In the night, the sound of crying

Thanks to John for spotting that hymn 23 in Sing Praise, ‘In the night, the sound of crying ‘ by Martin Leckebusch, is the most appropriate for 28th December, Holy Innocents day.

This is the bit of the Christmas story that rarely features in nativity plays or carol services: when Herod, maybe a year or more after Jesus was born, receives the magi and reacts to the news of an infant king by slaughtering all the young boys in Bethlehem in the hope that Jesus was among them.

He wasn’t, of course, as God had given Joseph warning in a dream and they escaped in time. But as Martin recognises, this cannot have been easy for Mary, forced to get on the donkey and relocate for the second time, now with fears for the safety of her child: ‘Mary journeys on with tears, further from the home she treasures, onward to uncertain years’.

In this fragile family of refugees from Judah to Egypt we can see the situation of millions of others around the world today. The sound of their crying should reach our ears and through our prayers the ears of God.

The third and fourth verses of the hymn refer to the cries of the murdered boys and grieving parents. This is what makes the story so disturbing: why did God not save them by deposing Herod before he could do this? It’s the old question of theodicy, which I won’t venture into now. But the last verse does remind us that through his own innocent death and resurrection, Christ has conquered and will come to reign with the justice for which we cry.

Two tunes are offered, the well known ‘Sussex’ and one called ‘Amplitudo’ which may have been composed for this hymn. Certainly it’s minor key seems more appropriate to the plaintive words, and a resolution to the major for the last phrase ‘comes to reign’.

Who would think?

My hymn choice for 27 December was ‘Who would think that what was needed’ by John Bell and Graham Maule. The theme of the hymn is in the repeated last line of each verse: ‘God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day’.

Those who visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem, whether local shepherds or distant magi, were surprised by what they found there: ‘such a place as none would reckon holds a holy, helpless thing’.

The last verse asks whether our ‘centuries of skill and science’ put us in a better position to anticipate or appreciate the Incarnation. The implied answer is ‘no’, for God still surprises people by coming into their lives unexpectedly.

Christmas Day: Lift your heart and raise your voice

Image: Madonna and child at the top of the Jesse Tree.
Detail of Kempe window, Alfriston St Andrew (dated 1914)
Photo © Julian P Guffogg licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The hymn I chose from Sing Praise for Christmas Day is ‘Lift your heart and raise your voice’ by Michael Perry.  It’s very much a song for this day (or its eve), as the first and last verses encourage us to lift our hearts and sing praise for the gift of the Christ child, using as a refrain the chant of ‘Gloria!’ often associated with Christmas carols.  The second and third verses refer to Jesus in the cattle stall and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song, then coming to see him.

I can do no better at this point than refer you to the short sketch about the shepherds  that I wrote to be performed to the Christmas morning service at my own church today. You can download it here.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve: The Servant King

The mother of the sons of Zebedee
(original artist unknown)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘The servant King’ by Graham Kendrick.  It’s not normally thought of as a Christmas hymn, as it focuses on the death rather than the birth of Jesus, but John suggested it for today and with good reason.  The Gospel reading at morning prayer today was from Matthew chapter 20 and concluded with these words of Jesus to his disciples: “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many”. The artwork above illustrates the Biblical context of this saying, with the mother of two of the disciples asking for them to be his chief assistants.

That phrase ‘not to be served but to serve’ appears in the first verse of Kendrick’s hymn, reminding us that the ‘helpless babe’ we put in nativity scenes at Christmas would go on to live a totally selfless life and offer himself up to cruel death for our sake, as the rest of the hymn makes clear.

The final verse turns back on ourselves: it’s one thing to give thanks to God for Jesus’ willingness to die for us, but are we prepared to offer our own lives as servants, both of Jesus and of each other?  Christmas, supposedly a joyous festival of the birth of our Saviour, is notorious also as a time when domestic quarrels can escalate into violence, and strained partnerships tear apart.  So may the promise “each other’s needs to prefer” sustain our homes in peace through this season.

