Light in the Darkness

Christmas Eve 2021

This sermon is partly based on an article by Nick Baines, which you can find here.

Isaiah’s mad idea

Nearly three thousand years ago Isaiah wrote words that must have sounded like nonsense to his audience: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.”

It sounds lovely in a setting like this, but what about when we leave here and go back into everyday life?

Well, Isaiah was addressing people who were fearful about the future.

They belonged to a small territory which was always under political, economic, and military threat from neighbouring powers.

The question these people faced every day was how to ensure their security and freedom in an uncertain world, in which the future was often shaped not by themselves, but by others.

Each day was a bit of a gamble.

Isaiah, though, wants his people to remember who they are, what they’re about and where they’ve come from.

And, running through their story, was an apparently ridiculous idea that, however dark their circumstances became, the light of God’s presence couldn’t be snuffed out.

Not just God’s presence when everything was going well for them, but when the darkness descended, and the future seemed to be shutting down.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

 

A challenging time

This time last year I was here recording this service in a nearly empty church as we were in lockdown, at the end of a challenging year.

Then 2021 came along, promising much before delivering little.

Promises of a return to ‘normal’ gradually got forgotten as the world came to terms with continuing uncertainty and new Covid variants.

We continued to learn that human beings cannot control everything and are not invincible rulers of the world.

Infections, illness, bereavement, death, isolation can’t be organised according to convenience.

But the interesting thing here is that this is exactly the sort of world Isaiah wrote in and into which a baby was born in Bethlehem.

The story of Christmas is not essentially about making us feel comfortable, but, rather, about God joining us in our difficult world.

The real world we know and enjoy and endure.

Darkness is part of that reality and can’t be avoided.

This in itself sounds a bit miserable, but the Christmas story continues to surprise us.

For it invites us to look for the light that is there when the going is tough, and the gloom seems all-powerful.

One of the radical challenges the grown-up Jesus would bring to his people was simply this: don’t just look for the presence of God when all is well, your problems are solved, or you think all is going to be OK in the world; look for the presence – the light – of God even when the darkness persists.

In terms of Jesus’s first friends, this sounded like: “Can you spot the presence of God in your world even while you remain under Roman military occupation, your freedoms are curtailed, illness is all around and the chances of your children surviving infancy are pretty low?

 

God wins

This is why I think Christmas should be a great celebration.

It rejects the idea that darkness always wins.

It dares to see past appearances to angels bringing good news, a young woman giving birth to the Son of God under enemy occupation, shepherds dropping everything to come and see, foreigners setting out on long journeys to bring gifts and worship.

This isn’t some fanciful story just meant to make us feel good; rather, it takes the world seriously, looks tragedy in the eye, and still insists that this is where God is to be found.

The people who first heard the news that God had come into the world weren’t the ones you’d expect.

They were people whose work meant they couldn’t meet all the religious requirements that were expected of them.

They were foreigners and pagan stargazers who didn’t even come to the right place at first.

They were the local people of this small place called Bethlehem.

These weren’t people who had found all the answers, but they knew the daily struggle to survive in a difficult and confusing world.

And it was to them that God appeared in Jesus, interrupting the routine of the everyday and hinting that the darkness doesn’t get to have the last word after all.

And it’s to us that God appears now.

In darkness and in light God appears, to the tired, the confused, the worried, and the unsure, as much as to the confident, the eager, and the happy.

God is still here, constantly fighting with us and for us against the darkness, bringing light in unexpected places and in unforeseen ways, just as he did among the people of a Middle Eastern village.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and authority rests upon his shoulders.

Thanks be to God!

John the Baptist’s Guide to Changing the World

A Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Many preachers like to ease their listeners into their sermons. They might use a prayer or some liturgical words. They might also use a joke or an anecdote or an observation from everyday life.

John the Baptist – not so much. His opening words are: “You brood of vipers!”. I’m sure it got people’s attention, but I don’t think I’ll be trying this approach any time soon.

If anyone else wants to give it a go, though, I’d be interested to come and see what happens!

One thing going for starting this way, though, is that people certainly knew where they stood with John. He also asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”. In other words, what are you doing here without any fruits of repentance? John then finishes his demolition job on the crowd by calling their ethnic and religious heritage based on descent from Abraham meaningless.

