Son, and leaving your Spirit till the work on earth is done’.

My only criticism would be that there is an inconsistency whether we are singing to God (‘Jesus my Redeemer’, ‘Thank you O my Father’) or about him (‘There is a Redeemer’, ‘I will see his face’).  It’s an inconsistency that we have found in other songs, but I prefer it if a song or hymn is clearly one or the other: are we encouraging our fellow singers in the faith or expressing a personal faith directly to God? The style of the music suggests the latter. So why not reword it ‘You are the Redeemer’, ‘I will see your face’?

Sing the Lord’s praise, every nation

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Sing the Lord’s praise, every nation’ by Paul Inwood. It is in the form of two verses with a refrain with two vocal parts in a call-and-echo format.  The first verse is a setting of Psalm 117, the shortest of the Psalms, urging people of all nations to praise God for his faithfulness. The second is a Christian doxology (praise to the Trinity), and the chorus is a version of the Orthodox Trisagion (thrice holy).  As such I don’t think there’s much more that can be said, other than that the practice of sung praise to God binds the Jewish and Christian faith in all times and (nearly) all traditions.

O Changeless Christ

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘O Changeless Christ, forever new’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith. Unusually for one of his hymns it is set to an old (early 19th century) tune.

The changelessness of Christ is invoked in the first verse to ‘draw our hearts as once you drew the hearts of other days’ and in the last to ‘bring us home, to taste at last the timeless joys of heaven’. Other verses ask him to teach us as he taught the people of his own day, still troubled hearts as he stilled the storm, heal today as he did then, and to make himself known in the bread and wine of Communion.  

While there is truth in saying that Christ is changeless, that can all too often be used as an excuse to resist change in the Church.  The ways that the ‘Early Church’ (or for that matter the Church of 17th century England) taught and worshipped don’t have to remain unchanged. The often-asked question ‘What would Jesus do?’ appeals to the changeless elements of his teaching (love God, love your neighbour, bring hope and healing in his name) but should not be used to oppose those who seek change in patterns of worship or more acceptance of people whose lifestyles diverge from what is seen as the Christian ideal.  We have to work out the application of Scripture in our own generation while not losing sight of the core of the Gospel message. 

All heaven declares

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘All heaven declares the glory of the risen Lord’ by Noel and Tricia Richards. It’s a simple devotional song in two verses that hails Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God, as well as the glorious risen King (the reason why I chose this for Christ the King week).

The second half of the two verses looks identical at first but there’s a subtle difference: in the first, ‘Forever he will be … I worship him alone’, and in the second, ‘Forever you will be … I worship you alone’.  In worship we sometimes start by affirming our faith together and then move on to more devotional songs where it is the individual praising the Lord for what he has done.

The seed of faith

Text of my sermon for Bramley St Peter, 21 November 2021

Jesus said,
‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Mark 4:30-32 (New Revised Standard Version)

Pilate … summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’John 18:33-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

We started this morning’s service with one of the shortest of the stories that Jesus told. No people feature in it, just – a mustard seed, something very small indeed.   I don’t have mustard seeds here, but I do have apple seeds…  Each one of these seeds, if you plant it and look after it properly, can become a tree itself.  An apple tree can live for fifty years and produce over a hundred apples each year, each with about eight seeds in it. Just imagine how many trees you would end up with if they all got planted and grew into trees themselves!

Today, as you might have realised, is Christ the King Sunday, and so we have the gospel reading in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus responds ‘you say that I am’ and explains that his kingdom is not from this world. What he meant was, that what people can expect from him is not what people expect from a king. But what do you expect a King to do?  [ideas…?]

We expect a king to be in charge of his country, don’t we?  But there are different ways of doing that, different ways of leading.  The idea of Christ the King Sunday originated with the Pope in the 1930s.  He wanted the Church to show a deliberate reaction against the Italian government of the time.  Where the earthly power was concentrated in the hands of a dictator who could command a top-down approach to society and impose restrictions on groups out of favour with the regime, he wanted Christians to understand Christ as the sort of king who uses his power to enable others to flourish, not to control them. 

Before he met Pilate, Jesus had already explained to his followers the sort of King that he was, or rather what sort of kingdom he wanted to be in charge of.  He often used short stories like the short one about the mustard seed, or the longer one about the farmer sowing seeds in different places.  In just a few words, these stories gave a memorable picture of tiny seeds growing into a tree or a useful crop. 

Through these parables, we understand that the task of the Church is to plant seeds of hope in people’s lives, which God can then grow into fruitful activity.  It’s a bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ approach to transforming society, totally at odds with the controlling tendency of many worldly governments.  In the words of a hymn that we will sing during communion, The world belongs to Jesus, but he turns the word upside-down.  Not a top-down ruler, but a bottom-up enabler.