The Bible in a Year – 25 December

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

25 December John chapters 19-21

I am sure it cannot be coincidence that the reading for Christmas Day is the last three chapters of John’s gospel, which cover the death and resurrection of Christ.  The people who planned this year-long programme of Bible readings must have arranged it like that, and for a good reason.

Our priest at this morning’s Christmas communion service started his sermon by talking about the Yorkshire tradition of eating cheese with sweet foods – salty blue Stilton with mince pies, creamy Wensleydale with Christmas fruit cake.   He linked this odd, but actually very tasty,  combination of tastes to the fact that within the last week before Christmas, when the church is looking forward to the joy of the Nativity, and the world is celebrating in its own pleasure-seeking way, the church leaders and musicians have been planning the music for services in Lent and Holy Week.

It may seem strange reading about the death and resurrection of Christ, or planning solemn music for the season when we particularly remember those events, just when the focus should be on his birth.  But there are good reasons for doing so.

We cannot understand the birth of Jesus into the world unless we think also of the crucifixion. Nor can we understand the crucifixion without believing in the resurrection.  For that was the whole point of his birth.  The way God rescues us from the consequences of our own sin is to take those sins upon himself and suffer the consequences – separation from God, mental agony, physical torture, and death.  But that was not the end of the story – the resurrection proved that the sinless  one was stronger than sin and death and would live for ever.

Even at the time Jesus was dedicated as a baby, it was prophesied about him that he would be the cause of the “falling and rising of many in Israel”, and of Mary his mother it was said “a sword will pierce your own heart also”.  Throughout the last year or so of his life, Jesus had tried many times to explain to the disciples that his death – and subsequent resurrection – were absolutely part of God’s plan for him, and could not be avoided without wrecking the plan.

There is a line in a Christmas carol that says “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day”.  It sounds good, but it is not good theology.  It would be more accurate – if less poetic – to say “man shall live for evermore because of Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day”.  But we can make a concession – as the timeless God came into our world in the form of a time-bound human being, birth had to come before death.  Without Christmas there could be no Easter.  And without Mary’s willing acceptance of God’s will there could have been no Christmas.  Therefore we say with her, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.

Merry Christmas to all readers.


Ready or Not – a Christmas message

This is the text of my sermon on Christmas Eve 2017.

10 … 9 … 8 … 7 … 6 … 5 … 4 .. 3 . 2. 1 … READY OR NOT, I’M COMING!!!

How many times as a child have you heard, or shouted, those words?  Ready or Not, I’m coming!   The game of Hide and Seek is common to most cultures.  It teaches children valuable skills – counting of course, plus looking and listening, planning (where to hide) and also keeping quiet and still when necessary!

We grow out of childhood games. But to be honest there are times in our adult lives when we seem to hear that call “Ready or not, I’m coming”.  Usually it’s when we are going to be inspected.  The Landlord is coming to inspect your flat.  OFSTED is coming to check out the school.  The Archdeacon is coming to check up on the Vicar and Churchwarden. The date was set long ago, and you can’t put them off because you haven’t finished preparation.

But sometimes the expected visitor is welcome.  You have invited friends for a meal and they turn up, even if the house isn’t spotlessly clean yet.  The party is about to start and you realise you forgot to get the food out of the freezer. Too late, guests are starting to arrive.  Will you turn them away?  Of course not. Ready or not, they are welcome.  I leave it to you to decide which of those categories – inspector or welcome guest – you put your mother-in-law in when she turns up for Christmas.

Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent.  We have looked, as we do each year, at the Patriarchs, at the Prophets, and particularly at John the Baptist.  In the last – and this time very short – week we look at Mary the mother of Jesus.  Our reading is the Annunciation when she is told that she would conceive Jesus.  That was her first “Ready or Not” experience – she was a young unmarried girl, not in the least thinking of pregnancy!  Neither was Elizabeth who had thought years ago she was past having children.