We sometimes skip past this last bit, but it’s huge. The idea of a covenant with God based on being a descendent of Abraham is central to the Hebrew Scriptures, to Israel’s identity, and to the Jews’ understanding of salvation. But John brushes this aside, because claiming the promises of Abraham without the faith of Abraham simply doesn’t work. John makes it clear that people can’t be complacent and assume they’re part of the in-crowd just because of their religious inheritance. Instead, they must show that they’re really living and breathing the faith they’ve inherited.

For us, it might be like a preacher telling us, “Don’t presume to say, ‘We’re baptized!’ Show your faith by your actions or get ready for the axe.”

So, after that admittedly challenging beginning, we may be left with the same question as the crowd: “What then should we do?”. On one hand this can be seen as just a straightforward request for information on how to meet John’s demands. For this, John’s answer is simple. We need to share what we have with those in need, avoid oppressing others, and be glad for what we have.

But on the other hand, “what then should we do” can also be a deeper question. How many of us have looked at the huge and pressing problems facing our world and wondered what on earth we can do about any of them? How many of us have faced personal circumstances or relationships that have left us wondering what we can do? I suspect we all have at one time or another. We know the crowd’s question all too well. It’s the question we ask when life is complicated and difficult, and the world has gone mad – or at least madder than usual. When we ask this question it’s often about feeling we’re up against something too big for us to handle. It’s about feeling powerless.

But, while fierce, John’s message isn’t one of powerlessness or hopelessness. Instead, John tells the crowd what they can do. He doesn’t tell them to change others but themselves. He doesn’t tell them to leave their jobs in order to do something huge to change the world, but to live their lives differently, and show something of God in that. This crowd of ordinary people couldn’t end poverty by themselves, but they could help others, and make a difference to someone else. They couldn’t change the unjust tax system, but they could be honest, and show a better way to do things to the local officials.

For those who want the world fixed right now John’s answers aren’t very satisfactory. But let’s be honest, even Jesus didn’t change the world at one stroke. He gave himself to the world one person, one relationship, one moment at a time. He loved the world to death and beyond. He showed a different way of being, a different way of living and relating, he offered different priorities and values, and then invited us to join and follow him. In doing all that he showed us what it means and looks like to be human, to be the dwelling place of God.

As we approach Christmas, we remember once again the birth of Jesus in a tiny village off the beaten track. A new-born baby in an ordinary family is practically the definition of powerlessness. Yet, from that tiny and unpromising beginning, God began the still ongoing work of changing the world, one person at a time. A work which has now changed millions of lives over 2000 years, and which will continue until everything is put right.

And this is work which we are invited to take part in, striving, in God’s power, to do what we can, where we can, one person, one relationship, one moment at a time, changing the world bit by bit.

 

Silence: a sonnet by Malcolm Guite for Remembrance Day

Silence

November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth ,and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.

Click here for an audio version.

Bartimaeus and the Son of David

Mark 10.46-end

This week I went into Cambridge and parked at the Park Street car park. At this car park it’s common to see people sitting by the ticket machines begging on the streets.

Sometimes arguments break out between those asking for money and people who think the solution is as simple as “get a job”, not taking into account the many reasons why a person might lose everything, including illness, redundancy, escaping from intolerable circumstances at home, and so on.

And once on the streets, it becomes next to impossible to find a job without a fixed address.

Our response to such need is often based on judgements – whether we feel that person deserves our help or our time, how we think they will use what we give them.

Just asking often isn’t enough to get a positive response.

There’s also often an element of fear – are we being manipulated, is this a scam or a con, are they going to spend it all on drugs or alcohol, will this person refuse to leave me alone?

And so we hurry on, trying not to see, maybe giving our money to charity instead if we feel the need or perhaps keeping it help our own people.

In this country some also doubt that anyone is really that desperate or needy, that real poverty actually exists in 21st century Britain.

But with the huge numbers of people having to depend on food banks, the large numbers of people unemployed or working but struggling to cope financially, and the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, I think it’s safe to say that there are plenty of people who need our help.

We heard today about Bartimaeus, sitting on the roadside at the edge of town, as he did every day, with little more than a begging bowl and a cloak to keep him warm at night.

Bartimaeus had no choice but to beg, as there were no benefits to fall back on, no medical care for his blindness, and no opportunities to find work.