Example 1 – A place to sit

What might that look like in practice?  Here are two local stories.  The first is very local.  You will all know about the benches in Bramley shopping centre.  Everyone who used them was angry when the management used their control to take them away.  What did they do?  It started with a few people bringing their own seats to sit on.  The idea spread, a Facebook page was set up. and now dozens of people gather every Saturday. Local councillors are involved, and St Peter’s school.  Over a thousand of us signed a petition, and our own Jo Herbert spoke to the Council.  The Council have now told the managers of the centre that they shouldn’t have taken the benches away, and it’s even been on BBC news.   The seed of an idea of a sit-in has grown into a tree-sized, peaceful protest.  Let’s carry on praying that the benches will be put back. But in addition, it has grown links in the community that will strengthen us to do other things.

Example 12– The Eden Team

Here’s another story that appeared on the diocesan website this week, from a parish in Bradford, only six miles from Bramley.  West Bowling is one of the most deprived estates in England, with 25% of children living in poverty. St Stephen’s Church have had an Eden Team working alongside them since 2019.  The Eden Team is a few people living among those people in poverty, seeking to bring hope, through youth work, community projects, evangelism and discipleship. 

Their leader Luke Owen said, “There is a lot of need in the area and we want to come alongside people and meet those needs but most of all we want to see people know the love of Jesus and have a personal relationship with God.  There are areas of real darkness that we want shine a light on; drugs trafficking and gangs, low educational engagement, people of all ages feeling isolated and not part of a community. We know God can bring transformation in these areas”. 

Again, a few people with an idea of what to do in the name of Jesus have drawn many others to work with them to bring real change.  Might this be the sort of thing we could see happening when the church plant comes to Bramley? 

As well as being Christ the King Sunday, today has another name in the church’s calendar.   Does anyone know what that is?  … [Spoiler alert – there’s a clue on page 12 of the service booklet!]   Stir-up Sunday!  It was traditionally when mums would stir up the Christmas pudding to give it time to mature.  But the name really comes from this prayer where we ask God to ‘Stir up our wills’.

When Pilate heard that Jesus was being called a king, he was worried because he thought Jesus was a revolutionary, “stirring up trouble”. In fact, Jesus was a revolutionary in the sense that he came to “stir up” people: to make them think afresh what it means to live for him.  And just as the mustard tree (or apple tree!) will bring forth fruit, so we ask God to “bring forth the fruit of good works” in us. So as a parting thought, has God stirred up in you the seed of an idea, and the faith to plant it with prayer, so that it might grow into a tree bearing good fruit?

Christ Triumphant, ever reigning

Statue of Christ the King, Brookville, Tipperary, Ireland
Image Copyright Matthew Chadwick and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

This weekend’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Christ Triumphant, ever reigning’ by Michael Saward. I chose it to reflect the theme of Christ the King that the Church observes on this Sunday before Advent. 

As I’m also preaching today, I read up on the origins of this festival. I knew it had originated in the Roman Catholic church, but it seems it was instituted by the then Pope in the 1930s as a deliberate reaction against the fascism of the Italian government of the time.  Where the earthly power was concentrated in the hands of a dictator who could command a top-down approach to society and impose restrictions on groups out of favour with the regime, when we think of Christ as King it is as one who uses his power to enable others to flourish, not to control them.  In the parables of Jesus, especially the ones about the sower and the mustard seed, the task of the Church is to plant seeds of hope in people’s lives, which God can then grow into fruitful activity.  It’s a bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ approach to transforming society, totally at odds with the controlling tendency of many worldly governments.

But back to the words of the hymn. Although there is mention here of Christ’s humility, his willingness to act as the ‘suffering servant, scorned, ill treated, victim crucified’, the emphasis here is not on the growth of the Church but on the Christ who after his resurrection ascended into heaven to be King of the world (or indeed universe). This ‘Lord of heaven’, this ‘Priestly king enthroned for ever’, is worthy of the praise of those he has redeemed. That is why the hymn is also threaded through with the language of worship: ‘hear us as we sing’, ‘sin and death and hell shall never stifle hymns of love’, ‘ceaselessly upon you gazing, this shall be our song’.  And the song itself? ‘Yours the glory and the crown, the high renown, the eternal name’.

Both these outlooks are needed to understand what we mean by the Kingdom of Christ: his victory over death and reign in heaven, but also his coming on earth (in flesh then and in spirit now) to enable the outworking of his kingdom in myriad small ways, as seeds of faith are sown and individuals and communities enabled to flourish.