And now here is Mary on Christmas Eve, expecting her first baby to arrive.  Is she ready? I hope that Elizabeth, and Anna – Mary’s mother – had helped her to prepare by telling her what to expect and how to feed the newborn. She may have come equipped with blankets and swaddling clothes.  No painkillers in those days of course.  Joseph would have gone to call the Bethlehem midwife when she went into labour.  But is any woman really prepared for her first birth?  You who are mothers, did you have a sense of your baby saying “Ready or not, I’m coming”?

If “Ready or Not, I’m coming” is one message of the Christmas story, so is its equal, “Ready or Not, we’re going!”  That was what Joseph had said a few days earlier as he loaded up the donkey in Nazareth.  Mary may have begged for them to stay until the baby had been born, but Joseph knew he would be in trouble if he failed to turn up to register for the census.  The only question was, would he be registering two names or three?  Ready or Not, we’re going!

The Shepherds were quietly looking after their sheep – probably one on watch and the others sleeping – when the angelic host disturbed their night with the divine command that they run up the hill into the town to see this newborn baby.  They weren’t ready for that either – sleepy, no torches, no exact address to head for. But Ready or Not, we’re going!

Meanwhile further east, the magi thought it was not very wise to set off on a long journey across the desert with little time to prepare.  Quick trip to the bazaar to buy gold, frankincense and myrrh (no time to haggle, just give him what he wants!). Pack a bag with whatever food you have to hand, fill your water bottles, saddle the camels and off we go. No accommodation booked, no road map, only that blinking star to follow. But the ancient wisdom tells us that this star means a king is about to be born, and we want to be among the first to see him.  Ready or Not, we’re going!

At the end of the Christmas story we are told that another angel appeared to Joseph, as the magi were leaving, saying that Herod was seeking to kill Jesus.  So once again they had to be up and on the road, probably in the middle of the night. Never mind the regulations about child seats on donkeys, just hold him on your lap. No, I’ve never been to Egypt either, but it’s somewhere south of here. Ready or Not, we’re going!

I could say the same about the Spirit driving Jesus out into the desert at his baptism with no food or water. Or Jesus sending out the twelve disciples, then the seventy, with no equipment and minimal clothing.  Or Easter and Pentecost when the church exploded out into the world through unprepared apostles.  Again and again we see the same pattern –When God says go, Ready or Not, you go.

So, what about our own lives? There may have been one or more times in your life when circumstances changed dramatically, perhaps forcing you to give up your job, move house or end a relationship, with a sense of “Ready or not, I have to go”.  If it hasn’t happened yet, it might still happen, and you don’t know when.  Where is Jesus in those moments?

I suggest that at those moments, he is actually very close.  Merely a prayer away.  For what seems to the unprepared human eye to be unexpected and unplanned is known by the one who is before all time and above all things.

We have looked this morning at two aspects of really the same story, of knowing when to recognise Jesus, in his appearing or in his moving on. Jesus says, on this eve of Christmas, “Ready or Not, I am coming”. That is not a threat, it is a promise.  Those who recognise the signs of his coming, who receive him into their lives, have as John puts it, “the power to become children of God”. Nothing can surprise Jesus, who is with us at all times and in all places, and at all times, he says, “Ready or Not, I am here.”  The times when we find ourselves unprepared and beyond the limits of our own resources can be the times when we discover his strength.

As we look into the new year ahead, there may be times when he says, “Ready or Not, we’re going”.  Not “you are going” but “we.” For he is Immanuel – “God with us”.  When the unexpected happens, we can turn to Jesus in prayer, knowing that, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

Those who hear his call to go, to change their lives for his sake, are those who to outsiders may appear to be unprepared and in difficult circumstances.  But actually they are the blessed ones, the ones who stay close to Jesus, the ones who become the children of God.

If you see Jesus this Christmas, welcome him.  If you hear him call, follow him.  And may the coming year with him be a blessed one, wherever he calls you to go with him.