What made things even worse was that to many of the people around him he deserved to be blind – it was seen as a punishment from God, a curse brought about by sin.

This might seem a crude and primitive belief, but there are people even now who think Covid was sent as a punishment for sin.

Bartimaeus must’ve had to deal with insults and mockery, and wondered how people could be so hard-hearted.

The news about Jesus had spread far and wide, and now people were saying that he was passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, for the feast of the Passover.

Bartimaeus knew this was an opportunity to change his life.

So, gathering his courage, and defying the crowd, he shouted at the top of his voice: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”.

And this desperate cry reached the ears of Jesus, who heard, saw, and got involved in the plight of this one marginalised man on the edge of a large crowd.

Bartimaeus’ choice of words is interesting because by calling Jesus Son of David Bartimaeus is saying that he believes Jesus to be the descendent of Israel’s greatest king, and therefore God’s Messiah and the rightful King of Israel.

Bartimaeus, blind though he is, has seen more clearly than everyone else.

He has seen that truth about Jesus – that he is, indeed, a king.

And Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, has the courage that comes from having nothing to lose, and so he will not be prevented from crying out the truth even louder.

He proclaims that this is the Son of David, the new king, the one we’ve been waiting for, who will have pity on me, poor Bartimaeus, for he is the one who makes the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk – just as the prophets said it would be.

We hear a lot in the gospels about weak, ill, marginalised and vulnerable people coming to Jesus and being healed, and one thing that’s common to all of them, whatever their individual need, is that they’re willing to admit their problems and ask for help.

Bartimaeus’ vulnerability as a blind, dependent beggar made him willing to throw himself on Jesus’ mercy and ask for the help that could only come from God.

When he asks the Son of David for mercy he’s not expecting a few coins or a sandwich but a solution to the root of his problem – his blindness.

He wants an end to his suffering, and he must ask the one person who’s able to help – Jesus, Son of David, Son of God.

We see in Bartimaeus a powerful example of someone who recognises his own need for God – as we must all do if we’re to receive the help and mercy that we need, and a solution to the problems we can’t fix for ourselves or get help from others for.

This act of healing carried out by Jesus was a revelation of God’s love for humanity – even and especially those members of it who live on the margins of society, not seen because of others’ judgements, fears or preoccupations with their own concerns.

And, as followers of this loving God, people called to be like him and walk in Jesus’ footsteps, we have both a privilege and a role to play.

Our privilege is that we know we can call on God and receive help if we’re humble and vulnerable enough to admit our need and ask.

In the words of a well-known hymn: “what a privilege to carry everything to the Lord in prayer”.

Our role is to meet people in need and walk alongside them, offering what help we can.

The people we meet may not be blind, but they might be lonely or sad, hungry or in pain, struggling to make ends meet, trying to overcome past hurts or facing an uncertain future.

Whatever their need, our role is to offer what love and compassion we can, in whatever form we can, whether that be listening, running errands, using our skills to make things easier and so on.

We may not be able to make the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame run, but by bringing the light of mercy and love into others’ lives we can point them to our loving God – Jesus, Son of David, who has mercy on all who call to him.

 

Emotional Support Animals

A Thought for the Day for Black Cat Radio, October 2021

I’ve been hearing a lot about emotional support animals recently. In fact, I even saw a programme on TV this week which featured an emotional support hamster, which was a new one for me! Opinions vary on such animals and the need for them. Some are sceptical about them, while others insist they’re vital to help people suffering from mental health problems.

Of course, all pets can provide us with emotional support, whether or not we struggle with long-term mental health problems. I know that my pet gerbils cheer me up and I love stroking their soft fur; that is, when they will stay still long enough! Animals are a great gift to us, whether they become part of our family as pets or whether they’re outside living in the wild. They bring beauty, comfort, and friendship, which are all things we need as human beings. They also remind us of the goodness that exists in the world, even in the middle of our human problems. I also believe that we have a responsibility to look after animals, as fellow-creatures placed into our care by God.

I know that not everyone is able to have a pet at home or lives in a place surrounded by wildlife. But even in the middle of a town or city there are signs of nature everywhere, from birds of prey hovering above, to foxes slinking down alleyways, and you can always pet a random cat in the street! So, next time you need cheering up, can I suggest that it might help to look around for an animal to bring a moment of happiness and beauty into the day.

Take care

Mel

 

The Rich Young Ruler

Mark 10.17-31 / Hebrews 4.12-16

 

John had learnt and practised all the arm and leg strokes he needed for swimming.

 

His muscles were well-toned, and his breathing regulated.

 

He knew all about how to get off to a winning start, turning at the end of each length and how to pace himself.

 

But one day John said to his coach, “I know all about these things but still can’t swim. What’s going wrong?”

 

The coach took a deep breath and said, “Well, John, I think the time has come when you really do have to actually get in the water”.

 

—————————————-

 

The response Jesus gave to the wealthy man in our Gospel reading was something along the same lines: “You lack one thing … sell what you own … give to the poor … then come, follow me”.

 

The man had learnt all the rules, practised them, and knew all the rhythms of living his faith.

 

Yet, he knew something was missing, he knew he still wasn’t getting there, and he turned to Jesus find out why.

 

So, Jesus looked him in the eye and told him that if he sold everything and gave the money away, he’d finally be swimming.

In other words, he’d be really living the life of faith.

 

It was a step too far for the young man and the encounter ended in shock and grieving, with Jesus also grieving the loss of someone who just couldn’t take that last step.

 

In the eyes of many Jews, wealth, power and status were clear signs of God’s favour, even though the Jewish Scriptures didn’t always agree with them.

 

Hence, the disciples’ amazement at Jesus saying how hard it would be for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

 

In their eyes rich people would surely be first in line as God’s favourites, and if they couldn’t get in, what hope would there be for anyone else?

 

Jesus had turned the order of things upside down, making the first last and the last first.

 

He’d also struck a blow against the young man’s understanding of himself, and it was a hard lesson, though delivered in love.

 

This is the kind of thing our reading from Hebrews was talking about, when it described the word of God piercing, laying bare and judging, but also Jesus sympathising with our difficulties and offering mercy and grace.

 

Jesus laid bare the young man’s desire for wealth, but also loved him and offered him the solution.

 

————————————-

 

At the beginning of today’s gospel story, we might identify with the young man.

 

We might recognise the sense that even though we do our best to follow God’s commandments we’re still missing something.

 

We might have a niggling uncertainty or an empty place in our hearts that aches and longs for something we can’t fully identify.

 

Like the young man, we too might kneel before Jesus and ask him what we must do to receive the assurance and certainty about our faith that we long for.

 

Just as he looked at the young man and knew what had to be done, so Jesus looks on us with eyes of love and knowledge and sees what it is we need.

 

His answer to us, though, might not be “go, sell what you own” because it’s not just the fact that the man is wealthy that makes it difficult for him to follow Jesus.

 

Rather, it’s the relationship the man has with his possessions that holds him back.

 

What he owns gives him a sense of identity and security which are difficult to put aside, even for God.

 

Wealth is a good servant but a bad master, and wealth has become too big a part of who this man is.

 

————————————-

 

The answer Jesus gives to us will be deeply personal.

 

We might already know in our hearts what it is we’re holding on to for our security or sense of identity, over and above our faith and identity in Jesus.

It might be possessions, memories of wrongs done to us, pride in our own abilities, a particular view of ourselves; it might be our job or position in the community; it might be addiction or destructive relationships; it could be any number of things.

 

We might feel that to let go of whatever it is would just be a step too far, that it means giving up something of who we are.

 

Then we’d have to go away, like the young man, shocked at what is being asked of us and grieving because we believe it’s impossible and too costly.

 

But, says Jesus, for God all things are possible.

 

For the young man it seemed impossible to give away all he owned, and he had to go away bruised and heavy hearted.

 

But perhaps he thought more about the words of Jesus and struggled with his own reactions.

 

Perhaps in time, and with God’s help, he did the impossible.

 

Maybe he came round to seeing that whatever he had to give up would be worth it in terms of what matters in the kingdom of God.

 

And if we identify with the young man in this story, we can call upon the great high priest who sympathises with us in our weaknesses and offers us mercy and grace.

 

Then one day, in that mercy and grace, we may well find ourselves doing the impossible and following Jesus with all that we are and all that we own, finding, in the process, who we truly are, and the treasures that really matter.